Smiles always mattered for Giusseida Sicoli, the dentist turned owner of Houston’s Araya Artisan Chocolates. She’s just created them in wildly varied ways.
It’s so different from a patient showing up in pain or not liking something. Everyone is happy when they walk in now, and they leave happier. It’s very gratifying. Even I am made happier,” she said.
Venezuelan-born, the confectioner keeps high-quality, premium-grade Venezuelan chocolate at the heart of her candy studio, but that improbable fate developed slowly.
As a girl, Giusseida was unmoved by chocolate treats and often left hers untouched. Today she adores them. At Araya Artisan Chocolate, she serves Houston (and the globe, by mail) chocolate bars, beautifully crafted chocolate gift boxes, truffles, and slices of fruit bathed in a silky coat of delicious brown delight.
“I always tell customers that maybe when my kids are older I’ll open a dentistry office and give them 20% off,” she joked.
If they held her to it, she’d have quite a waiting list. Araya Artisan Chocolates are not just popular with the community. They’re in demand with corporate clients nationwide who prefer customized work. Banks, law firms, insurance companies, Fortune 500 companies, and even professional sport teams and leagues have patronized the chocolatier. And while serving gifts for teams, employees, and vendors keeps the shop busy, local customers are deeply treasured.
Birth of a Chocolatier
In Venezuela, a young Giusseida was often found at her father’s bakery, chatting and enjoying the customers. The communal feeling was mutual, but if guests brought her chocolates as small gifts, they missed the mark. Giusseida had no taste for them. “I would try to resell them,” she told us, laughing.
Years later, she learned to appreciate the fruits of her country’s farms from half a world away. She became enamored with the delicacy while living in Switzerland. As she visited beautiful Swiss chocolate shops, she noticed how the most prized chocolate came from her home country. Every shop had a little Venezuelan flag to let visitors know where they sourced. Chocolates from elsewhere were often mixed with Venezuelan stuff to impart an extra special touch. As she explored, Giusseida found that Venezuela was a symbol of purity and high-quality cacao. Chocolate became her future.
Now settled with her husband and three children in Houston, she’s spent three years at the helm of Araya Artisan Chocolates, having purchased it from previous owners. With recipes expertly crafted by lauded chocolate master Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe, Giusseida faithfully maintains them. Customers thank her by returning. One client picks up 20 champagne truffles every two weeks, flying them privately to her ranch in West Texas, said Giusseida.
Heat and Habanero
Regular Araya guests drew Giusseida in. They gave her advice on which sweets to try, each a favorite for a different customer. They also guided her as the new owner, when she turned down opportunities to save money on recipe tweaks – featuring a different bourbon for that chocolate truffle, for instance – based on feedback from those long-standing patrons. For all the right reasons, the recipes created by the Basque Culinary World Prize winner Di Giacobbe stayed the same. With one exception.
“When I arrived, the Mango Habanero chocolate was not spicy”, she said. Having grown up in Venezuela and also lived in Mexico while studying advanced orthodontics, Giusseida found this puzzling. Anything that says habanero should have some spice, she thought. Only three of the spicy peppers were going into the recipe for that particular bonbon, she found. After some experimentation, she dialed it way up. The batches now receive ten habaneros, with quite a lot more kick as a result.
“It’s a little flavor bomb,” said Giusseida. You taste the salt first, then the sweetness of the mango and cream, and finally, the kick of spice.
That exception became the owner’s favorite flavor out of many adventurous pieces of chocolate made by her shop. They include a best-selling White Chocolate Passion Fruit, Chipotle, and a Hazelnut Praline bonbon. Vegan flavors like dark chocolate Strawberry Balsamic and Bourbon and Cherry persuade any food lover, and slices of pear, orangettes, ginger, and mango enrobed in a sleek coat of chocolate coax the tired palate back to life.
Bonbons, Best Sellers, and Babies
Only honey and agave will do. Giusseida emphasizes the choice not to add sugar to the chocolate she molds into precious and artistic bites, bars, or anything else. Only the Salted Caramel pieces, she said, use added sugar because they have to, for the caramel to form. Further, no additives or preservatives are found in Araya Artisan Chocolate. The product and the quality of the ingredients speaks for themselves.
Not too sweet or too bitter, the best bite of chocolate leaves the palate feeling clean, explained the Venezolana. The mouthfeel can be found in seasonal flavors like Guava, Pina Colada, and Mojito during summers. It holds for holiday flavors of Eggnog, Peppermint, and Gingerbread & Pecans. For Valentine’s Day, look for Strawberry Champagne and
“We’re macerating them now in December,” she told us when we spoke. Mother’s Day treats include Rosewater and Bluegrass Tea, with other herbal flavors like Earl Gray, Chai Spice, and Moroccan Tea expanding the offerings.
Araya ships, too. Nationwide and international orders arrive from as far away as Australia. For those who are local, Giusseida offers a word of advice.
“I always say, ‘Treat chocolate like a baby. You have to take it out of the car. You don’t leave your baby in the car and you don’t leave your chocolate in the car.’” Temperature control is key. Call it an insider chocolate-lovers tip from a woman who learned that the small luxury was an experience she could build a life around.
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