Last year I visited an amazing chocolate shop in Montreal that displayed exotic chocolates in velvet lined jewelry cases. Patrons were served their order from silver platters while seated on white leather couches. The counter help had on designer uniforms. It was a defining moment of urbanity.
Last week, I visited the Old Port Chocolate Shop in Portland and was struck by a line of local chocolates that harkened back to that urban chic. Cayenne truffle. Earl Gray truffle. Rosemary Orange caramel. Maine Sea Salt caramel. I ate them all. They were nothing short of transformational. This was food that was breaking all the rules.
Who the hell was going crazy with their ingredients? I had to know.
So I paid a visit to Charles and Victoria Hamilton to learn more about their two-year-old Portland chocolate company, Nutmeg Foods.
I was expecting two British people with an extensive chocolate resume but, no, they are the poster children for the new Portland.
They are both 31-year-old musicians who lived in Connecticut, worked in New York and moved to Munjoy Hill to start their own chocolate business. They are smart, articulate and full of Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurial energy, the kind that uses honeymoon money to move to Maine and start a business.
Charles worked for years in the catering business and translates his cook's sensibility from the savory over to the sweet. He comes up with ideas faster than Victoria can produce them. He conjures up new flavors while falling asleep. Jicama and mango anyone? Charles is in charge of design, web site, packaging, production, marketing, sales and occasional dishwashing. Victoria is in the kitchen doing happy dances when she nails a new concoction. Both are graduates of the Connecticut Culinary Institute and primarily self-taught when it comes to chocolates.
Each season, the couple produces a new set of flavors. Often inspiration comes from whatever is in the refrigerator. All of their products area made to order, using as many local ingredients as possible.
They collaborate with their customers to develop new flavors. The idea for sesame wasabi truffles came from one of the employees at Whole Foods. They have an exclusive arrangement with the Cheese Iron to make cheese truffles plus a candied olive caramel with smoked Spanish sea salt.
Like many new businesses in Maine, they are delighted and surprised by the accessibility and camaraderie they have experienced here. People are willing to share contacts and ideas.
Nutmeg Foods are currently carried in four states, with a goal of all of New England and more corporate clients. They recently did a wedding where the wine of the night was used as an ingredient in a custom truffle for dessert.
For Valentine's Day they are offering a box of truffles, each with a letter on top which spells out L-O-V-E. Flavors include lavender vanilla, dark chocolate truffle with a hint of white truffle oil, passion fruit, and cinnamon.
And as for the lovebirds who traded a honeymoon for a seven-day workweek?
"We've never had more sleepless nights and we've never been happier."
Truffles, caramels, branches and chocolate caviar can be found in Portland at:
Aurora Provisions, Blue Spoon, Homegrown Herb & Tea, LeRoux Kitchens, Maple's Organic, Minott's Flowers, North Star Caf`, Soakology, Old Port Candy Company, Old Port Wine Merchants, Portland Coffee Roasting Co., Vintner's Winery Cellar and Whole Foods. Nutmeg Foods