Monday, February 8, 2010

Sweet Tooth

The heavenly sight of chocolate filling the cases at Kilwin's. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Sunday is Valentine’s Day – a day for love and romance, a day for flowers and jewelry, but more importantly … a day for chocolate!

Ahh, chocolate. In a world that looks down on, or even makes illegal, most sins of pleasure, somehow, chocolate gets a free pass. In fact, I could walk out my front door right now, drive down to the corner gas station and score a Snickers bar, or better yet, a Baby Ruth, and not have to worry about a thing.

Of course, sometimes I feel like a nut ... sometimes I don’t, and if it melts in my mouth and not in my hands, that’s cool too. But this time of year, I’m really more a sucker for the Forrest Gump boxed variety of chocolates, you know, the kind where you bite into one hoping for a cherry filling, only to find you got maple cream instead. Not to worry, I have perfect, boxed chocolate etiquette - I always finish what I start, even if it’s something as horrid as mocha or rum. My sister, on the other hand, will happily take a bite out of a chocolate and then put the half-eaten piece back in the box if she gets one she doesn’t like.

When I think back to my love affair with the dark, smooth and creamy, it probably started when I was five or six. That’s when Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came out in the movie theaters.  At the time I was more of a fruity, candy kind of guy – Chuckles, gumdrops, jellybeans, and that sort of thing, but when poor Charlie Bucket found that dollar in the street and used it to buy a Wonka Bar, it changed my life.

Just the way he slowly unwrapped that candy bar with his grubby little fingers had me salivating in my seat before he even got to the chocolate. By the time he found that stinkin’ golden ticket, I was in a cocoa coma (although I have to admit, Augustus Gloop plopping into Wonka’s chocolate river kind of grossed me out).

But what if, like Willy Wonka, you lived in that world of chocolate every day? Could you take it? Would the smell of chocolate drive you nuts? Or would you become immune? Would you, God forbid, even get sick of chocolate?

To find out, I visited Kilwin’s Chocolates & Ice Cream in downtown Ann Arbor earlier this week. There I found co-owner Chera Tramontin happily working behind the counter humming to the oldies station playing on the radio. The fact that Tramontin looks nothing like the Biggest Loser contestant you might expect to find behind the counter of a chocolate shop made me wonder if she even liked the stuff, or maybe was allergic to it.

But it turns out she does like the stuff … a lot.

“So, just how much chocolate do you eat in an average day?” I prodded.

“Oh God, that’s embarrassing,” she said, “I don’t even want to answer that … I really don’t want to answer that … I probably consume daily, about a half a pound of chocolate … at least! And when the cook is cooking next door – we have a great cook here, she’s fabulous – and when she’s working on some experimental stuff it’s always ‘try this’ or ‘taste this’ and whew, you’re buzzing by 3 o’clock.”

Tramontin admitted her daily dosage of chocolate rarely has her seeking out lunch. And no, she never gets sick of chocolate – maybe one type of chocolate, but variety seems to be the key.

“I’m definitely dark chocolate, but I switch around depending on my mood … I really do, this week has been caramel and peanut butter.” She laughed.

And what about the stock variety chocolate? The M & M’s and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups of the world? Will she eat those too?

“Oh, I admit it, I’ve become a chocolate snob.” Tramontin said. “I don’t eat that other stuff anymore.”

Apparently, the rest of Ann Arbor also is a little snobby when it comes to their chocolate … or at least more health conscious. Tramontin said the Ann Arbor Kilwin’s branch is the only one that sells far more dark chocolate than it does milk chocolate.

“None of our other stores can believe it.” She said. “We have customers coming in all the time asking us for the percentage of cocoa in our dark chocolate.”

When I told Tramontin about my half-eaten-morsel-leaving sister, she chuckled and then showed me a little Kilwin trade secret.

“See how the swirl on the top that chocolate looks like the letter R?” She said. “That means it has a raspberry filling … and that one that looks like an M - that has a maple nut filling, and this one with the fork marks – that’s a turtle. Now you never have to be surprised again.”

After 20 minutes I could take it no more. The intoxicating scents and the stacks and stacks of fresh chocolates had me standing in a puddle of my own drool. I said goodbye to Chera and walked out Kilwin’s feeling a little like Charlie Bucket after he found his golden ticket – only instead of a golden ticket, all I had was a pocket full of lint!

Happy Valentines Day!

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