There were rows of chocolates on metal pans with names like Hot Flash and Ol’ Fashion that actually tastes like Wisconsin’s drink of choice.
They were waiting for a home in boxes featuring a black-and-white picture of a farmer on a wagon – with the giant word ROOTS stamped across.
That word is what Lisa Nelson’s life has been about lately.
She never stopped thinking about what she wanted to be when she grew up, and asked herself that question not too long ago, having spent several years in Europe working, traveling and living a career in computer technology.
But she found her way back to her family’s four-generation farm, and found herself without a job during the bubble burst in the job market a few years ago.
“I’m good at (computers). But my passion is really for baking desserts, chocolate,” she said. “I’m a foodie in general, and one of Wisconsin’s biggest cheddarheads.”
Her decision on what to do next, she said, was really pretty easy.
She wanted to reconnect with her roots and her rural life – remembering those times she spent baking with her mother. So she set off to study to be a chocolatier, attending school in Canada and working at a store there, before opening LiL chocolates three years ago.
The name never reflected Nelson’s life or the business. Her roots are firmly planted in a farmhouse along Highway 127 between Portage and Wisconsin Dells. All the things she plants on that farm are found in her delicious chocolate creations – like honey from her 12 beehives and even squash.
“This is where I call home and I love it here. I consider myself a non-traditional farmer,” she said, standing in a commercial kitchen that used to be a four-season porch. “My focus is on anything I can put in chocolate.”
This summer, Nelson rebranded her business and went from LiL chocolates (which stood for Life is Like), to ROOTS Chocolates. The change has been well-received, among Nelson and her customers.
Today, she is part of the Very Merry Holiday Fair in Baraboo, where people can taste what locally-grown truly means. While she gets the chocolate from South America, everything she creates for taste and design is grown on her farm, or by someone else nearby.
“This year a lot of people thought I was weird because I made squash chocolate,” she said. “But we had an abundance of squash. My mom always said, ‘Eat your vegetables.’”
The pieces of chocolate are all hand-crafted by Nelson, from the center, infused with various flavors, to the hand-dipping and decorating.
The tiny morsels look like pieces of art, almost too pretty to eat – almost.
And the flavors are incredible, with some having a seasonal taste like Eggnog, and other fun names like Ms. Figgy. Her ideas are endless.
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night at go, ‘That would be great,’” Nelson said.
This week, Nelson was gearing up to make chocolates every day, as the holiday season is the busiest time of year. With plenty of light flooding her white kitchen, the smell of chocolate hits you when the door opens. Your eyes shift to the rows of chocolates, and that feeling of walking into a candy store when you were a kid rushes back.
“A ganache center is chocolate, cream and butter. Then I will add whatever flavor profile I’m working on,” she said.
Nelson works with a specific chocolate to blend with each ingredient, trying to find perfect matches. She started off with eight flavors, but now makes 12 to 15, depending on the time of year.
If you didn’t know ingredients like an heirloom tomato was used in the chocolate, you would never guess. This has been a great year for Nelson blending flavors, but there is always something she is still working on.
“Some people say, ‘I bet you haven’t tried garlic.’ Well, I have, but I haven’t perfected that yet. Just you wait,” she said.
Nelson also is creating her own chocolate bar, procuring the actual cocoa bean from countries like Peru and Ecuador. A recent hot item is cholami, as in chocolate salami — a chocolate stick that cuts like sausage with dried fruits and nuts, but there is no meat in this.
Nelson makes these chocolates because she loves being creative, and she will try anything. On Monday, she was making slabs of chocolate for the centers to see if a new test batch goes well. If not, the chocolate finds a way into her hot chocolate.
Nelson has no store for ROOTS Chocolates. Instead, she finds her way to Madison farmer’s markets, and events like in Baraboo this weekend. She also sells items wholesale and on her website.
“I don’t want to be a chocolate factory,” she said, adding that she worked for a large chocolate maker in Kansas to see what that was like. “I’m a farmer and I like this small-town feel of my business right now.”
She is happy growing the business at her own pace and meeting her customers. And she enjoys continuing to be a farmer, like her father in that 1930s picture on the box.
While there is a lot of work spent making chocolates, and months spent growing ingredients, Nelson said the most important part is getting the chocolate to the right temperature – making the chocolate happy.
And when the chocolate is happy, everyone else will be, too.