Friday, May 28, 2010

Lake Champlain Chocolates Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa Sao Thome


3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, soybean lecithin, vanilla

12g sugar/43g serving (27.9% by wt.)

I don't know much about Vermont-based Lake Champlain Chocolates except that I've seen the company's products around and that they get a positive mention in Steve Almond's Candyfreak. The bar I have here is one of several very dark bars Lake Champlain offers, differentiated by cacao origin: This particular chocolate is from an island off the coast of Gabon called São Tomé and Príncipe. The wrapper describes the chocolate's flavor as “fruity and robust...exceedingly complex...pure” with “resounding vanilla tones” (from the vanilla, of course). So what do I think of it?

This is a rather dark bar with a dull finish and a shape that has held together in the wrapper with no flaking or scuffing, which is something I can't always say. It smells richly chocolatey and breaks into clean rectangles. A bite reveals chocolate that is dense and creamy, with a bit of chew and a complex flavor. 

An aside: There's a difference between being mild and lacking complexity. Even if you haven't bothered to pay close attention to how the flavor of various bars differs, if you've eaten enough chocolate you'll notice that some bars you just don't go back to after the first few pieces, and it's not because something stands out as being “off.” I think you feel indifferent when you eat chocolate that lacks complexity—it's one-note, boring, unintriguing, even though it's technically just as much chocolate as any other. You experience the opposite when you eat something chocolate flavored, like mousse or cake, and exclaim “Oh, that's just chocolatey!” Similarly, you can make two pans of brownies using the same recipe but with two different chocolates and have one pan taste markedly more chocolatey than the other.

Back to Lake Champlain. This chocolate is complex but not super-dark, with a flavor that is perhaps a bit nutty. It's not my favorite bar ever, but I doubt I'll have trouble finishing it. And that's all I have to say about that.

Conclusion: Lake Champlain Chocolates Dark Chocolate 70% Sao Thome is satisfying, interesting, and easy to eat without being boring. 

[Update 1/18/12: I fixed the color issue.]

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chocolove Organic Dark Chocolate 73% Cocoa Content

3.2oz (90g) bar
Ingredients: Organic cocoa liquor, o. sugar, o. cocoa butter.
8g sugar/30g serving (26.7% by wt.)

I first had the pleasure of tasting Chocolove's products at my then-local Whole Foods in Denver, Colorado. A Chocolove employee (I assume) was handing out tasty samples of several bars, and I learned that Chocolove is based in nearby Boulder, which you may recognize as any of the following: neo-hippie, nestled in the scenic foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and home to both Celestial Seasonings teas and the scandal- and controversy-ridden University of Colorado. For a town of less than 100,000 people, it's an interesting place.

I no longer live in Denver, but I feel a little warm fondness when I see Chocolove on the shelves elsewhere. Most of the bars are too high in sugar for my needs, so I don't buy it often, but the price is reasonable (in the $2-3 range) so if I find it on sale I might get one of the high-cacao offerings. Today I tried one of Chocolove's two organic products, the 73% cacao bar.

The bar has a nice gloss and a color like a crayon labeled “brown.” The scent is sunny and cheerful, and the rounded blocks break more or less on the scored lines, which I appreciate in light of some of the thicker, blockier bars I've tried. The texture is just a touch chalky, not quite as smooth as other bars I've had, but it's thick and creamy and the taste is sweet and fairly mild. If I sit and chew and think, I suppose it has a bit of the perfume of tropical fruit rather than the red or purple berries and tannins of some companies' chocolates, though I'm not sure the casual snacker would notice anything like that. You might prefer to think of it as medium-bodied, flavorful, and not especially strong.

Conclusion: Chocolove's Organic Dark Chocolate 73% Cocoa Content bar doesn't stand out as one of my favorites, but it's a very good option for those who want a solid, flavorful, not-too-dark bar. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Green & Black's Organic Espresso

3.5oz (100g bar)
Ingredients: Organic chocolate liquor, o. raw cane sugar, o. cocoa butter, o. coffee, soy lecithin, o. vanilla extract
10g sugar/40g serving (25% by wt.)

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Green & Black's chocolate. The company produces USDA organic chocolate with a complex flavor at an affordable price point (I regularly find it on sale for $2.50 a bar), including several bars that have relatively low sugar content. And it's one of the few companies that offers multiple dark bars with flavor variations that go beyond terroir and a touch of vanilla.

Green & Black's espresso bar is one I buy occasionally, in part because it's a fun reminder of how natural a pairing coffee is with chocolate: Both are tropical, bitter beans made more palatable with sugar and maybe milk. Green & Black's does its coffee bar creamy throughout rather than crunchy with pieces of the beans, a choice I can take or leave depending on what I want at the moment.

The nitty-gritty (or not so gritty): This is a medium dark brown bar with a soft luster and a punchy coffee aroma. It hits the tongue with a thick richness like a strong espresso and the complexity that I expect from Green & Black's—here fruity, winey, and tannic. The chocolate is inseparable from the coffee, to my mind reflecting both the similarities between the two products (not that they're biologically related) and the skill with which they're blended, in terms of both flavor and texture. It's intense, dark chocolate flavor and lots of coffee, with no fooling around. I like my chocolate to commit.

Granted, coffee isn't my favorite chocolate mixer. It's fine, but a combination I only want once in a while, and often I like the added interest of bits of espresso bean crackling between my teeth. Regardless of my personal taste, this is a good bar.

Conclusion: Green & Black's Espresso bar is potent, well balanced, and super-smooth.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Chocolate Shops: Theo Chocolate Factory Tour

Today I took the factory tour at Theo Chocolate, one of the few American chocolate companies that makes its own chocolate from scratch. Years ago the founder worked on an organic cacao plantation; today he maintains relationships with the cacao growers who supply the company and makes sure the farms are up to organic and fair trade standards.

Here in Seattle, Theo's warm factory floor is home to a variety of large machines and tanks where the beans are roasted and ground and the chocolate is conched, tempered, and molded into bars. The cooler kitchen next door was busier while I was there, as employees were washing marble slabs in preparation for making some of Theo's confections: ganaches, caramels, and pralines.

The best part, of course, was eating the chocolate. I cheated a bit on my low-sugar diet, trying the excellent milk chocolate bar (at 45% cacao, darker than most milk bars) along with a number of other bars I'd had before. My favorite items were both limited-time-only ganaches, one flavored with lime and coriander and the other with citrusy Earl Grey tea. Both were tart, not too sweet, and worth straying from my dietary path.

If you're visiting Seattle, Theo's factory tour is a light activity you can squeeze into a longer day of sightseeing or a few hours walking around and dining in the charming neighborhood of Fremont. The tour costs only $6 (reserve ahead), and even if you don't want to take the time, you can still stop in the shop and try most of the bars before you buy.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Divine Mint Dark Chocolate

3.5oz (100g) bar
Ingredients: fair trade cocoa mass, ft. sugar, ft. cocoa butter, peppermint crisp 5% (sugar, peppermint oil), soy lecithin, peppermint oil, ft. vanilla.
15g sugar/50g serving (30% by wt.)

As I increase the number of reviews on this blog, I find myself needing more ways to describe chocolate. It's not that all chocolate tastes the same, it's quite the opposite: I've eaten bars that I would describe using the same basic terms but that taste rather different, though it took a few reviews before I'd encountered enough similarities and differences to know that. I'm going to begin the in-depth review process by experimenting, sharing not only what I'm experiencing with a bar but also how it differs from other bars and other flavors.

With Divine's mint bar, let's start before I've taken my first bite. The bar looks smooth and glossy but not shiny. Its color is medium brown, like the shell of a nut, touched with white and yellow rather than the almost black purple-brown of super-dark chocolate. It smells sugary-minty, reminiscent of candy cane, not fresh mint or mint tea or Oreos.

Now to taste. An unexpected surprise! The mint isn't merely flavoring the chocolate, it's also distributed in a dense scattering of tiny mint-flavored sugar crystals. They provide a crunchy counterpoint to the chocolate that is a lot of fun, though I'm not sure the “candy” element is what I usually want out of my chocolate. (Unlike everyone else, I apparently no longer think of chocolate as candy.)

The chocolate itself is also subtly minty, as well as mild, a bit earthy, and not especially complex, a flavor and texture that I immediately associated with Endangered Species' mint bar. In my review I called that bar “chalky,” though that's not really accurate, it just seems less rich and chocolatey than, say, the Newman's Own Organics bar that is similarly mild and sweet but less insipid. Comparing the Divine bar to the Newman's Own one, they have similar levels of fat (about 44% by wt.), soy lecithin as an emulsifier, and vanilla for flavoring, and though this one has a bit more sugar, presumably the mint-sugar crystals account for that. I guess the difference must be something in the cacao processing.

On the plus side, Divine is unusually progressive for a chocolate company. While its chocolate is not organic it is fair trade certified, and the company is jointly owned by several non-governmental organizations and the cooperative of Ghanaian farmers who supply the cocoa beans. The chocolate isn't particularly expensive either—in the range of Endangered Species and Green & Black's—so Divine seems to have a workable model of large-scale, non-luxury chocolate production that treats farmers with respect. It's a great goal, so I'd really like to give the chocolate at least one more shot.

Conclusion: Divine Mint Dark Chocolate's mint crystals make it more interesting than the everyday mint bar, and the company is admirable, but the chocolate is too one-dimensional for my taste.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Taste of Hawaii 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate Whole Macadamia Nuts

13 candies in net wt. 5oz (141g)
Ingredients: Semisweet extra dark chocolate (chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla), dry roasted macadamia nuts.
10g sugar/40g serving (25% by wt.)

When I was growing up in Honolulu, I routinely walked through my local Longs drugstore without thinking twice about the entire aisle of macadamia nuts. Sometimes I needed to bring gifts to folks on the mainland, in which case I waded into the boxes and cans, identically-sized and shaped except for their contents: roasted, salted, spicy, chocolate-dipped, glazed, crushed, crunchy in toffee, chewy in caramel, folded into brittle, tossed with popcorn. Now one brand even offers a SPAM-flavored mac nut, a novelty borne of a real Hawaii obsession. In recent years I haven't been able to eat any of the macadamia candies, though, because they've all been too sweet. The product was always about gift boxes of nuts with pretty pictures of palm trees, leis, and hula girls, not high-end chocolate, which meant no single-origin, organic, or fair trade, and nothing super dark.

During my recent visit home, I had a macadamia nut breakthrough: Hawaiian Sun, maker of popular drinks and jellies as well as chocolates, now produces chocolate covered mac nuts using 70% cacao content under the Taste of Hawaii label. Seeing as how I only had one option (and trust me, I looked for others on the shelves and this was it), I bought a bulk pack at Costco. I handed out a few boxes and kept a few for myself, but they've been popular and I'm down to half a box.

So are they that good? Well no, they're not the best chocolate or macadamia nuts that I've ever had, but they are quite enjoyable. There are 13 candies to a box, each a dollop of chocolate encasing one and sometimes two whole mac nuts and molded into a cup shape by a tiny ruffled muffin tin liner. The chocolate is very mild and smooth, dark but with no sharp edges, which makes sense given the context and market. The nuts are pleasant, though I'd venture that they might benefit from a very light dusting of salt to bring out their flavor, because aside from the crunchy texture they tend to disappear under the chocolate. Incidentally, among the many of these that I've eaten I've encountered a couple nuts that tasted off, perhaps on the edge of rancid; fortunately this experience has been fairly rare.

Conclusion: If you like very dark chocolate, are visiting Hawaii, and want to take back a few souvenirs, you now have a decent option: Taste of Hawaii 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate Whole Macadamia Nuts.