V is for Virunga

Chocolate daily connects me to the greater world in unimaginable ways.

A couple of months ago, I made a plea on Instagram for recommendations for some of the letters that were stumping me. Thanks to Lilla from Little Beetle Chocolates/Taste.Better.Chocolate for suggesting Virunga, otherwise I might never have known about the endangered mountain gorillas that live in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

From online sources and a 2014 documentary that can be seen on Netflix, I learned that Virunga National Park is the oldest and the largest national park on the continent of Africa. Originally established in 1925 to protect the mountain gorillas, Virunga National Park has been a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979. There are currently less than 900 mountain gorillas left, making them a rare and critically-endangered species.

I’m pretty sure that it is illegal to explore for oil within a National Park; yet in 2013, about 80% of the Virunga National Park was allocated for oil concessions to a UK-based company. While that company demobilized in 2014, they still hold operating permits and the future of the exceptionally biodiverse National Park is uncertain. In an effort to research things for this blog post, I read that earlier this week there was more bloodshed within the Virunga National Park as five DR Congo soldiers were killed by the Rwandan army. It was truly shocking to read that during the Second Congo War between 1998 and 2003, there was upwards of 5 million human fatalities.

While I haven’t yet seen the Netflix documentary, I recently watched the companion piece called “Virunga: Gorillas in Peril.” It was heart-wrenching to watch the gorillas cower in fear each time they heard machine gun fire and I have much admiration for the individuals who have risked their lives to protect the mountain gorillas from poachers, war, and the devastating effects of oil exploration.

As mentioned on the back of the bar’s packaging, Amsterdam-based chocolate company, Original Beans, does what they can through their “one bar: one tree” program to help preserve some of the Earth’s rarest places. By entering a code from the box, I was led to a website with information on the progress made in Virunga. Additionally, this particular bar helps to protect the world’s last 800 mountain gorillas: https://originalbeans.com/cru-virunga-congo/

Now for the chocolate itself!

Original Beans: Cru Virunga 70%, Virunga Park, Congo DR

The main illustration on the front of the box pays homage to the mountain gorillas whose home is the Virunga National Park. I love the delicate gold foil stamping and embossing.

Unless you look carefully, you might miss the image at the top: a tree sprouting from the flattened image of the globe.

The back and inside panels provide more details about the efforts made by Original Beans, as I mentioned earlier in this post.

Removing the 12-rectangle bar from the biodegradable inner pouch, the chocolate itself felt silky smooth, almost a little greasy, to the touch despite the lightly frosted/bloomed appearance.

Running a fingertip over the sunburst image at the center of the rectangle seemed to smear the chocolate rather than bring back the lustre and shine.

There was an earthy, mushroom-like aroma to the chocolate. Splitting a rectangle in half with a medium snap, the aroma turned nutty, like browned butter. There were no air bubbles at the break point.

Smooth, creamy mouthfeel during the slow/even melt, punctuated by berry and citrus notes. The overall chocolate flavor lingers pleasantly on your palate with little to no astringency on the finish. This is a very easy-to-eat bar and you can support a good cause at the same time. WIN:WIN!

To learn more about Original Beans, their products and their philosophy, please visit their website: https://originalbeans.com/

U is for Udzungwa Mountains

As I’m nearing the end of the Alphabet, I seem to be losing enthusiasm for the last remaining letters. Somehow I just don’t have the same connection to origins as I did with company names (Round 1 of this project) or inclusion ingredients (Round 2). It probably doesn’t help when I don’t even know how to properly pronounce the name of the place I’m featuring…like this one: Udzungwa!

From online sources, the Udzungwa Mountains are the largest and most southern in a chain of eleven mountain ranges that form what is called the Eastern Arc. As the name implies, these mountains curve in a crescent shaped grouping starting in Tanzania and continuing north into Kenya toward Mount Kilimanjaro, which (I believe) is not part of the Arc.

The website of the WWF (World Wide Fund, formerly called World Wildlife Fund) describes the Udzungwa Mountains National Park as supporting a diverse community of wildlife including elephants, lions, eland, monkeys and leopards. Now it makes sense that Ocelot chose a leopard-like pattern for this particular 88% dark chocolate bar!

I love that the re-sealable, oxo-degradable plastic inner pouch calls to mind the tropical rainforest which is also found in Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains. You can almost hear the wind rustling through the leafy canopy.

Removing the thin bar from the packaging, I was mesmerized by the detailed mold that was used. Each of the 9 rectangles is etched with a different portion of the bigger image of a cacao tree with several pods in multiple stages of ripeness.

Honestly, I was surprised that this bar was not as dark in color as I was expecting from an 88%. You could almost be fooled into thinking this was a dark milk chocolate until you smelled and tasted it!

There was a robust, earthy and roasted aroma straight out of the packaging. Silky smooth texture to the touch while segmenting pieces with a medium snap, revealing some air bubbles at the break point.

Immediately bitter on the palate and at the back of the throat during the slow, even melt with some astringency on the finish. A second taste brought out fruity notes which reminded me of grapefruit pith and a buttermilk/yogurt tang appeared during a third taste. The astringency seemed to increase with each subsequent taste such that it quickly became somewhat not enjoyable for me. Maybe it’s just that I prefer bars in the 70-85% range?! I can think of several friends who would love this bar!

Thanks to Rachel (foodnerd4life) in the UK for having sent me three of Ocelot’s bars as part of our inaugural chocswap. Not sure why I didn’t research the chocolate makers behind this Edinburgh, Scotland brand earlier, but I really enjoyed reading this article about Matt and Ish who started their chocolate business one week after getting married!

If you are interested in buying some of their bars for yourself, please visit their website: https://ocelotchocolate.com/

Personally, the Fig & Orange bar is next on my wish list 🙂

P.S. On a separate note, it’s not too late to find a chocolate gift for your sweetie for Valentines’ Day. Here is a link to an article I wrote with some unique ideas: https://feast.media/looking-for-love-these-5-valentines-day-ideas-will-give-you-an-edge

S is for Surabaya

Focusing on “origins” for this round of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet project has provided so many opportunities to improve my knowledge of world geography. Until today, when I thought of Indonesia, the first thing that came to mind was a unique “rijsttafel” (rice table) meal that I experienced in Amsterdam several years ago. After researching this Willie’s Cacao dark chocolate bar, I have a new mental picture of the Indonesian island of Java and the port city of Surabaya (which also happens to be the second largest city in Indonesia, after Jakarta).

Curious about the etymology of the word Surabaya, I discovered that “sura” means a shark, while “baya” means a crocodile. So it makes perfect sense that Surabaya would use these two animals as part of their coat of arms above a motto that translates to “bravely facing danger.”

Source: Wikipedia

On the back of the foil stamped and embossed small square box, chocolate maker Willie Harcourt-Cooze is quoted as saying “This Javan Dark Breaking bean stopped me in my tracks. It’s an adventure in taste with its criollo characteristics and soft caramel and toffee flavours, born in the volcanic soil of Surabaya.”

The phrase “Dark Breaking bean” was new to me, so I decided to research further. Typing those words into a Google search engine, I discovered that every single entry referred to a Willie’s Cacao bar, so I had to dig more!

Luckily, a PDF version of a 2001 document from the International Trade Centre entitled “Cacao: A Guide to Trade Practices” provided the explanation I was looking for:

“When cocoa beans are examined in the laboratory or during grading, they are cut lengthways and the interior of the bean is examined for colour and defects. If the colour is light brown, the bean is considered ‘light breaking’. If the colour is dark, it is ‘dark breaking’. Light breaking beans are generally of the Criollo variety (some are Trinitario or Nacional-based), i.e. fine or flavour beans. Basic cocoa beans of the Forastero variety are generally dark breaking.”

This left me a little confused since the above information refers to Forastero beans being dark breaking, even though Willie’s label mentions Criollo, which seems to be the type of bean that the Dutch planted in Java/Indonesia according to this source from Bali (an island and province in Indonesia).

“Java became the first region outside the New World that began producing these heritage [Criollo] beans commercially and as these genetics acclimated to their new surroundings they took on their own terroir. Today these beans are called ‘Light Breaking Javas’ for the fact that they still exhibit the famed Criollo low pigmentation when the cacao beans are cut in half.”

Hmmm, I still have questions about the precise genetics of the beans used for this bar! But enough about that, let’s see how this bar tastes!!

Willie’s Cacao Surabaya Gold Indonesian Dark Chocolate Single Cacao 69%

Removing the bar from the gold foil inner pouch emblazoned with an offset cursive capital “W,” I noticed that the bar was lightly frosted and/or had a bloomed appearance as well as a coating of “chocolate dust.”

Lightly buffing the surface with a fingertip, returned the bar to its original shine. Below are the “during” and “after” shots for comparison purposes.

Breaking off a tasting morsel with a brittle/sharp snap, there was an earthy/mineral smell to the bar. The piece had a lightly textured (not completely smooth) mouthfeel during the slow/even melt. Almost immediately, there was a smoky flavor that seemed to cumulatively increase. Sadly, no soft caramel and/or toffee notes for me!

Curious about the cacao drying practices in Indonesia, I did another search and discovered this from a description of a Bonnat chocolate bar:

“The intemperate climate on this large Indonesian island means that, as with Papua [New Guinea] chocolate, the beans are dried using large open fires. The result is a chocolate infused with a little hint of smoke.”

Seeing this description made me remember that I had that exact Bonnat bar in my stash!

What a difference in color between a 65% dark milk (Bonnat) shown at the top of the photo and a 69% dark (Willie’s Cacao) at the bottom:

This made me understand “light breaking” and “dark breaking” beans much more clearly!

Have YOU tried bars from Surabaya, Java and/or Indonesia? Let me know your thoughts in a comment!

For more information on Willie’s Cacao, please visit: https://www.williescacao.com/

You can find additional information on Bonnat, here: https://bonnat-chocolatier.com/en

N is for Nicalizo

Every day affords us the chance to learn something new if we maintain an open mind and embrace the opportunities that are placed on our paths!

As I was putting together a list of bars to feature for this round of the Alphabet, Nicalizo kept popping into my mind, probably because I’ve tried this “origin” a couple of times already this year. What I didn’t realize until today was that Nicalizo is NOT an origin, but the trademarked name of a Trinitario-Acriollado variety of cacao that grows in the northern mountains of Nicaragua near the Honduras border which was identified/propagated by Ingemann Cacao Fino (Fine Cacao) located outside the capital city of Managua. Also, Nicalizo® was the first Nicaraguan cacao to be awarded Heirloom Cacao Preservation status; they are number 8 of 13, so far.

For a while now, I’ve been envious of my fellow chocolate bloggers who have been posting about Lithuanian Chocolate Naive’s nano-lot bars, so (of course) I had to get one for myself. When you hear the term “nano-lot,” what comes to mind? That the maker produced a very small number of bars? That the grower’s yield was limited? Both of these are certainly plausible! According to the packaging, it sounds like the “nano” designation comes from the fact that chocolate maker, Domantas Uzpalis, was able to “secure the very last 60kg [approx. 132 lbs.] of this special lot that was supervised and preserved by mad cocoa fermentation scientist Zoi Papalexandratou PhD. in mid-2015.” A quick look on LinkedIn shows that Dr. Zoi is the former Head of Research & Development + Post-Harvest Management for Ingemann Fine Cacao and that she specializes in cocoa fermentation as it relates to flavor development.

Are you sufficiently intrigued?! Well, then let’s get to tasting the chocolate!!

The plain black and white cardboard box with the embossed logo of a man riding a unicycle (which will be repeated on the chocolate bar itself) is in stark contrast to the vibrant packaging that I’ve seen from Chocolate Naive recently! The only pop of color comes from the double-sided informational insert that holds the wrapped bar in place within the box.

Taking a closer look at the insert, you learn what makes these beans special:

As you might expect, the bar is a light brown, almost like a mocha or café au lait. It surprised me to discover milk powder as an ingredient since I was expecting this to be a dark chocolate bar (though I wasn’t able to find any cacao percentage listed either on the packaging or the company website).

Even though the front of the bar sports a near flawless, textured, matte finish, the back of the bar looks a bit lumpy by comparison.

In the photo below, I’ve used a silver tone filter and zoomed in to what appears to me as a friendly dragon or partially decorated Christmas tree. What do YOU see?! 🤔

Earthy and freshly-ground coffee bean smells greeted my nose upon removing the bar from the sealed pouch. Breaking off a morsel with a sharp snap, there was a dairy/milky aroma at the break point.

While there were initial quick bursts of fruit flavors as the chocolate melted on my tongue, those evolved to honey/caramel/nutty notes and ended with what I can only describe as a “dusty” finish (imagine papery walnut skins). Subsequent tastes brought out lightly smoky notes. The texture seemed a little crumbly when chewed, resulting in a thick mouthfeel which coated the tongue + palate. There was certainly a long lasting chocolate aftertaste, though I didn’t use a stopwatch to confirm if it matched the 9 minutes quoted on the packaging insert!

As a parting thought, I wanted to share that prior to tasting the bar this morning, last night I listened to episode 17 of the “Unwrapped: A conversation about chocolate” podcast which discussed microlots, exclusives, scarcity and rarity. While Sunita & Brian’s 50 minute chat was rambling at times, it certainly made me consider whether terms like “nano-lot” are just clever marketing tools to hook those of us with a FOMO (fear of missing out). I’d like to think that wasn’t my (subconcious) motivation! 😲

Although this bar is sold out on Chocolate Naive’s website, you can still find it on Cacao Review’s website (at least at the time of this post).

If you’ve tried this bar or have an opinion on the term “nano-lot,” I’d love to hear from you. Send me a message or leave a comment below.

Stay open to new learning experiences each day & early Merry Christmas!

M is for Matasawalevu

One of my most favorite things about this round of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet project (aside from tasting the bars themselves, of course) has been discovering interesting tidbits about where the cacao for those chocolate bars was grown. One esoteric piece of information can easily transport me down more than one “rabbit hole” of research. I have to say that this origin was a little more challenging than most since I found various spellings online (sometimes within the same source document): Matasawalevu, Mataswalevu or even Matacawalevu! I’m a stickler for accuracy, so hopefully someone out there who has personally visited the area can tell me how it SHOULD be spelled!!

Although I’ve seen friends’ beach and surfing vacation photos taken in Fiji, it wasn’t until today that I took time to learn more about the island country that is 1,100 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand. The Republic of Fiji (as it is officially known) is an archipelago consisting of more than 330 islands, though only 110 of those islands are inhabited and just the two largest ones make up almost ninety percent of the total population.

While it might seem that cacao is a recent agricultural commodity for the country, its history dates back to when the British colonized the area in the 1880s. In fact, it surprised me to learn that there is a cacao pod depicted on the country’s flag. Here is a close up of the coat of arms and you can see the pod being held in the lion’s paws!

Source: Wikipedia

The cacao industry dwindled during the country’s political unrest of the late-1980s, but has seen a resurgence recently thanks in part by the efforts of Mr. Arif Khan who returned to his native homeland after working as a realtor in California for almost 20 years. You can read more about that story through this link. Mr. Khan’s cacao farming, processing and trading company, Cacao Fiji, has been working closely with the Matasawalevu/Mataswalevu Cocoa Farm located in the foothills, overlooking the Dreketi River in the Macuata Province of Vanua Levu (the second largest island of Fiji, which was formerly known as Sandalwood Island). So far, I’ve only seen this origin used by a few craft chocolate makers: one in California, one in Canada and another in New Zealand.

I happen to have two makers’ bars in my stash, but I’m featuring the one from New Zealand: Hogarth’s Early Harvest 2016 Fiji 73% dark chocolate.

This is personally one of the most highly anticipated bars of the series after seeing fellow chocolate bloggers post pictures of this brand’s other bars. The 3D relief artwork on the textured outer wrapper is both evocative and elegant in its simplicity.

Upon unfolding the lined metallic gold paper inner wrapper from the bar, there was a super intense dried fruit aroma. Sadly that smell faded shortly after the bar was exposed to the air. It was breathtaking to finally see the stunningly detailed mold: the rolling waves from the packaging echoed again on the bar itself with a monogrammed “H” taking center stage.

The relatively thick bar felt substantial in my hand and it seemed to require a bit of effort to break off a tasting morsel without marring the overall aesthetic integrity of the bar. With a somewhat dry/brittle snap, I was able to segment a fairly even rectangle. Splitting that in half with a sharp snap, when I placed the pieces together for a “cross section” photo, it almost looked like a pair of little clogs or low-heeled dancing slippers!

All my tongue could detect during the slow, smooth, even melt were the ridges from the intricate mold design. Overall, the flavor reminded me of a bittersweet dense flourless chocolate cake or a velvety dessert wine. Chewing a piece brought out nutty/roasted notes which finished with a light citrus/acidic aftertaste at the back of the throat & upper palate.

Now that I’ve tried this bar, I’m intrigued to taste other chocolates made from Forastero Amelonado cacao. Do YOU have any recommendations?!

Next time I visit New Zealand, you can be sure that I’ll want to visit Hogarth and stock up on more of their gorgeous bars. Please visit their website for more details: https://www.hogarthchocolate.co.nz/wp/

L is for Loma Quita Espuela

Originally I was going to avoid inclusion bars this round (unless absolutely necessary) since “Round 2” was dedicated to them. However, once I saw this bar as part of Chocswap 2.0 with Lilla from Little Beetle Chocolates, I knew I couldn’t find a better (or more unique sounding) “L” origin!

The highest elevation within the city of San Francisco de Macorís in the North Region of the Dominican Republic is at Loma Quita Espuela. In case you’re curious about the name, here is what I found on Wikipedia:

“This name allegedly comes from the time when the Spaniards were exploring the island, since the hill was too steep to ride their horses, they had to dismount and remove their spurs and undertake the ascent on foot.”

It certainly sounds like an amazing place to experience nature, based on what I’ve seen from this website!

Now for the chocolate itself: Kilian & Close 52% D.R. with Périgord walnuts

Love the simplicity of this sturdy cardboard packaging with interlocking folds that remind me of a modified “dovetail joint” or “tongue and groove” assembly. There is a single triangular notched tab keeping the box closed and the plastic-wrapped bar tightly nestled within. In retrospect, the bar might have been too secure since the inner wrapper clung to the chocolate in places, leaving several shiny spots.

Honestly, I was NOT expecting there to be several candied walnut halves adhered to the back of the bar, though I should have guessed there might be visible inclusions when the package felt thick in my hand.

As if to alleviate my conscience (about only using non-inclusion, single origin bars for this round of the Alphabet), there were several spots sans walnuts so that I could taste the chocolate on its own!! 💕

The bar segmented easily with a sharp snap and there were hardly any air bubbles at the breaking point.

Handling the tasting morsels with my fingers, I noticed that the chocolate had an ultra-smooth, plastic-like texture to the touch. Perhaps this explains why it was difficult to melt on the tongue? Switching to chewing, creamy, nutty, caramel notes emerged. The flavor remained consistent throughout the tasting, until I got to a piece with the candied walnuts. Chomping on a walnut, there were earthy and lightly bitter notes relegating the slow roasted Dominican Republic cocoa beans to “second fiddle.”

Speaking of the walnuts, these come from Périgord (the old name for the former province in southwestern France) which, as of September 30, 2016, has a new name: Nouvelle-Aquitaine. In 2002, these walnuts were awarded PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status even though they have been in the area since the Middle Ages!

Since Lilla purchased this bar in Germany during her summer road trip, the label is entirely in German.

It wasn’t until AFTER my tasting that I decided to translate the ingredient list. I was surprised to see coconut blossom sugar as the first ingredient and that there was also coconut milk powder at the end of the list! The flavor notes all make much more sense now! Not sure why I didn’t originally make the connection that there would be an alternate milk to retain its vegan certification! 😲

I’m slowly learning to embrace serendipity since not knowing all the information in advance allows you to taste without prejudice and pre-conceptions. 🙂 This was certainly a delicious journey of discovery!

To learn more about Kilian & Close, please visit their website: http://www.kilian-close.com/en.htm

E is for El Jardín

Sometimes packaging confuses me…especially when it’s in a foreign language. Is this an “E” bar or a “P” bar?! Well, this is MY project; so, like any good writer, I’ll just “bend the data” to fit my needs 😉 (Hopefully you realize that last sentence is my attempt at tongue-in-cheek humor!)

Legend says that this area of Colombia was entirely a jungle when settlers first arrived in the mid-to-late 1800s. These settlers thought the lush vegetation looked like a garden, hence the Spanish name: “The Garden.” According to Wikipedia, El Jardín was declared a parish in 1871 and declared a town in 1882. From what I’ve read, the buildings and architecture of this town and municipality have remained mostly unchanged in 140 years and one of the main sources of their economy is tourism (there are 40 hotels, whereas other towns only have 10!)

Based on maps I’ve seen online, El Jardín is located in the Northwest part of Colombia, specifically in the Southwest region of the department of Antioquia (I assume that “departments” are like what we call “states” here in the U.S.) I like that the front of the neon-yellow/green packaging shows a dot on the map; however, it doesn’t quite match what I’ve seen, so maybe the Plantation is in a different location than the town?!

Source: Wikipedia

Although you’re not really supposed to, I stuck my nose into the thin, silver inner foil wrapper after slicing open the top. The aroma reminded me of honey, though the bar itself smelled like roasted coffee.

The reddish brown bar (surprisingly light in color for 69%), made up of 15 identically sized rectangles, is emblazoned with 9 stylized cacao pods and oddly spaced lettering for the company name/logo. Try as I might using online translation tools, I was stumped by the term “Cacaofèvier” until I checked in with my French language expert, Estelle Tracy from 37 Chocolates. She mentioned that this was a made up word essentially meaning “bean-to-bar maker.”

Michel Cluizel must have a six-head depositor for their molding machine since there were that many swirls on the back of the bar. Note: I tweaked the color a bit on the photo below to make it “pop” a bit more.

When segmenting tasting morsels, there was a sharp/brittle snap and I could see nooks and crannies (air bubbles) at the breaking point.

The mouthfeel was creamy and the melt was slow and even. Initially, the flavor was nutty and reminded me of a mocha. Then there were some caramel or dairy notes during the melt, ending with some peppery notes at the back of my throat + tongue. On a second tasting, the flavor reminded me of red fruit (berries) with flashes of peanut butter. Overall, the finish is hard to describe! I wouldn’t call it minty or menthol (like the packaging mentions), but I would definitely say it was refreshing.

Michel Cluizel holds a special place in my heart since his bars were my introduction to fine chocolate back in 2006-2007! Time flies! It’s been about 10 years since I’ve tasted his chocolates, so I was thrilled to find a bar that fit in with my Alphabet project. Do you have a favorite Michel Cluizel bar? Leave me a comment below!??

For more information on Michel Cluizel’s extensive product line, please visit their website: https://cluizel.us/

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.”