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Chocolate Festival reinstates wine dinner, vendors’ expo for 2022 edition

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Photo by Jim Flint Kyra Coulter enrobes Ashland Nuggets in milk chocolate at Branson's Chocolates in Ashland. The chocolatier will be one of the vendors at the Oregon Chocolate Festival March 4-6.
Photo by Jim Flint Branson's Chocolates owner Deena Branson cuts a sheet of caramel for its Sea Salt Caramels in milk chocolate, using a steel cutter.
Photo by Jim Flint Local chocolatiers, such as Branson's Chocolates in Ashland, will have one of nearly 50 booths at the Chocolate Festival at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites, offering treats such as Ashland Nuggets, shown here being enrobed with milk chocolate.
Event coordinator Karolina Lavagnino is excited to see the Chocolate Festival go live again after a pandemic pause in 2021.

Every 10 years or so, a typical adult eats his own body weight in chocolate. No, not in one sitting.

Why do people like chocolate so much? Scientists have been trying to figure that out for years.

According to a study by psychologist David Lewis, letting chocolate dissolve slowly in your mouth produces as big an increase in brain activity and heart rate as a passionate kiss. But the effects of the chocolate last four times longer.

As science writer Chris Woodford put it, trust science to tell us things we already know.

If you prefer to do your own research, mark your calendar for the annual Oregon Chocolate Festival in Ashland March 4-6. For three days you can explore the delights of the confection to your heart’s content.

Tickets are on sale now for Saturday and Sunday festival passes at $20 per day. It will be held in the ballrooms of Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites and Convention Center, located at 2525 Ashland St.

Festival-goers can see demos, enjoy tastings and buy chocolate and related products from an expected 50 vendors, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. Masks will be required, and the number of people entering ballroom spaces will be regulated.

Tickets already have been sold out for the popular Chocolate Makers’ Wine Dinner Friday night, March 4, at the historic Ashland Springs Hotel.

“Normally, pre-COVID, we would cap the number of dinner guests at 150,” said Karolina Lavagnino, event chair and director of sales and marketing for Neuman Hotel Group, organizer of the festival. “But this year we had to cut that to about 110.”

The festival partners with wineries for the dinner, many of which also participate at the vendors’ expo.

“In the past we have hosted a chocolate dessert contest,” Lavagnino said, “showcasing the talents of local pastry chefs. However, we won’t be offering it this year as restaurants are already struggling with limited staff and the overall impact of COVID.”

The festival is bringing back the Chocolate Sunday Brunch, held at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites on March 6, with seatings beginning at 9:30 a.m. The bunch includes house-made pastries, bacon and goat cheese baked eggs with sausage gravy French toast bread pudding with caramelized bananas, pecans and caramel sauce, plus an assortment of desserts and sides. Cost iss $28 per person or $15 for children 12 and under. For tickets, more information, and festival updates, go to oregonchocolatefestival.com.

Vendors are continuing to sign up for the event. Among those early to commit are Amano Artisan Chocolate, Branson’s Chocolates, B’s Bites Homemade Toffee, Cacao Kingdom, Call Me Sweetea, Dolcetta Artisan Sweets, Hazelnut Hill, Inspired Leaf Teas, Sharffen Berger Chocolate, Kindred Cooks Caramels, Melting Pot Candy, Oran Mor Artisan Mead, Black Market Toffee, Pithitude Mugs, Steamworks Meadery, Vintner’s Kitchen, Wild Roots Spirits, and Vital Salts.

Larks Kitchen executive chef Franco Console and his team will prepare the Chocolate Makers’ Wine Dinner. Fans consider the $80 per person ticket price well worth the experience. That’s understandable, with the gastronomical soirée featuring five courses, each with its own wine pairing.

Dinner guests will enjoy an “amuse” of dark chocolate and sea salt, and crostini with ancho bacon jam, followed by an appetizer consisting of crispy saffron and fresh mozzarella arancini, basil cocoa nib pesto and citrus-scented pea tendrils.

Is your mouth watering yet?

Next is a salad of bay-roasted gold beets and baby carrots, olive oil confit wild mushrooms, chevre dust, balsamic bitter chocolate drizzle, and micro arugula, followed by an entrée consisting of roasted game hen, nut and seed mole, sofrito rice, pickled onion, and a white cabbage and cilantro slaw.

Do you have room for dessert? Of course, you do. It’s a Scharffen Berger chocolate trio: flourless chocolate torte, salted honey crème anglaise, and espresso pot de crème.

Going all-out on events like this is a way of promoting Ashland as a culinary destination and creating local awareness of what Ashland and the Rogue Valley have to offer.

“We want to showcase artisan chocolatiers; educate consumers about cacao sourcing, processing and chocolate-making; and feature other taste-makers whose products pair well with chocolate, such as wine, beer, spirits, spice rubs and breads,” Lavagnino said.

She enjoys working on projects that help put Ashland on the map for all it has to offer.

“It’s great to bring guests to Ashland to enjoy all things chocolate,” she said, “as well as our great small town, our wonderful outdoors, and our thriving food and wine scene.”

Lavagnino has known many of the participating chocolatiers for more than 15 years.

“I’m excited to be getting everybody together again,” she said. “I look forward to welcoming them back, to hear their stories of dealing with the pandemic, about their successes of going online, and how COVID pushed them to do things in new ways.”

Because of pandemic restrictions, the 2021 festival went online entirely, with a twist to the gourmet wine dinner: a box of sweet and savory provisions was put together by the Larks Kitchen crew for a take-home celebration.

The 2022 festival will not be so boxed in by the pandemic, with things getting back to what feels almost normal. Pulling out all the stops will be part of the fun.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.