Hillsborough chocolatier moves kitchen offsite

CorrespondentNovember 14, 2012 


Hillsborough, NC chocolatier and pastry chef Matthew Shepherd, 41, inspects a tray freshly poured Belgian dark chocolate shells from his tempering machine, left background, Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 7, 2012. Shepherd has owned and operated Matthew's Chocolates on N. Churton St. in Hillsborough, NC since Nov. 2007. He also runs his own private kitchen in the Hillsborough area where he makes his special chocolate confections and cakes.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

— Those who love Matthew’s Chocolates may miss seeing their creator hard at work behind his Churton Street display case rolling out creations in Belgian chocolate – Buddhas, truffles, nonpareils and cakes and sundry delights.

But his charisma remains indelible on the tongue whenever one takes a bite.

Matthew Shepherd no longer makes his chocolates in his shop at 107 N. Churton St., but that leaves more space to display those wonderful creations. Some look like jade figurines, others like marble scallop shells. The truffles melt like snow in your mouth.

His chocolates are the culmination of life experiences far from the career path of an aspiring chocolatier. In fact, as Shepherd tells it, he fell into chocolate more by popular demand than by initiative.

“I used to make baked goods for Christmas to give to friends,” he said. One year, living in Deerfield Beach, Fla., he made chocolates instead. “I sold a thousand dollars’ worth of chocolate out of my condo, and next Christmas, my shop was open.”

Matthew’s Chocolates opened Nov. 21, 2007, on his birthday. His treats are available now at A Southern Season and at The Depot, in west Hillsborough. This year, he redesigned the shop in the old masonic building on Churton Street to add more seating and moved the kitchen off site.

“The counter was where these tables are. You could watch me making my chocolates, and people miss that.”

What they will not miss is Shepherd’s meticulous sense of flavor, aroma and balance.

After culinary school in Vermont, his cooking career sidelined by a bout with arthritis, Shepherd found himself manufacturing incense.

“I took perfumery classes, perfume therapy classes, started making massage oils and blends,” he said. “So I introduce essential oils and plant essences into my chocolates. So when you bite into a cardamom truffle, you know it’s made with real cardamom oil.”

Shepherd says essential oils are superior to plant extracts, which are diluted with alcohol. These oils he uses for the aromatic cream fillings, the peppermint, the coffee syrups – hazelnut, vanilla, caramel.

For all his eloquence about aromatic texture, he knows little about the process of creating chocolate from cocoa and sugar; it’s ancillary to his craft. “I’m more into the art and the flavors and stuff like that,” he said.

His base material comes in chips of Belgian chocolate sent through a U.S. distributor.

“I used to get it shipped in big bricks, 11-pound bricks. But after chiseling and chipping a thousand pounds of it, now I just get it shipped in little callets,“ he said. “I like the Belgian chocolate because we used it in school; I like the balance of bitterness and sweetness to it.”

“Chocolate has to be tempered, like glass has to be annealed,” he explains. “You’ve got to heat the chocolate to 115 degrees. There’s five different crystal structures in chocolate. Polymorphic, I think, is the term.”

The stuff is cooled to 80 degrees, destroying all but the tiniest crystal structures, which Shepherd says are the ones you want to proliferate. The temperature is then raised to around 86 degrees. “That allows the smallest crystals to grow, so my chocolate has a snap to it.”

Chris Womack, one of his assistants, arrives with a new prototype sorbet: apple pie. There is much conversation about this batch. Has it “fluffed up” enough? Too much almond? Shepherd has been encouraging Womack to keep a journal.

“The humidity has to be right in the room, the temperature has to be right. Is it raining? Is it humid? Keep a journal. Figure out the patterns. Even in summer, my chocolates aren’t as shiny.”

When Matthew Shepherd talks about chocolate, it is with the breezy assurance of a master craftsman. The flavors speak for themselves.

Hartwell: hartwell53@gmail.com

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