A passion for chocolate

Pettisville woman's sweet heart is in her craft

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    Hand crafted chocolates at Nancy Bontrager's Stella Leona artisan chocolates in Pettisville.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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  • Hand crafted chocolates at Nancy Bontrager's Stella Leona artisan chocolates in Pettisville.
    Hand crafted chocolates at Nancy Bontrager's Stella Leona artisan chocolates in Pettisville.

    PETTISVILLE — Surrounded by corn fields and bisected by a busy railway line, this tiny town west of Wauseon is home to just 270 souls.

    One of them makes high-quality, artisanal, hand-painted chocolates.

    Nancy Bontrager owns and operates Stella Leona Artisan Chocolates in a small storefront next to the local meat market and across from the town garage. There, she hand-crafts and sometimes hand-paints an array of exotic chocolate delights. In the commercial kitchen behind her store she makes each piece one at a time.

    That includes the dark chocolate truffles, the sea-salt topped caramels, the dried slices of cinnamon apples that are hand-dipped in dark chocolate. It includes the Mayan fuego: dark chocolate ganache in which the cream to make the ganache has been infused with habañero peppers.

    It includes the Heritage Collection, Ms. Bontrager's tribute to her grandmother and her great-aunt, both of whom were known for baking pies. It took some experimenting to get the flavors right, but Ms. Bontrager believes she is the only chocolatier in the world to make chocolates with pie-filling centers — she offers them in pecan, old-fashioned cream pie, rhubarb, and blueberry.

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    Also completely unique, as far as she knows, are her birch cream caramels. These have a dark chocolate shell filled with a liquid caramel made from birch syrup. Birch syrup is like maple syrup, only it comes from the birch tree. But while it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, a single gallon of birch syrup has to be reduced from 100 gallons of birch sap. Only two companies make it in the United States, and both of them are in Alaska.

    Ms. Bontrager, 46, pipes a cap of dark chocolate on top of each birch cream caramel, and then decorates it with three little dots of milk chocolate.

    "It's really a time-consuming piece, but they're all time-consuming," she said.

    One overcast day last week, she was making heart-shaped candies filled with strawberry white-chocolate ganache for Valentine's Day, and also beginning the process of hand-painting larger heart-shaped chocolates. These will be hollow when finished so they can be filled with an assortment of other chocolates. At Stella Leona, sometimes even the box the chocolates come in are made of chocolate.

    Ms. Bontrager doesn't paint with actual paint, of course, she uses brightly dyed cocoa butter, which is the main ingredient in chocolate. In essence, she is using chocolate to hand-paint the chocolate — and she takes the concept of hand-painting more seriously than most. Though she sometimes uses a pastry brush or an airbrush, she also sometimes uses her fingers to get the effect she desires.

    Part of this effect is a bright, glossy, tantalizing color. To make the colors so shiny, she must keep the melted cocoa butter at a specific, barely warm temperature. But this is not a high-tech operation: She uses a yogurt maker.

    Nancy Bontrager applies a chocolate bottom to heart shaped chocolates at her Stella Leona artisan chocolates in Pettisville.
    Nancy Bontrager applies a chocolate bottom to heart shaped chocolates at her Stella Leona artisan chocolates in Pettisville.

    She was just a child when she came to appreciate fine chocolate. Her father would frequently go to Europe on business and the gifts he brought back for the children often included chocolate. The European chocolate was creamier and richer than the chocolate that was then available in this country.

    "I grew to love European chocolate, and lost my taste for American chocolate," she said.

    But she never planned to make chocolates herself, or even to go into business. 

    "We had a lot of business people in the family, and I thought we didn't really need any more," she said. Her grandfather was Erie Sauder, who founded the Sauder Woodworking Company; she took her company's name from his wife Leona and her sister Estella. They were the two pie-bakers she honors with the pie-flavored chocolates.

    Rather than becoming involved in business, she taught kindergarten at the Pettisville Elementary School ("That's why I'm so good at fingerpainting," she joked) and became a stay-at-home mom to her five children.

    Blessed with an extraordinary abundance of energy, she looked for a creative outlet and naturally turned to one of her favorite foods.

    "Because I love chocolate myself, I began making simple chocolates to give away as gifts to friends. And I liked experimenting, too. Over 15 years or so, I picked up some knowledge," she said.

    Her family and friends encouraged her to sell them professionally. In 2006, she began making and selling artisanal chocolates out of her own kitchen. After a couple of years, she wanted to expand into selling online, which required a commercial kitchen. With the help of Sauder's art director, Chad Shirey, who designed her logo, typeface, and packaging, she opened in her current location in 2008.

    A following of satisfied customers has been building ever since. Even in an economic downturn, which happened just when she opened, she has found that people like to treat themselves and their loved ones to treats that are affordable, yet seem special.

    Dean Spangler, chairman of the Spangler Candy Company in Bryan, is among her admirers. "There are sales people, there are marketing people, and there are entrepreneurs. If you find the rare person with all three [attributes], you have a merchant. And Nancy is a merchant," he said.

    Stella Leona Artisan Chocolates are available at the Heritage Inn at Sauder Village, online at stellaleona.com, and Thursdays through Saturdays at the store in Pettisville.

    Just look next door to the meat market and across the street from the garage.

    For more information, call 419-445-0370.

    Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.