Situated among witch-themed shops and museums, Kakawa Chocolate House brings the history of the cacao fruit to Salem through its ancient and modern recipes.
The artisanal chocolate shop, founded in Santa Fe and recently brought to Salem by owners Bonnie and Tony Bennett, promotes the “anthropology” of chocolate.
Each piece of chocolate reveals a piece of history. A glass case boasts unique chocolate truffles — goat cheese, cherry chili, prickly pear, chocolate-covered chilis, and more. Its signature chocolate elixirs waft scents of spices, herbs, and chili from warming pots on the storefront counter.
“Our roots are very historical,” said Bonnie Bennett in a phone interview on her way back to Santa Fe. “We call it time traveling through the palate.”
The Bennetts started in the fashion and jewelry industry. Looking for a change of scenery, they moved from New Jersey to Santa Fe for a consulting job. There, they discovered Kakawa and bought it from its previous owners in 2010.
The Salem store, decorated with Mexican designs and furniture, held its grand opening on Dec. 1. It has a small seating area for drinking chocolates, and a menu that changes daily. Patrons can watch chocolatiers put the finishing touches on truffles as they sip aromatic elixirs.
Bennett said that, with the store, they inherited a wealth of research on the Mesoamerican beginnings of chocolate thousands of years ago. The first references to cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made, come from the pre-Maya Olmecs. The store name and logo tip their hat to those references, she said.
The Maya did not use any sort of dairy in their chocolate, Bennett said. Anthropologists believe it was used ceremonially, drunk out of large cups by religious leaders and wealthy lords.
The Mayan Full Spice drinking chocolate elixir reflects these historical roots, Bennett said. It includes unsweetened 100 percent chocolate, coconut sugar, Chilhuacle Negro Chili, Mexican vanilla, and 17 herbs, flowers, nuts, and spices.
“It’s very different from what people might know as a hot chocolate,” Bennett said. “The flavor profile is sort of strong and in your face.”
The recipe is extremely precise, head chocolatier Delphin Gomes said. The Maya recipe includes exact amounts of a plethora of spices.
“It’s a delicate process,” he said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the flavors if it wasn’t precise.”
He said for less adventurous taste buds, it’s best to start with contemporary elixirs, such as the American, and work up to the complex flavor profiles.
“Chocolate with chili, there [in Santa Fe] it sells. Here, even our chocolates, the spices can be too much for some people here,” Gomes said. “So we try to meet them halfway.”
European recipes are easier on some palates, Bennett said. The menu includes the 1774 Marie Antoinette elixir, which is representative of a recipe that Antoinette brought from Vienna to the French court of Versailles in the 1770s. It includes orange blossom water, 70 percent chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, and almond milk.
Bennett said she is passionate about imparting the history of chocolate upon visitors through their palates. In Santa Fe, she and Tony also hosted lessons in public schools, colleges, and small groups. She added that they hope to hold workshops and lessons in Salem in the future.
“It goes beyond what we do in the store,” she said.
Kakawa leases its space from the Peabody Essex Museum. Jay Finney, chief marketing officer at the museum, said the board of directors and museum trustees met Tony on an annual visit to a marketplace in Santa Fe, and encouraged him to open a store in Salem.
He said that when the space opened up, any retail store could have moved in. But he’s glad it’s Kakawa because of the potential for collaborations. He mentioned historical exhibits that include chocolate tastings and adding Kakawa products to the museum’s cafe.
“We love chocolate. We love Tony. We love the concept and the cultural background of how he approaches his product,” Finney said. “Our values are similar.”
Looking forward, Bennett said she plans to add some regional recipes that speak to Salem’s roots, incorporating quintessential New England ingredients such as cranberries and maple.
“We are very excited to be involved in that area, with its rich history, it feels very comfortable to us,” she said.
Morgan Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.