Monday, August 4, 2014
While in London earlier this year, I made sure to visit some of the finer chocolate shops. One I wanted to go to in particular was one of the Hotel Chocolat locations known as Roast+Conch, where they actually make some bean to bar chocolate. The location in the Borough Market in the Bankside district of London and includes a full restaurant that features cacao as an ingredient in every dish.
After eating a wonderful lunch, my mother and I browsed the store on the ground level. The cacao of the day was Trinidad, with the beans being served before lunch and some pieces of freshly made chocolate served at the end of the meal. So I was sure to pick up a bar of that. Then I also wanted to try another bar from their Rabot 1745 line. Though Hotel Chocolate uses Callebaut chocolate in their other confections, their Rabot line is made in conjunction with Coppeneur in Germany (one of my favorite chocolate makers). I didn’t know that at the time, but now it doesn’t surprise me at all.
I picked out a Venezuela Chuao 70% bar. Chuao cacao has a strong reputation as some of the best beans in the world (here’s a sampling of some bars I tasted a few years ago).
Hotel Chocolat gives extensive information about the handling of the beans and making of the cacao. The bar itself is 70% cacao with just three ingredients: cacao mass, cane sugar and soy lecithin.
The description of this bar from Hotel Chocolat goes something like this: Prima Donna with talent. She’s good and she knows it – an interplay of cream and caramel with malt and raisins, roast nuts and plenty of elegant poise.
Roasting time: 35min @135 C.
Refining & Conching: 72hrs
The bar is wonderfully dark with an interesting texture from the mold. Though it’s rather thick, it’s quite easy to snap.
The scent is woodsy with some green notes like jasmine and olives. The melt is smooth, though it has a bitter note right away, a sort of dryness that gives it an acidic bite. But the buttery texture makes that all quite palatable. I caught a burnt note to it, a sort of smoke but nothing that’s unpleasant. It doesn’t have some of the other nutty notes I enjoy in other Venezuelan chocolate, mostly those from Ocumare. But I’d definitely eat this again, mostly because the texture is so nice, especially since it’s such a high cacao content.
The bar itself just came in the cellophane sleeve with a label, there was no box. The label also didn’t say anything about the conch time or the harvest, just the date the bar was best by. The Hotel Chocolat website says that they use Trinitario beans (which makes sense, since they’re from Trinidad where the varietal originated).
It’s a 75% bar, so it’s only a little bit darker than the Chuao. The texture is far and away different, it’s grittier and sort of rustic in its overall flavors. It’s woodsy with some coffee and black pepper notes, a little toffee and brown sugar as well. It’s kind of bitter, but not overly dry at the finish. The meal we had in the restaurant started with these beans and then later finished with little medallions of chocolate also from Trinidad beans. I like the idea of buying chocolate that’s made right before my eyes, but the reality is that I prefer to eat the chocolate that’s been carefully crafted ... and I don’t have to witness it to enjoy it.
I’ve found that I like a long conch on my chocolate, part of what I like about a good chocolate bar is the texture. In most cases a long conch gives the cacao not only the time it needs to become smooth, but also for the flavors to develop. I did a taste test a few years back with some Coppeneur Chuao that had been conched 70 hours and 100 hours. Much of the mass-market chocolate we consume is conched for less than a day, some for two days ... I found that a 3 day conch is fine for me, anything over that gets kind of muddy in the flavor department but does create an amazingly smooth texture.
The Rabot 1745 line from Hotel Chocolat is a worthwhile way to experience single origin chocolate along with a lot of information about the making of the bar itself, as few chocolate makers include the origin, harvest date, roasting and conch time.
Monday, June 23, 2014
Target has a variety of house brands on their shelves right now, though not that many in the candy aisle any longer. I did spot this new variety of little fruity chocolate morsels and picked up Simply Balanced Mixed Berry Fruit Juice Pieces Covered in Dark Chocolate. I don’t actually know what these are supposed to be called, since that sounds more like a description than a name. The brand called Simply Balanced is also new to me, the package says that its goodness guarantee takes the guesswork out of eating well.
As far as I can tell, a Canadian confectioner called Brookside invented the concept of a little antioxidant-themed jelly morsel covered in dark chocolate back in late 2010. They grew quickly enough that Hershey’s decided to purchase the company and of course knock-off versions have emerged over the intervening years. This version from Target has some interesting elements to it.
They’re made with Rainforest Alliance certified cacao from Ecuador. Though it’s nice dark chocolate, it’s only 60%. The package also calls them fruit juice pieces, similar to the language used by Brookside for their jelly thingies. In reality they’re jellies. They’re made from glucose, water, fruit juice from concentrate, citric acid, pectin and corn starch. So, it’s less fruit juice and mostly sugar. Honestly, I would mind something called dark chocolate covered fruit jellies (those already exist, and they’re usually raspberry or orange flavored and usually sticks). But this new genre of candy is trying to paint itself with the fine qualities of antioxidant rich berries, when the reality is they’re made from not just blueberry, pomegranate and cranberry juice, but also apple and lemon.
As much as I may make fun of their marketing materials, it is a list of ingredients that I could put together in my kitchen (though the end product wouldn’t look as nice). The pieces are large, like Peanut M&Ms instead of the smaller pieces from Brookside. The coats are not quite as smooth, a little dinged up, I think, from getting jostled around. But still shiny.
They smell a little fruity, with some woodsy notes of chocolate. The bite is pretty soft, the jelly center is springy and dissolves quickly. Some had a small hint of grainy sugar to them, but most were smooth. The chocolate is creamy and has a good, quick melt and soft bite. The fruity centers were tangy with a strong blueberry and cranberry flavor to them. There’s a light bitter note towards the end that reminded me of cranberries.
The pieces are easy to eat and a nice change from nut and chocolate combinations. They’re not innovative, but nicely done. The ingredients are pretty clean and the use of Rainforest Alliance cacao and labeling it as being made with non-GMO ingredients is a nice touch.
The candies contain soy and are made in a facility that also processes milk, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and eggs. (Too bad, it would be nice if these were at least free of some of the major allergens.) They’re kind of expensive at $3.59 for only 7 ounces, but comparable to the Trader Joe’s, Brookside and Brach’s versions price wise, but I actually prefer them.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Equal Exchange, the cooperative that sells cocoa, coffee, tea and chocolate made with fair trade ingredients sent me some of their new candy bars. They really fit right into the candy bar sector, not the high end chocolate bars. They currently make three bars, I thought I’d tackle a review of the Equal Exchange Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Filled Bar first, since it’s the one with the widest appeal.
The bar is 1.5 ounces, which is a perfect single serving size. The wrapper is orange, lots and lots of orange, which is the universal color to represent peanuts, just like blue is supposed to represent milk chocolate. The bars are made in Peru with cacao from Peruvian cocoa co-ops.
The format of the bar is simple, it’s long and narrow with 7 segments. Inside the milk chocolate shell is a peanut butter filling. The ingredients are very simple: sugar, cocoa butter, milk powder, peanuts, chocolate solids, sea salt and soy lecithin. (Organic where possible.) There are not additional oils in there, which is a nice change. Many peanut butter candies use some vegetable oils to stabilize the peanut butter.
The bar smells sweet and a little nutty, but not terribly notable or enticing. The chocolate is smooth, rather sweet but overall has no real defining kick. The peanut butter center is firm, but melts well in the mouth. There’s no chalky grain like many American peanut butter candies. There’s a little hint of salt ... but it’s missing a roasted peanut oomph. I recognize this may be because the peanuts used for the peanut butter are not American (though the label doesn’t say their source). It’s a little grassy, but not much else. It’s kind of like Reese’s Pieces. The ratios are a lot more balanced, you can see there’s a lot of chocolate for the amount of peanut butter.
Overall, this is not a bar I would purchase. There are some good options out there in the peanut butter cup format for those looking for better ingredients and sourcing. For those in Canada, you can also find these bars under the Camino label. As far as Equal Exchange goes, I will still continue to eat the Milk Chocolate Caramel Crunch with Sea Salt, it’s an excellent hybrid of high end chocolate and candy satisfaction.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
While in London I made a point of visiting Rococo Chocolates. I’ve picked up quite a few of their bars in the United States before, I loved the packaging design and the molding of the bar in addition to their choice of Grenada Chocolate Company and Valrhona as chocolate sources. It’s not hard to find their products, they were sold in some of the grocery stores and in most of the food halls at the flagship department stores. But I wanted to see the store for myself, and pick out some individual pieces of their famous violet creams (not a whole box).
The Rococo Chocolate Shop on Motcomb Street is not far from Harrod’s and in an area with a large number of embassies. I mention this because I happened to walk past the Ecuadorian embassy, which I probably wouldn’t have given a second glance except for the demonstrators calling attention to the fact that Julian Assange was in there.
With my limited space in my suitcase, I wanted to bring back something special, something seasonal but also something that would travel well. The Rococo Easter Egg filled with a Selection of Ganaches seemed like an ideal item.
It was expensive, at £11.75 for only 70 grams, but something I wouldn’t find in the United States. The box is lovely, a heavy cardstock printed box with no other branding on it once I removed the product sleeve. The decoration on the box are prints from catalogues of old chocolate molds.
The egg is a common format I’ve seen in Europe for Easter. Some places call them Flame Eggs. It’s a hollow egg, made of two sections that are usually wrapped in foil separately and then filled with a selection of other chocolates, like little ganaches or just a pile of Cadbury Mini Eggs or Smarties. They can be small, like this one, or gigantic centerpiece items that can weigh more than a pound and are meant for a whole family.
Everything inside the box was also neatly wrapped. The egg itself was wrapped in tissue paper, in a print matching the box. Inside the two hemispheres of the egg were the little ganaches wrapped in another large piece of food-grade tissue paper. Even though this had traveled thousands of miles, it fared very well.
The egg piece are wrapped in a nice orange-gold foil that’s easy to peel off. The egg itself is about 3.25 inches high and 2.25 inches wide at the widest spot.
The chocolate egg was formed in two layers, as it kind of cleaves when bitten. The quality of the chocolate is excellent. The tempering is superb, as it looks great with its beautiful glossy sheen and silky melt. The flavor profile is very rich. The toasted notes of toffee and coffee are immediately forward with some bitterness along with a sort of brownie flavor. The shell is 65% cacao, but tasted far darker.
The ganaches inside were unmarked, the package only said that they were a mix of ganaches, so I’m not certain what I had. Here are my guesses:
Milk Chocolate - orange ganache with mango & passion fruit jelly. The light orange truffle center was sweet and tangy with a little note of zest. There was a layer of firm jelly with a wonderful tart and floral flavor, the mango was more forward with only a hint of the passion fruit.
Dark Chocolate - Valrhona Manjari Madagascar single origin. This was a wonderfully reliable piece with a nicely acidic ganache center with notes of cherry and raspberry (which means it might have been a berry ganache). Very good melt and very little sugary grain to the whole thing.
Coffee - Irish coffee white chocolate ganache in dark chocolate. This had a little sprinkling of coffee bits and turbinado sugar on the top. It was much sweeter than I was expecting, not as intense or as chocolatey as I’d hoped. As soon as the coffee flavors developed, it was gone. Maybe if I ate several of them in succession ...
I also picked up a few impulse items. The Honecomb Crunch bar is one of the Bee Bar line, which have a charming bar mold design (see that here). It’s organic milk chocolate with a bit of crushed cinder toffee (sponge candy). The bits of the candy were too small to appreciate properly, but provided a nice toffee note. The milk chocolate was dark and had a lot of cheesy dairy notes, rather in the Swiss style. It’s quite a munchable bar.
Rococo Carre squares are single origin pieces, probably about 7 grams each. They’re each a different color, depending on the source of the chocolate.
63% cacao from Peru’s Chanchamayo Province smells strongly of honey. The melt is quick and a little thin and sweet. It later develops with excellent cherry and raisin flavors: dark and jammy. A very nice munching chocolate, especially if you like those fruity flavors that typify Peruvian chocolate.
Finally, I also picked up four little chocolates from the candy counter while I was there to consume while I was in London. The key piece worth noting was the Violet Cream. This is something of a British traditional chocolate. I’m not adverse to floral flavors, I like them very much ... if I had to rank them, it would go something like this: orange blossom, jasmine, lavender, rose, geranium, elderflower and then violet. I don’t have photos, but they’re as you would imagine, a small dollop of sugary fondant covered in dark chocolate. The texture of the cream center was very nicely done, not grainy at all, not even too sweet. But the violet as overwhelming. There was scarcely a note of chocolate in the coating. They’re simply not for me.
I’ll continue to seek out Rococo Chocolates, the flavor combinations are a little more traditionally British, which is refreshing when so many other brands I’ve tried from the UK seem more in line with the Swiss/Belgian traditions.
Monday, April 7, 2014
They’re 3.5 ounces and priced competitively with other premium chocolate bars. Equal Exchange (I reviewed some Easter items on Friday) is a cooperative using fair trade standards to create a whole store filled with chocolate, coffee, tea and other goods.
This bar features organic freeze dried raspberries in organic and fair trade dark chocolate. The cacao is sourced from fair trade cooperatives in The Dominican Republic, Panama, Ecuador and Peru with sugar from Paraguay and vanilla from Madagascar. There’s no soy lecithin and it’s considered gluten free though it may contain traces of milk, hazelnuts, cashews and coconut. Equal Exchange makes their chocolate in Switzerland.
The bar is wrapped simply, in thin foil and then a thicker paper overwrap (the inside had all the sourcing details about the bar).
The bar is glossy and attractive, with some bumps on the bottom from the raspberry bits. The molding is good as is the temper, it’s very consistent and I noticed no voids or swirling in any of the bars (which can happen with inclusions). It smells rich, though barely sweet. Like cherries, coffee and honey. Once snapped in half though, the raspberry scent, with its floral notes becomes much more noticeable. The chocolate is sweet on the tongue and has a good, cool melt with a creamy texture. The raspberry bits are crunchy and tangy, though the seeds in the center can be a bit tougher.
It’s a very easy to eat bar, with a lot more acidic tang than most other 60% bars. I don’t care much for the grassy, woody note of the seeds, but that’s berries for you.
The Equal Exchange Organic Lemon Ginger Chocolate with Black Pepper is 55% cacao, so it’s the lightest chocolate intensity of the bunch. The package gives the identical sourcing info for the major ingredients but doesn’t say where the lemon, ginger and black pepper is from, though they’re all organic.
It’s nice to see lemon used with chocolate, it’s not as common as orange, but can still combine well, especially with dark chocolate. The addition of ginger and black pepper makes this the most unconventional flavor in the Equal Exchange line. This package looked the same on the outside as the other bars, but instead of a foil inner liner, it’s in some sort of compostable mylar. I also noticed that the nutritional panel listed this one at only 200 calories a portion, not 230 ...which actually sounds more plausible. (But calorie calculations are fraught with error, as the basis for it is over 100 years old, so really they’re just a guide.)
Though the bar contains no milk, it doesn’t look like a particularly dark chocolate bar. It smells woodsy and fresh, with a little note of rosemary and cedar.
The melt of the dark chocolate is very smooth, but I did start to detect a bit of sugar grain ... this was from the crystallized ginger in the bar. The lemon is a bit strong, rather astringent at first, but it dissipates. The chocolate is mild, woodsy and of course creamy. The ginger and black pepper hit come in slowly as a hint of warmth in the throat. The sugar from the crystallized ginger rather disguised the ginger kick at first, then it came forward.
It’s a satisfying bar.
The final bar is the Equal Exchange Organic Dark Chocolate with Coconut 60%. Like the Raspberry bar, this one has a thin silver foil wrapping.
It is also 60% cacao content and contains only one additional ingredient to the chocolate, the organic coconut flakes.
This bar reminded me most of Passover, which I’ve often thought of as Macaroon Season, as coconut macaroons (often dipped in chocolate) are a typical treat since they can be made without only coconut, chocolate, egg whites and sugar to follow the Kosher for Passover rules.
The bar has a lot of coconut in it, and the silky chocolate goes well with it. There are cherry and raisin notes to go with the more tropical scent of the coconut and hints of the Madagascar vanilla bean.
The exciting development this year for Equal Exchange is their new designation of their dark chocolates as Kosher for Passover. Equal Exchange chocolates that are marked pareve (the 3.5 oz or 100 g line and dark chocolate minis) may be purchased before Passover and consumed on Passover according to Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. The specific bars from Equal Exchange that qualify for this designation are: Organic Chocolate Espresso Bean Bar, Organic Dark Chocolate with Almonds Bar, Organic Ecuador Dark Chocolate Bar, Organic Mint with a Delicate Crunch Bar, Organic Orange Dark Chocolate Bar, Organic Panama Extra Dark Chocolate Bar, Organic Very Dark Chocolate Bar, Organic Lemon Ginger with Black Pepper, Organic Dark Chocolate Minis.
It’s interesting that before this, there were no certified fair trade chocolates that were designated Kosher for Passover. Which is odd, because Passover is all about the commemoration of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. The best news is that these are tasty and come in a pretty wide variety of flavor options.
CNN has been covering modern day slavery, including in the cocoa trade in a series of articles, segments and documentaries.
Friday, April 4, 2014
Equal Exchange is cooperative that sells products with fair trade ingredients and/or labor. Many of these are products where the farmers that grow them live in poverty, lack educational opportunities. Things like coffee, tea, bananas and of course, cocoa. These are all grown in tropical regions and depend on a high degree of manual labor. With the chocolate industry, there’s the added issue of slavery of hundreds of thousands of children on farms, mostly in Western Africa.
Equal Exchange also makes its own chocolate, which uses fair trade certified ingredients, not just ethically sourced cocoa. The result isn’t charity, these are real, sustainable products that you can buy at a fair price that are actually good quality as well.
They’ve been making chocolate for a while, but only more recently has it become more mainstream ... and now they have holiday packaged foil-wrapped eggs.
Equal Exchange Milk Chocolate Foil Eggs are 41% cacao, which is as dark as some semisweet chocolate sold these days. The ingredients sound delicious: cacao butter, whole milk powder, cane sugar, chocolate liquor, unrefined white cane sugar, ground hazelnuts and vanilla. The ingredients are also fair trade (except for the hazelnuts and milk) and all organic. There’s no soy, no lecithin, no other fillers.
The melt is smooth and creamy. It’s not at all grainy but very fatty and thick on the tongue. The flavor is interesting and not something I initially liked. It’s deep and not terribly sweet. The milk flavors are definitely more on the powdered milk, flirting with the cheesy side. But the roasted flavors of the hazelnuts balances that. The chocolate itself is woodsy with a sort of green banana note to it. It sounds weird.
I can’t stop eating these. I actually did stop, when I ran out. Then I realized they also sent this to me:
Yes, that’s over a pound and a half of mini milk chocolate bars. In a handy dispenser box. I have it on my desk, like it’s dispensing tissues during allergy season.
The Equal Exchange Dark Chocolate Foil Eggs are also quite rich. They feature the same high fat, though in this case there are no nuts and no dairy at all. The 55% cacao content is rounded out only with sugar and vanilla beans. Like the Milk Chocolate, it’s all organic, but in this case it’s also all fair trade certified. There’s no soy in there, no GMOs though there may be traces of milk, peanuts, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios and/or pecans. Though it doesn’t say on the ingredients, they should be gluten free. Finally, they’re vegan. While there’s not a lot in there, there are a lot of folks these could satisfy. ]
The 55% cacao content makes these quite mild. They smell woodsy, with a light cherry note. The chocolate has a good, silky melt with a light dry finish to it. The flavor profile is all over the map. I taste coffee, cherries, figs and bananas and sometimes even a hint of malt ... though that could have been its storage adjacent to my milk chocolate pieces. There’s a light bitterness in there, nothing too difficult to conquer, but might be enough to keep children away.
You could put these in front of anyone without any information about the origins or disposition and they’d never know that this is more transparently source, ethically accountable stuff. It’s just tasty. As you can tell, I preferred the milk chocolate version, but the dark is a wonderful middle of the road chocolate that’s not too dark for wide appeal.
The only hesitations for most folks will be where to find them and how much you pay. Equal Exchange has them on their website for $6.99 per package, which is pretty steep compared to their very competitively priced bars. (For some reason foil wrapping just amps up the price of any chocolate, good quality or bad.) Some Whole Foods Markets and other natural product stores may carry them as well. The fall back is always the little mini-bars, which are also extremely cute and a bit better deal per ounce, but come in this 23.8 ounce box (yes, a pound a half) for $35.00 plus shipping. It’s hard to compare that to R.M. Palmer (which isn’t even real chocolate, let alone sustainably sourced), but Godiva or Lindt may be a good comparison on both price and ingredients.
On Monday I’ll have a review of Kosher for Passover chocolates, also from Equal Exchange.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
It’s a great time to be alive as a candy eater. Though some folks lament the loss of the regionally made candy bars, there’s so much more diversity when it comes to sweets as long as you know where to look. There are artisanal versions of popular candies, crazy new flavors, and incredible combinations as well as candies that cater to specific dietary restrictions.
I’m pretty pleased to see that there are more options for organic and all natural candy bars than ever before with products from Justin’s Candy Bars, Ocho, Angell and Eli’s. The other new entry into this marketspace is Amy’s Organic, with their exhaustively long-named bars. Today I have the Amy’s Organic Andy’s Dandy Crispy Candy Bar which features rice crisps, almonds & caramel covered in chocolate. Though some of the bars in the Andy’s Dandy line are organic versions of existing bars, this one really has no match in the hypermegaglobal corporate candy world.
Like the other bars, this is actually a pair of bars. I like this approach, as it gives me the opportunity to save some for later or share. It also means that the chocolate coating is a more consistent ratio for more of the bites, since the bar is shorter. The dark coating is smooth and creamy, it has a nice flavor of it’s own that’s a little green (olive notes) but holds up well to the light, malty cereal flavors. The texture is not as airy as a Whatchamacallit and the almonds are just pieces in there, not an almond meal (like peanut butter) or whole nuts. The brown rice has less of a malt note than regular crisped rice, but it’s also barely sweet. It’s crunchy but gets a bit of a chewy texture of its own later. The caramel layer is barely perceptible, it does more to just hold it all together.
The effect of the bar is great, it’s crunchy but not too filling. It tastes more chocolatey than a Whatchamacallit, though I miss any sort of almond note to it, it’s really just there for an extra durable crunch.
The bars are free of GMO ingredients, gluten and preservatives. Made on shared equipment with other nuts, seeds and wheat. They contain soy, dairy and almonds.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
The package describes the bar as Whipped Creamy Center with Caramel Covered in Chocolate. So, rather like a Milky Way Midnight bar.
The back of the package spends a lot of space telling you about what ingredients are in there, what ingredients may have been near the other ingredients and what ingredients are never in anything they make. It’s free from GMOs, preservatives, peanuts, eggs and gluten. Made from 99% organic ingredients (salt and water are the only non-organic items). It contains soy and dairy (made with rBHT free cows), but it’s also manufactured in a facility that processes tree nuts, wheat and seeds.
The two bars are a nice size. They’re one ounce each (a total of 2 ounces for the whole package). For comparison, a Milky Way Midnight bar is 1.76 ounces. The price for the bars is steep, I paid $2.49 for this, so twice as much as a regular Mars candy bar but actually larger. Inside the wrapper (which was devilish to open) the bars are set in a tray which protects them pretty well.
The bar just out of the package smells rich, like woodsy cocoa. Biting into the layers, it’s soft, not quite foamy but very forgiving. The fluffy center is less than creamy. It’s more like the nougat center of a 3 Musketeers. It’s airy and slightly grainy. It smells a little, well, cheesy. The caramel is unremarkable. There’s a malt note to the whole thing, but overall the center is quite sweet.
The dark chocolate is good, it’s at least bittersweet and cuts through some of the sweetness. The overall effect of the sort of the brewers yeast flavored center with the overt sweetness and lack of toasty caramel notes left me unimpressed. Granted, Milky Way has never been a huge favorite of mine, so the alternate versions I’ve had over the years are trying to measure up to something that I don’t care for in the first place. At this point, I’d say the other offerings in the Andy’s Dandy bar line are going to be more satisfying.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.