story & photos by Pam Lettie
Chocoholics, take note: Chef Nathan Miller offers quarter inch squares of chocolate nirvana to anyone who wants to taste the difference between cacao grown in Peru versus cacao sourced from Africa. Truth be told, he offers samples to all who want to try his fine chocolates.
Miller not only makes his own truffles, chocolate bars and pastries, but also sources his cocoa beans – three or four tons per year – from farm cooperatives throughout the world. The creative combination of flavors and of ingredients grown with sustainable agriculture practices netted Miller a win at the national Good Food Awards in January for his Ghana 70 percent chocolate. Miller says there were about 1,500 entries in the Good Food Awards.
He appreciates the challenge of competing, but he also likes to see what people are making and how chocolate is changing. For example, Miller uses a stone cylinder and wheel to grind his beans and bring out different flavors of the chocolate.
Some of his chocolates are comprised solely of organic cacao, organic cane sugar and organic cacao butter, a treat for those of us accustomed to mass produced chocolate. The simple ingredients let the skill of the artisan chocolate maker – the bean roaster – shine through.
Other of Miller’s chocolates might have crushed house-made gingerbread or locally sourced Pennsylvania pretzels or coffee or chili in the mix. Many of his chocolate bars are named with the source of the beans – Ghana, Belize, Hispaniola, Peru, Madagascar – along with the percentage of chocolate in the bar.
Others are named with the special flavor. But the best part of his shop lies in the glass jars lined up behind the counter.
Halfway hidden by the counter, the glass jars – ranging in size from a gallon to a less than a cup – house chocolate samples. Miller serves up each sample with a long pair of tongs, happy to discuss his art with the samplers. He says it’s important for clients to be able to try samples of chocolates to taste the flavor and feel the “mouth” of the chocolates.
I indulged in many of the delightful morsels. The melt-in-my-mouth sweetness of the buttermilk chocolate, either the 45 or 55 percent varieties, is my choice for the perfect chocolate bar. Both are made from the Ghana cacao beans. Initially, when I slip the chocolate into my mouth, it is just another little lump, but as it warms and begins to dissolve, the flavor of the buttermilk sneaks through.
The gingerbread chocolate bar is made from the 55 percent buttermilk chocolate, the Ghana beans showing themselves in yet another bar. Miller starts by making the gingerbread, then grinds it up to add flavor to the chocolate. The effort to make fresh gingerbread, only to grind it up as an ingredient in a chocolate bar speaks to the commitment to quality ingredients. I am expecting little bits of gingerbread, but the reality is more sublime. The chocolate smells like it tastes – another of my favorites – with a flavor reminiscent of gingerbread at Christmas. The pretzel and cherry chocolate is similarly subtle with a fine creamy texture, but with flavors of pretzel and cherry – even down to a bit of saltiness. The little chunks of cherry give a punch of flavor when I bite down on them.
Miller started creating his award winning chocolates in his Chambersburg basement in 2010. He soon outgrew that mini chocolate factory, so he opened his first shop about 18 months ago. These digs have a large production area and a patio as well as a tasting and dining room, with savories, coffee and chocolates for sale.
Miller’s creations start with finding the best sources for cacao beans. He buys beans from small farmers’ cooperatives, where farmers may grow the cacao seeds or harvest them from the forest.
“When you choose to make chocolates, you don’t know that you’re getting into the import/export business,” he says as he goes into detail about how the farmers harvest the beans.
The farmers cut the pods off the plants. On the spot, they may pull the beans out of the pods filling sacks with the hulled beans. The sacks may go onto the back of the farmer’s animal – or if he’s wealthy – into his truck to take to the fermentation area. Fermenting may take place in bucket, in a pit covered with leaves or in a box, which gives the farmer better temperature control. After fermenting, the beans are dried, and then shipped.
Some of the beans end up in Pennsylvania, where Miller says it’s easy to tell the quality of the beans when he picks out moldy or rotten beans. Hand-sorting beans was time intensive, so a sorting machine was one of the first things on his “buy” list, crucial to a growing business. Roasting is another area where Miller finesses the flavor of the chocolate. He roasts his cacao beans long and slow. Miller steps into the production area to bring out spoons coated with his new chocolate variation that is still molten. The not-even-cooled-yet chocolate coats the spoons, dripping down the side. The warm chocolate skips the melting phase of other tastings, and instead sends an immediate spicy zing to my taste buds.
The 70 percent Belize chocolate is a sharp contrast to the 44 percent buttermilk chocolate. It’s stronger and darker, almost bitter. While the Belize chocolate is still the seemingly simple recipe of the three ingredients, Miller says he’s constantly tweaking how he roasts and grinds the beans to get the perfect flavor.
That is one of the advantages of being a small shop. Larger chocolate manufacturers have to be 100 percent consistent, ensuring that each bar is precisely like every other bar. The artisan can change recipes, looking for improvements and ways to enhance the experience of the chocolate.
Miller has the credentials to talk about food with expertise. After culinary school in Hyde Park, New York, Miller apprenticed in Germany, then on to New York City, eventually landing in Boulder, Colo., as a dessert and pastry chef. He’s a believer in learning the basics. “If you have a good base of the classics, you can make anything,” Miller says. “It’s a foundation of creativity.”
The coffee-flavored chocolates are a testament to the nuance of his chocolates.
Miller finds complementary coffees from local roasters or from friends back in Boulder. Two of his coffee laced chocolate samples reflect the difference between coffees – a difference as vast as the difference in cacao beans.
Named for the coffee companies that provide the beans, Greenstreet Espresso is another chocolate variation using the Ghana beans, but the espresso flavor is oh so different from Boxcar Coffee Chocolate – named for Boxcar Coffee Roasters. Miller talks fondly of sampling the coffees through his espresso machine before turning them into chocolates. He has to know the flavors.
His enthusiasm was inspiring, so after tasting chocolates, we tried the mocha, which was so thick it was like drinking a dark chocolate torte cake.
The centerpiece of the restaurant is a long communal table that seats 16. Almost everything in the restaurant is recycled. The metal ceiling came from a bar in Carlisle; the lights came from a local manufacturer.
After trying more than a half dozen chocolate flavors – and benefiting from the post-chocolate caffeine buzz – we tried two of the savory croissants. The ham and Brie had the perfect balance between bread, meat and cheese. The outside of the croissant was crispy brown, but melted as I bit into it. The inside flaky layers had more substance, well for a filling lunch. The spinach and goat cheese croissant had a similar balance, and Miller’s fiancé Chelsea Russo explained that the cheese was sourced locally from Pipe Dream Fromage.
Nathan Miller’s Web site has groupings of chocolate bars for sale, such as the “single origin inclusion” set that includes all chocolates made from Ghana beans and all with additions of some kind whether its gingerbread, espresso, chili/streusel, buttermilk or simply everything. His descriptions give a sense of the differences between the chocolates.
As I read about the notes of caramel, coconut and dates in the Ghana chocolate and the hazelnut, heavy cream and brown sugar notes in the Belize chocolate, I realized how much fun it can be to learn to recognize those flavors, which isn’t easy for someone who thought they knew chocolate, but is now working to identify the nuances of cacao tastes from Belize, Peru and Ghana. All chocolates are not created equal.
The beans, the roasting and the care in fair trade sourced ingredients sets Nathan Miller apart from other chocolatiers. The samples may be an opportunity to learn to differentiate the subtle flavors of the artisan chocolates – or they may just be an opportunity to decide what you love before picking out a bar to take home.
— Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email email@example.com.