Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Last year I read the book Sweets: a History of Candy by Tim Richardson. For a book about candy, there wasn’t much of the “modern” candy that we’re familiar with, instead a large portion of the book was spent on tracing the evolution of sugar and early candied fruits. Later it documents the rise of pastilles in the mid 1500s in Europe as sugar became available. The most basic definition is “a kernel of something coated with sugar.” It can be a nut (like Jordan Almonds) or a seed, like Anis de Flavigny.
The pastille was often the work of a pharmacist or herbalist, not a confectioner. They started with seeds or herbs that were prescribed for various reasons (fever, digestion, impotence), then coated with sugar syrup, tossed in a pan and repeated until layer upon layer is built up. The most talented pharmacists made beautiful pastilles that looked like shimmering opalescent spheres and were kept as if they were treasures as well, inside ornate boxes, often locked by the lady of the household.
Anis de l’Abbaye Flavigny may have one of the longest histories of a candy, as the town of Flavigny may have been making the little candies since Roman times. Whatever the timeline and beginnings may be, in modern times the pastilles have been made by confectioners in those largely unchanged traditions. Anis de Flavigny is one of those companies that has been carrying on for hundreds of years. Each pastille takes fifteen days to make ... they are labor intensive (though the materials themselves are rather cheap). They still start with a single fennel seed and (as you can see from the photo) a sugar syrup is poured over it, tumbled until dry then repeated dozens of times. (See the Anis de Flavigny site.)
Anis de Flavigny makes a large array of delicately distinctive flavors, all rather classic and old world.
Anise, Licorice, Rose, Violet, Orange Blossom and Mint. The tins tell a little story as two lonesome young people pine in solitude, then meet, share their candies and finally consummate their affection (on the violet tin - which modestly only shows us the flowers and not our young lovers).
I’m quite taken with them. I’ve been eating them since I was a kid. I know they’re not particularly snazzy. The tins are simple (though redesigned recently, they still look classic) and the candy unchanged by time and trends.
The only trend it appears they’ve responded to is that they now have an Organic line. The only difference I can tell is that the sugar is not pure white, so the little pastilles are a little beige. I kind of like the look. The flavors are the same, though I did have Ginger in the organics that I’ve not had in the regular ones.
The little candies have a slightly soft and rough feeling to the surface. The sugar itself is dense and even the package warns you against crunching them. (I do, but they have to get down to about a third of their size.) I liked to eat mine two at a time, rolling them around on my tongue like Chinese health balls. The friction of the pastilles against each other releases the sugar a bit faster. Call me impatient. But I do have a dexterous tongue and can also tie a cherry stem in a knot with it. Not that I eat cherries that often.
The floral candies (orange blossom, violet and rose) have a lovely soft flavor to them without feeling soapy. They’re great for getting rid of bad breath, especially since they take so long to dissolve. The spicier flavors like anise and licorice are rooty and natural tasting without feeling artficial (pretty much because they’re not). The mint is softer than many of the modern super-mints like Altoids with a smooth melt on the tongue and an even amount of mint. The flavor is strong as you dissolve the first few layers away and then mellows out. Towards the center the gentle hint of anise from the fennel seed emerges.
I was quite excited to have a full set of their most popular flavors, which I picked up at the Fancy Food Show in January. It’s taken me months to get through all of them. Not because I didn’t want to eat them, but they just last so dang long. I love each and every flavor. Yes, they’re really expensive at $2 to $3 a tin. (I don’t know why I can’t find the assorted package online.) I prefer them to just about every other breath mint on the market. It was a little unclear if the organic line will be available in the States because of the differing certification processes.
Italy also has their long-standing tradition of panned sweets with the Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano company. They not only do the small pastille dragee but also a wider variety of panned spices, fruits and nuts. I’ll have a profile of those at some point as well.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Das Foods is a curious little company that carries the two essential products for human life: Salt and Caramels. (I keeeed ... everyone knows that chocolate is also essential.) Aside from the heaps of Hawaiian sea salts in a rainbow of colors you’ll find that the Fleur de Sal Caramels are priced about the same (well, a smidge more expensive, but then again they’re individually wrapped ... try that with salt!).
The little boxes are deceptively small. But pick one up and it’s a dense, quarter-pounder with caramels. Each caramel is wrapped tightly in wax paper (folded, not twisted, space is at a premium here). As an artisan product they’re hand cut and vary in shape and size but most are about an inch long and a half an inch square. The flavors lean on the classic side with a few surprises.
These are very soft caramels, smooth, buttery and creamy with a big zap of salt crystals. (I had to re-form the unwrapped one in the picture because it kind of pulled and elongated when I unwrapped it.)
Classic - a smooth and creamy caramel with the lightest touch of honey and lavender.
Chai Latte - a lovely and mild combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom with just a hint of cloves. The creamy buttery flavors blend well with the light spices.
Orange & Honey - these smelled juicy and zesty. The orange was a great addition to a traditional caramel, but the salt here was just too much. I’m not sure if the proportion is different of I just got a batch that had a little too much tipped into it. I didn’t finish these.
Ginger & Pistachio - oh, this was a lovely combo. The green nuttiness of the pistachios went so well with the buttery background of the caramels, and far into the chew the rooty-spicy flavor of the ginger came out (but no burn). Not as salty as the other, just the right hit to make the other flavors noticeable. These were the first to be consumed.
Though Das Foods carries a wide variety of salts, all of these caramels featured Fleur de Sel (Hand Harvested French Sea Salt).
They make two other varieties I didn’t try: Chocolate Walnut and Lemon & Honey. The website says that they source their ingredients locally (except that sea salt) to their Highwood, IL kitchen. My only complaint was how devilishly hard it was to get the waxed wrapper off some of them. It was easier if they were chilled slightly, but then that made them firmer in the mouth. Somewhere in the cool of the morning there was a compromise of a low room temperature that meant I could take the wrapper off but still chew the caramel. (I have to say that as wrappers go, if I end up eating waxed paper it’s not nearly as bad as eating cellophane or, the worst, foil.)
I don’t think these are available in stores, but Das has a webstore.
Friday, March 16, 2007
Charles Chocolates not only makes one of the few marzipans I like, they also have their own line of chocolate bars. They come in sweet looking retro boxes with little line drawings on them. The boxes protect the thick bars very well and allow them to be rewrapped in their foil if you don’t finish them all at once (and at 3.4 ounces, you probably won’t unless you’re sharing).
(for those of you reading via feed, I’m using a flash slideshow for the photos today)
Mocha Java Pieces in 65% Bittersweet Chocolate (blue label) - this is a powerful bar. I’ve been keeping my chocolate bars in a little igloo cooler in my studio (because it protects it from temperature changes, and the dog can’t get to it) and every time I open it up I could smell the coffee in this bar. The 65% cacao dark chocolate is rich but still wonderfully buttery. The bar has plenty of whole espresso beans in it too which dotted the bottom of the bar (and explain why it’s a little titled in the picture). As a personal choice, I don’t like to eat coffee beans, but in this case they worked well in the bar and are paired with the right kind of chocolate.
Caramelized Crisped Rice in 41% Milk Chocolate (red label on caramel) - this bar smells like caramel but tastes like Sugar Pops and chocolate. The milk chocolate is smooth and super creamy and the crisped rice has a deep caramelized flavor with some malty tones to it. The only thing that I had a problem with was the integration of the crisped rice ... it wasn’t in the bottom of the bar, just the top. Sometimes I wanted more crisped rice with my chocolate. But then sometimes I liked finding a spot where it was naked of chocolate and could see it glistening in its coat of caramelized sugar and flick my tongue on it to get just those flavors and textures ... then I’d come across the chocolate, which would melt around it all over again.
Caramelized Crisped Rice in 65% Bittersweet Chocolate (red label on brown) - this bar is quite the opposite of its dairy infused sibling. Instead of being chatty and available, this one was rather standoffish and even elusive. The chocolate is creamy but with a strong astringency that seemed to give it some more vegetable flavors than fruit. This in turn made the crisped rice more reminiscent of pilaf than breakfast. Still, the textures were so wonderful, the chocolate melted easily and the caramelized sugar shatters on crunching, revealing that wonderful malted rice taste.
Crystallized Ginger Pieces in 65% Bittersweet Chocolate (yellow label) - again, a really creamy 65% dark chocolate, it just descends into a delicious fatty chocolate syrup in the mouth. The ginger’s earthy/rooty flavors come forward immediately. They bring a bit of a citrus tang and make the chocolate itself seem a little acidic, but the grainy sugar of the crystallized ginger also dissolves and mitigates that just in time.
Hazelnut and Candied Orange Peel in 65% Bittersweet Chocolate (green label) - this was the first bar I tried and the first bar I finished. Fab-u-lous. The chocolate is creamy and quick to melt. It’s not too sweet and sets off the candied orange rind ... the flavor of the orange zest permeates parts of the bar and then the crushed hazelnuts give a crunch and nutty texture to the whole thing. It’s not a common combination of flavors, which is one of the reasons you might want to seek this bar out.
Charles Chocolates just opened their new retail store in the same building as their kitchen/factory. They offer free samples (see the schedule). For those who can’t find them in store they also have a webstore. Retail vendors are also listed on the site (basically high-end chocolate shops & Whole Foods). See DessertFirst’s visit to Charles Chocolates. Here’s my previous review of some other products in his line.
Thursday, December 7, 2006
Part of the fun of Candy Blog is going around town buying sweets because it’s, you know, for the blog. But even with my wide travels, there are still things in my very own city that I’ve never heard of. And shame on me for not seeking them out! I got an email from a blogging friend of mine who wanted to hook me up with a candy making friend of his. (Any candy making friends of yours are always welcome as friends of mine.)
Thus I was introduced to Valerie Confections. I’ll skip right to the point. It’s freaktastically good.
I’ve been introduced to a lot of toffee and I wasn’t that keen on finding yet another toffee company, but they currently have a seasonal Holiday Nougat. The nougat is in the soft French style, with a mellow flavor, soft chew and intense orange flavor and then studded with crunchy almonds. It’s all covered in excellent bittersweet chocolate and dusted with some flakes of real gold.
The nougat is firm but very soft with small candied orange pieces that give a burst of zest to it all over again.
The pieces are large and generous (about 1.75” square) and drop dead gorgeous.
I was so excited at how beautiful and tasty they were that I invited over my neighbor who has been around the world and shared a piece with her, saying that it was “really, really, really good.” She instead corrected me saying that it was “really good, really good, no, really good.”
I shared half that box of Holiday Nougat, which is often the way I feel about great candy. Part of me wants to hoard it and gobble it up and part of me wants to give as many people as possible the same experience I’ve had. The latter usually wins out. The nougat experience, however, was also encouraging for the toffees that were still sitting in my studio.
Like the Holiday Nougat the toffees were just lovely. The packaging is amazing. The boxes are soft looking and the simple grossgrain ribbon give an air of sophistication that is seldom imparted to the pedestrian toffee.
The toffee assortment that engaged me most, of course, was the The Debut which was all bittersweet chocolate - Almond, Almond Fleur de Sel, Ginger, Mint, Orange and Classic Toffee.
Let me just say this about the the toffee itself. Imagine butter that’s been sweetened to the point that it’s crisp and caramelized. That’s this toffee. It cleaves in the front teeth in a way that almost crumbles, but without all those flecks that toffees sometimes leave.
The pieces are thin, unlike many rustic toffee planks out there. It’s incredibly buttery. Each of the toffee squares is a different flavor. They were all perfectly balanced with the Ginger as a special standout in my mind because of the way the earthy notes of the ginger blend so well with the burnt sugar flavors.
The Peanut Assortment was rather different from the toffee. It was crunchier and less obviously sweet. Half the pieces were milk and half dark, all were sprinkled with fleur de sal and topped with a single red-skinned peanut. The salt dominated here and brought out the very smoky and roasted notes of the peanuts. It was like a peanut brittle that was completely integrated (the nuts were crushed so it was more the flavor than texture). It’s little grainier than the regular toffee but very satisfying.
Valerie Confections also features a Milk Assortment which is more than just a milk chocolate version of the Debut, it features two flavors unique in this set: Hazelnut Toffee - plus Gianduja Rocher as well as the Almond, Almond Fleur de Sel, Mint and Classic. Nut fans may also be intrigued by the The Almond Assortment, Gianduja Rocher Assortment or Hazelnut Assortment.
High quality ingredients, attention to detail, freshness and spectacular presentation all mark these as premium candies. They’re expensive at $20.00 for a six piece box (96 grams) of Toffee and $50.00 for the insanely delicious Holiday Nougat. Great presents or hostess gifts. Also keep them in mind if you’re one of those people who are angling for a high-end wedding favor since they do custom orders and packaging. I can definitely see myself buying the Holiday Nougat again, but I think I’d only pick up the Toffee as a gift or for a special occassion ... unless I found a store that let me buy just one piece (then I’m in trouble).
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
As National Novel Writing Month approaches my mind turns to writing-friendly candy. This is a tough category. Not only does the candy need to be neat (no sticky bits to get in the keyboard) but it also has to support the work at hand. In years past I’ve nibbled on licorice vines, Reese’s miniatures (not really recommended as they are a two-handed candy), M&Ms and orange Tootsie Pops.
This year I think I’ve found my new writing candy. It’s a little expensive at $6.50 for 150 grams (about 5.25 ounces), but writing a novel in a month is an indulgence anyway and if a few hard candies can keep me on task and perhaps ingest a little less caffeine, I’m all for it.
The Apothecary’s Garden is a line of hard candies made by Sweet Botanicals of England. Infused with different herbs and spices, they’re all drop-dead gorgeous little morsels. Not only that, they’re all natural. No freaky sweeteners, they’re just sugar, corn syrup and some spices with a little juice for color. The come in a clear plastic container, which of course gives you full view of their mouthwatertingness. (The only bad thing about this packaging is that I found them to be positively DIFFICULT to recap.) Today I’ll tackle the spices:
Cinnamon & Clove - gorgeous red spheres with white stripes. They’re the size of marbles and smell of Christmas. I’m not usually keen on clove, as it reminds me of dental procedures, but this was more on the mild side. The cinnamon was spicy and has a pleasant and mellow burn with the slight floral note of the clove that was more on the violet end than the medicine side.
The candy itself is dense and sweet with few, if any, voids that can make for sharp edges to cut your tongue.
This candy would be appropriate for novels taking place on damp moors, alien infested swamp planets and anything set during the Civil War.
Chili (a useful digestive aid) - delicate little candies, no larger than a dried garbanzo (the smallest of all I tried). They’re lightly pink and have the disarming smell of cotton candy. On the tongue they start with a slight floral note of rose and are clean tasting. But after a moment the chili spice kicks in. It has a little burn, but something I feel on the tongue, nothing in the back of the throat.
This candy would be appropriate for writing time travel scenes, large spans of exposition in any style novel and of course anything set in the Southwestern US, Mexico or Central America.
Licorice & Anise (Helps Coughs and Catarrh) - beautiful large medallion-like pieces, they’re the largest of all the Apothecary’s Garden candies I tried. They’re also not a solid hard candy but a filled candy. The hard shell is a mellow licorice flavor with a liberal note of both anise and molasses (the ingredients lists brown sugar treacle). Inside is a soft, moist and grainy center of a rich brown sugar that soothes the throat (and tastes good!).
This candy would be appropriate for steampunk novels with characters involved heavily in action scenes, anything set in the middle ages, circuses or in cold climates and of course action-adventures that involve going places without proper vaccinations.
Ginger & Orange (Useful for Travel Sickness) - these are long hexagons that are squashed into rods. The smell slightly of orange and on the tongue they immediately get me tingly with a little tangy bite and the spice of the ginger. There’s a definite rooty flavor to these that overpowers any orange essence other than the color and tangy quality.
I can’t attest to their ability to stave off motion sickness, but I will in a few months when whale watch season opens and I hit the nearshore seas. I have, however, found that ginger is good for keeping the queasies at bay, so I’m looking forward to giving these a real test.
This candy would be appropriate for novels with sea voyages or taking place on spaceships with questionable inertial dampeners/artificial gravity. It is also good for consuming during scenes involving early pregnancy and dizzying passages describing architecture.
I have lots more flavors and I’ll be posting about those soon. At $6.50 a package, they’re a wee on the expensive side. But they’re also not a candy you gobble down, so they last a while. The flavors are unique and it’s obvious the attention that’s paid to their creation, so I’d be willing to pay a little more. Right now the only place I know to get them in the States is ArtisanSweets.com (they sent me the samples) ... but they also sell the Montelimar Nougat that I love so much, so you know, you could get some of that at the same time.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Instead of just the normal fundraising candy bars, Smiles by Joanie’s Smiles are are chocolate bars infused with tea and other natural flavors that stand on their own as tasty treats. The hook here with the fundraising aspect is that money from the sale of each bar goes to Operation Smile which sends volunteer medical teams all over the globe to repair facial deformities in kids and adults. I was approached to taste the bars a couple of months ago, so I’ve had a lot of time with them (I was waiting for their website to be up and for them to be more widely available).
The bars were very simply produced - two ounces each, wrapped in foil and then a paper overwrap. The bar is pre-scored into 12 little pieces with each embossed with the smiles script logo. No gimmicky packaging, just tried and true presentation. It’s the flavors that count here ... so let me count off the flavors to you:
Rosemary Hibiscus Tea - I was certain I wouldn’t like this one before I even tried it. I’m not a big fan of hibiscus, so how could combining it with rosemary (a rather savory and strong herb) and white chocolate be a good idea? Frankly, after the first bite I didn’t like it. The hibiscus gave the white chocolate a yogurt tang but without any satisfying fruit flavor to go with it. Then I took a few more bites and the rosemary flavor really grew on me and took center stage. It’s not terribly sweet and doesn’t give me a sore throat like bad white chocolate does ... it was smooth and creamy and had a little sass to it.
Cranberry-Ginger Tea - mellow milk chocolate with a smooth and creamy consistency with a spicy, lowgrade burn of ginger. Later the tannin and cranberry notes come out in a lingering berry bite. The bar has the woodsy, rooty smell of ginger. There are the occasionally grainy bits from the tea, but this is a pretty smooth and zesty bar.
Wild Raspberry Tea - it smells like raspberry and has the floral flavor to it. The milk chocolate, which can often have a tart bite also helps to bring out the fruitiness and berry notes here. There are also the occasional fruit bits in there, giving it a chewy tart burst. The chocolate has not dairy milkiness that I usually associate with milk chocolate, instead it’s smooth and a little fudgy.
Coconut-Green Tea - this bar smells like summer. Profuse wafts of coconut emanate from this bar, just sitting next to it reminds me of those girls who would come to the pool but never swim. They’d sit together with their sunkissed hair and lanky bodies slathered with tanning oil ... something I could never use. (If there were a freckle oil, well, then we might have something.) That toasted, glossy association translates well to this dark bar. Smooth and buttery, the tea takes a backstage to the coconut, which brings only flavor here, there are no chewy bits.
Herbal Chai Tea - this bar smells like I’ve stepped into a spice shop. It’s all warm and woodsy: cinnamon, fennel, orange and a little rooty waft of ginger. A little bit grainy because of the real spices in there, it’s still quite smooth and bursting with different flavors. The cinnamon dominates, but the fennel and black pepper are still discernible. The tea here is the Amber Roobios, which brings its own floral/fruity notes. It’s quite a riot of flavors in there.
My favorites in order (as determined by which I finished first) were the Pistachio-Green Tea White Chocolate, Herbal Chai Dark Chocolate, Coconut-Green Tea Dark Chocolate, Rosemary Hibiscus White Chocolate and last the Wild Raspberry Milk Chocolate.
I have to congratulate Joanie for coming up with such interesting flavor combinations but I think if there’s one thing that I find a drawback to them, it’s the price ... however, unlike many high-end bars, there is nowhere else to get a Hibiscus Rosemary White Chocolate or Coconut Green Tea Dark Chocolate bar, so they’ve cornered that end of the market.
The bars are now on sale at Whole Foods and soon at Bristol Farms and Gelson’s (SoCal) markets as well as through Amazon (click through on their website). Amazon doesn’t seem to offer an assortment pack or sales by the box, which is too bad because I really didn’t know which I was going to like by the description. They were just introduced last week, so they may be adding more purchase variations.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
After my rave review of Green & Black’s White Chocolate (which surprised even me) I got an email from a representative of Green & Black’s asking if I’d tried their Ginger bar. They were reading the blog and knew how much I loved ginger! Of course when I said I hadn’t seen it in the store yet (Target has a rather limited selection), she offered to send me some. (And some other bars which I’ll review in the coming weeks.)
It’s a beautiful bar, with the same simple foil wrapping cloaked in a paper wrapper. The bar was shiny with small sections that gave a good snap. It smelled distinctly smoky and earthy. The dark chocolate is 60% cocoa content.
The first flavors I noticed when letting the chocolate melt on my tongue were a rather tart lemon and then a lingering burn of black pepper. Later the rooty, earthen flavors emerged, giving the bar more of a ginger flavor than a chocolate one.
The crystallization of the ginger gives the bar a more distinct graininess. It’s also rather sweet. I liked the spicy burn, and I found it very munchable, but the acidity kind of bothered me after a while. (But I have been eating a lot of pineapple lately and may be working with a disadvantaged tongue.)
The integration of the two flavors and textures isn’t quite right for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tasty, but I really wanted more essence of ginger and less graininess and of course more of the creaminess and flavors of the chocolate. I do like how generous they are with the ginger, much better than the ratios in the Dagoba chocolate bars I’ve had (their Chai bar has scant ginger content). I still favor the panned ginger chocolate pieces that I’ve been getting at Trader Joe’s, but if you don’t have access to those, this would be a good fallback treat.
I have a few more bars that they sent me to try, so I’ll be adding those to the site within the next couple of weeks. On my list is their Caramel, 70% Dark, Hazelnut & Currant and Espresso.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Name: Dolfin Chocolat: Noir au Gingembre Frais, Au Lait au The Vert Sencha du Japon, Noir aux Fuelles de Menthe
I thought on the eve of the start of Whalewatch Season here in Southern California it was appropriate to review something under the brand name Dolfin (we see more dolphins on whale watching trips than whales anyway). The Man bought these bars for me recently at a wine & spirits store in our neighborhood. The gentrification of our little ‘hood means that the former liquor store now carries a wider selection of wines, beers and of course Belgian chocolate.
What drew him to the bars wasn’t the reviews but the fact that the bars are packaged in these plastic cloaked paper envelopes that reminded him of tobacco pouches. It’s actually a pretty simple and successful idea, a long bag that you fold over several times to keep a good seal. The bars inside are additionally sealed in little plastic sleeves but at 2.47 ounces, I wasn’t going to eat them all in one sitting and I appreciated having a clean and crisp way of carrying them around until I do.
Noir aux Fuelles de Menthe (Dark with Mint Leaves): Instead of being your common dark chocolate bar with mint oils in it, this bar contains real spearmint leaves. This was the least successful bar for me. The mint was nice and it being spearmint was a nice change from the more common peppermint, but the bar seemed a bit more chalky than the others. At first I thought it had bloomed, but the sheen was right and the snap looked good. I can only assume that it’s the interaction of the real mint leaves in there. They also make the bar kind of grainy. The sugar balance is good though and the mint is smooth and has some good tannins in it that mix well with the rich dark chocolate.
Noir au Gingembre Frais (Dark with Fresh Ginger): I’m a ginger nut and many of the ginger/chocolate combinations that I find are with milk chocolate, so finding one that was in dark chocolate is exciting. The bar had a good woodsy mix of scents - the spicy ginger and smoky chocolate. The dark chocolate is only 52% cacao (as is the mint one) but it just felt really rich and dense. It was a little grainy but had a lot of flavors in the mix with a good buttery base to help the ginger and chocolate mingle.
Au Lait au The Vert Sencha du Japon (Milk with Sencha Green Tea from Japan): Wow, this bar smells like green tea ice cream. The wonderful lightly floral and woodsy tea blends wonderfully with the delicately dairy tasting milk chocolate. The bar is smooth and very sweet except for the green tea bits. It makes the bar better for doing a bit of chewing before letting it melt on the tongue instead of leaving a tab of it on the tongue first. This is definitely a bar that I could eat a lot of and I’m hoping that even though it only has 32% cacao, the benefits of both the green tea and chocolate will bring me good health in the new year.
Dolfin has a huge line of these “creation” bars, including Masala (hot spices), aniseed, pink peppercorn and Earl Grey tea. They have boxes with tasting squares that look like they would make for a fun evening.
Rating - 7 out of 10
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.