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.

19 comments:

Los Angelista said...

Oh my goodness... I want to eat all those. I don't even care if my pants stopped fitting!

Lauren said...

I love this post! I'm a big fan of M&Y and I drool at those chocolates every time I go in...thanks for telling me a bit more about Nancy!

Lilacspecs said...

Ahem, um, if you can make it to the wedding and feel like bringing some of these, I totally would have NO problem with that.

Goofball said...

I love Lilacspecs' comment

Goofball said...

I love Lilacspecs' comment

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Shoot, I live to far away. Her chocolates remind me of some my husband brought back from Belgium. There was one infused with thyme and tea that I'll never forget. But I do believe the chocolates you have pictured here may be some of the prettiest I've ever seen. Even in Paris. Now I'm craving a bit of chocolate after reading your post.

Brian Miller said...

so many good textures and layers here. the blends they put together, the fact they are local and use local...and its chocolate...i mean...

burpandslurp said...

I LOVE how you are featuring small local businesses like this. Nancy seems like a gem herself! I get so emotional seeing people do something they truly love and are good at.

Bellini Valli said...

These are calling to me. Love how you are featuring local businesses Jen.

The P & A Food Chronicles said...

this is awesome, i would love to do tempering... woop woooop!1

Shan said...

Beautiful chocolate!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Oh my goodness - I'm so far behind - my apologies, Everyone!

Los A - they are truly remarkable - Nancy is an artist.

Lauren - I'm also a big fan of M&Y - it's a wonderful store and it supports so many different local food efforts. And I just love Nancy and her chocolates!

Lilac - I think that can be arranged. ;-)

LOL, Goofball! I'm afraid they wouldn't make it to Belgium, though, at least not if I were carrying them. Hi, hi!

Elizabeth - they're pretty extraordinary. I've had the great good luck to go to Paris on a few trips and I believe Nancy's are right up there with anything I've seen/tasted there.

Brian - yeah. Exactly.

Burp - indeed. And it fits in with love for the arts or any other deep passion. I'm so inspired by all these folks!

Thanks so much, Val. I'd love to get others in other locations to join! I know BC has amazing local businesses. ;-)

P amp - Do you live near at all? Nancy's got classes coming up. I'm definitely signing up for one of her September classes.

Shan - yes, aren't they?

Marianne Arkins said...

Okay... this is the first time I'm GLAD I don't live there because if I did, I'd weigh 8 billion pounds! How do you resist buying one of everything?

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Well, they're kind of a special occasion item, Marianne, if that helps? But yeah, they're really, really amazing. What I don't understand is that Nancy looks great, and I sure wouldn't if I had her business and her talent!

Jenn@slim-shoppin said...

What a wonderful place to visit!

I love chocolates that look really pretty too!

Hotmamamia said...

I forgot to comment here after I commented at the other place....we are DEFINITELY planning on seeing you at the wedding...you just need to bring a tiny box for the wedding girl though...you will be my gift!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Jenn - they're pretty remarkable, even by Chicagoland standards. ;-)

Hot Mama - Thanks! And chocolates are a natural for a wedding. ;-) I'd still like to have you all come up for a visit, too - and we can do some foodie things!

Chloe Yelena Miller said...

Thanks for the link! Mmm... I have to return to Sweet Gems right away! What a great blog!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Chloe - yours, too, and thanks for the kind words! Sweet Gems really are perfection, aren't they?