LODI — Where can one go in the Finger Lakes to enjoy two of the finest smells a nose can experience?
How about Rue Claire in Lodi, where the incredible smell of chocolate is joined by the sweet fragrance of lavender plants.
Rue Claire Lavender Farm and Artisan Chocolate will open for the season June 7. It is almost across from Wagner Winery.
Owner Claire Benjamin is getting ready for her ninth season, creating exotic and intriguing chocolate flavors using seasonal local ingredients, premium chocolate personally blended by Benjamin and high quality ingredients often exclusive to Rue Claire.
Visitors also can get honey made by bees tended by Benjamin, along with panninis made with goat cheese and crepes.
A native of Manila in the Philippines, Benjamin also plans to install a “fairy forest” to host butterflies and hummingbirds. She also conducts cooking classes on the deck attached to her Rue Claire business, does catering for a host of wineries and other entities and offers specially-brewed teas.
She migrated to the United States when she was 19, joining her parents in Las Vegas. She began working in the hospitality business there. Her future husband, Mark Benjamin, was a student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV), as was she. They meet when Mark patronized the restaurant where Claire was working.
“I had no intention of dating. I told Mark that. But he kept coming to the restaurant and eventually asked me out on a date to see Shakespeare in the park. We began dating and moved to Chicago where Mark worked in the florist business. We were there for 12 years,’’ she said.
Her husband is a Binghamton native, and they were looking to move to a quieter place. “We were interested in the Finger Lakes wine country and came here. We fell in love with the area. The question was which lake would we live on and decided that the east side of Seneca Lake was best,’’ she said.
They found a house in rough shape and renovated it gradually. They moved into the house in 2006 and their son was born in 2008. “I had to decide what to do here. I decided to start a small business related to the wine industry. I enjoyed eating chocolate and have a creative streak,’’ she said.
Benjamin planted lavender plants back in Las Vegas and resumed lavender planting in Lodi. She earned her accreditation of chocolatier certification in Quebec, Canada and studied her craft at the famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France. She specializes in the Valrhona chocolates, considered the “Tiffany’’ of chocolate.
“I love to mixed passion fruits, nuts, hazelnuts, honey, bayleafs, caramelized onions and to experiment with other food items, infusing them right into chocolates to create different flavors,’’ she said. Her chocolates are infused with tea, coconut, honey, jasmine, chili, sea salt and jalopena, among other flavors.
“I make truffles, with my own twist to them. I push myself and push boundaries in mixing flavors in my chocolate. Mark is my guinea pig,’’ she said, laughing.
In addition to running her business at home, Benjamin is often hired to cater by area wineries, pairing her chocolate creations with local wines. That work is expanding to cater for breweries, distilleries and cideries as well.
She conducts classes in making chocolate both off-site and at her on-site business.
This year, she will be getting into beekeeping and honey production. She is creating a habitat for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
“I put the money I make back into the businesses,’’ she said. This year, she also wants to get into a business called “glamping’’ where people stay overnight in large, converted wine barrels.
“I like to experiment, based on how I feel at the time. I like to have fun and am passionate about what I do,’’ she said.
It’s hard not to be passionate about a hazelnut bayleaf ganache honey pot truffle of dark chocolate. Trust us.