NEW YORK — Ask anyone (even those deeply interested in food) if they know what raw chocolate is and you're likely to get a puzzled look. Daniel Sklaar hopes to change that.
The owner and chocolatier of the 5-year-old Fine & Raw is crafting natural chocolate bars, truffles, and bonbons using low-heat techniques. Sklaar's confections are made with cacao from unroasted beans, sweetened with blue agave, and flavored with exotic fruits and spices. The chocolates are deep, rich, and complex. You notice subtle notes of herbs or spices and a pure chocolate flavor that isn't overly sweet.
On a scrappy street of warehouses in Brooklyn, Sklaar transformed a former woodworker's shop into a bean-to-bar chocolate factory. The open layout and plexiglass dividers let observers who come to the cafe watch the process. The cafe has a retro orange velvet sofa and a hodgepodge of funky furniture. "Chocolate to me is really fun. It's ethereal and magical," says the chocolatier. "We want people to learn how it's made."
Sklaar, 32, who came to New York from South Africa to be a financial analyst, left to travel, and apprenticed in a raw foods restaurant in Arizona. He made batches of truffles with methods used by raw foodists, who believe that high heat causes food to lose enzymes and nutrition, so they only eat foods that are raw or minimally cooked.
The health benefits of chocolate made in this way are unclear, says Eric Ding, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The 'raw cocoa' movement, while gaining ground, is still on uncertain scientific grounding."
When Sklaar returned to New York, he experimented with raw chocolate using quirky flavorings such as spirulina (an edible blue-green algae), sage, and rose oil. The creations were such a hit among his friends that he started Fine & Raw, initially in a Brooklyn loft. Now his "chocolate lab," as Sklaar calls it, is in a 2,500-square-foot space in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood.
Pungent aromas drift from burlap bags of cacao beans
imported from small farms in Ecuador, Venezuela, Madagascar, and other countries. Each region's beans impart nuances to the chocolate. "Venezuela brings caramel notes, Madagascar is more raisiny," says Sklaar.
A mishmash of stainless steel equipment sits along painted brick walls. Sklaar's process is similar to conventional chocolate making, but here the cacao beans are not roasted — the first step in the traditional method. Instead they go into a dehydrator. "We develop the flavor this way," he says.
A winnower separates the bean, or nib, from the shell; then it's pulverized by a stone grinder into a thick paste, or chocolate liquor. Blue agave, coconut oil, and the chocolatier's flavor pairings come next. Lucuma, a Peruvian fruit, is blended with vanilla for a bar with caramel and burnt toffee flavors; ground Mexican mesquite pods are mixed with powdered yocan, a tuber from the Andes, and raw cacao butter to make another bar with a sweet, smoky taste. Stirring and kneading, or conching, follow and then the chocolate, which is about 78 percent cocoa, is tempered to give it sheen and snap before it is poured into molds.
The company turns out hundreds of bonbons and truffles daily and 600 bars, hand-wrapped, first in gold paper, then in a craft paper sketched with a Japanese floral design. A friend of Sklaar's did the artwork. The mesquite bar label features a whimsical cowgirl.
Sklaar continually tinkers with new formulas. "Our ethos is being experimental. That's where the fun is," says the entrepreneur. "We're pretty much mad chocolate scientists. And we eat lots of chocolate."
Fine & Raw
288 Seigel St.,Brooklyn, N.Y., 718-366-3633, www.fineandraw.com.
Chocolates available at Cocoanuts Boston, 28 Parmenter St., Boston, 857-263-7768; Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750; South End Formaggio, 268 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-6996.
Ann Trieger Kurland can be reached at atrieger@comcast