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Oregon's chocolatiers set to melt palates

Ashland will be practically paved in chocolate this weekend as chocolatiers and chocoholics converge for three days of cocoa-covered indulgence. Ringing in the fourth annual Oregon Chocolate Festival are two chocolate-covered events to be held Friday, March 7.

The inaugural Chocolate Makers' Dinner at 7 p.m. in the Crystal Room at the Ashland Springs Hotel will tempt diners with three courses prepared by chef Damon Jones of Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine. Artisans from Dagoba Organic Chocolates and Ke Kau Chocolatier will make presentations during the dinner, which costs $35.

The Chocolate & Art Walk, a chocolate-drenched version of the Ashland Gallery Association's monthly First Friday Art Walk, will be from 5 to 8 p.m.

More than 15 regional chocolatiers will offer samples of their confections from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 8-9, at Ashland Springs Hotel, 212 E. Main St., and other activities will stretch from museums and art galleries to restaurants and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"Chocolate is delicious and yummy and adds to the fun and enticement of First Fridays," says Suzanne Heinrich of the Ashland Gallery Association.

"Chocolate-themed art will be everywhere."

Don't miss Red Hot Chocolate at Ashland Art Works, featuring art that's either red or made of chocolate, all sweetened with samples of Cary's of Oregon toffee. Illahe Design Studio & Gallery will display chocolate-inspired ceramic tiles, Bohemia Gallery will sample hand-made treats from Lillie Belle Farms, specially-commissioned chocolate sculptures will greet guests all over town and visitors can even witness chocolate art being made at Ashland Artisan Gallery, where artists will be creating "Monet's Masterpiece" from the meltingly delicious confection.

"Much of the chocolate for these events and for sampling was donated by Dagoba," says Heinrich. "Everyone has been so generous."

Temper your sugar coma by taking in one or more of the festival's seminars offered at the hotel. Topics include The Origins of Cocoa, Chocolate and Spa and healthy cooking with chocolate. Two-day passes to the festival cost $20.

Then you can try an antioxidant-rich nightcap of local red wine, Noble Coffee or chocolate-infused stout alongside that last piece of dark chocolate.

"You're with a lot of people who just really appreciate quality chocolate," says Wendy Just of Cary's of Oregon in Grants Pass. "It's very high energy and I love it when somebody takes a bite of our toffee and their eyes roll in the back of their head and they're in some sort of altered state."

Cary's will offer samples of their signature handmade English toffees, which were recently named Snack of the Day on Rachael Ray's television talk show.

Inspiration for the festival came from Karolina Wyszynska, sales and marketing manager at Ashland Springs Hotel. She began researching the plethora of chocolatiers who call the Rogue Valley home and decided the bounty was too sweet not to share.

In its first year, 450 tickets were sold; last year's attendance topped 1,300. Chocophiles come from all over the United States and the festival has been covered by national media, including the Martha Stewart Living show on Sirius radio.

"People just love it — they love the European feel of Ashland, where they can walk to wine tastings, chocolate events, plays, restaurants and shopping," says Wyszynska.

And because everyone knows more chocolate is better, Wyszynska envisions a time when the Oregon Chocolate Festival spreads over an entire month.

"We can go a long way with this and it will never be boring, people will never be tired of it," she says. "After all, it's chocolate!"

Other events include a hands-on chocolate experience with Jeff Shepherd of Lillie Belle Farms from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 7, at ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, 1500 E. Main St. And visitors may mention the chocolate festival when purchasing tickets at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's box office and receive half-price tickets for shows scheduled Friday through Sunday.

Call 488-1700 or see ashlandspringshotel.com for a complete list of activities.

Reach freelance writer Jennifer Strange at jlstrange.hotmail

Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Cary's of Oregon, Lillie Belle Farms and Ke Kau Chocolatier, among others, will be featured at the chocolate festival this weekend in Ashland. - MT file photo