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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 80.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Fringe Foods: A winter wonderland of unexpected Madison chocolates
Find sharp, sweet, and savory treats at Gail Ambrosius, TerraSource, and David Bacco
David Bacco's chocolates include, from left to right: Chardonnay smoked bacon, Fromage d'bleu, Szechuan peppercorn, and Aphrodisiac For Him.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

There's an old joke chocolatiers like to tell this time of year. "When is Christmas not really Christmas? When it's a white Christmas."

See, it's funny because white chocolate isn't really chocolate, plus the whole Bing Crosby, "White Christmas" thing... Okay, it's not only cornball and a little obtuse, it's also not an old joke. I just made it up.

Chocolate, though, is old -- one of the oldest foods of the New World. It's one of those things we can still kind of lord over Europe with even though they still try to appropriate it for themselves. While only distantly related to coffee -- closer, in fact, to the kola nut that led to modern cola -- chocolate engenders the same passionate following and study. Just think about science-types getting the jitters about little roasted tropical beans. See? Nearly indistinguishable.

So while chocolate experts in Belgium, Switzerland, San Francisco and Chicago all try to hoard the glory, little Madison is nevertheless flush with lauded and award-winning chocolatiers. Maurie's and James J. pin down the Monroe Street corridor, and Nilda's holds court on the northeast side. Candinas, perhaps the 800 lb. gorilla on the scene, has expanded from its nondescript underground lair in Verona to include a location on the Capitol Square. There are indeed so many chocolate options in Madison that last-minute gift shopping and stocking stuffing are more pleasant than they have any right to be.

While Candinas is still my personal favorite, three local chocolatiers regularly push the envelope and offer up confections that you'd struggle to find anywhere nearby. There's Gail Ambrosius, whose exploits with dark chocolate are well-known and well-loved; Josie Pradella's TerraSource, a relative newcomer which produces an array of vegan truffles; and David Bacco, formerly of Cocoliquot and currently plying his trade at Hilldale.

Gail Ambrosius doesn't mess around with the friendly, middle ground stuff. It's all dark chocolate, all the time. The truffles will run you $11 for a box of six. There are a number of interesting floral (lavender, rose) and spice (cardamom, curry) truffles in the case at Ambrosius. I thought there were four in particular that provided just the right blend of oddity and seasonality: trois poivre, chestnut, carmelized pepitas, and palette d'or.

Trois poivre, or "three pepper," opens up with the sharp blast of black pepper and transitions slowly to the depth of red pepper and little exclamation marks of the cracked pink peppercorns on top. Chestnut is as faithful to the unprocessed nut as you could ask a truffle to be, although the unusual mouthfeel almost begs for a slightly more traditional filling. With caramelized pepitas, the roasty flavor of the squash seeds gives way to a surprising and unannounced heat. And few of Gail's truffles are as straightforwardly, capital-C chocolatey as the gold leaf-topped palette d'or. The pepitas gets my vote as not only the most unique, but also the tastiest.

TerraSource is not only the chocolate of choice for vegans in town, but also for those who dig treasure hunts. Chocolatier Pradella does not operate a storefront operation, so fans have to rely on retailers like Mother Fool's, Metcalfe Sentry, Bunky's and Fair Indigo to get their fix. You might find individual packs for around $2, or boxes of two, four, or twelve with varying degrees of labeling. Be prepared to not know what you're getting until you open the box, though. Josie's happy to work with local consumers via e-mail, which might become useful as time runs short before Christmas.

I was able to locate a number of specific and creative flavors at Mother Fool's and Fair Indigo. The Hi-C Seaberry (aka sea-buckthorn) has a strong ginger component and musty flavor and aroma that almost makes me think of hoisin sauce. Aronia is only vaguely defined by TerraSource, but you might know it as chokeberry. The deep red color presages a tangy fruit flavor. Scarlet features a perfectly pleasant berry tea filling. As far as the vegan aspect goes, I'm impressed. The shells are thinner and break more easily, while the fillings are substantially grittier than those of their dairied brethren. However, the flavors are good and don't lead to any unusual aftertastes. I'm interested enough to try to find the Harvest and Rhubarb chocolates.

If you're looking for the up-and-comer on the Madison chocolate scene, look no farther than David Bacco Chocolats. His aesthetic is different from the rest -- truffles are not only molded into a variety of shapes, but painted in brilliant and glossy colors. They can be had for around $2 each. Bacco makes thoughtful and often playful truffles like Aphrodisiac For Him and For Her (the For Him is strong with rum and curry) and a slightly spicy Thai version of the peanut butter cup. The Szechuan peppercorn variety is sharp like the aforementioned Ambrosius truffle, but lacking in the same peaks and valleys of flavor. It's a more uniform flavor profile of chocolate and pepper.

The really funky chocolates that drew me in from the moment I saw them were the Chardonnay smoked bacon and Fromage d'bleu varieties. The bacon truffle, David's take on a combination that has been picking up steam in the foodie world lately, is a powerful mix of sweet and salty. Nueske's bacon and fleur de sel balance out the hints of fruity chardonnay and velvety chocolate ganache. The evocative shape and color of this truffle only add to the overall enjoyment. The bleu cheese truffle is actually not the first I've had, but is definitely the best so far. Pear notes are distinct, and the funk of bleu cheese is tamed by the sweet milk chocolate and just enough balsamic. Available since early fall, they might not be around for much longer; get 'em while you still can!

These three chocolatiers, not to mention the others around Madison, make wonderful chocolates that compliment the city's culinary scene, and should definitely impress anyone who receives them as a gift this holiday season. While TerraSource can be lauded for making a very respectable vegan chocolate, and Gail Ambrosius' work is consistently exemplary, I think David Bacco deserves special recognition for trying to tackle those culinary oddities that are normally the playground of bigger, more established restaurant operations. His quirky shapes, colors and flavors all speak to a certain brand of joyful passion for chocolate.

Maybe I should have tried my joke on him.

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