Chocolate: A Love Story

A ticket to Germany, a sudden spring break blizzard and my own badly battered heart conspired to propel me to Paris in 2007. This April Fool’s Day prank left me itching from fleas at my last-minute guesthouse and itching to explore my Montmartre surrounds.

Montmartre FlowersI wandered for hours past Paris’s springtime petticoats of blooming peonies, tulips, roses and lilies that spilled copiously from around her usual attire of architectural grandeur. Seated in the crisp air of the cobblestone hillside cafe upon my return, I caught my breath for the first time in years.

Sounds of passing Peugeots and well-heeled walkers mingled with the French chatter of nearby patrons while wafts of cigarette smoke and espresso invaded my lungs. As the sun made its daily retreat, the cooling air nipped at my fingers and the empty cup they cradled. I headed down rue des Abbesses toward my humble lodgings for a jacket but paused before turning the corner: a neatly kept shop’s charming gardening wares filled the window and flowed out onto the stoop.

Ets LionAn impressive but welcoming curation of teas, spices, oils, wines and more lured me into the century-plus-old Ets Lion. I nodded shyly at the silver-haired proprietor before getting lost in the mesmerizing array. I confess my high-school-level French skills and my similarly amateur product knowledge left me reluctant to ask for help. Everything looked precious, but I wanted something special. Ultimately, the chocolate display beckoned.

Chocolate had been a particularly comforting pleasure of late, but my US finds hadn’t reached past Chocolove’s Strong Dark bars. I’d figured there must be something more, something better, but in that moment it occurred to me that I had no idea of what specifically made a chocolate “good.” It also occurred to me that here, in Paris and in this very shop, might be the place to begin learning.

I stood before the collection of European-made chocolate bars and confections and awkwardly cleared my throat. The proprietor came over with a gentle smile to assist. I asked him for the best chocolate bar he had, admittedly a silly question but the only one I could reasonably articulate in French.

Bonnat

“Well,” he replied in stilted English, “I think this could be the one,” as he pointed to one of the many large white bars with “Chocolat Bonnat” scrolled across its width.

“Chuao, cacao 75%” was written in the corner. On the back, I noted just three ingredients: cacao, cacao butter and sugar, and even with limited language skills the description of Chuao was clear: “incontestable numéro 1.” I was in. And I realized I’d be a fool not to ask for more.

“Is there another that’s unique?”

“This…but maybe it’s only for people a little bit crazy.”

Perfect. I picked up the Bonnat 100% bar, wrapped in scarlet red to warn of its potency. I thanked the man for his help and made my purchase. Crushing disappointment of late left me aching with hope that I’d just been given some kind of magic. Could it really be?

CafeThat night, I pulled out the chocolate to accompany my evening tipple. First, the Chuao. I slid the silver-wrapped bar from the white label. A rich, earthy and subtly fruity fragrance filled my nostrils. After two thunderous snaps, a small rectangular piece slid across my tongue.

Cocoa butter luxuriously coated my palate with potent, unexpected aromas. The pleasure induced by this alchemic moment escalated as anandamide triggered my heart to swoon, just a little, for the first time in a very long time.

Enchanted and excited, I reached for the 100% bar and eagerly popped a piece. A recklessly powerful blast of roasted creamy darkness filled my mouth. Well conditioned to upheaval of late, I clung to my chair while riding intensely flavored phenylethylamine waves that quickened my pulse. Theobromine soon soothed me into a blissful endorphin hum.

Une petite mort.

Love at first bite.

Birth of a Bean: Ocumare de la Costa

 

Ocumare de la Costa, Venzuela

Ocumare de la Costa, Venzuela

I love Venezuela.  Of the fifty-some countries I’ve explored, Venezuela still tops my wanderlust list.  Maybe it’s the tropical energy that pulses through both air and people or the range of adventurous possibilities, from canoeing through tepuis surrounding Angel Falls to paragliding over the northern Andes.

But who am I kidding?  My heart for Venezuela is fundamentally cacao shaped.  I was first drawn to Venezuela in 2009 by its revered cacao. The highlight of that two-month adventure was a visit to famed Chuao; in fact, it was one of the highlights of my life.  There’s some strange magic to that place that’s hard to articulate, an alchemic mix of tropical heat, coveted cacao, passionate people and a large pinch of laid-back crazy that, for me, created chemistry more irresistibly intoxicating than any I’d ever experienced.

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No surprise, then, that I returned in 2011 to explore even more of Venezuela’s venerable cacao origins.  Venezuela is historically considered the birthplace of the finest cacao, a fact overshadowed of late by Venezuela’s oil-producing capabilities and its tragically escalated post-Chavez political and social unrest.

I’d planned to hop along the Caribbean coastal villages of Parque Nacional Henri Pittier and beyond, names synonymous with some of the finest and most prized cacao origins in the world: Cuyagua, Ocumare de la Costa, Choroni, Rio Caribe and, of course, Chuao.  But a smashed kneecap suffered from a motorbike spill in Caracas kept me from hopping quite so much.  I focused first on a hobble to Ocumare.

Ocumare 61

Ocumare 61 nursery

Once past the bus ride nearly as perilous as the ride that’d busted my knee, I managed to stumble without falling upon Ocumare de la Costa.  Ocumare is known for its eponymous criollo cacao strains and hybrids, and, with a little help from a friendly local, I soon found myself standing before its literal birthplace: the Corporación Socialista del Cacao.  Just around that corner you see above lay this most precious nursery, filled with young, growing Ocumare 61 siblings.  Who knows where these genetically gifted offspring would head off to upon graduation, but some had matriculated just behind this shaded sanctuary.

IMG_1194_2With nature and nurture revealed in one fell swoop, my guide escorted me just up the road to Ocumare’s cacao processing facility, the Central de Beneficio del Cacao.  Here, beautiful beans in pods harvested from proud mamas are carefully fermented and then dried for shipment to chocolate makers including Amano, Woodblock and Fresco in the States.

IMG_1199The Central de Beneficio del Cacao’s fermentary uses a series of wooden boxes covered with banana leaves to ferment their criollo & trinitario beans over the course of a handful of days. The vinegary, slightly funky aroma belies the pleasant, fruity flavors created during this critical stage of flavor development.

IMG_1212After fermentation, each batch of wet beans is spread evenly across large cement beds.  The beans are regularly turned and tended as they dry slowly in the sticky Venezuelan heat.  Once dessicated, the cacao is packed in large burlap sacks for sale within Venezuela and around the world to the premium cacao market.

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Some beans don’t have far to travel to become their deliciously chocolatey selves, and thankfully neither did I to find such transformed beans.  Just around the corner, this lovely and talented lady indulged me patiently with a mesmerizingly diverse range of cacao delectables in her cocina de chocolate.  My favorite was a translucent cacao and pulp pudding-like confection that was light, mildly sweet, creamy and gone before I felt I’d begun.  See? It didn’t even make it into the picture.  Her chocolate guarapita, a rich, creamy liqueur, lasted slightly longer, as did her rustic, flavorful chocolate.  Of course my fond memories still linger.

It’s now been five years since I first fell for Venezuela, and I hope to return again; in fact, I can’t imagine not.  There are too many origins I haven’t yet visited and too many people I’d love to visit again.  I fervently wish that peace will soon find this crazy, vibrant, magnetic, most magical country in part so that it may continue its legacy of fine cacao.

Wild Bolivian Beauties: El Ceibo, Original Beans, Dick Taylor and Rogue

Tupiza, Bolivia

Tupiza, Bolivia

A year ago, I found myself on an unexpected detour through Bolivia, the too-brief highlight of months of travel.  Wildly beautiful, compelling and varied, Bolivia dazzled me from Tupiza to Lake Titicaca. But my detour didn’t route me through Amazonian Alto Beni to discover its cacao, so I just had to hunt down a few Bolivian bars upon my return to the States.

My hunt yielded interesting fruit, literally: turns out some Bolivian cacao is wild, exceptionally unusual these days.  In fact, most had believed no wild cacao remained, that cacao had been fully domesticated, but the mighty Amazon proved that theory wrong with Bolivia’s wild cacao, dubbed Cru Sauvage.  After researching the kind of fascinating cocoa-lore that compels me to punch my passport, I couldn’t wait to bite into the wild child or four I’d uncovered once on tamer terrain.

EL CEIBO 75% Fine Dark Chocolate: This one’s the domesticated bar of the bunch, with cultivated cacao from Alto Beni.  (El Ceibo’s limited edition Heritage bar does use wild cacao, and I’d recommend you snap it up if you see it.)  Still, this is the sole bar of my US finds produced from tree to bar in Bolivia–under the tutelage of none other than Chloe Doutre-Roussel–and it’s clear this co-operative-driven maker knows what to do with its exceptional cacao.

El Ceibo 75% Fine Dark Chocolate

El Ceibo 75% Fine Dark Chocolate

Smell:  I have to start with smell, since the photo above definitely suggests disappointment.  Upon opening the package, I was greeted with such an intoxicatingly beautiful fragrance that I swooned sight unseen.  A heady mix of floral, nutty, woody, fruity sweet notes transported me to a pretty forest.  I tore open the bar.

Appearance:  Well, you see the previously broken bar, the bloom, the pinholes, the marred surface…but given the luscious scent and journey all the way from Bolivia, I was pretty forgiving.

Snap: Very firm and clean, but this makes sense with both the bloom, suggesting a drier bar, and the soy lecithin.

Taste: I’m near euphoric that the aroma was an accurate indicator of taste.  First came earthy, woody notes.  Maybe tobacco.  Soon followed sweet caramel and pleasant floral notes, accompanied by a nice apricot, plum and almond mix.  The finish was long and beautifully bitter. Lovely.

Texture: Affected by the bloom, but it still became smooth and creamy, likely a result of a judicious usage of soy lecithin, I concede, despite my distaste for the stuff.  I’m already excited to try this bar again in better form.

ORIGINAL BEANS 66% Beni Wild Harvest: Despite creating the sweetest bar of my bunch, conservation-minded Original Beans delivers a bar that stands assertively and attractively amongst its 75% cousins, revealing layers of interesting flavors.

Original Beans Bolivia

Original Beans Beni Wild Harvest

Original Beans Beni Wild Harvest

 

Appearance: Impressive, shiny, virtually unmarred rich milky brown bar with pretty six-gram squares.

Smell: Sweet, freshly fruity, maybe papaya, with rich mocha notes and some toast.  What is this, a pleasant breakfast in bed?

Snap: Crisp, clean and easy. Spot on.

Taste: The start is toasty, creamy, caramel-y.  It opens into a gorgeous cantaloupe flavor, which then becomes more tart (but only maybe the dried-cranberry tart indicated on the package’s tasting notes).  Next comes jasmine, which lingers on the finish, along with a pleasant mildly bitter/tart finish.  The progression is really quite the refined journey for beans untamed.

Texture: Given only 24 hours of conching, I’m surprised at the dreamy smooth creaminess of this bar.  This seems a brilliant balancing act, with likely just the right amount of supplemental cacao butter lending the creamy texture so that the relatively brief conching might retain these special beans’ diverse flavors.  Just a theory about the magic.

DICK TAYLOR 75% Bolivia: Whereas El Ceibo and Original Beans bars present, if I may be so politically incorrect, feminine flavors of flowers, sweet fruits and cream, Dick Taylor‘s Bolivian cacao interpretation reveals a bolder, more masculine energy that satisfies in an entirely different way.  None of my research revealed the origin or type of bean beyond simply “Bolivian.”

Dick Taylor BoliviaDick Taylor Bolivia bar

Appearance: Shiny deep dark brown rococo-patterned bar with insignia wrapped in my favorite, gold foil.  Easily the most visually elegant bar of the set.  Near flawless.

Smell: Deep earthy aromas.  Blackstrap molasses, hot fudge. A friend smelled Chinese black vinegar, and I got some potent acidity, too.

Snap: Firm, crisp and clean; no surprise given the beautifully tempered appearance.

Taste: Espresso and walnut: powerful roasty bitter astringency. Blackstrap molasses.  Strongly brewed jasmine tea and woody essences left an assertive astringent finish; reminds me of some 100% bars I’ve had.  It’s as satisfying as espresso after a rough night.

Texture: Thick, rich and smooth.  Strong but satisfying astringency.

ROGUE Silvestre 75%: Colin Gasko, the prodigy of craft chocolate, delivers, quite simply, a limited-edition wild-bean winner.

Rogue SilvestreAppearance:  Rogue‘s trademark simple slab of an espresso-brown bar.  Glossy. The few surface blemishes don’t detract.  Some small air bubbles trapped inside.

Smell: Ah, the aroma!  Like banana nut bread just from the oven, served with rich hot cocoa.  I could smell this all day.

Snap: Very firm and crisp.  Well tempered.

Taste: Espresso start, followed by walnut and slightly unripe banana flavors–there’s that banana nut bread.  Ripe plum and jasmine finish.  Deep cocoa base flavor throughout. Flavors reveal themselves quite distinctly yet harmoniously and are just plain delicious and gut-level satisfying.

Texture: Thick, smooth, creamy, slow melt.  Moderately astringent finish.

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

My Bolivian chocolate tasting journey transported me right back to my adventure-packed travels last year. Just as each day in Bolivia brought radically different terrain, from rocky canyons to lush high-altitude lakes, Bolivian cacao in artisan hands offers layers of enticing aromas and flavors to explore. Jasmine and earthy notes seem pervasive, but the diversity of unusual flavors is even more evident as a common theme of this region’s finest cacao.

I admit I’m just as smitten with Bolivian cacao as I was with my brief visit.  I’m definitely eager for more of both, and I hope you can find some wild Bolivian exploits–chocolate or otherwise–for yourself.

Four Fun, Fruity Frescos


Fresco’s Northwest Chocolate Salon spread

Lucky girl I was to encounter Fresco Chocolate via Rob Anderson’s lecture at the Northwest Chocolate Festival earlier this year. Rob, Fresco’s chocolate-making mad scientist, demonstrated precisely how the key variables of roasting and conching help create craft chocolate magic with his four playful iterations of Papua New Guinea cacao.

Rob’s teaching methods definitely supported a beloved theory that chocolate boosts comprehension: we munched on revelatory samples that reinforced his lesson on the varying effects of roasting and conching.  Much like coffee, the lighter the roast, the more acidic and vibrant the flavors.  Conching is a bit more complex; while the process is critical in refining texture, it also releases aromatics and volatiles which develop the flavor of the chocolate in ways nothing short of alchemy.  A chocolate maker’s approach to these variables in particular shapes his signature style.

Sample conche log

Rob’s style is sweet, revelatory fun. I snapped up the four Papua New Guinea variations we’d sampled to take home for my own tasting and admired the information-packed wrappers, which detail everything from tasting instructions to thorough notes on the cacao, perfect Cliff Notes for our lesson. I also cornered Rob about my pet project, Mission: Craft Chocolate LA, my effort to bring craft chocolate to Los Angeles, and asked if he were interested in participating.

“Sure, that’ll be fun!” I concur: while I’ve certainly enjoyed comparing different chocolate makers’ takes on, say, Chuao cacao, rolling through Fresco’s four versions of a single varietal has been one of the more entertaining and educational tastings I’ve done.  The experience sheds bright light on the specific nature of a particular cacao by reducing the variables to just the two of roasting and conching; I reveled in discovering the common threads of flavor that ran through Fresco’s four Papua New Guinea bars and the interesting variations that resulted from manipulating the process.

Fresco’s current Papua New Guinea selection

Three of the four 69% cacao bars, numbered 219, 220 and 221, vary in roast only, from light to dark, respectively, each with a medium conche.  The fourth bar, 222, is the naked version: light roast and no conche.  All express Papua New Guinea cacao, which transports me not to that exotic locale but to one just as distant, my childhood candy store.

Appearance: Each bar is comprised of ten 4.5 gram squares with small ridges.  Bars differed in depth of color but shared a beautiful deep red tinge, particularly at the snapped edges.  Roasting seems to deepen the tone of brown expressed in the bars, from warm brown to espresso.  The light roast bar was brighter than the rest.  All were well presented, with nothing more than a few small bubbles.  219 was cracked, but I suppose I’ll take the fall for that.

Smell: Scents were pretty faint with these bars; in fact, I got about as much odor from the paper as the bars.  Still, a faint but rich cocoa smell presented itself, particularly with bar 220.  Bar 222, the light roast bar with no conche, was the exception, which, with its minimal processing, radiated fruity candy smells.

Clockwise from top left: 219, 220, 221, 222

Snap:  These well-tempered bars snapped firmly with clean break lines that revealed those lovely reddish tones.

Taste: Papua New Guinea’s theme is truly a candy shop tour of brightly tangy fruit flavors dunked in chocolate.  219’s light roast first revealed warm notes of maybe leather, followed by vibrant berry flavors with supporting earthy cocoa notes.  It reminded me a bit of drinking bitter hot cocoa through a Twizzler. 220’s medium roast mellowed the cacao’s flavors to those of strawberries and pineapple dunked in a hot fudge fountain, while 221’s dark roast pulled me momentarily out of childhood to sip chicory coffee and pinch tobacco before bright blackberries and strawberries burst through, backed again by a deep cocoa flavor.  222’s light roast without conching is definitely the wildest child of the bunch: do they make chocolate-covered cherry Starbursts? Astringency is part of the package here, too, further dialing up the volume on this SweeTart chocolatey experience.

A tart, tempting treat

Texture: All bars hit my tongue with a slightly grainy feel but warmed into a satisfying thick, chewy texture, adding to the intensity of the experience.

These high-volume chocolates, all dense with cocoa-drenched sweet, tangy flavors, astringency and a firm texture, create an intense, fun ride. Goes to show, with a little science and a lot of skill on Rob Anderson’s side, this candy man can.

Two Rituals to Savor Slowly

42 minutes had bubbled away like water for chocolate last Monday. Steve DeVries-mentored chocolate maker Anna Davies of Ritual Chocolate modestly unraveled enchanting and engaging cacao tales throughout a conversation that lasted 42 minutes.  And Anna was “happy to send” samples and information for my LA pet project.  So was I.

Most weeks, Anna and partner Rob spend about a week handcrafting an 80-pound batch of 75% chocolate from just two ingredients: cane sugar and single-estate cacao. Most of it is formed into well-conceived and beautifully efficient 1 1/2-ounce bars, each with nine five-gram sections.  Since a few pieces, about a doctor-recommended half ounce, is the perfect amount for savoring this refined craft chocolate, there’s enough for three or four tastes. I’m betting you’ll keep most all of them to savor for yourself, but I digress.

A very special delivery

By Thursday, the Santa Ana winds had blasted in a few days’ worth of hot weather and my precious package.  A personal note sat atop information sheets and a dozen-bar case of each of Ritual’s current offerings. An elegant box and golden foil wrapper surrounds each shiny 1.5 ounce bar, making both Madagascar and Costa Rica bars sophisticated “golden ticket” chocolates.

I impatiently waited for a quiet Saturday afternoon to begin the Ritual.

2011 Harvest MADAGASCAR Batch #4

Appearance: Virtually unmarred surface with stunning bright red break lines.

Smell: Warm, spicy, citrusy notes

Snap: Clean & firm, even at 70-odd degrees on a sunny weekend in Santa Monica.

Taste:  I’m a sucker for vibrant Madagascar-type stuff, so this one’s admittedly my favorite.  A powerful, sour dried-fruit start leads and also dominates earthy and roasted nut notes. An easy melt allows the nutty finish to linger with the essence of dried apricot.

Ritual’s Tasting Notes: citrus, jam, hazelnuts.  “Made with organic cacao from a world-renowned farm in the lower Sambirano Valley of Northern Madagascar.  The region is known for producing cacao rich with notes of citrus and nuts as a result of the unique growing conditions.  True to its reputation, our creation exemplifies the curious character of Madagascar cacao…[Somia Plantation] is known for its ability to produce organic cacao with bright notes of citrus, nuts, jam and dried apricot…In a nutshell, our Madagascar is very smooth, citrusy, nutty and extremely aromatic with scents of dried apricot.”

Texture: As advertised, a smooth, creamy mouthfeel.

 

2009 Harvest COSTA RICA Batch #19  

Beans in this bar hail from a single farm in Costa Rica, where Anna and Robbie learned from Steve DeVries how to produce quality cacao. This is therefore likely their signature bar.

Appearance: Photo doesn’t reveal faint circular marks, perhaps from unmolding the bar, but they don’t detract from a glossy surface and warm reddish brown bar.

 

Smell: Berries and toast come to mind.

Snap: Clean & firm, just like the other bar. Well tempered.

Taste: Berries and earthy notes and a pleasant, bitter walnut finish.

Ritual’s tasting notes: “Earth, blackberry, walnut…Made with organic, Costa Rican cacao from one of the world’s best cacao farms.  The richness of this chocolate makes it a favorite among dark chocolate lovers, yet its complexity attracts the true connoisseurs. The bold, earthy peaks and hints of blackberry and walnut found in this chocolate are a result of the volcanic-rich shoil of Costa Rica and careful drying methods of the cacao…the tasting notes of dark fruits, nuts and deep earthy undertones, come purely from the beans that have been gently crafted to keep these flavors at the forefront of the finished chocolate.”

Texture: A very cool mouthfeel gives way to smooth meltiness.

I’m now an admirer of both Anna and Ritual Chocolate.  If you get the chance to indulge in your own Ritual, please, savor slowly.

Explore Ritual Chocolate:  www.ritualchocolate.com