It’s National Chocolate Day!

October 28, 2009

Man, the industry publicity machine is really slipping when a chocolate obsessive like me doesn’t learn that it’s National Chocolate Day until 2:20pm on the day of! Anyway, I suggest the following activities to celebrate this most solemn of holidays:

  1. Go find someone selling “French” or “Belgian” chocolate and point out why that’s a flawed characterization. (It’s mighty hard to grow cacao in France…)
  2. Buy some artisan chocolate and share it with a friend
  3. Post your favorite undiscovered chocolate as a comment to this post, and I’ll work on getting a profile up on the blog.
  4. Fire up your melangeur and build a batch of 70% dark chocolate using your favorite cacao. Don’t have one? Head over to Chocolate Alchemy and start equipping your own CacaoLab!

I’m recognizing the holiday by working on obtaining a vacuum oven so that I can start making milk crumb, the vital ingredient in making Cadbury-style milk chocolate. It’s a way of drying and concentrating milk into a crumbly/powdery cake that can be used to make milk chocolate. The process also caramelizes some of the milk sugars, resulting in some really nice flavor components. Really interested folks can check out a description of the process in “Advances in Food Research.”

Quiz Your Waiter!

October 18, 2009

Browsing the web, I happened across the menu for Daniel, a three-star French restaurant in New York. (For fun, count all the items on the menu that require prep work…it’s exhausting just to contemplate.) The feature of the menu that I’d like to applaud is that he (or, rather, his pastry chef) calls out the specific chocolates used in the desserts. Unsurprisingly, they are Valhrona stalwarts, but identifying them is an admirable step forward.

Being a chocolate obsessive, I’ve taken to asking waiters what chocolate the pastry chef is employing, which often starts some interesting questions. (And, on at least one occasion, free goodies from the pastry kitchen!) At Melisse in Los Angeles, the waiter was hugely knowledgeable about wine, but was in the “could be pumped from the ground” category of knowledge about chocolate. For better or worse, he left that evening knowing more a lot more about chocolate….

Spread the word….start asking where your chocolate dessert is coming from!

For reference, I know that L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon uses Valhrona, Chez Panisse uses Michel Cluizel.

COCO 500 in San Francisco offers a dessert option of a tasting of El Rey Bucare.

Bittersweet Cafe Field Trip

October 15, 2009

Bittersweet Cafe, Danville, CA

Bittersweet Cafe, Danville, CA

A recent customer visit for my real job took me by Danville, a small suburb east of the Oakland/Berkeley area. For a while, I have been wanting to visit Bittersweet Cafe, and remembered they have a location there. Am I ever glad that I made that little detour! The San Francisco area is packed full of places to find artisan chocolate, (Fog City News and Chocolate Covered, for example), and Bittersweet is another top-flight chocolate retailer with a well-educated staff and an astounding selection of the good stuff. All this luxe chocolate goodness is delivered in a friendly, welcoming coffeeshop atmosphere, which strikes me a good tactic for luring unsuspecting, Hershey’s consuming, chocolate neophytes.

Part of Bittersweet's Inventory

Part of Bittersweet's Inventory

Bittersweet’s owners are dedicated enough to the concept of artisan chocolate that they not only make their own micro-batch chocolate, they are planting cacao in Hawaii with the hope of making tree-to-bar chocolate. Their selection of artisan chocolate spans the range from classic European producers, South American companies, and most of the new American startups. The shelf you see here is maybe one tenth of the bars they offer, and if you look closely, you can see Amano, Taza, Patric, Rogue, and Divine. The bar at the bottom left is the storied Amedei Porcelana, the world’s most expensive chocolate (that’s a $16 bar you see…for 1.75 oz) and 30 Rock punchline. (For the record, I bought two bars, and think it generally deserves it’s reputation. It’s not the most complex chocolate I’ve had, but it delivers a nearly thermonuclear chocolate wallop with very little bitterness.) All the chocolate is tagged with reviews written by store staff, who were also nice enough to offer me free tastes of many bars.

Bittersweet makes a few of it’s own bars, and I got their Sambiran, a 70% Madagascar origin dark chocolate. Bittersweet describes it as a very light roast, and that’s no lie. It’s a riot of bright citrus and brandy notes, with some lingering coffee flavors. My first taste out of the wrapper delivered a quick, punchy succession of flavors, but that effect calmed down a little when I resampled the chocolate after a few days. My wife who loves 99% and 100% bars and typically is not a fan of lighter chocolates was pretty addicted to the Sambiran. (“Please move this, or I’m going to eat the whole bar”) My only quibble is that the chocolate was not finished as well as it could be. The tempering was imperfect, with a bit of bloom on the edges, and the overall texture is a bit gritty, indicating a somewhat uneven particle size. Still, I get the sense that, stylistically, Bittersweet is aiming for the White Stripes, not the London Philharmonic.

Bittersweet has three locations (San Francisco, Danville, and the home store in Oakland.) I can’t imagine how the founders manage to pack running three stores, sourcing cacao, planting in Hawaii, and making chocolate, but the results are certainly delicious.

Another Artisan Confection: Honey

October 13, 2009

Last Saturday, I got the chance to go watch some folks extract honey from a set of backyard hives. It’s not chocolate, I thought that people obsessed with making chocolate might be interested in seeing how the most ancient confection is made. Chocolate is a brand new invention (dating from about 250 C.E.) compared to honey (eaten since at least 2100 B.C.E.) Like chocolate, there are dedicated artisan honey producers making specialty honeys.

Artisan honey is distinguished by the species of flower the bees extract nectar from. There are honeys from apple blossoms, red sumac, basswood, clover, lavender, among others. Like chocolate, the character of the agricultural product determines the character of the final product. (Apologies to any serious honey experts that might be reading this…I’m sure I’m missing lots of detail here, especially on the complexities of bee husbandry.)

Uncapping honeycomb

Uncapping honeycomb

Like refining chocolate, extracting honey is a fragrant, messy process. The process starts by kindly asking the bees to vacate the box they are living in, then taking out the frames that the bees have used to build honeycombs. You then use a hot knife to “uncap” the honeycomb, cutting off the wax caps of the comb. The resultant mess of honey and wax can be heated to separate the honey and the wax, but most of the honey is recovered from the main body of the comb in the next step.

The uncapped frames are loaded into a centrifugal extractor.

Extracting honey

Extracting honey

(If you are lucky, you can get a three year old spaceman to come by and help spin the combs in the extractor…what they lack in arm strength is made up in enthusiasm.)

There’s an enormous amount of honey in even a small set of frames. Our hosts extracted more than ten gallons of honey from a single hive box.

Honey ready to jar

Honey ready to jar

Once the honey is extracted, it’s poured into a bucket with a coarse filter cloth to take out the remaining small chunks of wax. The bucket has a valve that makes it relatively easy to jar, and you have a finished, very delicious, product.

Many thanks to Thomas and Jenny for inviting us over, and for the great honey. It really takes some dedication to keep three beehives (and their thousands of sting-prone residents) in your backyard!

Time to start thinking about pairing dark sumac honey with chocolate….

Apparently….I’m Jack Donaghy

October 11, 2009

Sitting here, watching waaaay too many episodes of 30 Rock, when Jack Donaghy, the pretentious CEO character, is explaining how he wants to take his date to Plunder, the most expensive restaurant in New York for a $1000 dessert: “Imagine, a dessert for two, consisting of a Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream in a pool cognac, drizzled in the world’s most expensive chocolate, Amadei Porcelana, covered in shaved white, black and clear truffles, topped with edible 25-carat gold leaf. Can you imagine anything better?” (A goof on Serendipity 3, a dessert place in NYC.)

That whole scene pretty much boomeranged, given that I have two bars of that chocolate in the fridge. Suffice it to say that the wife is still laughing at me.

Isn’t It Ironic, Don’t You Think?

October 7, 2009

So, we here at CacaoLab’s international headquarters were pretty excited to see that Gourmet Magazine named us one of their favorite food and travel sites. OK, we were more than excited…we wore out our browser’s refresh button making sure the link was really there, and not some sure-to-be-corrected editorial error.

The universe decided to teach me some kind of web-based karmic lesson by nudging the magazine overlords at Conde Nast to shut down Gourmet! My sudden impulse to cancel all my Conde Nast subscriptions was quickly reconsidered when I realized that not having the New Yorker, Wired, or Vanity Fair around would reduce my recreational reading to cereal box nutrition labels. (Or these objects I dimly recall from my pre-baby life called “books.”)

It’s ironic in that Alanis Morrisette sense, which is, not in fact ironic, but just sort of oddly tragic. Life goes on…more interviews, chocolate making, and reviews coming. And, Ruth Reichel….if you are looking for a new job, we’ll find you an office here somewhere.

Black Mountain Chocolate

October 4, 2009

Updating the artisan chocolate maker list is getting pretty hectic. The next entrant is Black Mountain Chocolate of Asheville, NC, founded by fellow UC Davis Chocolate Technology grad Dave Mason. He’s been busy, and is now selling single origin chocolate sourced from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.