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Mountains of chocolate

KIMBERLY NICOLETTI
summit daily news

Fourteen years ago, Keystone pastry chef Ned Archibald started building a chocolate village to show people there’s something beyond traditional gingerbread holiday displays. Now, after using about 5,000 pounds of chocolate to create everything from mountains to moving gondolas, there just isn’t anymore open space left to develop.

In fact, Archibald had to remove Big Ben – a working chocolate clock tower – because there’s only so much square footage in Keystone Lodge and Spa’s lobby.

But, even without the clock, Archibald’s village contains so many details and moving parts, it’s hard to believe his imagination could get more chocolately.

As guests enter the lobby, the first element that catches their attention is the 6-foot Christmas tree, made of white chocolate, with blown sugar ornaments adorning it. The tree used more than 700 pounds of chocolate. Had Archibald made it solid chocolate, it would have weighed about 3,000 pounds, he said. Each blue ornament requires a delicate process of heating sugar to 308 degrees, cooling it to 260, then, while keeping it warm with a heating lamp, pumping air into the sugar “bulb,” to shape an ornament. Two larger-than-life dark chocolate nutcrackers “guard” the tree. Underneath, gifts, wrapped in fresh, various-colored chocolate, sit seductively.

After taking in that portion of the festival eye candy, attention wanders to the snow-covered (or more aptly put, powder-sugared) mountains that nestle the village, complete with a moving train and gondola, chocolate waterfall and quaint town buildings.

“Can you eat it?”

It’s a common question kids – with jaw-dropped, open mouths – and adults, alike, ask aloud.

“Yes, Virginia, it’s real.”

Every ounce of the miniature alpine village (which isn’t so miniature, seeing it stretches a total of 24 feet) is made of chocolate or sugar – except for the train engines, and Archibald even tried to dip those in chocolate one year.

“The engines are just painted,” Archibald said. “I underestimated the heat generated by engines. Chocolate melted all over the track. It was a huge disaster.”

The engines pull train cars made of solid chocolate, each weighing 1.5 to 2 pounds, through tunnels on tracks laid on two different levels. Because they’re hauling such a heavy load, the engines – which run about 20 hours a day – burn out in one to three days. Archibald takes them to a hobby shop in Denver for repairs, and to this day, the shop’s employees just cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would want to burn out engines, meant to last a lifetime under normal conditions, by forcing them to pull pounds of chocolate.

“They just can’t make that leap from their hobby world to the edible culinary world,” Archibald said, laughing.

In fact, the culinary world can hardly imagine sacrificing so much for the rich, sweet stuff; after researching the chocolate creations on the Internet, as well as checking out the largest hotels (even the Hotel Hershey) nationwide, Archibald has every reason to believe his village is the biggest in existence, mostly because pastry chefs still adhere to traditional gingerbread displays to showcase their finest work.

If Archibald were to start from scratch, he estimates it would take 3,000 hours to recreate his magic. As it is, he spends about 300 hours each year, beginning in October after Wine in the Pines, to refurbish and tweak his masterpiece.

The village breaks down to five or six sections, which Archibald stores in 72-degree, climate-controlled museum cases, caulked to prevent dust from entering.

But even though Archibald seals the chocolate up like a piece of art, every year, the chocolate “blooms,” as the cocoa butter seeps to the surface, causing it to turn white. So, each fall, he spruces up every inch of the village by blow torching it – on a low setting, of course – just enough to melt the outside. Then he covers the entire village with an edible food lacquer, which shines it up, making mouths water and eyes gaze in amazement.


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