D is for Đắk Lắk

A few weekends ago, we took a short trip up to Berkeley, CA to celebrate a family birthday. It wasn’t planned, but we stopped at a “tried and true” shop hoping to source bars for this project. You should have seen me…I was so giddy to have found bars C, D and E all in one fell swoop! I usually travel around with a mini ice cooler and/or ice packs whenever I shop for chocolates; however, temperatures were mild, so I wasn’t too worried about the bars without my usual “equipment.” Rather than leave the bars in the car while we walked back and forth on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, I carried them carefully in an insulated lunch bag. On the flight home, I nestled the bars in my carry-on luggage to keep them safe from harm until I could get them in my wine fridge for storage.

Once I was home, I tried my “C” bar – it was bloomed 🙁 I thought it was a fluke since that was the 2nd to last bar on the store’s shelf. Then, a week later, I opened my “D” bar – it was ALSO bloomed. I mentally blamed the shop for not taking better care of the bars. THEN, I opened a 3rd bar, which was sourced from a different location, but cared for in the same manner as my other bars and discovered…it was bloomed TOO! It suddenly dawned on me that I was to blame for the bars’ condition. Here I thought I had taken every precaution, only to realize that I had inadvertently exposed the bars to temperature fluctuations 🙁 Can you say PANIC?!

I couldn’t, in good conscience, post pictures of the bloomed bar (*) since that wouldn’t be indicative of the maker’s talents. So, I visited at least 4 of my usual local “go to” Greater Los Angeles area shops only to find that their selection of craft chocolates had been decimated. Buyers were either waiting out the last heat waves of the summer and/or weren’t re-stocking their shelves due to slow sales. NOW, what do I do?! Never a dull moment here at Eating the Chocolate Alphabet! :0

<insert drumroll and fanfare here>

Bar & Cocoa to the rescue!!! I ordered a replacement bar on Monday (which was a Post Office holiday) & received the shipment by Thursday. Chris & Pashmina…you are my HEROS! So, that’s the long story behind Marou Faiseurs de Chocolat’s Đak Lak Vietnam bar!

It wasn’t until after I had purchased the chocolate in Berkeley that I discovered that this particular bar was featured on the Slow Melt Makers Series, episode 5. You can hear Sam Maruta (one of the co-owners of Marou) and host, Simran Sethi, tasting this bar right around the 19:20 mark in the podcast. This origin is one of the most recent additions to Marou’s portfolio and the furthest from their Ho Chi Minh City headquarters, in terms of sourcing distance.

Earlier in the podcast, you’ll hear that Đak Lak is located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and shares a western border with Cambodia. Using Wikipedia, I also learned that resistance to French rule was strong in that province and that considerable action was seen during the Vietnam War. Đak Lak, which is mostly mountainous with rich red soil, is known for growing coffee; though rubber, tea and pepper are also major parts of their economy. In fact, the cacao that Marou sources is fruited among the climbing tendrils of Đak Lak’s renowned black pepper vines.

The gorgeous hand silk screened paper has a gold lattice motif with stylized cocoa pods, flowers and clouds.

Depending on where you buy this bar, the packaging will reflect the language of that country (for example: French, Vietnamese or English). This particular bar was imported by A Priori Specialty Foods in Utah, so all the information is listed in English.

The elegance continues with the gold foil wrapped bar, kept closed like a letter, with a scalloped-edge logo sticker (almost like a wax seal).

Unwrapping the chocolate, you can see that the lattice theme is continued on the bar itself. There is a matte (rather than glossy) and slightly scuffed finish, probably due to the long distance that this bar has traveled.

Notice an interesting “swirl” on the back of the bar, near one of the sides.

There wasn’t much of an aroma straight out of the packaging. I detected some lightly earthy or floral notes, but mainly it was classically fudge-like in smell. The bar breaks apart easily with a dry/crumbly snap, sending tiny shard flying every which way. Some pieces look closed textured (not many bubbles) at the break, while others are full of nooks and crannies.

The mouthfeel was smooth and the chocolate was slow to melt on the tongue. There were some nutty + spice aroma notes at the breaking point, as well as those flavors during the melt. A bit crumbly when “chomped,” chewing seemed to bring out a wine-like flavor. It was fascinating to hear Sam Maruta mention that this bar might not be as distinctive as other bars in their portfolio; that it is “too well behaved” / “a bit shy” with subtle flavors. He recommends tasting this bar at warmer temperatures (which would mimic the tropical heat in Vietnam that tends to make the chocolate bendy). My tasting took place in a 71 degree F room, so I experimented with putting the chocolate in the microwave for 10-15 seconds per side. This made the chocolate creamy in terms of mouthfeel + brought out vibrant fruity notes and a long lasting spice note at the back of the throat. I’m not sure that I would recommend this experiment on all chocolates, but it was a revelation in this case.

(*) Remember I mentioned that my first bar was bloomed. Here is a picture of the 2 bars side by side, in case you were curious. On the bloomed bar, I “buffed” the center rectangle with my finger to bring out the more lustrous brown color. What a difference between the 2 bars!

Don’t worry, the bloomed bar will make for delicious drinking chocolate during winter 🙂 No chocolate ever goes to waste in my house!

To learn more about Marou and their various Vietnam origins, please visit their website: http://marouchocolate.com/chocolate-range/single-origin/

C is for Chuao

A couple of weekends ago, I walked into the Monsieur Marcel French Gourmet Market, located in L.A.’s Original Farmers Market on Fairfax & 3rd, to source some chocolate for this project. Prominently, at eye-level, was a handwritten sign saying something along the lines of “Chuao, the best chocolate grown in the WORLD!” (I’m bummed that I forgot to take a picture of the actual sign.) My first reaction was “Hmmm…is there truth to that statement or is it just creative marking hype?” I was looking for a bar for “C” week anyway, so what the heck, I’ll give this Chuao bar a try!

*NOTE: At your local grocery store, you might have seen brightly colored foil packages for bars with fun names and unusual ingredient combinations that are made by a Carlsbad, California-based chocolatier called Chuao. I love their “Firecracker” bar and no longer available “Winter” hot chocolate mix…but that’s not who I’m featuring here (though the Venezuela-born founder *did* name his company after the legendary cacao-growing region). Since this round of Eating the Chocolate Alphabet features ORIGINS (aka where chocolate is grown), the Chuao that I’m talking about in this post is a small village, accessible only by boat, near the northern coast of Venezuela, west of the capital, Caracas.

Sure, I’m vaguely familiar with Chuao, but honestly I’ve heard more chocolate lovers ooh and aah over chocolate made with Porcelana beans (which, coincidentally, are also grown in Venezuela, though in the Lake Maracaibo region in the northwest part of the country, closer to the border with Colombia).

Do you believe in serendipity?! Just yesterday, I was reading Part 2 of “Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate” by Pam Williams and Jim Eber as part of a homework assignment. Imagine my surprise to encounter several paragraphs detailing a journey taken by Art Pollard (from Utah’s Amano Chocolate) to Chuao, a place he calls the “home” of cacao because of their 400+ year tradition of producing some of the world’s finest and most highly sought after cocoa beans.

“Here, with historic precision, young and old work together to process the fruit, loading the beans into wheelbarrows at the fermentary, carrying them to the patio in front of the 200-year-old church to be dried, waiting until the beans are ready to be brought in, and then starting all over again. […] No wonder Chuao beans have a storied history and command premiums equal to or greater than any other and that, until recently, European companies had locked up exclusive rights to those beans.”

Now to try this bar from famed French maker, François Pralus:

One of the first things that you’ll notice about the Pralus packaging is their use of GPS coordinates showing where the cacao was grown. Also, there is a large dot marking the location on the flattened world map. I love how the embossed gold foil “pops” from the dark chocolate brown cardboard outer sleeve!

By the way, since this bar was made in France, the coordinates are listed with French abbreviations, so the “O” represents “Ouest” (or West, in English). The back of the box provides a short bilingual story about Chuao, as well as some tasting notes.

As you can see, the square bar is tightly nestled in a mitred edge box that slides easily from the outer sleeve like a vinyl record.

The smell of sweet dried fruit (like raisins or currants) wafts to your nose upon unwrapping the bar from the gold inner foil which was folded with the almost black outer paper. There were also some roasted coffee notes.

The 75% cacao bar is a deep, glossy brown with some flecks rising to the surface near the top half.

The back of the bar was less pristine than the front, with ghostly rings marring the finish. I see the outline of a bear’s head, what do you see?

Segmenting tasting morsels, there was a crisply sharp snap & some air bubble nooks and crannies were visible at the breaking point. Placing the morsel near my nose, I detected some floral or honey aroma notes.

During the melt, the mouthfeel was creamy & smooth, like my tongue was being wrapped in a silky blanket. Initially I experienced earthy, woody notes at the back of the throat; followed by toasted, buttered bread notes; finishing with a tart, fruity back of the throat tang. It is “toothy” when you bite into a piece; in that it doesn’t crumble, but retains its structural integrity in a satisfying way.

As I’m learning in the online Ecole Chocolat course entitled “Mastering Chocolate Flavor,” each person tastes things slightly differently under different circumstances since flavor is a perception, or experience, that is constructed in the brain. Generally I like to taste first thing in the morning, before eating anything else, when my palate hasn’t been influenced by other flavors. Over the weekend, while I was sharing a selection of chocolates with my boyfriend, I popped a piece of this bar in my mouth after dinner and mindlessly eating some other chocolate samples. All of a sudden, there was a wave of roasted cashew in my mouth! WOW! Had I not known that I was eating this Pralus Chuao, I would have thought it was a completely different chocolate!

Honestly, I think that tasting a Chuao origin bar should be part of any chocolate lover’s repertoire so that you can judge hype vs. reality for yourself. When you try one, please leave me a note to let me know your thoughts & impressions!

For more information on François Pralus and their wide range of chocolate bars, please visit their website (which is available in French, Japanese and English): https://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en/our-chocolate.html

B is for Bachelor’s Hall

What’s in a name? If you’re not deterred by some genealogical sleuthing and enjoy immersive hours falling down one “rabbit hole” after another, with each historical source linking to yet another one, you’ll be surprised by what you can discover.

After reading this Pump Street Bakery article describing how the Bachelor’s Hall farm in Jamaica changed hands several times between the 1960s (when the 300+ acre estate belonged to current owner Desmond Jadusingh’s grandfather) until Desmond reclaimed it from government and private ownership in 2002, I wanted to learn more about its history.

Through the University College London (UCL) Legacies of British Slave-ownership webpages, the earliest instance I could find was from 1763, when this was a sugar estate with a cattle mill. Not surprisingly (since the records were transcribed from handwritten ledgers), the name has not been consistent from one source to another: Batchellors Hall Penn; Batchelors Hall Pen; Batchelors Hall; Bachelors Hall; Bachelor’s Hall. I wish I could have delved deeper into the etymology of the farm’s unusual name. Sadly, the UCL archives only traced the owners of this property through 1839, so I wasn’t able to determine when or how Desmond’s grandfather acquired it.

Equally fascinating was reading about Desmond’s struggles after a tropical hurricane in 2004 devastated infrastructure and damaged the plantation. Financially unable to rebuild after years of receiving less-than-market-value for his wet cacao beans, which were sold by the bucket to the Jamaican Cocoa Board and then taken, along with the beans of other Jamaican farmers, to a centralized location for fermentation and drying, he received some welcome assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). After their training and funding for equipment, Desmond was able to take control of the fermentation, drying and selling of his beans such that he is the only direct trade supplier / farm-traceable cocoa exporter in Jamaica. Both quality and consistency improved due to quicker post-harvest handling, additionally his chemical-free farming creates a healthier ecosystem. He is quoted as saying that the fermentation method initially was “40% textbook, 40% experimentation and 20% sheer luck.”

Bachelor’s Hall, which is situated between the John Crow Mountains on the Northeast coast and the Blue Mountains of St. Thomas Parish on the Southeast end of Jamaica, has fertile terroir and rich soil due to natural springs and small rivers running through the property. The Jamaican government introduced Trinitario beans in the 1980s to the already present Criollo and Forastero varieties that were brought to Jamaica in the 1800s from Trinidad. Those Trinitario beans are what SOMA Chocolatemaker used for this particular award-winning, three-ingredient, 70% dark chocolate bar.

As always, I was mesmerized by the impeccable glossy finish and the intricate details of the mold. Can you spot the bird wearing high top sneakers and the distinctive Canadian maple leaf?

Removing the frame-worthy, thin, rectangular bar from the re-sealable plastic wrapper, there was an enticing fruity aroma. Due to the warm California weather, I encountered a soft to medium snap when segmenting tasting morsels instead of the sharp snap that would be possible in cooler conditions.

Pieces melt slowly on your tongue with a smooth and lightly creamy mouthfeel. The flavor started out like an herbal tea and then it evolved to an almost juicy sensation (like biting into an apple). To me, the tart, raspberry notes were muted rather than vibrant, though there was a lingering finish at the back of the throat long after the chocolate was gone from my mouth.

Earlier this year, SOMA Chocolatemaker owners, Cynthia Leung and David Castellan, visited Desmond and Bachelor’s Hall for the first time & recounted their experience on their blog. Toward the end of the post, I was surprised to learn that Desmond also grows coconut trees alongside the cacao, which is apparently uncommon, but his cacao trees seem to love it. This provides a secondary income as well as a natural beverage for his jungle workers. Hopefully one day, when Desmond sets up to create his own bars on-site, he’ll consider adding some coconut to his chocolate – I can already imagine the taste! 😋

For more information on Toronto-based SOMA Chocolatemaker, please visit their site: https://www.somachocolate.com/

In parting, we should all live by these words of Desmond Jadusingh:

I cannot really own this farm. I think it’s in my trust, and my duty is to leave it better than I came and saw it. I want to ensure the land I hand down is not worse but better, and I think that once I have done that I have done my duty.”

SOMA Chocolate Maker Birch Bar

Yet again my expectations have been blown away by Toronto-based SOMA Chocolatemaker’s creative artistry. I’ve seen pictures of this birch branch on Instagram, but clearly I didn’t pay attention to the scale. Truly, I thought this would be a “bar” that could fit in your hands. Well, it *COULD* be hand-held…if you were Paul Bunyan or the Jolly Green Giant!

Whenever I go shopping for chocolates during the summer, I always take a mini Igloo cooler with me to ensure safe transit of my goodies. When I arrived at Chocolate Maya in Santa Barbara to pick up my SOMA order, I quickly realized that the over foot-long packaging would not fit into my cooler and I certainly didn’t want to remove the delicate molded chocolate from its secure “nest.” Since the weather was a bit warm that day, I put the plastic bag-wrapped box on the floor of the car on the passenger side & cranked up the air conditioning positioned at the feet so that the chocolate wouldn’t melt during the two hour drive back home.

My next “panic attack” was whether or not the box would fit into my 8-bottle mini wine fridge for storage until the weather cooled down enough for a photo session. 😱 Thankfully the box just barely fit! 😌

So, this week, during a cool mid-August morning, I finally decided to sample the realistic-looking, 12 inch long, thick, 10+ ounce branch.

As mentioned on the SOMA website:

“My Dad recently found a beautiful birch branch in a forest up in Lindsay, Ontario that we made into a mould. Beaver-inspired and perfect for sharing.”

They added more humor with little touches to the outer packaging:

You would think that it would be difficult to slice off a tasting round without shattering the rest of the branch. However, a non-serrated knife easily cut through the thin Jamaican dark chocolate shell.

As you can see, the star of the show is the ultra-creamy & buttery gianduja (chocolate hazelnut paste) studded with a praline crunch that reminds me of feuilletine flakes. The ribbon of cherry jam adds just the right amount of tartness and I love that there are pieces of the fruit skin in the jam for added texture.

As the holidays approach & you consider what to have as a Thanksgiving table centerpiece or are tired of the standard Christmas-time buche de noel/yule log, this Birch Branch is sure to bring a “wow factor” to your festivities (plus, it would make an AWESOME hostess gift too!)

*Note: while this might sound like a sponsored advertisement, it’s NOT! I was not paid for my review and really, truly LOVED this unique chocolate!

For more information on SOMA Chocolatemaker, please visit their website: https://www.somachocolate.com/

P.S. Have you missed seeing my posts during my month-long hiatus?! Don’t worry, next month I’ll be returning to the alphabet – this time featuring origins! Stay tuned 🙂

Bonus Z – Zereshk

Where do I even begin to tell this story? Another round of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet is coming to an end, so I have mixed feelings. I’m super proud that I was able to accomplish my mission of finding a unique inclusion ingredient for each letter of the alphabet, but it’s safe to say that this “challenge” has added some grey hairs to both my head and my boyfriend’s head! ?

Remember all of his advance planning and preparation for the “X” bar?! Well, he STILL wanted to try tempering chocolate with his sous vide machine, so unbeknownst to me, he researched Z ingredients and discovered zereshk (the Persian word for barberries)! The perfect tie-in to celebrate World Chocolate Day today!

The tiny, plump, moist, jewel-like reddish-brown berries look like a cross between a dried currant and a seedless pomegranate aril.

For scale, I’ve “posed” some zereshk berries next to a U.S. penny!

These berries are a great source of vitamin C and boy are they TART! Imagine mouth-puckering tart when eaten out of hand. According to Wikipedia, Iran is the top producer of zereshk in the world. Next time I visit a Persian restaurant, you can be sure that I’ll be ordering the zereshk polo (a rice dish where the chicken has been cooked in barberry juice) to taste these berries in a different form!

Anyway, back to the story…

The step-by-step instructions and explanation of the chocolate tempering process in “layman’s terms” from this Serious Eats article by J. Kenji López-Alt, led us to believe that tempering with a sous vide circulator would be relatively easy and painless…ooh, famous last words!

A couple of weeks ago, we had some time on the weekend and tested out the process following the instructions carefully. Perhaps we (and by “we” I mean “I”) were a little over-confident. We piped the melted chocolate into the mold, placed the mold in the fridge for about 30 minutes, then unmolded it only to discover that the chocolate WAS NOT TEMPERED ?After a little research online, we discovered that the temperature ranges quoted in the article did NOT match the melting/crystallization/working information for this particular Valhrona product. WAAH! At least we didn’t waste any of the inclusion ingredients and still had plenty of chocolate for further testing. I have no photographic evidence of this chocolate failure…my ego was too “wounded”!

As “Z” week loomed, one evening during the 4th of July long weekend, we decided to employ our “lessons learned” (I have a page worth of notes and ideas of what we could do differently) from the first attempt and give tempering another shot.

So, we measured out 3 ounces of feves from the Valhrona Guanaja 70% bag that was purchased from Caputo’s in Salt Lake City, UT.

Used a vacuum sealer to remove all the air from the baggie.

Waited for the water to reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit and dropped the baggie into the pot.

The chocolate melted fairly quickly.

Then we added lots of ice to the pot to bring the temperature down to about 81-82 degrees Fahrenheit. We allowed the chocolate to enjoy its “bubble bath” at this temperature for a while and massaged the baggie at regular intervals to promote crystal formation (this is a step we neglected to perform the first time around). After about 10 minutes, we raised the temperature up to about 91 degrees Fahrenheit, still massaging the baggie at regular intervals. We thoroughly wiped down the baggie to ensure that NO water droplets were clinging to the folds. Cutting a small corner from the baggie, we piped some melted chocolate onto the back of a spoon as well as a piece of parchment paper. The spoon went into the fridge for about 3 minutes and the parchment paper remained at room temperature. When we touched the shiny chocolate with a fingertip, the chocolate ended up there, indicating that our tempering was not successful. We re-sealed the baggie and repeated the process at least 3 more times, varying the temperatures a degree or two in either direction, but still NO luck!

Have I mentioned that I have no patience, but my engineer boyfriend is tenacious and enjoys problem-solving?! So, as a last ditch effort (I was ready to quit at this point), he decided to use the “seeding method” (meaning that we took some small pieces of well-tempered chocolate and added it to the melted chocolate). Minutes’ worth of massaging and checking the temperature with an infra-red thermometer, we decided to test it one last time with the spoon and parchment paper sampling method. These were the slowest three minutes of my life…but in the end, SUCCESS!! We had tempered chocolate!

Now to pipe it into the waiting mold and add the zereshk. I have a new respect for those chocolate makers and chocolatiers who make inclusion bars look so photogenic. I tried my best, but still ended up with clumps in certain places 🙁

The mold was placed carefully onto a level shelf in the refrigerator and again we waited; this time for 10 minutes! An eternity, I tell you! TA DA…shiny chocolate with some ghosting and a few cosmetic blemishes due to imperfections in the polycarbonate mold! But no air bubbles…yippee!

The “back” on the other hand is full of lacy squiggles around the berries. I’m a chocolate blogger, not a chocolatier, remember 😉 Or maybe, that gives the bar “character”…yeah, I think I’ll stick with that theory!

We’re calling this bar Zereshk’ed Development (sorry, the “Arrested Development” play on words sounded better in my head!)

Since we had a second bag of chocolate (my BF meant to buy a different type and ended up getting the same Valhrona, though I suspect it comes from a different batch), we decided to make another bar. I’d like to say that we were vastly more successful now that we had some experience under our belts, but really the only way we were able to get tempered chocolate was by using the seeding method…AGAIN!

We are calling this bar “Zereshk Make a Deal” (since I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of adding salt as an inclusion & settled on hickory wood smoked sea salt as an acceptable option). After tasting our creation, I think the smoky flavor notes even out the harsh tartness of the berries.

For whatever reason, this one exhibited much more “ghosting” after unmolding the bar. We probably could have left it in the fridge for a little longer. Did I mention that I’m impatient?!

And though it’s hard to tell from the photo, we channeled our inner Zorro and piped the chocolate into the mold with various stylized Zs to see how it would turn out under the inclusions.

Now for the tasting notes for the “Zereshk Make a Deal” bar. There was a super sharp snap while segmenting tasting morsels. Personally, I think that the bar was a little too thick.

During the creamy, slow/even melt, there were bursts of smoky salt punctuated by chewy berries. Maybe it’s just me; but, the chocolate itself didn’t have any distinguishing flavor notes. I much preferred to “chomp” the chocolate so that the salt and berries mingled together to bring out salty, sweet, tangy and almost juicy sensations.

The “Zereshk’ed Development” bar was a bit plain in comparison. This one also had a sharp snap, but I noticed that more tiny flecks of chocolate went flying while segmenting this bar. This base chocolate had a nutty and caramel-like taste. Biting into the zereshk berries during the slow, even melt reminded me of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Of the two bars, I think I prefer the salty one.

Overall, this was an exciting way to end this round of the alphabet. From here on, I’ll leave chocolate making to the professionals! I’ll be taking a short break during the summer months (it’s HOT HOT HOT here in Southern California…predicted to be 100-101 degrees this weekend). Don’t worry, I’ll still post about chocolates here & on my Instagram feed in the meantime, but just not in alphabetical order.

Current plan for “Round 3” is ORIGINS (countries, estates, farms, etc.) Think Algeria to Zimbabwe. Please leave a comment or send me an email with any suggestions!

HAPPY WORLD CHOCOLATE DAY, hope it’s a delicious one!

Bonus W – Water Buffalo Milk

For a couple of weeks running, I’ve posted some “fun food Friday” posts on Instagram. After skipping a week, I’m back with a bonus post since how could I resist tasting TWO different buffalo milk chocolate bars from the UK, especially after tasting camel milk, donkey milk and goat milk earlier in the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet project?!

I’m sure you’re thinking, wait a minute…shouldn’t this be featured under “B” for “Buffalo”?

Since Damson’s website mentioned Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire as the source of their buffalo milk, I did a little research on their website to confirm that when you hear “buffalo” related to milk or cheese, the animal in question is really the WATER BUFFALO, not the American Bison (which is commonly referred to simply as buffalo)! In the wild, water buffalo can be found in swampy, wet areas which is how they got their name. Did you know that water buffalo are quieter and easier to milk than most cows?! I didn’t either until I started reading up on them!

Anyway, back to the chocolate!

Thanks to fellow chocolate blogger Victoria Cooksey for sending me this Damson 55% Buffalo Milk bar!

When I saw the Cocoa Runners logo on the front of the package, I was equally intrigued and confused. Turns out that before Dom Ramsey started Damson in early 2015, he was a founding member of Cocoa Runners (a company that curates bean-to-bar chocolate subscription boxes in the UK, among other things). You can read more about Dom through this link.

Tearing open the re-sealable, foil-lined, brown Kraft paper pouch, I could immediately smell dried fruit, like raisins or currants. The small bar adorned with images of cacao leaves and pods had a matte finish despite the visible air bubbles. The surface of the bar felt smooth and lightly oily to the touch which reminded me of the sensation of rubbing rose petals between my fingers or the supple skin of a ripe plum.

There was a medium snap when segmenting tasting morsels and I was fascinated to see the delineation of smooth and porous surfaces at the juncture of the “puzzle pieces” that form the mold.

The small piece didn’t seem dense in weight and I found it easy to bite through the piece, like a thick piece of fudge.

During the slow and even melt, there was a milky/creamy mouthfeel and a lightly grassy (yet also fruity), caramel taste. In my opinion, this animal milk is mild in comparison to goat and camel, but less mild than donkey. Unfortunately, no country of origin was listed for the chocolate, so I’m not sure if this was a blend or a single origin. If someone knows more about batch 297, please let me know!

When I had arranged a chocswap with Lilla from Little Beetle Chocolates, I had no idea what to expect, so I was thrilled to receive this Rare & Vintage Hotel Chocolat 65% Buffalo Milk bar!

Not sure if the 3D mold design has changed recently, but my bar with accordion-like folds doesn’t look exactly like the photo on the company website! Check it out for yourself & let me know what you think!

Despite the chocolate dust and damage sustained in transit from the UK, the bar was free from air bubbles and had a glossy shine when viewed at just the correct angle!

This would be my first time tasting chocolate made with Saint Lucian beans, so I didn’t know what to expect (note: Saint Lucia is an island country in the Eastern Caribbean).

There was a brittle snap to the bar and the aroma reminded me of olives, while the flavor was earthy with what I can only describe as minerality, like smoked salt. Not surprisingly, the bar itself had the same tactile characteristics (like stroking a soft rose petal) as the previous buffalo milk bar. While there was a smooth mouthfeel, this chocolate felt denser and was more difficult to melt in my mouth (not as creamy as the Damson bar, I wonder if this is because Damson uses “whole buffalo milk powder” vs. Hotel Chocolat’s “dried buffalo milk”). However, I noticed that the Hotel Chocolat tasting morsel seemed to disintegrate more quickly when “chomped.” The overall flavor of the Hotel Chocolat bar was more “gamey” (intense) than Damson’s buffalo milk bar, even though I’m guessing that the same buffalo milk source was used…how many biodynamic and organic buffalo milk farms are there in Britain?!

For more information on either of these companies, please see their respective websites:

https://damsonchocolate.com/

http://www.hotelchocolat.com/uk

As this project is nearing the end of the alphabet, I’m still holding out hope for a zebra milk chocolate bar! Maybe I should have renamed this series “Eating the Chocolate Zoo” 😉

U is for Uyuni Salt

Rather than experience Mardi Gras in chaotic Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), one of my adventurous friends decided instead to travel to Bolivia for their version of carnaval. While on a side trip, she posted awe-inspiring pictures to Facebook of this 4,000 square mile desert-like salt flat in the Andes of Southwest Bolivia that is transformed into the world’s largest mirror during the rainy season! It’s hard to tell where the sky meets the earth.

Why do I mention all this? Well, up until now I had struggled to find a “U” inclusion ingredient and, as luck would have it, this particular salt flat is called Salar de Uyuni! The word uyuni comes from the Andean Aymara language (which is spoken by about a million people in Bolivia and Peru) and means “enclosure” (like a pen in which you would keep animals). I was thrilled to discover that two of the bars from the El Ceibo assortment she brought back just happened to include this uyuni salt!

Apologies in advance for the quality/clarity of the photos, California “May Gray” (and upcoming “June Gloom”) wreaks havoc since natural/filtered sunshine is so much better than LED or halogen lighting!  

Andean Royal Quinoa & Uyuni Salt (75%)

Just opening the heat-sealed metallic pouch, I could immediately see the generous amount of puffed quinoa inclusions bursting out from the “back” of the bar despite some chocolate dust and scuffing that marred the, otherwise, shiny finish on the front of the bar.

There was a sharp snap and the bar smelled fruity, which was unexpected since other Bolivian chocolates I’ve tried had a different aroma. Taking a bite, I anticipated a crisp crunch; however, these tiny orbs were chewy and a bit stale (the “best by” date had elapsed even before I received this bar).

Overall, the slow/even melt resulted in fruity notes rather than the earthy taste that is common for this origin. Surprisingly, the bar was not salty; so either there wasn’t much added to the bar or it was simply enhancing the flavor in a behind-the-scenes “supporting role.”

Cocoa Nibs & Uyuni Salt (77%)  

This mini bar had some ghosting and cosmetic blemishes, but had otherwise traveled well. Segmenting the rectangles into tasting morsels with a sharp snap, there was a roasted aroma at the breaking point. The malty/fruity, slow/even melt was punctuated by crunchy, slightly bitter cacao nibs and the occasional burst of the uyuni salt. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to isolate the salt crystals in my mouth.

According to an article by food-critic Mimi Sheraton, uyuni is said to have an intense deep-sea salty flavor with a slight flush of bitterness. To me, the chocolate with the visible salt crystal tasted sweet rather than briny…wonder if that’s because of the interaction with the other ingredients?!

Once again, I’m so very grateful to friends who think of me on their foreign trips. Who would have thought that a travel souvenir could be so helpful to my Eating the Chocolate Alphabet adventure!

To learn more about the chocolate assortment that these bars came from, check out: http://www.elceibochocolate.com/

O is for Orchid

Until yesterday when I started researching things a little further, I thought orchid was a fairly exotic flavor. I’ve since discovered that vanilla is a type of orchid, so now my “bubble” has been burst a little :'(

Regardless, today I’m featuring this Orchid and Orange Blossom 72% dark chocolate limited edition fusion bar from UK’s Artisan du Chocolat since flowers embody Spring! This flavor combination was especially created for the Chelsea Flower Show Gala in 2010 & has been popular ever since.

Even the bar code has a floral theme!

Unwrapping the 15 rectangle bar from the clear plastic pouch, I could immediately smell the aroma that I associate with orange blossom water. The bar had an overall matte finish that was marred slightly by some chocolate dust and air bubbles.

After taking several close-up photos, I noticed that some of the recessed rectangular panels had a plain, textured finish while others appeared to have a series of ever smaller concentric rectangles, almost like a maze configuration, though the pattern was not consistent from rectangle to rectangle. Hopefully the below photos have captured the phenomenon…

Each time I’ve tried to segment a row of three rectangles into equally sized tasting morsels, the middle rectangle breaks off more easily and not at the dividing “score line” between the rectangles, such that it is impossible to get equally sized pieces (this has happened three times so far, leading me to think that this isn’t an isolated aberration).

From the packaging, the base chocolate (a blend of bitter Venezuelan Criollo and slightly acidic Mexican Trinitario cocoa beans) is flavored with distillates of exotic flowers from the town of Grasse in the Alpine region of France. Artisan du Chocolat is not entirely bean-to-bar since it sounds like they receive ground cacao that is then conched and refined in-house at their atelier in Kent. Though neither the packaging nor the website says so, I’m assuming that steam distillation was used to create the natural orchid and orange blossom extracts. Based on what I’ve read of the process, as plant tissue breaks down in water that is heated to the boiling point, steam pulls out the released essential oils + water vapor, which are then condensed and cooled into an extract.

Melting a piece in my mouth, I tasted bitter, green (unripe) flavors and a peppery, tongue prickling sensation. The mouthfeel was smooth during the slow and even melt, but then I was left with a mouth puckering finish. Surprisingly, these flavors are less intense when the bar is chomped. Since I happened to have orange blossom water in my kitchen pantry from the last time I made baklava, I tasted some on its own for comparison purposes. This liquid was more perfumy and floral, but without any of the other sensations, causing me to wonder if the orchid extract or the chocolate itself contributed to the astringent aftertaste. Sounds like I’ll have to taste orchid on its own sometime for “scientific research” 😉

Visit the Artisan du Chocolat website to discover their extensive product line for yourself: http://www.artisanduchocolat.com/

L is for Lavender

Looking back, there are so many different “L” inclusions in chocolate: lemongrass, licorice, lilac, lilikoi and lucuma – for example. So, in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have chosen lavender since that flavor and aroma is generally overpowering and overwhelming. I’m not sure exactly why I settled on lavender, though it was easy to find two bars for “compare and contrast” purposes. Bear with me on this post…

First off is Cowgirl Chocolates Mild Dark Chocolate Lavender (55%) made in Idaho. Love the silhouette of the cowgirl mounted on her horse.

Cowgirl Chocolates color coordinates their wrappers with the flavor of the chocolate bar. They use a yellow for their Lemonade White Chocolate, a rust color for their spicy dark orange espresso and, of course, a light purple for the lavender bar I’m about to taste.

Try as I might, I wasn’t able to slip this small bar out easily since the silver foil was attached to the inside of the paper sleeve.

Once I managed to unwrap the bar, I was fascinated by the unique way the foil had been folded, though I’m reminded of my failed origami attempts!

Each of the 6 small rectangles is imprinted with the word “Dream” in cursive, as well as a star and sliver of crescent moon, unfortunately the matte finish surface exhibited some signs of “transit wear.”

There is a sharp snap when segmenting pieces and looking at the cross section, I knew that I would have a silky smooth mouthfeel while melting a morsel on my tongue.

As a rule, I don’t like to post negative comments about chocolates, but this bar has a very strong floral perfume that reminded me of bath soap. I experienced an almost “cooling sensation” while tasting this bar, which I suspect comes from the lavender oil that was used.

While this chocolate sadly wasn’t appealing to me, there are several other mild and spicy chocolate bars available, as well as chipotle or habanero caramels. Visit their website for more details: https://www.cowgirlchocolates.com/

Next up is Dolfin Lavande fine (60% dark chocolate with lavender) made in Belgium. Love that the label has descriptions in 4 languages.

Like Cowgirl, they chose a light purple paper wrapper; though in this case, there is an illustration of a small bouquet of lavender flowers on the front.

There are two unique features of their outer packaging. The first thing you’ll notice is that the informational paper wrapper (portrait/vertical on the first panel and landscape/horizontal on all the remaining panels) is completely encased in plastic. The second is that the packaging opens like a tri-fold wallet or tobacco pouch.

Inside, the chocolate bar is wrapped tightly in a crimp sealed plastic wrapper adorned with small illustrations that, I assume, depict their other flavors (see if you can spot cinnamon, tea, star anise, mint, ginger and so much more!)

Cutting open the packaging with scissors, I could already smell a more subtle, delicate and natural aroma. Amidst the swirls on the back of the bar, I could see the bumpy outlines of the small lavender flowers (1% of the overall ingredients) that generously dotted the matte finish surface.

The bar is comprised of 6 long rectangles, each etched with symmetrical lines that radiated away from a small square at the center of the rectangle. Despite the tightly fitting inner packaging, there was still some scuffing and chocolate dust marring the surface.

There is a sharp, yet slightly crumbly snap to the bar. Clearly, the mouthfeel would not be smooth due to the lavender flower inclusion.

As you rub a tasting morsel against your tongue, you feel little pieces of the tubular bud (calyx) come away from the chocolate, like separating chaff from seeds, which then adds a crunch to each bite.

Here is a close up of two ridged lavender buds; I’m surprised that they still retain such a deep purple hue and that they look a little like fennel seeds.

There is definitely an herbal and floral taste to the chocolate, though it seems to be less pronounced when chomped rather than melted. Initially, the flavor was quite intense and overwhelmed the chocolate itself; though after several tastings I started to enjoy it and pictured myself walking through a lush field in Provence, France 😉

To discover Dolfin’s extensive product line, check out their website: http://www.dolfin.be/en/

Did you know that lavender is part of the mint family of flowering plants?! It’s said that inhaling the scent of lavender has calming and soothing effects. So, whenever I feel stressed in the future, all I need to do is sniff this chocolate…though, of course, I’ll be tempted to nibble at it too! 🙂

G is for Gold

Yes, I’m still eating Christmas chocolates at the end of February…don’t judge me 😉 What you may not realize is that this has been the most highly anticipated bar (so far) during “round 2” of Eating the Chocolate Alphabet! Also, based on the unique inclusion ingredients, I could have potentially used it for not one, but three different letters: F, G or M! The story about how I came to acquire this bar (spoiler alert: I actually had 4 bars in my possession at one time!) is long, convoluted and funny…but, I won’t bore you with the details here. However, if you find me in person + are curious, ask me about it! 🙂

As you may have guessed…this is a Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh bar by Rococo Chocolates. This holiday favorite was first created by founder Chantal Coady in 1996 & Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it!

While the “Three Wise Men” are not named in the New Testament, other traditions have given them names, different ages, countries of origin and attributed special significance to each of their gifts.

This particular package art depicts the “Three Kings” as being from the same age group, but below is a compilation of information I found:

  • Caspar (or sometimes listed as Gaspar) was said to be the king of modern-day Turkey. He represented an “older” man in his 60s and his gift was gold. Gold was (and still is) a valuable possession, but this item is also thought to embody kingship on earth and virtue.
  • Melchior represented a “middle aged” man (in his 40s) and gave frankincense from his native Arabia. This aromatic resin has been used in perfume and incense and is considered a symbol of deity & prayer.
  • Balthazar (a “young” man, aged 20) was said to come from modern-day South Yemen (though other traditions list his country of origin as Ethiopia or other parts of Africa). His gift was myrrh, which has often been used as an anointing or embalming oil and is a symbol of death or suffering.

Until this project, I never really thought about frankincense and myrrh, so I was surprised to learn that they are both obtained from the sap of trees and that Somalia is the biggest exporter of frankincense. While it might have been interesting for Rococo to have used these ingredients in their solid state, their chocolate was actually infused with trace amounts of oil that were obtained by steam distillation of the dry resins. Frankincense is said to be woody in flavor, while myrrh (a natural gum that is waxy and coagulates quickly) is considered bitter & spicy by Chinese medicine.

Upon opening the cardboard packaging, I noticed that the bar was wrapped in festive thick gold foil.

However, after unwrapping the bar from the foil, I noticed that the chocolate had sustained some damage in transit: it was broken in 2 pieces & some of the edible 22 carat gold leaf had become detached from one of the rectangles.

Since I had a bar in “reserve,” I decided to open that one as well…only to discover that the inner packaging was the same patterned white & blue one that I had seen on the Earl Grey Tea bar from a couple of weeks ago.

As I alluded to earlier, 3 bars were brought back directly from England after the Christmas holidays + I acquired another bar at Chocolate Covered in San Francisco on Christmas Eve day. Turns out that the UK version had the gold foil inner wrapper + more gold leaf decorations while the US version had the “standard” inner packaging, less gold leaf & more chocolate “dust” + scuffing marring the surface (as well as a minor crack along the entire length of the bar where the first “C” of Rococo was imprinted on each of the rectangles).

For tasting purposes, I chose to stick with the UK bar despite the less-than-pristine appearance of the cracked bar (in case you were curious, BOTH bars tasted the same!)

Gold is a malleable and pliable chemical element, so “gold leaf” is created by hammering pieces of gold into thin sheets. It is odorless and tasteless, but it adds a certain “bling” to the chocolate…don’t you agree?!

Here is a close up of the gold leaf:

Overall, the chocolate smells and tastes primarily of citrusy orange oil. There was a sharp snap to the bar, though I also noticed an air bubble along the breaking point.

Melting a piece, I noticed that the texture was not completely smooth, but the morsel melted evenly. During the melt, I experienced a prickly, tingling sensation on my tongue that was vaguely effervescent. This reminded me of prior experiences with tasting pine resin and it left some astringency behind.

This was definitely a fun and unique Christmas-inspired bar & I’d love to get the Chocolarder version next year for comparison purposes!!

To learn more about Rococo Chocolates and their range of artisan bars, check out: https://www.rococochocolates.com/