Chocolate sauce maven Vi Owens finds it pays to listen to mama
Chocolate. It’s even a delight to say. Choc. Choc-olate. Choco-late. There’s some kind of breathy, sexy thing that happens, no?
Perhaps not everyone walks around singing songs of cocoa or studying the subtle inflections of the name. But you’d be hard pressed to find many naysayers as to the euphoria of the nourishing nibs.
Dark. Milk. Melted. Chunk.
Again, I’m sorry but that’s some sensual stuff.
If only you could bottle the feeling… Look no further than Unsurpassed®, an artisanal Chocolate Sauce made right here in Litchfield County. Now before you go and get any visions of red satin tied Valentines in your head, let us just say right now that’s not quite the dessert we’re talking about. This confection, made with the premium ingredients and available in flavors such as Classic, Dark and Ginger is the stuff of true romance. Made from a generations old recipe with roots in the South, you can bet there’s a story behind it. A good one, at that. During the mid ‘60’s while her six children were in school, a certain “Miss Vi” of the small town of Darlington, South Carolina would often pay visit to her neighbor “Miss Esther.” Naturally, they would chat over dessert—ice cream with chocolate sauce. You might guess where this is going. Nothing like a bit of sweet-natured, neighborly rivalry. Inspired by that friend’s syrupy snack, “Miss Vi” decided to dream up and try a batch of her own ingenuity. “Miss Esther” was promptly informed of Miss Vi’s “Unsurpassed” results. Indeed it was.
And was the neighbor impressed by her inspired revelation? “I had to ask Mama this one. Her answer, “Possibly, because she was insanely jealous.” Jokingly.
The recipe was eventually handed down to Vi’s children and grandchildren. One daughter, local Vi Owens, has now added a little touch of her own. With a background like that, how could she not! We invited Vi to share a few more secrets behind this lick-the-jarclean concoction. She graciously obliged and sent along some serving suggestions too.
HitH: First, please tell us a little about yourself and how you wound up in the Litchfield Hills, please.
VO: I grew up in Darlington, a small town in South Carolina. I have 5 siblings; 2 sisters and 3 brothers, all spread out down south. I am next to the oldest. I’m the only Southern Yankee in the family. I left South Carolina during the early 80′s when I was 23 and headed north to New York City for an au pair job that a friend of mine had set up for me. The time commitment was minimal, leaving my days open until 3pm and weekends free. So, I got a part-time job working for an architectural firm and then later, after I was no longer needed for the au pair position, a job working full time for Laura Ashley, Inc. in their PR department. Growing weary of the city after several years, I took a sabbatical from my job and found Litchfield County through a dear friend who is now my dear husband.
HitH: When your mother created her chocolate, did she set out to invent one that hardened when poured over ice cream or was that a happy accident?
Coming from the horse’s mouth, she said she aimed for a sauce to congeal, but every cook is nervous until the proof is in the pudding.
HitH: How did you come up with the current flavors? Is one more popular? (You don’t have to play favorites.)
Last year I came out with the Dark Chocolate Unsurpassed because dark chocolate had become THE chocolate to have for better health benefits. The chocolate business has taken off in the past few years, with so many different flavors, that I really haven’t had to go far to come up with any special flavors. Right now, I have to say that my Classic Unsurpassed is probably the one people seem to like most.
HitH: Can you tell us why most chocolate sauce doesn’t harden or is that part of the secret?
We’ll take that to mean it’s part of the secret.
HitH: What’s the most unusual—and surprisingly tasty—food combination that you’ve tried with one of the sauces?
I have to say, a swirl of it, any of the 3 flavors, in Butternut Squash Soup.
HitH: Where are the beans from? Do you make everything nearby?
Beans? The only beans I know are butter beans (smiling). I prepare my sauce in a commercial kitchen nearby. It’s small and very convenient. Best feature—it has locks on the door. So, I am totally alone and concentrated. It’s nice to be away from my own kitchen, where I am constantly distracted by phone or TV.
HitH: How much of the sauce is made at a time?
I can process about 24 jars of chocolate sauce in an hour. I make sure I get the same consistency, not too thick, not too thin, when I am pouring the sauce into the jars, so measuring is important.
HitH: We have to ask, when the recipe was passed on to you, was it a dramatic moment or more humorous?
The recipe wasn’t passed down to me, per se. All the siblings have the recipe. I started giving the sauce to friends for Christmas and one friend suggested I sell it. So, I did. Thank you, Denise!
HitH: The package design is great. Tell us about it.
Oh, thank you! I love that part of the business. I knew the label had to be placed on top of the jar because of the way you have to prepare it. You have to place the jar in a pot of boiling water so labels would not work on the jar itself. While I was doing research on chocolate, I found a photo of the cocoa pod and thought, not only was the shape interesting, but the color process of the pod was beautiful. A friend and graphic designer created the top label drawing and also the beautiful “squiggly” on the booklet. I came up with the packaging. I think the bags give my product an advantage over other jarred products because of the presentation. And some people see it as a gift already wrapped!
HitH: Have you ever bartered the sauce, as a kid or grown up?
Yes. My favorite barter is with a friend, Nicholas Benson, who has
his own business roasting coffee beans. Excellent flavors. Sort of like
HitH: Biggest hurdle starting the business?
I don’t remember any hurdles, really. I suppose, if my Mother had not come up with the name for the sauce, finding the right one would have been tough.
HitH: Where is the sauce sold and what’s next for Unsurpassed?
I sell my Unsurpassed at Nine Main in New Preston, where it was first launched. It is also sold at The Pantry in Washington, Averill Farm in New Preston (during the Apple season), Hidden Valley Eatery in Washington, Holiday Farm in New Hartford, The Silo in New Milford (during the Holiday) and at The Washington Art Association for their annual Holiday Gift Boutique. My brother, Raymond, serves it for dessert at his restaurant, Sharkeys, in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. Big hit there! Next for Unsurpassed? A new flavor of course. Unsurpassed Dark Chocolate with Ginger. And who knows what else down the road!
HitH: Can you give us one hint to what’s in the sauce?
The dark chocolate I use is 70% cocoa. Anything higher is too bitter for my sauce. I did a lot of testing with different dark chocolates. Everyone just knows what they like best when tasting various flavors. I have friends who test my new sauce flavors whenever I think of one. Bless their hearts.
Lucky friends! We’d happily volunteer for the job.
And the serving suggestions we teased:
1. drizzle over pecan, apple or pumpkin pie
2. dip pretzels in the warm sauce and then roll in candied sprinkles
3. pour over pound cake and top with nuts
Vi is currently working on a booklet of ways to use Unsurpassed. The collection will come from friends and anyone who wants to contact her through email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.