The Crop Circle Chronicles: Part 2

FunnySquareLast time, we visited the kitchen with Chica de Gallo as our host, where the conversation circled around avocados, limes, and mouth-searing peppers. For our second go-around at the Crop Circle communal kitchen space in Jamaica Plain, things were a little more sweet than spicy.

We arrived at 9pm on a chilly Thursday last week, while the Roxy’s crew was wrapping up for the night and members of the Nola’s Fresh team were sticking labels on salsa tubs. We’d barely said our hellos to hosts Russ & Shari of Apotheker’s Chocolate before they were offering us nibbles off a broken bar of their Cashew & Sea Salt chocolate—the first of many such generosities to come.

The vast industrial space was pretty drafty, but the familiar warmth of toasted coconut perfumed the air as Russ pulled sheets of the stuff out of a massive, rugged and weathered-looking oven. “Just wait til you smell the almond extract,” he remarked, telling us how their process evokes memories of his childhood growing up in a Czechoslovakian family, where the kitchen often gave off this marzipan aroma.

If you’ve grown familiar with the Apotheker’s bee-sweetened chocolate line at our shop over the past few months, you might be wondering what almond extract and toasted coconut have to do with this husband-and-wife duo’s line of sugar-free chocolate bars. Russ & Shari have made a name for themselves in just a few short months, crafting all-natural chocolate that uses simple ingredients (they even bring small jars of their ingredients to demos, so you can see just how straightforward and elemental their process is). But they don’t currently have a coconut bar, so why did it smell like a beach vacation on this frigid spring night in JP?

weirdmarshmallowThe two masterminds behind Apotheker’s have been dreaming up a new product in the new year. We teased it in our April Beer & Wine of the Month Club boxes and are finally ready to share with you, our loyal masses, the Apotheker Mallow: a bee-sweetened marshmallow that uses real marshmallow root and honey. Until last week, we had only tried their almond marshmallow covered with toasted coconut, but the night we stopped by the kitchen, in a Wonka-esque twist of good luck, Russ & Shari were doing their first full run of vanilla Mallows dipped in their Classic Dark chocolate.

“You guys are either going to document great success or great failure,” Russ joked. It’s hard to imagine these two failing at anything—a sculptor by trade, Shari spent a large part of the night on her hand-made marshmallow-cutting grid board, using a very sharp knife to partition slabs of marshmallow that looked like marble and bent like a foam-top mattress pad.

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“Part of the reason we work so well as a team is we’ve found things we’re each good at in the kitchen,” Russ said, “so we balance each other out pretty well.” For instance, Shari will always be the mallow-cutter, while Russ is the one in charge of folding each chocolate bar into its gold paper wrap. This focus on perfection is a challenge in a communal kitchen, where a draft of cold air off the loading dock or a hot kitchen on a busy day can make or break an entire batch of chocolate. To work around this, the couple often find themselves in the kitchen at odd hours, sometimes as early as 5am. The night of our visit, Russ & Shari were still working hard when we threw in the towel at midnight.

While graduating from the shared space at Crop Circle might be an eventual goal, these two aren’t letting small nuisances distract from growing their homesteading vision. They have dreams of making their own honey someday, and they recently acquired four baby chicks which live at their home in Malden (named Lucille 3 a.k.a. Mrs. Feather Bottom, Sweet D, Madame Clucks-a-Lot, and Vivian Pickles). Whether or not these little ladies will be involved in a future Apotheker’s product remains to be seen, but for the time being you can follow their Instagram for regular stunning photos of this adorable side-project.

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Taking ingredients back to the source is a major goal for Russ & Shari, and one that guided them as they created their Mallows. Russ informed us that people have been using marshmallow root to soothe upset stomachs and sore throats for centuries—ancient Egyptians even mixed it with honey to make candies and teas for medicinal use.

Honey can lose some of its healthful properties when heated, but to be sure their marshmallows still contained lots of beneficial pollen and enzymes after cooking, Russ & Shari consulted with Shari’s herbalist, who has influenced the growth of Apotheker’s since Shari’s early days of giving up sugar (the company began with Russ recipe-testing for hours at home, trying to make a chocolate bar that sugar-intolerant Shari could enjoy).

The result is dessert that doubles as medicine. Almost every ingredient moonlights as a homeopathic cure-all, from the raw Colorado desert blossom honey that they source from a 5th generation beekeeper, to the sustainably farmed marshmallow root they get from a company in Eugene, Oregon. Even their gelatin, sold as a homeopathic joint remedy, comes from grass-fed cows living happy, environmentally-friendly lives. And of course the chocolate is their very own, made with single-origin cocoa that they source directly by working with the daughter of cocoa farmer in the Dominican Republic (it arrives in 50lb. blocks, which Russ literally has to pick up and drop several times to break apart for use).

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This emphasis on mindful eating and sourcing has been an important theme in Shari’s work as both a cook and as an artist. While studying at Brandeis & Boston University, her sculptural work often focused on how we as a species have the ability to dominate another species, while also maintaining an innocent ignorance about it (it should probably come as no surprise that many of her sculptures were crafted out of beeswax).

And here we see the balance of their skillsets at play again—Russ went to Northeastern for graphic design, a topic he still teaches two nights a week at the SMFA. “The thing about us both being artists is that we’re doing this as a form of art,” Shari said, bringing up the design of their logo and packaging as an example. It was Shari’s idea to design custom chocolate molds with a hexagonal beehive pattern, while Russ helped design their boxes and branding.

RussShariMarshmallowsSo what’s next for this duo? They apparently wake up in the middle of the night mumbling new ideas to each other, so it’s anyone’s guess, but it will probably involve workhorse ingredients that please palate, mind, and body. Shari experiments regularly with homemade teas, tinctures, and other natural wellness products that could show up in the Apotheker’s line-up someday—she poured me a cup of tea at the kitchen that had about 15 healing ingredients in it, and gave me a recipe for homemade conditioner.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of spending the evening with these two, though—aside from tea and endless mallow samples—was witnessing how happy they are just to be pursuing this all-natural and mindful lifestyle full-time. That they now get to make a living out of it—well, Russ will have to craft sugar-free icing to put on this bee-sweetened cake.

Dying to try the marshmallows? The first batch arrived just yesterday, so stop by anytime to get your fix. And stay tuned for details on upcoming in-store demos with Russ & Shari at AP! 

All photos taken by cheesemonger, staff photographer, and wino-in-training Caley Mahoney. 

Stay tuned for future installments in this series, where we will get our friends at Nola’s Fresh Salsas and Alex’s Ugly Sauce to let us look over their shoulders for an evening.

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