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!

The X-Men of Chocolate

September 24, 2009

I’m an unapologetic zealot for the cause of small-batch artisan chocolate, so I was pretty excited to see that six of my favorite American makers have banded together to form the Craft Chocolate Makers of America. The news page of the site features a positively superhero-esque group portrait of the folks out there fighting every day against the typically not-very-dark forces of mediocre chocolate. You can’t go wrong ordering a bar from any of these makers.

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.

Aequare Chocolate

September 17, 2009

Time to add a new maker to the Artisan List. Aequare Chocolates was founded by Californian chef who migrated to Ecuador to make chocolate from the local cacao. Ecuadorian cacao has a long and storied history, including a near wipeout from witches broom blight. Jeffrey Stern, the founder, maintains a blog showing his process for making things like chocolate coated cacao beans, and has an interesting post about the replacement of the “classic” Ecuadorian cacao with more disease resistant strains. Stay tuned for a review….

Chocolate as Heart Medicine?

September 16, 2009

The New York Times reports on a Swedish study that post-heart attack survival rates improve with increased doses of chocolate. I’m no doctor, and I won’t make any claims for the health benefits of chocolate, but it is interesting to see serious study done on the effects of all the chemistry that comes out of that one little bean. (And, I gotta say, I’m much happier that this correlation was found with chocolate and not, say, celery!)