I love chocolate. Yes, I know that everyone loves chocolate, but I consider myself a chocolate connoisseur. I could care less about wine; it gives me a headache. I still have fond memories of liqueur-filled chocolates I ate in France 20 years ago, as well as an unusual but delicious cherry/chili chocolate bar my husband brought home from Germany once. I have learned over the years that making chocolate — like wine, like cheese — is a culinary art; Diane Pinder is one chocolatier right here in New Jersey who has dedicated her profession to it.
Pinder, who will offer a veritable palette of chocolates at the Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation fundraiser on Monday, April 28, at the Westin in Princeton Forrestal Village, is the proprietor of Donna and Company, named for her sister, located in Cranford. Pinder was recently inspired by a trip to Italy to create a new line of artisanal chocolates — Donna Toscana — which take advantage of some rather unusual but delicious and delicate marriages of flavors; there’s the more traditional flavors like coffee and hazelnut but others sound as if plucked from a trattoria menu: olive oil and sea salt, balsamic vinegar, blood orange, and “drunken plum.”
Pinder uses only the best chocolate from South America and Belgium. My favorite flavors in the Tuscan line are the balsamic — with the vinegar lending just a tender “bite” to the mellow chocolate. The sea salt and olive oil was the creamiest truffle I have ever eaten.
Proceeds from the annual Taste of the Nation event benefit local organizations that fight hunger including in recent years the Isles Community Gardens program, HomeFront, Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, and the Foodbank of South Jersey. Last year the event raised over $52,000 for Mercer County organizations.
According to statistics provided by Share Our Strength, there are over 272,000 children at risk of hunger in New Jersey alone; that’s more than one in every 10 children in the state. More than 300,000 kids qualify for summer meals but don’t receive them, and 207,088 children are elegible for but do not receive free or reduced-price school breakfast, often because parents, educators, and community activists are unaware that such programs exist. In other cases, children feel stigmatized by taking part in a free meal program and opt for cheap junk food or no food at all.
Attendees at this year’s Taste of the Nation event will be able to sample not only Pinder’s Tuscan chocolates but also offerings from dozens of area chefs including three restaurants so new to the area that they have not yet opened: On the Bone and Ruth’s Chris, both steakhouses, which are in construction along Route One, and Eno Terra, the latest offering from the Terra Momo Restaurant Group (Mediterra, Theresa’s, and the Witherspoon Bread Company), now under construction in Kingston. All three are scheduled to open in late spring or early summer.
Along with the tasting opportunities, the gala will feature a silent auction. One special auction item this year is an opportunity to spend a day working with Chef David Burke, national spokesperson for Taste of the Nation, at his New York headquarters, as well as dinner for two at his restaurant, davidburke & donatella. Attendees will also have an opportunity to bid on a chance to work on the set of the popular Food Network show, Iron Chef, working with a food stylist. Another auction offering is a gourmet multi-course small plates dinner for 14 prepared by Marcia Willsie, owner of Ezekiel’s Table (U.S. 1, March 23) at her 300-year-old farmhouse in Princeton, and several chef-members of the Lawrenceville Culinary Consortium.
Pinder’s road to chocolate success has been a winding one. She grew up in Sayreville and after getting her associates’ degree in nursing from Middlesex Community College in 1973, she worked at several New Jersey hospitals. She ended up in Cranford while working at Rahway General Hospital. “I knew a lot of people from that area, and it seemed like a great place to live with a great high school for my son,” she says. She left hospital nursing and entered the corporate world as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, but when her children were grown, “I decided it was time to do something for me,” she says.
She’d always been interested in running a business, and began with thoughts of a gift basket business. The idea, she says, was inspired by her father, who had worked at Proctor and Gamble while she was growing up. “When I was a kid the company always sent gift baskets to the employees at Christmas,” she says. While researching a source for chocolates for her gift baskets she became interested in learning more about making artisan candies.
She opened her store in Cranford in 2005, and began taking classes in chocolate making, first at the New School in New York City, then an online program, Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts. The program also offered an opportunity to spend a few months studying in Europe. While Germany and Switzerland may be better known for their chocolate, Pinder chose to go to Tuscany.
“It may not be as well known (for chocolate), but they are just as passionate about their food,” Pinder says. In Tuscany she discovered the Slow Food movement, which emphasizes the use of fresh, local ingredients, no preservatives, and embraces the philosophy that food should be offered in an atmosphere “that helps people to sit down and enjoy themselves while they are eating,” she says.
Pinder’s Tuscan line of chocolates almost immediately began to draw attention to her small store. She first took the chocolates to a tasting event in New York City, and ended up as one of five featured chefs on a segment of the “Today Show.” Her work with a wedding planner, Jenny Orsini of Garwood, a featured wedding planner on the Style Network’s “Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?” also brought Pinder more national attention. When Orsini used Pinder’s chocolates as wedding favors, Pinder was also featured in the episode. “The television show has brought in a lot of business from brides who want exactly the same thing they saw on the show,” Pinder says.
Her chocolates have also come to the attention of renowned chef Craig Shelton of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, NJ. Shelton is one of only 22 United States members of the Relais Gourmand, a group of the most celebrated names in the gastronomic world. “When I was asked to meet with him and bring some of my chocolates to taste it took me awhile to realize exactly who he was,” Pinder says. “Then I was so excited that someone of his caliber liked my chocolates.”
“Diane’s skill as a master chocolatier was immediately obvious to me with my first sampling of her Donna Toscana line of Tuscan Style chocolates,” Shelton says. “Her use of the finest South American chocolate and natural ingredients, which she finely balances, are evident in the high quality of her chocolate creations.” Shelton was so impressed that he has asked Pinder to develop a special chocolate line which will bear his name. Shelton already has his own line of coffees and espressos, and the new chocolates will include coffee flavors.
“Chef Shelton has some really fantastic ideas for this line of chocolates,” Pinder says. “These creations are going to set a whole new standard in the world of artisan chocolates.”
Taste of the Nation, Monday, April 28, 6 to 9 p.m., Share Our Strength, Westin Hotel, Forrestal Village, Plainsboro. The annual gourmet food and wine tasting event showcasing the culinary talents of more than 30 upscale area restaurants. The entire ticket price benefits HomeFront, Isles’s Community Gardens program, Mercer Street Friends Food Cooperative, and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. $85; $95 at the door. www.tasteofthenation.org/princeton or 877-26-TASTE.