At a local grocery last month, while waiting in line to check out, a display caught my eye — a small, rustic-wood box filled with chocolate bars marked “Handcrafted in Stevensville, Montana” across the bottom.
The illustration on the label is of a blue heron standing in water. The name of the company: Burnt Fork Bend.
These were new to me. But, it turns out, they aren’t new at all. The chocolatier — Jennifer Wicks of Stevensville — has been making these artisanal bars of dark chocolate for more than 10 years, at first for herself and later, for chocolate lovers around Montana.
“I’ve always loved chocolate, from the time I was little,” says Wicks, who lives with her husband, Don, eighth-grade son Zach, and a menagerie of three horses, two dogs, one cat, bees and multiple chickens and cattle at their Burnt Fork ranch near Stevensville.
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were a favorite in her childhood days. But she liked dark chocolate, too, unusual for a youngster.
So later, when she had honey from bees on their ranch, she wondered: Can you sweeten chocolate with honey?
She tried and found the answer: No. Honey had too much moisture.
But, she was intrigued and started to read, learn and experiment with making chocolate from scratch, using the best — and fewest — ingredients possible.
Wicks was a cartographer for Mountain Water Co. in Missoula, mapping the system’s water mains and infrastructure, when she started her sweet quest for knowledge. When she realized there was a market for high-quality dark chocolate she quit her Missoula job.
She’s been turning out the Burnt Fork Bend bars ever since.
At first she used her own kitchen. But when the family built a new home on their ranch, she turned the old house into her work and storage space with a government-approved kitchen.
Now rich, smooth, silky smells of chocolate drift from the repurposed house. “People tell me how good it smells,” she says. “I’ve gotten used to it and don’t notice it as much.”
Of course, interest in dark chocolate has skyrocketed in the last 15 years, thanks to reports and perceptions that dark chocolate has antioxidants and health benefits. Eating an ounce of dark chocolate is a delicious, daily ritual for many.
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For Wicks, though, it is simply a personal passion. She’s now the member services manager for the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, which supports the work of artisanal chocolate makers around the world. She’s involved in what is called the bean-to-bar movement, where chocolate makers find cocoa beans direct from farmers or from specialty suppliers who know their sources.
Wicks buys single-source beans, meaning they come from one grower in one region at a time. Each batch may have a slightly different flavor or aroma, she said. Cocoa beans take on different notes depending on the soil, weather, moisture, and even the different crops growing nearby — coffee, berries or bananas, for example.
Only certain countries have cacao trees, which only grow near the equator, so her beans must come from afar. But she does most of the processing in her company’s kitchen, from roasting the beans, separating them from their shells, grinding them, to tempering the chocolate and pouring it into molds.
She even hand-packages the bars and drives them to the stores.
Burnt Fork Bend has three basic bars:
• Blue Heron Bar, which is 72% dark chocolate. The label will say where the beans come from, such as Bolivia, Guatemala or Honduras.
• Dexter Bar, which is 62% milk chocolate, the “Darker Side of Milk.” It is named after the heritage cows that Wicks and her family raise on their ranch.
• Bob Bar, which is 60% dark chocolate and is dubbed the “Sweeter Side of Dark.” It is named after a co-worker who liked a slightly sweeter bar than the darker option.
All have just three or four ingredients: cocoa beans, cocoa butter, organic cane sugar and for the Dexter Bar, milk powder. That’s it.
Wicks sells about two hundred of the bars a month, mostly in the Missoula area. (They retail for about $5-$7 for 2.5 ounces.) But she also takes special-request orders from friends, family and fans, and is always experimenting with new flavors, such as adding cardamom (which worked) and mustard seed (which didn’t).
Someday she’d like to arrange a taste-test event pairing her chocolate with wine, tea or cheese.
For Valentine’s Day — the third most popular holiday for chocolate sales, after Easter and Christmas, according to industry estimates — Wicks is adding some molded hearts to her repertoire.
Chocolate, pure and simple, has always been her goal. But “there’s always something new to think about,” she added.
Mea Andrews worked as a reporter and editor at the Missoulian for 27 years before retiring. She likes to explore Montana and Missoula but needs some coaxing during the winter months. Contact her at email@example.com.