‘Doctors send people who are hooked on sugar here. Seriously!” says Diane Wageman, owner of Divine Treasures, an organic European chocolate shop in Manchester, Conn. “They prescribe three pieces of chocolate per day. That’s all it takes to makepeople feel satisfied, if it’s good chocolate,” she adds. Wageman makes everything from scratch in her small factory, using a slow European process to preserve the antioxidants in her sweet treats. Vegan, gluten free, with no refined sugars, corn syrup, or trans fat — chocolate is about as guilt-free as it gets at Divine Treasures, where health-conscious folk like actress-activist Alicia Silverstone indulge (her pick: Buddha’s Blessings). “We see people coming in weekly, buying seven to 10 pieces, and they have one piece a day,” Wageman says. Or so they tell her.
Discovering places like this, and chatting with fellow chocophiles like Wageman, is one of the pleasures of exploring the Connecticut Chocolate Trail. Promoted by the state that brought you a wine trail and a beer trail, this chocolate-flavored route features 12 stops that cover a fair distance of the Nutmeg State. It’s a great excuse for road-tripping the Connecticut countryside, and unlike the wine and beer routes, you won’t need a designated driver.
Here are some of the highlights of our day on the Connecticut Chocolate Trail, plus local spots to work off the caloric indulgence.
MUNSON’S CHOCOLATES, Bolton
Pop by Munson’s retail store in Bolton and you might have a chance to try a product that isn’t even on the shelves yet. “We’re constantly adding new items, so we may ask if you’d like to try a product that is in development,” says vice president Karen Munson, a granddaughter of the 70-year-old company’s founders. “We use the store as an opportunity to run a mini focus group.” You won’t mind a bit. Cases are filled with all manner of cute, chocolatey delights, from artful white chocolate stilettos (a favorite favor at bachelorette parties) and dragonflies to their signature almond toffee butter crunch, one of Grandfather’s original recipes.
Although Munson’s is the largest producer of chocolate in Connecticut, they make all the chocolate (and big copper kettles of fudge) themselves, using cream and butter sourced from the Fish Family Farm a mile away. The company has 10 stores, including locations at Foxwoods, and their milk-chocolate covered gummies have a cult following, especially among local college students. “We did a camo Easter egg to support the Wounded Warrior Foundation, and it went viral,” Munson says. “We had a hard time keeping up.” But their best customer is probably the guy who proposed to his wife in their Avon store. “He closed down the store, and had his friends and family come in and eat whatever they wanted,” Munson recalls. Now that’s love.
What to try: You can’t go wrong with signature items like almond toffee butter crunch, pecan caramels, and triple chocolate patties. But those gummies are addictive. 174 Hop River Road, Bolton. From $22.98/pound. 860-649-4332, www.munsonschocolates.com
Work it off: The Hop River State Park Trail, a former rail line, runs 20.2 miles through the eastern Connecticut countryside, including Bolton. Access it at Bolton State Park, at the junction of Routes 44 and 6, then bike or hike it.
DIVINE TREASURES, Manchester
Owner Diane Wageman once worked in international finance, but a trip through Belgium, France, and Switzerland changed her life. Using some of her Belgian grandmother’s recipes, she began making slow-cooked, European-style organic chocolates minus the corn syrup and dairy products. (Stand-ins include brown rice syrup and tapioca syrup.) Now the walls of her shop are lined with awards, and a certain not-to-be named celebrity-pilot sends his flight attendant in to buy $1,000 worth of chocolate at a time.
What to try: The nonpariels are unparalleled, sweetened with tapioca syrup and not shiny with wax like most other varieties of this classic candy. The truffles are lovely, and they offer unexpected tastes. For example, Buddha’s Blessing is shaped like a pudgy Buddha and filled with sweet mango and coconut with a burst of spicy red pepper, and Egyptian Jewel is a pyramid filled with dark chocolate ganache, pistachio, roasted cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, and orange peel. 404 Middle Turnpike West, Manchester. $32/pound. 860-643-2552, www.dtchocolates.com
Work it off: The Hop River State Park Trail is accessible via Colonial Road. It’s about a half-mile from Parkade Plaza, where the shop is located.
BRIDGEWATER CHOCOLATE,West Hartford
What do Celine Dion, Russell Crowe, and Gwyneth Paltrow have in common? They’ve all ordered chocolate from tiny Bridgewater Chocolate Factory. Founder Erik Landegren came from Stockholm to New York to open Aquavit restaurant. After a move to tiny Bridgewater, he made a career switch, managing the Bridgewater General Store. He began making English toffee in the store’s basement. Customers couldn’t get enough. In 1996, Landegren jumped into chocolate full time and has won awards for his toffees and “tortels” — pecan and almond turtles draped in caramel and dipped in chocolate. Everything is handmade, using a blend of seven types of chocolate from around the world. Although Bridgewater Chocolate is available elsewhere in Connecticut, and at Dean and Deluca in New York, the best place to sample it is at the company’s retail store, with its outdoor tables, in the lively retail-restaurant zone of West Hartford.
What to try: Toffees and tortels, of course, but make sure to try frostbites — “ridiculously good,” and a favorite of store manager Sarah Hill. They’re a chewy caramel in milk chocolate with peanut butter nougat and crushed peanuts, rolled in sea salt and powdered sugar. 12 Lasalle Road, West Hartford. $38/pound. 860-570-0707, www.bridgewaterchocolate.com
Work it off: Farmington Reservoir is a great place to walk, Hill says; ditto nearby Elizabeth Park. “We’ll give you directions, so you can enjoy your chocolate with excellent scenery,” she adds.
TSCHUDIN CHOCOLATES & CONFECTIONS, Middletown
Pop into this stop along the chocolate trail (pronounced “chewed-in”) and you might be invited to go into the candy kitchen to make a ganache with owner Roberto Tschudin Lucheme. “It’s fun for us to bring people back and show them what we’re doing,” says Lucheme, a former lawyer and firefighter-turned artisan chocolatier. “You see a lot more smiles in the chocolate business,” he notes, calling his work “math, science, and finger-painting rolled into one.” Formal classes, ladies’ nights, and chocolate parties are on the calendar here, but Lucheme is probably best known for his exotic flavors and spices, such as garam masala and Chai, local honey, and herbs. Using Valrhona, E. Guittard chocolate from California, and some Belgian chocolate, Lucheme’s handmade, hand-painted chocolates are sold by the piece, like mini works of art. Some aren’t so mini, like his custom-made chocolate sculptures of kayaks, Picasso works, monsters, and the granddaddy of all, a $500 chocolate circus wagon filled with tiny animals.
What to try: The award winning “A Night in Tunisia” offers a kick of pepper and coriander. “It will hit every sensor you thought you had and some you didn’t know you had,” Lucheme says. “It’s our pride and joy.” If it’s hot out, try a “moussicle,” a frozen mousse popsicle. 100 Riverview Court, Middletown. $2.25-$2.50/piece. 860-759-2222, www.tschocolates.com
Work it off: Hit the hiking trails (or bike, or swim in the lake) at nearby Wadsworth Falls State Park.
FASCIA’S CHOCOLATES, Waterbury
This might be one of your longer stops along the chocolate trail, if you decide to take the “chocolate experience tour.” (July-August, Wed-Sat, 1 p.m., 80 minutes, $10; reserve in advance.) You’ll learn some facts about chocolate, glimpse behind the scenes at this family-run business, and get the chance to decorate a piece of chocolate bark. You’ll sample Fascia’s dark, milk, and white chocolates. This 51-year-old company does things the old-fashioned way, using copper pots for cooking, marble slabs for cooling, and stirring the chocolate by hand, not machine. We visited right before Easter, when the 20 employees were gearing up to make 10,000 chocolate bunnies. Want something special? This is the place to come. They have more than 600 molds, including century-old molds bought at an estate sale.
What to try: They make over 100 items, including chocolate-covered potato chips, but the signature item is the Truffle Meltaway, a combination of hazelnut paste with milk and dark chocolate layers. 44 Chase River Road, Waterbury. $26.95/pound (most items). 203-753-0515, www.fasciaschocolates.com
Work it off: Head 11 miles west to Woodbury to wander eight miles of trails at Whittemore Sanctuary, a woodsy landscape with ponds and bogs.