Day Trips

At the Wiseman House in Hico, Kevin Wenzel serves up some of the finest chocolates in Texas.

House of chocolate
House of chocolate (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The Wiseman House in Hico makes chocolates the old-fashioned way -- by hand. Each piece is hand-rolled and crafted by chocolatier Kevin Wenzel. Chocoholics can taste the difference and casual connoisseurs enjoy the unique flavors of the gourmet candy.

"We stop by here every time we pass through Hico," said an unidentified shopper as he pulled a dark brown piece from the white box and popped it into his mouth. "I couldn't live with my wife if she didn't get some Wiseman's chocolate at least once or twice a month."

"We get that a lot," says LaDonne Wenzel with a laugh. She took my call because her confectioner husband was sanding the floors at the house they are remodeling. The little shop in a turn-of-the-century house at the intersection of U.S. 281 and TX 6 attracts lots of travelers.

LaDonne credits their success to two simple things: They use the best ingredients they can find, and it is always fresh. "Our chocolates are never more than 10 days old," she says. "Like any food product, it's always better when it's fresh." The big candy companies make their products with the intent of having a shelf life of months. "We don't add any preservatives to ours," she added.

With Americans consuming more than 3.3 billion pounds of chocolate a year, it is no wonder that they are becoming better educated on the finer points of chocolate's qualities. Boutique chocolate factories are cropping up around the country catering to the consumers who want fewer, but better tasting sweets.

"We're teaching our customers about chocolate," LaDonne says. "If Kevin is around then you can't gulp your chocolate." Instead, fine chocolate should be savored and enjoyed for its subtle nuances like a fine bottle of wine. Kevin is always experimenting and trying to develop a fuller and richer dark chocolate, the shop's biggest-selling kind of chocolate.

The Wenzels had never made chocolate before they bought the old house that looks like it could be a model for a children's playhouse with big porches and lots of windows. Kevin grew up in the nearby farming village of Fairy and went to school in Hamilton. "After graduating from high school he swore he would never come back," LaDonne says. "But after he met me in Dallas and brought me to visit, I fell in love with area." Kevin's father, Ronnie Wenzel, owns the Dutchman's Hidden Valley Country Store on U.S. 281 north of Hamilton where Kevin makes the chocolate.

The Bosque River Valley is a scenic area with fertile fields and small towns right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. U.S. 281 offers an alternative to the traffic on I-35. "We get a lot of folks stopping by as they're traveling between Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio, Austin, and Kerrville," LaDonne says.

About the time the couple was saying "I do" in front of the preacher, the Wiseman house came onto the real-estate market. "We bought the house and then tried to decide what to do with it," LaDonne says.

F. Rufus Wiseman was a photographer of national acclaim who lived in the house that his father, the area's first portrait photographer, built in the late 1800s. For more than half a century, Wiseman documented the lives of folks along the Bosque River and the general area. As a friend of George Eastman, he was often on the cutting edge of the emerging art form. Unfortunately, most of Wiseman's glass negatives have been lost. Wiseman and his wife are remembered by a photograph that hangs on the wall behind the cash register.

For the Wenzels, bringing a candy store to Hico must have seemed like as big a leap as opening a portrait studio in the rural village. The couple opened the business in December 1996 and have never looked back. "We've been flying by the seat of our pants," LaDonne says. "We've been learning as we go along."

Two years after they opened the shop, Kevin went to school in Pennsylvania to learn how professionals make chocolate. By that time he had already amassed a substantial collection of recipes and skill. They hope to attend more classes in Belgium, where chocolate is the most revered of all foods.

The Wiseman House makes 15 to 20 different types of truffles with seasonal specials, like "Love Potion" reserved for Valentine's Day. The Wild Woman chocolate is probably the house specialty, or you can have it with nuts (Nutty Wild Woman). Besides chocolates, Kevin makes Brags, which are like chocolate turtles except bigger, several kinds of fudge, and Harvest Seed Brittle, which is like peanut brittle except made with sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds.

Besides the candies, the shop offers a unique selection of antiques, gifts, toys, coffees, cards, baskets, and gardening supplies. LaDonne also operates Bliss, a bath and body products store and massage therapy studio in downtown. "You can't have scented candles around chocolate," she says, "it would affect the taste." (At 103 N. Pecan, Bliss opens Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm and Sunday, 1-5pm.)

The Wiseman House is on the north side of the major intersection west of downtown Hico at 406 Grubbs. Kevin is usually behind the counter on Saturdays. The store opens Monday-Saturday, 10am-6pm and Sunday, 1-5pm. For information, call 254/796-2565, or e-mail to wenzel@htcomp.net.

545th in a series. Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

chocolate, Wiseman House, Hico, Kevin Wenzel, LaDonne Wenzel, Dutchman's Hidden Valley Country Store, Bosque River Valley, F. Rufus Wiseman, George Eastman, Wild Woman, Nutty Wild Woman, Brags, Harvest Seed Brittle

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