Friends debate the best chocolate selection at Phil'
Friends debate the best chocolate selection at Phil's on Front
By MIKE NORTON It's time to talk about Chocolate... Spring in the dunelands of northwestern Michigan is a beautiful time of blossoming orchards, flower-carpeted forests and warm sunny afternoons.  But let's be honest; it doesn't usually arrive until May. April, the month most people associate with spring, is a more transitional time in this part of the world - known to local residents as "mud season." But in Traverse City, we make the most of that sobriquet by celebrating a more elevated kind of mud: chocolate. The 2011 Traverse City Chocolate Festival will be held April 10 at Traverse City's historic City Opera House. Participants can sample offerings from the region's chocolatiers and chefs, choose wine pairings, and fill their Easter baskets by doing some chocolate-themed shopping. "It's a celebration of all things chocolate," says Indianapolis native Barbara Disborough, author of "The Guide to Chocolate in the Grand Traverse Region," who is organizing the festival. The first-ever Traverse City Chocolate festival was held in 2009, when the region's chocolatiers first began to think of themselves as a separate industry. Already known for its award-winning cuisine, fabled wines and breathtaking scenery, Traverse City has become an unlikely contender in the world of haute chocolate. The area boasts a half-dozen fulltime chocolatiers and a host of other bakers, candymakers, fudge shops, specialty stores and even breweries that create and sell chocolates and chocolate-flavored products. "It's kind of bizarre that all this is happening here in little old Traverse City," conceded restaurateur Phil Murray, whose Traverse City bistro, Phil's on Front, features a "chocolate lounge" where handcrafted chocolates are paired with wines and spirits, including several variations on the ever-popular chocolate martini. "But, after all, why not?" Murray should know. He made his reputation in the 1970s and 1980s with legendary chocolate desserts at his former shoreside restaurant, Windows. But why should such a remote area establish such a strong chocolate connection? No one seems to know for sure. Tourism is one possibility, but another is the fact that Traverse City is at the center of a fruit-growing region known as the "Cherry Capital of the World" - and cherries have a long-standing affinity for chocolate. So do many wines, and the area's burgeoning wine industry has been quick to explore the ways in which chocolate and wine complement each other. At the Brys Estate Winery, for instance, new tastings of the vineyard's signature pinot noir are usually accompanied by small squares of dark chocolate truffle - and some local chocolatiers return the favor by creating chocolates flavored with the wines themselves. On the west end of Front Street, Susan Boyer's shop, Chocolate Exotica, has been luring chocolate lovers in off the street since 2007 in spite of its almost invisible location - thanks to a wide selection of handmade truffles, barks, dipped fruits and delights like Louis XVI cakes (almond and chocolate cakes soaked with Grand Marnier, and layered with chocolate mousse and truffle filling.) Some of Traverse City's most sought-after chocolates can't be bought off the shelf; they're the product of small boutique chocolateries. Charles Layton Chocolates, for instance, is a company created by two women, Hilda Charles and Sheryl Layton, in the kitchen of their church - and although they made their reputation on intensely-flavored cherry truffles, they also specialize in wine and beer-infused chocolates. Likewise, Jim Muratzki and Barbara Overdier's all-organic Forest Confections chocolates are noted for such unique flavor combinations as ginger juice, hazelnut milk and chocolate. They join such well-established chocolatiers as the Chocolate Den -- whose owners pride themselves on the fact that their truffles have only a three-week shelf life (because they refuse to add preservatives or use pre-mixed ingredients) as much as on the chewiness of their homemade chocolate-covered caramels - and Kilwin's of Traverse City, one of the oldest stores in an immensely popular chain started in nearby Petoskey in 1947 that now has 50 outlets scattered from Ft. Collins to Ft. Myers. That doesn't count the coffee shops and bakeries that cluster around Traverse City's tidy, tree-lined downtown - each of which seems to have its own recipe for hot cocoa, chocolate mousse, or Black Forest Torte. Nor does it take into consideration the convoluted question of fudge, a confection scorned by some chocolate purists but deeply intertwined with Traverse City's identity as a tourist destination. (In fact, locals habitually refer to the region's summer visitors as "fudgies" because of their insatiable appetite for it.) That's been going ever since 1887, when an enterprising boat builder and sailmaker named Henry Murdick sold his first batch of chocolate fudge to a batch of visitors on nearby Mackinac Island. Murdick eventually founded a complex dynasty of fudge-makers and confectioners. (One branch migrated to Martha's Vineyard -- another island destination similar to Mackinac.) Traverse City is home to Doug Murdick, whose two stores make 16 varieties of fudge; his son Dale has a shop in nearby Suttons Bay. But the region didn't begin to carve out a national reputation among high-end chocolate fanciers until 2004, when former social worker Mimi Wheeler began creating intensely-flavored artisan chocolates that blended powerful Ecuadorian cocoa with local herbs, flowers, fruits, nuts and honey. Her tiny candy factory, Grocer's Daughter Chocolate - located in the tiny coastal village of Empire -- offers such delicacies as lavender and rosemary truffles, and even a Mayan truffle flavored with a subtle but unmistakably warm dose of chili. Want more information on the Traverse City Chocolate Festival? Then go to their web site at