Chocolate. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. So says Bethesda chocolatier Rachelle Dalva Ferneau.
Between carpooling trips, the Potomac mom of four spends her days with hands coated in chocolate, dipping, shaping, decorating and packaging artisan chocolates for Dear Coco, the small but growing chocolate company she founded in 2012.
Today, Dear Coco packages and ships its scrumptious handcrafted creations, which are pareve, gluten-free, vegan (including no honey), fair-trade and handmade, as well as Star-K certified kosher, throughout North America. Using premium Belgian dark chocolate as a base, Ferneau infuses her rich candies with flavors from around the world – incorporating exotic salts, high-grade, fair-trade coffees and teas, roasted nuts and seeds, and exotic spices like sweet curry from Madras, balsamic infusions, florals and other all-natural combinations to intrigue the taste buds.
Locally, Dear Coco chocolates can be found at the Candy Man in Kemp Mill, Balducci’s, Souper Girl’s Takoma D.C. and Georgetown outlets, Dupont Circle’s Glen’s Garden Market, The Bottle Shop in Potomac, Ma Petite Shoe in Baltimore, Coffee Coffee in Bel Air, and The Sugar Cube in Alexandria.
“The flavors really span the globe,” Ferneau said. “They range from Belgian chocolate to Tahiti lime. There’s peppermint to bananas Foster, coconut, salted caramel, espresso, chai …. There’s a little bit of everything.” The diversity of flavors have been inspired by Ferneau’s own travels, primarily before her children were born. The one-time pastry chef began baking and exploring the expanding universe of eclectic and exotic flavor profiles as a way to replicate the great meals she had as a young adult on her excursions — but she restricted herself to following the strictures of kashrut, meaning some ingredients were off limits, especially dairy desserts and candies following a meat meal.
“I come from a food family,” she said, “but not so much a cook-at-home family.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Ferneau attended an Orthodox Jewish day school, although as a teen and throughout college, she became non-observant. The founder of Eden Cake, a kosher bakery that sold cakes and pastries to high-end kosher restaurants and caterers for five years until closing in 2012, she baked her first cake in elementary school.
“I had a friend in the sixth grade who made a cake that I loved. I still make that cake today: a cinnamon coffee cake,” she said. “It’s a great cake, easy to make, good and long lasting. From that my interest [in baking] blossomed.”
As a young married couple, Ferneau and her husband returned to a more Jewishly observant lifestyle, which jumpstarted her cooking skills out of necessity: “I really learned to cook when I got married and started making Shabbat on a weekly basis, since we needed to put meals on the table and we were entertaining.” She began exploring in the kitchen, and The New Basics Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso became her kitchen bible as she experimented with making delicious, modern meals from high-quality fresh ingredients that were fully kosher. The problem became desserts, which most frequently contain butter and cream for a richly textured mouth feel and full-bodied flavor.
Meat meals required pareve desserts and Ferneau began baking in earnest, discovering on her own techniques and ways to substitute for dairy products but still create rich and luscious desserts. Self-taught, she never attended a culinary school or even took a baking class before opening her
pastry and cake business.
“Culinary school is a short cut to these skills,” she said. “It’s taken me a long time to hone these skills, but with time, desire and a creative spirit, you can accomplish
a great deal.”
She also realized that pastry training would not have been helpful because, she said, she would not have learned the skills necessary to produce a great dairy-free or pareve product.
Though interest in her baking and cakes was growing, Ferneau decided to shift completely to making chocolates in 2012, because shipping cakes, especially her popular layer cakes, was expensive and risky, making it hard for her business to reach other markets.
“Chocolate,” Ferneau said, “I think, is equally appealing in terms of its broad appeal and also it’s easier to ship. Plus, chocolate, of course, is the best ingredient, ever.”
She continued, “Chocolate is just so versatile. It blends with so many great flavors. In developing this business, I wanted to draw on my travel and food experiences from before I was married.” While the price point, about $7.50 to $8.50 for a 3.5 ounce bar of chocolate seems high — at least high when compared to a drugstore candy bar — Ferneau notes the artisan hand-made quality, as well as the purity of the ingredients and the eco-friendly nature of the packaging, which is all fully recyclable and made from recycled materials.
Depending on the time of year, she and one-to-four part-time assistants work in a rented kitchen in Potomac, under the kosher supervision of Star K, developing, making, garnishing and packaging exotic blends of chocolate truffles, chocolate tiles and candy bars. Ferneau creates collections, like a fashion designer, with international themes. Her most recent is called Salts of the Earth and features the sweet and salty combination in vogue these days with chocolates garnished with pink Himalayan salt, red Hawaiian salt, and Pacific northwest black, smoked sea salt, to name a few.
Right now they’re busy with the Purim rush.
Dear Coco’s 2015 Purim collection is intended to elevate the flavors of hamantashen with her high-grade Belgian chocolates, featuring apricot, raspberry and poppy and rum seed fillings. Rosh Hashanah is traditionally the chocolatier’s busiest time of year, but Purim and Chanukah come in a close second.
“Every year,” Ferneau said, “we introduce new products that are appealing to whatever segment of the community we are marketing to” – thus, this year’s Purim box of a dozen truffles.
Spring is also very busy, not because of Passover, when Dear Coco closes for a week, but for Easter.
Ferneau, however, has trouble finding substitute ingredients that are pareve, gluten-free and kosher for Passover, while maintaining her chocolates’ high quality. That’s why she closes.
One of Ferneau’s recent achievements is recognition for her Sidama chocolate toffee bar, which features her traditional dark Belgian chocolate, fair-trade, organic Ethiopian coffee beans and sea salt. It was a gold winner in last year’s International Chocolate Salon competition in San Francisco, where Ferneau’s wares were up against the best chocolate bars from around the world – non-kosher, non-pareve, non-gluten free, non-vegan. For a small, relatively new independent business, this was a real coup. Ferneau is also proud that she can maintain her commitment to fair-trade, eco-friendly standards and give back to the community, both locally and internationally with her company’s regular contributions to The Hunger Project. As for a chocolate a day? Ferneau is a big believer.
“Oh gosh. Yes! It’s good for you. More and more studies point to the health benefits of chocolates. An ounce of dark chocolate a day is all that’s recommended,” she said. Absolutely, even if it’s just a little bit.”
For information, visit dearcoco.com.