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Peace, Love, Chocolate

Parading out of her Atwood Avenue kitchen in an Easter bonnet complete with artificial white dove, Gail Ambrosius warmly greets a bustling shop of customers on the day before another big chocolate holiday. Back in the kitchen, several women are busy filling bunny molds, cutting caramels and dipping truffles amid a friendly volley of chatter and laughter and an eclectic shuffle of music. Gail says this is a pretty typical for any one of the five shifts per week at Madison’s most exquisite, single-origin chocolate producer.

Taking a short break just outside the kitchen, we sat down at a table, which was partially covered in feathers, sequins and various other potential Easter bonnet decorations. Earlier, staff in the shop and kitchen had been creating their own bonnets. While keeping an eye on the kitchen, Gail began by recalling a story about her inspiration for becoming a chocolatier. While visiting Paris with her high school French club during winter break, Gail’s happy accident began after missing a bus to reconnect with her group for the day. Without hesitation, she began exploring the city on her own, discovering landmarks, shops, salons and fully enjoying her solo adventure. With eyes full of wonder, the many patisseries (most of which also included a selection of fine chocolates) fascinated Gail. She described, “It was this beautiful chocolate that really drew me like a magnet. More than that, just seeing people eating it and really slowing down and being so mindful when they ate it. Just savoring it and taking time for themselves, a nice little indulgence for themselves, kind of going to another place. And I thought, ‘Wow, if I could ever do that for people that would be so wonderful; if I could bring some of that slowing down to the U.S., that would be wonderful.’ What [the chocolate] did to people, to see the smiles spreading across the face of people—and it’s such a romantic thing.”

Once back home on her family’s dairy farm in Seymour, Wisconsin, Gail continued to enjoy cooking and baking with her large family that included ten children and dozens of cousins. Gail says that her mother’s love of desserts and chocolates led to weekend and holiday rituals where each of the six girls in the family had a hand in creating and baking the family’s favorite recipes. “And you would walk around,” Gail recalled, “with these wonderful treats to share, sharing joy, sharing love and the vehicle was chocolate.”

Five years ago, after decades of making alternate career choices that delayed the start of Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, Gail was finally ready to commit to her passion, so she began researching and training. While still working for the State of Wisconsin as a cartographer, Gail began taking UW business classes and training with experts in the history, technique and industry of chocolate. One such experience, at Valrhona’s E’cole du Chocolate in the Rhone Valley of France, was anexceptional opportunity to learn and included the science and chemistry of chocolate.

Other experiences include travel to the cacao bean (raw chocolate) growing regions in Central and South America, where Gail still purchases all of her cacao for producing their chocolates.

Preferring to purchase from smaller farmers, Gail also appreciates that this is the historic origin of cacao growing and the flavors from here are more interesting. Buying from smaller farms also gives her an opportunity to know and even work with the farmers who are growing for her business. “I try to buy local when I can in my personal life but obviously, we don’t have cacao trees here, so that’s as close as I can get,” Gail said. Talking more about her relationship with growers in the new Upala Organic Cacao Growers Cooperative in Costa Rica, Gail continued, “I love the idea of Fair Trade and organic, but the reality is that most of these farms are small family farms, very remote and they’re poor. And they couldn’t afford chemicals if they wanted it. And spraying it on a tree where you’ve got lots and lots of rainfall wouldn’t make sense. I know them; I’ve helped them harvest when I can; I’ve held workshops for the women who have formed their own cooperative, making chocolate bars. I brought them a tempering machine and they now have 80 families in the grower’s cooperative, but more that want to join all the time. I do what I can, but I know where [the chocolate is] coming from and I’ve been on the farms. They’re creating a livelihood for me and I’m able to employ people here because of their hard work and we’re learning from each other.

“There was a big disease (monilia) that wiped out a lot of cacao trees in the last 20 to 30 years. In this area of Upala they lost 80 percent. Imagine losing 80 percent of your biggest crop. Then a representative from Dagoba Chocolate went in with bio-researchers from the University of Wisconsin with funding from the Milwaukee Public Museum to begin grafting new, healthy trees, disease resistant trees. They also started an education program to get the kids interested in farming because they had no knowledge of the cacao trees, but when you talk to anyone above 30 years old they have these memories of the way it used to be, and they get teary-eyed and say, ‘Now what can I leave for my children? There’s nothing.’ Now there’s this really big movement and high school kids are grafting and planting hundreds and hundreds of trees and I think in the next five to six years it’s going to be really strong with cacao,” Gail excitedly explained.

Recently made an honorary member of their cooperative, Gail says she’s looking forward to seeing more families accepted into the cooperative, but they must first go through a strict process of review and that, she says, takes time.

Though not all of her chocolate comes from one source, Gail still spends time visiting other countries where she buys her chocolate, including Ecuador, Brazil and Columbia. Also participating in a reforestation project in Brazil, Gail uses a calculation each year to offset the business’s carbon footprint by sending funding to plant new trees there.

In Madison, Gail starts each day at the shop by taking the chocolate out of “the cave,” a temperature- and humidity-controlled room off their kitchen, to begin bringing it up to room temperature. Once all of the staff has arrived, they participate in a chocolate tasting each morning, “We’ll pick a truffle,” Gail described, “and we’ll pick the chocolate that it’s made with, because we use single-origin chocolate from six different countries—it’s quality control. We taste the chocolate, then we taste the truffle, making sure that we remember what things tastelike.”

Though she reports they have enough room to continue producing in their current location, Gail admits she’s thinking about adding a second shift for the next big holiday season to keep up with demand from the growing number of connoisseurs.

Each of the truffles, caramels and other chocolate products from Gail Ambrosius are all small-batch, hand-made, hand-dipped and delivered in Madison by Gail herself. At Willy Street Co-op, boxes of rich dark chocolate truffles and other tempting treats can be found near the registers at the front of the store.

Whether you love the taste of Lucille’s Vanilla or Cognac or Sweet Curry with Saffron (to name a few), it is the caramel with a sprinkling of salt that has become a favorite among many Co-op staff and is, as Gail describes, “swoonworthy.”  For more information about Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, see her website at: