Who can ever forget Homer Simpson's reverie about the Land of Chocolate? Or the luscious cocoa river in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory? Those sweet dreams are nothing compared to the 1,500-square-foot workroom of Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co.—because it is a real chocolate paradise! And it is here!
On the back side of East Nashville's Riverside Village—behind Sip Cafe and Mitchell Delicatessen—chef Scott Witherow is transforming sacks of cocoa beans from around the globe into laboriously handcrafted chocolate bars that are instant icons of hometown pride.
A Cordon Bleu-trained chef from Columbia, Tenn., whose career has careened from the Fat Duck and Nobu in London to F. Scott's, Firefly Grille and The Trace in Nashville, Witherow crossed over to the dark side of artisan chocolate in summer 2008, when he started an international scavenger hunt for specialty chocolate-making gadgetry. With the help of childhood friend David Sellers and a network of stainless-steel machinery that would make Rube Goldberg proud, Witherow is now supplying handmade chocolate to local stores and restaurants and raising the bar for what candy should taste like.
It all starts with the burlap bags of beans slumped in the corner of the cinderblock room (which once housed an arts boutique). Some sacks are marked from Ghana, some are marked from the Dominican Republic. By blending the two varietals, Witherow balances the fruity, raisiny notes of the former with the deep, classic chocolate notes of the latter.
On any given day, intern Chelsea Arnold can be found sitting on the cocoa-colored concrete floor, sorting through the fermented beans to clean out any bark, twigs or other detritus. Once the raw beans are sorted, they cook long and low in a gleaming roaster to draw out the oils. From there, the roasted beans get passed into a winnower—a contraption worthy of Kafka—that separates the nutty meat of the bean from the ragged shards of the husk.
Once broken into tiny nibs, the solid cocoa proceeds to a paleolithic contraption for the initial stone-grinding, which renders a deep-brown liquor. The liquid then goes to a Scottish-made conche refiner—a drum that further grinds any remaining particles—into which are added cocoa butter and dark brown sugar to transform the bitter liquid into the sultry slurry of Homer Simpson's daydreams.
The warm, sweetened chocolate moves to a holding tank with a capacity for 350 pounds, where it is perpetually stirred. In the final step, the molten chocolate is squirted into bar forms, which are vibrated intensely to remove any bubbles. At this point, Casey Daily adds finishing flourishes such as pepper and sea salt.
Having moved into full-scale production in September, Olive & Sinclair currently produces a half-dozen varieties of chocolate bars, including 67 and 75 percent cocoa blends and bars textured with coffee beans, cocoa nibs and salt and pepper.
When Anderson Design Group and Isle of Printing finalize the retro-style wrapper design, Olive & Sinclair will release a Mexican chili-cinnamon bar. For this special edition, the chocolate spends less time in the conche refiner, so it retains the barely perceptible granular texture of fine sugar crystals. Accented by a balance of warm cinnamon and subtle pepper, with bright hints of kosher salt, the Mexican chocolate makes an outstanding hot cocoa when melted into a mug of hot milk.
Since launching this fall, Olive & Sinclair has found a sweet tooth in the market for artisanal foods, and the $6 bars have been stocked by local stores including Produce Place, Marché Artisan Foods, Bongo Java, Caldwell Collection, Green Wagon, Provence, Puckett's Grocery, Whole Foods, Turnip Truck and Imogene + Willie. Olive & Sinclair also conducts a limited retail trade on the premises, where transactions take place over a rustic counter constructed out of fallen trees from Leiper's Fork.
Already Olive & Sinclair is insinuating itself into the city's palate. Chef Jeremy Barlow has incorporated the chocolates into recipes at tayst restaurant, and Mitchell Deli made an O&S chocolate bread pudding. And its ambitions don't stop at the city limits. Good People Brewing in Birmingham has worked with Olive & Sinclair on an experimental chocolate stout, and Witherow is exploring distribution beyond Nashville.
Chocoholics can read about these developments on Olive & Sinclair's blog, where Witherow & Co. chronicle virtually every step in the journey from bean to bar. Along with all the low-tech equipment in the sparsely adorned facility, there is, of course, an iMac, and Sellers and Witherow miss no opportunity to spread the word about their business. From Twitter to Facebook to email newsletters and a very active blog, Olive & Sinclair is using newfangled social media to their full potential. Let's hope that, alongside those slow-roasted Ghanaian and Dominican beans, these tributaries of grassroots marketing keep that dusky river of Southern artisan chocolate rolling along.