We first met Annabel de Vetten (a.k.a. Annabel Lecter) last month, when she gave VICE the lowdown on her unorthodox cake designing business, the Conjurer's Kitchen—home of jaw-dropping morbid glories like a two-headed calf, a gutted torso, and a life-size Dexter cadaver cake. She regards her own colorful origin story as "boring," though; her progression from painting on canvas to painting buttercream eye sockets started with a friend's wedding cake, and blossomed from there. Since then, the German-born former fine artist and taxidermist has branched out into yet another delectable medium: chocolate, and not just your mom's Tollhouse morsels. She molds and crafts frighteningly realistic life-size skulls—of birds, kittens, and conjoined fetal twins—and anatomical models from high-quality Belgian chocolate. And business is booming: It's no secret that hand-crafted and small-batch food is having a serious moment, and it's hard to think of something more artisanal than a custom chocolate kitten skull.
"The chocolate project came about as kind of a natural progression of having switched to an edible medium," de Vetten explains. "I was reading Dr. Paul Koudounaris' book Empire of Death and was marveling once again at the painted skulls displayed in the Ossuary of St. Michael in Halstatt, Austria, and it occurred to me that I could make myself one, in chocolate. I hadn't really thought about if that would be something my customers would want or aimed at selling. It was just something I wanted to own and as I couldn't have a real one I made one from chocolate. There are other chocolate human skulls available to buy in different levels of quality, but I wanted to keep mine a little different. After experimenting with some human skulls I did a little research and noticed that no one was doing chocolate animal or bird skulls. I was very surprised, it seemed so obvious to me.
"So I set about making some, and to my great delight, they came out fantastically! I used some to make a cake decorated in crow, owl, kitten, and monkey skulls for a wedding fayre, it went viral (damn me for not putting a watermark on it!) and things snowballed from there. A lot of my followers are [from] outside of the UK, so I found having small, reasonably priced, and 'post-able' items was a great way to share the creepy chocolate love around the globe (weather permitting!). Even in my darkest teenage 'goth' days I never hated the sun and heat more than I do now!
It's one thing to make a creepy-crawly cake or molded treat, but what de Vetten is doing is on an entirely different level of detail and quality. Conjurer's Kitchen pieces look real, and that requires the touch of a master craftsman. She credits her artistic background for her steady hand and eye for detail, but amazingly, her confectionary and cake decorating skills are the result of self-education (and a bit of a stubborn streak). As a result, her creations look nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, but the residents of Annabel's edible ossuary come with their own occupational hazards.
"Warm hands are a nightmare!" she laughs. "The quality makes a huge difference, not only because of the flavour but with how well the chocolate handles. Each piece is handled several times before it's finished, so if the chocolate is of poor quality it will get damaged while I hold and paint it, even when wearing cotton gloves under vinyl ones. When I did taxidermy, I worked just with birds, mainly pheasants. So sometimes I'd remove the carcasses in a safe way, [so] that they could be made into a nice roast, but there was no licking the spoon! Working with confectionary sure smells better than paint and all things taxidermy, though!"
The Conjurer's Kitchen has outgrown Annabel's own stovetop, and with an eye towards expansion, she's currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to purchase a professional chocolate tempering machine, a device that would greatly cut down on production time and boost her output. She estimates that it takes her two to three 12-hour days to create one of her cakes; relatively speaking, her chocolates are a bit speedier to churn out, but only relatively. Every minute counts, and now that Annabel is able to add some heavy weaponry to her cooking arsenal, the sky's the limit. At the time of this writing, she's already raised more than double her goal amount of $1,476, hitting the $4,000 mark and counting.
"I wasn't expecting it to be so successful!" de Vetten exclaims. She plans to use the profits to continue expanding the chocolate project. "It's hard sometimes to do the right thing. Selling yourself cheap is easily done among creative folks, but [is] not good in the long run. So, being in a position to take the time to create something that will hopefully sell well is a luxury."
The updated manufacturing setup will also afford Annabel more time to experiment. "I would love to add fillings and add flavors," she mentions. "I've used chili with the white chocolate for items that are skin-colored; the natural chili color is just right and it tastes amazing. For the skulls, I'm fairly limited to white chocolate, as that is perfect for the bone effect. I tried a dark chocolate raven skull and it didn't look right. So I think the way around that is to design something specifically for dark chocolate. Or make a range of white chocolate animal skulls mounted on a dark chocolate plaque, like trophies. I've made coffin handles in gold painted dark chocolate for a museum—they look great."
Annabel's provided chocolate skulls for an impressive range of clients. She's worked with the Barbican Museum, the British Library, the shop Obscura from the Discovery Science show Oddities, and many more—and won herself accolades and fans from all walks of life. She's a particularly big hit in the death-positivity community and among medical historians, funeral directors, and fans of death-minded establishments like Brooklyn's oddity mecca, The Morbid Anatomy Museum, which is how I came upon her Death in Chocolate Kickstarter campaign in the first place. She name-checks Joanna Ebenstein from Morbid Anatomy, Caitlin Doughty of The Order of the Good Death, the aforementioned Dr. Paul Koudounaris, and Sarah Troop from the Nourishing Death blog as firm supporters—a veritable who's-who of morbid stars.
"Oh, they are amazing people! I think my work piqued the interest of that 'scene' because it focuses on their interests, research areas and work, but from an entirely different angle. They can look at a skull, feel pleasure instead of sadness or clinical detachment. It adds another level of curiosity to something already curious. You get that little thrill of eating something your eyes tell you not to, but your nose and taste buds urge to devour. That goes for anyone really. It's OK to not feel only sadness when looking at a skull—we all have one, and we all die. They are interesting to look at. I prefer to use replicas for making my moulds and a lot of them are teaching models, so the original piece wasn't likely have been procured in a nefarious manner!"
As her colleagues in the macabre make clear, death and food have always been intrinsically linked, from the Egyptians' mummy feasts to Mormon funeral potatoes. I asked Annabel if she has any sort of spiritual attachment to the idea that she's literally creating totems to death (in deliciously edible form).
"It's mainly artistically fulfilling for me. And aesthetically pleasing," she replies. "I went to the spectacular ossuary at Kutna Hora, Sedlec, in the Czech Republic when I was younger and have been enamored with the creative use of bones ever since. That's why I enjoyed both of Dr. Paul's books, as they featured places I'd visited [and] want to visit in the future, and am now able to commemorate in edible form. I do love the history behind death and food, and the ideas behind the traditions of cannibalism. I'm originally from Germany, surrounded by Catholics, where the tradition of food after a funeral played a big part. German being such a descriptive language, 'wake' is literally translated to 'corpse feast.'"
With the clock ticking and chocolate melting in the background, I let the Conjurer herself go with one last question: What's the best (and tastiest) way to make the blood that oozes freely from so many of her dark delights?
"The most basic and cost effective is with Golden Syrup (kind of like corn syrup in the US, but has a unique and delicious flavor), with red and black food coloring, and some unsweetened cocoa powder to add opacity," she confides. "If the budget is bigger, then a red wine reduction is my method of choice … It just needs a touch of red coloring, but that's it. Add some black peppercorns while it's simmering … and voilà—blood that is devilishly delicious and eerily effective!"
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April, 2015.