Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pacari Chocolate Covered Cacao Beans

90g (3.17oz) box; mine contained 31 chocolate covered beans
Ingredients: Organic cacao beans, o. cane sugar, o. cocoa powder, o. sunflower lecithin

Corporate Info: Pacari Chocolate is single-origin (Ecuador), organic, and according to them, fair trade minus the certification. Most of what I'm seeing about the company is from commercial sites, so I'll just say that they sound good, in an upscale, rainforesty sort of way: Pacari offers local-origin bars from different plantations, flavored bars, chocolate covered tropical things (fruits, coffee beans, etc), and a few other earthy-crunchy-super-local items, including today's chocolate covered cacao beans dusted with cocoa powder.

Appearance: Dusty, oblong, irregular. Appealingly rugged.

Smell: Intense, sharp, with warm notes—ginger, cardamom, that kind of vibe.

Taste: In layers, what you've got is: First, a fine dusting of powder that has almost no taste; its only real effect is allowing the chocolate underneath to remain both protected and creamy, which is to my mind preferable to to the shiny, shellacked texture of some other chocolate-covered treats. Second, a medium-thin layer of creamy, tart chocolate. If you sit and savor that layer it's actually raw-tasting compared to other chocolate, but if you mostly chomp down like I am, the contrast with the cacao bean makes it seem very smooth and sweet. Finally, a large cacao bean with a papery outside and nut-textured, crunchy-crumbly inside. The bean is almost deceptively neutral flavored in its unrefined, unsweetened, low-bitterness, nutty non-intensity. I've eaten nibs that had a more distinctive, banana-tropical flavor that these beans don't, and I like these here. Very good.

Conclusion: Pacari Chocolate Covered Cacao Beans are rustic, have nice texture and flavor contrast, and are easy to keep eating. Warning: Too many can make you (me) hyperactive!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

El Ceibo Bolivia 77% Dark Chocolate Cocoa Nibs & Uyuni Salt

2.8oz (80g) bar
Ingredients: Organic cocoa mass, sugar, o. cocoa nibs, cocoa butter, salt, soy lecithin

Corporate Info: I'd never heard of El Ceibo before, but it turns out the Bolivian cooperative is pretty great, bringing together various indigenous groups and becoming a model for South American farming cooperatives in general. In collaboration with a European chocolatier (site is in French), El Ceibo makes only a few products for the international market. Today's choice, their 77% bar with nibs and salt, includes salt from a the world's largest salt flats, which are, not coincidentally, in Bolivia.

Appearance: Not very glossy, European-style thin and flat, greyish-reddish.

Smell: Raw and beany, with cacao's buttermilky tang.

Taste: Super smooth chocolate punctuated by nut-textured, more intense nibs. Chocolate is indeed tangy but not sour. Sugar is well-incorporated: I would say it's not at all sweet, but obviously that's not true, it's just that the sugar balances the chocolate's bite and no more. Salt is supposedly in crunchy crystals, but I'm only rarely picking them up; it's more like when cooks add enough salt to a dish to enhance the flavor without making it taste “salty.” Overall, this is pure, bright, smooth-textured, slightly tannic beaniness, with nibs for flavor and texture contrast. Good stuff.

Conclusion: El Ceibo Bolivia 77% Dark Chocolate Cocoa Nibs & Uyuni Salt doesn't taste gimmicky, it's just good, pure, bright, chocolatey flavor with a little extra something.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Chocolove Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate 55% Cocoa

3.2oz (90g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa liquor, sugar, almonds, cocoa butter, sea salt, soy lecithin, vanilla
11g sugar/30g serving (36.7% by wt.)

When I was flipping through my bag of to-be-reviewed bars a couple weeks ago, I found that I had bought several flavored with sea salt and decided to review them as a pack. I started with the Vosges and Trader Joe's caramel bars, followed a tangent with another Trader Joe's bar, and am back this week with Chocolove Almonds & Sea Salt in 55% Cocoa.

Meta-moment: I've been violating the old maximum-1/3-sugar rule for two reasons: 1) Health-wise, I can do that now, and 2) many interesting bars come in dark chocolate bases that are a little higher in sugar than my usual. Unsurprisingly, I often find them too sweet for my taste, but with common brands like Chocolove, I have frequently seen the whole product line on sale and really wanted to give some fun flavors a try. So now I am.

Corporate Info: I have a soft spot for Chocolove, having lived in near its hometown of Boulder, Colorado and enjoyed the company's samples in my local Whole Foods. It's a relatively young company (Wikipedia says 1996; Chocolove's website doesn't say), hasn't yet been bought by a giant conglomerate, and is supposedly working with these guys to source its chocolate from well-treated cocoa farmers and communities. On the other hand, the chocolate isn't officially organic or fair trade, and Chocolove is rated a C by the Better World folks (same as Hershey's, much better than Nestle), so I don't want to give them my unconditional Choco-love (ha ha, I crack me up). But it's cheaper than most premium chocolate—$2-2.50 a bar—and reliably tasty.

Appearance: Chocolove's usual quilted-looking, heart-topped shape, kind of a greyish brown, very glossy, bumpy on the back.

Smell: Sweet, nutty.

Taste: Okay, yeah, it's too sweet for me and not super-dark, which makes it hard to pick out the other flavors. What I can say is that you get entire halved almonds and a well-incorporated, non-dominant saltiness. The wrapper says something about salt crystals, and that very well may be true, but they must be pretty small; while it doesn't taste like the salt is dissolved into the chocolate, there's more uniformity to it than I've found in other salty bars.

Conclusion: Chocolove Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate 55% Cocoa didn't taste like anything special to me, but if you like almonds and salt in a relatively light dark chocolate, maybe it would be great to you.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar Toffee with Walnuts and Pecans

3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Chocolate liquor, cane sugar, cocoa butter, butter, corn syrup, walnuts, pecans, soy lecithin, water, vanilla, sea salt
14g sugar/43g serving (32.6% by wt.)

Sometime after I tried last week's Trader Joe's caramel-filled bar, I happened to be back at the store and spied the other bar in the same line, Toffee with Walnuts and Pecans, though this one contains inclusions rather than a filling.

Appearance: First of all, I love these box designs, a crowded and colorful riff on the detailed, Victorian-style illustrations Trader Joe's uses on its promotional materials. That aside, the bar is thin and flat, with a uniform, glossy surface, solid brown color, and little bumps visible on the back.

Smell: Not particularly strong. Pleasant, rounded, fruity.

Taste: This bar contains small nuggets of toffee and flecks of nut. The chocolate is good in a generic way, so while it's not complex or intense or smoky or anything else you might like personally, it's also pretty dark and doesn't have any “off” flavors or no flavor at all, and I suppose that's a good way to appeal to a lot of people. The toffee pieces are large and salty-buttery enough to be enjoyable (I'm looking at you, Endangered Species), and the small nut bits are pretty forgettable, but given how many people buy chocolate bars containing little pieces of delicately flavored nuts, maybe others get more out of them than I do.

Conclusion: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar Toffee with Walnuts and Pecans doesn't stand out, but it's inoffensive and fun, and for $1.99 you get a gourmet-ish bar in a nice box.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar Caramel with Black Sea Salt

3oz (85g) bar 
Ingredients: Chocolate liquor, cane sugar, cocoa butter, cream, corn syrup, soy lecithin, water, vanilla, Hawaiian black sea salt, sea salt 
13g sugar/43g serving (30.2% by wt.)

This 70% cacao Trader Joe's bar is basically the exact same thing as last week's several-dollars-pricier Vosges bar, except it varies just enough (not organic cream, a sprinkling of salt on the back, higher sugar content) that Vosges clearly doesn't produce it, at least not as an identical copy. I haven't been impressed by Trader Joe's chocolate in the past, but who knows who makes it or how many manufacturers the grocer has used over the years, not to mention this is a filled bar rather than a single-origin, super-dark bar that relies heavily on its beans, so I might feel entirely differently today. It's hard to go wrong with caramel-filled chocolate.

Appearance: Big, thin, flat, matte, uniformly textured, a solid, medium-dark brown. As with last week's caramel-filled treat, this thin, sharply molded bar holds its soft filling well. 
(It only broke just before I took the photo above, when I caught it on the wrapper inside the box.)

Smell: Mild, slightly spicy, dried fruit, no sharpness.

Taste: This is the Bam! version of the Vosges bar, with a less interesting chocolate, just-a-bit-thicker and significantly but not unpleasantly sweeter caramel, and to my mind one major improvement, that restrained if uneven sprinkling of salt on the back that hits the tongue quickly and livens up all the flavors. Without it—as I said, it's unevenly applied—the whole package isn't nearly as interesting, because there isn't as much to the caramel or the chocolate, but most people will find this an entirely acceptable substitute for the more expensive Vosges bar.

Conclusion: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar Caramel with Black Sea Salt isn't super-complex, but it's pretty darn good for the price.