J is for Juniper Berries

Growing up, there was a tree in my parents’ backyard that produced a small, edible, grape-shaped, fuchsia colored berry. Those were the days before the internet, so we consulted encyclopedias and asked neighbors for ideas on what this tree and berry were called. Up until a few years ago, I was convinced that these berries were juniper…but, just today, I discovered that these are actually “Lilly Pilly Berries”!

Why am I telling you this story? Well, when I thought of a juniper chocolate bar, I naively imagined that there would be plump, still somewhat chewy berries featured prominently on the inclusion side. My bubble was burst, but that’s OK…read on to hear more about my experience with chocolate paired with juniper berries!

One of the current masters of the photogenic “chocolate topography” inclusion bar is Violet Sky Chocolate from South Bend, Indiana. I featured them during “round 1” of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet project and you can read more about them here. When you read about the first bar featured in that post from 2016, you’ll better understand why my mental picture included lots of berries poking out from the chocolate! 😉

Anyway, today’s bar is called “Forest Spirits” – a barrel aged dark chocolate with raspberry, juniper berry and maple sugar.

The outer packaging features a colorful, thick paper with a grosgrain ribbon like texture and a color-coordinating construction paper band letting you know a bit about the bar. The folds are kept closed with an informational sticker that peels away easily.

Inside this, the 28-rectangle bar was wrapped in bright fuchsia colored foil. Honestly, I was not prepared for how the bar looked, since in my mind’s eye there should be juniper berries visible at first glance! Don’t get me wrong, I love the generous amounts of freeze dried raspberries and chunks of maple sugar, but I’ll admit to pouting for a while 😉

I was afraid of turning the bar over to see the “top” side of the bar, but thankfully the inclusions stayed mostly adhered, though some of the raspberry and sugar “dust” had come loose and stuck to the foil to make the other side a little “speckled” – like remnants of confetti after a party.

There was a medium-crisp snap to the bar and a combination of raspberry “dust” and little flecks of chocolate seemed to fly everywhere.

The first bite was tart and acidic. Once my tongue had become acclimated to the flavor, subsequent bites were more mellow and fruity. The aroma triggered a memory, but I still can’t conjure it exactly 🙁 Placing a morsel with the inclusion side away from my tongue, the chocolate was creamy, smooth and there were hints of juniper, though I really thought it would taste more like gin! Some of the chunks of maple sugar were a little tough to crunch on and there was a grainy, earthy sweetness. My only complaint is that tiny raspberry seeds tended to get stuck in my teeth afterwards.

Neither the packaging nor the company website provided information about the percentage of cacao or the country of origin of the beans that were used, but I assumed that something darker than 70-75% had been used based on the taste and prior experience with Violet Sky bars. I wondered how the juniper berries had been incorporated since I knew they can be potent in flavor. Was some sort of infusion used? If so, how?…since most online recipes suggest adding the berries to cream, but I knew that wasn’t the case with this bar. To satisfy my curiosity, I sent an email to Hans, the chocolate maker, to get more information and when I woke up this morning his answer was waiting for me in my inbox!

“Forest Spirits can be on different chocolates, always barrel aged though. That one was a blend of gin barrel aged Brazil 77%, rye whiskey barrel aged Haiti 77%, and a bit of rye Brazil 88%. It’s about 80% after blending.

I use journeyman Distillery barrels from near where I am, they are located in Three Oaks Michigan. Also I age whole raw beans, usually for 2 or 3 months. Usually I use the barrels two times because after that the flavor becomes milder and more woody. 

The juniper berries are simmered in maple syrup to extract some flavor into the maple, which is then cooked down and crystalized. Then the berries that came out of the maple are crushed and sprinkled on the bar also. So basically it’s candied juniper powder. Perhaps bigger pieces of the juniper berries would lead to a more evolving flavor, but I was a bit worried about an overly tough texture. The juniper berries I have are pretty chewy/crunchy on their own, not freeze dried, but just dried like a spice. What do you think?”

After reading his message, I remembered that years ago I had used whole, dried juniper berries to flavor a meaty stew, so I searched through my spice pantry and, lo and behold, I still had a baggie of them.

They smell a little like licorice and look a bit like large peppercorns with a chewy, papery skin concealing the tough, hard seeds inside. They taste woody and astringent, but not unpleasantly so.

Did you know that junipers are the only spice derived from a conifer and aren’t really berries at all…they are the female seed cone from a juniper tree? All species of junipers grow berries, but some are too bitter to eat.

Armed with new knowledge and with my tongue “primed” from having chomped on a few dried juniper berries, I decided to have a second taste. Biting into a rectangle, my tongue was tingly and there seemed to be a “cooling” sensation as I melted the piece on my tongue. The maple sugar tasted “earthier,” but overall there were fruity bursts of flavor as I chomped on another morsel. It was hard to isolate the chocolate from the rest of the inclusions (especially the tangy raspberries), so I would munch, munch, munch trying to put my finger on the different tastes that I was experiencing and put words to those flavors. It’s no wonder that only half a bar remains! :0 There is a lingering, long lasting, fruity, tart aftertaste.

Knowing the “behind the scenes” process for this bar, I’m not sure that I would change anything. However, if there was a way to “bump up” the botanical flavor of the juniper without it being overwhelming, I’m certain THAT would be delicious! :p

For more details, please check out Violet Sky’s Facebook page as it contains more information than their website.

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