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Category Archives: Gourmet chocolate

Taste Test: Trader Joe’s vs. Fresh Market

We recently welcomed the opening of both a Fresh Market and a Trader Joe’s in the neighborhood. I happen to like both stores; although on the pricey side, they offer a full range of foods and services, both offer high-quality house brands and excellent customer service.

Is Trader Joe’s 85% store brand bar a better buy than Fresh Market? Courtesy of Wikimedia.

But what about the chocolate?

I’ve tried house brand bars from both stores, both 85% cacao, and here’s what I found:

The Trader Joe’s bar, which lists the bean origin as Colombian, was a thin, snappy bar (there are two per package, in case you’re inclined to share) with a lot of fruit, a little smoke and the bitterness you would expect from this percentage. Fresh Market’s bar has no country of origin, it’s thicker and chewier, with hints of butter and heavier smoke.

The two bars are roughly the same weight, and the price difference is less than a dollar. Both had good shine, no bloom and the logo imprints on both bars were clear,

So, which is better? I liked the Trader Joe’s bar a bit more because of the fruit, but I would not decline the Fresh Market if it were offered. Either one is a good and satisfying purchase.

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And on the other end of the price spectrum, I invested in a bar of Chocolat Bonnat Porcelana recently. And by invested, I mean I paid around $25 for a single bar. I think it means I have officially gone over to the dark side, figuratively speaking (literally speaking, I’ve been there for a long time). This product sings when you open the package. The aroma is passionately chocolate, and the flavors of raisin, dark caramel and coffee make it seem crazy not to buy it. This is a bar to nibble, savor and save for special occasions.

 

 

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Chocolate Prices, Demand Rise; What’s Your Solution?

Will the quality chocolate fade away, or just become part of the good life for a very few?

Will the quality chocolate fade away, or just become part of the good life for a very few?

A recent article in the New York Times sounded the alarm once again: we like our fine chocolate, and we are paying the price.

Cacao and chocolate prices are expected to rise dramatically this year. In the U.S., consumers can expect to see a 45 percent increase, British consumers will likely see a 25 percent increase

Part of the problem is sheer demand, especially for dark chocolate. Over the years, the proliferation of better-quality chocolate has sensitized our tastes, if not our wallets, to the idea that having the best is worth a little more money, because it takes less consumption to really enjoy fine chocolate. And of course, there is the health data on why a little dark chocolate a day helps keep the health blues away. Emerging markets in China and India, where chocolate consumption has typically been among the lowest in the world, are bringing pressure to chocolate makers already stressed by smaller supplies due to poor weather conditions and a lack of needed investment in cacao-growing nations, which exist in a finite number within just ten degrees of the Equator.

And the making of fine chocolate is an ever-changing art. Creators cannot offer the same truffles and pralines year after year. New flavors must be brought into play, with the understanding that each market has its preferences and tastes. Additional ingredients cost money; small-batch chocolates are already expensive to produce, and no chocolate maker worthy of the artisan label is going to use anything but the finest fruits, nuts, alcohol bases, flowers, spices, coffee, tea and herbs.

What do we do? Buy now and hoard? Consume less? Buy bars and specialties when you travel, at their source, and bring them home? Personally, I’ve done all of the above. Then again, I paid about US$ 45 for two bars of Bonnat from a local shop that stocks French specialty foods. There is always that fourth option: spending the money and doing without something else.

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And speaking of recent buys:

Camino Fair Trade 70%: Swiss-made, kosher and organic. Also very chewy, tangy-citrus to the point of tropical in flavor. And while the snap and shine aren’t especially good, at least the classic organic metallic flavor is missing.

Soma Black Science Equator 67%: Buttery, vanilla, dairy. Not bittersweet, but not remotely like any milk chocolate you’ve ever had. I’ve said this before with other bars from the artisan Canadian company: I’d happily go back to Toronto for more of everything they make.

 

Cacao In Space And A Taste of Toronto

The antique grinding wheel at Soma Chocolate in Toronto.

The antique grinding wheel at Soma Chocolate in Toronto.

Have you heard the one about the chocolate bar hitching a ride to the moon?

OK, it’s not going quite that far. But just to show you that even the very best must be enjoyed in the very farthest reaches of the known and populated universe, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have contracted with NASA to restock the International Space Station with a package of treats put together by Douglas Hurley, the husband of one of the space station’s residents, Karen Nyberg. That package will include chocolate. This is the maiden voyage for Orbital Sciences; let’s hope the company keeps up the good work. No word on the brand of chocolate being delivered, but when you are far from home and choices, is it true that any chocolate is good chocolate?

And from my latest tastings: Toronto’s version of sin in a civilized place: Soma Chocolate. Soma has two locations in the city, and to walk into the Distillery District location, and observe the antique grinding wheels at work, watch the tempering and dipping and forming of bars, pralines and truffles is to observe expertise meeting exquisite and both of them having a damned good time. With flavoring elements ranging from Douglas fir and bergamot to whiskey and Poprocks, you will enjoy buying, trying and following them on Facebook to see what’s coming out next.

Here are my thoughts on two of the six bars I bought:

Soma Black Science 70% Criollo: A hint of both raisin and coffee in this slightly bitter bar. A square or two is enough to satisfy; it has great balance, and it’s very smooth.

Black Science 70% Trinidad: The same percentage as the Criollo, but smokier, with more of a citrus finish. This bar is easier eating; you could go through half of it easily and not feel overwhelmed.

 

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Chocolate Festival returns in October

The Olive Tap will be back this year with their line of cocoa-based oils.

The Olive Tap will be back this year with their line of cocoa-based oils.

It’s been a year since the Nova-Southeastern University Arena went from athletic forum to chocolate fantasy, but the time has come for another Festival of Chocolate. The two-day event is open to the public and will feature everything from candy-making equipment to local artisan chocolate makers to a chocolate-inspired fashion show and a chocolate-chili cookoff.

Talking to show producer Aileen Mand (a former Walt Disney World producer), this looks to be a bigger and more diverse show than last year. And Mand knows both chocolate and how to put on a good show. Her husband is Edgar Schaked, third-generation German chocolatier and  founder and franchise owner of Schakolad Chocolates. Together, they run Indigo Creative Productions to run the chocolate festivals and have opened Chocolate Kingdom, an interactive tour of their bean-to-bar factory near Kissimmee. Their lives don’t just revolve around one of the world’s favorite foods; their lives are chocolate-filled, cocoa-colored and pretty sweet.

The show will feature sessions teaching chocolate and wine pairings, cookie-stacking contests, raffles, an interactive display showing the history of chocolate and some cacao-based foods that you probably don’t have in your kitchen right now, such as marinades, balsamic vinegars and and dry rubs. And if you’ve never had cocoa-based olive oil or a brigadeiro (the hottest sweet treat from Brazil), this is your chance.

The Festival of Chocolate is scheduled for Oct. 12 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Oct 13 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Advanced tickets for the show are $12 for adults and children ages 2-12 are $10. Tokens for samples are purchased separately and inside the arena; samples are priced from $1 to $5. Advanced tickets may only be purchased until 5 p.m. Oct.11. After that time, they must be purchased at the box office, and an additional $1 will be added to the purchase price.

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And to get you in the mood, a little something from my stash:

Madécasse 44% Arabica Coffee: I’m a fan of anything this company makes, even if it does fall in the milk chocolate range. This is smooth, with a fine crunch of coffee nibs that flavor, but don’t overpower the taste of milk and butter in the chocolate. Another winner from this incredible line of products.

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Bean To Bar And Open For Business

Dark and white chocolate pops make an edible bouquet.

Dark and white chocolate pops make an edible bouquet.

Denise Castronovo at work, making labels and watching the kitchen.

Denise Castronovo at work, making labels and watching the kitchen.

Beans and bars on display near the door of Castronovo Chocolates.

Beans and bars on display near the door of Castronovo Chocolates.

After weeks of meeting the Castronovo Chocolates line at local greenmarkets, the products finally have a permanent place to call home.

Florida‘s only bean-to-bar producer has opened a shop in the town of Stuart, located in Martin County, about 30 miles north of West Palm Beach. Located in a renovated shopping center just of U.S. Highway 1, chocolate maker Denise Castronovo presides, roasting cacao beans,winnowing, grinding, conching, pouring, forming and labeling the bars and other treats offered in this combined factory/store/tasting room.

When you enter, it’s hard to ignore the smell. The roasty, woodsy scent is so dense, it settles on and around you, and you can almost eat it. The colors of the floor and walls are gradations of brown and beige, which should seem like too much of a good thing in a chocolate store – but it works. The work area is bright, spacious and open, and customers are welcome to watch the process that is the art of fine chocolate creation.

Denise’s fascination with her subject is pretty straightforward. “There are so many flavor notes in chocolate; I’m always interested to find out what’s next, what’s new and what we can discover,” she says. Castronovo likes to remind those new to chocolate tasting that while wine has about 200 flavor notes, fine chocolate has 600 flavor notes. Denise and her husband Jim buy beans in small batches from farmers they know personally, traveling to the regions where the beans are grown, meeting the producers and keeping anything artificial out of their products. Castronovo Chocolates are soy, gluten and emulsifier-free.

Denise has an easy but serious way with customers as she explains the nuances and subtle notes of the examples offered on the shop’s tasting plate. This is business, art and science for her, yet she is wants the experience to be equal opportunity for everyone who comes in.

Castronovo Chocolates is not remotely your average candy experience. In addition to their signature bars and tasting plates, there are hot and cold beverages, lollipops, cacao nibs and truffles. This is an intelligent and elegant chocolate experience that takes up to a week to go from bean to bar. It’s a slow and labor-intensive process, because there’s no way to reach this level of excellence if you plan to cut corners or push the process.

Current information on Castronovo Chocolates can also be found on their Facebook page.

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And speaking of the subject, this is a new bar from the Castronovos; made from beans grown in just three remote villages in Venezuela: Amazonas 72%:

Talk about a bar that tastes as rare as the source itself. I understand from Jim that just getting to these three villages is quite a trek. But the cacao that comes out results in a bar that’s worth a trip. Slightly sweet, with a slight note of walnuts. I admit I cannot always finish a Castronovo bar, because most selections are very rich for one sitting. This one is different. I could eat all of it and be unwilling to share any of it.

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When Is Chocolate Like Ham And Champagne?

An assortment of Belgian chocolates

An assortment of Belgian chocolates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When is chocolate in the same class as pork and Laurent-Perrier?

When the Belgians say it is – maybe.

It seems that Belgian chocolate makers, fearful of copycats diluting and cheapening their exquisite product, want to seek the protection of the European Union to ensure that the chocolates they create, package and sell are known throughout the world as the Belgian chocolates.

This trademarking idea is not unlike that used in Italy for Parma ham, or in France for Champagne. Those products must be created and packaged in those regions in order to be labeled as such. So the Belgians, who can boast of 200 chocolate makers and 2,000 chocolate stores and museums in a country of eleven million people, want to corner the market on the exclusivity of their product so that consumers know what they are actually getting.

Problems have certainly arisen in the fake fine chocolate world, particularly in economically emerging Asian countries. Knock-off boxes containing inferior “Belgian” product are constantly turning up, keeping the copyright attorneys and trade organizations busy. A “Belgian Chocolate Code” has been in existence since 2008, modeled on one introduced by the Swiss chocolate industry in the 1970s, but the Belgian code is a practical one discussing ingredients, end vs. finished product and labeling. It carries no legal ramifications for anyone who violates it. Manufacturers, exporters and trade representatives think the code is a great idea and support it, but what good is it if no one has to really respect it? Is it because no one really wants to stir the chocolate pot, causing themselves too much trouble? Or is it just too much hassle to go after a competitor who makes an inferior product?

What do you think – is it worth the effort to protect and trademark the best so consumers know what they’re really getting?

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And speaking of what you’re getting, two more from my Toronto stash:

  • Dolfin Noir 88% Dark: Yes, it certainly is that. Dark and almost too bitter to eat. But not quite. Woody undertones with almost no sugar, it’s a baking chocolate, yet it’s rich enough to eat and enjoy in small amounts.
  • Irresistibles 72% (Switzerland): The Swiss can do better than this. Dark, but too sweet and reminiscent of a Hershey’s Extra Dark bar. You might want to break this into bits and use it up in a chocolate chip cookie recipe.
 
 

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Chocolate (Price) Fix: Does It Matter?

English: A regular Hershey bar, out of the pac...

English: A regular Hershey bar, out of the package. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent NBC News story reported that Hershey Canada, Mars Canada and Nestlé Canada have been charged with conspiracy to fix the price of chocolate in that country. Along with these companies, one of Canada’s largest retail and food distributing companies, ITWAL Ltd., has also come under scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior. The charges, which have been leveled at top-tier executives, are serious and carry prison and/or fine penalties.

Here’s the question: does price-fixing north of the border matter? Especially when it involves companies whose products many of us consider beneath us, even in a moment of confectionary desperation?

Yes, it matters.

For one thing, crime committed at any corporate level affects all of us. It affects the price we pay for what we need and want.

It’s an affront to anyone who actually obeys the law, and figures any high-flying executive making a seven-figure salary ought to be doing the same thing.

It makes your eyes roll to the back of your head when the company spokesperson says something like “we plan to vigorously defend ourselves against these charges” while stating on their website that the price-fixing allegations go back to 2007, all the while knowing that one of the companies involved is already cooperating with authorities in order to get lenient treatment in court.

It’s petty to artificially play with the price of chocolate. It’s not like the good stuff isn’t already pricey enough. You’re not fooling any of us by raising the price of the cheap crap, anyway. True connoisseurs know better.

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And speaking of the good stuff: two bars I found in Toronto. Neither Canadian, but you’ll love them anyway:

Valrhona El Pedregal Porcelana 64%: The name of this bar sounds impressive, pedigreed and regal. And it smells the same way even before you open it. This is an Oh, My! bar. Period. Floral, fruit, wine and cocoa are all balanced perfectly. This is the bar that makes other bars jealous.

Valrhona Ampamakia 64%: A single plantation bar that’s singular in its excellence. What it lacks in the floral and wine notes of El Pedregal, it makes up for in cocoa. Considering that both are 64%, this one is sweeter, with more bitter notes and a slight lemon ting.

 

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