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Chocolate factory a staple in Henderson family’s life

Chocolate contains magical properties that can strengthen the bonds of friendship. At least that has been the case for me and Ethel M, an old buddy of a Henderson chocolate factory that’s been in my family’s life for 33 years. Ethel M has been introduced to my late grandmothers, my friends from Alaska and, recently, my 18-month-old niece, who was bedazzled by its more than 1 million cactus garden holiday lights.

In January, I took my mom there for the factory’s Chocolate Tasting Experience, a somewhat scholarly excuse to sample gourmet chocolates (paired with wines) and to get to know Ethel M a little better. We were big fans before we walked into the tasting room, but chocolate school gave us an even finer appreciation of the history, deliciousness and art of Ethel M Chocolates.

Many locals who flock annually to the factory when its cactus garden lights up for Christmas will have noticed changes to the interior layout in recent years. One of those changes is the addition of a chocolate tasting room, where classes lasting 30 to 45 minutes take place on the hour 10 times during most days, starting at 10 a.m. The Chocolate Tasting Experience costs $15 a person or $25 with wine pairings, and bookings are recommended.

On a recent Monday afternoon, chocolatier Vic Bernabe welcomed his eight guests into the tasting room, where he had lined up four chocolate pieces for each of us and wine pairings for the six drinkers. He shared just the right amount of historical insight before we were finally allowed to taste our first piece, a milk chocolate raspberry satin creme. Before gobbling up the chocolate, we needed to smell the piece, Bernabe insisted. “It’s all about your senses,” he said, emphasizing the significance of the sniff. “What did you think when the sense of smell and taste collided?”

The buttery and sweet raspberry chocolate, inspired by a 1911 recipe belonging to the mother of late candy magnate Forrest Mars Sr., paired well with a miniature glass of prosecco.

Next up was a peanut butter milk chocolate shaped like a Georgia peanut and created right there at the factory, like all parts of all other chocolates that carry the Ethel M brand. The texture of the peanut butter filling was much creamier than the average peanut butter cup, and that’s due to the factory’s recipe and a fresh-ingredients, no-preservatives approach that translates into a shorter shelf life.

Before taking bites of our peanut butter chocolates, Bernabe’s students were asked to plug their noses. The taste was muted and fairly unremarkable. When we unplugged our noses, the confection was suddenly much tastier, and it was clear he had succeeded in helping us to sense the powerful connection between taste and smell. This chocolate was paired with a chardonnay, which added to the deliciousness.

Bernabe provided an overview of equatorial cocoa farming practices and explained that the roasting and liquefying of Ethel M chocolate takes place at the Mars chocolate factory in Pennsylvania before the unsweetened product is trucked to Henderson. After the building-block material arrives, Ethel M employees begin their magic, using some of the recipes and equipment that are original to the company’s 1981 start.

A short promotional video, questions aimed at getting audience feedback and a flavor-profile wheel helped make Bernabe’s class more interactive, but his best tricks were the gourmet chocolates, the complementary wine pairings and his humor.

Earthy, woody and butterscotchy help describe the third chocolate that shall remain nameless in the interest of protecting a few surprises for those planning a Chocolate Tasting Experience for themselves. As for the fourth chocolate, my mom, Martine Patton, had this to say: “It was a revelation to me that you could take one little bite of a dark chocolate lemon crème confection along with a sip of red wine and end up with an explosion of flavor in your mouth.”

Mark Mackey, senior product development scientist at Ethel M, has spent the past four years helping to build experiences that will “create ambassadors of premium chocolate.” Beer-and-chocolate as well as coffee-and-chocolate combinations get on the schedule from time to time. Mackey said before too long there likely will be opportunities for customers to play roles in making their own chocolate treats. “We envision more interactive opportunities for those who are curious and interested,” he said.

But no matter how many new things happen at Ethel M, Mackey said, a commitment remains to the high standards put in place nearly 40 years ago. “There will always be so much care and attention to every step,” he said. “That’s so critical to the development of flavors and the quality of the chocolate.”

As long as the Henderson chocolate factory keeps its promises of quality and continues to wow us with wintertime lights and springtime cactus blooms, it’s got a friend in me.

More information about Ethel M’s Chocolate Tasting Experience is at ethelm.com/tasting-room-experience.

Natalie Burt, a former news reporter at the Review-Journal for 11 years, spends as much of her free time as possible enjoying Southern Nevada’s outdoors. She’s now a teacher and has lived in Henderson for 18 years. Email: nvburt@gmail.com.

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