50 States Collaboration – Nevada / Hexx Chocolate & Confexxions

Even though these chocolates have been in my stash since mid-April, I’ve been dragging my feet on tasting & posting them, partly because of the quantity (6 milk & 5 dark) and partly because I wasn’t sure how to execute my vision of a large tic-tac-toe game to pay tribute to the Xs that appear on each of the bite-sized morsels (maybe it’s just me, but the logo looks like a stylized, sideways hashtag). With the dwindling number of states “assigned” to me for this collaboration project, I could no longer procrastinate! So, apologies in advance since this set-up doesn’t really match my mental picture 🙁

When I discovered that an Instagram friend was visiting Las Vegas, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to request that he visit Nevada’s only bean-to-bar maker and purchase some chocolates on my behalf to save on warm weather shipping charges. Rather than choosing from the different countries of origin (or type of chocolate), he opted for one of each flavor that was available (NOTE: at that time, Venezuela was only available in milk chocolate in this 0.25 oz. “taster” size).

One of the things that I noticed about the mini heat-sealed pouches was that the milk chocolate ones (which were all 47% cacao content) had a “drippy” design while the dark chocolate ones (which varied in cacao percentage from 70-74%) had a solid rectangular color block. Also, the “forward slash” of each X matched the color coded wrapper.

Personally, I would have liked more information imprinted onto these wrappers, since it wasn’t until afterwards that I learned that the dark chocolates were made with just two ingredients: cocoa beans and palm sugar while the milk chocolates were made with five ingredients: cocoa beans, palm sugar, milk powder, ground vanilla beans and cocoa butter.

Overall, it seemed that the milk chocolate “traveled” better since there was less chocolate dust marring the surface vs. the dark chocolate. However, the milk chocolate all smelled very similar to each other: an industrial plastic-like aroma that reminded me of mass-produced candy rather than the bean-to-bar craft chocolates shown on their website. Speaking of which, this “tasting” size doesn’t appear on their website and all the bars available online are packaged in cardboard boxes, so maybe these issues have since been resolved.

If you haven’t noticed already, these small chocolates are all six-sided (hexagonal)…a visual representation of the company name, get it?! 😉 From what I’ve seen online, the mold for their full-size chocolate bars form a “honeycomb” shape composed of multiple hexagons.

In each case, I tried the milk chocolate first and then the corresponding dark chocolate (if there was one). I also tasted the dark chocolates in ascending order of cacao percentage. Below is a summary of my thoughts. Too bad I didn’t find this online “tasting menu” with descriptions of the flavor notes BEFORE my own sampling. Wonder why the Dominican Republic origin isn’t part of the online tasting menu!

Venezuela (Ocumare)

Some cosmetic defects, medium snap, grassy smell, creamy, reminded me of a milkshake, even melt, lightly grainy/almost “sticky” mouthfeel

Peru (Marañón Pure Nacional)

Milk: Minimal dust, soft snap, taste reminded me of a powdered hot cocoa mix, creamy yet sticky mouthfeel

Dark (70%): Some dust, sharp snap, slow to melt, bitter in comparison to the milk, roasted/earthy/fruity flavor, thick/not smooth mouthfeel

Tanzania (Kokoa Kamili)

Milk: Air bubbles & dust marring surface, medium snap, smelled like fresh baked brownies, yogurt-like tang, thick milky mouthfeel

Dark (70%): Lots of dust, dry/brittle snap, initially tasted like a hard cheese that changed to fruity/berry-like, astringent/chalky aftertaste

Dominican Republic (Oko Caribe)

Milk: Shinier/less dust than others, though still had air bubbles on the surface, sharp snap, dry appearance, tasted like a caramel or powdered hot cocoa mix, not smooth mouthfeel, back-of-the-throat acidity

Dark (71%): Also shinier/less dust than others, sharp snap, dry/chalky, tasted fruity/citrusy, astringent aftertaste on tongue

Ecuador (Camino Verde)

Milk: Shinier, less dust, some scuffing & air bubbles, brittle/crumbly snap sending shards flying everywhere, very sweet, caramel taste

Dark (73%): Minimal cosmetic defects, sharp snap, smelled fruity like plums, lightly roasted/nutty flavor [THIS WAS MY FAVORITE]

Madagascar (Sambirano Valley)

Milk: Dust, ghosting & air bubbles marring surface, dull snap, dry/chalky appearance but tasted creamy, too sweet & lightly “sticky” mouthfeel

Dark (74%): lots of air bubbles, smelled fruity (like ripe berries), tasted like burnt toast or lightly vegetal, chalky mouthfeel

Next time I visit the Las Vegas, I plan on taking a factory tour and re-sampling these small-batch, single origin bars to determine if the taste and smell were transit related. Besides, based on the side panel of their shopping bag, it looks like there is PLENTY to do, see & eat! 🙂

If you’d like to learn more about Hexx Chocolate & Confexxions, check out their website: http://www.hexxchocolate.com/

Remember to follow the Time to Eat Chocolate blog to hear about the next stop in the “50 States” project…we’re almost reaching the end!

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

S is for Sirene Artisan Chocolate Makers

In the words of Taylor Kennedy, owner of Sirene Artisan Chocolate Makers in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, “Without a direct comparison, it is hard to understand that there is something different about chocolate.” To aid in the appreciation of the nuances between countries of origin, this particular box contains two different mini chocolate bars so that you can easily compare and contrast with minimal effort. Not only are both bars the same percentage (73%), but also they each only contain two ingredients (cacao beans & organic cane sugar) that way the natural flavors/characteristics of those beans can truly be showcased.

This morning on Instagram, The Chocolate Website recounted her dilemma of trying to identify 6 different chocolate bars once they were removed from their packaging. With this in mind, I really appreciated that each of the Sirene bars was wrapped in a different colored metallic foil (silver color for Ecuador and gold color for Madagascar)!

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Choices, choices…which one to try first? After reading the tasting notes on the inside of the box flaps, I decided to try Ecuador first and then Madagascar…I think I made the right decision!

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The Ecuadorian beans come from Camino Verde, a plantation in the town of Balao with trees that are close to 100 years old. According to the packaging, trees of this age yield beans with 10% less cocoa butter, which in turn produces a more intense cocoa flavor. True to that description, I could immediately see the deep, dark brown color and smell the earthy and roasted aroma upon unwrapping the chocolate.

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Even though the bar is a little thick, there was a nice sharp snap when being segmented. Each of the 5 rectangles reminded me of a flag with alternating vertical and horizontal lines on each quadrant…it was fun to run my tongue along those ridges while I was melting each bite. There was a slow, even melt and the flavor was reminiscent of a not-too-sweet, nutty brownie with a long, satisfying finish.

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Upon unwrapping the Madagascar bar, I noticed more chocolate “dust” clinging to the outside, possibly since one of the rectangles had been broken in transit.

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The snap of that particular rectangle felt a little dry/crumbly and there was only a mild aroma; however the taste was an explosion of bright fruits. Since I didn’t want to rely just on that first broken piece, I segmented another portion for comparison purposes. At the breaking point, there was a fresher roasted aroma and the flavor reminded me of a just squeezed lemon. This piece also had a more velvety smooth mouthfeel with an even melt and a long lasting tart aftertaste.

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The Madagascar beans from the Akesson family’s Somia planation are lighter brown in color (perhaps because of being enriched with volcanic minerals), so there was no surprise that this bar looked more like milk chocolate compared to the Ecuador bar.

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As a side note…maybe it’s just me, but I’m as fascinated with the undersides of bars as I am with the mold-imprinted side. Both bars seemed to have concentric “ripples” as if a pebble had been dropped at the edge of a lake…more than likely a final drip of liquid chocolate hit the mold & had not been vibrated to a completely smooth finish.

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If “tasting pair boxes” aren’t your thing, don’t worry…other packages feature just the one origin or flavor. To find out more about Sirene and Taylor Kennedy’s background as a former world traveling photographer and writer for The National Geographic magazine, check out:  http://sirenechocolate.com/

L is for Lillie Belle Farms

Call it the “hand of fate” or serendipity…sometimes plans fall perfectly into place in the most unexpected ways!

Lillie Belle Farms Handmade Chocolates was on my “short list” of chocolates since the very beginning stages of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet project. When it proved difficult to locate their chocolate locally, I decided to substitute them with another “L” chocolate (check back later in the week for that bar!) Recently on Facebook, there was a funny exchange between Estelle Tracy of 37 Chocolates and David Menkes from LetterPress Chocolates as they joked about what might be featured for this particular letter. Being from the Los Angeles area, it would make sense for me to select LetterPress; but alas, I wanted to concentrate only on new-to-me bars! (Sorry 🙁 ) However, after reading David’s comments, my enthusiasm for Lillie Belle Farms was renewed…but I didn’t really want to deal with summertime shipping issues. Then, an unexpected opportunity presented itself when I discovered that a friend would soon be driving back to Southern California from Oregon! What would I do without supportive friends willing to act as “chocolate couriers” for me?! 🙂

So, that is the story about how it came to be that I could share this Limited Edition, Hand Crafted Stella Blue bar with you!

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Initially, I assumed that this chocolate bar was named for one of the primary ingredients. It surprised me to discover that, like several of their other chocolate bars, Stella Blue was inspired by a Grateful Dead song. In fact, when you visit the Lillie Belle Farms website, you will find that the descriptions of many bars include a YouTube link to a Grateful Dead performance of their namesake.

As a rule, I generally avoid blue (or veined) cheeses because of their overwhelming pungent flavor and, whenever possible, I choose to indulge in dark chocolate…so what am I doing with a milk chocolate (50% cacao) that has been flavored with Rogue Creamery Blue Heaven powdered blue cheese?! All I can say is that while this flavor combination might not sound good on paper, keep an open mind – your taste buds will definitely thank you for taking a risk! Besides, who could resist the eye-catching, psychedelically colored packaging?

The outer packaging looks like a cross between an envelope and a box with corners that can be tucked in so that it stays closed. To me, it always feels like I’m unwrapping a special present when the chocolate bar is meticulously wrapped with shiny foil.

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Inside the inner foil wrapper was a slender rectangle adorned with their company name and two flowers on either end. After reading about how Jeff Shepherd started Lillie Belle Farms, I wanted the flowers to be hibiscus or plumeria to honor his time living in Hawaii; but I believe that these are lilies, which echo the company name (which happens to be a combination of his daughter’s and wife’s names).

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Unwrapping the gold foil, there was a faint tangy buttermilk aroma, but there wasn’t the telltale smell of blue cheese. Given my dislike of blue cheeses, I braced myself before biting into the chocolate chunk, but really there was no need for that! Blue Heaven is a proprietary blend of powdered Oregon Blue, Oregonzola, Crater Lake Blue + special reserve blues which imparts the pure essence of all the Rogue Creamy blue recipes combined while having a milder/dialed back intensity of flavor. Paired with naturally fruity Madagascar cacao beans, these ingredients produced a super creamy and smooth mouthfeel as well as a flavor rich in umami. Had this been a “blind tasting,” I would have said that cheese was a component, but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint blue cheese.

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While accolades are great (Jeff Shepherd was chosen as one of the inaugural top 10 chocolatiers in the United States by the Dessert Professional magazine in 2009), I really like this quote from the now-defunct CocoAroma magazine:

“Artists don’t really care if you think they’re good (although I’m sure compliments don’t hurt). I think what artists—especially fiercely individualistic artisans like Jeff who create truly original work—are really searching for is a connection, a shared experience, with their audience.”

Once you try their chocolates, you’ll agree with this line from another Grateful Dead song lyric which appears on the side of the outer packaging: “Life may be sweeter for this…”

To plan a visit to their factory or to learn more about their various chocolate delights, check out: http://www.lilliebellefarms.com/