Valentine’s Day soon will be here, and Lisa Nelson is getting ready. She’s a chocolatier with a farm flavor, offering lots of gourmet chocolate treats with names like Franilla DuVille, Beer Naked, Ms. Figgy and a Wisconsin favorite, Ol’ Fashion. Nelson also is a farmer — on a small scale, but a farmer nevertheless. She uses the produce from her garden, orchard and crop fields to infuse flavors into her chocolates.
Nelson is the fourth generation of her family on the home farm in the Wisconsin Dells, Wis., area. She’s the chief chocolate officer of Roots Chocolates and a two-time international award winner who dreams up and taste-tests her recipes because, well, she loves chocolate.
“I dream of chocolate in the middle of the night, wake up and write notes,” Nelson says. Then she tries what she wrote down. Recipes, she admits, are the hardest part of the job. Not all work out, and she experiments with ingredients to satisfy her chocolate-loving taste buds.
“I raise anything geared toward chocolate — 25 to 30 different things,” she says. There are a lot of fruits and honey from her own hives. “Periodically, I put vegetables in as well.”
The Espresso chocolate has coffee bean, and Hot Flash includes two kinds of peppers: habanero and chile. Nelson infuses locally grown lavender. Her international award-winning chocolates are Chocolate Mint Basil (2014), which contains mint basil, and Lapsang Souchong (2017), which has smoked tea.
“I can’t grow chocolate,” she says, laughing, though she’s trying. She’s been to Nicaragua twice and hopes to visit Costa Rica this year to meet farmers and source her cacao beans. On a trip to Nicaragua last year, she brought back two cacao seeds. They are “at a florist right now, out of the cold ... so I can claim cacao can grow in Wisconsin,” she jokes. In Wisconsin, cacao could only be grown in a greenhouse, where temperatures can be regulated.
That’s Nelson’s farm background. Her business name comes from her farm roots and “because of the food [value-added products] I put in.” She experiments with other crops to add flavor to her chocolates. Right now, she’s waiting for her kiwi plants to begin bearing fruit.
In addition to her own farm, Nelson finds ingredients elsewhere. “I go out [looking],” she says. “I’m so picky about my ingredients. I’m a perfectionist. I will source from other local farms if possible, then in the state and then out from there. I like to keep my sourcing as close to home as possible. It’s important to me to know the food we put in our bodies.” She uses no chemicals on her farm.
“I like to experiment,” she adds. “I view farming as a grand experiment.” She says she believes traditional farmers should become more creative to help survive downturns in the markets.
She began going through seed catalogs last year for the coming growing season, looking for special flavors to add to her chocolates.
“I think I know what might taste good in chocolate,” she says. “I’ll cook it and see what it tastes like. I’ve been at this a while. I’ll try with various ingredients and see what happens. I’ll taste-test it many ways before I decide” to offer it commercially.
“There have been some failures,” she acknowledges. “I thought this [ingredient] would be great. I try it and no — never to market.”
On-farm chocolate factory
Nelson makes chocolate from beans but also buys it as product ready to blend in her own ingredients. Her factory is on her farm in a state-approved commercial kitchen, and she does the cooking, blending, cutting and packaging on her own, all in small batches. Her chocolates are individually branded with a transfer design.
She sells at farmers markets and events. “That’s how I reach out to people,” she says. She also sells on the farm and through her Roots Chocolates website.
A woman of great humor who’s worked at off-farm professional jobs, she found her niche in chocolate when she lost an information technology position and decided to study chocolate making in Canada. She interned there and in Kansas before returning to the home farm to begin Roots Chocolates in late 2010.
“I love the challenge of farming,” she concludes enthusiastically, “and the challenge of making chocolates. I love the diversity of it.”
From June through September, Nelson offers on-farm tours and tastings, which can be scheduled by contacting her through her website.
“I feel my product makes people happy, and that makes me happy,” Nelson says.
Buchholz writes from Fond du Lac, Wis.