Stuart Local Denise Castronovo Brings Award-Winning Chocolate To The Treasure Coast
Former geospatial scientist Denise Castronovo is changing the way South Floridians eat chocolate, and she’s doing it from a 725-square-foot commercial kitchen and retail space in downtown Stuart.
Castronovo Chocolate is one of only a handful of bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the state (and one of the few female chocolate makers in the country), purchasing single-origin cacao beans and roasting and grinding them on-site to produce a memorable lineup of chocolate products.
The company began as an experimental project after Castronovo and her husband moved from Massachusetts to Florida in 2005, evolved into a farmers market gig in 2013 and became an award-winning business in 2014. And with Castronovo’s Ph.D. coursework in ecology, sustainable farming practices became a top priority from the beginning.
“In my studies, I was always interested in issues of sustainability and rainforest conservation,” she says. “I’m also interested in the conservation of cacao and making sure that these heirloom varieties are not going extinct. When I started finding out that chocolate could have all these different flavors based on the origin and where the cacao comes from, I thought, ‘Wow, no one’s doing that.’ Nobody is letting the flavor come from the bean.”
Today, the self-taught chocolate maker—which differs from a chocolatier in that chocolate makers create their products directly from dried cacao beans rather than from pre-made chocolate—derives her flavor portfolio from a variety of farms across Latin America, and has the accolades to back up her choices.
In fact, Castronovo has to stop sorting beans to tally the awards she’s accumulated over the four years she’s been submitting her products to national and international chocolate competitions: somewhere in the 60s—and counting.
“The awards are fun; it’s reassurance that I’m doing something right and that [Castronovo Chocolate] definitely stands out among the crowd in terms of flavor and texture,” she says. “Sometimes I’ve used it as a testing ground too. I’ll make something new and send it off.”
Castronovo, along with her micro team of three employees, is now recognized internationally for her white chocolate and dark milk chocolate bars—two products that aren’t traditionally offered by other bean-to-bar companies.
“I try to look for beans that are more wild and native and heirloom to where they’re growing, and now I can be more selective too,” she says. “It’s so much easier because the craft chocolate movement in the U.S. has grown so much.”
Though the market has expanded over the past few years, Castronovo continues to set herself apart from other chocolate makers.
“How we roast [the beans] is an important step in flavor development because different roasts can make a different product,” she says of the chocolate, which can have notes of apricot, caramel and other flavors depending on origin and roasting techniques.
“Even if you have two chocolate makers using the same beans, the chocolate would taste different. [Roasting is] where you can really put your signature on the product. It’s the artisanal aspect of it.”
Single-origin chocolate bars consist entirely of cocoa beans, cane sugar and cocoa butter, and range from $10 to $14. Truffles, toffee bark and other goods are also available online, and chocolate beverages are available in the shop. All Castronovo Chocolate products are soy- and nut-free.
Chocolate chip cookies are sold every Thursday and Friday at lunchtime (reservations are accepted, as cookies sell out quickly). And while the cost of a single-origin chocolate product is considerably higher than mass-produced chocolate, customers continue to purchase from Castronovo because of the flavor distinction and sustainability aspects of her operation, and, quite possibly, because the shop smells so good.
“We’re paying top dollar for these beans, two to three times the fair trade price, but the farmers are getting paid so much more than the fair trade [wage],” Castronovo says. “We’re making sure they’re getting paid more, but it has to result in high quality too.”
Though her passion revolves around sustainable cocoa production throughout Latin America, Castronovo also enjoys collaborating with her Treasure Coast neighbors: holding events at Ground Floor Farm in Stuart; sharing cocoa nibs for use in chocolate beer recipes with Sailfish Brewing Company in Fort Pierce and Side Door Brewing Company in Port Saint Lucie; and creating an award-winning chocolate honey spread with Tumaco Colombia chocolate and raw-creamed saw palmetto honey from Stuart’s Hani Honey Company.
Some of Castronovo’s cacao farm connections have even stemmed from relationships she’s built with other Stuart businesses. For example, an employee of The Crafted Keg who frequently travels to Colombia was able to initiate a connection between Castronovo and a farm she was researching.
“One of the reasons we decided to use Latin American cacao was because a lot of our customers have ties back, so I feel like it’s been very advantageous,” she says. “Sometimes I’m able to find different cocoa beans that other people aren’t using.”
In Palm Beach County, Castronovo is always looking for wholesalers to carry her products, currently available at 561 Shoppe and Harold’s Coffee Lounge in West Palm Beach, as well as other retailers in large cities across the country.
While she does hope to move into a larger retail space and offer more single-origin chocolate bar varieties in the future, Castronovo is pleased with the current state of operations in her kitchen and in the communities from which she makes purchases.
“I’m always looking for [cacao beans] that protect rainforest environments and are not growing on a plantation; they’re coming from a family farm or a small community,” she says. “Several of my beans come from indigenous communities and it’s really helping them raise money they can use to protect their land and their culture.”
Castronovo Chocolate is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information, visit castronovochocolate.com.
555 S. Colorado Ave., Ste. 103, Stuart;772.521.1699; castronovochocolate.com
Top photo courtesy of Denise Castronovo