EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, we inaugurate a periodic Food + Dining column in which we ask Maine chefs to share recipes and give us firsthand accounts of their lives in the food business. This is the first of three columns by Black Dinah Chocolatiers co-founder Kate Shaffer.

It’s an ordinary Thursday afternoon in Westbrook. I am sitting at my desk at Black Dinah Chocolatiers’ new facility on Main Street, typing up production notes for the coming week, when a major earthquake startles me out of my chair (and my glass-walled office) and under the nearest door frame.

I’m alone, so am only slightly embarrassed when I realize that it’s not actually an earthquake, but rather the army of road equipment that is tearing up our parking lot, pounding the earth into submission. The corner of Main and Bridge streets – our corner – is undergoing a major facelift, which includes two new bridges over the river, new sidewalks, new roads and a new parking lot. The construction explains the daily flashbacks I’m having to my California childhood, and also why the usual steady stream of customers to our sweets shop, which is attached to our factory, has slowed to a trickle.

I know that it will be over in the next couple of weeks and ultimately that the construction will bring us more business. And in a funny way, the earth-shaking demolition and re-building is an apt metaphor for my own life: I feel blasted from my own foundations, blown away by how much things have changed in the last 10 months.

Kate Shaffer was able to expand Black Dinah Chocolatiers with her husband after moving from their 500-square-foot space on Isle au Haut to Westbrook. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Kate Shaffer was able to expand Black Dinah Chocolatiers with her husband after moving from their 500-square-foot space on Isle au Haut to Westbrook. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Our new facility is 4,200 square feet of brand-new, state-of-the-art, squeaky-clean materials, and it’s beautiful. But it’s a far cry from where Black Dinah got its start – my husband Steve’s and my tiny flagship location on remote Isle au Haut, 3 1/2 hours north of here and 45 minutes out to sea. This time of year, a staff member might arrive with heaps of fresh-caught halibut, and we’d share a lunch of it on our café’s sun-dappled deck, serenaded by migrating birds and wood frogs, amid budding maples, the stream burbling behind our café. No matter how shiny and new the stainless steel and copper are here in Westbrook, they can’t compete with that.

I might be romanticizing. Running a growing business from a beautiful but remote outpost like Isle au Haut is no small feat. We started making hand-crafted chocolate confections from our island kitchen in 2007. After receiving widespread press and a few national awards, we expanded our production, moved it to a dedicated facility on our island property and hired our neighbors to work with us. Before long, the business outgrew the new space. And the romance of our location, which sometimes attracted new customers, began to frustrate them, too.

“Why aren’t you in stores in southern Maine?” I can’t tell you how many times I heard this question from someone reluctantly paying shipping on a small order to a Portland address. Or, “Why are you so hard to find?!” from an over-heated summer tourist stumbling through our café door. Not to mention our own island-based frustrations – high overhead, shipping delays because of bad weather, the pure physical stress of lugging our ever-growing number of supplies on and off the mail boat. The move to the mainland last June was the right, the inevitable, decision. Still, my heart aches every day for Isle au Haut.

I am shaken from my thoughts by another round of pounding from the parking lot, and then surprised by a tentative “Hello?” from someone in our retail store. I walk in from my adjacent office, and face what feels a lot like a scene from the past: a somewhat bewildered-looking customer, his face tinged with frustration. He throws up his hands. “You were easier to find on Isle au Haut!”

Chocolates await final packagaing at Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Chocolates await final packagaing at Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Shaking off life’s little ironies is second-nature for the small business owner. I fight the momentary urge to sigh, defeated, and instead, smile, and offer my customer a sample. The chocolate placates him as he savors what he has presumably made the arduous journey to Westbrook to find. I apologize for the construction, and 15 minutes later, he leaves like so many of our island customers have in the past: laden with chocolate and proud that he successfully navigated his way to this secret spot in the wilds of Westbrook.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. We want to continue to grow our business, and the new location will let us do that. What took us one, sometimes two weeks on the island, can now be done in a single day. Specialized equipment and much more space account for some of the time savings, but most of it is sheer logistics. In Westbrook, we have easier access to materials, to shipping, to fresh ingredients and to labor. It’s a dramatic game-changer.

After almost a year here, though, I’ve realized that in many ways, we’re starting the business all over again. There’s the expected – dealing with bigger spaces, bigger numbers, new and different challenges. But there’s also this sense of newness, that ever-present parent-of-a-newborn-fear that if you leave your baby alone for even a single second, something is bound to go wrong. The need to constantly nurture, feed and build. And the knowledge that there is, again, a very long road ahead of us.

Hopefully.

The bewildered customer today isn’t alone. I hear his story several times a month. And when the Fed-Ex or UPS guys chide us for being so hard to get to in the middle of all this construction, we smile and nod, and stop ourselves from whining, “Yeah, but you should have seen where we USED to be!” The truth is, I feel lucky to be here. I feel lucky that our crew takes such care with everything they make. I feel lucky that they, too, recognize the value of the space they work in. Every single one of us knows what it took to get here. But every once in a while, Steve and I come home from work and wonder if we’re up to the challenge. It’s then that I remember the island spruce needles and twigs we built a company out of in the first place, and say, “Hey, babe. We’ve already done the impossible.” Haven’t we?

Hannah Siebert wraps boxes of chocolates with ribbon at Black Dinah Chocolatier. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Hannah Siebert wraps boxes of chocolates with ribbon at Black Dinah Chocolatier. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

SPICY FISH STEW

If I ever need a lightening-fast transport to summer on Isle au Haut, I make this stew. The light tomato and white wine base can accommodate whatever kind of fish or seafood is super-fresh and available, which makes it the perfect “little black dress” of easy, but elegant, summer meals.

The recipe says simply to cook in large pot. Use a beautiful pot, if you have one, especially if you’re making this to exorcise a cold or the flu. I use my green Le Creuset, a wedding gift from dear friends. There’s something about this lusty-looking stew in that green pot that just makes my heart sing! Use whatever white wine you like to drink, as the recipe doesn’t require the whole bottle.

Serves 4 as a main course

2-4 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch dried thyme

Pinch ground turmeric

Pinch fennel seed (if not using fresh fennel)

Saffron threads

Pinch crushed chile

1/2 large yellow onion, or 1 large leek, chopped

2 ribs of celery, or 1/2 small fennel bulb, cut in small dice

1/2 yellow pepper, cut in small dice

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 (28-ounce) can whole or diced tomatoes

White wine

1 pound cod or other mild white fish

1 pound raw squid or shrimp

1 dozen fresh mussels or clams, well-scrubbed

Handful of parsley leaves, minced

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add a pinch or two of each spice – the thyme, turmeric, fennel seed (if using), saffron (just a pinch will do) and crushed chile – and heat a few seconds or so until they become very fragrant. Add the onion or leek, celery or fennel bulb, yellow pepper and garlic all at once. Stir the vegetables until coated with the olive oil and cook over low heat until soft, about 20 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and their juice, and, if they’re whole, crush them in the pot with a potato masher. Fill the now-empty tomato can half with water and half with white wine and add to the pot. Cook the mixture until bubbling, then simmer for a short or long while. If you’re making this ahead of time, go ahead and stop here. It’s best if all those spices really have a chance to season the stew over time, so hours or even a day ahead improves it.

But if you’re like me, and don’t plan past the morning, just forge ahead. After the stew has simmered and is very hot, and just before you’re ready to eat, add the fish and squid (or shrimp) and mussels (or clams). Cook for a few minutes, until the fish is cooked through and the mussels or clams have opened, then toss in the parsley and give it all a good stir.

Serve immediately in wide, pretty bowls, accompanied by warm crusty bread slathered in good butter.

Kate Shaffer and her husband, Steve Shaffer, co-own Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook and Isle au Haut. Kate Shaffer is the author of “Desserted: Recipes and Tales from an Island Chocolatier.” Kate Shaffer can be contacted at: [email protected] Chocolatiers.com


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.