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Category Archives: chocolate tastings

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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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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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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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