The Hudson Valley has been hailed as “The Napa Valley of the East Coast” for our lovely and verdant fields, lush agriculture, and award winning vineyards within driving proximity to each other. But one thing we have here that the Napa Valley doesn’t: bone crushing winter. I am not entirely certain what the folks in Napa are doing this time of year, but it probably doesn’t involve snow shovels, strapping traction spikes onto boots, and scrubbing a two inch thick crust of salt off of their cars.
So perhaps this is not the best time of year to tour the Hudson Valley’s vineyards. But it is the ideal time of year to tour the many small, independent chocolatiers that thrive between I-84 and I-90. For one thing, they’re all indoors and they all have heat. And Valentine’s Day is on a Saturday this year. What better way to spend the day then driving through the Valley with your beloved, sampling the glories of the Hudson Valley Chocolate Revolution?
“Hopefully there’s going to be an awaking in consumers like there has been with craft breweries,” said John Courtsunis of Newburgh’s Commodore Chocolatier “and they’ll want to travel around, whether its cross country or cross county, to different small chocolatiers and compare how they’re different.”
With that, we present our round-up of some of our favorite places to load up on caffeine and theobromine in the Hudson Valley, as well as each shop’s recommendations as to what to get that special someone and their own thoughts as to why chocolate remains the perfect gift. If chocolate is, as its scientific name Theobroma cacao suggests, the food of the gods, then here is your 140 mile, four hour round trip to heaven and back (leave yourself two and a half hours for driving, 45 minutes for sampling, and 45 minutes for a sugar crash induced nap somewhere near the Catskills.)
Alps Sweet Shop
269 Main Street, Beacon, 888-442-2577
1054 Main Street, Fishkill
There’s been an Alps Sweet Shop in Beacon for almost as long as there’s been a Beacon. Opening in 1922, Alps is the Hudson Valley’s oldest chocolate shop and it’s got the following to prove it. “We do very little if any advertising,” explains third-generation chocolatier Terry Craft. “Word of mouth built this business.”
For Valentine’s Day: The flagship truffle is the Heaven & Earth truffle: A blend of two single-origin chocolates mixed with heavy cream, dipped into a third chocolate and then rolled with cocoa powder.
Why Chocolate? “There’s lots of science and folklore behind it, but I don’t need science to know that everyone who walks through that door is coming in here to either make themselves feel good or make someone else feel good,” said Craft.
The Chocolate Studio/Gourmetibles
494 Main Street, Beacon, 845-765-1165
Anne St. George became known in the Hudson Valley for her Gourmetibles: A unique treat that’s half-candy, half-cookie, and fully addicting. Last year she teamed up with chocolatier Joanne Meyer to open The Chocolate Studio, which not only offers the full range of Gourmetibles, but also a variety of chocolates, cakes, kid’s birthday parties and their new late night ladies’ chocolate parties.
For Valentine’s Day: Chocolate dipped strawberries, a chocolate bliss cake made for two with a port wine reduction, and of course the chocolate covered bacon
Why Chocolate? “What’s not to love about chocolate?” said Meyer “It always puts a smile on people’s faces.”
18 West Market Street, Rhinebeck,
Chocolatier Oliver Kita designs his signature chocolates similar to the way that perfumes are designed, with a base note, a middle note and a top note. “They’re multi-layered in amplitude in taste,” said Kita. And he’s been making chocolates long enough that he knows exactly what his Valentine’s Day customers want. “It’s always men giving chocolates to women,” he said. “Not vice versa. Usually they come in with a budget of $40 to $60 and they want a beautiful heart shaped box. And then it’s our job to fill it.”
For Valentine’s Day: “I do really romantic flavors for Valentine’s Day. We do one called “The Love Letter” with Saint Germain liqueur from Paris, which is made with elderflower blossoms. The liquor is the top note, the middle note is something I add that’s a secret, and the dark chocolate is the base note.”
Why Chocolate? “Chocolate is love. The serotonin uptake it supplies is similar to the serotonin uptake that comes with that feeling of romance, with that first kiss. It’s something you want to experience again and again.”
Taste Budds Coffee and Chocolate Cafe
40 West Market Street, Red Hook,
Chef Dan Budd and Chocolatier Laura Nieves don’t just make chocolates. Taste Budds is a full cafe and restaurant that just happens to also sell chocolates on the side. But as tastes have changed, that side of their business has grown. “We’ve always sold our own handmade chocolates, but now that the market has grown we’re selling more than ever,” said Budd. “We make them fresh, in very small batches. We don’t make a new batch until we sell out.”
For Valentine’s Day: “We make a 4 piece, an 8 piece and a 15 piece box. Sometimes that’s not enough for people, so they get two 15 piece boxes and double them up.”
Why Chocolate? “Well, there’s those thousands of chemical compounds in it that make us secrete endorphins and feel love. But a lot of people are realizing now how much better real chocolate made with real cocoa butter from a specific origin tastes than what you pick up at the gas station.”
The Chocolate Bar
135 Warren Street, Hudson, 518-828-3139
If you’ve only got time to go to one place on Valentine’s Day, then make it The Chocolate Bar: It’s pretty much the same as going to a dozen chocolatiers at once. “We don’t make our own chocolates,” explains Kim Bach. “Instead we represent as many local chocolatiers as we can find, as well as Brooklyn and other New York City chocolatiers.” In addition to being an independent chocolate super store, The Chocolate Bar is also a cafe, a tea shop, a bakery, and serves a wide variety of chocolate drinks.
For Valentine’s Day: While Bach says you can’t go wrong with a 16 piece box of Oliver Kita chocolates, those stopping by the store with their loved ones should consider having a seat and enjoying one of their famous chocolate drinks made in-house. “We do what we call an ‘Angelina On The Hudson,’” she explained. “It’s based on the famous Cafe Angelina in Paris. It’s a pot of chocolate and a cup of cream. It’s a little decadent.”
Why Chocolate? “It’s the new health food, right?”
741 Columbia Street, Hudson, 518-828-2717
Hudson has become known as a town of locals and a town of weekenders with second homes coming up from New York City, Vasilow’s prides itself on catering to both crowds. “We have a wide customer base, in both locals and people coming up from the city,” explains Kate Vasilow. “I think a lot of chocolate shops are crazy expensive. But we make a good living selling a good product at a good price.”
For Valentine’s Day: If you’re planning on making the day really special – perhaps popping a certain question – come into Vasilow’s beforehand with the ring and they’ll seal it inside an edible chocolate box.
Why Chocolate? “It’s a wonderful tradition. We have a gentleman who’s been coming in every year with a five pound box that he’s been giving his wife for 30 years, and every year we spruce up the box and fill it for him.”
115 Partition Street, Saugerties, 845-246-7337
Rae Stangs prides herself on her small batch truffles, made using organic and local ingredients. And if you’re still hungry after sampling a few, Lucky Chocolates is also a cafe.
For Valentine’s Day: While the truffles are the star of the show, Stang also makes a chocolate pizza – as in, a giant block of chocolate in the shape of a pizza, served in a pizza box. “So you pick one up, bring it home, and say to your wife ‘Oh, I just got us a pizza tonight for Valentine’s Day,” Stang explains. “And then right before she kills you, you open the box.”
Why Chocolate? “They’re very rich, intense and luxurious, so they’re not really something you buy for yourself. Well, at least not a whole box.”
41 South Partition Street, Saugerties,
2 Church Street, New Paltz, 845-255-1272
6423 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck,
Krause’s Chocolates has been in business since 1929, and third generation chocolatier Karl Krause has been making chocolate since he was 8. “ They’re all hand-dipped, by humans, one piece at a time” he explained. “I’m not going to go into why that makes it taste better, because it’s a trade secret, but you can taste the difference. It’s harder, more expensive, tedious, and even frustrating. But we still do it, because that’s what makes it taste the best.”
For Valentine’s Day: “We make a chocolate heart-shaped box that you can fill with our hand dipped chocolates. So once you’re done with the inside, you go ahead and eat the box.”
Why Chocolate? “If you give someone chocolate, you know they’re going to like it. It’s not like it’s not going to fit.”
25 North Front Street, New Paltz,
Chocolatier Lagusta Yearwood Umami has a background in animal-rights activism and carries that same fiery and noble spirit into her work: Everything she makes is vegan, organic and fair-trade. But her politics is only one of the things her store is known for. “We have a lot of really weird flavors,” she said, referencing such creations as a Bourbon Chile bar and a Smoked Corn on the Cob bar. “It’s fun to experiment.”
For Valentine’s Day: “We make an anatomical heart chocolate, which looks like a human heart, made with cacao nibs, Stumptown Coffee and dried cherries every Valentine’s Day. Everybody really looks forward to it.”
Why Chocolate? “It’s sweet, but it’s also bitter, so it encompasses all the experiences and complexities of love.”
480-482 Broadway, Newburgh, 845-561-3960
Newburgh has been through a lot of changes throughout the years, but Commodore Chocolatier has been in the same storefront on Upper Broadway since 1935. “We’re still learning, still trying to be better,” said second generation chocolatier John Courtsunis while his son Gus nodded in agreement. “Last year, after Valentine’s Day, a man who’s been coming into the store for 25 years said, ‘My daughter said that this year the chocolates were better than ever.’”
For Valentine’s Day: “Get a mixed box. We make so many different things to choose from. We’re like a great restaurant with a full menu. There’s always going to be something on there that you’ll like.”
Why Chocolate? “It’s affordable and you’re not going to be disappointed.”
Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer in Beacon, NY. You can find him online at brianpjcronin.com and on Twitter as @brianpjcronin.