Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Somewhere between the candy bar and the fine boxed chocolates is a strange no-man’s land known as the gourmet candy bar. Austria’s Zotter is one of those companies occupying that niche. They not only make innovative flavor combinations, but their products are also organic and Fair Trade certified.
I love the idea of Fair Trade. Everyone should get a living wage (or more!) for making candy. No one needs candy, so if we’re going to spend money on it, we certainly shouldn’t be contributing to sweat shops or slavery. That said, these are very expensive at $8 a bar, so it’s nice to know that the wealth I’m imparting to Zotter is being spread around.
The packaging is simple. The bars are wrapped in foil and have a nicely designed sleeve. Each bar has its own distinctive artwork. On top of that there are a lot of different bars. At any given moment there could be 60 listed on their website. I found these at Fog City News in San Francisco, but have also seen them in the Bay Area at The Candy Store, Miette Confisiere and Bittersweet Cafe in Oakland. (Each store had a slightly different selection.)
The bars are absolutely gorgeous. I was afraid mine would be dented or nicked from the trip, but right out of the package they were pristine and fresh.
They’re rather flat and the chocolate enrobing is very thin (but glossy). The proportions of the filling and the chocolate is ideal ... these bars are about the filling not the chocolate.
I was worried that the center would be stiff and grainy, instead it has a creamy snap to it with a slight semolina grain to it. The citrus is tangy and not very zesty. The chocolate coating is 70% and provides a good bittersweet counterpoint to the center.
The second bar I picked out was Banana Curry. The banana notes were strong and tasted like a fresh mash of super-ripe bananas. It was sweet and rich and almost like a pudding or creme brulee, but a little thicker with a slight chew. I never did get much of a curry note from the whole thing but I honestly didn’t miss it. Yes, I was promised curry, but what I got was pretty yummy in its own right.
If you’re looking for adventurous and inventive flavor combinations with your politically correct candy, well Zotter might be for you. At $8 for a 2.5 ounce bar (over $50 a pound), it’s like buying a couple of fine upscale chocolates from Recchiuti, Vosges, Charles Chocolates, CocoaVino, Chuao or Kee’s. They’re not easy to find in person but they do have a huge variety of flavors. I’m glad I gave them a try, but perhaps I’m more cheap than socially responsible, I just can’t spend that much on a candy bar without rationalizing it as being “for the blog.”
Thursday, November 29, 2007
I’m still in a licorice mood and have been feeling more like “eating licorice” as it’s called. This means it’s soft and chewy and not too harsh.
I got a wonderful full sized sample of the Soft Licorice from Finnska at the All Candy Expo in September from the Gerrit J. Verburg Co. It’s just what I needed. I found the package charming, though every time I looked at it I wondered what an ostrich would be doing on a Viking ship.
The little twist are soft, perhaps a little sticky. They’re pure black and a bit glossy. They don’t smell like much, a little earthy, a little smoky.
They’re not super sweet, not very licorice-y either. In fact, there’s no molasses in there, which is one of the flavors I’m accustomed to in my wheat-based licorice chew. It’s also really low in calories.
It took me about a half a dozen of them before I figured out what they taste like. Beets. (Maybe beets baked in Ouzo.)
I know, it sounds horrible. But it’s great. It’s sweet and woodsy and a little bit like dirt or roots. It doesn’t feel cloying or sticky. It’s good munching candy. I’ve eaten the whole box. It’s rather different from Panda, which has a doughy texture to it sometimes and stronger anise and molasses tones.
This particular Finnska is also organic!
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Terra Nostra is a favorite chocolate brand of mine. I know, I’ve never written about their bars before. I’ve been buying the Organic Dark Chocolate with Pecans and Raisins since I first saw it at Trader Joe’s ... I’m guessing at least six years ago. I was never a fan of chocolate and raisins until I met Trader Joe and he changed my mind with his wonderful dark chocolate covered raisins in a tub. With that in mind, I gave that bar a try, drawn by the pecans and dark chocolate and pretty well sold on the addition of the tangy, chewy raisins.
It’s not the most complex bar in the world, but it’s a good all around contender when it comes to satisfaction. My biggest problem with it? It’s too big. Yes, I know that the 3.5 ounce size is pretty popular when it comes to premium bars, but it’s just too big for me to finish in one sitting and I want a lot of variety in my life.
Imagine my pleasure at seeing that Terra Nostra is bring out a new line of “Pocket Bars”. At only 1.5 ounces, which means a nice sized portion of chocolate, and they even come with a little zazz to make them more like candy bars.
Each bar is four sections, slightly domed, for most of them to accommodate a filling of some sort.
Creamy Caramel in Satin Milk Chocolate - this was an excellent bar, far superior to most other single-serve caramel bars I’ve had. The milk chocolate is rich, creamy and has a lot of the complex dairy flavors to it. The caramel, though rather syrupy is salty and smooth with a pretty good hit of butter to it. (7 out of 10)
Creamy Caramel in 60% Dark Robust Chocolate - this was a nice bar! The dark chocolate is robust, just like they say, with some coffee notes that set off the salty, sweet and gooey caramel center. I’d prefer a caramel that wasn’t quite so gooey (think Caramello) and it does have a little bit of a grain to it. The whole thing comes together nicely. (7 out of 10)
Goji Berries and Pink Himalayan Mineral Sea Salt in 73% Dark Chocolate - this one took away all the fun of being a candy bar and injected a bunch of trendy items. Goji berries are also known as wolfberries; they’re little red berries (related to tomatoes and deadly nightshade) about the size of a peanut, they’re always sold dried. Goji berries tangy, kind of dry and leathery; though they do have some distinctive flavors, but they’re also really fibery. I’m often left with some piece that feels like a wad of chewed paper - really, I shouldn’t have to spit bits of my chocolate bar out. The chocolate itself doesn’t taste salty, just less sweet (but it’s hard to do a one for one comparison with the others since this is the only 73% dark bar in the range). Honestly, this bar just clicked with a bunch of my pet peeves about trendy foods ... if you want to read something really fun, try this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald about the goji berry. (5 out of 10)
Pomegranate Truffle - a base of 60% cacao dark chocolate has a rich chocolate truffle filling flavored with pomegranate. The dark chocolate is creamy, but not too dark or dry. The truffle center is a light and creamy truffle, not greasy but smooth and of course with a tangy & berry bite of pomegranate. The pomegranate kind of overwhelms most of the chocolate flavors, but blends so well with the texture. (8 out of 10)
All the bars are certified organic ... not that it makes them healthy or anything. The Pomegranate Truffle and Goji Berry dark bars are suitable for vegans, however they are made on machinery that also processes dairy (and peanuts, soy and tree nuts). Terra Nostra also participates in Equi-Trade programs, though their bars are not specifically certified Fair Trade. They’re fun little bars and if presented with an array of commercial mass-produced bars and these, if price is not the deciding factor, you might want to give them a try.
(Top photo of Robust Dark with Raisins & Pecans courtesy of Terra Nostra)
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Yesterday I did a little roundup of all natural candies and I forgot to mention Lake Champlain. It’s a little expensive to feed to kids but they do make actual candy bars. It’s an excellent brand that uses carefully selected ingredients, which I always appreciate and recently introduced an organic line.
Each bar is 1.25 ounces, which I think is the perfect portion of good chocolate.
The bars look like they’d be great for traveling too, small enough to tuck in your bag and finish in one sitting but they also feature a nice paper wrap with an inner foil wrapper that means you can actually close it back up (some of these foil wraps used these days are two atoms thick and fall apart in a light breeze).
Dark Spicy Aztec also features a 55% cocoa base chocolate. This one also has spices and pumpkin seeds. I’ve had a few spicy bars over the past few years and my share of spicy hot chocolate as well. This is probably the best of all of them. The spices, while strong, are still very flavorful and don’t overpower the chocolateness. I love pumpkin seeds (pepitas) and they go so well here, adding a little crunch and setting off the spicy flavors all over again.
While it tastes like there’s a whole cupboard of spices in here, the label says only cayenne and cinnamon. I could have sworn I tasted a little nutmeg, some clove and cumin. Amazing!
I have to admit that the spice is, well, spicy. It gave me a bit of a tingly burn on the back of my tongue and in my throat. Not so much to stop me from eating it, but more tender mouths may not appreciate the power. 9 out of 10
Dark Chocolate is a basic semi sweet bar. It’s on the sweet side but also very creamy and has a good, quick melt on the tongue.
I’m not as keen on this as the Spicy Aztec, but since it’s the same chocolate base, it’s a good place to finish off the review. The chocolate notes are rather middle of the road - there’s nothing that jumps out at me like coffee or balsam or raisins. It’s just nice and thoroughly chocolatey. It doesn’t feel like a “better for me” compromise because it’s organic. It’s smoothly conched and nicely tempered. 8 out of 10
The Organic bar line from Lake Champlain also includes milk chocolate, with a plain bar and a sea salt and almonds bar. The Lake Champlain website offers a kit of all four bars as an introduction or you can order them singly. They also make little squares, which I’ve tasted at the Fancy Food Show before, but to be honest, I don’t care for very thin chocolate, l like it a little thicker ... these bars are the ideal thickness.
My hesitations on Lake Champlain as a whole are that it’s not that easy to find and a bit expensive (and I don’t like the logo much). Of course it’s good quality, nicely packaged and all natural, so you get what you pay for. If you’re tentative about them, keep an eye on their Sale Page on their website, sometimes there are insane deals in there (nothing at this writing though).
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
The mint market is well, full of mints. So what’s a company gonna do to distinguish themselves from the crowded field? Ver thinks it’s hit on the right balance of novelty, quality and qualifications. Their line of six different flavors are vegan, Kosher and gluten free, nut free and all-natural (and featuring many organic ingredients).
The blue tin was predictably Peppermint, their original flavor. Unlike a mint like Altoids, these aren’t blindingly strong. Just simply, well, mints. The texture is pleasant. Not chalky, but a little crumbly but sufficiently dense. The intensity of the mint grows (though sometimes one mint may be stronger than another) as it dissolves and leaves a breath-freshening coolness when it’s gone.
WinterMint is what I’m guessing is wintergreen since it features wintergreen oil in the ingredients. I think wintergreen flavor is undervalued in our culture and I blame Pepto Bismol for giving us the association of wintergreen with being sick. (Some additional blame goes to Ben Gay for making us think of locker-rooms and old people.) Upon reading a little more on the subject, wintergreen is not to be taken lightly as it can be toxic in very large doses, which you really can’t achieve with a tin.
This was like one of those big Canada pink mints (wintergreen is also called Canada mint), but not as chalky. Smooth and peppery, I enjoyed these quite a bit. There were also little bits of real peppermint leaves in the pastilles.
With my motion sickness difficulties I tend to eat a lot of Ginger candies. I like to strike a balance between their spiciness, the amount of actual ginger in the candy and of course the overall taste. Too much spice and I can’t maintain my intake (though fanning my mouth often takes my mind off of nausea ... so that’s effective).
These crazy mints have a lot of ginger flavor in them and burn on my tongue right away. It dissipates after a moment and I forget about the inital scalding by the time I eat another one.
They have two kinds of ginger in them: ground ginger root and ginger flavor. I think ginger goes particularly well with Maple Syrup.
It’s definitely cinnamon, completely spicy, kind of woodsy and a little sweet. There are peppermint leaves in this one too, but I think it would have been better to throw a few little bits of cinnamon in there while they were at it. But they didn’t ask me.
For a while I was pronouncing this as Very Mints ... not realizing, first that they were spelled Ver with no I in there after the Ver. It wasn’t until I got the VerMONT connection that I understood the name. I still think Very Mints is a good name, too. I might start calling the state it Very Mont.
The two flavors that set this set apart are the flavor combos. This one, Chai features Fair Trade teas from Honest Tea. Of course this means that this ingredients simply say that it contains “Organic Chai Tea” which is a pretty vague thing, kind of like “cake mix”. I can taste a bit of the black tea background, some cinnamon and strong clove, a little nutmeg. I’d have liked, of course, more cardamom and perhaps vanilla notes. And less clove. Just make a clove mint and leave clove out of the other candies.
It’s pretty good and a nice change of pace from the others. The spicy notes are refreshing and I think gives me pleasant breath.
The last flavor is Cafe Express which features Fair Trade coffee from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The ingredients list both coffee and natural coffee flavor and they certainly smell like sweet, sweet coffee. The flavor is a little less intense, mellow and coffee-ish. On the good side of that, there’s no coffee breath afterwards. On the bad side, they feel more like candy than a breath mint. Not that there’s anything wrong with that since they’re pretty much gone now.
Overall I prefer the texture of these to Altoids, they’re a little smoother and the binder gums in there give them a very slight slippery feel on the tongue as they dissolve. The flavors are more pleasing than the similarly-textured Pastiglie Leone and completely different from the also-vegan friendly St. Claire’s Organic Mints.
Curiosities & other facts associated with these mints:
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Since the subject came up last with with the news that Mars was using animal-sourced rennet in their whey (and then they later rethought that and reversed it), I thought I’d address dietary restrictions and candy. There are a lot of candies that contain animal-sourced ingredients. Besides dairy products, one of the most common is gelatin. Gelatin is found in gummis but it’s also found in Altoids. So what’s a vegetarian to use to freshen their breath (besides just brushing their teeth)?
St. Claire’s Organics is an entire line of compressed sugar sweets in mint, herb, spice and tart flavors. Not only are they suitable for vegans, they’re also wheat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free and fancy-free.
The St. Claire’s Organic’s line of Sweets & Mints aren’t really that attractive out of the tins, but they rather remind me of Brittany Spaniels: All peppy and speckled.
St. Claire’s Organics also come in Tarts. How many little candy tarts out there that are organic and free of all those other things? The ones in boxes are little spheres and the ones in the tins are small tablets.
Whew! That was a lot of different flavors!
I give the whole line a 7 out of 10 (could be a little zingier), but the winners in my book were the Licorice and Ginger Sweets and I found that I ate all the Lemon Tarts first out of all the tarts, so they get an 8 out of 10. I also really dig the Tummy Soothers and since they have slippery elm in them, I’ll probably use them for aching throats too because I liked the flavor better.
The little boxes of sweets are great for kids, a very small portion in flavors they’ll respond to. The other great thing about St. Claire’s is that they sell the sweets and tarts in bulk at better than half the price so you can refill your tin (so you could get a really cool little package for your kids to keep refilling). The commitment from St. Claire’s to the environment goes further, with 10% of their profits donated to the Ethno Medicine Preservation Project, which documents medicinal plant traditions with indigenous cultures. The only negatives I have is that I don’t care for the little boxes, I’m not quite sure why, I just don’t respond well to them. They’re hard to reclose securely (I might like a little waxed paper insert or something for extra protection). But the tins are great, simple, easy to open and close (and with a nice saying printed inside the lid). The other negative is even though there’s no gelatin in here, they’re not certified Kosher.
I see these for sale at Whole Foods, Erewhon and other natural food stores, prices probably vary and of course you can order direct from St. Claire’s Organics.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
I tried the Theo Chocolate BonBons earlier this year and have had the bars sitting around for a while. I’m feeling quite pressured to eat them all (though they need to be savored) before Los Angeles gets so hot it bursts into flames (oops, we’re already on fire).
Theo makes chocolate from bean to bar (actually roasting their own beans on site) using fair trade and organic ingredients. Don’t let all that squishy-hippy stuff fool you, this is quality stuff without compromise.
Even the wrappers are sassy and fun (designed by KittenChops) instead of making you feel like you did a good deed. Come on! Half the fun is feeling that your chocolate bar is an indulgence ... a wrapper that tells you how many lives you may have saved, how many species will continue to exist because of your support ... all the wonderful skin-clarifying, artery-blasting ingredients that are contained within might be nice (and might get you to buy it) but they aren’t going to get your salivary glands going.
The dark bars contain 65% cocoa solids, so these are dark, but not too intense.
The Theo Chocolate bars are actually called 3400 Phinney Bars, named after the address of the Theo Chocolate Factory in Seattle. Not only are they not afraid of you knowing where they are, they actually welcome visitors and offer tours with tastings, of course, as well as a factory store. I’m hoping to get up there next fall to really dive into their complete chocolate experience.
The Milk Chocolate bars boast 40% cacao content, so they’re pretty rich.
All the bars a welcome change from the ordinary candy bar. The two I would find myself munching on regularly would be the Nib Brittle and Chai Milk Chocolate. They are expensive though, so only for special occasions. I could see tucking these into a special picnic at Pt. Dume or going to the Hollywood Bowl for a concert, but I just can’t buy them every day ... but knowing that the cocoa is grown responsibly (socially & environmentally) would help me pony up the dough.
You can find the bars online at Theo, Chocosphere and at stores like Whole Foods. The bars are
now Kosher (as of March 2008).
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.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.