Tuesday, January 19, 2010
After oodles of wrangling and rumors that Nestle, Ferrero or Hershey’s would step in and partner or outbid, Kraft made it official (though it’s still tentative): $19 billion in cash and stock.
Kraft owns other confectionery divisions such as Terry’s Chocolate, Toblerone and C?te d’Or but Cadbury brings some pretty huge brands to the table besides Cadbury chocolate (available in dozens of countries) with their gum (Trident) and sugar candy (Swedish Fish & Sour Patch Kids) groups. A big concern for many is how this may stall Cadbury’s venture into Fair Trade, beyond their Green & Black’s brand and into their regular line of Dairy Milk bars.
Consider this your open thread to vent about it one way or another.
Monday was the big push at the Fancy Food Show, I was there for the full day and tried to see as much as possible. But I have a list of 250 companies and know I won’t see or taste it all.
Yes, I ate that. It’s a little chocolate version of a margarita. A bit of Patron, a bit of lime and a lot of creamy, creamy white chocolate in a dark chocolate cup with a salt rim. From Lillie Belle, part of a little line of cocktail inspired chocolates that also includes Maker’s Mark and my favorite a Gin & Tonic.
I stopped by a beautiful display at Kim’s Chocolates, a Belgian company. The booth was simply a double glass case of elegant and classic Belgian chocolates. I tasted an incredible orange and thyme truffle, smooth and savory with strong herbal and zest notes were just the right balance with the not-too-sweet chocolate. Also tried a cognac and cacao nib truffle that was quite dense and had some oak and deep molasses notes. They’ve taken over the shop on Larchmont in Los Angeles that used to be occupied by Leonidas, so I’ll be sure to stop by there so I can do a complete review.
Chuao Chocolatier: I mentioned the new Panko bar in my product announcement roundup, but there are three others also hitting the market: an Anise & Coffee and a Honeycomb. The fun thing about Chuao is that they also do sugar free bars, so everyone gets to have fun.
I found out how poorly I pronounce the international confection brands like Hachez and Pernigotti but enjoyed tasting all of the new items at the importer’s booth. Hachez is always so insanely smooth, the company conches their chocolate for seventy two hours which means that the particle size of the cacao is extremely small so it’s extra buttery. Penigotti does lovely gianduia, though I still prefer Caffarel, they have other tablet bars that are pretty compelling.
One of the trends mentioned in the Fancy Food Show press release was comfort foods. Chocolatiers like Gorant, which is from Youngstown, Ohio and a favorite of my mother’s seem positioned well for that. They do an excellent peanut butter meltaway and mint meltaway. They’re chocolate is quite sweet, but also buttery. They’re expanding national.
Rain Republic from Ecuador is an all-Ecuador chocolate. All ingredients are source from Ecuador: the sugar, the cacao and the vanilla beans. Plus it’s all made in Ecuador. I haven’t actually tasted it yet, but the packaging is lovely (the box actually opens with a tab on the top and can be easily reclosed) with its bold graphics and colors.
New Tree has evolved away from their initial line of Belgian chocolate in crazy names like Sexy. Now they’ve got interesting mixes of grains, nuts, seeds and flavors mixed in. They have some cute new single serve bars like Belgian Biscuit and Roasted Almonds that have stuff like omega 3 as well as less sugar without artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols.
I tried their Thyme infused bar last year and loved it ... now I just need to find a store that carries their bars.
Caffarel, the originator of gianduia, is usually at the show via one of their importers, this year they had their own booth. The stuff just takes my breath away ... if the folks who made Legoland ever wanted to do a gianduia theme park, please make it with Caffarel. I got a few samples of their leetle tiny hearts and some fruit gelees and will try to do a roundup after I play with them on my desk like matchbox cars for a few days.
Jelly Belly has Fruit Snacks. They’re not gummies, they’re just fruit chews made with starch and pectin as well as real fruit juice. No artificial colors. They were also showing off their mango and chili jelly beans, I haven’t tried them yet, because I’m a big baby.
B.T. McElrath introduced the Salty Dog bar last year. I’ve picked it up a couple of times at Whole Foods but I actually just keep eating it without reviewing it. This year the dark chocolate bar with sea salt and almond toffee chips got a companion, the Prairie Dog Bar, which is made with milk chocolate. I also tasted some of their new bonbons, which are always nicely packaged and designed. Pave Coconut isn’t too sweet and has a nice blend of the tropical notes and smooth creaminess. Lemon (pictured above) was also more on the tangy and zesty side and beautifully molded in a flower shape with a swirl of yellow white chocolate in the milk chocolate shell.
Hammond’s Candies sent me a tweet and bid me to come by to try their Honey Koko, one of their oldest products that they recently restarted production on. It was invented by the founder of the company eighty years ago. It’s just a coconut fondant covered in milk chocolate and more coconut. Much smoother and creamier than an Almond Joy but oh so sweet. They only sell them at the factory store and a few other candy shops in the area because they’re not a prepackaged item.
They also have some other fun flavors for their handmade and hand twisted creations like nutmeg candy canes, champagne candy canes, cabernet candy canes. It’s insane! Their booth always makes me so happy. I love the look of candy, it’s just amazing how versatile it is and Hammond’s really appreciates the impact that a one pound lollipop can make visually.
Hint Mint always has such fun packaging and flavor combinations, though I’m a kind of mint purist and stick with the original plain mint. I did pick up some samples of their Pomegranate Acai and Chocolate Mints.
In non candy tasting notes:
Yanni Grilling Cheese was awesome, you can get all the punch of gooey melted cheese without deep frying or bread.
I’m excited to try Purple Prairie Barley. It’s a heritage barley variety that’s supposed to have a nice toasted and smoky flavor. (I happen to love barley in all forms.)
I’ll have some more photos & roundups and of course will be trying to send out a few tweets during the day. Perhaps I can get back to full reviews later this week. (I’ve been tasting too many things to give one thing the focus it deserves.)
Name: Valentine Dots
Name: Sour Patch Jelly Hearts
Name: Valentine’s Skittles
Name: Red Vines Valentine Chews
Name: Hawaiian Fruits Life Savers
Name: Panko Bar
Name: Skittles Fizzl’d Fruits
Name: Dark Chocolate Quinoa: Midnight Crunch
Name: Shrek Ogreheads
Monday, January 18, 2010
Sunday was the first day of the annual Winter Fancy Food Show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. It’s my fourth time attending. This year I have a list of 250 companies exhibiting with confectionery products. I hope to make it through the list ... though my first day was cut a little short as I had to drive all the way from Los Angeles at six in the morning.
I haven’t noticed any specific trends, which is great to be honest. Yeah, there’s a lot of sea salt, chili and exotic fruits in candy now, but sometimes it’s not so much about trends but just new availability of ingredients. When I’m at Fancy Food, I usually concentrate on candy, but that doesn’t mean that other foods and drinks catch my fancy.
Here are a few things I noticed:
I love hot chocolate, though of course I don’t write about it much here because it’s not actually candy. Still, when I’m at trade shows I love to try the stuff. One of my favorites is the Mexican-style which varies quite a bit. This version from Kekua is stone ground cocoa, a touch of sugar. The tablets are easy to crush up and dissolve in milk (or water) either hot or cold. It’s available with or without almonds. I tasted the almond-less version.
What I liked about it was how it had a hearty toasted flavor, kind of like malt-o-meal or the barley tea I drink from Japan. They also make them in little nuggets so you have the option of either making hot chocolate with them or just eating them. Since the sugar isn’t combined with the cacao completely, it’s grainy and more like a dry cookie dough. (Kekua website.)
Lake Champlain has introduced a new Five Star Bar: Five Star Granola Bar. It’s in the same shape as the rest of the line and features a ganache/cream center filled with crunchy oats, almonds and cranberries covered in dark chocolate. The variation in crunch is fun as is the cereal heartiness of the granola. Of course the chocolate is nice too!
They also said there will be two new Breakfast Egg versions for Easter - they’re a larger Five Star Bar in either the Granola version or a Peanut Butter Crisp.
The folks at How Do You Take Your Coffee who make Javaz, the expertly roasted coffee beans covered in chocolate and beautiful shell also have some over-caffeinated products. I reviewed their GoGo Beans before and saw that they’ll have GoGo Drops soon. They’re the size and format of M&Ms, except the coffee flavored chocolate in a candy shell is then hyper-caffeinated. Not something I should be eating, but definitely a find for students and folks who need an extra kickstart.
Just about anything with whole nuts attracts me. I stopped at Valor which is a Spanish chocolate company that I’ve never reviewed before. They make an incredible hot chocolate, for those who have had Churros y Chocolate, you’ll what kind I mean. They also have chocolate bars and I mentioned in a previous Candy Tease that they introduced single portion bars. Well now I’ve tasted them - whole Spanish almonds in silky chocolate ... quite satisfying.
The other whole nut stop was Lindt where they were showing off their new Grandeur bars which come in milk or dark chocolate and feature whole Hazelnuts. I’m a sucker for hazelnuts as well, and Lindt’s chocolate pairs excellently with it. I’ve already seen these in stores (Target) and plan to pick up a full bar (or both bars) for review in the future.
Things are beautiful. Food is beautiful. Pralus, whom I’ve already fallen for, had an amazing display of their beautifully packaged products at their booth. There’s so much attention to detail at the Fancy Food Show. There were several other companies that I got a similar vibe from (that I’ll be covering later) that understand that we feast first with our eyes, then with our mouth and then with our minds. It’s a whole experience and I think gives more to appreciate.
One of the other non-candy things I do is discover cheese. I love cheese, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become lactose-sensitive. So I have to eat less and less. The cool thing is that goat and sheep milk cheeses are easier for us lactose-averse folks to digest. So at the show I made full use of the tastings to find new products. One of the new lines I found is from Marcelli Formaggi of Abruzzi, Italy. They use sheep’s milk to make an incredible array of ricottas. There was a cave aged ricotta that was like a blue on the outside and a firm creamy ricotta on the inside. Amazing. I fear I’m going to be putting in a few web orders soon if I can’t find them in stores. (Marcelli website.)
(All photos above by Emanuel Treeson)
A few years ago Jelly Belly was taking suggestions for their new bean flavors. I was actively advocating honey. I know, it’s not dazzling like Juicy Pear or knock-your-socks-off like Buttered Popcorn, but let’s face it, honey is one of humans’ first candies.
Honey actually made it to the final cut of the flavor voting, but the trendier Acai Berry won (with honey as a close second). The good news is that honey made a good enough showing that Jelly Belly went ahead and made it anyway! Which is good, because I’d much rather have a spoonful of honey than of acai berry.
The beans are dark amber and ever so slightly translucent.
They’re soft and mild - really like a less sweet globule of honey. The texture is smooth overall, though with that slight grain of the thin jelly bean shell. There’s a little bit of a fresh aftertaste, kind of like jasmine tea.
It’s too bad that they’re not all natural (there are some artificial colors in there) but they use real honey in them, and that definitely is apparent.
Honestly, I didn’t think much of them when I had them the first time, but the true honey flavor comes through and I found myself wanting more later. I can’t say eating a huge bag of them would be a goal, but they were a nice little mid-day refresher. My confidence level that these are going to appear in stores is pretty low. I don’t expect to see them at the grocery store, but perhaps in the stores that carry the single flavors in bulk ... so the Jelly Belly website is probably going to be the best bet. (A custom mix I’d make for myself would probably be to mix the honey and Citrus Mix for a special sort of cough drop if only they’d make a mentholated jelly bean.)
Jelly Belly are gluten-free, dairy-free and gelatin free plus Kosher.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Rococo is a small chocolatier and chocolate maker based in London. They grow their cacao in Grenada, in a partnership with the Grenada Chocolate Company. They grow organic Trinitario beans which are then turned into bars and fine chocolates at founder Chantal Coady’s space in London.
The design of the packaging and candy itself is charming, quaint and distinctive from other chocolatiers. The flavors she employs are also a distinctive palette of aromatics, spices and florals.
The chocolate is sold primarily in Great Britain, though there are a couple of shops that have mostly the bars in North America. When I was in San Francisco last time I found the line of Bee Bars at Miette Confiserie. The bars are expensive, so I opted for the petite versions - these are only 20 grams each but cost $3.50 (that works out to $39.50 a pound). The bars are about three inches long, so really just one portion.
The packages are beguiling with reproductions of antique French chocolate mold images lined up and printed in pastel colors like purple and olive green in the case of my bars and navy blue, pink and orange for other bars. I picked up Organic Plain Lavender (dark), Organic Milk 37% Cocoa and Organic White Cardamom.
I was a bit surprised when I got home and opened my boxes that there is no inner wrapper. No foil, no cellophane, no overwrap for the box or even glue or tape for the tabs.
Still, my bar was in exquisite condition - glossy and beautifully molded. The bee bar, my guess, is named for the mold that has a little bee with outstretched wings on each segment. There are no honey ingredients.
The Milk 37% Cocoa Bee Bar is quite simple. It’s a little softer than a dark chocolate, though certainly doesn’t bend like a Cadbury bar.
It has the light scent of milk and sugar and a little musky hint or malt. It’s quite dark for a milk which appeals to me, though it still has that light cooling effect on the tongue that’s common in milk chocolate. The melt is silky and smooth though on the sticky side because of the sugar and 17% milk content. The chocolate notes are overshadowed by the milk for the most part, but it’s still a great texture and the fresh dairy flavors are a highlight.
The Lavender Bee Bar is made from 65% cacao and uses no vanilla, instead it’s organic lavender essential oil that gives this bar its pop. The fact that they use oil instead of flowers is different here. I’ve had other bars that use whole flowers to flavor the chocolate and while that does a nice job of imparting complex flavors, lavender buds really aren’t that tasty or smooth.
The dark chocolate is smooth, a bit dry and bitter. The lavender is woodsy with a hint of pine and a whiff of aromatics like menthol. I like the flavor of lavender, it reminds me a lot of rosemary - both go well with all kinds of chocolate.
The bar that was most compelling to me was the White Cardamom Bee Bar. This one was wrapped - both in foil and then a paper-overwrap. The mold of the bar is also slightly different - it’s four sections instead of six.
The bar is beautiful, a light and creamy yellow with specks of spice. The ingredients list 28% cacao (that’d be cocoa butter) and 22% milk.
I love cardamom and love tasting it in candy. This bar utilizes it perfectly, it’s like a rich rice pudding. It’s a little sweet, but the deep nutty flavors of the cardamom, which is kind of like nutmeg, coriander and saffron all in one. I could eat this bar regularly. I wouldn’t mind a little vanilla in it, to give it some bourbon notes, but this is fabulous as it is.
Other flavor combinations I’m eager to try are Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh; Arabic Spices; Basil & Persian Lime; Orange & Geranium and Peppered Mint. For web orders in the US, it appears that Miss Del’s General Store in Clarksdale, Mississippi. At these prices they’re certainly not an everyday indulgence, more of a way to explore the world of flavors.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
This year they’re expanding their line with two new bars. Today I have the Mint Wafer Bars. In the compact package are two wafer bars with a mint creme filling sandwiched between crispy light wafers covered in dark chocolate.
It’s not a big package, though it has a sharp design that fits with the rest of their candy bars. They seem to have a color coding thing going on; as you’d expect this one is green for mint. Though there are two bars in there, it’s still pretty light, only 1.1 ounces. The ingredients are all natural and have no hydrogenated oils or preservatives (though honestly, few candies do use preservatives).
The bars are about three inches long and a little under one inch wide. The dark chocolate coating is glossy, rippled and rather thin, just enough to seal up the wafers and cream. The dark chocolate coating is made in Belgium, but the candy bars are manufactured in The Netherlands.
The wafers inside are light and mostly flavorless, there’s a slight hint of toasted rice (though they’re made with wheat flour). The cream center is white and slightly cool on the tongue. The mint is very light and fresh with a slight note of real mint leaves instead of just peppermint oil. It’s smooth for the most part with just a little bit of a tiny grain to it. The chocolate coating is deep and rich with a dry and bittersweet bite.
The combination is quite nice, not too sweet and refreshing. The portion size is insufficient though: I know, my Americaness is showing. I’d love the package to have three instead of two. But glancing at the teensy print of the nutrition label it is clear that each finger is about 95 calories. But that means that these are jam packaged with calories - that comes out to 173 per ounce. Mmm, crispy, minty and chocolatey fat.
The earlier Dark Chocolate and Milk Chocolate Wafer Bars featured crisped rice, while these just have the wafer planks and dark chocolate with cream. While this limits the crunch, it does mean that the cream and its flavors are more forward.
On the whole, they’re very tasty. My only hesitations with them are the price (usually $1.50 or so) and how hard they are to find. I’m told that they’re available at Whole Foods, but you know how WF likes to move stuff around to confuse their shoppers so I find it difficult to grab them on a regular basis.
The other new flavor is Double Dark Chocolate Wafer bars which feature 70% cacao chocolate and are actually vegan. I’ll review those in my upcoming Vegan Week.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
As we’re in the middle of Candy Season one of my favorite things to do after a holiday is to see what’s on sale from the previous holiday and glance at the early merchandise on the shelves for the next one. The Epiphany usually marks the emergence of Valentine’s Day candy. I scour the aisles looking for something new. So when I saw the new packaging for Necco Sweethearts I thought they’d expanded their line. They have been offering an all-chocolate version, Spanish language version and lately a Tart version. I thought this new fruity array was an addition.
I bought them but didn’t open them, just tossing them on my pile for review. Then the comments started trickling in from readers, who were finding my old review and weighing in on the changes. It appears that it’s a complete replacement for the classic Necco Sweethearts (see my review of them in 2008).
There are so many things wrong. Let me start on the front of the package.
The Official Candy of Love
Does Love have a governing board that can decide these things, like the Olympic Committee? No, no it does not. Love, Freedom, Justice and Anger ... these concepts and emotions are boundless and cannot have anything official about them. Invoking any sort of official in association with them is false advertising. Love does not do endorsements. (Unless Necco would like to step forward and show me their contracts with Love.)
New Package Design
I actually like it. It’s bold but still soft and, yeah, a bit feminine and childish. At first I though the colors of the hearts were a little too vivid, but after seeing the actual candies inside, I’m setting that aside. The choice of Love Bug as the statement on the featured heart is a bit odd.
It’s marked in a black stamp there in the upper right corner, 99 cents and the package holds 7 ounces. Can’t really beat that, especially when the little boxes are usually selling for 50 cents for one ounce (though sometimes on for as little as 20 cents each). Not terribly attractive but kind of makes me nostalgic for the time before bar codes.
Lack of Branding
The front of the package does not bear the name of the maker. The name Necco isn’t actually on the package anywhere ... just New England Confectionery Company under the nutrition facts panel (followed by the web address of http://www.necco.com). The previous years’ packaging does have Necco and its logo featured prominently both on the front and the back of the packages.
It’s January 13, so a little more than a month before Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s candy has been in stores for at least a week. On the back of the package is says for baking, gifting, craft ideas and more visit mysweethearts.com. You know what’s on that page as I write this? It’s a placeholder about some sort of iPhone app. No promised recipes or craft ideas ... not even any mention that would be what I expect to find it there. (See screengrab.)
The New Flavors - Show You Care ... 6 Delicious Ways to Share!
Strawberry, Grape, Green Apple, Lemon, Orange and Blue Raspberry.
I’m not going to break the flavors down one by one. What was nice about Necco Sweethearts was the subtle sweet flavors, nothing exciting, they were simply pleasant.
The new flavors are a blend of sweet and tart. The texture is smoother than the usual compressed dextrose candy like SweeTarts, because this is made with mostly sugar and corn syrup instead of dextrose (which is just a powder form of glucose and has a different mouthfeel).
The citrus flavors are completely artificial with a tangy note that is wholly un-citrus and more like a chemical. The pink ones taste like a combination of lipstick and the old wintergreen ones, which is just a disgusting mix. Grape has as much clove flavor in it as food coloring though the mixture is nearly palatable.
These do not show I care ... these show that I have no regard for my lover or friend’s expectations of what a heart shaped candy should taste like.
It’s as if Necco took all the artificial colors that they aren’t using for their new All Natural Necco Wafers and pouring it all into these improved Necco Sweethearts. Simply put, they’re a mess. (Now, I would’ve been thrilled if the conversation hearts were also going to be all natural, what an awesome innovation that would have been.)
Once I opened the bag I was in trouble. The smell is a blend of Love’s Baby Soft and strawberry candles. And if I were just sniffing the bag, well, yeah, I have to expect that. But this thing made my car smell, they make my office smell. When I’m done with this review they’re going in the trash someplace where I am not.
The one thing they have improved upon was one of my beefs with them previously. They production quality is better. The pieces are well formed and most especially the printing is clear. Sure about a quarter of them aren’t printed square in the center, but they’re still readable.
The sayings are cute. They’re using the heart symbol quite a bit. Hey Baby, Smile, Sweet Love, Dream Big, You Rock, Puppy Love, Meet Me, Love Me, Hug Me, Kiss Me, For Ever, Ask Me, even Marry Me
I’m not saying they shouldn’t make these, someone probably likes them, but they should be an additional product in the line, not a replacement for the iconic original.
UPDATE 1/27/2010: It’s been a few weeks and it seems that the response posted here has been overwhelmingly negative about the flavor change (few have mentioned the new texture).
So I talked to Jackie Hague, the Vice President of Marketing for Necco who navigated this new change (along with the All Natural Necco Wafers, which I fully support). We had a great talk about candy in general (she worked for Mars for 20 years and was responsible for many of the limited edition M&Ms that so many of us have loved over the years).
First, you can still get the classic Necco Sweethearts. The change over was made mid-way through the production schedule. So the first part of the production run was the classic flavors (Banana, Wintergreen, Orange, Cherry, Grape) and then they switched over the ingredients and equipment for the new formula. They are sold at very few stores, basically the discounters: Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar , 99 Cent Only, Freds , Odd Lots, Wakefern and Sav A Lot. (The image shown here is the classic flavors on the left that I found at Dollar Tree and the ones on the right are the new flavors/colors - here’s what the package looks like.)
Second, Ms. Hague said that the changes were made based on consumer feedback. The most common requests from folks who wrote or called were for a softer texture and for more intense & modern flavors. Banana was not well liked, apparently yellow is not ordinarily expected to be banana. The texture was introduced first with the Twilight version of Sweethearts (though future versions won’t have Passion Fruit) as well as the tangier, more vibrant flavors.
So the takeaway from this would be, if you don’t like the new flavors, make sure that Necco knows that. Return the product, write to them or call. I wouldn’t expect a whole lot in return (a canned response) but I do think that they log the feedback - it’s in their best interest. (Ms. Hague also said that they’ve assigned more people to help out with the feedback process, so perhaps the responses will be more appropriate instead of a copy/paste FAQ.) Ms. Hague understood my frustration with not just the lack of information but the contrary information provided by the website and candy packages and it’s apparent they’re working on that.
The Necco website’s Sweethearts product page used to say this, “One thing Sweetheart lovers can count on each year is the candy’s simple, familiar formula. The basic recipe has never been changed. Both Sweethearts and the familiar NECCO Wafers use the same batter—sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, gums, coloring and flavoring.” However, they’ve finally updated their websites to reflect this new change and have omitted that statement that they honor the time-tested flavors ... because they were tested by time and after about a hundred years, even as the #1 Valentines candy selling 8 billion hearts a year, they lost. Necco thinks that this new version will appeal to more people, which is possible, but it’s clear it’s not the same people who have been buying them.
Update 2/10/2013: Both versions of Necco’s Conversation Hearts are on store shelves this year. By far the most ubiquitous are the newer fruity version, but I did find the almost-classic “Conversation Hearts” at Walgreen’s. The old ones are called Conversation Hearts, not Sweethearts. I’ve only seen them in the little boxes, only as singles (not in the shrinkwrapped five packs and no bags).
The classic version has white (cinnamon), green (lime), yellow (banana), pink (cherry), purple (grape) and orange (orange). So they’ve eliminated clove and wintergreen. It’s too bad. The texture has returned to the crunchier version. The colors are more vibrant and the printing just as inconsistent.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.