J is for Juniper Berries

Growing up, there was a tree in my parents’ backyard that produced a small, edible, grape-shaped, fuchsia colored berry. Those were the days before the internet, so we consulted encyclopedias and asked neighbors for ideas on what this tree and berry were called. Up until a few years ago, I was convinced that these berries were juniper…but, just today, I discovered that these are actually “Lilly Pilly Berries”!

Why am I telling you this story? Well, when I thought of a juniper chocolate bar, I naively imagined that there would be plump, still somewhat chewy berries featured prominently on the inclusion side. My bubble was burst, but that’s OK…read on to hear more about my experience with chocolate paired with juniper berries!

One of the current masters of the photogenic “chocolate topography” inclusion bar is Violet Sky Chocolate from South Bend, Indiana. I featured them during “round 1” of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet project and you can read more about them here. When you read about the first bar featured in that post from 2016, you’ll better understand why my mental picture included lots of berries poking out from the chocolate! 😉

Anyway, today’s bar is called “Forest Spirits” – a barrel aged dark chocolate with raspberry, juniper berry and maple sugar.

The outer packaging features a colorful, thick paper with a grosgrain ribbon like texture and a color-coordinating construction paper band letting you know a bit about the bar. The folds are kept closed with an informational sticker that peels away easily.

Inside this, the 28-rectangle bar was wrapped in bright fuchsia colored foil. Honestly, I was not prepared for how the bar looked, since in my mind’s eye there should be juniper berries visible at first glance! Don’t get me wrong, I love the generous amounts of freeze dried raspberries and chunks of maple sugar, but I’ll admit to pouting for a while 😉

I was afraid of turning the bar over to see the “top” side of the bar, but thankfully the inclusions stayed mostly adhered, though some of the raspberry and sugar “dust” had come loose and stuck to the foil to make the other side a little “speckled” – like remnants of confetti after a party.

There was a medium-crisp snap to the bar and a combination of raspberry “dust” and little flecks of chocolate seemed to fly everywhere.

The first bite was tart and acidic. Once my tongue had become acclimated to the flavor, subsequent bites were more mellow and fruity. The aroma triggered a memory, but I still can’t conjure it exactly 🙁 Placing a morsel with the inclusion side away from my tongue, the chocolate was creamy, smooth and there were hints of juniper, though I really thought it would taste more like gin! Some of the chunks of maple sugar were a little tough to crunch on and there was a grainy, earthy sweetness. My only complaint is that tiny raspberry seeds tended to get stuck in my teeth afterwards.

Neither the packaging nor the company website provided information about the percentage of cacao or the country of origin of the beans that were used, but I assumed that something darker than 70-75% had been used based on the taste and prior experience with Violet Sky bars. I wondered how the juniper berries had been incorporated since I knew they can be potent in flavor. Was some sort of infusion used? If so, how?…since most online recipes suggest adding the berries to cream, but I knew that wasn’t the case with this bar. To satisfy my curiosity, I sent an email to Hans, the chocolate maker, to get more information and when I woke up this morning his answer was waiting for me in my inbox!

“Forest Spirits can be on different chocolates, always barrel aged though. That one was a blend of gin barrel aged Brazil 77%, rye whiskey barrel aged Haiti 77%, and a bit of rye Brazil 88%. It’s about 80% after blending.

I use journeyman Distillery barrels from near where I am, they are located in Three Oaks Michigan. Also I age whole raw beans, usually for 2 or 3 months. Usually I use the barrels two times because after that the flavor becomes milder and more woody. 

The juniper berries are simmered in maple syrup to extract some flavor into the maple, which is then cooked down and crystalized. Then the berries that came out of the maple are crushed and sprinkled on the bar also. So basically it’s candied juniper powder. Perhaps bigger pieces of the juniper berries would lead to a more evolving flavor, but I was a bit worried about an overly tough texture. The juniper berries I have are pretty chewy/crunchy on their own, not freeze dried, but just dried like a spice. What do you think?”

After reading his message, I remembered that years ago I had used whole, dried juniper berries to flavor a meaty stew, so I searched through my spice pantry and, lo and behold, I still had a baggie of them.

They smell a little like licorice and look a bit like large peppercorns with a chewy, papery skin concealing the tough, hard seeds inside. They taste woody and astringent, but not unpleasantly so.

Did you know that junipers are the only spice derived from a conifer and aren’t really berries at all…they are the female seed cone from a juniper tree? All species of junipers grow berries, but some are too bitter to eat.

Armed with new knowledge and with my tongue “primed” from having chomped on a few dried juniper berries, I decided to have a second taste. Biting into a rectangle, my tongue was tingly and there seemed to be a “cooling” sensation as I melted the piece on my tongue. The maple sugar tasted “earthier,” but overall there were fruity bursts of flavor as I chomped on another morsel. It was hard to isolate the chocolate from the rest of the inclusions (especially the tangy raspberries), so I would munch, munch, munch trying to put my finger on the different tastes that I was experiencing and put words to those flavors. It’s no wonder that only half a bar remains! :0 There is a lingering, long lasting, fruity, tart aftertaste.

Knowing the “behind the scenes” process for this bar, I’m not sure that I would change anything. However, if there was a way to “bump up” the botanical flavor of the juniper without it being overwhelming, I’m certain THAT would be delicious! :p

For more details, please check out Violet Sky’s Facebook page as it contains more information than their website.

V is for Violet Sky

Any day that I get to sample and photograph new chocolates is a good day! Lately, though, I’ve come to look forward to “blog post” days almost as much as I did Christmas mornings when I was growing up. The process of unwrapping chocolates as if they were small gifts and then savoring them fills me with gleeful anticipation 🙂 I’m not sure which drew me to Violet Sky’s Instagram feed more: the eerie and ethereal photos of bloomed chocolate as it ages or the close-ups of their ever-changing, unique inclusion ingredients/flavor combinations. Either way, I hope to make Hans and Alison Westerink proud with this post!

As a side note, this is one of the few posts that carries over a two day period (normally I photograph, taste & post all within a single day, but other time commitments prevented me from doing so this time). I woke up yesterday (Monday) morning to the sound of distant thunder and rain dripping from the eaves, which meant cloudy skies and less-than-ideal lighting for photos. However, I was undeterred!

img_5010

Eagerly removing the 4 colorful bars from wine fridge storage, I decided to sample the two inclusion bars & keep the “plain” Ecuadorian chocolates for a later tasting. Had I captured the view of the sky from the window near my “desk” with time lapse photography during the photo shoot, you would have seen it change from ominous/gloomy clouds, to the sun playing hide-and-seek, to bright rays of light streaming into the room…I took that as an omen of good things to come!

Colombia 77% with Black Currants, Maple, and Cinnamon

img_5013

At a quick glance your eye is fooled by the outer wrapping…you think the thick blue paper is textured, but really it’s just printed on one side to look like linen weave! I really like that the featured ingredients are listed on a contrasting colored band as well as the back of the wrapper, though as you’ll soon see, there would be no mistaking this bar if I were to misplace the outer packaging! 😉 Speaking of packaging, my only “quibble” is that I would have liked to open the wrapper without slicing the informational sticker in half…maybe unfolding the top or bottom flap & sliding the foil-wrapped bar from the paper would be more ideal?

img_5014

What a surprise awaited me as I unwrapped the bar from the bright royal blue foil! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such plump and round black currants in my life (up until now, I thought that the desiccated currants used in scones were the same fruit, I have since been enlightened to the differences!) I’m guessing that the berries were freeze dried to maintain their shape and vibrant taste.

img_5017

The “top” side of the bar (the side with the mold segmentation lines) had a matte mahogany finish with cinnamon flecks adding to both the overall coloring and the aroma of the bar.

img_5041

Unfortunately, the bar did not remain intact during transit, but that just made it easier to see the large chunks of maple sugar that were dotted at strategic intervals throughout the bar!

img_5028

img_5042

The earthy/roasted dark chocolate flavor itself was secondary for me since it was difficult to isolate the taste aside from the inclusions. Each bite was an explosion of piquant/tart chewy fruit, sweetened by the gritty crunch of the maple sugar. This is an instance where “precision of language” is tricky because certain words can carry negative connotations; I only want to convey that it was “gritty” in the best possible way!

Brandy Barrel Aged Belize 77% with Red Wine Salt

img_5053img_5055

In retrospect, any bar that followed would not be as stellar (if you’ll forgive the “celestial” pun!)

From the packaging, the salt inclusion was created by soaking plain sea salt in red wine and then drying it + the cacao was aged in Journeyman Distillery brandy barrels. For a 77% dark chocolate bar, the color is substantially lighter than the previous one, reminding me of a diluted hot cocoa or mocha beverage.

img_5058

Removing the bar from the gold foil wrapper, I noticed that a couple of corners and part of the “front” of the bar displayed signs of blooming.

img_5059

img_5061

I blame a recent power outage, after which my wine fridge reset itself to 54 ℉ from my “default” temperature of 65 ℉ before I noticed. I don’t know about you, but there is a magical beauty in the fat bloom: swirls that just appear and could not be exactly re-created even if you tried. Where the surface wasn’t marred by bloom, there was an almost mirror shine.

img_5068

The inclusion side looked like a lunar landscape, evenly sprinkled with light purplish-pink salt crystals which were starting to dissolve in the air.

img_5065

img_5089

This bar broke apart with a medium snap and had a woody/tobacco-like aroma on the non-inclusion side. My guess is that the barrel aging process imparts both smell and taste enhancements. The morsel had a smooth mouthfeel, but didn’t really melt easily. Overall, the flavor was a bit bitter and vinegary to me with a tannic, astringent after taste. Perhaps these flavors would appeal more to wine drinkers or should be paired with a brandy and/or some cheese? I see experimentation in my future 🙂

After listening to a recent Well Tempered podcast interviewing Estelle Tracy from 37 Chocolates, I strongly agree that (as consumers) we should celebrate and learn as much as possible about the passionate people who create the chocolates we enjoy. It’s impressive to read that such talent and creativity is coming from 20-somethings + Hans and his wife Alison really only started their bean-to-bar production just about two years ago.

As far as I know, their bars aren’t currently available in Southern California, but hopefully they will be soon so that I can satisfy my “fix” for unique inclusion ingredients aside from just drooling over their Instagram feed. However with Violet Sky’s philosophy of making small-batches and experimental bars, I realize I can’t get too attached to any one flavor…each one is as ephemeral as the company’s name implies.

To learn more and order bars for yourself, check out: http://www.violetskychocolate.com/