Saturday, April 16, 2022

Chocolate Life (with Matcha Digression)

I need to brain dump my chocolate notes. I never really got "serious" about chocolate. I've applied my dopey/bumpy/meandering style of knowledge acquisition - glacially slow - where one day I wake up and realize, "Man, I've been finding and eating super-great stuff. Guess I'm some sort of expert!" Even though I don't have all the brand names and beans and tech terms at my fingertips. I have come to eschew autistic fact hoarding, especially in fun realms like chocolate. It's dorky. Save that for orchids or train timetables.

As in most food realms, the first step is to dissuade yourself of misinformation. 95% of the brands you've heard of, and see at gourmet stores and at Whole Foods, are utter crap. Lindt, Godiva, Ghirardelli, Cadbury, Rain Forest (JFC), yeah. Forget them. No.

Second step is to recognize that the better the chocolate (we're only talking dark chocolate here), the slower the flavor onset. I've had single-estate chocolate where I needed to stand there with semi-pulverized chocolate lumps poised on my tongue for upwards of a minute before tasting anything beyond a faint beany bitterness. Good chocolate requires massive patience. You don't shovel it into your face like Hershey's Kisses. But when it hits, angels sing.

Which is a good thing. With really good dark chocolate, a chunk the size of a half dollar is really all you need. And since we're talking dark chocolate, the sugar content is quite low (even diabetics are allowed to eat dark chocolate). The fat's still an issue, but not if you're sticking to a chunk the size of a half dollar. In fact, lots of recent research shows great health benefits from daily dark chocolate. So if you can go light enough on portion size to avoid arterial congestion and weight gain from the fat, you're doing a sum positive thing for yourself.

My ritual involves an afternoon iced matcha (not a matcha latte; just warmed matcha tea shaken furiously with some ice cubes) followed by my daily chunk of quality dark chocolate. It's a good ritual. Start with the cheap stuff from Ippodo (their matcha only; don't bother with other products) or else this from Trader Joe's. Then, if curious or bored, gradually work up to fancier matchas from Ippodo.

Forget the bowl and whisk and all that other junk. You're no samurai, dude. Your name is Kent and you work in a cubicle. Get over yourself. I heat 1/2 cup water in a sauce pan, using a thermopen to cut the heat at 170 degrees. Then add 1 tsp matcha powder sifted through a fine screened strainer. Stir lightly, drain into a shakey cup, rinse stuck-on matcha from the pot with a bit more water, and top off with cold water to yield two cups, total. Shake, with two or three ice cubes, like your life depends on it, and drink. Don't be a shmuck and sweeten it.

Note that this makes yuppie iced matcha, not ceremonial super-thick matcha which offers a blitz of caffeine and umami intensity that precludes use as an everyday ritual for anyone who doesn't spend their day painstakingly raking pebbles into decorative patterns for their Zen garden.

Back to chocolate. Again, we're talking (unless otherwise noted) about dark chocolate bars. Not truffles, sprinkles, novelties, bonbons, or what have you. Frickin' bar chocolate...dark. The chocolate equivalent of whiskey neat.

Everything from Lake Champlain is ace. Seriously class act, at fair prices. Their most innovative products are their nutty/crunchy "squares", which I consider the best candy bars in America. More grown-up flavored bars include "Dark Spicy Aztec" and "Grace Under Fire", both highly recommended. But their unflavored dark chocolate bars - modestly titled and few in number - are serious.

Further upmarket is Amano Chocolate, out of Utah. They've tried selling single origin stuff, but the American market doesn't really support it, at least not at the price point required for serious stuff. They've settled on a limited range, but it's good. Check out their 9 bar sampler, which, alas, is not offered with a financing arrangement. Amano sells the best Venezuelan chocolate bar I've tried lately in America (more on Venezuela in a minute), which they call "Ocumare". Pricey but worth it. You might want to start there, as a reference. Calibrate yourself!

Much harder to find, though Whole Food seems to have started carrying them: Noi Sirius Chocolate, from Iceland (that hotbed of tropical chocolate goodness) sells a 70% extra-bitter, dark chocolate, and while it doesn't have stately single-estate elegance, it's extremely friendly. It's one of those things where you can drag your friends through a lengthy formal chocolate tasting, and they'll take tiny bites and write high-falutin' notes for everything, but this is the one they'll actually finish. Not cuz it's the best. Just cuz it's the friendliest.

Even more friendly and even less stately, and quite widely-available, Belgium's Cote D'Or makes dark bars in slim format 86% Noir Brut - quite bitter, and Noir de Noir, a slightly milder black bar in more of a bender format.

Then there's a new wildcard: Tony's Chocolonely Dark Chocolate, which they claim is made in Belgium. Because that's totally a name a Belgian would come up with. I'm deeply skeptical of their glaring "FROZEN CUSTARD CARNIVAL!!!!" style artwork, and the whole thing is so cheesey and desperate and marketingish that I can't stand it, but, alas, the chocolate (at least in their 70% dark "big bar") is good. Not stately, but better than just friendly. It's solid-quality - at least as good as Cote D'Or - and pretty cheap (for the generous bar size + quality level) if you find it in groceries.

Some of Trader Joe's chocolate is pretty good (best is their boxed selection of single-destination bars, "Chocolate Passport", available at holiday time only). Problem is I'm forever finding foreign objects. Figuring it couldn't be a problem across the line, I've tried sticking with this or that product, but their stuff's just rife with crunchy, hairy, clotty, chewy, UFO junk. I could almost tolerate it, but, even worse, I'll often be eating their chocolate and all of a sudden, some certain bite will taste eerily less chocolatey. Like the lights dimmed. Which means I'm consuming something other than full chocolate in that bite. I no longer eat Trader Joe's chocoate (except the Chocolate Passport, which you should stock up on).

Best value (i.e. bang-for-the-buck) chocolate in the world is the 85% LaCasa from Spain. For nearly a century, they've made modest chocolate, marketed without a trace of snoot (they're located in modest Zaragoza, not snooty Barcelona), yet god damn their dark bar is good. And cheap. Hard to find outside Spain. Or in Spain. But El Corte Ingles stores - Spain's version of Macy's - carry it in a high-end chocolate room next to the food department. You'd expect it to be expensive. Then you eat it and expect it to be real expensive. But it's like three or four bucks.

In Barcelona, the Museu De Xocolata sells a righteous house brand dark chocolate bar. Much better, though, is a local shop called Cacao Sampaka, where everything's good (including, naturally, the Catalan-style hot chocolate), but their Venezuelan bars are killer. A major bring-back item.

Venezuelan is, for my money, the best chocolate, and the best Venezuelan chocolate is a type called chuao (choo-OWW), largely unavailable outside fancy shops in Paris and Italy. Some American sleazebag named his chocolate company "Chuao" in order to draft on whatever status the name brings, but his chocolate sucks and is definitely not chuao. How do you know if you're eating real chuao? Well, for starters, you're paying over ten bucks per skinny bar. And you're finding it totally worth it.

Hotel Chocolat used to sell a fine chuao, but they've changed their whole business method and I don't understand what the hell they're doing at this point. I get the feeling some hedgie bought the company and is squeezing out easy money. Fun!

I just stumbled upon this alleged chuao, made in Oakland. It's a bit inexpensive, I don't know what "American Chuao" is supposed to mean, and most chuao makers hold back to 70% (this one's 76%, and, geez, they also sell a chuao at 86%, which is like "ketchup-on-steak" for chocolate snobs; very dark/bitter choc - particularly Ecuadorian - can be great, but never chuoa!). Might be worth a try. Lots of other single-estate stuff from them. Free shipping. Hmm.

The most price-effective way to eat fine dark bar chocolate is to buy in bulk from wholesaler Callebaut, and carve off your daily portion like cheese. It used to be available in Fairway, but now it's all mail order and you never know quite what to expect (one reason it's relatively inexpensive is it's not marketed super finicky). Look for something 75-85%.

I'm currently trying one of these boutique Frenchie bars. So much breathless verbiage at that link, yet so few specifics.

Marketingmarketingmarketingmarketingmarketingmarketingmarketingmarketingmarketingmarketing - and pop it in your mouth and BULLSHIT. The food industry eats the credulous.


Ivan said...

Cacao Sampaka is sold in nYC. only 1-2 bars seem to make it in, their bar w/sea salt is killer. Zabars usually has them and they are on average 1-2 bucks cheaper than some of th eothers. It's owned by one of the Adria family. For a rustic type bar, Taza from Mass is pretty good and the discs are hot chocolate are great.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for the Sampaka tip. But I haven’t seen their Venezuela here, alas.

Taza is untempered, Mexican style. Hence the un-smooth texture. I do like their very dark stuff, but the un-smoothness makes foreign objects less noticeable, and there are loads of them. I complained once to the guy in charge, who was horrified, but alas the problem continues.

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