Pastoral pralines

Stopping on the chocolate trail.

There may be no Candy Cane Forest or Gumdrop Mountain, but the delights available on the inside and the magical setting outside might indeed lead some visitors to Neta Sofer's chocolate shop to think they've stepped into the Candyland game. To get to the front door of "Neta B'shvil Hashokolad," you walk a twisting wooden trail, past the fishpond and the waterfall and in sight of the sheep and goats grazing outside; past the trolls and cow sitting amid high flowers and other plants to the front door, where the enthusiastic Sofer greets you. No wonder one of the specialties here is truffles, as one practically expects a pixie to emerge from under a mushroom in the garden at any moment at the wonderful setting on Moshav Nehalim, between Petah Tikva and Israel Aerospace Industries on Route 40. Sofer explains her shop's a replica of what she'd seen on a trip to France when she first got interested in chocolate making, having previously studied interior decorating. "We came to this small village, and a young woman came out and put on gloves. Her daughter sat next to her, and then the grandmother came out - three generations preparing chocolate... I loved the way she opened the bars and everything with white gloves, and gave people a taste and tied it all up with ribbon, and I said that's what I wanted. And that's pretty much what we did: like a small shop in France." She might not always wear the gloves, but the myriad chocolate stains on her apron as she welcomes a visitor testify to her love for what she does. And it's no surprise that her shop looks like something out of Candyland, considering her roots in that chain, where she and her husband Ilan - now her official taster - both worked. "People back then, 12 years ago, still asked for the chocolate with the cow on the label, and if they didn't have that, they'd just turn around and go home," she recalls. "Today the first thing they ask me here is what percent chocolate solids there is in the chocolate." Serving up a tray of treats as we sat outside, including what she calls dapei shokolad - small, square-shaped, thin pieces of bittersweet chocolate featuring little nibs of cocoa that crunch when you bite into one - Sofer traced her own path to the shop. Inspired by her memories of making desserts with her mom, she left interior design and started making chocolate at home "with my hands and spatulas," often driving hours between suppliers, classes and stores, and leaving little time for anything else. "Friends would come over and ask: 'Is there anything to eat?' and I'd say: 'Yes, pralines.'" But Sofer says that "when the children were born, things had to change." After eight kilos of truffles were snatched up in one morning from a Petah Tikva shop she was selling to, Neta and her husband stopped their car en route to Eilat and decided to open their own place. While the outside is enchanting, the inside is equally attractive, the telltale tempering machine and a scale sitting on a corner of the shop's interior that is the entire workspace, where, among other things, she makes Happiness. Osher, as it's called in Hebrew, is an incredible mix of almonds and caramel. Inside the fridge are long, sausage-sized blocks of chocolate, waiting to be turned into truffles, while tall bottles of cacao beans, fondue sets, a wide range of pralines including bazooka ones, featuring pink cream that looks like bubble gum, and chocolate made with halav Yisrael for more observant customers. But, fortunately, there's no kusbara (coriander) chocolate, which almost ended up as a new flavor after a Tel Aviv supplier used a spoon which had just been in that spice to give her pistachios and other spices. "I didn't notice - it cost me seven kilos of chocolate I had to throw out," she says with a laugh. The chocolatier's life is "for those who are burning to make chocolate and do all kinds of magic with it," says the bubbly Sofer. "It has to burn inside you. I never worked out of a sense that I had to make a living. When I work thinking it's out of love and it'll all be okay, it works," although she admits "sometimes it's a little scary, like in any small business." It's also not for dieters: "I taste about 300 grams a day," she says, "and I still need to have some before I go to sleep." And she's still addicted to Ta'ami bars. "The smell goes with me everywhere - when I go pick up the kids from nursery school, their friends all yell: 'Ima shokolada!'" As the sun dropped behind a cloud and I bit into a truffle, I could swear I heard some Gingerbread People in the bushes, but it must have been the Osher. With plans for a larger store in the future, one thing remains constant with Sofer: the joy she gets from "people's smiles" when they visit the shop, and "if my mother calls at 8 a.m. to tell me she was at a dinner and someone raved about my chocolate, that's the best. That's success."