Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The first experience I had with fair trade chocolate as Equal Exchange exactly five years ago. I was in love with their ethics and their product. Fair Trade as a concept means that everyone in the chain to create a product for sale gets a fair payment. It also means that working conditions are safe and that child labor or slaves are not engaged.
The bars are now much easier to find and the breadth of the program and the product line has expanded over the years. I was sent this assortment of their darkest bars: Ecuador 65%, Very Dark 71% and Panama 80%. First of all, they’ve redesigned their packaging to great effect. The wrappers are simple and compelling and distinctive in the now cluttered world of chocolate bars. The focus is on the product and the producers, the inside of the wrapper details Equal Exchange’s programs.
Each bar is 3.5 ounces and is certified organic and Kosher. Unlike some Fair Trade bars, all of the ingredients in Equal Exchange’s dark bars are Fair Trade content.
The Organic & fairly traded Dark chocolate from Ecuador (the bar on the top of the pile) is 65% cacao content. The bar looks crisp and perfect, right down to the snap when I broke it in half. Each bar is sealed inside an opaque plastic sleeve to keep it fresh.
This bar did have a crunch to it, the tempering was crisper than the other two bars. It smelled of toffee and stewed fruits. It was sweet on the tongue at first but had a lot of flavors going on immediately, a light tangy note of apricots and then some more fudgy flavors like the tasting notes predicted. It was sweet and didn’t have the puddly melt like the others but still had a very fine texture.
The Organic & fairly traded Very Dark chocolate is 71% cacao content but doesn’t list the origin beyond “Latin America.” The bar was nicely molded, shiny and with no voids or bubbles. It had a slight red cast to it.
71% has a great blend of flavor characteristics. It has a rich scent, very woodsy with coffee and cherry notes. On the tongue I was getting more green notes, like olives and asparagus plus a little hint of charcoal. It’s bitter but also has a silky melt that’s also a little sticky.
The Organic & fairly traded Extra Dark chocolate from Panama is 80% cacao content. This bar was more of a smoky brown and had less of the red color that the other two had.
This bar smells distinctly like raisins, tangy and fruity with a little wine note to it. The flavor is the same: a strong tannin base but with berry and cherry notes. It’s a little tangy but with a great soft melt on the tongue and a light dry bite. For a very dark bar this is incredibly munchable, smooth and not too bitter or chalky.
I found myself drawn to both the 80% and the 65% for wildly different reasons, they were all distinct but those two fit my desire for rich chocolate at the moment. I liked the wrappers and the plastic sleeve that held its own (I was able to put the uneaten portions back in there without making a crumbly mess or melting it by handling too much).
Equal Exchange has also made some more “candy” version of their bars such as Organic Chocolate Caramel Crunch with Sea Salt and Orange Dark Chocolate. I’ll have reviews of those soon. All of their chocolate is a pretty good value, retail for these bars is around $4.00 which is less than some of the more upscale bars but more than your standard Lindt or Ghirardelli.
They’re vegan, soy free and gluten free. They may contain traces of tree nuts, milk and peanuts.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Rain Republic makes small batch chocolate with locally sourced ingredients right in Guatemala. Naturally this means that the cocoa beans are Guatemalan, specifically they’re from Suchitepequez. In addition the other two major ingredients are also Guatemalan, the sugar (evaporated cane juice) is from Retalhuleu and the vanilla beans are from Coban. The only thing that’s not local is the soy lecithin.
I first discovered them at the Fancy Food Show in January 2010, but was intrigued when I saw their first American offering was via wine.woot.com in April.
The idea of single origin is nothing new, but the notion that the product is actually produced in the country of origin is quite appealing. (In many cases cacao farmers in very isolated areas never taste the products made from their beans.)
This triple single origin is packaged quite cleverly. The bar is sealed in a light mylar sleeve. That’s tucked into a paperboard box made of recycled content. the construction of the box makes it easy to put the uneaten chocolate back in and tuck in the tabs to protect the bar. The graphic design is bold and original, focusing on the story of the bar as well as the ingredients - a little line drawing of each item is the main focus and provide the only color.
The bar is 2 ounces and what I’ve found with a lot of these single origin bar is that’s plenty for me. Though most candy portions are about 2 ounces, 1 ounce of very dark chocolate is plenty satisfying for me. That’s probably good because one bar contains 360 calories and 76% of my saturated fat for the day.
That fat is what attracts me to the bar. While it’s 70% cacao, it’s obvious that much of that cacao content isn’t the solids, it’s the silky cocoa butter.
The bar smells smoky and dusty. There are woodsy notes, but mostly it’s like cocoa instead of chocolate. The rather dark and chalky looking exterior fooled me. I was concerned that it would be dry. It has a distinct snap and great tempering. There’s a quick melt on the tongue and it was apparent to me right away that this was smooth stuff. It’s quite silky and rather light on the sugar. There are dark burnt sugar notes (evaporated cane juice often contributes those flavors as it has more molasses in it). It’s woodsy and slightly acidic, so there’s a dry and bitter middle portion in the tasting. The silky cocoa butter covers that very well. A little hint of coffee, licorice and rosemary. But a good, robust flavor profile.
The big question now is where to get more of this! If you’re curious keep an eye on their facebook page. They also have some great photos there of the farmers and cacao trees. The price was $3 per bar on Woot, but I don’t know what the retail will be. $5 would be reasonable.
Friday, June 4, 2010
This bright yellow box holds a bar of Pierre Herme Chocolat Noir Pure Origine Sao Tome a la Fleur de Sel. I got it from my friend Ernessa, who was traveling in France and never forgets to pick me up something special. This is a special bar.
The bar is slightly smaller than the usual 100 gram (3.5 ounce) tablet. It’s 80 grams and 2.82 ounces, which in my book is two perfectly proportioned servings. Inside the box the bar is presented in a simple cellophane sleeve that’s a little oversized so putting the bar back in it is easy.
The chocolate ingredients are simple. It’s a 75% cacao bar made from single origin beans, sugar, cocoa butter, hand-harvested French sea salt, non-genetically modified soy lecithin and natural vanilla extract. The beans of Sao Tome are known for their bold and rich taste, which has echoes of charcoal, roasted nuts and coffee.
The bar has a good bit of cocoa butter in it so it has a nice melt on the tongue. The flavor is intense and just barely sweet, even before the little bits of sea salt come out to play.
The flavor is deep and woodsy with a light coffee note and scent of baked brownies. The salt give it a little pop and actually makes it seem sweeter at times. The buttery texture is a little bouncy but keeps the dry finish from going bitter.
I’ve tried a few other Sao Tome bars before and found them rather intense but lacking nuance and buttery texture. This bar is nothing like that - it’s soft and approachable and incredibly munchable for a 75% bar. If I’m ever in Paris or Tokyo, I’ll definitely sample more of the Pierre Herme chocolates (and of course the macarons they’re known for).
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Back in October the Chocolate Salon came to town, it’s a one day show devoted solely to chocolate and open to the public. It was quite small compared to some chocolate shows held around the world, but one of the best parts was visiting with Art Pollard, his team and Amano Chocolate. They make superb bars with specially selected beans. I’ve been fond of all of their bars, with the Ocumare still topping my list for plain dark chocolate.
I bought some of the other new bars that I haven’t been able to find in stores (Montanya & Jembrana Milk Chocolate) but I also got a preview at the time of the not-yet-released Amano Dos Rios 70%. The beans are from the Dominican Republic and you can read far more about the origin of this bar at Seventy Percent in this article by Martin Christy.
What I’ve found over the years with Amano chocolate and many other small batch brands is that the chocolate changes as it ages, just like cheese and wine. So I ate half of my bar pretty much right away, then wrapped it up tight and put it back in the wine fridge for a couple of months to see what would happen. It is quite startling to see what a difference that makes, but happily both tastings were very nice.
Initial Tasting: Woodsy scent, moss, green sticks and olives. Strong Earl Grey tea flavors, not just the bergamot but also the black tea leaves. Quite acidic and dry yet a smooth and creamy melt overall. Lingering notes of bergamot and a return of the olives and some peppery floral whiffs of carnations.
Later Tasting: The scent is of green olives and lilacs, a little soapy. Strange and compelling - very green, fresh and grassy with a strong astringent quality. As it melts the flavors continue to release including more olives and some black tea/mushroom/cherry notes and mid-tone burnt note like coffee left on the burner a little too long. The aftertaste though is quite unusual as the bergamot emerges and kind of morphs into a fresh orange blossom note towards the end.
The texture was just a little bit chalkier than I’d prefer (but on the scale of chalky things, this was much less so than most other bars that I’d use that word to describe), however I’m used to the super-smooth quality of their Ocumare. But this bar is just too fascinating to not keep eating. If you’ve ever thought that all chocolate was the same, this is a bar to try, because it’s the best demonstration I’ve ever tasted of how varied the flavors within cocoa beans can be. Remember, these aren’t flavors added to the beans, it’s just the inherent flavors within this particular variety, how they were fermented and the way that the Amano team roasted & conched them.
It might be an interesting gift idea for a food-fascinated person in your life - a variety of Amano bars (and maybe a nice bottle of wine or whiskey).
Thursday, July 2, 2009
The trend for small batch chocolate with single origin beans is well established now. The newest twist is the creation of milk chocolate. While I’ve found myself particularly attracted to Ocumare sourced beans no matter who makes the bar, I was curious how it would rank once Amano made their Ocumare Handcrafted Milk Chocolate.
Dark chocolate has fewer ingredients which means it’s more about the beans, but with milk chocolate there that whole milk factor to take into account - is it fatty, is it tangy, is it malty?
The ingredients here show that the Ocumare Milk is 30% minimum cacao content. The list goes like this: cocoa beans, pure cane sugar, cocoa butter, whole milk powder and whole vanilla beans.
The milk is pretty low on the list and looking at the bar it’s pretty easy to see that, it’s a rather dark bar, darker looking than some actual dark chocolates.
The scent is woodsy, a bit tangy with a whiff of malt and grasses.
The snap is bright and distinct, but the bite is soft. The chocolate melts quickly into a slick & creamy puddle on my tongue. There’s a cooling texture to it, it’s sweet but not sticky or cloying like many milk chocolates can be.
There’s a dark note to it and that same sort of cashew nuttiness that I’ve noticed in other Ocumare chocolate bars.
It’s a very satisfying milk chocolate, so smooth and silky that I ate this much quicker than I’m able to do with regular dark bars.
It’s an expensive proposition, the bars are only 2 ounces and I picked this one up at Mel & Rose’s for $6.50 ... a bit more than I’m willing to pay for a regular snack.
(Allergen notes: though there’s no soy lecithin in the chocolate, it was made on equipment that process soy, peanuts and tree nuts.)
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Amano introduced one of their most exotic single origin bars early this year with their Jembrana 70%. It’s made only from beans from the Jembrana regency of the island of Bali, Indonesia and surrounding areas.
I’ve tried Amano’s other bars: Madagascar, Ocumare and Cuyagua. I loved the Ocumare (in fact, I love just about every Ocumare bar I come across, the flavor profile of the beans just suits me) and really love the style of the bars & overall quality.
The ingredients are simple: Cocoa Beans, Pure Cane Sugar, Cocoa Butter and Whole Vanilla Beans. I was sampling lot number 3/4/97 with a best by date of October 2010.
No lecithin is listed (though those with soy, peanut & tree nut allergies are notified that this is a share equipment environment).
The bars are always packaged nicely. Amano just changed the boxes slightly, they’re a glossy coated paperboard & feature new artwork. (I preferred the matte stuff, but I understand the need to differentiate on the shelves.) Inside the bar is wrapped in a heavy gold-colored foil. This is great compared to the tissue-thin foil many high-end bar makers use that makes it impossible to re-close.
I found with Amano before that I liked the bars after they’ve aged for a little while. I picked this one up in January at Food Fete (a press event for food writers) but put it away for a month after photographing it.
The bar is wonderfully glossy and well-tempered. It has a slight reddish cast to it and smells of coffee, olive oil, beeswax and wood shavings.
I like the thickness of the bar, it means that the little pieces are thick enough to bite, but not so thick that I worry about hurting myself.
I found it melted quite easily once I popped a piece in my mouth. The immediate flavors were grassy, more notes of green olives and matcha. Then it turned darker, to roasted pecans, toffee, anise and cedar but on the tangy side with some hibiscus in there. There was a definite dry finish to it that brought things back around to the greenness of the flavors.
Overall it’s an intriguing bar. Though it’s dark and complex, it’s not hard to just munch - though the lingering dryness kind of begs for a glass of water or some crackers. This bar certainly keeps me engaged with Amano and I’ll keep trying whatever they put out.
Amano is now Kosher.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
TCHO just announced that they’ve opened a store in San Francisco. They’ve also expanded their “flavor” offerings to include Nutty, Fruity and Citrus along with the initial Chocolatey.
I got a hold of a later Beta of their Ghana (Chocolatey) as well as the Fruity through a friend who ordered it but didn’t like it.
The Peru 0.11 M scent isn’t fruity. I expected berry notes or perhaps apples or pears. Instead it smells strongly of coffee and wood shavings. (Kind of like the break room at a sawmill!)
I have to say that I was impressed when I placed a square in my mouth this time. The melt is silky and creamy. The grain size is much smaller and a lot more consistent than the previous version I tried which was more like a variety ground on a stone wheel.
This is immediately tangy. The acidic notes are bright but very high pitched and puckery. I don’t get any real fruit flavors to go with it, just a tingly burst of the sourness and then the creamy background with some powdery green stick flavors. The balance of flavors was all off, like the whole thing was leaning to the left, about ready to tip over.
So while I appreciate the step forward in texture, the flavor was definitely a step back for me. It took several weeks for me to eat half a bar.
The C Ghana D.99D is the Chocolatey variety that I tasted months ago in an earlier version. Now marked with the cacao percentage, this one is 70%.
As I’d hoped from the Fruity beta, this was much creamier and had a much more pleasing mouthfeel than the previous one I tried.
The immediate flavors I got though were absolutely different from the “Chocolatey” Ghana before. This was an overwhelming flavor of honey, cedar and a light tinge of herby balsam like rosemary or lavender.
The notes were confined to a very narrow spectrum. While the Fruity was high pitched with a couple of low resonant notes in the scent, Chocolatey was pure middle notes, like walking down a narrow hallway with the same pictures displayed over and over again on the walls. It felt repetitive and monotonous and had no finish to it ... it just abruptly came to a halt. (Though I admit I loved the initial honey flavor a lot.)
So while both have a much more pleasing texture than the previous test batch, and I can appreciate the differences in the beans without even looking at the labels ... I didn’t like either of these bars. I understand that they’re still in beta mode, I have to say that I’m glad that I didn’t pay for these samples.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Askinosie Chocolate makes Authentic Single Origin bars. They’re made with a very short list of ingredients: cocoa beans, sugar and cocoa butter (they make their own facility from the same origin beans).
There are no emulsifiers and not even any vanilla.
The package isn’t quite so simple. It’s a waxed paper envelope that folds over at the top with a little tie of recycled string from the bags that are used to transport cocoa beans. Inside is the bar itself, wrapped simply in a clear cellophane sleeve and an insert that details the origin of the cocoa beans.
The first bar that I tried is the San Jose del Tambo made from Arriba Nacional beans from Ecuador. At 70% this is a pretty dark bar.
The bar is absolutely gorgeous. The simple molding with the lettered squares format is inspired - each is the perfect sized portion for a bite and it’s fun to play with them to make new words if you’re Scrabble-y.
The snap is quite sharp and doesn’t quite melt readily, but when it does, it’s quite smooth.
The overall flavor was light and bright with notes of caramel, cardamom, coffee, black pepper, licorice & molasses. The finish is a little dry but also sweet.
The look of the bar was the same - beautifully shiny and with a bright snap.
This bar had a grassier scent of olives and black & green teas. The melt was smooth but had a very perceptible dryness right away. There were a few fruity notes of some berries, but overall it didn’t have the variation in elements that I like especially in the woodsy and balsam tones.
Askinosie makes a large variety of products including cocoa (which make sense if Shawn Asknosie is making his own cocoa butter, he’s gonna have a lot of cocoa solids left over) but there were two that I was especially interested in. His Nibble Bar which includes cacao nibs and the White Chocolate bars.
I found these Itty Bar Nibble Bars in Santa Barbara at Chocolate Maya a few weeks ago.
They’re not big, just two inches long and about an inch wide, but packaged in pairs. At only $1.00, I think they were a steal! (The big bars were $8 each.) They’re the same San Jose del Tambo but, obviously, with some same origin cocoa nibs scattered in.
They’re much more tangy than the large format bar but it still has the same caramelized sugar notes and coffee flavors with a light peppery finish.
It’s easy to say that $8 is too much for chocolate. But keep in mind that like many artisan chocolate makers, Shawn Askinosie is making his growers essentially his partners. It’s called a stake in the outcome and not only do they get fair prices, they also get a share in the final sales of the finished products.
Some fair trade products can make me feel like it’s charity, not an actual purchase for the sake of the quality. That’s far from the case here. The consumer of the chocolate gets both the full experience from the look and feel of the package down to the actual taste of the product there’s also so much more going on in the background.
I am a huge fan now and will probably seek out every product in the Askinosie line. (Except maybe this item.) Maybe someday Askinosie will do an Ocumare bar.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.