Escazú | 936 N. Blount Street, Raleigh

As Valentine’s Day approaches, the inventive chocolatiers at Escazú are kicking into high gear, making as many truffles, chocolate bars, and specialty confections as they can.

The North Raleigh boutique chocolate store—a finalist in INDY Week’s “Best Of” contest at least three years running—is known for its handmade, small-batch chocolate, including rich ice cream and varieties of spiced hot chocolate traditional in Mexico, Spain, and other countries around the world. The store, which opened in 2008, is named after a region in Costa Rica where some of the beans used by the shop are grown.

The shop’s busiest time of year is, of course, the week before Valentine’s Day, when customers flock to the door to buy sweets for their sweethearts. In one week, Escazú sells three times the amount of chocolate they do during any other month save December, says co-owner Danielle Centeno.

“We try to get ahead as much as we can,” she says. “There’s a lot of things that we can stock up, but a lot of our confections are [also] fresh. We don’t use preservatives, so it makes a little bit harder.”

After the Christmas rush, Centeno and her business partner Tiana Young don’t have much time to prepare for Valentine’s Day. They’ve been making chocolate nonstop since January.

“It will be very busy here starting [this] week,” Young says. “Valentine’s is a procrastinator’s holiday.”

INDY Week caught up with Young and Centeno in early February, while they were still hard at work, to talk about the business and art of making chocolate.

INDY Week: Escazú makes chocolate from scratch, starting with the cocoa bean. How does that work?

YOUNG: The first step in the process is to hand-sort the beans. They come in big, 120-pound bags. You go through them one by one, and we’re looking for anything that isn’t a good bean. It might be a flat bean or a moldy bean or a buggy bean or [even] a rock or a nut or a bolt.

Once we have all the good beans, they get roasted. We have an antique ball roaster. It looks like a giant eyeball that turns over a little open flame. [The beans] roast for about three hours, give or take, depending on the origin and the temperature and humidity. Then they’ll come out and cool.

Then [the beans] go through a process called winnowing. We have a machine that will crack the beans and drop them down through a series of sifters to separate out the papery shell of the bean, which we call a husk, from the meaty interior, which is the nib.

The nibs will then go into our grinders with some percentage of sugar and maybe cocoa butter, depending on the type of chocolate we’re making. It’ll grind for three to four days and at the end of that, we’ll pour it out and it will be chocolate.

We store them in big untempered blocks and they’ll age for a little bit to help their flavors round out and kind of come together. Then it goes into ice cream or turns into confections or bars or hot chocolate.

CENTENO: Once the beans come out of the grinder, the flavors are very bright. If you let it sit for a while, the flavors kind of come into harmony.

INDY Week: What is involved in making chocolate confections?

CENTENO: For the bars and the confections, you temper and mold [the chocolate]. The tempering process aligns the sugar and the fat crystals [so they’re] so, so small. That’s what gives you the shine and the snap, what we know as chocolate.

On this side, you can see the million molds that we have right now. Anything you see [in the shop] that is shiny with color, that is colored cocoa butter. When the chocolate goes in with cocoa butter, it just wants to adhere to it, because it belongs to chocolate.

YOUNG: We hand-paint [the molds] with a brush or an airbrush.

CENTENO: [Then] you ladle [the chocolate] into a mold, shake out the air bubbles. You let it set just enough so that you have a shell, and then you dump [the rest of the chocolate]. Those shells are going to be filled with ganache or with caramel or whatever we use for the filling.

INDY Week: What kinds of chocolate do you make?

CENTENO: [The different kinds of chocolate] mostly refers to the percentage. We make a 65 percent blend of beans from different origins. We pick those beans based on [whether they’ll] pair well with everything. We use our blend to make all of our confections … [ones with] lavender or raspberry or alcohol. So it has to be delicious, but not too loud about its own flavors.

With a blend it’s also a little bit easier to have it taste the most consistent from batch to batch. But even if you have the exact same beans, it’s still going to vary, because every harvest always feels different.

How does the harvest affect the flavor of chocolate?

CENTENO: People don’t really see chocolate as an agricultural product that changes. Like strawberries, you [might] get them last summer and they were delicious, but this summer it rains too much or there’s not enough sun, so … they’re not going to be sweet enough.

The flavor of chocolate depends on the bean, because you can have beans that are a little bit more fruit-forward, maybe a little tobacco, maybe a little dried cherries. Then you can have others that are more fudgy and nutty.

YOUNG: Mass chocolate producers overroast their beans and add a lot of additives to make it taste super-duper consistent. They don’t care about the quality of the bean itself, because they’re going to make sure that they standardize whatever they’re getting to taste [the same]. We work with the fact that it’s an agricultural product. It changes and has beautiful and intricate flavors that you can preserve. Just like wines can taste really different, single-origin chocolate can taste really different from one bean to the other.

What is your day-to-day like?

CENTENO: We try to keep production a little loose. We change it a lot. [So one week], instead of your Pinella lime confection being dark green, it’s gonna be light green.

A lot of customers come here and expect the same collection, or they’re like, “Why can’t my box have a guide?” Because we change them literally all the time. Every single box that goes out is completely different. It keeps us creative and able to play around, as opposed to just being machines and producing the same thing all the time. Even if we’re really busy, there’s still a little bit of room to create.

YOUNG: And to use your intuition. What do people enjoy? What do we enjoy? If we were just stuck in this box of making the same 20 flavors over and over again … then it would start getting boring and all of those great ideas would go to waste. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to taste things and bring you ideas and flavors and textures. 

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