Thursday, June 30, 2011

Köln's Schokoladenmuseum / Cologne's Chocolate Museum

The top photo is of the right part of the building 
and the bottom photo is of the left.

The Schokoladenmuseum dates back to 1993, and it sits on an odd sort of pier on the Rhine in an interesting two-part building with lovely views of the bridges and the eastern section of the city. In 2006 the museum partnered with Lindt, and now there's a Lindt chocolate fountain and an entire mini-production line making tiny Lindt milk chocolate bars, a great way for children and adults to see the chocolate-making process up close. Despite the corporate presence, there's also mention of the less savory aspects of cacao growing and the weird history of chocolate advertising, as well as displays about a whole assortment of non-Lindt chocolate companies, like Milka and Kinder. I'd expected less when I saw a big Lindt sign on the building, and I ended up pleasantly surprised.

This museum more or less thought of everything. The first level is particularly kid-oriented in terms of the way the displays were designed, with short eye-level peep holes, buttons that light up countries on a map, and facts hidden behind tiny doors, but really they're a way of making the chocolate business interesting, and frankly there's plenty that would cause kids' and many adults' eyes to glaze over. If you're really interested in chocolate, though... can see old books on trade laws (R)

...and big blocks of text about cacao farmers' compensation (L)

...quality testing of cacao beans (R)

or how the beans are traded on commodities exchanges

(You can also peruse the website, which gives a brief overview of what's in the museum.) This is all a bit dry, but there's actually a lot of info floating around this first chunk of the museum, more than I've seen anywhere else. 

Tired of reading? Head into the tropical greenhouse, which simulates the environment in which cacao beans are grown.

The rest of the first level and much (all?) of the second is the production line and chocolate fountain, which are surrounded by plexiglass (including employees!) so that visitors can see every part of the machines.

Chocolate squirting into molds.

Molds vibrating chocolate into shape.

It can't all be machine-made, apparently.

A separate line working on truffles--see them rolling down on the left? 
The coating blorps intermittently from that contraption in the center, 
and the coated truffles move on the conveyor into a cooling box (off-camera).

Chocolate fountain, with views. 

The Deutzer Bridge, as seen from the window of the Schokoladenmuseum.

Upstairs is a large exhibit that starts with the history of chocolate consumption, what you already know about ancient South Americans but also the early western chocolate-drinkers, with their fancy serving sets and chocolate parties. 

Then come rooms and rooms on European chocolate production and advertising. 

Pre-Photoshop airbrushing was weird, too.

A couple of my favorite exhibits were an old Stollwerck commercial (I think this kid was too thin until his parents gave him Stollwerck chocolate to drink?)...

...and the history of the Sarotti Mohr (i.e. Moor), a logo that is obviously problematic. He used to look like this, more or less, until the current owners finally bowed to pressure in 2004 and changed him to a stylized magician. (The company website is here, and is full of annoying Flash and music.)

Take-home on Köln's Schokoladenmuseum? If you're into chocolate and anywhere near Cologne, it's worth it to see a whole chocolate museum that goes deeper than you'd think. FYI, the only free samples you'll get are the little Lindt bars at the ticket counter and a wafer dipped in chocolate from the fountain, but if you want more, you can fill up at the museum gift shop or café. Also, you're at a chocolate museum, which means so is everybody else, from American families to local high schoolers on field trips. 

If you aren't able to make that big trip to Europe, just look at the website and think about how fascinating chocolate is, from history to farming, processing, and marketing. It's simultaneously luxury item and treat of the masses, a lesson in world trade that touches every continent (I bet even Antarctic workers pack candy bars in their luggage) and every age, a product that can cause suffering and joy. Amazing!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chocolate in Germany

[Note: This post is virtually research-free, just what I noticed walking around in several cities, mostly in busy and/or touristy areas.]

When I was planning a this trip, in the back of my mind I thought “look at all these places known for chocolate—Belgium, France, Switzerland—and here Germany is right next door!” But I got a bad cold on the way over, and between that and jet lag I totally forgot about my favorite sweet treat. 

Then I was eating dinner on a square in Freiburg and spotted a sign saying “Chocolate Shop” (or perhaps just Schokolade) and ventured in, where I found a pretty glass-topped confection counter and a variety of bars. Some brands I'd seen before, but others were entirely foreign (ha!) and intrigued me with their wide range of neat-sounding flavors. I didn't want to add much to my load early on, so I bought a couple items and kept moving. But from that point on, I found chocolate all over the place.

There is simply more chocolate in Germany: more shops, more flavors, bigger chocolate sections in stores. I stumbled upon chocolate shops all over the place, and while most of my trip was spent in the treat-heavy tourist parts of towns, in a larger city like Köln I wandered past at least one dedicated shop in every busy neighborhood I visited. 

In the U.S., I can find Hershey's anywhere, but most of it is peanut/nougat/wafer/caramel candy bars, not dark chocolate. Further, because small producers aren't carried in many supermarkets (though I've had good luck with Whole Foods) most of what's available is made by the same few companies. If I want to go beyond that, even a good chocolate city like Seattle only has so many chocolate-specific shops. And we're just so far from other parts of the world: I might see product from German companies like Hachez in the U.S., but I saw entire Hachez stores in Germany. Unsurprisingly, European stores offer greater access to European chocolatiers.

So there's a lot of chocolate in Germany, and with such bounty it's not hard to satisfy one's personal chocolate preferences. I saw and sometimes bought confections (Pralinen), cheap chocolate, expensive chocolate, single-origin chocolate, organic/fair-trade chocolate, dark or milk or white chocolate, chocolate with funky flavorings like alcohol or spices or florals, and so on. 

Of the flavorings, some followed familiar lines, like nuts and raisins, while others were more unusual or particular to the area. Later I'll show you some bars whose flavorings I'd never seen here but were not uncommon sights in German candy shops.

This isn't chocolate, but it is candy, and it entertained me.

Still, you won't find a huge chocolate selection in every corner grocery. The selection at supermarkets is a lot like it is here, which is to say there's a decent amount but it's mostly big brands like Ritter Sport and Lindt (often at a good price, though) and perhaps the store's own label. 

So where to go? The photos from my previous post on Germany were taken in a large department store that had a huge chocolate selection on the lowest level, and I wish I'd spent more time there than the few minutes I had before running to catch a train. 

At least as useful are the aforementioned chocolate shops, which are either storefronts for a specific brand or just small, independent (as far as I could tell) shops with bars and confections and often hot cocoa; those variety shops often carry more pricey options.

Much of the not-so-good stuff we see in this country applies internationally as well. For example, stubby purple Milka and famously prismatic Toblerone, both formerly Swiss, are now made by good old Kraft. Similarly, independent stores are being replaced by chains, which didn't make the chocolate any less tasty but decreased the level of fun surprise—cute new shop, same old shtick. And such a chocolate-loving country likes to flavor foods with “chocolate” that might involve some artificial (that is, not chocolate) ingredients, as in the sugary chocolate syrups we had over ice cream. I guess even a relative chocolate Mecca deals with the usual economic and social pressures, but giant duty-free Toblerone bars seem a little less special now, you know? 

A few other quirks:

One of Germany's most endearing culinary treats is going to an Eiscafe, an ice cream shop with cheap cones to go or expensive, elaborate desserts you eat at sidewalk tables. The biggest shops had a couple dozen flavors at least, among them several different chocolate options, and my favorite was richly dark brown Zartbitterschokolade. (I also saw Zartbitterschokolade labeling some dark chocolate bars.) I don't often see very dark chocolate ice cream in the U.S., and it was a fun way to combine my dark chocolate habit with the joys of visiting an Eiscafe.

In the U.S., most of the chocolate bars I've seen with inclusions have them, well, included, blended into the chocolate so the back of the bar is chocolate-covered and bumpy. In Germany, many (though not all) bars with inclusions are sold with clear packaging that reveals chocolate, molded or irregularly spread, with inclusions sprinkled on top of the chocolate. Here I've only seen that in select bars, usually ones from Europe. I wonder why that is?

Anyone who's traveled internationally will have noticed that the same products we see at home sometimes show up there with different packaging and formulation. I was pretty excited when I came across this version of a discontinued favorite, but that extra chocolate syrup between the mousse and coating just didn't do it for me. Schade.

Up next: A peek inside Köln's Schokoladenmuseum—yes, a whole museum of chocolate!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Theo Organic 91% Dark Costa Rica

[Note: This is the re-post of a review that should have appeared (and did?) on May 12.]

3oz (84g) bar
Ingredients: Organic cocoa beans (Costa Rica), o. sugar, o. cocoa butter, o. ground vanilla bean
4g sugar/42g serving (9.5% by wt.)

Corporate Info: I've discussed Theo many times before. It's a bean-to-bar chocolatier here in Seattle, some bars are available nationwide, everything is organic and fair trade, Theo has an A rating from the Better World folks, etc etc. I've loved the confections but not always the dark chocolate. What will I think of this single-origin bar? (Note: I'm assuming this is the same as the one on the site, but with different packaging.)

Appearance: Orange-brown, and not as dark as you'd think.

Smell: Bitter and tannic, with some tropical banana.

Taste: In order of experience: Quite bitter, almost charred flavor I taste in the middle of my tongue. Texture is very smooth. Tart. I taste sweet on the very back and sides of my tongue. Basically, the flavor is stronger, weaker, or just different depending on the moment and where in the mouth we're talking about. Interesting.

Conclusion: Theo Organic 91% Dark Costa Rica is very dark and challenging, but it certainly isn't boring!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Shaman Organic Chocolates 60% Cacao Dark Chocolate with Green Tea & Ginger

2oz (57g) bar
Ingredients: Organic sugar, o. chocolate liquor, o. cocoa butter, o. soy lecithin, o. vanilla, o. ginger, o. green tea
9g sugar/28.5g serving (31.6% by wt.)

I liked Shaman's 82% bar, but I didn't think the light flavor of the chocolate tasted as good down at 60% cacao in the açaí, lemon, and orange bar. Will it work better with bitter green tea and spicy ginger?

Corporate Info: (Copied from two weeks ago.) As of this writing Shaman's website is under construction, but the bar packaging explains that the point of the company is to support Mexico's indigenous Huichol people. I've found a lot of positive commentary on assorted unfamiliar-to-me websites and an A rating by the Better World Shopper; I hope this organic, fair trade chocolate's actual practices live up to the hype.

Appearance: Same red-brown and gloss as the other Shaman bars, with even more air bubbles.

Smell: Not a lot. Some of the same fresh, unripe smell as the 82%, but very muted. Not getting green tea or ginger per se.

Taste: Still sweet like the açaí, lemon, and orange bar, but with a more interesting flavor. Ginger is in a scattering of little crystallized pieces, which make the chewing texture gritty. I'm still not really getting green tea, but there is a little bitterness that counters the sweet, and I figure that's the tea. I wouldn't buy this again, but I like the taste more than the açaí, lemon, and orange bar, and others might like its sweetness.

Conclusion: Shaman Organic Chocolates 60% Cacao Dark Chocolate with Green Tea & Ginger is sweet, though the flavorings contribute some balance and complexity. All the same, I think Shaman's 60% bars are too sweet for my taste.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shaman Organic Chocolates 60% Cacao Dark Chocolate with Açaí, Lemon, & Orange

2oz (57g) bar
Ingredients: Organic sugar, o. chocolate liquor, o. cocoa butter, o. soy lecithin, o. vanilla, o. lemon peel, o. açaí, o. orange oil
9g sugar/28.5g serving (31.6% by wt.)

Corporate Info: (Copied from last week.) As of this writing Shaman's website is under construction, but the bar packaging explains that the point of the company is to support Mexico's indigenous Huichol people. I've found a lot of positive commentary on assorted unfamiliar-to-me websites and an A rating by the Better World Shopper; I hope this organic, fair trade chocolate's actual practices live up to the hype.

Appearance: Reddish, glossy, with inclusions visible on the back and more air bubbles than the 82% bar.

Smell: Fun! Complex, sweet-sour, perfumey from the lemon peel and spicy orange oil. Any scent from the chocolate is subtle or in keeping with the inclusions.

Taste: Rather sweet, not sour at all, and just not as interesting as I'd hoped. Açaí is hard and crunchy, stone-like and unpleasant, and the fibers stick around in my teeth after the chocolate is gone. Good spice from the orange oil, but it's not enough to stand up to the sweetness. Perhaps this would've been better with 70% cacao or higher.

Conclusion: Shaman Organic Chocolates 60% Cacao Dark Chocolate with Açaí, Lemon, & Orange smells better than it tastes.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Update: Germany!........and Blog Glitches

This, my friends, is a view of just part of the chocolate section of a department store in Bremen, Germany. I'm back from three weeks traveling through the country, and while I certainly didn't go just for the chocolate, I was frankly overwhelmed by the options Germany presents. I found confectionary shops all over the place, saw wide ranges from companies I'd only glimpsed in the US, visited a chocolate museum, came home with nine bars, and wish I'd bought more.

So what to talk about on the blog? I figure in this economy most people won't be hopping a plane to Europe, so I don't want to bore you with detailed reviews of chocolate you won't find in the U.S. Instead, I intend to start by posting general observations about chocolate in Germany, big or little things that surprised me or otherwise were different than what we see here. Then I'd like to write about the museum, which has a partnership with Lindt but nonetheless addresses other companies and the morally complex history of chocolate production and marketing, and—not at all controversial, but still cool—how chocolate is made, with a working small-scale assembly line. Finally, I think the bars I chose to review are interesting because they're all about the inclusions and flavorings, ones I have rarely or never seen in the U.S.; how well will chocolate pair with florals, or spices, or even beer?

While I work on these posts, you'll see some pre-scheduled reviews I wrote before I left. On that note, I want to apologize for the glitches over the last few weeks. I set reviews to publish weekly and see now that the first one isn't there, but I received a now-deleted comment on that post so it must have gone up at some point, and Blogger still claims it's “scheduled” for 5/12. I also had less internet access than I'd anticipated, which made moderating comments difficult. Thanks for bearing with me!