Sunday, February 25 , 2018, 6:07 am | Fair 39º



Candy Is Dandy at Chocolate Maya, But the Story Behind It Is a Sweet One

Chocolatier Maya Schoop-Rutten delights in tracing the origins of her products — right back to the beans

As a child growing up in Switzerland, it never occurred to Maya Schoop-Rutten where the chocolate she ate came from. Now, she has traveled the world and opened Chocolate Maya, 15 W. Gutierrez St., to find out just that.

“A lot of people have never had good chocolate and to see their reaction when they get converted makes it worth it,” Schoop-Rutten said. “I want people to get an experience of what high-quality fresh chocolate is when it’s made from the best ingredients.”

In Geneva, chocolate stores are as frequent as butcher shops; they pop up every couple blocks, Schoop-Rutten said. Her family had an ornate green armoire decorated with hand-painted flowers that housed the sweet treat.

“After dinner we would open the doors and choose some chocolate,” she recalled.

Now the armoire sits in Schoop-Rutten’s living room. She; her son, Helek; and daughter Ila have a firsthand story of where the well-traveled chocolate originated.

“I traveled to understand chocolate, to know what I was doing here so when you taste beans (at the plantations) before and after the roast, you know what to look for,” Schoop-Rutten explained.

After traveling the world as a chef on a yacht for 10 years — similar to her niece, Jill Barton, who recently opened Le Crepe Shoppe next door — Schoop-Rutten opened the Comeback Café. For its 12 years in business, the restaurant thrived serving breakfast and lunch to locals. But, during her yearly travels, she would bring back chocolate that was unique to Europe.

“Each time I would go to Europe with my kids, we would came back with tons of chocolate because it wasn’t available here,” Schoop-Rutten said. “And I said to myself, ‘Why not open a chocolate shop.’ So I did.”

She traveled to Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Venezuela, just to name a few. She and her family met the farmers who grow the beans and saw the pods fermenting in the sun.

Their first visit was to Chuao, Venezuela, where the scent of the fermenting chocolate made Schoop-Rutten feel like she had stepped into heaven.

“Farmers gave me and Jill freshly dried cocoa beans and we got an incredible energy surge,” she said. “Next thing you know we hiked several miles.”

Large chocolate companies buy from multiple sources, blending beans and flavor to save money. Much of the chocolate on store shelves has cocoa butter extracted and replaced with cheaper oils. Schoop-Rutten’s chocolate lists the ingredients the wrapper: cocoa butter and sugar with no added fats or oils. She recommended trying bars from different regions or plantations to compare flavors.

Stepping into the shop gives the customer a taste of chocolate’s history.

Colorful Guatemalan scarves, antique chocolate pots and Mayan masks and paintings adorn the walls to provide a sense of warmth and culture. It was the Mayans who first opened the pods and would take the bean, crush it and mix it with water and spices to create a “drink of the gods,” Schoop-Rutten explained.

“People tell me they are transported somewhere else when they come in, and I like that,” she said.

The front counter is filled with truffles from Belgium, France and Switzerland, and the goods sit next to her own creations. Schoop-Rutten designs each truffle, which is crafted by an expert candy maker using high-quality chocolate mixed with other fresh ingredients such as mint leaves. “The Mint” infuses fresh mint and lemon from her garden with dark chocolate ganache.

“I don’t think I’ve ever loved working so much,” Schoop-Rutten said. “This is perfect for me because it’s creative and I’m detail-oriented, so it’s good for me.”

It’s not only Schoop-Rutten’s mission to educate customers about the process of making chocolate and where it comes from, but to offer free-trade chocolate to support cocoa farmers.

In the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, some plantations still practice child labor and slavery, according to the Labor Department’s “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.”

“Slavery is still prevalent,” she said.

The business opened not long before the U.S. recession struck. But even through the dire economic times, business has increased each of the past four years, despite what she described as landlords’ initial unwillingness to support her venture.

“I remember before I opened doing research on chocolate sales during war and recession and people still go to movies and eat sweets,” Schoop-Rutten said. “So this is maybe something people can’t live without.”

Schoop-Rutten said she never loved working so much because when it comes down to it, chocolate makes people happy.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen, but right now I’m totally engrossed and I love it,” she said.

If not for her aunt, Barton said she wouldn’t be operating her own small business today.

“She’s an inspiration,” Barton said. “I don’t think I would’ve been here if it wasn’t for her support.”

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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