Knowing beans about love

Valentine’s Day tends to elicit strong feelings, often driven by someone’s relationship status. The pink and red-laden occasion that generated $25.9 billion of U.S. spending in 2023 is named in honor of Valentinus, the Third Century clergyman who, according to legend, presented Christians with hearts cut from parchment to remind them of God’s love and their faith. It speaks to human yearnings that Valentinus’ entreaties for spiritual love transmuted to a catalyst for romantic connection, and to our avaricious urges that St. Valentine’s Day mutated into a behemoth commercial enterprise.

If Valentinus walked among us today, he would probably remind us that love and its expressions aren’t confined to a single day or season. But, it’s still worthwhile to embrace opportunities to demonstrate your affection and commitment to your significant other, and a day that celebrates this connection provides what could be a catalyst for rekindling romance.

And, in contrast to Cincinnati’s inexplicably persistent stodgy image, perhaps we’re not so bad at romance. According to a Finance Buzz December 21 article, Cincinnati ranked 18th in an analysis as Best Cities to Build Lasting Love (incidentally, ahead of Orlando, Miami, and – score one in the ongoing Battle of Ohio rivalry – Cleveland).

Perhaps fittingly, chocolate’s history long predates Valentinus. The cacao bean was discovered approximately 4,000 years ago in present-day Mexico. The Olmec were the first civilization to begin processing the beans into chocolate. Their history wasn’t well documented, so the Mayans and Aztecs were the first to record xocolatl and its role as food, currency, and ceremonial role in those culture. Spanish colonialism that begins in the sixteenth Century led to its introduction throughout Europe, and the advent of using sugar and cinnamon blunted raw chocolate’s bitterness and made it a global staple.

Dating back to its pre-colonial roots, chocolate has been considered symbolic of love and passion, and the infusion of sweetness as it became more widely adopted certainly strengthened that link. Chocolatiers have become increasingly creative in creating flavors, fillings, and presentations to satisfy increasingly sophisticated palates and rise above a fiercely competitive market.
Coffee’s origins are a bit hazier. Some accounts point to the coffee bean’s discovery by an Ethiopian goatherder named Kaldi (Cincinnatians of a certain age may recall the erstwhile OTR coffeehouse Kaldi’s), whereas some point to its cultivation in countries along the Arabian peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries as a catalyst to its evolution into a globally popular, commoditized beverage.

Chocolate is a natural centerpiece for romantic celebration, and Cincinnati is fortunate to have several purveyors who provide exceptional products to celebrate the day. Here’s a look at four of them that range from the traditional to experimental. And, although coffee isn’t as readily associated with romance, one coffeehouse fully embraced the Valentine’s Day spirit and deserves a nod.

Aglamesis Brothers Ice Cream and Chocolates has been an Oakley tradition since 1913, when Thomas and Nicholas Aglamesis opened the shop. Thomas’s son, Jim, took over the business in 1950, and remained in charge for 70 years until his passing in 2021. Its marble tables and wrought-iron chairs evoke a simpler time.

Aglamesis divides its store into two counters – step right for ice cream and left for chocolate. Throughout the year, the shop redecorates for the choco-loving days on the calendar – Easter, Halloween, Christmas, etc. – but for Valentine’s Day, much of the shop’s real estate is devoted to displays of pink, red, and white heart=shaped boxes of various sizes. If you prefer chocolate-covered (milk or dark) nuts, fruits, Oreos, or popcorn, you can tickle your taste buds with Aglamesis confections.

Lisa Thatcher, a 45-year Aglamesis employee, said that heart-shaped chocolates and candies and caramel-filled turtle confections are among its biggest Valentine’s Day sellers, and dipped strawberries are another popular seasonal addition. For decades, its chocolates were made in the back kitchen behind the parlor, with the sweet smell wafting through the building.

Last year, Aglamesis moved the production of its chocolates to a downtown facility.
“I miss the smell,” Lisa said wistfully.

Shalini Latour, a Montreal native who spent part of her childhood in Belgium, has lived in Northside for 25 years and has operated her joint Northside storefront with Bee Haven since 2015.
Chocolats Latour
Shalini Latour has owned Chocolats Latour, which shares a storefront in Northside with Bee Haven, which sells honey-derived products, and also sells at Coffee Emporium, for eight years. But the Montreal native has harbored a lifelong passion for chocolate, amplified by spending years of her childhood in Belgium, where chocolate is a way of life.

She’s lived in the Cincinnati area since 2010, and she’s evolved her chocolatiering – which she does in a modestly sized kitchen in the back of the shop – from traditional Belgian methods to experimental infusions. For the raw ingredients, she sources it from Colombian cacao beans, through arrangements that provide fair-trade wages for the growers. Shalini likes to incorporate local ingredients whenever possible, such as blackberries and strawberries when in season, and she’s developed a fondness for herbal infusions, such as basil, lemongrass, and rosemary into their fanciful creations.

Chocolats Latour’s Valentine’s Day creations steer toward the whimsical. Lip-sharped confections flavored with ghost chiles, and caramel are likely to burn like a Johnny Cash song. Those with a cynical bent for February 14 will appreciate the patina-finish candy hearts with snarky messages like “Get Bent” and “Can You Not”. And mini-sized boxer shorts-clad cinnamon-flavored dark chocolate “strong men” provide a chuckle. Whether your perspective for the day is unfettered passion, disengaged bitterness or anywhere in between, Shalini has created something in keeping with your Valentine’s Day ethos.

Maverick Chocolate Co.
With shops in Rookwood Pavilion and adjacent to Findlay Market, Maverick Chocolate conveys a different vibe than other chocolate shops. The ambience is clean and industrial, and shelves a bit more sparsely stocked. But the owner Paul Picton’s passion for cacao is readily apparent. Years of world travel entailed bringing souvenirs of chocolate home, which eventually birthed the idea of opening his own chocolate shop as a bean-to-bar enterprise that handles all phases of production.

“Mass-market chocolate makers try for the post profitable may to make chocolate,” he said. “Our focus is on quality. Big chocolate buys from west Africa, where it’s cheaper. We buy from makers in around the world, where diverse climates create more complex flavors.”

He noted that like wine, terroir impacts the quality of chocolate. As an example, he cited chocolate from Madagascar, which he said he had fruity undertones, in contrast to chocolate from Belize, that is lighter and sweeter. To procure cacao beans, Maverick implements direct-trade practices, purchase directly from growers, which provides a higher wage to its workers than fair trade.

A look inside its production kitchen underscores the intricate process of chocolate production. Its grinder requires four days to transform raw cacao beans into chocolate, mixers spin liquefied confection mixtures to the right consistency. Experimentation for new flavors is ongoing, with Picton’s research into emerging flavor trends inspiring new trials. He said the company’s biggest current seller is its Prohibition bar, which combines milk chocolate, bourbon, and sea salt (the bars contain less than 0.1% alcohol).
Paul Picton stands beside a mixer that blends white chocolate at Maverick Chocolate’s Rookwood location. Paul started Cincinnati's only bean-to-bar chocolate shop as a growth of his passion for bringing gourmet chocolates home from trips abroad.
In the future, he hopes to move production into a larger facility, and possibly opening a third retail location within 2024. Growth is clearly on Maverick’s radar, but quality will continue to be its driver – Picton is justifiably proud of the company’s seven Good Food Awards, which are bestowed to outstanding food purveyors by the Good Food Foundation. The hot chocolate is made from nearly an entire bar of chocolate, within enough milk for a drinkable consistency. One sip, and you will forever abandon Swiss Miss.

Schneider’s Sweet Shop
Northern Kentuckians have known about Schneider’s for decades, and the rest of the region is discovering this local treasure. In 1939, Robert and Lillian Schneider bought a storefront with an upstairs apartment and used candymaking equipment and launched the candy store on Fairfield Avenue in downtown Bellevue. Presumably, wartime and rationing made its early years lean, but the postwar boom helped Schneider’s Sweet Shop achieve stability. In 1986, son Jack and his wife Kathy became the second generation to run the shop and continued to make its time-honored treats with the same equipment.

Jack and Kathy’s daughter, Kelly Schneider Morgan, who began working in the shop at age 13, took the helm to become its third-generation owner with husband Tim. She’d worked for years in the hospitality industry, with her career taking her away from Greater Cincinnati. But family ties eventually prevailed, and she took over the shop in 2022, with Jack still serving as the lead candymaker – still using the same equipment purchased in 1939. Kelly is optimistic that a fourth generation could assume the Schneider’s mantle; her nephew Brady, Jack’s oldest grandson, is already working at the shop learning the family trade.

Local fans of opera cream candy know that Schneider’s is famous for them, and their sales ramp up in early February. Chocolate-covered cherries are also a perennial hit, as are its hand-dropped nonpareils.

Kelly recalls leaner economic times, with only a handful of open Fairfield Avenue business. However, the route’s revitalization has yielded an array of restaurants and specialty shops, as well as special events like Bellevue’s First Fridays that attracted even more traffic.

“We’re celebrating 85 years this year, and are excited for great times ahead,” Kelly said.

Carabello Coffee
Those growing up in Generation X or prior can only marvel at coffee’s transformation from a utilitarian workday or household prop to an experience enveloped within a culture. As coffeehouses saturate communities, it’s increasingly challenging to differentiate from competitors. Ambiance and branding often make the difference – with, above all, authenticity.

Carabello Coffee and Analog Bar, adjacent co-branded coffee shops that deliver complementary experiences, reside on Ninth Street on Newport’s east side. The company launched in 2010, when founder Justin Carabello began roasting beans in his home in 2009. They bought a one-pound coffee roaster and roasted coffee for friends, then invested in more equipment, and sold retail before opening a bricks-and-mortar shop in 2013 with the tagline, “Coffee and Compassion in Tandem.” A Columbia two-seater bicycle underscores their mantra, and its philosophy of community and connection.

They continue to roast their own coffee, and the opened the Analog Bar in 2016 (to clarify, it’s a coffee bar – no liquor license, but mocktails are on the menu). Analog provides specialty coffees such as pour-over brews, single-origin roasts, and custom specialty drinks.

Analog also hosts specialty events such as an after-hours ticketed Valentine’s event this Saturday, which includes a prix fixe menu of drinks and desserts (sorry, procrastinators, it’s sold out). Down the corridor at Carabello, Valentine’s Day décor enhances an already warm and engaging motif that’s bolstered by exemplary service and quality products. David Walker, Carabello’s manager, emphasized their commitment to excellence.

“Our employees work here for six months they can make drinks on the bar, with 20 hours of barista training,” he said. “Our business isn’t just about coffee, it’s about people and community.”

Carabello’s business purchases direct-trade coffee beans, which pays growers even more than fair trade, and it contributes to organizations such as The Mercy Kids, Kenya Kids Can, and Compassion International, which support at-risk children in coffee-producing countries.
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.