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At this shop, making chocolate is for lovers

Christopher Carlson and Ellen Byrne combine European and American traditions of confectionery in their handmade chocolates. Christopher Carlson and Ellen Byrne combine European and American traditions of confectionery in their handmade chocolates. (photos by Cheryl senter for the boston globe)
By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / February 11, 2009

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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - On Valentine's Day, romance and chocolate tend to go hand in hand, which isn't lost on Ellen Byrne and Christopher Carlson, owners of Byrne & Carlson. You could say that for them, every day is dipped in chocolate and coated with love. The two, married for 11 years, have worked side by side for almost 20.

Visitors to their Old World shop in a brick townhouse here behind Market Square are greeted by the enveloping aroma and sight of rich chocolate, sugar-dusted jellies, chocolate-dipped candied fruits, over 15 kinds of truffles, caramel turtles, nut clusters, and almond buttercrunch. Byrne and Carlson are best known for decorated chocolate bars, beautifully glossy rectangles of dark chocolate on which candied orange slices, plump dried cherries, crystallized pansies, and toasted almonds are carefully placed. If you can bring yourself to eat a stunning bar, every bite is different, bringing sugary, tart, and nutty flavors against a backdrop of the finest Belgian chocolate.

"We combine both European and American traditions of confectionery," says Byrne. Everything is handmade in small batches. The couple buys dried cherries from Oregon, Agen prunes from France, and fresh cream from local dairy farms.

With over 30 years experience working with chocolate, Byrne, 48, relies on her background in fine arts "to create something that is visually enticing," she says. A native of Arlington and graduate of Massachusetts College of Art, Byrne started working summers during high school at the Harbor Candy Shop in Ogunquit, Maine. Later, Carlson, 40, was attending Maine's Colby College and was hired as the summer fudge cook; he returned full-time in the mid 1990s.

They married in 1997 and two years later opened the Portsmouth shop. "There was no specialty chocolate store here," says Byrne. They've purposely kept the business small, she explains, "to continue to do everything ourselves." In addition to the two of them, there are a few employees, including Byrne's sister Maryann Vaughan, and Jean Husby, a part-time chocolate maker.

All the confections are made in their commercial kitchen in Kittery, Maine, just a mile up the road. They start with huge blocks of couverture (professional quality) chocolate - from world-renowned names, including Valrhona and Michel Cluizel of France, Belgium's Callebaut, and Venezuela's El Rey. It's hammered into small chunks and melted in large machines that continually stir the thick mass. Then the chocolate is spread on marble slabs and hand-tempered until the temperature and consistency are right. "Working with chocolate is all about temperatures," Byrne says. The melted chocolate is scraped into molds, piped into disks for nonpareils and the popular "pepitos" (Venezuelan chocolate covered with crunchy cocoa nibs), or used for coating candied fruits.

Carlson runs what they call the "hot kitchen." In a small back room, the lanky confectioner, whose blond locks betray his Swedish ancestry, cooks fruit purees with sugar, water, and pectin to create all-natural fruit jellies in flavors such as raspberry, passion fruit, lime, and black currant. He also makes ganache (a chocolate and cream mixture for truffles), caramel, toffee, and brittle.

His melt-in-your-mouth truffles come in Kahlua, cinnamon, mocha, chipotle, and candied orange peel. Neither chocolate maker professes an interest in funky flavors like wasabi or bacon. "We like to make more classically inspired chocolates," says Byrne, who has studied in Paris and apprenticed with chocolatiers in Brussels and Lyon, France. Her next trip, she hopes, will be to Sicily to learn the art of sculptured marzipan.

Despite working with chocolate all day - or maybe because of it - "neither one of us has a big sweet tooth," says Carlson. After work, they go home and cook a healthy supper together, and Carlson, who loves to garden, will often make one of his vegetable soups.

Getting ready for Valentine's Day is always a labor of love. Byrne's idea of a perfect holiday is having made enough chocolates for every customer, and ending the day with a romantic dinner with Carlson. After hand-packing hundreds of red velvet, heart-shaped gift boxes, he admits he can't wait until every last one is out the door.

Byrne & Carlson, 121 State St., Portsmouth, N.H., 603-559-9778; and 60 State Road, Kittery, Maine, go to www.byrneandcarlson.com or call toll-free 888-559-9778.