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Posted on Fri, Aug 14, 2009 : 5:15 a.m.

A2eatwrite: Local Love Fridays: the sweetest of sweet gems

By Jennifer Shikes Haines

Shikes Haines - selection of Sweet Gems truffles
I don't think Matt Morgan and Tommy York could have planned it better. If they want someone to linger in their shop, what better strategy than to plant a chocolate kitchen by the front entrance?

The delightful odor of chocolate envelops you as you move closer and closer to Nancy Biehn's workspace - the kitchen and main showroom for Sweet Gem Confections, where Nancy is the chief executive chocolatier.

I met Nancy at the end of a long day, and was somewhat mixed about a late-ish afternoon interview. All hesitation disappeared when I walked into her space. I felt like Charlie entering the Chocolate Factory.

shikes haines - display items at Sweet Gem Confections
Of course, there was also Nancy's wonderful energy and love for her craft, which was evident everywhere: the gorgeous display case, filled with myriad types of her hand-crafted, artisan chocolates, a wall of colorful ribbons, cooling racks filled with groups of the different truffles, crafted recently.

My next question seemed superfluous, surrounded by all this sumptuous glory. "How did you get started with all this?"

Nancy had taken a year in Oviedo, Spain to "find herself" as many of us do at some point or another in our lives. During that year she learned to really look at food for the first time. She grew up on a farm, and food was definitely the mainstay of her family's life, but the attitude was always "eat to live". In Spain, influenced by the mother in the family she lived with, food began to take on an almost magical feel. She loved the care that went into cooking, the travel to taste new foods or wines, the different levels of aesthetics that went into each meal. After discovering a favorite chocolate shop in Oviedo, she completely fell in love.

Shikes Haines - Nancy Biehn at work at Sweet Gem Confections
When she came back, she knew she wanted to learn how to make chocolate. She spent the next ten years learning about her craft on her own, and then taking a couple of patisserie classes at Schoolcraft College in Livonia to learn tempering. After making chocolates as gifts for several years, a friend suggested she go into business. The whole Ann Arbor area is richer for her decision to follow that friend's advice.

Shikes Haines - Orange Zinger Truffles
Nancy's chocolates are as beautiful as they are delicious. They have been a part of special celebrations for our family ever since my husband and I met her at her stall at the Farmers Market on a cool, autumn day last year.

Like all good, local food, her chocolates are seasonal, and while some favorites, such as milk chocolate mint ("cream infused with fresh mint leaves, mixed with milk chocolate, dipped in dark chocolate and embellished with a colorful finish") are available year-round, others are dependent on the seasons, such as the current peach truffles - tarragon-infused cream and peach puree mixed with Maralumi 45% milk chocolate and then dipped in dark chocolate. Nancy's selections are based on whim and by suggestions from customers; one of the things she loves about running her own business is the flexibility to change and to be spontaneous.

Shikes Haines - Strawberry Pate truffle
What makes Sweet Gems unique is that Nancy uses a variety of single-origin chocolates and then uses the essence of a particular chocolate, whether it's smoky or fruity, complex with various notes, or more straightforward, and matches it with the very best local ingredients or top-shelf liqueurs. She uses cream and butter from Calder Dairy, raspberries that she picks herself from Makielski's, strawberries from Gibbs Berry Farm and honey from various local sources. Before the demise of Leopold Brothers, she made a fabulous truffle that used their stout. To give you a sense of the range of her truffles, she creates items as basic (but oh so amazing) as my personal favorite, the Strawberry Pate - "Fresh strawberry pectin fruit pate dipped in Michel Cluizel's single origin "Conception" dark chocolate" to one of the most beautiful and complex in her current repertoire - Jasmine Tea w/ Citrus Zest - "Dark chocolate and fresh cream infused with pearl jasmine tea and grapefruit zest, diamond cut, dipped in white chocolate, and finished with a pattern of branches and flowers".

Shikes Haines -  Jasmine with Citrus Zest truffle

In addition to Nancy's extraordinary truffles, she also makes decadent caramels, chocolate barks of various types, chocolate covered toffee and a lovely, spicy cocoa mix. She also puts together chocolate-making classes for groups of four to six. Upcoming classes will be taking place from 1:00 - 3:30 on the following Saturday afternoons: September 19th, September 26th, October 24th, and November 14th. If you're interested about the experience, local blogger and wedding poet Chloe Miller has a lovely write up on her blog, Wordarrangement's Blog, of a recent class.

If you wish to see Nancy at work, you can watch a video of an interview with Nancy here.

Sweet Gem Confections can be found at Morgan and York, 1928 Packard Road Ann Arbor, MI 48104. You can get more information from Nancy or sign up for classes by calling 734-929-6513 or by e-mailing info at sweetgemconfections dot com. You can also order Sweet Gem Confections online.

Each Friday, I will be highlighting a small, local, food business.


I'm Jennifer Haines and my blog is a2eatwrite. Please let me know about any small area food businesses by contacting me at: Jenshaines at gmail dot com.



Mon, Aug 17, 2009 : 6:14 a.m.

Mmmm... definitely my first stop the next time I get into town!

Elizabeth Palmer

Sat, Aug 15, 2009 : 8:58 p.m.

They look so lovely! I love that "eat to live" attitude - it can mean so many things and they are all good.


Fri, Aug 14, 2009 : 10:07 p.m.

I began to drool the instant I laid eyes on that first picture! I simply cannot believe all of the hidden treasures you have in Ann Arbor. I think I really do have to keep a list and come visit for a weekend just to hit all of these amazing places! I will have to stop for a piece of chocolate, for sure!

Jennifer Shikes Haines

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 : 2:48 p.m.

Goofball - the single origin chocolates that Nancy uses are pure. Callebaut is certainly known in Ann Arbor. Nancy actually took courses at the Callebaut Institute in Montreal. Rena - good point! It's always good to gift ourselves at times. Peggy - I haven't seen Minerva Chocolates in a long time. Rosemary - I couldn't agree more - I love Morgan and York. Sweet Gem Confections is a business within the business - it's separate, even though it's housed there.

Rosemary Bodley

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 : 11:05 a.m.

Chocolate is just one of the delights of Morgan and York. more familiarly know as the Big Ten Deli. The many choices for food and drink and the pleasant hospitality of the staff make a visit delightful. I must try the chocolate. Stop in soon.

Peggy Lampman

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 : 6:22 a.m.

Lovely account of spectacular chocolates-that is a wonderful store-where I buy my proscuitto! Thanks for bringing it into focus. Do you know if Judy Weinblatt is still making Minerva Chocolates in town? That's what I sold many years ago but I haven't seen it around in years. I have seen Callebaut sold around town.

Rena Basch

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 : 6:14 a.m.

Just seeing or smelling Nancy's chocolate creations induces that kid-in-the-candy-shop feeling! Her flavor pairings are really amazing. I buy the SW gift boxes to get a variety, and always pretend that I need one extra box in case I forgot someone, ie me.


Fri, Aug 14, 2009 : 5:39 a.m.

Despite my personal weird dislike for all things chocolate, it does sound like this store has a passion for chocolate. As a Belgian I know we always boast to create our chocolate base with 100% cocao butter whereas foreign major companies don't do so and use different fats in them. do you know what her base chocolate consists off? I also know that Callebout is the biggest chocolate producer and one of the major suppliers for professional chocolate makers around the world. Just curious to know if he's know in Ann Arbor.