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Bonbons ahoy: Inside the award-winning kitchen of St. Croix Chocolate Co.

A bag of the good stuff, freshly poured bonbon shells, and a doodled airbrushing set-up.

A bag of the good stuff, freshly poured bonbon shells, and a doodled airbrushing set-up. Sarah Brumble

Those who think of Stillwater as a classic riverfront town likely haven’t driven slightly upriver on MN-95. A sign entering Marine on St. Croix reads “Population 689,” and though its residents number far fewer than I’d expected, nothing would prepare me for downtown Marine. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to its storybook gazebo, noon-time whistle, and Minnesota’s oldest general store, frozen in time. Everything was coated in glistening, melting snow like that shit on fake Christmas trees.

St. Croix Chocolate Co. still displays a five-star Google review on its door, which is particularly cute since they were just awarded one of only eight five-star ratings in the nation by the International Chocolate Salon.

St. Croix Chocolate Co. still displays a five-star Google review on its door, which is particularly cute since they were just awarded one of only eight five-star ratings in the nation by the International Chocolate Salon. Sarah Brumble

And then there’s Robyn Dochterman, waving and smiling from the stoop of her teensy workshop (brown, easily mistaken for an elegant woodshed) beneath a small forest. Walking closer, I see she’s wearing a hoodie embroidered with a bold, even more endearing Doritos logo.

Dochterman owns St. Croix Chocolate Co. with her wife, Diedre Pope. Dochterman’s workspace, where she’s the company’s sole chocolatier, was both kitchen and public storefront until business exceeded its miniscule square footage. Inside, it smells like huffing a bag of M&Ms.

This makes me gasp because, well, it’s hard not to. Dochterman just good-naturedly shrugs and says, “I’m noseblind to it. I might smell it first thing in the morning, but that’s it,” touching on what seems like the one drawback to her job.

Earlier that week, news reached Marine that its tiny chocolate company had earned a five-star designation from the International Chocolate Salon. Only seven other chocolatiers in the nation were awarded five stars for 2019.

“This is the first time I’ve done the whole year of [competitions],” Dochterman explains.

Dochterman didn’t set out to become Marine’s Willy Wonka. When the economy began to crumble in 2008, she took it as a sign from the universe to start planning moves beyond media, despite spending the previous 13 years working as a web editor for the Star Tribune.

“I took a buyout, and kind of recovered from intense journalism for a bit, and I thought I was going to bake bread,” she says, laughing about realizing that meant waking up at 3 a.m. daily. “So: not bread.”

What Dochterman has learned to do with chocolate—beginning with a continuing ed program at Chicago’s French Pastry School, sustained in the decade since by her insatiable curiosity—is astounding. To earn any stars from the Salon, chocolatiers must compete in a sort of chocolate gauntlet including disciplines like chocolate bars, truffles, drinking chocolate, toffees, a Valentine’s theme, and more. Final rankings are based on cumulative scores throughout a calendar year.

In November, Dochterman earned gold for Best Overall Truffle Artistry for her “Koi Inyodo.” Opening a box stenciled like a shipping crate revealed two koi fish hand-painted to look like they’re “swimming” in a yin-yang formation. One of the koi truffles was filled with yuzu ganache and roasted buckwheat praline; the other featured honey ganache with a black sesame seed crunch. Separately, her Hot Hot Cocoa—which folded four kinds of ground chiles, vanilla, and cinnamon into thin, dissolvable quills—took home top awards from both the Scovies (which originate in New Mexico, honoring the world’s best spicy food products) and the Salon’s spicy chocolate category. “It makes the chocolate itself hot without your brain knowing quite why,” she explains. “You just add as much as you want to any hot beverage. It’s really fun.”

Despite these accolades, Dochterman says she approached the Salon series as more of a challenge than seeking street cred. “The contests make me slow down and think about how I can use this ingredient, package things...” she trails off for a second. “It just makes me think in a different way.”

Still, what Dochterman most enjoys making isn’t something the Salon measures. “I do something that almost nobody else does, and I absolutely adore doing....” Before me, she sets two pumpkins and an egg—each 3D, hefty, and up to nine inches large. They’re swirled and stamped with a rainbow of cocoa butter mimicking psychedelic porcelain. Taking off their lids reveals a hollow center in a more traditional hue. Again, I gasp as she assures me they’re 100 percent edible, pure chocolate, and shelf-stable (provided you have air conditioning). Pope is stuck convincing customers that they aren’t holding actual jewelry boxes.

Above: a portrait of cat-eye like bonbons made by Dochterman. Below: not paint, but a rainbow of edible cocoa butter she uses to create the effect.

Above: a portrait of cat-eye like bonbons made by Dochterman. Below: not paint, but a rainbow of edible cocoa butter she uses to create the effect. Sarah Brumble

But truffles and bonbons keep the lights on. Long ago, Dochterman decided that if she was going to do these, she’d do them her way. “You can see the swirly thing? It’s almost kind of a signature for me,” she says, gesturing to trays of part-made raspberry and passionfruit truffles. “You see really cool marbles with glass in the middle? I’m always inspired by those. I like to give it not just something on the surface, but the longer you look at it the more you see.”

As a substance, chocolate is magical enough in its own right, even before Dochterman adds flavors and textures and luster dust. Studies have verified that euphoric feeling we get from snapping into a pure bar of the dark stuff is not a placebo effect. Chocolate contains a veritable cocktail of our brain’s favorite drugs: caffeine, serotonin, tryptophan, a smidge of amphetamines, plus tiny amounts of a marijuana-like neurotransmitter called anandamide... and 295 more chemicals to boot. It’s best not to question why people want their chocolate, even if they’re not actually high as tits off a bonbon.

Along this line, one of the most infamous chocolate fights in more than four millennia took place in Chiapas, Mexico circa 1630. The short version is: A local bishop tried to ban consuming chocolate just in church and wound up dead for it. The local women banded together in a fit of rebellion and poisoned the clergyman with... drinking chocolate. The man’s contemporary, Dominican monk Thomas Gage, left a salacious account of the matter in his diaries, which also included detailed notes about how he preferred his daily two-to-three cups of chocolate prepared.

With an eye toward this history in mind, Dochterman just released a smart new product designed to educate self-proclaimed “chocoholics” on cacao’s more subtle tasting notes, while sneaking in as much of chocolate’s modern production techniques as her journalistic background allowed. This Fine Chocolate Taste Journey (available in four- or eight-piece sets) escorts recipients on a world tour of chocolate, via samples cast to resemble life-sized tree frogs—sorry for biting off your heads, little guys!—as they’re the anthropocene’s ultimate indicator species. Each frog comes separately bagged with an accompanying note card describing the technique for harvesting that bean, its terroir, and how these elements manifest in its flavor.

Truffles and bonbons and heart-shaped chocolate boxes oh MY!

Truffles and bonbons and heart-shaped chocolate boxes oh MY! Sarah Brumble

Though many of St. Croix Chocolate Co.’s creations can be purchased online and shipped to the moon, when weighing the cost of that 50-ish minute drive east into the Eden of Marine on St. Croix and Dochterman’s world of delights, consider that another thing worth fighting for is your departure from the humdrum. Exceedingly fine chocolates and cigars of fiery elixers are the perfect excuse to leave town. Rest assured they’re both perfectly legal (now), and have been deemed the finest available anywhere.

 

St. Croix Chocolate Co.
11 Judd St., Marine on St. Croix