Friday, August 25, 2006
Equal Exchange has been at the forefront of the fair trade chocolate and coffee movement in the United States for twenty years. But I think they understand that it’s great to give people a living wage and all, but the important thing is to sell something of value to the customer to keep everything in motion.
At their launch, the Equal Exchange chocolate products were rather mundane. Don’t get me wrong, they were nice, but the selection wasn’t very exciting. They’ve remedied that with the introduction of three new bars: Mint Chocolate, Espresso Bean Chocolate and Dark Chocolate with Pure Cocoa Nibs.
The Organic Chocolate with Espresso Bean is made with a 55% cocoa solid chocolate (the lightest chocolate of the three new bars) with good reason. Coffee is a powerful flavor and needs a good balance in order for both flavors to shine though.
In general I’m not fond of coffee bars that have coffee grounds (or bits, whatever) in them. The chocolate itself is infused with the coffee flavors, which are dark and pungent, a little smoky and acidic. The beans are crunchy and crisp, which is better than some fibery ones that some companies put in their bars. But still, it’s just not my thing. The chocolate was wonderfully buttery but very sweet so that it can stand up to the espresso beans. Of the three bars, this is the one that I still have some left of. (7 out of 10)
Organic Mint Chocolate. This dark chocolate bar made with 67% cocoa solids was quite a surprise. I fully expected it to be dark, mint flavored chocolate. Instead, it’s a mint crunch bar. It’s not quite like a mint bark that has little pieces or starlight mints in it. Instead it has little sugary grains of mint in it. The grains aren’t large, like big sugar crystals. The chocolate itself is not as sweet as the espresso bar, and has a strong acidic quality to it with a complex chocolate profile. Then as you chew or allow the chocolate to dissolve on your tongue you come across these little crystals of mint. It made the bar much more fun than I expected.
The acidity of the bar still got in the way of the mint, it just wasn’t the ideal match for me. (8 out of 10)
Organic Dark Chocolate with Pure Cocoa Nibs. Now this is the bar for me! 68% cocoa solids make this a pretty dark bar. The acidity here doesn’t bother me a bit, because it goes right along with the blissfully crunchy and rich cocoa nibs. Every nib was great, no fibery ones, no bad ones. The crunch of the nibs isn’t quite like a nut, they’re not quite as fatty tasting, but crisp and of course flavorful, creating a new texture without interrupting the pure chocolate density of the bar.
If you’re a nib fan, you should really seek out this bar. I’ve tried the Endangered Species bar and the Scharffen Berger and this bar really wowed me. At about $3.50 per bar retail for a 3.5 ounce bar they’re a good value for high-end chocolate. Add in the social responsibility and you’re silly not to at least give this bar a try. (9 out of 10)
I’ve been spotting Equal Exchange at Whole Foods, so keep your eyes open. If you have a favorite store that you shop at that doesn’t carry them, ask. (They don’t know what you want unless you tell them!) You can order on the Equal Exchange website, but only in full boxes of 12 for the bars.
Equal Exchange bars are not only organic but Fair Trade certified ingredients are used whenever possible, including the sugar. I think the only part that isn’t fair trade is the organic vanilla bean.
William at Chocolate Obsession has a large review. Siel at GreenLAGirl had a tasting party, so you can see lots more opinions on the bars there. If you’re interested in anything that has to do with incorporating fair trade, social responsibility and environmentalism into your everyday life, she’s your girl.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
At first I was irritated when I saw this new flavor set from Starburst. What the heck would Icy Bursts be? I thought that they’d have some sort of cooling sugar alcohol like Xylitol that’s all the rage these days, but instead it’s just the addition of mint to each of the flavors.
Once I figured that out, it reminded me of the not-so-great Bear Bubble Gum that had that awful menthol in it. But then I settle down and stopped trying to draw negative connections.
Part of what changed my mind was that I’ve been going to a new Gelato joint (well, I’ve been there twice) and sampled quite a few of their sorbet flavors. The ones that I’ve liked best were Limoncello & Basil, Strawberry & Licorice and Pineapple & Cardamom ... you can see where I’m going with this, right? Fruit and herbs are a great combo!
What’s even better about the addition of mint is that I don’t have that awkward chemical aftertaste when I’m done. I’m left with a minty feeling, not a strange green apple burp taste in my mouth.
Strawbrrrrry - yes, that word has six Rs in it, and five of them are in a row. I can actually pronounce that, as I can trill my uvula, so if you ever run into me in person, ask me to say it out loud. This one looks and smells like a regular strawberry Starburst and it isn’t until very late in the chew that the mint comes out. It didn’t rock my world, nor feel like a burst of anything, but I liked it.
Kiwi Snowberry - creamier than the others, kind of like kiwi/strawberry, but who knows. The wrapper was green but the candy itself was mauve. Of all of them, the mint was the least welcome.
Blue Raspberry Freeze - a rather pleasant surprise, the raspberry had some nice floral notes to it, a good tart burst and then the minty overtones. It ended up being my favorite of the set, which is odd because I never would have thought that raspberry should go with mint.
Polar Citrus - it’s an orangy/lemony citrus with a little bit of a creaminess to it and a much more subdued minty undertone. It didn’t really have anything “blasty” to it.
The thing that I’ve always liked about Starbursts is their way of tickling my salivary glands and making them tingle. These don’t do that. They’re mild and pleasant and don’t really deserve the word BURST in their name twice. That said, they’re nice enough and if they were in a bowl on my desk mixed with regular Starbursts, I’d eat them after the others were gone. These are a limited edition product.
Did you know that Starbursts have 50% of your recommended daily value of Vitamin C? That was their unique selling proposition when they were introduced in the 60’s.
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
Here’s a candy that never entered into my field of candy vision: the Mint Julep. In fact, until about a year ago, I’m not sure I knew these existed. It’s not like I’m mint-blind. I guess what brought these into my realm was a new push by Necco to introduce them to new generations. That and there was a huge barrel of them at the All Candy Expo’s freebie room.
Frankly, I was afraid they were going to be like Mary Janes and pull out my teeth or something. Or maybe they were going to be like mint-flavored Starbursts.
But here’s what they are: they’re spearmint taffy.
They were nice. Not super strong tasting, very soft and chewy and pleasant. They didn’t rock my world, but I think they have a solid place in it now. They’re a really satisfying little candy - larger than a Starburst and in a flavor you’re not going to get anywhere else in this format. I can’t see myself buying a tub of these online or anything, but I would pick up one or two after brunch or something at the local diner to clear my palate.
Mint Juleps are also known as Southies and were made by the Squirrel company that also makes Nut Zippers. They are most often sold in little tubs by the register at convenience stores and diners. (This type of retailing is called “changemakers” as people will often spend the change from their bill on little items. The tubs are placed in places where it makes sense for such an impulse buy.) They were introduced in the 30s and then disappeared back in the nineties as the company was bought out and went through some changes. Necco brought them back about a year ago.
In case you were wondering what’s in the drink also called a Mint Julep, it’s simple syrup with some muddled spearmint sprigs in it, then combined with Bourbon and served over ice with more mint.
Mint Juleps are gluten free according to the Necco website (and the drink probably is too!).
Friday, July 14, 2006
There’s nothing wrong with Tic Tacs. They’re a great mint. Smooth and soft on the tongue, with a complex taste that’s more than peppermint - it has a little hint of licorice or menthol or something that sets it apart from others. Tic Tacs don’t need to be mintier. They’re exceptionally durable too and I’ve eaten plenty found at the bottom of my purse and have a box of cinnamon Tic Tacs in my car that have been there for two and half years.
But Ferrero is a little behind the curve on the whole “extreme” thing and they went and introduced Bold! Tic Tacs this year. (Come on, how long have Altoids been popular?)
So here I am with a slightly different Tic Tac. Out of the little box they look exactly the same (in fact, that photo has one of each ... can you tell which is which?). The box, however, is a lovely cobalt blue and a little more streamlined. So it’s less stackable than before.
The mint itself doesn’t seem any different at first. You pop it in your mouth and it’s lightly sweet, lightly minty. Then it starts to grow. Really, it’s a pretty strong mint, strong enough to freshen your breath with just one. See! It’s like being a low calorie mint - half the calories satisfies!
I prefer the mellowness of the classic Tic Tacs and I hope they don’t stop making them. The Bold! line also includes a Fruit version, which I didn’t bring home, but I wanted to note that the candies in there are also white. Way to confuse people! Anyway, there’s a very nice timeline about Tic Tacs on the website (there are two versions ... look at the real one).
So, if I approach this product as if I’ve never seen a Tic Tac before, these are very good. Mellow, strong and the mint certainly lasts. The packaging is nice for dispensing and a recognizable color and shape.
This product was made in Ecuador.
(As a side note, does anyone else remember Dynamints? They were sold in a horizontal clear dispenser box and were pretty much the same as Tic Tacs. Here’s a photo and here’s a commercial from 1978. They were made by Dentyne.)
POSTED BY Cybele AT 6:28 am
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
One of the great things about my trip to New York, long before the All Candy Expo was that I got to visit Economy Candy, which was great prep. It gave me a chance to look at the huge array of candy, including may European ones that just don’t get distributed here in the states.
There’s quite a difference in candies here and there. But part of the charm of the imported ones is that they’re so different from what we have here.
I thought these would be tiny Altoids, but aside from the appearance of looking like inconsistent pieces of chalk, they’re quite the opposite of Altoids.
One of the main ingredients besides sugar are the gums and thickening agents. One of these is called Tragacanth (which, I found out is not at all related to the living fossil fish the coelocanth). Besides having a cool sounding name, it seems to be add a rather interesting texture to the mints. They’re not chalky but very smooth when they dissolve. They have an almost gooey consistency as they dissintigrate that feels like a glycerine syrup or gelatin.
The fruit ones are pretty and look kind of like little, lumpy conversation hearts discards. They’re about the size of an eraser you’d find on the end of a pencil. The Green Tea ones, not pictured, are a bland brownish-red but have a radically charged bitter tea taste to them. They don’t taste anything like green tea in my mind. More like black tea, but without the wonderful complex aromas. There’s also a strong component of mint at work here. They’re not terribly sweet, more flavorful and long after the bitter taste on the front of the tongue is gone, there’s a pleasant, refreshing taste left in the mouth. (Not at all like lingering tea breath.)
The other interesting thing about these pastilles is that the boxes are identical. There’s a paper overwrap (as shown on the Green Tea one) but once you take it off it looks like the one on its side, you don’t know what’s in there if you have more than one box!
The mixed flavors one went something like this:
Lavender - Violet. It reminded me of flowers, of course, it’s sweet without being sticky. There’s an American version of this from C. Howard which is very similar.
Yellow - Lemon. Very pleasant. An equal mix of the essence of lemon but with a slight tart bite to it that reminded me of a conversation heart, only about 10 times the price.
Green - Lime. Sweet and also with a slight tangy edge to it. It didn’t have any of the associations with disinfectants, which is good!
Pink - Strawberry. Beautifully fragrant, with nice floral overtones, like standing at the edge of a strawberry field, but with fewer bees. Only a slight tangy element here and it didn’t feel artificial at all.
White - Vanilla? I’m not quite sure on the flavor on this one. It was pleasant and bland, but no real flavor. I couldn’t tell if I’d burned out my tongue with the other flavors.
Pastiglie Leone has a beautiful, if strangely programmed website. The products flash by or you scroll horizontally (one of my least favorite directions to scroll) but there are so many different varieties.
Overall, I loved the texture and the way that the pastilles dissolved. But I never really loved any of the flavors. The tartness or tang to some of them was refreshing, but I found the flavor overall to be a little washed out like the colors. Not something I’d buy again unless one of the flavors really caught my eye. (I’m a sucker for a classic package like this.) In a world where everything has become blisteringly strong, it’s kind of nice for a little mellow.
Friday, April 28, 2006
I picked these up last December and have been munching on them.
There are some things that I really like about Scharffen Berger chocolate, but few of them have to do with taste. I like the idea of them. I like their design aesthetic, I like their vibe, I like their factory. I, unfortunately, don’t care much for their chocolate. Of course there are exceptions, such as the Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs, it just goes to show, you can’t judge all products by their brand.
Try as I might, I just can’t like their plain chocolates.
Extra Dark 82% Cacao - yes, it’s very dark lookin’ stuff. Lustrous and glossy, it has a nice snap and a strongly chocolatey smell. The immediate burst on the tongue is an astringency that just sucks you dry. There are some anise notes and even some basil all laced with an unpleasant bitterness. The chocolate itself is smooth but very sour. It’s great for making sauces though and this is the stuff I used at Thanksgiving for making a hard sauce for pecan pie.
Mint 62% Cacao - really, really minty. No, seriously ... you’ll take a bite and look at it the little bar and wonder why it even resembles chocolate. Kind of sweet, there’s a strange smoky quality to it that doesn’t really go with the mint.
Semisweet - after tasting the Extra Dark, this was more than semisweet, it was very sweet. It’s got a very strong woodsy base to it that reminds me of cedar. It’s slightly grainy, like the sugar isn’t completely emulsified with the chocolate or something. There is only the slightest indication of the acidity and astringency of the darker chocolate but it does have a hint of black pepper that I find very nice. Still, the mix of sweet, butter and chocolate flavors just isn’t right for my palate.
Milk Chocolate 41% - again with the tartness. Even the creamy dairy notes are missing, it’s smooth but it’s missing the fullness of flavor. There are lots of flavors at work here, but none of them particularly chocolatey.
Mocha - the coffee notes here are well rounded and feel much more honest than most coffee chocolates that I’ve tried. But it’s not as smooth and has both the acidity of the chocolate and the coffee that just combines in a way that in a way is tasty, but keeps me from eating a lot. But really, why would I want to keep buying a chocolate just because I don’t want to eat it that much?
I know I send some pretty mixed messages when it comes to Scharffen Berger. I raved about the Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs, but I don’t like the chocolate that they make them into. I can’t explain it, so I’ll just let it be what it is.
Every once in a while I get an email with an offer for stuff to review. As much as I want to just accept every offer of free goodies, I had to develop a standard for freebies/samples. They have to offer something no one else does. Robert at Best Regards had me at “Cranberry Orange Craves.”
His line of chocolate barks feature his custom blend of chocolate and he recounts the discussion with his wife during his development of the treats this way:
I’ve never really considered dark chocolate to have an “aftertaste”, I always considered the dry, astringent or bitter carryover notes to be part of the experience. But I can see how the mellowness of milk chocolate alleviates both the good and bad lingering flavors.
Best Regards is located in the Kansas City, Kansas area, which is really one of the last places I would have expected good, distinctive chocolate to come from. Though the bulk of his edibles and gift baskets features cookies, the basket he sent has a large assortment of chocolate barks (called Craves) and even a fun variety of chocolate covered Oreos. So let’s dig in!
This is the star, the Cranberry Orange Craves - smooth dark chocolate flavored with orange essence and generously studded with dried cranberries. It’s an incredible combination and amazingly, I’ve never had it before. The zesty orange goes so naturally with the cranberry’s tart chewy bite and the smooth and mellow chocolate just brings it all together.
The best way for me to judge these sorts of things is to keep track of which package I finish first. This one was gone in the first weekend.
Orange and Oreo Chocolate Craves - the dark chocolate is smooth and creamy, but does lack some of the more subtle chocolate nuances. However, this is a combination bar, with orange essence added into the chocolate, so the rather homogenized background is actually pretty good as a foundation. Inside this thick bar are crushed Oreo cookies, which give it a nice crunch. Personally, I wasn’t fond of coming across the Oreo cream but the chocolate crunch was a good combo. My second favorite.
Premium Raspberry Chocolate - plain dark chocolate bark with raspberry essence in it. It’s not too sweet, ultra creamy and smooth. The raspberry has a good balance of floral nuances and there are bits of raspberry in there (including the seeds) which gives a little tartness and fruitiness to the whole bar.
Margarita White Chocolate - this was the only white chocolate offering and it was really good. I know, I’ve said I don’t like white chocolate and then I keep recommending white chocolate things. This was white chocolate that wasn’t too sweet and had lime essence in it. I would have called it Key Lime, because that’s what it tasted like to me. My third favorite.
Mint Chocolate Cookie - I’ve raved about Harry London Mint Cookie Joys before, and these are essentially the same. Minted dark chocolate with chocolate cookie bits in it. Heaven.
The final set in the basket were these two different kinds of chocolate covered Oreos, chocolate and mint chocolate. The plain chocolate ones had little sprinkles on them, and I have to say, as cute as they are, they’re not really that tasty. It’s fine for cake where you might want a little crunchy texture, but they just interfered with the chocolate and cookies here. The mint ones worked much better - a good, classic combo.
On the whole, the chocolate Craves were top notch. It’s hard to evaluate the whole custom blended chocolate part, because I never tasted the pure chocolate in any of these items, it was always in combination with other flavors and textures. While I really like a good dark chocolate, often the harsher bitterness can overshadow some of the more delicate flavors and textures. Of course that sort of intense flavor also keeps me from eating piece after piece. Maybe it’s the difference between fine wine and a good fruity sangria. Both have their place. So Robert at Best Regards has stumbled upon something - a really addictive dark chocolate that’s more “munchable.” Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I can assure you, it’ll be good for Best Regard’s business.
If I lived in the Kansas City area and needed a gift for someone, I’d absolutely take advantage of the gift basket idea (especially the mixed baskets of cookies) with local delivery and he has lots of options that are more on the savory side (and feature some of the local barbeque themes). If I had one suggestion for the sale of these, it’d be the ability to get a tin of them, maybe even a mixed variety. The packaging in the crunchy clear plastic bags wasn’t as resealable as I’d like. (I know, I rail against companies that have too much packaging, now I want more!) A tin of chocolate barks seems like it’d ship better anyway. However, he does offer some of the chocolate varieties as 8 ounce bars.
UPDATE: Wow! Robert is offering a special sampler package based on the products I reviewed here - at a huge discount off the regular $26.00 price, he’s offering it at only $15.99. Just go to the Sweets & Treats page and scroll down to see the “Cybele Special.”
Thursday, January 26, 2006
I got the Cookie Joys from Crate and Barrel through their excellent post-Christmas sale. The Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Mint were acquired at Sav-On at a lackluster post-Holiday sale (basically the nuggets were on the sale table heralding they were 50% off, but they didn’t ring up that way and were put there “by mistake”).
Harry London makes the Cookie Joys, but sells them under a few different names, including Botticelli Bites. They also make it in a few different formats, including the Harry London Mint Cookie Bar. A Cookie Joy is minted milk chocolate with chocolate cookie bits. The shape is a little dollop of candy, not really the most attractive or appealing candy shapes, but it gets the job done. I find they’re usually two bites. The bonus in the Crate & Barrel tin is that they were individually wrapped. When I get them in a little tub at Trader Joe’s (it looks like a pint of ice cream) they’re loose and can go stale if not eaten quickly.
A Hershey’s Mint ‘n’ Cookies is also minted milk chocolate with chocolate cookie bits. The chocolate is rather milkier, as you can see in the color difference bewteen these two. The cookie bits are also slightly more regular, like little dots of cookies instead of rather irregular crushed cookie bits.
Now that I have them side by side, I’m able to really compare the two. The Cookie Joy is smooth and not terribly milky, which I like. There are already quite a few flavors going on here, I don’t need some sort of dairy taste intruding. As long as the milk is providing a creamy backdrop I’m happy. The cookie bits give it some crunch and they’re a good dark, toasty flavor (they’re pretty much the cookie part of an Oreo).
The Hershey’s has that familiar Hershey’s milk chocolate tang to it. Think yogurt. It’s not unpleasant, but doesn’t go as well with the mint and cookies. There’s a noticeable grain to the chocolate, but again, it works with the crunchy cookies. The cookie bits seem to be distributed rather unevenly, just on the top of the nugget, but since you’re going to bite it the other way, it probably doesn’t matter much. A Nugget could be eaten whole as well.
In this Head to Head, I’m going to have to go with the Cookie Joys. The chocolate is just better and the even though they look like glossy cow pies, the name Cookie Joys is dead on perfect. They’re joyful little mixes of cookies and minted chocolate. If you like the Girl Scout’s Thin Mints, you may like this chocolatier version, too. There’s no benefit to either in availability either. The Hershey’s are Limited Edition (though they seem to return rather faithfully) and the Harry London’s are only sometimes available at Trader Joe’s and a seasonal item for Crate & Barrel. (Sadly, it seems they are sold out on the C&B website.) The Hershey’s are usually cheaper, but the Crate and Barrel sale puts this one over the edge for me. At 28 cents per ounce for the Cookie Joys versus the 24 cents per ounce on the Nuggets, I’m willing to pay the premium (and I have a tin, too!).
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.