Room for Craft
FEBRUARY 2017: TAVERNIER CHOCOLATES
We’re used to seeing Dar Tavernier-Singer and John Singer, the pair behind Tavernier Chocolates, sharing samples of their chocolate charcuterie and interpreting their craft to the curious visitors of the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market. Today, the weather has cooled and we have instead come to meet Dar and John indoors at the Cotton Mill, a 1910 renovated mill on the edge of town where circus performers, musicians, painters, potters, and foodsmiths cultivate their craft spaces. Here, in the small warmly lit cave where the pair fashions, packages, and sells their confections, Dar and John give The Hopper’s Sierra Dickey and Anna Mullen a peek into the collaborative craft of making chocolates.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How do your confections come into being?
John always said that it’s like Thursday when I [Dar] decide what to do. I do work well with deadlines under pressure, so that would often happen [laughing]. We would make them on Friday and sell them on Saturday at the farmers’ market. Anything from scapes and ramps in spring to berries. We’re going to do our gilfeather turnip one [Editors’ note: Vermont’s state vegetable!] as soon as the turnips are ready. They’re a little behind schedule this year.
It’s not all spontaneous inspiration. We have a list with thirty or fifty things we want to do and we’re always adding to it. Spruce and juniper was on my list for years, for example. You probably know Lena from Heart Grown Wild? Her husband, Tom, is a plant and forest guy, and one day they went out and foraged spruce for her concoctions, and we bought some from them and made some truffles with that. I had to do a couple of processes to make it actually work, but in the end it was good!
Not all are home runs. Cassis, rosewater, and prosecco sounds like it should be delicious but it tasted like cough syrup. It didn’t make it out of the lab. For the most part, though, we’ve been lucky, and I think it’s just because we like to eat. The experimentation process is pretty fun.
When we first started, we sat down with chocolates from all over the world and we tasted them by themselves. And then we matched them to ingredients. You go, Oh, that’ll go well with raspberry, whereas that one will go well with blueberry. Much like coffee, there’s a consistent characteristic of chocolate each year—but they’re crops, so they change from year to year.
We’re on a seasonal schedule of sorts. The chai is local but we save that for winter when we don’t have fruits and vegetables. We get into more dairy in winter; we go back to our blue cheese truffles. Then there’s the whole holiday season where you focus on the special holiday things that people expect. No Santas, though, no peppermint bark, no pumpkin spice. It’s a real line in the sand. We decided to do mushroom instead.
How does collaboration come into your work? What’s the community of small scale food producers like?
The food community is so amazing. People are so generous with their knowledge, and they get so excited about what we’re doing. We start with asking people, What’s in season? What are you excited about? We got lovely scapes from people and we were inspired by those. There’s a lot of back and forth talk: this is what we’re thinking of, this is what I wanna try, this is what I have, this is what’s in season right now . . . .
I just got back from Scott Farm and they’re going to dehydrate some apples and then we’ll dip them in chocolate. A couple weeks ago, it was ginger from Mad Radish Farm. We just start working with people, and that’s fantastic.
A bear ate most of the pears off this pear tree at Scott Farm. We were gonna get some pears . . . so no pears, or maybe just a few.
Terrafunga is a local family business; they foraged the black trumpets, the chanterelles, and the maitake mushrooms that we use. We’re very inspired by local, but sometimes it’s just the idea of local: something that evokes the region. We became interested in the porcinis because there’s a certain type of porcini that’s indigenous to Vermont called Frost’s bolete—it was discovered here. We haven’t had luck finding many of those, so we mostly use porcinis foraged in France and sent to us dried, but if they do have any available [locally] we’ll blend them in.
When you came here in the late nineties, was locavore a thing?
So the Common Ground restaurant was here. And T.J. Buckley’s has always been locavore before it was cool. He came out of cheffing at Common Ground. He’s been doing that for years.
People have been very supportive of local farmers. The guy in the booth next to us worked with Dwight of Dwight Miller Orchards in 1975 when he was fifteen. Dwight used to pick him up in his truck and bring him to market. For over forty years he’s been coming to that market every summer.
That kind of stuff has always been here. I don’t think you would have called it "locavore" then, but it was just what was here. Communes and back-to-the-landers created that kind of feel for a long time.
Now it’s more recognized from the outside as well. People now think of Vermont as a wonderful food center. The cheese, the maple syrup, the craft beer. And we don’t think real hardcore in terms of branding ourselves as a Vermont company . . . we do get people coming in off the interstate, which is cool, cause this shop is a hard place to find!
What does “artisanal” mean to you and how do you think about scale here?
We don’t want this to be a big manufacturing place. We want it to be creative and hands-on. “Artisanal” is a tough term because it’s kind of played out. Artisanal to me means it’s a very thoughtful process where you are involved in every single step at some level. Right now it’s just the two of us so we are involved in every single step.
[Showing us a chocolate bar] On this bar the rose petals go in a pattern. You could program a machine to do this, but with the white chocolate, we placed the dried strawberries to look artistic. You can’t boil flowers, so you make a simple syrup and you dip the leaves in there before laying them flat. It’s kind of a process—it involves tweezers. And then you let them air dry, and sometimes it takes a couple days, but they do turn stiff. You keep sprinkling sugar on them; sugar’s a great preservative and desiccant. I usually put sugar in a food mill first so it will get really fine for delicate little petals.
Products like the bars lend themselves to being replicated. Products like truffles that change all the time are a more artistic and inventive place and will probably be for a smaller audience. They don’t live as long; you can’t put them on the store shelves. The truffles are more odd. The ganache is inside, covered; you can’t see it. It’s more mysterious. We want them to look really earthy—not shiny, but like something you’d find on the forest floor.
If you get a bar and you like it, you want to get a similar bar the next time. But you don’t want to be robotic or micromanaging about it. Part of it is the beauty of the human hand. As we grow, we’ll have to automate some things. Getting the tempering machine was a big step for us, for example, because we weren’t doing it by hand anymore. We’re still dipping and pouring, but at some point, maybe we’ll have a machine that pours into molds the exact amount of ganache . . . .
What are the words you use to describe the taste of chocolate?
It’s a lot like wine. There are a lot of fruit ones: banana, berries, tobacco, leather. Earthy—they taste almost dirty. With chocolate, there’s more going on in a flavor profile than coffee—four hundred notes. Coffee is two hundred fifty. Then when you get palate training you take the chocolate to certain parts of your tongue which sense these things.
Any authors or artists that help you think about food and place?
[Dar] Right now I’m reading obvious biographies like Julia Child’s and M. F. K. Fisher again. Also, odd ones: I’m re-reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and there’s a lot of food involved. The meal scenes in Magic Mountain are really inspiring in thinking about certain combinations of things . . . savory and sweet combinations.
[John] I love John Elder. Reading him when I first came to the state . . . I really enjoy his and others’ books about coming to Vermont and walking in the landscape.
How important is sense of place, both for your work and in your lives?
We moved here from San Francisco in 1999 partly because we saw really interesting things with food happening here. We were going to move to Montreal, but we came and camped locally for four or five days and said, Wow this place is crazy! September is harvest time and it’s just crazy. Let’s get an apartment here and see what happens. So we’ve been here since then. Seventeen years.
The sense of place is huge to us. We love this valley, we love all the hills around and we’re constantly out in it. We both grew up on the East Coast so we’re used to snow. We missed distinct seasons in San Francisco. Just walking through the forests and fields inspires us. That’s where the mushroom ideas came up, invoking more savory flavors.
A lot of the stuff we do is based on what we can obtain locally and what we’re inspired by locally. It would be really hard for us to not be here. We feel part of the community. The community has been really, really supportive. We are so lucky.