Chocolatier Lucy Gustafson, owner of Santa Rosa's Recherche du Plaisir confectionery shop, got bitten by the chocolate bug after emptying her piggy bank for her first addiction: European travel.
The Forestville native took her inaugural trip to England with her family at age 9, then returned alone for a bicycle tour over the Alps at age 15. Six years later, she grabbed a backpack and set off on a five-month odyssey, visiting penpals in every country.
Returning to Sonoma County two days before Halloween, she took up chocolate candy-making as a budget strategy for giving gifts during the holidays.
"I was 21 and broke," Gustafson said, now 44. "So I went to Nancy's Fancy's (party supply store), bought a book and started making truffles, using their chocolate."
Recherche du Plaisir, loosely translated as the quest for pleasure, took home the Best of Show Candy award at this year's Harvest Fair Professional Food Competition, along with eight double gold, six gold and four silver medals.
Halloween marks the start of the unofficial chocolate season, which runs through the winter holidays and Valentine's Day, ending with Easter.
To celebrate her first Halloween at the shop, Gustafson has created a wide array of treats for adults and kids alike, in the shape of cute littlemice and bats, spooky skulls and skeletons. Halloween, she said, is the biggest candy holiday, followed by Valentine's Day, then Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.
Although the shop feels more like a Parisian patisserie than a haunted cemetery, Gustafson has hung out all kinds of spooky decor as a nod to her favorite holiday.
"At Halloween, it's all about creativity and throwing judgment out the door," she said. "You can play with your food."
Jonathan Taylor of Santa Rosa first walked into the shop a few months ago and ordered a dark chocolate truffle made with sea salt and ancho chile. He's now a regular customer.
"Instead of a cup of coffee at 11 a.m., I have chocolate," he said. "With good chocolate, you don't have to eat as much. And with her chocolate, we're bordering on the sublime."
Over the years, Gustafson worked in the budget travel and cruise industries, but she also tried her hand at bartending, where she enjoyed playing with different flavor combinations.
Meanwhile, requests for her chocolate confections kept pouring in during the holidays. A few years ago, she decided to plunge full-time into her hobby and signed up for an an online program for prospective chocolate entrepreneurs.
In 2009, she and her husband celebrated their 10th anniversary by taking a tour of every chocolatier, patisserie and boulangerie they could find in Normandy, Brittany and Paris.
"When I came back from France, I was surprised there wasn't more high-quality chocolate here," she said. "I'm trying to bridge the gap between the grocery store and having to go to San Francisco to a high-quality chocolatier."
To make the truffles, she uses her own blend of high-quality chocolates: Ghirardelli and Guittard for the ganache, and Callebaut for the outside shells.
"Sonoma County is ideal for a chocolatier," she said. "We have the fresh fruit for baking. Plus, we're strong in dairy. We also have the specialty wines, liqueurs and bubbles."
A dark-chocolate fan, Gustafson blends in brandies and liqueurs like Calvados, Frangelico and Midori in her concoctions as a sweet foil for the complex flavors of the chocolate.