IN THE LEAD UP TO EASTER, WE VISIT A HUNTER VALLEY LOCAL CELEBRATING THE FINE ART OF CHOCOLATE MAKING.
CHOCOLATIER Aymee Slaviero has a better excuse than most for spending Easter at work. “I tell the kids I’m helping the Easter bunny,” says the owner of Cocoa Nib, an artisan chocolate shop in Pokolbin in the NSW Hunter Valley. Aymee, who lives in nearby Brunkerville with her husband Gianni and their sons, Lucca, eight, and Louis, four, loves the excitement and creativity the holiday brings despite the craziness. “For me it’s a sea of chocolate!” Aymee was just 17 when she left the Hunter Valley to pursue a career as a chef in Sydney. “Back then there wasn’t a lot happening in the Hunter on the food scene,” says the 35-year-old, whose natural flair for pastry soon led her away from conventional cooking. Fast-forward a few years and she’s now back in the renowned viticulture region, with a shop at Keith Tulloch Wine estate where she’s neighbours with award-winning restaurant Muse Kitchen. A visit to Cocoa Nib’s café and tasting room, nestled between the natural beauty of the Broken Back Range and the estate’s vines, leaves little doubt as to why. “I was never really a Sydney girl,” she says. “I always felt my heart was here.” Following more than 10 years in the kitchens of some of Sydney’s high-end restaurants including Catalina — where she met Gianni, a chef, in 1999 — it was during a stint in Melbourne in 2005 that Aymee’s interest turned to chocolate. After accepting a job with luxury chocolate retailer Koko Black and further honing her skills, Aymee decided it was, “what I wanted to do forever”. Returning to Sydney, she began making chocolate for friends in her spare time while still working long hospitality hours. In 2011, after Louis was born, she began looking for something more flexible and family-friendly. After moving back to Brunkerville, Aymee contemplated starting her own business. “I was on maternity leave and I thought, now is my chance to see if it’s going to work,” she says. Setting up a commercial kitchen in the family home, where all the chocolates are made today, Aymee launched Cocoa Nib at Newcastle’s monthly The Olive Tree Market. “Everybody went crazy for it so I thought, I’m onto something here,” she remembers. In the midst of searching for a shop space, a lady who happened to work for Amanda and Keith Tulloch took some Cocoa Nib chocolates into the winery with her. “She knew they had an empty little spot,” says Aymee. “They loved the samples and called to offer me the space.” Opening her shop in early 2015 was an exciting albeit exhausting time, and the chef credits her mum, Linda, who runs operations at Cocoa Nib, with holding the business together. “She is my rock,” says Aymee. Linda loves working alongside her daughter, helping out with everything from cleaning to bookkeeping. “It’s like working in heaven!” she says of being surrounded by chocolate all day. “Customers say they can tell I’m a very proud mum.” Aymee orders her base chocolate from France, where she has sourced a variety with a unique flavour profile. “Australia uses predominantly Belgium chocolate and I wanted to give myself a point of difference.” she says. Sourcing local and seasonal produce where possible, other ingredients might include honeycomb or macadamias bought at the local farmers market. Not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of volunteers offering to help. “There’s always someone putting up their hand to taste test,” she says. In the months leading up to Easter, Aymee looks to Instagram and magazines for inspiration for her designs. “All the eggs and chocolates are handpainted and airbrushed with coloured cocoa butter,” she says. A year-round favourite are the freckles, which are all individually hand-piped. For these, Aymee uses chocolate with a slightly higher cocoa percentage so they’re not as sweet as standard milk chocolate. “They’re very adult-like,” she says, “I think I have more mums and dads hooked on my freckles than I do kids!” Leaving her heart in the Hunter temporarily to gain experience from the best in the business has paid dividends for Aymee, who can now share beautiful artisan chocolates with her local community. “It has been nice to bring something back, to give people something special that they didn’t have here before,” she says. Cocoa Nib is at 982 Hermitage Road (Cnr of Deasys Road), Pokolbin, NSW. (02) 4998 7350; cocoanib.com.au