From traditional chocolate Santas to edible chocolate sculptures and “single cow origin” confections made with milk from the chocolatier’s very own cows, Connecticut offers chocolate fans — and chocoholics — a deep, dark, rich variety of options along its silky and seductive Chocolate Trail.

Thompson Chocolate

80 South Vine St., Meriden

203-235-2541, thompsonchocolate.com

Head to Meriden to find the state’s oldest chocolate maker, Thompson Chocolate, established in 1879. East Haven native and company founder William H. Thompson was an eager young man of 17 back in 1871 when he traveled to Philadelphia to learn chocolate making under Stephen F. Whitman (he of the familiar yellow-boxed, faux-needlepointed Whitman’s Sampler). Among Thompson’s fellow apprentices was another young, sweet-toothed go-getter, Milton Hershey.

Thompson Santa

Thompson Chocolate, Meriden

Returning to Connecticut eight years later, Thompson opened his own confectionary shop at 75 W. Main St. in Meriden, where he advertised a selection of “Cream Walnuts, Bon-Bons, Caramels [and] Chocolates” together with door-to-door ice cream delivery by one-horse wagon. Business was so good that in 1919 Thompson opened a chocolate factory down the street, eventually closing down the retail shop in favor of mass-producing molded chocolate confections.

He was also one of the nation’s first chocolate makers to use milk chocolate in his candies, as opposed to the darker, semi-sweet variety only. If you’ve ever chomped on the end of a quality chocolate cigar, hungrily decapitated a chocolate Santa or blissfully walked down the street with a sackful of gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins jangling in your pocket, chances are they were produced at Thompson Chocolate.

“We make seasonal, novelty chocolates for some of America’s best-known chocolate companies,” says Thompson CEO Gene Dunkin, whose agreements with those companies prohibited him from naming names. He was, however, able to identify local, high-end outlets across the state where Thompson chocolates are available, such as Fresh Market, Balducci’s and Whole Foods. Though not Connecticut’s biggest chocolate maker (that honor goes to Munson’s, see sidebar), Thompson pumps out a respectable 2.5 million pounds of chocolate products annually.

Aside from their upscale venues, a key way to distinguish Thompson-brand novelty chocolates from your average hollow Easter bunny is simple.

“At Thompson, it’s always been about better quality, all natural, and even organic, which is not typical of the novelty chocolate business,” says Dunkin. So there is a good reason that those other molded chocolate products often taste waxy, bland or about as chocolatey as a doorknob: ingredients.

“Other companies use what is called ‘compound chocolate,’ which is chocolate that uses some substitute ingredients like vanillin for vanilla or corn syrup instead of cocoa butter,” says Dunkin. “It’s more cost effective, but it doesn’t conform to the standard of true, all-natural chocolate, which is what Thompson produces. We’ve never used compound chocolate.”

You can judge that quality for yourself at the source at the Thompson Factory Store. There you’ll find discounted prices on whatever seasonal novelty chocolate items are available: Santas at Christmas, turkeys at Thanksgiving (hand wrapped in imported, colorful European foils), as well as some items you can only buy at the factory, such as a hearty slab of handmade, break-apart chocolate “bark” that has attracted chocolate lovers from all over the country, says Dunkin. Factory store holiday hours during Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The store offers additional hours on the two weekends prior to Christmas. Call ahead before visiting for details.

Divine Treasures

Parkade Plaza, 404 Middle Tpke. W., Manchester

860-643-2552, dtchocolates.com

Sharing a similar dedication to quality, though on a much smaller production scale, is the boutiquey Divine Treasures in Manchester. But don’t let size fool you. This three-woman operation — owner Diane Wagemann and her two assistants, Roberta Fantasia and Nancy Haddock — produce vegan, gluten-free and processed sugar-free chocolates that attract walk-in customers from Boston to New York and have devoted mail-order clientele and fans as far away as California, including actress and healthy-lifestyle activist Alicia Silverstone.

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Divine Treasures, Manchester

While Wagemann has enjoyed the notoriety, she has stuck pretty close to her French-Canadian roots and the lessons learned as a girl in the Quebec kitchen of her grandmother — her memere — who first taught her how to make chocolates.

“Every Sunday, in the wintertime, I would go to her house and we would make all kinds of chocolates that she would then give to the church so they could sell them and pay for their heat,” recalls Wagemann.

She says she also spent time in Europe, “eating my way through Belgium and Switzerland,” where they know a thing or two about chocolate.

The decision to go vegan was a personal one for Wagemann, for health reasons. The gluten-free element of her recipes comes from using essential flavoring oils, as opposed to processed ones such as vanilla, which can contain gluten. The small kitchen of her Manchester shop is dairy-free; she uses homemade almond and cashew milk instead of cow’s milk in her chocolate, and cashew butter for her caramels. Another ingredient you won’t find there is white sugar. Instead, she uses turbinado (coarse sugar from the initial pressings of sugar cane), maple syrup and brown rice syrup to sweeten her candies, as well as the finest imported chocolate she can source.

“I am very particular,” she says. “Venezuela, Madagascar and Ecuador are producing pretty good chocolate, but right now the beans in Peru are yielding the best quality. Chocolate beans are like fine wine: the grapes matter. The beans from Peru are the fruitiest, and you can almost taste a cherry undertone.”

With her grandmother’s basic recipes as a launching point, Wagemann has put her refined chocolate palate to good use. Her 10 Million Smooches, for instance — a chocolate-coated concoction of crunchy rice flakes, peanut butter and blond caramel — is an affectionate nod to one of her grandmother’s specialties. A former Irish employee collaborated on the Celtic Coffee, a thick, foundational slab of Irish brandy ganache, laced with caramelized hazelnuts, a French delicacy.

Another signature Divine Treasures creation is the Turona, Wagemann’s spin on a 16th-century Spanish treat which aristocratic hostesses offered to guests: a base of coconut and almond flour lathered with creamy truffle filling and capped with hard chocolate. And speaking of truffles, don’t miss Buddha’s Blessing, Prince of India or Egyptian Pyramid, a trio of chocolate truffles molded into the shapes of a rotund Buddha, a turbaned prince and a Giza pyramid, all nuanced with flavors and spices (mango, coconut, cardamom, garam masala) of the Near and Far East.

Tschudin Chocolates and Confections

100 Riverview Center (corner of Main and Court streets), Middletown

860-759-2222, tschocolates.com

Crawling even further out on a chocolatey limb (truly, in some cases) is Middletown’s eccentric chocolatier, Roberto Tschudin Lucheme of Tschudin Chocolates and Confections.

If life indeed is like a box of chocolates, Tschudin Lucheme’s face ought to be on the cover. A Puerto Rican of Swiss ancestry, he has been a circus tightrope walker, a practicing attorney, peddled cubic zirconia watches, worked as a broadcast journalist in Hartford (at WFSB Channel 3) and a firefighter in Glastonbury, where he began dabbling in the restaurant business as an unpaid (and untrained) pastry chef. A chance recruiting offer from the CIA (not that one, though it wouldn’t surprise us; the Culinary Institute of America, in New York) in 2009 offered him the opportunity, at age 57, to hone his skills as a budding chocolatier. When a chocolate shop on Main Street in Middletown came up for sale later that year, he ignored his better instincts and dove head first, as it were, into a swirling vat of chocolate and hasn’t looked back.

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Tschudin Chocolates and Confections, Middletown

Like Wagemann, Tschudin Lucheme insists on all-natural ingredients, and carefully sources his chocolate.

“We pride ourselves on trying to use the top 2 percent of the world’s chocolate supply, with chocolate that comes from family farms in Central America, the Caribbean and South America,” he says.

He is more broad-minded when it comes to blending that chocolate with flavors that reflect his own eclectic tastes, and adventures, such as his travels throughout North Africa. Thus, his lion-shaped “Night in Tunisia” is infused with classic berbere spices: red chili, fenugreek (a Middle Eastern/Indian spice with bitter overtones of burnt sugar), coriander and ajwain, a member of the caraway family.

“I wanted something that would hit every single sensor on your tongue. Just when you think you know what it tastes like, it changes on you. Then it changes again, and again. It’s like a pinball for your taste buds,” he says, with a mad-chemist grin.

His heart-shaped, white chocolate-encased “Heartfelt Hope” is a more happy-go-lucky, playful blend of tropical island ingredients: fresh banana, lemon juice and rich, dark rum.

Giving the envelope a surprisingly delicious shove, he created the “First and Last,” a layered confection of white chocolate infused with balsamic vinegar and lemon thyme atop a gelée of sun-dried tomatoes.

“Why not? A tomato is actually a fruit,” he pointed out.

But Tschudin Lucheme’s creative spirit refuses to be confined to the conventional chocolate shop display case. Though he admittedly “flunked finger-painting in kindergarten,” this hasn’t stopped him from molding and shaping chocolate into unlikely, artistic and edible creations: bamboo poles, luggage tags, 9/11 memorials, mini-submarines and women’s pumps, replete with deliciously spikey six-inch heels.

“I think the most ambitious chocolate sculpture I did was for an event for the March of Dimes. It was a full-sized, rocking baby cradle that was made out of chocolate bark, so it looked like mahogany. I even made a marshmallow mattress for it. It was so convincing, people came up and rocked it like a real cradle, not realizing it was chocolate,” he says.

Thorncrest Farm Milk House Chocolates

280 Town Hill Road, Goshen

860-309-2545, milkhousechocolates.net

Far more down to earth, literally, is Thorncrest Farm and Milk House Chocolates in Goshen. Farmers Clint and Kimberly Thorn, together with their sons, Garret and Lyndon, raise and lovingly care for specially selected breeds of milk cows (Holsteins and Jerseys) which daily provide rich, sweet milk that Kimberly uses to make the freshest milk chocolates imaginable.

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Thorncrest Farm Milk House Chocolates, Goshen

“Smell the milk in that pail,” Garret suggests to a visitor. The heady, sweet aroma of grass that Thorncrest cows grazed on that very morning rises from the bucket, like the smell of spring. Now imagine that flowery scent blending seamlessly with the already intoxicating taste of rich, creamy chocolate and you have an idea of what eating a Thorncrest chocolate candy is like.

“It all begins with the cows,” said Kimberly, who conceives and makes all the farm’s chocolate creations. “Clint will breed them to develop the flavor in the milk that I am after for my ganaches and caramels. So they are based on the natural sweetness that is inherent in each cow and her milk.”

Specific breeds, and even specific cows, produce milk that varies in flavor, sweetness and fat content, making them ideal for the specific candies Kimberly has in mind. Daydream, for example — one of a family of Jerseys whose lineage the Thorns can trace back to the eponymous Isle of Jersey in the English Channel — is Kimberly’s “caramel girl” whose milk is a key ingredient in Daydream’s Butter and Sea Salt “Single Cow Origin” caramels. So naturally sweet is Daydream’s milk that Kimberly adds no sugar to the caramels and ganaches she makes with it.

Careful breeding and careful feeding, not to mention a stress-free environment, all contribute to the production of milk sweet enough to make all- natural, sugar-free chocolates. The grass grown on the Thorns’ 60 acres of land, where the cows graze at night in summer, when it is cooler, is composed of various types: Timothy, brome, clover, orchard grass and other “secret” species which Clint won’t reveal. Certain blends harvested for hay at certain times of year produce certain milk better suited to making light or dark chocolate, says Clint. Meanwhile, Kimberly is no less conscious of the rhythmic cycles of nature and the breeding season of Thorncrest cows when making her chocolates.

“I cook seasonally, but I also cook by cow,” she said. “My pumpkin chocolates, for example, are only available from October on through February, when a particular cow is bred to calve-in, so that her milk is best for the fall season.”

A local pumpkin grower provides the pie pumpkins for Thorncrest pumpkin chocolates, while Kimberly grows many other ingredients herself, with the exception of the chocolate, of course, which she sources from producers in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Madagascar. Thus, the lemon mint in her Dark Chocolate Lemon Mints comes from her garden, as does the lavender in her Dark Chocolate Lavenders or the raspberries in “Supreme’s” (one of Daydream’s barn mates) Dark Chocolate Raspberry Ganache.

Like any good home cook, she often makes creative use of whatever is on hand, and one year produced a San Marzano tomato and horseradish chocolate from a bumper crop of San Marzano tomatoes. Other creative selections from Thorncrest’s 92 varieties of handmade, “milk house” chocolates include Black Pepper and Ginger Truffles, dignified Earl Grey Tea Truffles, and, for the holidays, Milk Chocolate Egg Nog and Milk Chocolate Gingerbread chocolates.

But whatever the season, a visit to Thorncrest Farm — where you can tour the barn, say hi to Daydream, and purchase fresh chocolates, not to mention yogurt, artisan cheese and, of course, milk — is an essential stop along Connecticut’s deliciously diverse Chocolate Trail.

 

More Stops Along the Chocolate Trail

 

Bridgewater Chocolate

559 Federal Road, Brookfield, 860-775-2286, bridgewaterchocolate.com

Specialties are English and Irish toffees, as well as a variety of chocolate bark, pretzels, truffles, chocolate-covered marzipan and other European-style confections, inspired by the childhood memories of Swedish transplant and company founder Erik Landgren. At its main factory store on Federal Road in Brookfield, visitors can watch chocolates being made. Bridgewater also has additional retail shops in Brookfield and West Hartford.

Deborah Ann’s Sweet Shoppe

381 Main St., Ridgefield, 203-438-0065, deborahanns.com

This colorful, old-fashioned candy shop in the heart of Ridgefield offers fresh cream truffles, peppermint bark, gourmet caramel apples, old-fashioned candy canes and freshly made fudge as well as ice cream. A local favorite.

The Dutch Epicure Shop

491 Bantam Road, Litchfield

860-567-5586, alldutchfood.com

Wolfgang and Betsy Joas opened this bakery and chocolate shop in 1967 after emigrating from Germany. There, Wolfgang had trained as a professional pastry chef, and he brought all of that knowledge and passion to America with him. Their daughter, Wilma, still uses the same recipes pioneered by her dad more than 40 years ago. New candies include raspberry roses, rum runners, milk chocolate honey, ginger giftboxes, soft caramels with sea salt, Cointreau, coffee and cream.

Fascia’s Chocolates

44 Chase River Road, Waterbury

203-753-0515, fasciaschocolates.com

Family-owned and operated since 1964, Fascia’s offers a wide variety of gourmet chocolates and truffles, as well as “wine-pairing” chocolates matched to wines and spirits and factory tours Saturdays and Sundays, September to June, at 12:30 and 2 p.m. when you can make your own chocolate bar. Get creative!

Grandma Josie’s

477 Main St., Monroe

203-590-3301, grandmajosiescandies.com

Offering candies from yesteryear, enjoy treats such as homemade peanut brittle and almond pattie pies, a selection of chocolates and cones dipped in Belgian chocolate. Grandma Josie’s is open all year, six days a week, and Sundays for special reserved gatherings. The sweet shop also offers a light menu and specialty teas and coffees.

Hillside Sweet Shoppe

2 Norwich Road, East Haddam

860-970-5382, hillsidesweetshoppe.com

For more than 30 years, this small, family-owned confection shop has been providing homemade and other fine chocolates, homemade ice cream and hot fudge, confections, gifts, toys and more. In addition, you can find gifts of chocolate and candy, wedding favors, balloons and themed gift baskets.

Kent Coffee & Chocolate

8 N. Main St., Kent

860-927-1445, kentcoffee.com

Opened in 1991, Kent Coffee & Chocolate sells a wide variety of fine chocolates, including homemade peanut butter cups, a full line of barks, hand-dipped truffles and much more. The menu also features smoothies, raw products including raw cacao nibs, the chocolate hazelnut spread Rawtella and Righteously Raw cacao bars in many flavors, and high-quality coffee and tea.

Le Rouge Chocolates & Cakes by Aarti

190 Main St., Westport

203-293-6106, lerougebyaarti.com

This artisan chocolatier offers an eclectic collection of handmade and hand-decorated chocolates and cakes for discerning palates. Everything is gluten-free and made fresh in small batches.

Munson’s Chocolates

174 Hop River Road, Bolton, 860-649-4332, munsonschocolates.com

Connecticut’s largest retail chocolate manufacturer, with 10 retail outlets across the state. A family business, Munson’s makes more than 200 varieties of chocolates, including seasonal, holiday candies.

Plum Brook Chocolate

Woodbury

203-491-6041, plumbrookchocolate.com

Recently moving production to The Mindful Kitchen in New Preston, a village in Washington, chocolatier Pam Dorgan uses local ingredients whenever possible, such as maple from Brookside Farm II in Litchfield for her Sugar Shed Maple truffle, Hopkins Vineyard’s Cabernet Franc for the seasonal Ice Wine truffle and locally sourced butter. Her raspberry pistachio truffle uses fresh jam from Winding Drive Jams & Jellies.

Truffle Shots

1 N. Main St., Essex

860-581-8351, truffleshots.com

The patent-pending creation of Sherri Athay and her daughter Lauren, the silky ganache center of each truffle is contained within a shot glass for an elegant indulgence. Enjoy flavors such as the international award-winning Caramel Beurre Noisette, Tellicherry Cardamom and Signature Dark. Other flavors include Raspberry Kiss, Fig Balsamico, Chipotle Cinnamon, Honey Habanero and more. Truffle Shots contain no alcohol, making them ideal for chocolate lovers of all ages.