Chocolate factory to open

2004 ConVal graduate returns with a vision to share a passion with her hometown

  • Neely Cohen peers into a machine that will grind cacao beans to a smooth cocoa liquid.
  • Neely Cohen of Peterborough is opening a chocolate factory and cafe on Main Street.  She hopes to start showing off her her handmade, organic, and fair-trade chocolate this fall.
  • Neely Cohen of Peterborough is opening a chocolate factory and cafe on Main Street.  She hopes to start showing off her her handmade, organic, and fair-trade chocolate this fall.
  • Neely Cohen, who grew up in Peterborough, won $10,000 on the most recent "Sweet Genius" televised cooking competition.<br/><br/>Courtesy Photo
  • Cohen's prize-winning Egyptian semolina honey featured ground cocoa nibs, crafted to represent stars.<br/><br/>Courtesy photo
  • Neely Cohen of Peterborough is opening a chocolate factory and cafe on Main Street.  She hopes to start showing off her her handmade, organic, and fair-trade chocolate this fall.

After making chocolate by hand in a Peruvian museum dedicated to chocolate and cacao — and even harvesting cacao beans in the Amazon, Peterborough resident Neely Cohen is bringing the historic art of chocolate making to Main Street.

The 28-year-old, 2004 ConVal High School graduate is opening her Vicuna Chocolate Factory and Cafe this fall, named after the national animal of Peru that resembles a llama.

In addition to a cafe and small museum about chocolate, Cohen will make all of her signature chocolate by hand in the back of the former Plaza Heritage Salon. She has installed a viewing window on the factory floor for the public to watch her make chocolate — something that Cohen should be used to by now, as she competed on — and won — the cooking reality show “Sweet Genius” back in 2012.

Cohen acknowledges she didn’t at first consider having her chocolate factory and cafe in Peterborough. But while she was home visiting, she realized Peterborough was the perfect place to set up her shop.

Yes, she remembers thinking, Peterborough is where she’s from, and she wants to have this be a part be a part of her community, and be able to share this with the town.

“Even if you don’t appreciate all of the history and culture and talking about it,” Cohen said. “At least my goal is to share the appreciation of the chocolate, and the flavors that come out of really good chocolate.” She envisions schools having field trips to her factory, and chocolate-tastings for special events and private parties.

Cohen’s 70 percent chocolate will only have two ingredients: organic, fair-trade, heirloom cacao beans and sugar. She will be making all of her chocolate on-site, which she will sell wholesale and also in the cafe. Inside the store, Cohen will also have a cafe where she will be serving five different flavors of her chocolate, in addition to pour-over coffee, cacao husk tea, hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies. In between the cafe and the factory, Cohen has created a museum that celebrates South America’s tie to cacao beans.

“I want to make it a community space,” Cohen said. She wants her customers to enjoy hot drinks, while they learn about the history and culture of cacao. In the exhibition about South America’s link to chocolate, there will be photographs of cacao farmers to tie a face to chocolate, and jars of cacao throughout various stages of producing chocolate.

Laughing, Cohen acknowledged she has always loved chocolate. But, it wasn’t until culinary school that she began delving more into making pastries, which quickly sparked her interest in studying more about chocolate. While Cohen was enrolled as an undergraduate at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., she lived in Manhattan and attended the National Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts.

In New York City, Cohen said constantly working with chocolate made her wonder where the confection comes from, and how it is made.

“I’ve been working with this medium, making things out of chocolate for so long, but never knowing how to make the chocolate.”

She said that was the catalyst that brought her to Peru to make chocolate in a museum. But, Cohen said she ended up learning a lot more about chocolate and chocolate making in South America than she had bargained for. She looks back fondly, particularly trekking into the Amazon Forest, harvesting cacao beans alongside local farmers, and learning about fermenting the cacao fruit.

“That was just an exceptional experience,” she said.

She added she feels very strongly about knowing where your food comes from and how it is made.

Cohen said this is particularly important in the chocolate industry. Most of the chocolate we consume is harvested using slave labor in Africa, she said. When the chocolate is produced in these large-scale productions, the natural flavor of the cacao beans is lost to it being mixed with emulsifiers, and artificial milk and other fillers.

Her recipe enhances the natural flavors of the cacao bean, not only preserving the flavor and profile of the bean but also the passion fruit and bananas that might grow alongside it.

By creating chocolate in small batches, a method started by the ancient Mayan civilization, Cohen said she is making chocolate with a focus on ethics and quality.

This process begins in Bolivia, where Cohen gets her cacao beans from a single grower. She recently received a half-ton of cacao beans from this supplier.

In Bolivia, her suppliers harvest, ferment, and sun dry the beans. When Cohen receives the cacao beans, she first roasts them, cracks them, and then winnows them.

To winnow the cacao beans, Cohen put together a machine that separates the lighter parts of the cacao beans husk from the heavier part that becomes cacao nibs. The young entrepreneur estimates this handmade machine cost $500. Its commercial counterpart might cost about $10,000.

Cohen then grinds the beans for three days, with a machine that rubs granite stones against one another, finely crushing the cocoa. Through this laborious grinding, Cohen is able to naturally have the chocolate become a smooth grain.

From there, Cohen tempers the chocolate into bars she will wrap with her signature label. Cohen tempers the chocolate in a cabinet that warm and cools the chocolate to achieve the sugar crystallization, and mold and shine she wants.

Cohen said not many chocolate manufacturers are producing the dessert on a small scale like she is. Although she said she is able to focus on the ethics and quality of chocolate production, right now it’s a one-woman show. Cohen initially plans to make chocolate bars throughout the week, and open her cafe to the public on the weekends. It’s been like this since February, she said, first renovating the space for her factory, and now manufacturing chocolate. She also launched a Kickstarter social-media fundraiser on Thursday. Cohen’s goal is to raise $15,000 to help her hire a larger staff, and develop wholesale accounts and marketing for her chocolate bars.

Another one of Cohen’s goals is to eventually source her cacao beans from the farm she toiled on in Peru. She would be connecting Peterborough to the Peruvian farmers who helped foster her love affair with chocolate.

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