AM Chocolate Gems. Photos by Matt Rose

As a pregnant woman’s due date approaches, she commonly begins a practice called “nesting,” also known as frantically checking things off an infinite to-do list to prepare her busy life for the landing of a fully dependent human. When Asheville Chocolate owner Melissa Quinn was one week out from the arrival of her first child earlier this month, the top item on her to-do list was to make 3,000 chocolate truffles.

“I didn’t want to make a whole bunch of truffles too far out from Valentine’s Day,” she explains. “But then it was the end of January, and my due date was Feb. 7, so I had to get on it. I can do about 1,000 a day.”

Quinn would have laughed out loud had anyone told her eight years ago she could make one truffle, much less 1,000. She and her husband, Zach, moved to Asheville in 2013 after spending their “honeymoon year” living in their truck and traveling. One of their longer stays was in Costa Rica on a cacao farm. “The owner did lots of different farming, but I was most interested in cacao,” she says. “We were there long enough to see a lot of the process from picking the pods on, and it was great, but we had no intention or foresight that chocolate would ever become a career.”

Instead, when they moved to Asheville, Melissa began teaching biology at Community High School in Swannanoa. They found out that their neighbors, Sue and Andrew Chisolm, owned the Chocolate Gems shop in downtown Asheville. When the Chisolms mentioned that after a 12-year run they were ready to retire, sell the store, and buy a houseboat, the Quinns were intrigued.

The young couple decided they would take over the shop as long as the Chisolms would stick around long enough to teach them everything they knew about making chocolate treats. That process began with the most basic of lessons. “I memorably mispronounced ganache one of my first days in the store,” Melissa says. “My Midwestern came out, and I called it gah-nache [like mus-tache], and Sue looked at me and said gah-nosh [like posh]. I didn’t make that mistake again.”

She also didn’t know that chocolate had to be tempered (a heating and cooling process for stabilization) as well as countless other details about making the truffles the shop specializes in. Over about six months, the Quinns learned the processes and all the existing recipes. (Now, the couple is so confident in their knowledge they offer chocolate-making classes at the store twice a week.)

By mid-2017, they were ready to sail on their own, and not long after, they renamed the business Asheville Chocolate. Melissa has tweaked some of the existing truffle recipes and added new ones, but she did not change the very popular salted caramel, although she does need an assist from her husband to make it.

“Working with sugar can be tricky and chocolate is finicky, but we get along,” she says. “Caramel and I are not friends. I try and sometimes get lulled into a false sense of security and think we’re good, but we’re not.  Zach handles the caramel, and he’s great at it.”

Truffles are made with three main types of chocolate — dark, milk, and white; the dark comes in varying percentages of cocoa, and Asheville Chocolate works with two types of white chocolate depending on the viscosity required for the recipe.

All of the truffles are hand-made in a six-step process, and though two of her staff do a fair bit of production, Melissa typically does the last step — enrobing — herself. “Enrobing is covering the ganache with a thin layer of chocolate, which prevents the ganache from drying out,” she explains. “Depending on the truffle, some are set on a flat fork and individually dipped in a bowl that circulates a few pounds of tempered chocolate. Most of the dark chocolate goes through an enrobing machine, which makes a waterfall of tempered chocolate, and that process is a little faster.”

Several of the truffles are topped with a design, accomplished by placing a transfer sheet on top of the enrobed truffle, then adding a very thin layer of cocoa butter, which melts through the stencil onto the truffle, leaving a delicate design when the sheet is peeled away.

Online, truffles are sold and shipped by the box in milk and dark chocolate flavor collections and an assortment called Staff Favorites. At Asheville Chocolate’s small shop downtown, people can buy one truffle (who would do such a thing?) or create a gift box of their choosing. Melissa says their busiest season is Christmas, not Valentine’s Day as some might guess.

House-made, fresh-scooped gelato is another siren call to the storefront itself, with at least a dozen flavors available in the case. “Chocolate is the most popular, and it’s hard to keep up with the demand on Saturdays in July,” Melissa says. “It’s embarrassing when a chocolate shop runs out of chocolate gelato.”

But there are plenty of chocolate treats to go around, including turtles, chocolate bark, hot chocolate, chocolate-covered pretzels, and dipped Oreos.

But really, is there ever too much chocolate in the world? Melissa Quinn thinks not. “I have had a lifelong love of chocolate to the extent that when it comes to Christmas and birthdays, people know to give me chocolate or books,” she says with a laugh. “One of the only drawbacks in owning a chocolate shop is no one gets me chocolate anymore. But I get a lot of books, and I guess I have enough chocolate.”

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Written by Kay West