Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Local Love Fridays: The Sweetest of Sweet Gems
I don't think Matt Morgan and Tommy York could have planned it better. If they want someone to linger in their shop, what better strategy than to plant a chocolate kitchen by the front entrance?
The delightful odor of chocolate envelops you as you move closer and closer to Nancy Biehn's workspace - the kitchen and main showroom for Sweet Gem Confections, where Nancy is the Chief Executive Chocolatier.
I met Nancy at the end of a long day, and was somewhat mixed about a late-ish afternoon interview. All hesitation disappeared when I walked into her space. I felt like Charlie entering the Chocolate Factory.
Of course, there was also Nancy's wonderful energy and love for her craft, which was evident everywhere: the gorgeous display case, filled with myriad types of her hand-crafted, artisan chocolates, a wall of colorful ribbons, cooling racks filled with groups of the different truffles, crafted recently.
My next question seemed superfluous, surrounded by all this sumptuous glory. "How did you get started with all this?"
Nancy had taken a year in Ovieto, Spain to "find herself" as many of us do at some point or another in our lives. During that year she learned to really look at food for the first time. She grew up on a farm and food was definitely the mainstay of her family's life, but the attitude was always "eat to live". In Spain, influenced by the mother in the family she lived with, food began to take on an almost magical feel. She loved the care that went into cooking, the travel to taste new foods or wines, the different levels of aesthetics that went into each meal. After discovering a favorite chocolate shop in Oviedo, she completely fell in love.
When she came back, she knew she wanted to learn how to make chocolate. She spent the next ten years learning about her craft on her own, and then taking a couple of patisserie classes at Schoolcraft College in Livonia to learn tempering. After making chocolates as gifts for several years, a friend suggested she go into business. The whole Ann Arbor area is richer for her decision to follow that friend's advice.
Nancy's chocolates are as beautiful as they are delicious. They have been a part of special celebrations for our family ever since my husband and I met her at her stall at the Farmers Market on a cool, autumn day last year. Like all good, local food, her chocolates are seasonal, and while some favorites, such as milk chocolate mint ("cream infused with fresh mint leaves, mixed with milk chocolate, dipped in dark chocolate and embellished with a colorful finish") are available year-round, others are dependent on the seasons, such as the current Peach Truffles - tarragon-infused cream and peach puree mixed with Maralumi 45% milk chocolate and then dipped in dark chocolate. Nancy's selections are based on whim and by suggestions from customers; one of the things she loves about running her own business is the flexibility to change and to be spontaneous.
What makes Sweet Gems unique is that Nancy uses a variety of single-origin chocolates and then uses the essence of a particular chocolate, whether it's smoky or fruity, complex with various notes, or more straightforward, and matches it with the very best local ingredients or top-shelf liqueurs. She uses cream and butter from Calder Dairy, raspberries that she picks herself from Makielski's, strawberries from Gibbs Berry Farm and honey from various local sources. Before the demise of Leopold Brothers, she made a fabulous truffle that used their stout. To give you a sense of the range of her truffles, she creates items as basic (but oh so amazing) as my personal favorite, the Strawberry Pate - "Fresh strawberry pectin fruit pate dipped in Michel Cluizel's single origin "Conception" dark chocolate" to one of the most beautiful and complex in her current repertoire - Jasmine Tea w/ Citrus Zest - "Dark chocolate and fresh cream infused with pearl jasmine tea and grapefruit zest, diamond cut, dipped in white chocolate, and finished with a pattern of branches and flowers".
In addition to Nancy's extraordinary truffles, she also makes decadent caramels, chocolate barks of various types, chocolate covered toffee and a lovely, spicy cocoa mix. She also puts together chocolate-making classes for groups of four to six. Upcoming classes will be taking place from 1:00 - 3:30 on the following Saturday afternoons: September 19th, September 26th, October 24th, and November 14th. If you're interested about the experience, local blogger and wedding poet Chloe Miller has a lovely write up on her blog, Wordarrangement's Blog, of a recent class.
If you wish to see Nancy at work, you can watch a video of an interview with Nancy here.
Sweet Gem Confections can be found inside Morgan and York, 1928 Packard Road Ann Arbor, MI 48104. You can get more information from Nancy at 734-929-6513 or by e-mailing info at sweetgemconfections dot com. You can also order Sweet Gem Confections online.
Every week, a small Ann Arbor area business will be featured here. Please feel free to grab the button and highlight special, small businesses from your area and be sure to buy local! If you are able, and would be so kind, please leave comments about this post at my new writing gig here.