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.”

A is for Anamalai

When I think of India, the first images that spring to mind are influenced by movies like “The Lunchbox” or “Outsourced” where they depict densely populated cities, full of chaotic traffic – places that are definitely not conducive to cacao farming! However, if you’ve seen the PBS historical drama series “Indian Summers,” you know that there are also beautifully lush/tropical areas (though [spoiler alert] that TV show is actually filmed in Malaysia!) The following paragraph from Meridian Cacao’s blog should help conjure up a mental picture of the Anamala/Anaimalai Hills where the cacao for this bar is grown.

“Some mornings, Harish Manoj and Karthi Palaniswamy will arrive at their farm to find their young coconut palms devastated, with broken fronds as if a hurricane has come through. The source of the destruction is no storm, however—it’s elephants. The farm is right at the base of the western Ghats, a mountain range which extends through the south of India. Lots of elephants (and tigers and monkeys) live on the slopes of those mountains, safe in the Anamalai animal preserve (Anamalai is Tamil for ‘Elephant Hills’). The elephants will lumber down onto the farm at night to help themselves to the coconut trees–not for the coconuts, but for the palm fronds themselves, which, as it turns out, are perfect tools for whacking pesky mosquitos off their backs. Amongst this wild backdrop, Harish and Karthi have begun their mission to make their small valley, known for its abundance of coconuts, an unlikely source of delicious cacao.”

Meridian Cacao’s blog goes on to explain that in 1948, after British Colonial Rule ended, the UK’s chocolate behemoth, Cadbury, set up operations in India and much of the cacao produced in that country today still gets purchased by Mondelez (which now owns Cadbury). I’ve been wanting to try a chocolate bar made from Indian cacao for a while now, so I jumped at the opportunity to purchase an Areté bar after reading an Instagram post from Palo Alto’s The Chocolate Garage.

Wanting to learn more about the beans used by David and Leslie Senk of Areté Fine Chocolate in Milpitas, California, I discovered an informative article published in “The Hindu” a few months ago. On the eve of World Chocolate Day, that article announced that brothers-in-law Karthikeyan Palaniswamy and Harish Manoj Kumar were launching India’s first (and only) tree-to-bar chocolate through their company, Regal Chocolates. After reading this Indian blog post, I would love to get my hands on one of their bars too – both the packaging and the bar itself are decorated with simple embossed lines that look like a stylized cacao tree with many branches, leaves and pods.

And, now, the moment you’ve been waiting for, tasting Areté’s bar…

As always, Areté’s bars have a near-flawless, textured matte finish. The logo of a woman, seemingly floating in air in a modified arabesque balletic pose, reaching for a star with an outstretched hand, “pops” from the center of the deep reddish-brown bar with a polished mirror-like shine.

The aroma wafting from the bar evokes dried fruit and raisins, in particular. It pains me to mar the frame-worthy intact rectangle. Reluctantly, I break off a tasting morsel. While I hear a sharp snap, I see tiny flecks of chocolate flying every which way and landing gently on the table below. There is an earthy, minerality smell at the breaking point and I can see nooks and crannies reminiscent of cut granite.

At the beginning of the slow/even melt, there is a fruity (almost juicy) explosion of flavor in my entire mouth. A few moments later, the sensation shifts to a dusty (yet creamy smooth), nutty taste that reminds me of chomping on Brazil nuts. Finally, there is a sharp acidic burn at the back of my throat (like swallowing a gulp of wine) during the finish.

If you’re like me and have been watching Sunita de Tourreil’s “Happy Chocolate” documentaries on YouTube, you’ll know that she will soon be filming an episode in India. I’m eagerly awaiting that installment to learn even more about this exotic country of origin. I hope she visits the Tiger Reserve 🐯 or Wildlife Sanctuary 🐘 in Anamalai! Imagine the outtakes 😉

This India bar is NOT listed on Areté’s website since it is exclusive to The Chocolate Garage at this point. Contact The Chocolate Garage to place an order if you’d like to taste this bar for yourself! Please let me know your impressions once you try it!!

P.S. In case you missed it, the “theme” for this round of Eating the Chocolate Alphabet is ORIGINS! If you have recommendations, please send me a message or leave a comment below!

Z is for Za’atar

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already reached the letter “Z”! In some ways, it seems like these last 26 weeks went by in the blink of an eye and in other ways it seems like an eternity since I posted “A is for Amaranth.” But wait, this post isn’t the end of the alphabet…I still have one more surprise “trick up my sleeve,” so stay tuned for that bar’s reveal soon!

At the end of last year, as I was putting together a list of inclusion ingredients that I wanted to feature for each letter of the alphabet, za’atar was the FIRST thing that came to mind (well, I did briefly consider zebra milk, but that was just to get an eye roll ? from my friends, though if a bar like that DOES exist, please let me know ASAP!) Feeling inspired in early February, I sent an email to two chocolate-industry people I felt were the most likely to work with an unusual flavor combination such as this. Lucky for me, Hans Westerink from Violet Sky Chocolate wrote back within a few days with this response:

It is interesting that you mention za’atar, that is on my list of experimental bars to work on. I even have the sumac ready and waiting!

Pinch me, I must be dreaming! Hans sent me his ideas on the spice blend and even asked for my opinion on how best to incorporate them with the chocolate. That gesture made me feel important & part of the “creative process” – though, as the expert, he would no doubt develop an ideal “formula” without my input! As the months went by, I still reached out to fellow chocolate lovers across the country to determine if there were any other za’atar bars out there (just as a precaution), but the closest source was Tel Aviv, Israel ? In mid-June, I sent a quick email to Hans to confirm that he was still willing to make a couple of bars for me. I am so grateful that he was able to quickly create the bars and that we had the time to wait until there was a short break in the Southern California heatwave to ship them about a week later. These bars exceeded my expectations! Hans is truly a master when it comes to layering flavors such that the photogenic #chocolatetopography tastes as good as it looks!

In case you’re not familiar, za’atar is a spice mixture that typically includes: sesame seeds, dried herbs, sumac and some salt. If you’ve ever eaten a Lebanese flatbread (manakish) or Armenian lahmajoun, chances are you’ve tasted this uniquely Middle Eastern flavor!

Since this was an experiment, Violet Sky didn’t make an outer label, but still wrapped the bar in their distinctive collection of shiny metallic foil. Hans, how did you know that purple is one of my favorite colors?! 🙂

Just unwrapping the bar released an aroma that transported me back to a Middle Eastern feast with olive oil dripping from my fingers as I took bite after bite of chewy, soft, still-warm dough crusted with spices. ?

Just look at the generous amount of dried thyme, toasted white sesame seeds, reddish-brown sumac and fat jewel-like salt crystals that seem to all but hide the 77% Belize dark chocolate!

I took dozens of close-up shots since I was just mesmerized by how photogenic the bar looked from every angle!

The inclusions remained mostly well-adhered to the chocolate while I “posed” the bar for photos or flipped it over to see the simple 28-rectangle “front” of the bar.

When ingredients did fall off during the photo shoot, it allowed me to taste them in isolation from each other. I really liked the nutty crunch from the sesame seeds, the earthy/woody notes from the thyme and how quickly the salt would melt on my tongue.

It was easy to segment the bar into tasting pieces.

With the inclusion side down on my tongue, all the ingredients seemed to mingle like a kaleidoscope image. Before reaching the chocolate base, dislodged sesame seeds and tiny thyme leaves danced on my tongue and then there was a citrusy “zing” when encountering a scattering of sumac. These pleasant flavors lingered on the roof of my mouth and I could then continue to munch contemplatively on the crunchy sesame seeds.

Originally, I thought that putting a morsel with the non-inclusion side down on my tongue would be the equivalent of “delayed gratification;” but, instead, the thyme became the focus, especially since the fresh herb had been infused into the base chocolate. By melting the chocolate first on my tongue, I could concentrate on the creamy, smooth, slow even melt punctuated by the vibrantly citrusy sumac which reminded me of freshly squeezed lemon juice.

As much as I like to “chomp” chocolate, I don’t recommend that method for this bar. Munch, munch and then the piece is gone without having enough time to notice the distinct flavor layering. Though, maybe it’s cumulative?! After my palate was acclimated to the flavors, chomping on two rectangles simultaneously still resulted in the same intensely sunny combination of flavors.

While Violet Sky has a website http://www.violetskychocolate.com/, I recommend instead that you check out their Instagram feed for all the seasonal flavors they have…seemingly never the same thing twice!

Don’t forget that I have one final “Z” post planned for later this week! You won’t want to miss that!

Y is for Yacon Root

OK…is it just me, or have you noticed that as I near the end of the alphabet, it’s getting harder and harder to find viable inclusion ingredients that start with my featured letter?! ?

For “Y” I could have potentially found yams, yeast, yogurt, yuca or yuzu…but I chose yacón root instead!

According to Wikipedia, yacón is an Andean tuberous root composed mostly of water that is a close botanical relative of Jerusalem artichokes or sunflowers. While the root can be red, orange, yellow or even purple, it seems like most pictures online remind me of a slender yam with cream-colored flesh reminiscent of jicama. Upon reading things further, Ecuadorians refer to yacón as “jicama” (wow, talk about confusing!) Speaking of names, it’s also called a “Peruvian ground apple” which makes sense since the French call potatoes pomme de terre (literally translated as earth or ground apples). Yacón is known to have a flavor that is slightly sweet & resinous with floral undertones. I was fascinated to discover that until the early 2000s, yacón wasn’t widely available outside of its native growing areas and that companies have since developed new products like syrup and tea from this root due to its extremely low glycemic index (1 on a scale of 0 to 100), making it popular among people watching their sugar intake (like diabetics or those on a diet).

After all that, I was really curious about how this bar would taste!

Raaka 79% Dominican Republic sweetened with Yacón Root

Raaka leaves their cacao beans unroasted (aka “virgin”) to allow the flavors to come through. For this bar, they are using Dominican Republic beans from the Öko Caribe Cooperative.

I love the simplicity of the micro fine point black ink lines on thick white paper. I see bamboo through mini blinds or plantation shutters. Though, I wonder if the front packaging is really an autostereogram (also called a “magic eye” picture) that needs to be viewed from a distance (or by squinting) for the image to finally emerge.

Removing the rectangular bar from the wax-lined silver foil that was folded with the outer paper like a hiyoku (inner kimono layer), you immediately see abstract art embossed into the chocolate (despite the jagged edge splitting the bar into two pieces; a transit-caused “casualty”).

There was a sharp brittle snap when segmenting pieces and the “breaking point” looked a little dry.

The tasting morsel melted slowly in my mouth (and with a bit of effort), yielding a chalky, powdery, not smooth mouthfeel and a mouth-puckering bitter flavor. There was a starchy, filmy residue that clung to my tongue, teeth and palate long after the piece was gone from my mouth. When “chomped” the chocolate tasted fruity…maybe this was the Dominican Republic terroir coming through?

Overall, this bar was extremely photogenic, but sadly the “acquired” taste of the unrefined sweetener did not win me over. I like earthy bars, but this one was a little too astringent for my taste. Maybe it was the unroasted beans? Maybe it was the 79% cacao content? Maybe I just need to find the right “pairing.” Have you tried this bar? Let me know what you think!

For more information on Raaka, please see their website: https://www.raakachocolate.com/

50 States Collaboration – New Mexico / Chokola Bean to Bar

It’s hard to believe that after almost 5 months, the “50 states” collaboration project is complete. It was such a thrill and an honor to have been asked by Lori (of Time to Eat Chocolate) to help feature the 37 (out of 50) United States that have a bean-to-bar maker. As you might imagine, it was difficult to choose just one or two makers from each state and I’m sure there have been new additions since we started this project, so who knows what the future might bring!

Just wanted to thank Sophia Rea from Projet Chocolat for making aware of the only bean-to-bar maker in her home state of New Mexico.

Back in May, I reached out to Chokolá to inquire about bar availability and learned that they were currently aging one of their favorite origins: Madagascar. As you can imagine, I was anxious to get my hands on the bar before the weather got too warm here in the Southwest since chocolate transit during the summer months can be very tricky! Once the bars were available last week, makers Debi Vincent and Javier (Javi) Abad shipped me a couple of bars only to have them arrive badly bloomed 🙁 NOTE: Southern California was experiencing a triple digit heatwave that lasted more than 10 days ?️?. Luckily, a family member was visiting close by my home yesterday, so I was able to get a pristine replacement bar in the nick of time to feature here as the final entry of the “50 states” project!

In case you’re curious about how the bloomed chocolate bar looked, below is a side-by-side comparison…what a difference, right?!

70% Ambaja Madagascar

Anyway, as soon as I returned home from last night’s chocolate drop off, I hurriedly set up an impromptu photo shoot area under artificial light in an air conditioned room so that I could take some initial photos…I didn’t want to risk putting the bar in my wine fridge overnight before taking pictures! Apologies in advance for the grainy images since I still haven’t perfected using incandescent light.

As you can see, there was a beautiful reddish-brown mahogany color and an almost mirror-shine to the chocolate bar, despite some air bubbles around the lacy design of the company logo in the middle panel of the narrow rectangular bar.

There was a soft snap, which released a fruity aroma. Putting a tasting morsel in my mouth, there was an immediate bright, vibrant, tart berry flavor. The mouthfeel was smooth, creamy and almost fudge-y during the slow, even melt.

This morning, I decided to take some additional photos with the morning light that I prefer!

What a relief to discover that the bar was still shiny! There was still a mellow/dull snap to the bar, I blame the low-to-mid 80s temperature at just 9:30 in the morning. Finally I could take better pictures of all the nooks and crannies that emerge when segmenting the bar.

And the lunar-landscape looking “back” of the bar!

The raspberry tang (which hits at the back-of-the-throat), creamy mouthfeel and long lasting finish were still just as distinctive today as they were yesterday ?

If you’re like me, I’m sure you’re fascinated by the eye-catching packaging artwork. This mixed media collage & acrylic painting by Erin Currier depicts her modern interpretation of Philomena, Patron Saint of Infants, Babies and Youth. Several of the outer packaging panels provide more information on Erin’s background, plus a brief bio.

The center panel, directly under the gold-foil wrapped bar, highlights what makes Chokolá special:

While it doesn’t say so on the packaging, their website provides a little more information on the origin of the cacao beans:

The estate on the plantation is powered by solar energy, and contributes actively to the surrounding community by providing land, building schools, and making medicine more accessible to the local population. 

The packaging artwork for their other bars is equally stunning and there are several flavors that I’d love to try once the weather cools off. Check out their website for more details: http://www.chokolabeantobar.com/

Thanks for following along on this adventure of discovery! If you’ve missed any of the prior “50 states” stories, be sure to check out the Time to Eat Chocolate blog and for the states that I covered, you can view those posts by clicking on this link.

NOTE: If you know of any other bean-to-bar makers in New Mexico, please leave a comment or send an email…we like to keep our resource lists as up-to-date as possible!

X is for Xoconostle

Every chocolate has a story! I just hope to do adequate justice to its narration since this one touched not only my heart, but also my soul ❤️

You know the phrase “it takes a village”? Well, this bar would not have come into being without the inspiration, ingenuity, creativity, tenacity, talent, care and support of so many people!

Late last year, as I was finishing “round 1” of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet project, I wracked my brain for another unique alphabetical adventure. During the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle in November, I decided that A through Z inclusions would be perfect…though I couldn’t figure out what to do about “X” since I didn’t want to feature xylitol or xanthan gum and after tasting XO sauce (a spicy seafood paste originating from Hong Kong) I knew that would NOT work with chocolate AT ALL!

When I posted “A is for Amaranth” on January 4th, I added a plea to my Instagram followers for suggestions on how to handle that elusive letter. Fellow chocolate lover, Janice, promptly responded xoconostle; but heck if I knew what that was?! After a quick Google search, I discovered that this was a cactus fruit, smaller than a prickly pear; but the chances of finding that in chocolate were slim to none!

Fast forward a month later to Map Chocolate’s Indiegogo campaign. One of the perks was to design “the Map of your dreams”! Unbeknownst to me, though I had my suspicions, my boyfriend anonymously purchased that option in the hopes of partnering with Mackenzie Rivers to create a custom chocolate bar on my behalf! In the week that followed, my BF started researching foods that started with the letter “X” and found a company online that sold dried xoconostle – but they were currently out of stock. When the Indiegogo campaign was nearing the end and it was looking like Map would not reach their $25K fixed goal, my “I’m an engineer and problem-solver” BF decided that HE would obtain all the ingredients needed to home-craft a chocolate on the sly. He purchased a polycarbonate mold, a bag of Rancho Gordo xoconostle (as soon as it came back in stock) and some Valhrona couverture chocolate, which he would temper with a sous vide machine. At some point, he just could no longer keep the secret to himself. As we munched on a couple of rings of dried xoconostle together (imagine a cross between jerky and a tart “Sour Patch Kids” candy!), he recounted his endearing scheme and revealed the perfect bar name! It was then that it dawned on us…how would two neophytes like us possibly utilize and sweeten this shriveled fruit AND come up with a decent looking chocolate bar?!

Lucky for us, Mackenzie generously offered some of the Indiegogo perks even though the campaign had not been successful and I LEAPT at the chance that had previously eluded my grasp! My only request was that this bar include xoconostle and I left the rest of the details up to Mackenzie. If you heard squeals of joy in late May, know that was when these magical bars were delivered to me and they exceeded even my wildest dreams. Thanks for indulging me to endure this long story to finally see:

X MARKS THE SPOT

As you can see, there was care and attention to detail every step of the way: from the strips of map forming an X on the envelope, to the cacti paper wrapping the bars and even the inner liner note (which makes reference to a brief chance encounter that we unknowingly shared while both visiting a chocolate shop in Portland one afternoon):

Even though Map’s mold is super unique and distinctive, it’s all about the inclusions for me…so I’ll only be showing you the “back” side of the bar! However, if you head to my Instagram account, you’ll see a quick “unwrapping” video which highlights both the front and the back!

Just look at how the rehydrated translucent xoconostle glistens and the chili lime shimmers in the light! Chocolate topography at its finest! <swoon>

The aroma was fruity and jam-like with citrus and pepper undertones. Tasting the xoconostle on its own reminded me of a lightly sweet, crisp Asian pear or strawberry rhubarb. Upon handling the square bar to segment it into tasting morsels, my fingertips became stained with bright red chili dust and I certainly couldn’t let any of that go to waste! It was just like licking the rim of a tequila shot, followed by a short-lived, back-of-the-throat burn from the spice.

Now I could concentrate on the inclusion that was nestled within the 65% Dominican Republic Reserva Zorzal chocolate which was not completely smooth on the tongue, but not gritty either. It’s hard to articulate the sensation of teeth meeting the panela glazed peanuts which had just the right amount of “give” to add texture and a mellow crunch.

Leading up to the delivery of the bars, there were a couple of posts on Map’s Instagram account that probably made sense only to me:

Like a proud new parent, I took dozens upon dozens of photos of this photogenic bar and despaired over which ones to include in this post! After actively blogging for a little more than a year now, it’s getting harder and harder to find chocolates that other bloggers haven’t already written about! I think it’s safe to say that this is truly a one-of-a-kind bar and that no one else has ever tasted anything like it. While I might be biased, I think this was a delicious combination of ingredients and I can only hope (please, please, please) that Mackenzie considers adding this bar to her seasonal repertoire 🙂

And with that exhortation, I certainly DID!

From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU to everyone who made this bar possible!!! xoxo

For more information on Map Chocolate, please see her website: http://www.mapchocolate.com/

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” 😉

V is for Voatsiperifery Pepper

Story time! Here is yet another example of me being a “magnet” for unusual inclusion ingredients! 🙂

During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon the weekend before Memorial Day, we visited The Meadow in the historic Nob Hill District since I’d seen pictures online of their “wall of chocolate.” Imagine a shop with row after row of neatly organized shelving that almost reaches the ceiling, where sales associates climb a ladder to retrieve the chocolate bar(s) from the highest perches…if there was ever a chocolate “library,” it would be this place with 400+ bars to choose from!

When the employee on duty that afternoon asked me if I was looking for anything in particular, I mentioned that my heart was set on finding a bar with violets, but I’d be willing to settle for something else that started with “V” except for vanilla. She pondered, she climbed the ladder, she examined several bars…there was rose, but no violet. 🙁 As she attended to other customers, I slowly perused the shelves to see if there were other bars that I couldn’t live without. After a few moments, I was gleefully exclaiming, “I found my V, I found my V!” I’m sure everyone else in the store thought I was nuts; but my boyfriend and The Meadows’ employee were both genuinely very happy for me. Mind you, I still don’t know the proper way to pronounce this “V” inclusion ingredient. I found a site with 80+ versions, which doesn’t help narrow things down at all!

So, thanks to serendipity, I’m thrilled to feature this 72% Nicaraguan dark chocolate bar with Voatsiperifery Pepper which is a collaboration between Portland-based Pitch Dark Chocolate and the Bitterman Salt Company.

Later on, I learned that Mark Bitterman (of the Bitterman Salt Co.) founded The Meadow in 2006. This seems like the perfect quote to encapsulate this culinary collaboration:

“Salt and pepper, the powerhouses of flavor amplification, bring new life to chocolate’s eternal mystery. Combining the most beautiful salt and the most tantalizing peppers within the molten smithy of a bean to bar chocolate is the flavor sensation chocolate has been waiting for, and nobody knows it like Bitterman.”

It’s interesting that beans from Nicaragua were combined with a rare Madagascar pepper. The back of the packaging explains how voatsiperifery looks and tastes like. In case you’re curious, here is a link to see for yourself. The Meadows’ website explains “The name voatsiperifery is derived from the Malagasy words voa, meaning ‘the fruits,’ and tsiperifery, meaning pepper vine” and that the fruits are harvested just once a year making them relatively rare, even in native Madagascar.

Easily sliding the 12-rectangle bar from the uniquely shaped, stark white, textured thick paper outer holder and the black inner wrapper, you can immediate see that the “back” was generously sprinkled with the featured inclusion ingredient (surprisingly for a collaboration with a salt company, there is no salt listed for this bar!) The aroma reminded me of freshly cracked black pepper and I believe that there was a stem or two making an appearance. Notice an odd squiggle? Well, here are two close-up shots:

Segmenting the rectangles from each other produced a dull snap, while splitting a rectangle in half produced a sharp snap, sending little fragments flying everywhere. I noticed air bubbles at the break point.

I tried both melting a morsel on my tongue and then “chomping” on a piece. By melting, the peppery flavor was muted/delayed and there was a thick, not completely smooth mouthfeel. I personally preferred the “chomping” method since that allowed me to experience the crunch from the pepper, which also made the roof of my mouth and tongue prickle for minutes afterwards. The chocolate itself seemed a little dry/chalky and there was an astringent finish. I hope to find a jar of this pepper someday so that I can experiment with soups and stews in my own home kitchen.

Brian Flick, the “one man show” behind Pitch Dark, has been working with chocolate for more than half of his life, starting at age 14 by making confections for events and weddings. At age 21, he lived with a tribal group of cacao farmers in rural Fiji for 3 months to conduct field work for his thesis. Founding Pitch Dark in 2014 in his late 20s, his focus is on fine cacao sourced from single farms to isolate the unique flavors of the beans. This article from 2014 explains that Brian utilizes two separate pieces of equipment whereas many makers use just one for the conching/refining process: first he uses a stone grinder to pre-refine beans, then a separate roll refiner & finally a dedicated conching machine to control particle size.

To learn more about Pitch Dark and their various chocolate bars, check out: http://www.pitchdarkchocolate.com/

And if you ever figure out how to pronounce this multi-syllable, tongue twister of a pepper…PLEASE let me know! 😉