Chocolatier creates Edible Art
By Fred Sauceman | February 15, 2008JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. — On a canvas of Scottish shortbread, four almonds become a bear's toes. Drips of dark chocolate form the nails. Caramel made with organic cream and organic sugar creates the pad of the foot.
"This is what I''m doing with an art school education,"says Jane Wilson, owner of Blue Ridge Chocolates in Jonesborough.
What she's doing with an art school education is delighting customers, those lucky enough to have discovered her handmade confections.
Steamed organic cream and fair trade, European-style chocolate are the basics of Jane's truffles. Some are reddened with crushed, dried raspberries. Chocolate frogs rest on fondant cookie lily pads in her kitchen on Spring Street.
"I love fondant because you can paint it and it looks like porcelain,"Jane says.
Jane sees pretzel rods and thinks totem poles.
"In Indian lore, prayer sticks, totems and turtles are really special,"Jane tells me. "I play on the pecan and caramel turtle idea by mounting them on a pretzel. If it had a few feathers hanging off the end of it and it wasn't chocolate, some indigenous shaman could probably make real magic with it. I hope I'm not breaking any ritualistic thing by making them out of candy."
Several things converged in the life of Jane Wilson to lead her to chocolate. While her grandfather, Fred Smith, headed up the circulation department at the Washington Evening Star, her grandmother Minnie ran a chocolate shop.
"Before the days of lobbyists, when Washington, D.C. was really a village, my grandmother would do these formal, sit-down dinners for 30 people," Jane remembers. "She made little chocolate leaves by dipping rosebush leaves and peeling the leaf away, and she made petits fours with candied rose petals, all from the half dozen rosebushes she raised in the tiny backyard of their brownstone."
Jane's other grandmother, Elizabeth Roberts Webb, was a "mountain herb woman" in Meadowview, Va.
Shopkeeping and healing, inherited from the urban and rural sides of her family, now shape Jane's life. While she keeps a candy shop going, she's a wellness coach and nutrition counselor next door. And chocolate is central to both jobs.
"Because of the family's interest in chocolate, we always knew it made us feel good," Jane says. "The distinction gets to be made between the bars that most of us were raised up on, which are a lot of milk and sugar and a little bit of chocolate, versus the European- style darker chocolates with the anti-oxidants."
Jane makes disks of chocolate flavored with orange peel, crystallized ginger and crushed raspberry seed.
"There's a doctor over in the eastern part of North Carolina doing body care, and he's promoting the idea that the salvation of the tobacco farmers could be raising raspberries, because the demand for both raspberries and blueberries is only going to increase as we get more nutrition-savvy."
As the Aztecs did, Jane combines chocolate with chipotle pepper, which is smoked jalapeno.
When I visited Blue Ridge Chocolates, Jane was perfecting carrots made with marzipan, coloring them with a mixture of saffron and cranberry juice. Remembering her grass-stained jeans as a youngster, she came upon chlorophyll as the perfect tinting agent for parchment paper carrot tops.
"The artist in me has a wonderful time," she exclaims. "It's kindergarten all over again," she adds, as she finishes off a chocolate bird's nest with marzipan eggs inside.
Jane delivers her chocolate creations all the way to South Carolina. She doesn't keep regular hours but says, "You're welcome to catch me here if the lights are on."
She has worked as a chef at several Western North Carolina resorts, but now she's back in her native East Tennessee. She once spent several years in the Santa Fe arts community, but the green of the Tennessee mountains called her back.
She had remembered the wisdom of the late Mack Morriss, a friend from WBEJ radio in Elizabethton: "The mountains aren't as green anywhere else." On her way back to Tennessee, when she got to Arkansas, she recalled thinking, "Thank God it's green."
Blue Ridge Chocolates are available at James-Ben: Studio & Gallery Art Center of Greeneville.
"Bear Claw" cookie by Blue Ridge Chocolates.
European-style truffles by Blue Ridge Chocolates.