Last-minute Chocolate

You’ve got four days to get this right. Monday is Christmas, and the best gift you can give your favorite chocoholic is not that cheaply-wrapped, chemical-packed, commercially-produced drugstore special you’re about to grab off the shelf between the cereal boxes and incontinence products.

There’s time to do this right. Specialty grocery stores and markets carry the good stuff at this time of year. It’s a little late for shipping, unless you want to pay half a paycheck in shipping costs. But here are some gift ideas you can still use:

A gift certificate to Worldwide Chocolate:  Not sure what they want, or how much? Get the gift that lets your recipient decide. Worldwide ships everywhere and has chocolate from every region, from bars to baking blocks, from cocoa nibs to candies, mints, squares and sampler packs. They offer vegan, gluten-free and organic products, too.

Homemade hot chocolate mix: A nice Mason jar filled with 3 1/2 cups sugar, 2 1/4 cups high-quality cocoa powder and 1 Tbsp. salt. Mix thoroughly, cover and tie with a festive ribbon. Add two mugs and instructions to use two tablespoons of mix to one cup of milk.

Look around the nicer grocery and ethnic stores. Most of the year, the high-end chocolate manufacturers aren’t as easy to find. During the holidays, you’ll find Chuao, Valrhona, Vosges, Cote d’Or, Lake Champlain and Michel Cluizel. Buy a variety of bars in different cacao percentages or with a variety of fillings, fan them out in a gift basket (the better to see the artistic labels), cover with clear wrap and a silver-flecked brown bow.


Speaking of gifts, here’s my review of two recent tastings:

Caffarel Firenze Milk Chocolate: I’d never found this Italian beauty in a local store before (hence my suggestion above to check your local groceries around the holidays). This one is milky-smooth with good vanilla undertones and not overwhelming sweetness, even at 41%. It’s a grown-up’s milk chocolate bar.

Castronovo Nicalizo Nicaragua 70% (Silver Award Winner 2017, International Chocolate Awards; Silver Award Winner 2017 Academy of Chocolate): This is 28 squares of gold-wrapped greatness, proudly wearing those two awards on the white-and-purple outside package. Who got the gold awards? Who cares! This Florida native deserves raves the moment you open it. You don’t need more than a square to appreciate the fruit and toast notes; strong but balanced. Keep every piece for yourself.


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Boston is a (cacao) bean kind of town

After far too long away from writing this blog, I am back. Buying, tasting and reviewing, but most of all, enjoying the chocolate the world offers.

A recent trip to Boston (planned and for the fun of it) resulted in the purchase of about a dozen bars, most of them found in several fine gourmet shops around the Harvard University campus. The weather was cold and rainy most of the time,  but nothing dampens what visitors expect from this city – history, food, culture and  people who are proud to be from here. The city is big, and seeing it all means breaking it into sections and wandering a section at a time. Plan to walk a lot, and don’t hesitate to use the city’s public transit. Buy a weekly unlimited pass and go everywhere without ever pulling out your wallet again. Do the touristy things, like the Tea Party ships, Faneuil Hall, Harborwalk and Fenway Park, but go off the beaten path, too. Wander the old stone streets of the North End, where family owned shops are still the norm. Head out to Dorchester’s Polish Triangle for old-fashioned delis and working-class vibe or tour the Harvard and MIT campuses and find the small student pubs, bars and bookstores.

For a nearly 400-year-old city (founded in 1630), Boston still has a lot of surprises. And the chocolate I found is one of them. Here are two bars I found in a shop called Cardullo’s:

Dolfin 88% (Belgium): Heavily wrapped with an outer plastic pouch enclosing a sealed inner package, the bar was difficult to get to, but worth the work. From the second I opened the package, the woody, earthy scent emanated forth. The first and last taste were very strong on the wood and smoke, but middle notes were roasty with coffee tones. A very dark bar in every sense of the word.

Chocolat Bonnat Porcelana 75% (France): In contrast, this Venezuelan-sourced bar with nothing but buttery smooth, with a little trace of vanilla.  You could eat a lot of this bar without noticing the decrease, unlike the Dolfin.


Cacao instead of coca?

It doesn’t sound right, given what I know about illegal drugs and drug addiction in general.

But apparently, it’s true. Farmers in regions infamous for producing coca leaves, the base product of cocaine, are turning away from this type of farming and growing cacao trees instead. It’s a great thing for chocolate lovers, but cocaine should be a more lucrative crop. Why are growers dumping cocaine and turning to cocoa beans?

The bloodshed and violence involved in coca production is well-known and widespread, but over the years, it has escalated to the point where innocent family members have been killed or sent to prison, and farm land confiscated. In Colombia alone, there have been almost half a million drug-related homicides and 81,000 hectares of land lost to coca production since 1990.

The loss of cocoa production in other countries once well-known for their beans. Ghana and the Ivory Coast, once prolific cocoa producers, have seen their crops reduced due to the effects of El Niño, aging trees and a diminished population of farmers.

With the loss of cocoa beans from familiar countries, buyers are looking for new sources, and they are finding them in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. While the drug war will likely never fully be won by the good guys, the fact that farmers are taking a stand and converting their land, investing the time and plantings and then waiting up to five years for their first cocoa harvest (coca leaves, on the other hand, could be harvested up to three times a year from a single planting) shows not only goodwill, but good sense when it comes to investing in a sweeter and safer future for everyone.


A few bars I found recently:

Sucre Candied Violet Bar – Made by a Nigerian-born chocolate maker who lives in Louisiana, it’s tropical in its fruit flavor, and the candied violets a crunchy bit of fun. It’s a nice bar to break up and have with coffee as a dessert.

Chocomize – New York-based company that lets you create and order your own bars online, but I found a few varieties locally. The one I tried had unsalted pecans, hazelnuts and almonds. The chocolate itself is on the sweet, mild, milk chocolate end of the spectrum. The whole nuts were a novelty you don’t often find in even the better bars.

Domori Arriba Ecuador 70% – The biggest problem with this little .88-ounce bar is that there just isn’t enough of it. From the beautiful box and foil wrapper to the buttery, vanilla flavor of the dark bar, this is just a class chocolate act.



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Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Uncategorized


Small shop goes to the ICAs and brings home the gold

At the 2015 International Chocolate Awards Americas competition:

Two thousand entries.

Over 65 judges.

Four days of trying, tasting, selecting and deciding.

And it came down to three major awards for Stuart’s Castronovo Chocolate:

  • A gold and silver award in a single category (Micro-batch – plain/origin milk chocolate bars; the gold for their Columbia, Sierra Nevada Dark Milk 63% and the silver for their Dominican Republic Dark Milk 50%).
  • An overall gold award in the specialty category for their Rare Cacao Collection (Columbia, Sierra Nevada Dark Milk 63%).

Looking over the extensive list of gold, silver and bronze award winners, it’s obvious that Castronovo Chocolate is in an illustrious league with the world’s best: the winners’ list includes names like Soma (Canada), El Rey (Venezuela), Pacari (Ecuador), and many U.S. micro-batch chocolate makers, such as Amano, Rogue, TCHO, Chuao, Dick Taylor and Dandelion. It’s a big deal to get this far, and it’s the constant attention to the literally small details that bring a chocolate maker to the ICA: making 100-pound batches, using single-origin beans that are sorted by hand, a bean at a time, roasted in small amounts and crafted into bars and confections that are sold in their shop, online and in select stores in the area. And doing that every day, experimenting with different beans, different roasts, different flavor combinations and the hard part: painstakingly convincing the three-bars-for-a-buck crowd that your artisan product is not just better-tasting, it’s better quality and better for you. It’s going to greenmarkets, coffee bars, specialty markets and gourmet grocers and getting your product out there.

This achievement isn’t something done by the dilettante or the part-time candy hobbyist. To get to this prize-winning level, you have to live with and work at this far more than full-time. You have to love it, and want everyone you come in contact with to love it, too.

Oh, and there’s one more stop on the awards trail: the International Chocolate Awards’ World Finals, coming up in October and taking place in London. We’ll be watching.

Castronovo Chocolate, 555 Colorado Ave., Stuart, FL. Phone (561) 512-7236 . Hours: Mon-Sat 2:00 pm-8:00 pm.


Two bars from my stash, both from Italy, both from my Chicago trip:

La Baretta Di Golosi di Salute Luca Montersino 72%: It certainly deserves a salute! Creamy, buttery and sharp with notes of raisins and berries.It’s a lot of name for a chocolate bar, but worth the purchase.

Domori Morogoro-Tanzania 70%: Four squares of elegant, slightly smoky, roasty goodness. Neither sweet nor bitter, but somewhere in between. The kind of chocolate I want after a large meal.

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Posted by on August 4, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Trouble brewing in British chocolate

Two recent announcements from the confectionery business, one from each side of the Atlantic, don’t represent any kind of surprise as much as they invoke a laugh or two.

The first is that the formula for the insanely popular Cadbury Creme Egg will change…sort of. The eggs will still use Cadbury chocolate, but not the dairy milk chocolate that has been part of the formula since their “hatching” in 1971. Mondelez International, a spinoff company of Kraft Foods (the parent company of Cadbury) announced this change last month, along with the tidbit that the number of Creme Eggs sold in the . multipak will decrease from six to five, while the price remains the same. The changes only affect Creme Eggs sold in the United Kingdom; U.S. consumers will see no change.

The other change will affect U.S. candy consumers, at least those who love their British sweets. The Hershey Co. has reached a settlement with Let’s Buy British, a top importer of British products, to stop importing British candy bars into the U.S. Hershey claims the reason for this is that too many of the British products looks similar to American products, which constitutes a patent infringement and also confuses Americans as to which product is which.  The owner of a New York City tea shop which carries a number of British imports had this to say on their Facebook page:

“May we politely suggest that if you think Toffee Crisps look like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups your eyesight is a much bigger problem than your chocolate bar confusion.

The change to the Cadbury Creme Egg hits at the heart of tradition. Love them or loathe them, almost 300 million of them are sold between the U.S. and the U.K alone at Easter time. Why anyone would mess with wild success in the interest of making (or saving) a little more money (Kraft Foods’ net income in 2013 was $2.7 billion) seems completely unreasonable, yet totally expected in this money-driven, quality-be-damned-and-compromised world.

And as for The Hershey Co. thinking Americans would be misled and confused by packaging; well, they could be right. We might be misled into realizing that the good stuff is what’s coming across the pond after all, not the watered-down, sub-par pseudo-chocolate they keep cranking out. So if you want to make your voice heard, just #BoycottHershey on social media. Or sign the petition.

And enjoy some of the good stuff I’ve had lately:

Soma 69% Peruvian: I stashed this one from my Canada trip, and even after long storage, it was still good. A compote of plums, raisins and berries makes this, along with all the other Soma bars, worth the ticket to Toronto. O Canada, you should be proud of this company.

Vanini 86%: Made in Italy from Amazonian beans, the inner wrapper has a long and detailed history of the cacao’s origins and uses. And speaking of uses, this is a good one. This cacao dates its earliest use to the Mayo Chinchipe culture, around 3,500 B.C. It’s a rich, dark, woody bar with shades of tobacco.

Pergale 72%: Sounds Italian, but it’s from Lithuania. It’s a fun bar; soft and chewy, with a flavor of berries and orange. It’s a little too sweet to consume in any quantity, but nice when you need a quick fix.








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Ebola and chocolate: a recipe for disaster?

Choice items from a local greenmarket include Castronovo Chocolate's latest bars

Choice items from a local greenmarket include Castronovo Chocolate’s latest bars

As if there weren’t already enough threats to the world’s chocolate supply, there could be one more: the Ebola virus.

Politico published an article last week detailing how the disease could affect the upcoming harvest. With borders shutting down between those African nations that have yet to experience an outbreak, and those with a massive problem, workers will not be able to move from place to place to harvest beans. Ghana and Ivory Coast, two of the world’s top cacao-producing nations, get their workers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – three nations experiencing the worst of the Ebola crisis. While the cacao beans mean money, Ebola means death, and stopping the spread of the disease has meant taking the drastic measure of closing national borders.

What does this mean to the chocolate-consuming public? Higher prices, of course. But the industry is responding with monetary donations from members of the World Cocoa Foundation to get medical aid to those countries fighting to stop the spread of Ebola. Chocolate makers with processing plants in Africa are also training their workers on how to avoid getting sick in the first place, and hoping that an educated workforce will be a healthy workforce.

But this isn’t just about chocolate. The fear, superstition and lack of sanitation that is helping to spread Ebola is also fueling the failure of other food crops as well. A sick population cannot farm anything, let alone cacao beans. That could mean starvation on top of disease. And that could make the chocolate shortage seem minor by comparison.


A few to review:

Castronovo Chocolate, a bronze medal winner at the International Chocolate Awards this weekend, has two new bars: Nicaragua Dark Milk with Fleur de Sel (60% Trinitario Cacao) and a White Chocolate with Lemon Oil and Lemon Sea Salt. The Dark Milk tastes darker than 60%, but not in a bitter way. The salt tone is prominent, but neither overwhelming nor gritty. I admit to a prejudice against white chocolate on principle, but theirs is a pleasant surprise. There’s not much sweetness, and more of a tangy lemon peel effect to the bar. The salt is much farther in the background in this bar, and the overall taste is like a small shot of lemon meringue pie without the goopy, sticky mess.

Varlhona Jivara 40%: buttery, milky and smooth, this is yet another reason why this manufacturer’s product should be on everyone’s taste test list.

Mast Brothers 73% Dark Chocolate with Almonds: A thin bar with big, chunky almonds. Woodsy and crunchy with a sharp citrus aftertaste.

Bodrato Dark 64%: The first of the two dozen bars I purchased on a recent trip to Chicago. It’s a show-off, packaged in clear wrapping. On the sweet side, with plum and raisin overtones. Very good eating, with good snap and shine.


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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.


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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