Susan Brown, founder and owner of Mademoiselle Miel, is bent over a hive near the front of her St. Paul-based shop, speaking softly to a honey bee. She stretches out her hand and grabs ahold of it momentarily, then approaches the front door to set the fuzzy creature free. It soon flies back to its spot near the window. She lets it be.
Meanwhile, another winged creature scopes out a hive labeled "Tiny Diner."
"That's not a bee," Brown warns. "That's a wasp. Bees are fuzzy and a wasp is a cruel imitator... they're carnivores and they're aggressive. They will sting you, and so they give people a bad impression of honey bees."
Brown explains that most people who claim to have been stung by bees are actually stung by yellow jackets, which fall into the wasp category. Honey bees are vegetarians and generally won't sting unless provoked.
"They're not after us -- they're after flowers and trees," Brown says.
Brown founded Mademoiselle Miel in 2011, having spent years perfecting the art of cooking and baking with honey instead of processed sugar. The company specializes in honey-filled chocolate bon-bons sold at shops throughout Minnesota. In October, Mademoiselle Miel will make its New York City debut at 2 | Beans, a specialty store near Grand Central Station.
Brown became interested in honey while searching for an alternative to processed sugars, which were her causing health problems.
"I probably haven't mentioned this to people, but I didn't actually like the taste of honey when I was young. I just started cooking with it because I was trying to eat in a way that made me feel good," she says.
While experimenting with honey-sweetened desserts, Brown began offering her honey bon-bons at small events. They were a hit. Within two months, the bon-bons were featured in Minnesota Monthly as one of the best chocolates in the state.
Hot Dish was invited to take a tour of Mademoiselle Miel on a Friday afternoon, just before Brown opened the shop for public tours and tastings.
We started with the hives, which were situated near the window. The actual honey bees live on rooftops throughout the city, and the flavor of the honey varies depending on the location. Bon-bons purchased from the Foshay, for example, will taste different from honey purchased from the Walker.
When it's time to harvest, the hives are brought to the shop, where employees skim a hot knife over the surface of each hive to remove the wax coating. The hives are then placed in a centrifuge, or honey extractor, which spins around and pushes the honey out. The extracted honey is filtered and added to a tub.
"After the honey is out, we process it by controlling its crystallization," Brown says. "It will all crystallize eventually. It doesn't mean it's bad. Crystals form at different rates for different honeys. If you can control that crystal to grow at a slow rate, it will be smooth and creamy."
The next step in the bon-bon-making process is to temper the chocolate. The chocolate is then poured into molds that form a shell into which the honey is added. More chocolate is poured on the top to seal the honey in place and the bon-bons are set in the cooler.
When they're fully set, each chocolate is painted by hand, either with 23k gold leaf or luster dust, depending on the flavor. The original bon-bon's ingredients -- 100% chocolate, gold leaf, and raw honey -- are simple, but recently, Brown has come up with seasonal flavors like rose, espresso, fennel, and black pepper.
"I think it's nice to have something from a landmark or a city like this," Brown says of her chocolates. "The taste of the honey is reflective of any place the bees are getting nectar from. . . . Every year, we're not quite sure what we're going to get, and that's what makes them kind of special. It's like a vintage wine."
Mademoiselle Miel's bon-bons can be purchased at Surdyks, Seward Co-op, and the Minnesota Honey Company. For a full list, visit their website.
The store, located at 342 Kellogg Blvd. W. in St. Paul, is open to the public on Fridays from 3 to 9 p.m.
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