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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.

 

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog. Thanks for reading!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,800 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 30 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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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Can High Technology and High Purpose Make Good Chocolate?

Part of the menu at the TCHO tasting room in S...

Part of the menu at the TCHO tasting room in San Francisco, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Corby Kummer wrote a fascinating article about chocolate science in last week’s MIT Technology Review. The piece discusses how TCHO, an American chocolate maker, is working with small cacao farmers to not only produce high quality batches of beans, but to convert those beans to chocolate in on-site “sample labs” so that the farmers can actually taste their own product; something that rarely happens in the poor countries where most cacao is grown. TCHO provides the equipment to stock these labs, from roasters to computer software, so farmers can produce, taste and share notes with other growers worldwide.

 

Kummer goes on to explain that TCHO is taking the process further by revolutionizing the way they label their finished products.No more complicated percentages, varietal labeling or terroir terminology that makes a square of chocolate sound more like an expensive wine. TCHO is using “normal” words, like “bright,” “fruity” and “floral” to describe their chocolates. And they are selling them at “normal” places, like Starbucks and Whole Foods, rather than gourmet shops. It’s boutique on a big scale; it’s Third World growers getting First-World technology – and then turning it around to help each other. And of course, TCHO benefits: their chocolate is Fair Trade, organic and more important, they get exactly what they want by using these labs: chocolate their way, with instant feedback from growers who can let them know about local weather and soil conditions, and gain a better understanding of why cacao beans taste different, even when harvested from the same plantation.

 

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And speaking of combinations, I have three reviews for you: one from my Toronto stash and two local (to me) bars:

 

Alter Eco Dark 47% Organic Fair Trade: This bar is literally all over the place. Peruvian beans, processed in Switzerland and distributed by a company based in San Francisco. But the important thing: no metallic tang so common in organic bars. It’s actually quite smooth, creamy and milky.

 

And from the Castronovos: Nicaragua 72% and Batch 150 Blend 70% Criollo: Yes, they’ve done it again. I wondered if and when Denise and Jim would run out of subtlety and nuance in their bars. They haven’t with either of these. The Nicaragua has a slightly fruity undertone, but it’s the nuttiness that stands out. The label promises walnuts, and the flavor is so dense, you think you’re going to bite down on shells. The Batch 150 is a mix of Peruvian and Venezuelan beans with a more pronounced berry flavor and tang. The chocolate flavor in both bars is deep and balanced.

 

 

 

 

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We Have Chocolate; Does It Need To Be Healthier?

A chocolate bar and melted chocolate. Chocolat...

A chocolate bar and melted chocolate. Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean, which is a natural source of theobromine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent Reuters News article discussed the latest in food niche marketing: healthier chocolate.

Lest you think dark plain chocolate, with the occasional addition of nuts, dried fruit or coffee nibs is healthy enough, think again. The latest means of improving the average bar includes adding probiotics, removing fat, sugar and gluten and altering the packaging (fewer pieces in the package does lower the calorie count, it’s true).

The appetite for these so-called “alternative sweets” is growing, as consumers pay attention to their waistlines and heed the calls from their doctors to watch their sugar and fat intake, lest they fall prey to heart disease and/or diabetes, both leading causes of death around the world.

But here’s the question: how much chocolate are we eating, compared to other highly processed foods and beverages, that we need the chocolate alternatives that much? If you are consuming so much chocolate, day after day, that you are heading down the rocky road to certain death just because of it, you’re not merely eating chocolate. You’re consumed and obsessed by the idea of consuming a food product beyond all reason. The chocolate isn’t your problem. The out-of-control consumption, however, could be the issue.

I’m not saying don’t try one of the alternative bars, just to give it a fair shot. You may even like it. But considering the already known benefits of dark chocolate, there may not be a need to get all virtuous about your newfound snack. As Maria Mogelonsky of global market research firm Mintel says in the article, “…people don’t eat chocolate to feel well, they eat it to feel good…the last thing on most chocolate eaters’ minds is health.”

Isn’t it the truth?

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And speaking of chocolate bars, of course I have two more tested from the Toronto stash:

Roshen Classic Brut 78% (Ukraine): Sexiest packaging I’ve seen in a while: black and gold outside and silver inside sleeve. And this percentage is not one commonly seen in the U.S. It provides a good balance of sweet and bitter, with some wood notes.

1848 Noir Subil 64% (France): The smell is as sweet as commercial baking chocolate, but it gets better on tasting. Very fruity on the opening notes, and mellows out after that. Good cacao flavor, with a hint of lemon.

 

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China Wants Our Chocolate?

If you’ve been paying attention to the business news in any publication, blog or newscast, you know that in terms of consumerism, China is big. And China is getting bigger. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there are now over one million millionaires, and they like the good life. They play golf, maintain multiple bank accounts, buy electronics and fine jewelry and travel internationally. Oh, and they are interested in chocolate. Not ravenously, obsessively interested just yet. But it’s coming. The signs are there, including the World Chocolate Wonderland in Shanghai, opened in 2011, where everything from Ming-era vases to the Qin Shi Huang Terra Cotta Army is crafted in chocolate,

Lawrence Allen, a business leader, author and former executive with both Hershey and Nestlé, wrote a fascinating book on chocolate and the Chinese; specifically, the almost limitless market offered in this vast country versus how to market a product so loved in so much of the rest of the world to a population virtually unaware of its existence until the mid 1990s. The book, Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds and Wallets of China’s Consumers (AMACOM, 2009) is not merely how the “Big Five” confectioners brought their products to Chinese consumers, who are certainly an eager and interested population. It’s about formulating new products to cater to their specific tastes, managing the minutiae of government regulations, building and staffing new factories, distribution strategies, pricing and ultimately learning (or not) that in order to manage expectations in such a huge new market, the old strategies were often of little or no use. It was not simply a matter of throwing a big-money, mass marketing campaign out there, hoping it would stick with consumers. China is not just big, it’s changing very fast, as Allen reminds us:

Despite China’s radical transformation over the past three decades, it is still a work in progress. In the last few decades there has been a historic mass economic migration in terms of consumer power that has made hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers physically, culturally, and financially accessible to multinational companies. As China’s distribution infrastructure and quality retail environments continue to penetrate ever deeper into the country, with each new air-conditioned supermarket that opens, tens of thousands of people will suddenly have access to chocolate for the first time. As this process continues, even if 20 million of China’s near billion inaccessible consumers emerge each year to become accessible consumers, it will take another half-century for all of China’s citizens to make this passage.”

If you want to find out more about where chocolate is (literally) going next, Allen’s book charts that path. He keeps the technical and economic jargon simple and tells the story from an insider’s view, with an eye towards keeping the reader who loves all things either chocolate or Chinese interested.

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And speaking of where chocolate has been: two more from my Canadian stash:

72% Rogers Darker Chocolate: “Darker” meaning darker than some of the other bars in their line. This is pure Canadian kitsch, from the raised maple leaf on alternating squares to the fact that it’s made in Canada. It’s a very sweet bar (sugar is the second ingredient) with good snap  and a somewhat acidic finish. It’s not life-changing, but it is a respectable bar.

Dolfin 70%: This bar from Belgium isn’t just contained in the usual rip-open plastic. It’s encased in a classy envelope-style plastic wrap as well. Presentation means everything and takes nothing away from this slightly bitter beauty, which hits all the right notes of plum, citrus and earth.

 

 

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Toronto Travel: Record-Breaking Twenty Bars!

Chocolate on top of chocolate: taking a hot cocoa break at Soma Chocolatier, Toronto.

Chocolate on top of chocolate: taking a hot cocoa break at Soma Chocolatier, Toronto.

And you thought starting this blog with 19 chocolate bars from New York City was a little absurd. I brought home 20 bars from Toronto.

Talk about leaving no bean behind.

We did a lot of walking in our week away. Between the poutine, the peameal bacon (neither of which I was overly fond of), the pastries (which were excellent, thanks to the many small French bakeries) and the food of a dozen ethnic neighborhoods, we had no choice. Toronto boasts a considerable immigrant population, with more than half its residents born outside of Canada, and 20 percent of all of Canada’s immigrants residing here. Over 140 different languages are spoken in Toronto, and the city’s varied cuisines reflect the newcomers’ tastes. Luckily for the chocophile, this means never having trouble finding a new or favorite dessert, bar or beverage. I found new-to-me brands in upscale markets, in grocery and drug stores and in specialty shops such as bookstores and the outrageous Soma Chocolatier, a spot that came highly recommended, and turned out to be a high point of the trip. I’ll be reviewing them over the next few months, starting with two bars:

Valrhona Abinao Puissant & Tannique ((Powerful and Tannic) 85%: The box is dark. The wrapper inside the box is dark. The second you open the box, you smell the darkness. Powerful, indeed. And you are drawn to this bar, done as well as everything Valrhona does. It’s rich, strong, not as bitter as you would think 85% would be. Fruity and woody with a perfect balance of cacao and sugar.

Camino Fair Trade Organic 55%: This ought to be better, given that it’s from Switzerland and despite the fact that it’s organic. It’s got a nice, chewy texture, but the smell and the taste are just plain “off.” The odor and flavor are reminiscent of raw citrus and metal; that classic conundrum I’ve run into so often, even with the well-known organic/fair trade bars. The idea is good but the execution, not so much.

 

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Castronovo Chocolate: Round 2

DSCN0902They are closing in on the May 1 opening date for the Stuart store, but Denise and Jim Castronovo still found time to introduce me to two more chocolates in their line: the 71% Criollo Cacao Peru, which I admit I’ve had stashed in the chocolate fridge, saving for the right tasting time, and their latest creation, the 72% Wild Amazon Cacao from Venezuela. When I stopped at their booth at the Palm Beach Gardens greenmarket last week to pick up the Venezuelan, I had the opportunity to talk the ears off of two very nice ladies who were looking over the Castronovo’s bars, trying to decide if they were worth a try.

I told them about my previous experiences with organic chocolate and explained why it was important to support a local artisan making quality product. They did buy, hopefully because they wanted to and not to make me shut up. No doubt they thought I was a company “plant” disguised as an ordinary citizen who just happened to wander into the market.

No shill here; just a happy consumer who’s pleased to find local organic chocolate that tastes like no other organic chocolate out there. You can find out more about the company at https://www.facebook.com/CastronovoChocolate.

As for the two new bars:

  • The Venezuela bar is sweet on the nose, but bitter on the bite. It’s got a nice snap, good shine and the cacao flavor is very pure, with a classic bittersweet “tang” on the end. You can easily enjoy the entire 1.25 ounce bar.
    The Peru bar has less tang, more mildness and a mouthful of fruit flavor, with strawberries very pronounced; so much so, you’re almost looking for seeds between your teeth. But no dental floss needed here. This is a great way to enjoy the best of both worlds.

 

 

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