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

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!

W is for Willie’s Cacao

Happy Halloween! Hope your day was filled with (chocolate) treats 🙂 Honestly, I’m not sure why October 28th is considered “National Chocolate Day” instead of October 31st given that most trick or treaters prefer chocolate over other types of goodies. As you might imagine, my taste gravitates toward craft chocolates over mass-produced sweets.

Just when it seemed like my dream “W” bar was out of reach, Pashmina and Chris from Choco Rush came to my rescue! The timing of my inquiry was just right since they were shortly scheduled to receive a shipment of Willie’s Cacao straight from the factory in the UK! I don’t know about you, but I get excited every time chocolate is scheduled to be delivered to me by mail. Upon receiving the USPS tracking number, I set up text message alerts so that I could stay informed about the exact whereabouts of my precious cargo 😉 Rushing out the door once I received notification that the package was “left in the mailbox at its destination,” I was eager to see Choco Rush’s distinctive logo on the sealed cardboard rectangular box.

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The bar was expertly packed with two mini sheets of re-usable cooling “ice cubes” to ensure that it would arrive in pristine condition despite the warmer weather that is still lingering here in SoCal despite it being Fall.

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Recently I discovered “Willie’s Chocolate Revolution: Raising the Bar,” a documentary that chronicles the various ups and downs that Willie Harcourt-Cooze experienced while setting up his production of bean-to-bar dark chocolate bars as well as his attempts to “re-educate” British palates that were raised on Cadbury’s milk chocolate confections. The three episodes (each split into 4 mini episodes on YouTube) first aired in the UK in 2009 as a follow-up to the “Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory” series. One of the bars that was featured heavily on “Raising the Bar” is this 72% Rio Caribe Gold made with Trinitario beans from Venezuela!

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There is an elegant simplicity to the black square box emblazoned with gold and white foil stamped and embossed lettering. The blue font draws your attention to the country of origin of the beans and the tasting notes. Inside the box, the bar is wrapped in an easily opened, crimped shiny gold foil wrapper that has many stylized capital “double u” letters imprinted with a contrasting opaque gold so that they will stand out.

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Seems that the “W” from the outer packaging matches the company logo that appears on the chocolate bar itself (inside an indented cacao pod).

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Despite the chocolate “dust” marring the surface of this bar, there is an overall matte finish on both the front and back of this deep dark brown square. With a little effort, the sturdy bar breaks apart with a sharp snap and releases a roasted/smoky aroma. I was surprised that the edge of the piece looked like mini jagged stalactites and that the color was almost like a reddish mahogany.

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The flavor was a bit bitter and coffee-like to me on the first few bites; but upon allowing the morsel to melt easily on my tongue, it seemed to mellow out and become more of an earthy tang. The taste grew on me in a pleasant way. Hopefully when I visit San Francisco later in the year, I’ll be able to locate more of Willie’s bars since I’m especially interested in tasting his flavored bars (like Hazelnut Raisin or Ginger Lime)!

To learn more about Willie’s Cacao, please check out: http://www.williescacao.com/

If receiving a curated collection of craft dark chocolate bars on a monthly basis sounds good to you, check out https://chocorush.co/ to subscribe!

Bonus “S” bar – SOMA Chocolatemaker

Behind the scenes at Eating the Chocolate Alphabet in early September (you’re eavesdropping on an internal conversation with myself):

  • “S” week is coming up soon and I haven’t selected which chocolate to feature yet.
  • How about SOMA? Everyone raves about them.
  • Bummer that they aren’t available in the Los Angeles area since I’m WAY over budget already.

 Still, I reached out to one of my Canadian resources to determine the possibility of purchasing and shipping a bar on my behalf…my heart was set on getting one flavored with harissa and corn based on an Instagram post that I had seen. Then, on a whim, I checked the website of a chocolate shop within a two hours’ drive from me and discovered that they had two different bars available for purchase…just a couple of bars from their “Black Science” collection: a 70% Porcelana & a 70% Chama (I’ll explain the irony of the “just” comment in a moment). Now I was in a quandary…do I drive up to Santa Barbara to purchase the Porcelana bar to avoid the high cost of hot weather shipping fees or wait to hear about my “dream” flavor direct from Canada?

Several weeks later, I see a fellow Instagrammer post this article. Turns out that Porcelana bar I was dithering about had tied at the International Chocolate Awards in 2015 for the best single-origin dark chocolate bar in the WORLD! Also earlier this summer, the International Chocolate Awards again honored them with a gold as well as “best in competition” for the plain/origin dark bar category in the 2016 Americas & Asia-Pacific competition. Oh and while researching for this post, I discovered that my “dream flavor” is actually a not a bar, it’s a crunchy toasted corn snack tumbled in chocolate and dusted with fiery North African spices! All those weeks of hemming and hawing for no reason…when will I ever learn?!

Originally I wasn’t going to post/publish until receiving a milk chocolate Soma bar shipped by my contact in Canada…but I can’t wait until tomorrow or (possibly) Saturday to tell you all about this multiple award winning 70% Porcelana bar made from Venezuelan Criollo beans!

Do you know how hard it is to avoid taking an accidental selfie when the outer packaging is a sealed shiny mirror polish silver pouch?! A few contortions and strategic angling…I think I managed OK 😉

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The fairly plain exterior packaging truly belies the intricate and delicate mold that was used. The bar was in pristine condition, no cracks 🙂

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To me, it was like looking out a window at a picturesque garden scene with falling leaves; though whose garden happens to have cacao pods, cacao flowers AND a swallow wearing tennis shoes?! Also, don’t blink or you’ll miss the Canadian maple leaf hiding near the bottom right corner!

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As mentioned before, I’m also fascinated with the back side of bars. There are 18 dots plus a symmetrical pattern of lines that remind me of a stained glass window. Each half of the bar has a square with a diamond in the middle and 2 small rectangles on either side which repeats again on the lower half. This makes me very curious to see how the molds are filled!

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Getting back to first impressions…just snipping off the top of the pouch released such an inviting roasted & nutty aroma! Gently removing the bar from the packaging, I then stuck my nose into the now-empty packaging – there was a subtle whiff of coconut. I thought I was imagining things until I referred back to the package’s tasting notes for confirmation.

It truly pained me to break into the cute bar since I might have preferred to frame the chocolate instead of eat it. As a compromise, I broke off the top part with the company name/logo, but left the garden scene intact for later. The bar is thin, but it still gave a little resistance before snapping.

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Putting a bite-sized morsel in my already salivating mouth, the piece melted quickly and easily with a smooth, buttery, creamy, almost juicy mouthfeel. The taste made me think of not too sweet caramel with a slight hint of a floral note. Can’t wait to compare and contrast it to last week’s Porcelana bar during a second tasting.

If you’re curious about the company name, their website says: Soma in Sanskrit means “food of the Gods.” And by coincidence, Theobroma Cacao (which is the Latin taxonomic classification for the cocoa plant) also means “food of the Gods.”

Their website reminds us that the word soma appears in the 1930s dystopian novel “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley as being the mysterious plant used to achieve nirvana. I don’t know about you, but I tend to agree that their chocolate induces bliss like its namesake!

Next on my wishlist is a bar from their “Old School” line…and to finally taste that harissa and corn that consumed my thoughts for weeks!

To learn more about their bean-to-bar process, where the beans come from, the various chocolate bar collections + other offerings, check out: http://www.somachocolate.com/

R is for Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé

Like some famous personalities that need only go by their first name (think of Prince, Cher or Madonna), Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé requires no introduction to aficionados of fine chocolate since their molds are visually so distinctive and unique!

The husband and wife team of Zsolt and Katalin started making chocolate confections in Budapest, Hungary in 2004 and they chose the name “Rózsavölgyi” (meaning “from the valley of the roses”) to pay tribute to the neighborhood that they lived in. Soon after Katalin honed her skills learning from various chocolate makers around the world, they knew that switching to bean-to-bar (instead of using other people’s couverture chocolate) would provide them more control over the natural chocolate flavors of their creations. This particular 71% dark chocolate bar is made from Porcelana Criollo beans grown by the Franceschi family in Venezuela.

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There is so much to look at and notice on the outer packaging; from every inch of the sturdy cream colored paper decorated with gold foil birds, insects and flowers to the anthropomorphized logo of a single-eyed heart with outstretched arms, wearing a bowler hat.

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That endearing logo was intriguing to me, so it was disappointing to read that Katalin (a former graphic designer) had simply drawn this, but no significance was attributed to the image’s various elements.

Removing the informational band from the outer wrapper allows the graphics to be better seen/appreciated.

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Another eye-catching item on the packaging is a sticker celebrating their 2015 Bronze Award from the Academy of Chocolate for the best dark chocolate bean-to-bar under 80%.

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Gently removing the clear & black logo sticker keeping the paper closed and carefully undoing the precise origami-like folds, another cheerful heart-logo sticker greets you from the inside, keeping the parchment paper inner wrapper closed.

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Now for the moment of truth…would the gorgeous mold that reminds me of Batchelder fireplace tiles from the American Arts and Crafts movement era be intact or would the square bar be split into multiple pieces?!

Ta da…the glossy, symmetrically decorated reddish-brown bar was pristine, aside from some minor scuff marks and evidence of air bubbles.

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My initial impressions of the aroma ranged from floral, fruity, reminiscent of raisins to lightly baked rye bread. It seemed like such a shame to break into such a beautiful mold…but it had to be done! The chocolate itself seemed to flex under the pressure of the knife instead of breaking sharply; I attribute that to the current heat wave, though I’ve seen other Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé bars also described as “bendy.”

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Time and temperature certainly make a difference. This morning, after taking several photos of the bar, the snap was dull/soft…however, revisiting the bar just now, after keeping the chocolate in a wine fridge at 65 degrees for several hours, the snap is sharp and well-defined.

The mouthfeel is smooth and the segments melt evenly in the mouth. Porcelana is known to be mild and subtle, but to me the initial taste was tangy and mildly acidic/tart. My second taste was more earthy and dry. Both tastes had a long, almost woody aftertaste/finish.

Now I’m on a mission to find more of their offerings, especially their hot Hungarian paprika inclusion bar, which Matt Caputo from A Priori (a specialty food importer & distributor) said reminded him of “goulash-meets-chocolate” around 2:23 of this YouTube video!

To read more about this award winning Hungarian success story, check out this link. Another informative article from 2013 can be found here.

In addition to single-origin tablets and flavored bars, Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé also sells hot chocolate mixes, bonbons, truffles, dragees and more. Hopefully a location near you carries their products, so check out: http://www.rozsavolgyi.com/en/index.php

Bonus “L” bar – L’Amourette Chocolat

The origin of L’Amourette Chocolat sounds just like a romantic movie plot (and if it isn’t one already, it should be)!

A young chocolatier’s love is unrequited, so he travels the world to forget the woman of his dreams. While in Paris, he visits a used bookstore and purchases a book called “Practical Magic.” After reading about aphrodisiacs and magic rituals, he experiments with different chocolate recipes until he finds the most intriguing one. With a bouquet of flowers and this special chocolate bar, he proposes to his sweetheart and she accepts after eating a single piece of decadent chocolate. And so begins this “love affair.”

What attracted me to this 72% Noir chocolate bar? Well, I couldn’t resist its bright/colorful packaging with vintage-inspired artwork + I had never seen a bar with pomelo peel. Until today, I thought that “pomelo” was just an alternate name for “grapefruit” – so reading this article was an eye-opener. Pomelo (the largest fruit in the citrus family) is considered the ancestor of the grapefruit since pomelos are a natural (non-hybrid) citrus fruit, whereas grapefruits are a hybrid between an orange and a pomelo. One of the main differences between these fruits are their peels. Pomelos have thick, pebbly, soft skins, while grapefruits typically have thinner, smooth skins. To maintain the true taste of the pomelo peel, L’Amourette candies them naturally, without sulfur dioxide.

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Sometimes it’s easy to overlook small details upon first glance. Such is the case with the various citrus wedges that are printed on the front and back with spot high gloss UV varnish. You have the hold the package just so and in the right light to fully appreciate these images that hint at the flavor of the bar inside. I wonder if the rest of the bars in the Art Noveau line have the same type of design element?!

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There was a heft to this chocolate bar, so upon removing the 10 segment tablet from the shiny blue-ish green foil inner wrapping, it came as no surprise that the mold they used was a little thicker than usual. The domed shaped segments make me think that this mold could serve a dual purpose, if they wanted to make filled chocolates. While this bar had a glossy finish, there were a few remnants of bubbles on the surface. Each of the segments have the company logo embossed on them: a romantic cursive script font within a stylized heart.

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Due to the thickness of the segments, it was a little difficult to break them in half. However, there was a medium to dull snap once I was able to do so. It’s difficult to fully describe the aroma of the blend of Rio Caribe and Carenero Superior beans from Venezuela: it reminded me of a freshly-made gourmet hot chocolate with warm nutty spices…I wonder if the Bourbon vanilla beans and cocoa butter had anything to do with this?! Both of these cacao beans have distinct characteristics. Carenero Superior beans are known for a lighter flavor while also being more bitter and less earthy, though they still have complex, yet delicate, woody and flowery notes. Rio Caribe beans, on the other hand, are reported to be less complex and exhibit sweet, rich earthy and fruity notes. Overall this blend produced a not too sweet bar that hinted at bitter notes without being harsh. Some would say that this is not a complex bar, but I found it to be very enjoyable since you could savor both the chocolate itself and the other ingredients without being distracted by the separate elements.

Even though a segment might outwardly appear not to have any candied pomelo peel, you will be rewarded with a tangy morsel whether you let it melt slowly or chomp into it. I personally prefer the “chomping” method since that seems to release more of the lightly roasted flavor notes. While the packaging says that this bar was produced using a 36-hour conching process; the texture was not the silk-smooth that I was expecting, it was slightly coarser, though not really gritty either.

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If Hollywood ever decides to immortalize Andre V’s story, which actors should portray him and his wife and, more importantly, will that secret chocolate recipe ever be revealed?! 😉

To see their various chocolate lines and discover if they are available in your area, please visit: http://www.lamourettechocolat.com/