For the sweetest Valentine's treats, consider local craft chocolates

Shannon Kuhn
Handmade truffles at Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge
Shannon Kuhn
"Romantic Rose," a Valentine's truffle garnished with a rose hip petal at Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge
Shannon Kuhn
"Romantic Rose" Valentine's truffles are garnished with rose hip petals at Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge.
Shannon Kuhn

Valentine's Day is supposed to be a celebration of people loving people. It's a day dedicated to all those who bring joy into each other's lives. Some will give singing telegrams, others will choose the gift of flowers. Most everyone will receive chocolate.

Whether or not it's the most romantic holiday is debatable, but Valentine's Day sure is profitable.

In February 2013, CNN estimated that American consumers spent nearly $2 billion on candy and chocolate alone the week leading up to Valentine's Day. That same month, The Atlantic reported that as a country, we spend more on candy than flowers and cards combined.

So who is making all of that chocolate?

The Hershey Company is the largest chocolate manufacturer in North America and is predicted to sell more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate this Valentine's Day.

We can do better than that. Sure, it's convenient, but even if I owned stock in Hershey's I'd still testify that their chocolate tastes like chalk.

Although it's heavily commercialized, Valentine's Day gives consumers huge purchasing power. Imagine if we could shift $1 billion away from the mass-produced industrial chocolate conglomerates and towards local chocolate makers instead. What if we could show our love for our sweeties and our communities at the same time?

In Anchorage, finding locally made high-quality chocolate couldn't be easier. This week I went behind the scenes at the Modern Dwellers kitchen. Located in Midtown at the Metro Mall, this is where vats of chocolate melt and swirl, truffles are rolled and edible fairy dust is sprinkled. In this self-proclaimed "chocolate lounge," art and chocolate are woven together to make beautiful and delicious creations.

I stood transfixed as Rebecca Martin expertly peeled a dime-sized pink petal off the bloom of a rose hip with tweezers. She placed it on a stainless-steel tray among the hundreds of other petals, each meticulously removed in the same way.

Rose hips make a special appearance at Modern Dwellers around Valentine's Day, garnishing the once-a-year dark chocolate truffles appropriately named "Romantic Roses." The amount of labor involved in this inch-long dessert is stunning: the stem and leaves must all be removed first and then each petal separated individually. The process takes over a month and that's only for the garnish.

"It's a complete labor of love," says owner Zoe Oakley. "Some people would call us crazy."

At Modern Dwellers, crafting each truffle is a four-day process. It's chocolate, but not like you've ever seen it before.

Smoked salmon, bacon salt and anchovies (also an aphrodisiac) are all featured in different truffles, as are traditional flavors like honey and berries. "We seek not only to support but promote other local businesses through our product," Oakley said. Modern Dwellers uses local honey, Alaska smoked salmon, Midnight Sun Brewing Co. beer, spices and teas from Summit Spice and Tea, and blue cheese from Fromagio's in their truffles.

On any given day, you might find Oakley deep in discussion with her staff about the ethics of the chocolate industry or reminiscing with customers about their favorite savory truffle combinations.

Oakley's family is from Alaska, though she grew up in Seattle. Her fondest family memories include watching her then-six-year-old daughter making truffles out of mud balls in the backyard before garnishing them with spruce needles, and her Aleut-Russian mother eating dark chocolate with her tea on early Kodiak mornings.

Chocolate is a food every child in the United States can identify, but it has a mostly untold story. The average cacao tree produces enough beans to make only about two pounds of chocolate. Mainly grown by farmers in West Africa, Brazil and Indonesia, beans are harvested, fermented and dried, then exported to be roasted and processed, then melted and molded into the forms we find in the grocery store. Fair-trade certification and a growing "bean to bar" movement are slowly pushing labor and environmental practices forward, and consumers are starting to notice. "Where does your chocolate come from?" isn't a common phrase yet, but more and more people are starting to think about the implications their food purchases have on farmers and families across the world.

Oakley is passionate about telling this story and putting Alaska on the map for craft chocolate making. Over the past six years, Modern Dwellers has evolved into a locally rooted and cause-driven business that I would support over a box of Hershey's any day.

This Valentine's Day, show your love for your community and buy chocolate you can believe in. Now that's romantic.


Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.

Shannon Kuhn
Food & Culture