This Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending the Morton Arboretum’s 9th Annual Chocolate Weekend with a friend. Billed as a festival of everything local and chocolate, it proved to be far better attended than I was expecting, especially on a weekend so soon after a very large snowfall.
When I arrived, the parking lot was extremely full, but the Arboretum staff had done an excellent job of clearing the paths, and they were very dry and easy to walk on. Snow boots were not required.
As I was nearing the Visitor Center, I realized I had forgotten just how lovely and peaceful the Arboretum is in the winter time. The layout of the plantings is so pleasant and the vistas so well-planned, that even without a bit of green showing, the place is still a tranquil wonder‑a true oasis right in the middle of the suburbs.
Once inside and past the Gift Shop, you were immediately immersed in some of the best chocolate offerings in the Chicagoland area. Some conventional confectionaries and some much more unexpected, like the first vendor inside the door, The Spice Merchant and Tea Room. I wondered what they had to do with chocolate, and soon found they had several amazing blends, including a remarkable cherry and chocolate tea I sampled that tasted just like liquid chocolate covered cherries.
There were soap makers with chocolate soaps, Pretzel makers with chocolate covered pretzels, chocolate sauces, chocolate covered toffees and fruits, cream puffs, marshmallows, bundt cakes, and mead. Basically, if it was something you could put chocolate in or on, it was represented in the Arboretum’s hand-picked selection of vendors.
According to Mary D’Amico, Special Events Coordinator at The Morton Arboretum, the vendors are selected on the basis of creativity and unique nature of their products, and that was certainly evident in the offerings on display.
I spoke briefly with Lucila Giagrande of Lucila’s Alfajores (Alfajores are a traditional cake from Argentina) and her husband. They have been coming back year after year to the event and said how much they enjoyed it and how easy it was for the vendors because of the superb coordination and organization by the Arboretum staff.
I have to say it’s just as easy for the attendees. The vendors are set up in booths on either side of the main hall and down one side of the Gingko Room and though it’s crowded, it’s easy enough to stand in line and get up to whatever you wish to see.
There is a special preview on the Friday of the weekend for Members Only, but even the very busy Saturday was so well-organized that it was very pleasant to attend. The one odd bit was that the line for cross-country ski rental was running concurrently in the hall. They might consider moving that to another part of the building or maybe outside in the breezeway as it was also very popular and was taking up a great deal of space.
After we browsed, my friend and I decided to walk over to see some of the programming that the Arboretum had arranged. I was struck again by the beauty of the Arboretum in winter. Those cross-country skis were looking more and more tempting.
In the Administration Building, there were also chocolate-related informational talks put on by some of the vendors. We caught part of the “Do you know your chocolate bar?” discussion by Kevin Roblee the owner of KOKKU, complete with samples. He explained the different tastes of chocolate from the different chocolate-growing regions of the world and how chocolatiers use them and blend them to make proprietary flavor mixes for their chocolates. It was stated that the chocolate from Ghana in Africa is the best quality in the world. One of the most interesting takeaways from his talk was his fondness for Trader Joe’s house brand chocolate. He said that for the money, it’s the best chocolate you can buy from a retail outlet, followed by Lindt. And Ghirardelli is the Starbucks of chocolate in that they over-roast their beans. He also said that if you want the very best, artisan chocolate, you will buy locally from an artisan shop, like all of the vendors at Chocolate Weekend.
He was followed by a presentation on the History of Chocolate from the Olmecs to the present presented by Don the owner of Grown Up Kid Stuff, maker of fine chocolate sauces. Don also agreed that the Ghanian chocolate was the best and that Lindt is the best famous brand you can buy in the U.S. (Godiva is poor quality here, but high quality in Europe.) We also learned about how the chocolate industry is working to eliminate child slavery in the chocolate business where it is endemic, through the International Cocoa Initiative and World Cocoa Foundation.
After that we headed back to the Visitor Center for a last look around and then walked around the lake back to our cars, enjoying the peaceful winter afternoon.
Chocolate Weekend is an annual event, and you should put it on your calendar for next February and do your Valentine’s shopping with the finest local chocolate vendors.
All photos by Suzanne Magnuson