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Part-Time Vermonter Finds Healing in Cacao

  • Diana Duhaime lays her chocolates out for a tasting at Long River Gallery for First Friday in White River Junction, Vt., on July 6, 2018. Her company, Dancing Crane Chocolates, uses ingredients from her main home in Costa Rica. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Samples of Dancing Crane Chocolates made by Diana Duhaime, of Bradford, Vt., and cocoa beans are displayed for a tasting at Long River Gallery for First Friday in White River Junction, Vt., on July 6, 2018. Diana Duhaime uses ingredients from her main home in Costa Rica. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Eric Hobbie, center, of New York City, reacts to tasting one of Diana Duhaime's Dancing Crane Chocolates at Long River Gallery in White River Junction, Vt., on July 6, 2018. Hobbie was with his father Phil Hobbie, of Hartland, Vt., and Phil Hobbie's friend Vicki Smith, of Lyme, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2018

As anyone with a sweet tooth knows, intuitively and from experience, a piece of chocolate can heal a lot of woes: heartbreak, low blood sugar, boredom, a bad day.

But when a medicine woman (of Micmac descent) advised Diana Duhaime to move to Costa Rica from Maine five years ago, making chocolate wasn’t quite what the longtime massage therapist had in mind.

“My family thought I was nuts. Everybody thought I was nuts,” said Duhaime, who held a tasting for her chocolate company, Dancing Crane Chocolates, at Long River Gallery and Gifts at the most recent First Friday in White River Junction. She was suffering from late-stage Lyme disease at the time she moved to Costa Rica, “and I was a train wreck. I was basically non-functioning … I had no reflexes left, I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t write my name, I had very little brain activity. It was a very dark time of my life.”

She’s living in Bradford, Vt. for the summer, where she has a studio, and working at Pressing Matters, her massage therapy practice in Norwich. But she spends most of her time now in Costa Rica, where she lives 2,500 feet up, on a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and spends her days admiring the toucans in her trees from her meditation bench, training for open-ocean swim marathons and whipping up concoctions that bring her joy: tinctures and other plant-based medicines, her special Thai-style peanut sauce and scratch-made artisanal chocolate. Costa Rica is the perfect place for this latter endeavor, she said, because so many of the key ingredients grow in what’s essentially her own backyard.

“The chocolate was born of a healing process. I just needed to do something healing at that time,” she said, and the thought occurred to her to try her hand at chocolate-making.

“The very first time, I hit it spot-on. … Now what’s happened is, the more time I spend with the chocolate the more intimate I become with it,” she said. “It’s feeling connected to my self and my DNA and the earth and the ocean and all of that.”

Available at retailers including Dan and Whit’s in Norwich, the Vermont Institute for Natural Science in Quechee, Lyme Country Store and now Long River Gallery and Gifts, Duhaime’s chocolates take advantage of Costa Rica’s natural biodiversity: Nuts and homemade nut butters, espresso, chilis, chipotle, ginger, vanilla and coconut are all recurring flavors in her hand-poured products. She gets her cocoa from the from heirloom cacao plants that grow in her garden, and instead of sweetening her chocolate with sugar, she uses cinnamon — which also grows near her home — and figs that she buys from a vendor she knows.

“I’m inspired by the beautiful flavors of things I can put my hands on in Costa Rica,” she said. “It’s very simple living down there, extremely simple living. There’s quite an abundance of beautiful fruits and cashews and nuts and almonds I can get my hands on fairly easily.”

Far more difficult and time-consuming is the process by which Duhaime transforms cacao beans into a finished piece of chocolate.

“It’s an incredible, long, ridiculous process. Just a very ridiculously lengthy, ridiculous amount of work,” she said. “But it brings a lot of joy to people. I love watching the look on their face when they take a bite.”

After harvesting the cacao pods, she removes the beans and ferments them for days, then roasts them, then has hired helpers painstakingly hand-peel the beans’ skins off, leaving only the edible nib. She then re-roasts the nibs, and grinds them up in a concher — a machine similar to a rotating pestle and mortar — over a period of 36 to 40 hours into a paste of pure cocoa mass, which separates into cocoa butter and powdered cocoa solids.

Before she got her concher, she used to use a “teeny-tiny little food processor” to grind her beans. “My cat would go” — here Duhaime covered her ears and scrunched up her face in a look of mock pain — ‘I don’t like it, Mommy!’ ”

But to devoted fans of Dancing Crane Chocolates — so named because Duhaime intends each piece to create a “dance on your palate,” and because cranes and herons are a “big spirit guide” for her — the final product is worth the work she puts into it. The stripped-down ingredients and labor-intensive process yield a flavor that’s like the richer, worldlier cousin of the kind found inside a Nestle wrapper, somehow both more intense and more subtle than big-name commercial chocolates. Duhaime’s have a sweetness that’s distinctly earthy, not cloying, and each bite ushers in such a complex and distinct parade of flavors that the only way to eat a piece is slowly.

There’s the You Name It, made with burnt orange, ginger, cranberry, toasted almonds and toasted coconut. There’s the Slow and Steady Pleasure, molded in the shape of a turtle and containing overtures of homemade chipotle and cashew sauce, and the crunch of whole toasted cashews. The To the Waterfalls have ginger and caramel, the Chillins have chili, cinnamon, toasted almond, toasted coconut, coconut milk and vanilla; the stick-shaped Cinnfulls are hotly flavored with cinnamon oil, as this reporter found out the hard way upon chomping down on half the stick in a single bite. The Sunny Daze, which Duhaime said might be her favorite, has homemade sunflower butter and Costa Rican espresso.

In addition to using figs to sweeten her chocolate, she sells them straight-up, dried and then coated in toasted almond, coconut and chili salt, coated in cacao and cinnamon, marinated in red wine and mandarin juice and marinated in olive oil.

“They’re so sexy, aren’t they?” she said, cradling each dark, succulent fruit in her hand before carefully setting it down on a white tasting platter. “So delicious. You don’t even know.”

She picked up a block of cocoa butter, closing her eyes as she breathed in its warm aroma. “You can eat this, too,” she said. And as a sunscreen, “it’s better than any (SPF) 50 block.”

Rachel Obbard, who owns Long River, stumbled upon Dancing Crane Chocolates on Facebook, and reached out by email to learn more about who might be behind it. When she heard back from Duhaime, Obbard was instantly taken with her free-spirited personality, eclectic skillset and quirky sense of humor.

“She uses smileys and signs off with hearts in her emails. I just love it,” Obbard said at First Friday, while Duhaime told curious tasters about a misadventure she’d had at the Costa Rican airport, while moving items from one overweight piece of luggage to a lighter one and noticing the airport employee’s reaction when she saw a suitcase filled with bags of brown powder. (It was OK — it turned out the employee was a chocolate-lover.)

“The more we talked, the more I realized how interesting she is. She has so many facets to her life,” Obbard said. “This is just one of them.”

First Friday-goer Vicki Smith, of Lyme, had the same first impression. She’d stopped by the sampling table because she was enticed by the display of figs, and ended up chatting with Duhaime for more than 20 minutes.

“I think she’s my kind of woman,” Smith said on her way out the door. “She’d be a good travel companion. Just someone to chat with about life.”

As for the products themselves, Smith held up the multiple bags of goodies she’d come away with. “This is my contribution to the local economy,” she joked.

“Now I’m going to go get drunk off chocolate.”

To learn more about Dancing Crane Chocolates or contact Diana Duhaime, find its page on Facebook.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.