Archive for October, 2007

Valrhona 2002 Chuao Chocolate Bar

If there is one go-to chocolate bar in our entire store, it is the Valrhona 2002 Chuao dark chocolate bar.

Valrhona 2002 Chuao Chocolate BarLooking for something delicate? Try Valrhona’s Chuao Bar from 2002. Looking for something with perfect, silky body? Try Valrhona’s 2002 cru bar from the Chuao valley in Venezuela. In the mood for understated yet superb balance of flavors? Why not the I suggest the 2002 Chuao Chocolate Bar by Valrhona? Looking for the perfect, brilliant mirror, crisp snap, lovely fragrance? Try Valrhona 2002 Chuao Chocolate Bar. Does eating one of the best freaking chocolate bars on the face of the earth strike your fancy? Valrhona 2002 Chuao cru chocolate bar.

Just want a dark chocolate bar that is super freaking yummy? Valrhona 2002 Chuao chocolate bar.

So, imagine my reaction to reading Bill Buford‘s encomium to Frederick Schilling, founder of Dagoba Organic Chocolate, printed in this week’s New Yorker.

Buford writes: “Some bars have a harvest year. I got one from an Internet supplier, a 2002, made from ChuaoValley beans in Venezuela, three years past its sell-by date. Suspecting a gimmick, I ate it to confirm its staleness. I was surprised. It seemed fresher than the other bars I’d bought.”

“Seemed fresher?” That’s it? Buford bites into a piece of chocolate making history, and his comment is, “seemed fresher?” What the hell…

I love Buford as much as the next guy, but his economy of words here comes at the expense of his readers. One wonders if Buford, eating a seven course meal at Le Bernardin, summarizes the experience with, “Seemed Eric Ripert used fish.”

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Caffe Acapella Coffee Bars

The French Business ManQuestion: What looks like a chocolate bar, has the same mouthfeel as a chocolate bar, and satisfies many of the same senses as a chocolate bar, but is not a chocolate bar?

Answer: A coffee bar.

Caffe Acapella has created a bar replacing chocolate solids with coffee solids. Or to be precise, they blend cocoa butter coffee mass to create a chocolate/coffee bar. Caffe Acapella makes a Caffe Acapella espresso bar called the Espresso Serenade (just plain espresso blend (of three arabica beans) and a Caffe Acapella cappuccino bar called the Cappuccino Connoisseur. I met the folks at Caffe Acapella in New York a few months ago. They had the zealous rabid glow of belief in what they were doing that is agreeable in anyone working in food.

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Askinosie Chocolate Kicks Askinosie

It isn’t every day that a new, serious, bad boy chocolate maker comes on the scene. But one hath arrived: Askinosie chocolate.

“Bad boy?” you say. “What kind of street creds does this Askinosie Chocolate company have, that you confer the rebel-serious badboy status? Askinosie… Any name that is so obscure that it can, in this day and age, still procure its own, unadulterated internet URL is surely just some couch-potato hobbyist toying with co-op cacao beans in a toaster oven.”

Howler MonkeyWell, quite simply, such is not the case. Shawn Askinosie had it all: Money (criminal defense lawyer), Religion (Christian). Enabled by money from the former and obeisance to the latter, he has ventured into that most dark, sensual, and alien land: chocolate. For a man whoKirtland’s Warbler “loved the law since I can remember,” Shawn Askinosie is also manifestly attentive to the call of nature at its most unfathomable, at its most flagrantly indifferent to the constraints of human convention. Askinosie chocolate sings like the savagely furred bellow monkey. Askinosie chocolate also sings like a schoolgirl, like a castrati, like the uber-rare Kirtland’s warbler, and like the family cicada.

Askinosie Soconusco 75% Chocolate bar (85g/3 oz)Askonosie Chocolate’s Soconusco 75% dark chocolate bar is, as far as I know, the first single origin dark chocolate bar to treat Mexican chocolate seriously. This is an excellent dark chocolate in the French tradition. The flavors are a crazy rich combination of earthiness and dried fruits. In fact, why parse the tastes for you, when the bar is freely available. (We sell it online at The Meadow (atthemeadow.com), though Askinosie has also taken the annoying step (why must we square off against The Maker?) of selling it online themselves).

I will share the unfettered critiques of two of my most esteemed critics.

On Askinosie Chocolate the seven year old inveighs. “Dark, a little bit bitter. I think it tastes a little bit like seaweed. Except that it is a little bit stronger. Of the texture, he says, “it kind of has a crunch like ripe coconut.”The four year old, mouth contorted by outlandish phonics: “Askinosie tastes like every kind of treat in the whole wide word.” Later, after a second tablet, he adds, “I was sucking on it for a really, really long time, and it tasted kind of like an ice cream cone.”

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Dinner with Michael Recchiuti

Okhotnichya VodkaYes, Mike and I just hung out for the evening, exchanging witty observations about the trade. Tucked in a mellowly lit booth at the Heathman Hotel’s Tea Court, we sipped a vodka martini made with Okhotnichya — an old Soviet-era “hunter’s vodka” — that Mike had crafted himself from the mucilage of cacao pods and various findings at the Portland Farmer Market earlier that day ,and gifted to the bar keep in a beaker hand cut from a thrift store vase. Philippe Boulot, Executive Chef of the Heathman, Chocolate Gourmandiseplopped down in the booth beside us from time to time, soliciting our opinions of various amuses gueules involving foie gras, chocolate, fleur de sel de l’Ile de Noirmoutier, and grape must. We were later graced by the presence of Boulot’s lovely and talented pastry chef wife Susan Boulot, bearing miniature plates of her legendary Chocolate Gourmandise produced from the aquatic criollo beans she harvested on a scuba expedition Flowers of Theobroma cacaoto the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan beneath the azure waves of lake Texcoco. The bouquet of flowers plucked by Florist/Sommelier/Wife Jennifer Turner Bitterman from our own, private, greenhouse-coddled cacao tree filled the room with its intoxicating aroma, attracting various non-native lepidopterous insects that glowed and chattered about our heads.

Actually, none of this happened.

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Republica Del Cacao: Los Rios 75% Dark Chocolate Bar

Republica Del Cacao Los Rios 75% Educador Dark Chocolate Bar - Arriba Nacional cacao Strolling the isles of the supermarket, what you do NOT find is unadorned nuance. One finds adornment meant to give the impression of nuance, but not nuance itself. Wine, and some of the more heavy duty cheese counters, are notable exceptions. But for sake of making grand, sweeping statements because they sound important and dramatic:

Nuance is not really on speaking terms with consumer culture.

It is the thing, THAT thing, whatever that thing is, that we want. The name of it suffices to give us the pleasure we experience: Champagne, BMW, Free Range–all terms we are fond of, but which we can lose, a sort of not seeing the forest for the trees in inverse.

So why get all philosophical when I really just want to write a note about a great chocolate bar?

Because I am BLOWN AWAY.

Republica del Cacoa’s Los Rios 75% dark chocolateAt a staff meeting yesterday we opened up a bar of one of the newest entries to the high end single origin dark chocolate bar makers: the Los Ríos 75% cacoa dark chocolate bar by República del Cacao. This proved to be quite a distraction from the rest of the things we were hoping to cover in the meeting, and launched us on five discussions at once, many of them critical of our own inclination toward summarizing things in grand sweeping gestures.

Ecuador’s Rivers`The Los Ríos chocolate bar is packed with a rambunctious family of baking spices, from cinnamon to nutmeg to allspice to ginger. Sliding the wax-paper wrapped bar from its box, you are accosted with all the thankful aroma of a pumpkin pie bake-off. Behind that, there is some fruit–maybe pear–though that flavor might be the result of associations drawn from the chocolate bar’s distinctly pear-like texture.

We talk about the flavor of an Ecuador chocolate all the time, about the nature of the Nacional Arriba cacao as manifest in such illustrious chocolate bars as the lovely Guittard Quevedo 65% Cacao bittersweet chocolate bar, the bright and well-executed Guaranda 71% single origin dark chocolate bar by Chocovic, and the super good Domori Arriba 70%. Doubtless, each of these bars is different (now is not the time to get into it, but maybe soon?), but how much of this difference derives from the cocoa maker and how much from the actual beans themselves? Is there a difference in the beans themselves? We can only speculate and opine.

But get this:

Republica del Cacao makes THREE (3) Ecuadorian Arriba Nacional dark chocolate bars, count them, three, tres, trois, chocolate bars from three different provinces in Ecuador’s vast and bountiful chocolate producing regions:

  1. The Republica del Cacao Los Ríos Province 75% bar;
  2. The Republica del Cacao El Oro Province 67% Dar Chocolate bar (very earthy, lightly spiced, silky, tannic, woodsy), and;
  3. The Republica del Cacao Manabi Province 75% Dark Chocolate bar (fruit! almonds, more spice, milder and less complex than the others),

The bold differences and glimmering similarities between the three chocolate bars by Republica del Cacao makes for an extraordinary journey through the beautiful, and beautifully varied climes of Ecuador. On its own, the Los Ríos is a complex and potent (if slightly crazy) chocolate bar suitable for snacking on the go, for use in a nice calming cup of drinking chocolate, or for heavy partying.

The Vila Gracina Odyssey: Michel Cluizel Chocolate


Edging my rental car through Barcelona’s rush hour traffic at eight in the morning, a light mist is falling, my window is down, and the roaring freeway air carries the distinctly European aroma of diesel exhaust blended with two-stroke exhaust, cigarette smoke, and urine.After the 16 hours of travel it took me to get here from Portland, the snug, stylish seat of the Leon 2.0 TDI car hurts my rear, which has already suffered enough abuse after successive transcontinental and transatlantic flights.I remember the bar of Michel Cluizel chocolate the bag beside me.

I’ve not yet eaten the Vila Gracinda chocolate, which Michel Cluizel recently substituted in for the Tamarina bar as its representative for the company’s São Tomé origin bar.Chocolate’s intrigue for me is bound up in its power to surprise, and in the way it enlists the sensualist, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet in us to taste and make sense of it.The importance of a chocolate bar is not in its flavor, but in the experience it evokes in us.A good chocolate bar is travel, sex, and mescaline in a foil wrapper; it imparts exotic knowledge, alerts our bodies, and exalts the mind.Through our experience of chocolate we trace the lineage of our private and collective histories.

Vila GracindaTired, suddenly strangely lonely, but with the metallic tingle of adrenaline from the abnormally rough 767 landing just half an hour ago, I pull Michel Cluizel’s Vila Gracinda from its black box, peel back the foil, and snap off a piece.The gray sky above fades. The smell of fennel pollen and alkaline rock, the palm of one hand pressed hard into the vanilla-flaked bark as I climb along the vast trunk of a fallen oak. Eight years old, I leapt toward the small gray lizard with a blinding flash ofBluebelly Lizard optimism; the beasts, warmed by the early afternoon sun, were fast, like self-firing bullets invented by some once-famous but now long-forgotten Chinese firework master, a reptile blend of charcoal, sulfur, and salt peter.Dispersed among the toppled wreckage of ancient oak trees, these dragons in miniature were the proud sentries of the valley oak savannah where I conducted reconnaissance virtually every day of my childhood.

The lizards and I shared an uneasy relationship.We probably desired a similar notion of peace, or at least détente–but at the time their reptilian cortex and my boyish fixations were unable to merge sufficiently to establish the proper metaphysical framework for advancing such a union.As the years passed, I became skillful at hunting these reptilian projectiles–which is to say that I did in fact occasionally catch them, as I did this day.Under my hand, the animal struggled madly, but once lifted in my palm, it calmed, cocking its head, and looked at me with its eagle eyes.

The pursuit of lizards was the chief solace I found in the cruel span demarcated on one side by the day I realized (at the tender age two) of my mother’s breast was now irretrievable reserved for my baby sister, and on the other by the day my alert fingers discovered the intriguing parts of the first, miraculous female who agreed to be my girlfriend.

I recall my sister’s ascension with perfect clarity: on vacation, our wood-paneled station wagon trundling through the desert toPalm Springs, my little legs dangling from the vinyl bench seat, unable to reach the floor, an Oreo dissolving on my tongue.My father had just bought me–probably at a truck stop–a fabulously long armed, white furred stuffed monkey whose arms I was wrapping in knots around the head of my baby sister, who was sitting beside me.This blissful moment tormenting my sister with monkey love was interrupted when my mother reached back and lifted her to the front seat.My brother, who was younger than me by a year and older than my sister by as much, said he wanted to go up front, too.My mom had replied, “Mommy is for baby now.”The scales fell from my eyes.Baby sister snuggled to my mother’s bosom, little brother rebuffed and stunned with a paste of Oreo cookie crumbs around his trembling mouth, myself, forgotten.The clammy lagoon of time yawned open, and into it I plunged, left to struggle in murk until my little legs grew long enough to reach bottom.

I was allowed at a blessedly early age to set out alone with my dog, patrolling the fields that ranged from the back yard garden to swaths of coastal sage scrub and ceanothus chaparral.In the purple dusk coyotes would flicker like shadows, killing cottontails.In the morning bobcats would perch on rocky outcroppings, keeping a weather eye out for the puma that occasionally came down in search of water—a massive animal that had once sized me up from a distance of no more than 30 feet.I was wild then, for moments.

Warm air filled with mustard flower and the fragrance of thirty species of drying savanna grass, moist cool air emulsified with chanterelle spores, loam, and wet rocks: these were the climates in which my animal senses waged their long, unsuccessful insurrection against the formidable contours of logic, psychology, and even pathology which, even at the tender years of my life, gripped me.Given their way, the mountains would have had me emerge a sage or a prophet, but I had issues.Tant pis.

Still, the universe of arid silence, the tactile cappuccino laying of thermals rising from the sea, the stern hues of avocado and olive, the yeasty flavor of a stem of helicopter grass–this was the brew on which my senses were honed.The warm scale of my lizard captive, his iridescent blue belly, the surprisingly strong musk–all ineluctable pleasures of predatory boyhood.Had his not smelled so bad, I might have tried to eat him: his blood driving me to madness, I would have gone feral, fashioned myself an elaborate headdress of mud, sycamore leaf, and peacock feather, the wolf-boy ofSanta Barbara.Biology had other ideas.The transformation of my ascetic sensibilities into the more fecund desire to dally in drugs, sex, and food took place with the discovery of the female.

The unexpected import of these beings was revealed to me a few weeks after I met a girl who, dark eyes and pale skinned, beautiful as stained glass, was playing Space Invaders at the video arcade not far from my house.I cannot remember a single word we ever spoke to one another, but I remember her body like a terse poem.Her oblivious parents would feed me chili dogs whenever we emerged from the bedroom.My sense of those days consists principally of her female taste and the smell of Hormel wafting in from the kitchen.We spent a year together before I grew arrogant, and ended it in the delusional belief that my lonely lizard-hunting years were behind me, and that I was now free.

The brake lights refracted in pellets of moisture on the windshield go abruptly silver.The elaborate camphor of licorice and fermenting fruits and baking spice dissipated by the Vila Gracinda chocolate bar dissolve past decades into the present.Traffic is letting up.My sore butt returned to me, suggesting some walking, and when I get out of the car at the next rest stop, the arid landscape ofCatalonia carries the smell of sagebrush and almond blossoms.