by Maggie Wolff Peterson
It all started with a chick flick. Hungry for a hobby in which she might involve her husband, Mary Matice was inspired while watching the movie, “Chocolat.” Lushly romantic, the film features a tiny chocolate shop as the place where love takes hold. Matice got an idea. Small-batch chocolate, made impeccably, was something the she and her husband, Carl, could do together.
That was four years ago. In November 2013, the couple opened Cao, a chocolate shop in Lynchburg that features their bars, bark, tasting squares and truffles. Once a teeming industrial port city and bastion of the Confederacy, today Lynchburg is home to Liberty University and an architecturally diverse, recovering downtown. Prior decades were unkind to downtown Lynchburg’s lofty, century-old brick warehouses, factories and mercantile stores, many of which remain underutilized. But recovery can be seen in a year-round farmer’s market, stylish new shops and restaurants that span from Halal Mediterranean to American comfort food. A former delicatessen, the 3,000-square-foot space now
occupied by Cao retains the pressed-tin ceiling, globe pendant lighting, white subway tiles and original blackand- white linoleum floors of its predecessor. An enormous kitchen with two commercial ovens provides more than enough space to roast cacao beans. A fresh coat of deeply maroon paint — Mary Matice calls it “aubergine” — to match the wrappers on Cao chocolate bars, was almost all that was needed to renew the space.
Mary Matice imagines converting a loft area at the back of the store for chocolate-making classes and educational displays. The main floor will be developed as a dessert lounge, where customers may enjoy pastries and fondue made with Cao chocolate, or attend tasting events that pair fine coffees or wine with chocolates. Counter service will provide customers with bars and boxed chocolates made onsite.
Cao’s boutique chocolate will be different from most. It is not typical for a small retail chocolatier to begin with beans. Many boutique chocolatiers, even the most highend, begin with chocolate that has been made elsewhere and delivered in bulk. The candy makers then melt and reconfigure the bulk product for their specialty products.
Not Cao. The Matices begin with the raw commodity. “I had never considered that you could do small-batch chocolate from the bean,” Mary Matice says. The purity of the process appealed to her. Each with diabetic tendencies, neither Mary nor Carl Matice was a big consumer of processed sweets. But taking cacao straight from the pod, roasting and hulling it, and then converting it to nibs and finally dark chocolate, allows them to control the recipe, the ingredients and the finished product.
Their research taught them that there are degrees of fineness for cacao beans, just as there are for coffee or wine grapes. The finest beans, Criollos, make up only about five percent of all cacao beans harvested worldwide. Trinitario beans are the next rarest, comprising about ten percent of the world’s chocolate. “It’s a natural hybrid, that happened because of pollen,” Carl Matice says. Cao uses only Criollo and Trinitario beans in chocolate-making.
Terroir matters when sourcing beans from particular countries, and even individual farms. Beans from South America and, to a lesser degree, the Caribbean, are scarcer and of better quality than beans grown in Africa, which tend to end up in cheaper chocolate. In developing their products, the Matices have named each of their dark chocolate bars for its farm or region of origin. Additionally, none of their chocolates contains les
s than 60 percent pure cacao, with none of the extenders, emulsifiers or stabilizers found in many products. “When it comes to our truffles, we don’t add any glucose,” Mary Matice says. “It’s added to extend shelf life. I don’t want to eat that. I don’t want to consume it. I don’t need a truffle that lasts six months.”
The Matices began chocolate making in their living room, teaching themselves the basics through trial and error. First, the couple found a source that “would supply one pound of this or one pound of that,” Carl Matice says. With rough instructions on how to proceed, the couple burned the first batch of beans. Then they got the hang of it. They used a blow dryer to “blow off the chaff, the husk,” Carl Matice says. A Mexican molcajete, a type of granite mortar and pestle most commonly used to make salsa and guacamole, became the vessel in which they pounded roasted beans.
“In front of the TV, we’d let it cool and then warm it up in the oven,” Mary Matice says. “We ended up with a pretty gritty chocolate, but it tasted really good.” The Matices were encouraged by the “bright fruit notes” of carefully sourced and prepared chocolate. “That really impressed us,” Mary Matice says.
Today, their bars are made from beans originating in Bolivia, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, with natural flavor profiles that include hints of raspberry and blackberry, pink peppercorn and plum, mango and banana, and even caramel and tobacco. Not to be gobbled, these are chocolates that should melt on the tongue.
Even the sugar is sourced carefully. Originating from Paraguay, it is organic, and arrives in large bags stamped, “Evaporated Cane Juice.”
Equal attention is given to locally sourced ingredients for truffle fillings and flavors. A vendor at the Lynchburg Farmers’ Market, Mary Matice has made connections among local growers. For Cao’s honey-almond truffle, honey arrives raw, from a local apiarist. Local, organic carrots begin the carrot cake truffle. A chili-espresso truffle, called Aztec, begins with locally roasted coffee beans. The strawberry balsamic truffle, sourced from a farmers’ market connection, begins with whole berries. “I actually puree the whole strawberry,” Mary Matice says. “Every fruit, I puree the whole fruit, the whole vegetable, and use the entirety. So you get some of the fiber as well.”
Mary Matice says she learned her lesson about fresh, natural ingredients long before she ever roasted a bean. Each autumn in her childhood, her family made pumpkin bread “from the jack-o-lantern,” she says. The resulting flavor was “so different from canned. It translates into flavor in a way you can’t get from any canned item or extract.”
On the tree, cacao resembles an elongated melon with a goopy interior that includes beans, Carl Matice says. When the Matices receive cacao from the farm, they have already been naturally fermented by farmers who air dry the sticky beans for four or five days, after wrapping them in banana leaves. “This develops the precursors of the cacao flavors,” Mary Matice says.
At Cao, two convection ovens can roast 30 pounds of beans at a time, spread in single layers on baking sheets. Then the beans are winnowed, cracking and separating the husks, using a winnower that Carl Matice made. The cheapest commercial winnower, the couple discovered, would have cost them as much as $15,000, and the best on the market are as much as $60,000. So Carl Matice made his own, using “a PVC pipe that has a vacuum on it,” Mary Matice says.
“This business has taken every single talent we have, and maxed it out,” she says.
Finishing the chocolate requires grinding and conching, a process of turning the warm chocolate through a roller to develop a creamy consistency. “There’s a very direct temperature you have to get, to get that snap and sheen,” Carl Matice says. Finally, the chocolate is molded and wrapped. It is probably fitting that a great flood is central to the Matices’ story. A preacher on a mission, Carl Matice was posted to south-central New York in 2011, when the remains of Tropical Storm Lee stalled over the Susquehanna Valley, dumping moisture. National Weather Service data from the event includes satellite images of heavy rain falling continuously for 48 hours. Photographs from just after the storm show washed out roadways and damaged buildings isolated in the midst of muddy water. Carl Matice was not going to be able to gather a flock to create a new congregation.
“It was pretty decimated by the flood, and we pretty much lost our whole crew,” he says. “We were faced with having to start over again.”
Additionally, “it was in the middle of the economic downturn as well,” Mary Matice says. “We were looking for the next stop.”
In Virginia, the Matices believed they would find better economic prospects, and in Lynchburg, Carl Matice might find a pastoral post while Mary Matice finished a master’s degree at Liberty University. They brought their chocolate hobby with them.
“I was looking for a job when we started doing chocolate,” Carl Matice says. “Within the first couple of weeks, it really took off.”
They began by making chocolate at home, selling to people they knew, “and maxed that out,” Mary Matice says. Next, they leased 300 square feet in Parallel Café, a coffee shop in Bedford, while crowdsourcing funding to move into their own place. In Lynchburg, Cao products were first offered from a vendor’s table at the downtown farmer’s market.
For now, academics are on hold for Mary Matice, and Carl Matice’s primary ministry is chocolate. Raw beans now arrive in 150-pound bags, except for the rarest varieties, from which tiny, specialty batches are prepared. Recently, a small batch came from Patanemo, a surfing village on the coast of Venezuela, which produces a bean that is says to feature flavor notes of gingerbread, grilled butter and molasses. “What’s fun about some of these regions, they don’t have cities or towns,” Carl Matice says, adding that the Patanemo was founded by runaway slaves, and its name translates to “we are at peace.”
The more one learns about chocolate-making, the more there is to learn. The Matices plan to decorate the front of their store with photography and information about their raw product. It is practically possible to become immersed in chocolate.
Literally. Cao chocolate can even be used for bathing. The Matices make a facial bar from chocolate, cocoa butter, cacao husks, and oatmeal. It is believed that the antioxidants and caffeine found in chocolate firm skin while the cocoa butter softens it. The oatmeal and husks exfoliate and contribute additional antioxidants. Each bar offers four treatments that begin with softening the chocolate in the microwave. Then it is applied to the face and left for five to ten minutes, before rinsing. By using the byproducts of edible chocolate in their bars, the Matices waste nothing.
Developing their recipes and products has been a fully creative process. But the most challenging part of opening Cao hasn’t been about chocolate. Designing the logo, packaging the bars, finding candy boxes that fit the esthetic of the company while displaying the product to its best advantage — these have been the most occupying aspects. Launching Cao has required putting in 18-hour days.
A friend of the Matices designed the company logo, and a local print company produces packaging. “We just handwrap,” Mary Matice says.
To find the right boxes for their truffles has been more challenging. For now, simple boxes are hand-lettered as to their contents. To get a custom box requires ordering in quantity, Carl Matice says. “You’re into the 10- to 15,000 range, and then you’ve got 10,000 boxes to sell.”