Artisan chocolate makers set up shop in Somerville

By Lisė Stern
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2008

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SOMERVILLE - There are two kinds of chocolate producers in this country: people who actually transform cocoa beans into bars, and the creative people who take that chocolate and make delectable candies - anything from bark to truffles.

An industrial neighborhood here is home to one of each. Taza Chocolates is a real, live, chocolate factory that manufactures a line of organic bars, and La Tene Chocolatier produces handmade artisanal confections. As it happens, Taza's chocolate roaster, Brendan Gannon, is also the owner of La Tene. So he leaves his day job and heads upstairs to his own enterprise.

There are just over a dozen chocolate manufacturers in the United States, says Susan Fussell of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. These include big players such as Hershey's, and a handful of tiny manufacturers. "The machinery and equipment it takes to process cocoa beans takes a lot of space," she says. "To make anything on a large scale, it's not that easy to do."

Processing cocoa beans was exactly what Alex Whitmore and partner Larry Slotnick wanted to do when they opened Taza Chocolate just over a year ago. First Whitmore headed to Mexico. "Mexico is the original chocolate culture. I went on a chocolate expedition to discover the way that they consume chocolate both as a food and a drink," he says. Families bring beans to a local chocolateria, which has a molinero (a miller), who grinds beans with sugar, according to each family's recipe. Sometimes it includes cinnamon or ground almonds, an idea that became the inspiration for Mexicano - Taza's best-selling cinnamon-laced bittersweet chocolate disk.

Taza buys beans from farmers in the Dominican Republic, dealing with the growers directly. "That way more of the money stays in the country of origin," Whitmore says.

The entrepreneur wanted to retain the rough feel of the minimally processed chocolate he'd experienced in Mexico. Taza beans are roasted, ground to a paste in a stone grinder, then refined with sugar for about four hours. The chocolate is not conched, or continuously mixed for hours on end (the smoothest chocolates may be conched for over a day). Whitmore didn't want Taza's chocolates to be smooth; they're rough and extremely flavorful. "The texture of our chocolate is what calls out to your mouth and to your senses, saying, 'Wow, this is something different,' " he says. "It feels more like eating food than eating candy."

Gannon's business is located on another floor in the same building; the space belongs to Taza. But he doesn't use Taza chocolate to create his delicate, flavor-infused confections. To obtain the silky, melt-in-your-mouth ganaches that form the base of his creations, he needs highly refined, ultrasmooth chocolate, such as Valrhona. He started his own business after a stint managing L.A. Burdick, the Harvard Square chocolatier.

His educational background was in theater arts. "I was a stage actor for six years," he says. "But I always had to be working a day job." He did stints as a DJ and an artist, and for years had made chocolates for friends. "Selling paintings was not proving lucrative," he says. "I realized, the thing people loved most about what I did - music, art, acting - was chocolate." He also saw endless opportunities for learning. "I can make chocolate my whole life and keep on getting better. It's like with art and music - something you can continue to develop your whole life long."

When Gannon decided to become a professional, he aimed high. "My personal tastes are more along the line of more edgy, artistic influences," he says. "I wondered, can I make a really outstanding, breathtaking truffle that has flavors no one's used, spices no one's thought of using?" Now he blends chocolate with champagne, cognac, Guinness, or French triple-creme cheese, among other ingredients. His newest creation is the Pomegranate Heart, chocolate from Madagascar flavored with pomegranate molasses.

One of La Tene's early fans was Robin Pulsifer, co-owner of Sepia Chocolates, a cafe in Centerville. "La Tene is unbelievable. His quality is the best in the shop," says Pulsifer.

Gannon appreciates the universal appeal of fine chocolate. "It really provides a connection between you and someone you have nothing else in common with," he says. "The built-in social factor is one of the great things about working with chocolate."

Taza ( and La Tène ( are available at Bow Street Flowers, 108 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-492-0080; Tomasso Trattoria and Enoteca, 154 Turnpike Road, Southborough, 508-481-8484. Taza is also available at Darwin's Ltd., 148 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, 617-354-5233 and 1629 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-491-2999; Foodies Urban Market, 1421 Washington St., Boston, 617-266-9911, and Foodies Duxbury, 35 Depot St., Duxbury, 781-934-5544.