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.


Battle Madagascar Chocolate!

September 30, 2009

As part of my quest to get people to eat better chocolate, I’ve been giving CacaoLab Chocolate Seminars at some small events. It’s not hard to get people to show up and eat some free chocolate, and are interested in hearing about what cacao is, how it’s made into chocolate, and about the obsessives that work to perfect this craft. (Once I’ve cleared the rights to an image, I’ll post the presentation.) Almost everyone has had chocolate, but most would be willing to believe it was pumped out of wells drilled in the Sahara. At the last chocolate seminar, after the talk about cacao, I gave a little coaching about how to evaluate chocolate on a few sensory axes (initial taste, aftertaste, and texture), then staged some head-to-head battles between chocolates from different cacao origins.

The audience fell to the tasting job with gusto, nibbling and taking notes on an evaluation form. Each chocolate was rated on a 1-9 scale for initial taste, aftertaste, and texture. The goal was to evaluate how the newer American craft chocolate makers hold up against the legendary European warhorses. (I’m not making any claims for the science here, but I think there are some worthwhile conclusions.) The first battle was a three way Madagascar competition, pitting the American makers Patric and Amano up against the aristocratic French Valrhona Ampamakia bar. (Here’s a review from the studied palates at Seventy Percent.) The sample size was pretty small, with 11 completed evaluations, but the results were pretty remarkable. From the raw numbers, Amano scored an average of 21.4 points, Patric was second with 20.9, and Valhrona was third with 19.6. Patric got the best overall initial taste score with an average of 7.3, and tied with Amano for aftertaste at 7.1. Amano slightly edged Patric on the texture score, with 7.2 vs 7.1.

Looking at the numbers and the subjective comments on the evaluation forms (15 forms had subjective comments), Amano scored consistently solid numbers across the testers. Patric and Valrhona were chocolates that people either loved or didn’t: both of these chocolates had perfect ratings from different people. Tasters consistently noted that the Patric had strong “fruity” notes (7 of the 15 forms), and five of the tasters noted that the Valhrona was “smooth” and “consistent.” The tasting was not blind, and the boxes were next to the samples. The fruit note was so pronounced in the Patric chocolate that one taster came to me and said the test was unfair because the Patric contained plums! This tester had tried the chocolate, and gone back to check the box, and saw “plum notes”, and drew the conclusion that fruit had been added. To be fair, two respondents named the Amano as their favorite chocolate of the six that were made available for testing.

I’ll be compiling and posting the results of the other two taste comparisons (Venezuelan cacao and dark milk chocolates) later on. The most important overall conclusion is how much people have to learn about the potential of chocolate. In the audiences that I’ve talked with, I estimate that less than 5% have had artisan chocolate, and tend to be surprised at the variety and complexity available. (And, at the seminars, at least a few people run off to order bars from the maker’s websites….that is, the ones that haven’t pocketed bars off the testing table!)

Chocolatier, chocolatier, or chocolatier?

September 28, 2009

My wife and I managed to sneak away from the house and kids for a few hours this weekend to a small wine and chocolate event in San Francisco. Mindy Fong, a classmate from the UC Davis Chocolate Technology Course, was showing her new Jade Chocolate line at the show, and I was excited to see what she’d been up to since the course. She’s combining chocolate with Asian ingredients to create some really unique (and tasty combinations.)

Mindy Fong and Jade Chocolate

Mindy Fong and Jade Chocolate

Her chocolate covered edamame have a nice, subtle interplay with the crunch and saltiness of the soybeans against the chocolate. She’s got a spicy bar, and a really great rice and tea bar — it’s a Hershey’s Krackle that’s grown up, done some yoga, and now works at a hedge fund. In short, much richer and sophisticated. Highly recommended.

Given that this is a snooty Artisan Chocolate blog, I’m compelled to ask the abstract question here. Is Mindy an artisan chocolatier? To the non-cacao obsessed, this sounds like a pretty goofy question — of course! An artisan is a skilled crasftsperson, she’s spent countless hours matching chocolate to rice, chili peppers, and wheat tea, pursuing her vision of what Jade Chocolate should taste like. If you take a look at this forum discussion on Clay Gordon’s encyclopedic site The Chocolate Life, it’s not that simple. The chocolate community has a seemly unquenchable Aristotlean imperative to order and name the members of the chocolate community. There are chocolate MAKERS (who take beans and make plain chocolate), and chocolatiers (who take chocolate and other ingredients to make confections.)

Chocolate makers have enormous investments in the time, equipment, and travel budgets required to wrestle a cacao bean into quality chocolate. It’s an expensive, painful process. No one outside of the lurkers on chocolate blogs really understand the chocolate process, so these folks feel like they need a way to tell the public that (1) chocolate is not delivered from heaven in the form of neatly wrapped bars, and (2) not everyone that says they make chocolate has to deal with the issues that they do. I’m pretty sure that’s a losing battle, because I think the chocolate process is just too complex, and the gradations in who is a genuine chocolate maker are just too subtle.

Looking at this from the bewildered consumer’s perspective, they want to know that there’s a justified reason that they should spend $9 on an artisan chocolate bar instead of $0.75 for industro-chocolate from a vending machine. There are two powerful reasons to do this: taste and consequences. One, chocolate that is made respecting the diverse agricultural nature of cacao just tastes much better. Different beans taste very different, and a careful hand on roasting and conching can coax worlds of complex flavor out of that diversity. Two, chocolate and the way it is made has monumental effects on people’s lives. Artisan chocolate makers like Steve DeVries and Shawn Askinosie spend a signficant fraction of their lives with cacao farmers, and source in a very responsible manner. Industrial chocolate funnels “product” through a commodities exchange that hides the distasteful nature of bulk cacao production. (see Carol Off’s rather disturbing Bitter Chocolate….more on that book later.)

An artisan should be characterized by an ability to extract and control flavor, and also a level of responsibility for their materials. I think there’s a pressing need to recognize the level of dedication required to make chocolate from the bean (or even more, from the tree.) However, the most important, basic, fact that needs to be communicated is that there is a community of chocolatiers dedicated to making a more delicious, more diverse food with a conscious dedication to how that affects the people that live in the narrow zone of the world that can grow cacao. Arguing too strenuously about the gradations will just yield confusion.

Go forth, find great chocolate, and grill the maker on what it is and where it came from!

New York Chocolate, High and Low

September 26, 2009

My non-chocolate job has the upside of getting to do the occasional trip to New York City, which is a pretty chocolate rich place. Most people passing through New York see the two monuments to industrial chocolate, the Hershey’s and M&M’s palaces on Times Square.

The Times Square Hershey's Store

The Times Square Hershey's Store

The Hershey’s store, amidst all the logo’ed merchandise and containers of Whoppers, has a small display of Scharffen Berger and Dagoba Bars. (Both companies are owned by Hershey’s.) Dagoba seems to definitely be going in the direction of chocolate + other ingredients, like the Chai, Lemon-Ginger, and Lavender-Blueberry bars.
Mars Store in Times Square

Mars Store in Times Square

The Mars store is even bigger (three floors of merchandise, and a machine for making customized M&Ms in any color you like.) You aren’t going to find the word “cacao” anywhere in this place.

The rotating Disco M&M is pretty entertaining, though.

Proceeding a few blocks to Rockefeller Center, you can find an outpost of Maison du Chocolat, a chocolate amusement park of an entirely different sort. Here the chocolate is showcased in an expanse of polished marble, glass, and wood. The Maison offers a wide array of confections, and seasonally pours a hot chocolate that seems to have extra Essence of Luxury mixed into it.

Put on your sunglasses before checking out the next picture of a display case at Maison. It’s a glittering box of the Tamanaco single-origin ganache palets. Extremely good chocolate mixed with some extremely good cream.

It’s artisan chocolate of a different sort that I usually discuss here, but, just for the record, I won’t mind if anyone got me this box for Christmas. Don’t count on me sharing it either!

A $75 box of palets at Maison du Chocolat

A $75 box of palets at Maison du Chocolat

I obtained three single-origin bars here, and will be doing a review soon.

Grabbing a cab, I proceed to the home of Pierre Marcolini chocolate, 485 Park Avenue. To my shock, the place has been renamed to Borne Confections, but inside, it looks like the same Marcolini shop to me. According to the shop staff, the shop is under the same ownership, but they changed the name to allow them to sell some other brands. I didn’t actually see any non-Marcolini chocolate in the store, just some other non-chocolate confections. A bit like going to a car dealer and not finding any non-Ferrari automobiles. The store had the shelf I was looking for, the set of Marcolini single-origin chocolates…..(I’m lucky this isn’t a photography blog. The labels are fuzzy in this picture, but all of the labels on the middle shelf are dark chocolates from different origins, including Venezuela, Ghana, Brazil, and Mexico.)

The Marcolini Motherlode

The Marcolini Motherlode

A Cacaolab associate had sent me marching orders to obtain a ridiculous amount of these bars. I think he’s pretty close to getting a tattoo of a Marcolini bar on his shoulder. We were both pretty excited to see that the Tabasco cacao made famous in the Marcolini limited edition bar of a few years back had returned, and the Fleur de Cacao bar was still available. As I was writing this post, said associate just IMed me with a one word review of this bar: “INSANE”. He recovered from his reverie long enough to elaborate: “That fleur de cacao is definitely the best chocolate i think i’ve ever eaten. It’s got some serious cinnamon/nutmeg, but the main sensation i get is that it’s almost like eating a big piece of candy…..except it’s made out of insanely good chocolate.”

While it’s not my favorite chocolate, it extremely good, especially since Marcolini gets a very archetypical chocolate flavor to shine through in these bars. There’s not the complexity of some of the more exotic chocolates, but it’s the best “luxury” chocolate I’ve ever come across. Somehow, I’ll make it through the hardship duty of eating and reviewing the eight bars I managed to save for myself. I might share, but you’ll have to ask nicely!

Cacao on Virgin America

September 23, 2009

Virgin America almost makes flying fun, what with the movies, music, wifi, and on-demand food ordering. Browsing the menu, I noticed that they now offer the SweetRiot cacao nib bar. SweetRiot has an interesting angle, in that they offer a cacao nib snack that’s sold as a healthy alternative to chocolate. Nibs (the roasted, cracked, hulled cacao bean) don’t have any if the sugar if finished chocolate, but offer a potent blast of pure chocolate flavor if treated right. A few other makers offer a dark chocolate bar with added nibs, which moderates some of the intensity of the nib while giving a nice crunch to the bar. Sweetriot certainly has their marketing down, using an extensive web site to detail how they acquire their cacao. But, as far as I can tell, they only source the nibs, and it’s not clear if they actually make their chocolate. But, more information on their site about roasting philosophy and their chocolate would be great.

So, how was the bar? I’d have to say pretty good, but not memorable. To make a great chocolate nib bar, the two elements should really play off each other. The chocolate itself struck me as pretty middle of the road dark chocolate, with more than a little residual bitterness. The inital notes are pretty sugary, with a nice even melt. The nibs come off as nutty, and strike me as pretty heavily roasted. A fruitier chocolate would have made for more of a contrast with the nut and coffee notes of the nibs. A good start, and with as much attention to the chocolate as to the nibs, this could be a solid bar.

Chocolate Rethought at Tailor

December 5, 2007

I was lucky enough to have time on a recent Manhattan trip to experience the Cocoa Tasting Menu at Sam Mason’s Tailor, the new restaurant by the former pastry chef at WD-50. Tailor and WD-50 are the two main bastions of “molecular gastronomy” in New York. The proponents of molecular gastronomy, working in the footsteps of insane genii like Harold McGee and Ferran Adria, use chemical principles to reimagine the way that food is made and tastes are paired. At one of these establishments, you are more likely to be eating watermelon air or pine needle sorbet than a steak or pasta. While many people are taken aback by the odd tastes and textures employed, this school of cooking has really taken the gourmet world by storm. Adria’s El Bulli is the most sought after reservation in the world, and Grant Achatz’s Alinea was named by Gourmet magazine as the best restaurant in the United States. The mainstream success of shows like Good Eats and America’s Test Kitchen also owe their success to the MG approach to cooking.

So, what does an MG kitchen like Tailor do with cocoa and chocolate? They pretty much take into some frontiers not often visited. The menu is definitely an aggressive exploration of how chocolate can pair with other flavors (squid and chocolate?!?), but I think there’s definitely more room for experimentation. What Tailor didn’t do was to work with the different flavors of chocolate itself, or imagine what can be done with the fat mechanics of chocolate. I think that some enterprising chef should do a menu with untempered chocolate, unconched chocolate, and perhaps also contrasts between the different bean varieties. Tailor (like many MG places) uses a lot of gels to manipulate texture. Chocolate (and cocoa butter), carefully crystallized, could do many of the same jobs, with possibly more toothsome results. My grousing aside, here’s what Tailor offered, with some tasting notes.

Squid salad, cocoa, toast, mint. The menu definitely starts on a challenging note. Squid and chocolate sound like an odd pairing, but the mint in this dish is definitely the peacemaker. There’s still a definite oceanic quality to the squid which fills the salt void in the chocolate taste, but the high notes of the mint build a little bit of a bridge.

Foie gras, peanut butter, cocoa, pear. Ah, two different fats singing in harmony! Foie gras and peanut butter were melded together in a small square, and dusted with cocoa and peanut. Foie gras loves to live along side sweet ingredients, and the pear and peanut butter prove to be a delicious counterpoint.

Chocolate gnocchi, brussel sprouts, lime puree. Soft chocolate pasta nuggets served with brussels sprouts leaves, on a lime puree. The trick here is that the dish is sprinkled with sea salt, which makes the lime and bitter-ish leaves support the chocolate.

Chocolate-miso cod, cauliflower puree, snow pea julienne. This is the Tailor twist on Nobu’s famous black cod. Crunch is supplied by tiny nuggets of Japanese rice crackers, and the chocolate supplies sweetness. The cauliflower puree is extremely smooth and enriched with olive oil (and is far better than most potato purees I’ve had!)

Duck and eel terrine, chocolate consomme, green mango. A small block of layered duck and eel, very slowly cooked, in a strong chocolate broth. This broth, much more bitter than sweet, could be used as the base for lots of dishes.

Beet ravioli, cocoa caviar, orange, tarragon emulsion. My favorite dish of the evening. A small bright red square made of thinly sliced beet covering an orange foam, covered with small chocolate gel spheres. Ultra-refreshing, and a huge contrast to the bass notes of the previous dish. The tarragon emulsion is a brilliant green, herbal counterpoint that adds depth without taking away from the pure, clean flavor of the beet and orange.

Butternut squash cake, cocoa sorbet, cashew beads, maple Fall on a plate. Cake with ice cream, topped with a square of clear squash brittle. These are ingredients that more obviously rhyme, and this is executed without too much sugar to distract from the basic flavors.

Soft chocolate, sesame ice cream, mole A small strip of chocolate gel, like cold semi-melted chocolate. Your mouth expects melted chocolate to be warm, but this is cool and soft. A very nice trick, and the sesame ice cream works too.

It’s great fun to experience this kind of experimentation, and while the flavors are unconventional, after I mentally stepped back a bit, they were really delicious. The best part of the overall menu is that they got the goodness of chocolate without the goopiness and sugar that usually accompanies it. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for Cocoa Tasting 2.0, with varietal cacao (the fruitness of Madagascar, the smoky earthiness of Arriba) and elements of less processed chocolate. Sam, I’m willing to help anytime!

Hmmmm….Milk Chocolate With No Sugar

November 12, 2007

If you want chocolate without sugar, you really have two choices: go for the gusto with a 100% cacao bar, or deal with the slightly funny taste of a maltitol sweetened bar. (Not to mention the side effects of maltitol and other sugar alcohols…) There appears to be a third answer to this problem, which is to use milk to soften the edge on the cacao without using sugar. I recently got a MarieBelle chocolate bar which has this unusual composition. The bar (which appears to be made by the National Chocolate Company of Colombia) contains cacao, cocoa butter, and various milk solids (skim and whole), vanilla, and some emulsifiers. No added sugar! (Other than what’s lurking in the milk.)

The bar has a very deep brownie-ish taste, and a harder overall mouthfeel than typical milk chocolate. The milk has the familiar effect of flattening the fruitier aromatic notes in the cacao, but there’s a much more pronounced chocolate finish than in a sweetened milk chocolate. Overall, it’s quite delicious, and a great way to get a chocolate fix without added sugar. It’s also an interesting bar to add to your internal taste library, as you can isolate what the milk is doing to the texture and flavor of the chocolate, without sugar effects complicating the picture.

This is going on my list of formulations to experiment with….