Aldea Coffee isn’t served in Paris yet. But there’s a taste of France at Patricia’s Chocolate in Grand Haven where their coffee beans are found at the center of a few of their sweet creations in a shop that feels a lot like a European “shoppe.”
Chocolate dates back more than 2,000 years (some say maybe 4,000) to when people in what is now Central America nibbled on the beans of the cacoa tree. It took hundreds of years before folks in the rest of the world even heard of chocolate or could enjoy it. Oh, those unfortunate people.
The people who walk into Patricia Christopher’s shop on Washington Avenue have tasted chocolate before. But they’ve never tasted anything like what she and her staff prepare for their buds. The chocolate in her shop isn’t a product, it’s a creation.
Each chocolate in the shop is a tasty, delicate design that explodes with flavor in your mouth. (How’s that for a descriptive conglomeration of adjectives and verbs?) Every chocolate square has a unique mixture of ingredients, a special design with their own story.
A few of the chocolate creations have a coffee spin: beans grown by Karolina Alvarenga in Honduras and roasted by Aldea Coffee in Muskegon are used in ganache, shortbread cookies, macarons, and offered as chocolate-covered espresso beans. The chocolate made from beans in Peru forms a perfect marriage with the beans from Honduras, offered on an all-American street in a resort town on Lake Michigan. Hey, it’s a small world after all.
A bite-sized history of Chocolate
More than 2,000 years ago, and perhaps earlier, in what is now Central America, folks in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations grew the cacao bean. They liked to grind it into a powder and add water to make a paste, which they mixed with vanilla or honey to make an elixir they drank after meals. Even back then, chocolate was a dessert, a special treat. The Aztecs believed chocolate drinks provided virility and enhanced their moods, and they even worshiped a god of chocolate. One Aztec emperor reportedly drank three gallons of chocolate a day to increase his libido. That’s quite a belly-full.
There was a time when cacao beans were used as currency. In the Aztec empire in the 15th century, 100 cacao beans could buy you a turkey hen. How’s that for a bargain? Especially if you liked roasted turkey.
As I stated earlier, much of the world didn’t know what chocolate was until the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs and imported chocolate to Europe. At first only the wealthy were able to taste the sweetness of this new concoction, mostly in beverages. Chocolate was also initially used as a medicine in Europe. Have a tummy ache? Consume some unsweetened chocolate. Yummy.
Everyone who loves chocolate should celebrate March 15th. That’s the birthday of Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist who perfected a method for reducing the bitterness of chocolate. Suffice to say, that after Van Houten did his thing in the late 19th century, chocolate got a lot sweeter. His “cocoa press” made it more efficient and affordable to mass produce good chocolate, which in turn made it possible for the masses to enjoy it for the first time. Thanks, buddy.
What it’s like to run a chocolate shop
Patricia was trained at the French Pastry School and the Callebaut Institutes in Chicago and Montreal. She honed her skills through thousands of hours working with chocolate in the commercial kitchen in her home. Working with chocolate is her passion and once she made the decision to do it, she didn’t look back.
“There are no bad days in a chocolate shop,” Patricia says, “every day is a new experience and a fresh opportunity to share these flavors and textures with new people.”
Running a chocolate shop is a family affair. Patricia’s husband Paul handles the marketing and business side of things. He quit his corporate job years ago to concentrate on Patricia’s chocolate ambitions. They have eleven employees, including four pastry chefs.
Want organic? Want natural? There are absolutely no preservatives or additives in Patricia’s chocolates. And no artificial flavors. This is the real thing, right down to the decals on each chocolate, which are edible designs on the squares made of cocoa butter.
All that detail means Patricia’s staff must be meticulous in their work. Being a chocolatier requires craftsmanship, dedication, and an adherence to process. Every piece of chocolate starts with the chocolate made from Peruvian cacao beans. Whether it’s Pear Caramel, Michigan Blueberry, or Mandarin Ginger, The palets crafted in Patricia’s chocolate collection are “handcrafted from fresh ingredients with the finest American and French couverture cocoas.” Every piece, from creation to the precision of the cuts of chocolate to the delicate edible designs on the squares to the careful packaging, is produced with care. How many retailers take that much time and pour that much love into what they’re doing?
“It’s obvious that Patricia and Paul are passionate about quality,” says Jeremy Miller, co-founder of Aldea Coffee. “That’s one of the reasons we are so proud to have our coffee beans in some of their items. Patricia pushes us to be better at all we do, as well.”
Running a chocolate shop also means being a good neighbor and a responsible part of the community. Patricia supports local businesses and takes part in local projects to support Grand Haven and her corner of Michigan. She supplies her chocolates to retailers and restaurants all over the state. Every interaction is treated the same, whether it be with a chocolate lover coming into her store, or someone who doesn’t know much about fine chocolates, or a restaurant owner seeking a unique sweet menu item.
“We’re committed to providing the best quality chocolate we can right here in this beautiful community,” Patricia says.