Aspen dance instructor takes next step " into chocolate |

Aspen dance instructor takes next step " into chocolate

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN ” When Heather Morrow’s son, Luca, got to his toddler stage, mom saw that a career change would be a good idea. For several years, Morrow had been working as a dance instructor ” teaching at nights in Aspen, and traveling around the States with her mentor, Daniel Trenner, to give classes in salsa, swing, and especially tango. For a short while she tried to eliminate the traveling aspect of her business, but the local market for tango instruction wasn’t enough to build a job around.

“I wanted to do something during the day, something that was ‘me,'” said Morrow.

The most logical ideas seemed to be dance-related. Morrow contemplated making dance-instruction DVDs, creating and marketing a line of sexy tango clothing, and even got around to importing tango shoes from Argentina. None of them got far off the ground. So she looked at what other product or occupation might be close to her heart, might be “her.”

The next most logical thing was chocolate. A year ago, Morrow, a 35-year-old Hunter Creek resident whose eyes and hair are a matching gold color, began to immerse herself in chocolate ” the real stuff, meaning dark chocolate made of a high percentage of cocoa, something above 50 percent. She traveled to Guatemala in search of top-quality cacao beans, researched manufacturing methods, sampled the best dark chocolate brands in the U.S. She even had a fortuitous meeting of paths, in Guatemala, with John Scharffenberger, a Berkeley, Calif.-based winemaker-turned-chocolate-maker, whose pioneering chocolate company, Scharffen Berger, was acquired in 2005 by candy giant Hershey.

On Valentine’s Day ” she says she picked the day not so much because of the chocolate angle, but because she wanted a date she would remember ” Morrow placed her first Morrow Chocolate of Aspen bars in Aspen Specialty Foods. She has since added retail outlets at Sashae, the Queen B salon, and Parallel 15, the coffee cart inside Explore Booksellers. Morrow Chocolate ” in two varieties: a 65-percent bar made of Guatemalan beans, and a 72-to-75-percent bar from Venezuelan cacao ” have been gobbled up as quickly as Morrow can make them. Morrow, who produces the chocolate locally, is considering whether she should grow slowly and keep the cottage-industry feel to her business, or try to go big, fast.

Morrow took up dance while attending the small St. John’s College in Santa Fe, where she focused on philosophy and mathematics. Confections, however, date back much farther in her genetic and social makeup.

Candy-making runs back at least three generations in the Morrow family. Heather’s great-grandmother, Rose Caswell, married into the Morrow family, which had a sweet shop in Old Orchard, Maine. When her sons were old enough, Caswell took a map of the U.S., chopped it into four chunks, and assigned one region to each child. Two of the boys eventually made their way in the candy business; one of those was Bill Morrow, Heather’s grandfather, a daring and eccentric man who once, on a trip down the Amazon, broke off from his group and spent eight days, solo, on the river in a raft.

Bill also launched Morrow’s Nut House. His first store was in Swarthmore, Pa., but he established a base of operations in the New Jersey Shore town of Cape May, where he opened two stores and a factory. (Another brother, Howard, eventually franchised the Morrow’s Nut House name around the Midwest.) When Bob Morrow, Heather’s father, was 16, the stores and factory were passed down to him; two of his brothers eventually joined him in the business. Bob retired a couple of years ago, but the retail end of Morrow’s Nut House remains in the family, run by Heather’s cousin and uncle.

Heather, whose parents were divorced, grew up in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas and Mexico. But summers were always spent on the Jersey shore, and Morrow lived every child’s Wonka-like fantasy: From the age of 10, she worked in the candy factory; a few years later, she moved into the retail outlets.

All this genetic material and hands-on experience adds up to very little in Morrow’s current occupation. She draws a sharp line between the family’s candy business and her chocolate operation. The main distinction is that Morrow’s Nut House ” like most every American confectioner ” doesn’t actually make chocolate. Candy shops make candy; Heather’s father made some 50 different candies, from pralines to peanut brittle to fudge. Most shops may even make chocolate bars, mixing nuts or mint into milk chocolate. But there are very few businesses actually making chocolate in the U.S., and even fewer making what Morrow thinks of as chocolate ” the dark, not-so-sweet stuff made primarily of cacao beans.

As a young woman, Morrow had been asked to consider taking over the candy business. “I thought about it,” she said. “My cousin was about to buy in. But I thought, no, I don’t want to be under my uncle’s and father’s thumb. I wanted to go to college; I wanted to travel.” First came travel: she spent a year in Taiwan studying Mandarin. She spent a year in New York City, working for the Kinko’s corporation, and some time in the kite industry, working at Walt Disney World and various kite shops. “And finally I remembered, ‘Oh, yeah, college,'” added Morrow, who moved to Aspen after meeting Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s restaurant, on a dance trip in Argentina.

Two years ago, when she was contemplating her next professional move, Morrow considered the candy business again. Her father had retired, and was offering her some equipment from his factory. She was interested ” Aspen’s branch of Enstrom’s, the Colorado-based confectioner famous for its toffee, had just closed ” but eventually declined, seeing a retail shop as taking her away from her son.

Then, a year ago, a friend who admired her cooking talents challenged Morrow to make a chocolate on par with Lindt, the famed Swiss company.

“Which was funny,” said Morrow. “Because I’d never made chocolate. No one in my family made chocolate. We bought chocolate, like almost every other candy-maker. I had never seen chocolate made, except once, when I went to the Scharffen Berger factory in San Francisco.”

She began trying her hand at chocolate, and she did rely on her background. Morrow took a small portion of her father’s spare equipment. (She is in the process of selling off the rest of it.) Most of all, she was buoyed by the family history, rather than any old Morrow recipes or philosophies.

“What fascinated me was bringing some of my family passion to this,” she said. “I’m doing something different than my family. But knowing confectionery, being in the factory, I knew about taste and mixing. Genetically predisposed? I don’t know. But my family history gives me a leg up.”

Not only is Morrow making a different product than her family has made, but there is a different philosophy behind it. Heather sees herself as an artisan. Her chocolate bars are organic, each variety made from single-origin beans. She is working directly with small-scale Guatemalan cacao growers to ensure not only the quality of the chocolate, but the quality of life of her suppliers. Her bars bear a claim of “fair trade.”

In January, Morrow went to Guatemala. “You can’t go online and buy wholesale cacao beans, good ones. They’re tied up with the two biggest chocolate-makers in the world,” said Morrow (who has also found an American retailer who sells her Venezuelan beans). “So I get to do good. Cacao beans, the plants, are great for sustainable agriculture. It’s a green-friendly venture. If the growers aren’t supported, they plant corn, which is much more harmful to the soil. I thought this is something I want to support.” In Guatemala, she chanced to meet John Scharffenberger, who shared advice and contacts.

While her relatives back East work with sugar, Morrow is working with cacao. She describes an intensive process ” roasting, shelling, mixing, crushing ” that is done between her a small handful of assistants. Beans from various locales have differing tastes, so each variety of cacao requires its own recipe. (Morrow plans to add a Mexican bean, and possibly one from the Dominican Republic, to her repertoire in the near future.)

It’s not the family business she has joined. It’s not candy she’s making. (Morrow refers, with a measure of condescension, to “candy chocolate” ” light, milk chocolate made of, at most, 20 percent cacao.) It’s not a mass-production operation. It’s a small craft that regards the environment, refined tastes, and even good health. (The reports that find dark chocolate as beneficial for the cardiovascular system have piled up in recent years.)

“I thought, ‘I want to join this small cottage industry.’ And I want to do it better than anyone,” said Morrow. “It’s this alchemy ” like wine: How do you get wine out of grapes? How do you make chocolate out of cacao beans? It was such a challenge, and I got pulled in.”