Wednesday, November 21, 2007
For at least a year I’ve been reading about Hotel Chocolat on Chocablog. The products seemed inventive, if a little over the top. But the company story, the fact that they’re bean to bar and pride themselves on sourcing their chocolate ethically is pretty compelling. While I love many of the fair trade chocolates that I try, I really want some chocolate candy sometimes.
Hotel Chocolat contacted me a couple of months ago with the news that they were opening a webstore in the US. So I could get my own taste of their product line. At first they offered to send me a sample package with their Peepsters, which were little slabs of chocolate with items mixed in. For some reason that wasn’t possible and they up and sent me the Crostini Fruit & Nut Slab and a bag of Macadamia Turtles. (Neither of these items are available on their website.)
The American website focuses on images of folks with great skin using chocolate as seduction (probably successfully since by the time you get to the Christmas chocolate there’s one image that shows the “couple” with a small child). Their products seem designed to entice with sensuality and abundance. Instead of teensy pieces with cute little images molded into them or imprinted on the top, Hotel Chocolat goes whole hog with clear plastic packages that show off vast real estate of chocolate. Images on the website reinforce this with couples sharing bites of bars of chocolate larger than their head.
While the marketing of their products doesn’t quite mesh with my demographic, I am certainly interested in quality and flavor/texture combinations. I also enjoy innovative styling and packaging.
The Slab of Chocolate comes in a black paper package with a clear plastic front and a carrying handle (though be aware that the package opens on the bottom ... so reseal it completely before swinging it around). A little longer than a size of A4 paper, this is a substantial piece of chocolate. Clocking in at 500 grams (17.5 ounces) the abundance is a selling point.
This beefy slab had some uneven distribution of the mix-ins. It includes: cranberries, sultanas, crunchy crostini, almonds and hazelnuts. (You can see in the photo that the corners are sadly lacking in inclusions. While this gives it an artisan quality, it also meant that sometimes I had to break off more pieces in order to get to the ones with the “stuff.”
At first I was disappointed that they sent me milk chocolate products, but this is pretty dark milk. According to the package it’s 50% cocoa solids and 20% milk. It has an authentic milkiness to it (none of that powdered dairy tastes). It’s middle of the road as chocolate flavors go, not terribly complex, just good chocolatey-chocolate. My candy dream! A nice melt, not too sweet and a good complement to the tangy sultanas & cranberries. The hazelnuts were great, the almond slivers were few and far between but the crostini were fun when I encountered them.
The retail on this product is $25 plus shipping. Not too bad for an upscale chocolate bar.
But wait a second ... these aren’t American-style turtles. There’s no caramel in there. Just a macadamia nut at the center and some crisps in the milk chocolate. The whole thing does look rather like a turtle though.
After I got over my resistance to them because of the name, they were fun. The same high cacao milk chocolate, a good bit of crunch and then the fresh macadamias. (I would probably opt for another nut in the future though.)
I’m certainly curious to give some of the other Hotel Chocolat items a try, their gift packages look especially interesting. (They’ve timed their launch for the winter Holidays.) I don’t know if I’d buy the slab though, it’s an awful lot of one thing and I gravitate more towards variety when trying a new brand. It’s certainly an impressive looking gift though! The shipping box was great, nicely packaged for the warmish weather, I have to mention that because some companies just don’t “get” how to ship chocolate products to Los Angeles.
The package says that the product is suitable for vegetarians and is alcohol free.
More on the Hotel Chocolat expansion into the US market here.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
I’ve talked a lot over the years about Candy Season and the accompanying seasonal candies that go with each. Slowly the candy companies are seeing that those seasonal favorites can be re-purposed into other seasons. Just like M&Ms are found in color combos for every time of the year and Russell Stover is making a marshmallow-filled pumpkin, Santa and egg, it seems that Cadbury doesn’t want anyone to miss out on incorporating their egg-shaped candies into the major holidays.
This is where the Cadbury Ornament Creme Egg comes in. It’s just a Cadbury Creme Egg with a red foil wrapper.
It seems silly, but I’m going to re-review these, even though they’re no different than the Easter version. However, the last time I ate one was back in ‘06 when they were 1.38 ounces. This made for a very large reservoir of fondant ... which is not my favorite part of the Cadbury Creme Egg. (My favorite part of the Cadbury Creme Egg, for the record, was the clucking bunny commercial.) The more recent version is 1.2 ounces.
The egg has a wonderful sweet dairy chocolate smell to it that reminded me of powdered milk. Both of mine had a small sticky problem around the seam (and I tried to hard to pick good ones).
The nose cone of both seemed extremely thick, which gave a good dose of chocolate to the otherwise too-sweet fondant density.
The fondant creme center is sweet, it’s nice and smooth indicating its freshness (an old Creme Egg will have a slight grain to the fondant). But really, it’s just a big hunk of sugar, and while I often enjoy big hunks of sugar (rock candy anyone?), I still felt a little too much of a sugar rush aftewards.
I think I prefer the smaller one. I’d love it if they made a mint one (and I did find the orange one a bit better). That said, it’s still not a favorite of mine. But I’m sure fans of the Creme Egg will be happy to see it now as their stockpiles from Easter are probably long gone.
While I can fault them for doing nothing more than slapping a different color wrapper on it and the word “ornament” to make it a Christmas product, I did find that making the Mini Eggs into little spheres for their new Christmas thingies did actually muck with perfection.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
One of the cultural differences it took me a while to get over was the British insistence on calling caramel “toffee”. I can forgive them, mostly because they do such a nice job making soft toffee in the classic butter caramel style. For those Brits reading, in the US we call toffee a hard crack, boiled sugar and butter mixture.
Last weekend I went to a new British food shop called The British Food Shop in Laguna Niguel. They had a very nice selection of consumer candies from the United Kingdom at decent prices, everything also looked exceptionally fresh. I picked out quite a few things, including some Walkers’ Nonsuch Toffee.
The big slabs aren’t much to look at, unless you hold it up in bright light and admire the depth and richness of the pure caramelized color ... like it’s a Tahitian pearl or a puppy.
The bars aren’t really user-friendly and a bit hefty at 3.5 ounces. They have little sections in them, but the best way to eat the candy is to chill it and then whack it firmly on the corner of the table or counter. I find this works best if you put it in a ziploc baggie first, lest it burst its way out of the package.
The toffee smells buttery and rich. It’s a very firm caramel chew, so it helps to prewarm it in the palm of your hand or in your mouth for a moment before trying to chew it.
It’s ultra smooth, not too sweet and barely salty. The burnt sugar notes and true butter flavor are a simple pleasure.
The package states that there are no artificial colors or preservatives, but neglects to mention the artificial emulsifier (E471, also known as mono and diglycerides of fatty acids, which may be from an animal source). 8 out of 10
The other variety I couldn’t resist is their Treacle Toffee. For those of you unfamiliar with the term treacle, it’s basically molasses and is often called golden syrup. This toffee features 13% black treacle, which sounds extra good.
Molasses is revered for its nutritional profile, it’s like sugar, only with plenty of necessary minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron). Those minerals add a wonderful woodsy, nutty taste to the sweet syrup. I’ve had a craving for molasses for a few weeks, I’m guessing it’s an essential mineral I’m missing or something. I’ve been pondering a recipe for Molasses and Peanut Butter Bread Pudding. But that’s neither here nor there ... this is a review of toffees!
This toffee smelled like pecans, maple sugar and a cedar closet filled with caramels and honey all at once.
This chew is just as smooth and satisfying, if a little less sweet than the original variety. I really enjoyed both the depth of the flavor and the consistent chew of it. 9 out of 10
Now I’m curious to try Walkers’ other nutted varieties of their toffee and of course the licorice variety. The company has been making toffee (and only toffee) for over a hundred years and is still run by the Walker family. I like the idea that a company that makes a quality product can simply continue doing so generation after generation. Toffee may not be the most popular candy category any longer (chocolate is), but it still has an important place in the confectionery pantheon.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
I reviewed Smarties a couple of years ago, but they were the Canadian version and I thought they merited a revisit with the originals ... especially since they’re so wildly popular around the world with sales topping $140,000,000 a year!
Smarties were introduced by Rowntree in the UK back in 1937. Legend has it that Forrest Mars and a Rowntree family member were traveling through Spain in the mid-1930s and saw the soldiers there would eat chocolate that was covered in sugar to keep it from melting. Both men saw the merits of this novel way of serving candies, especially when combined with the French and Italian panning processes that provides an attractive colored shell. Rowntree first named their new chocolate lentils “Chocolate Niblet Beans” but changed next year to Smarties.
They’re not sold in the United States owing mostly to the fact that the name Smarties is already taken here (and perhaps some sort of gentleman’s agreement between Rowntree & Mars ... I can’t find any record of it though).
Smarties offer a wide variety of colors in their flat chocolate candies and recently change from artificial colors to all natural ones in hopes that it will reduce reticence among moms because of concerns about artificial colors being linked to hyperactivity.
The hexagonal tubes that hold the Smarties are certainly cute. They’re easy to dispense from and they don’t roll around. The candies themselves are attractive, if now a little mottled in color.
Smarties shells are a little thicker than M&Ms and have a light flavor to them that I can only call cookie flavored (maybe ‘Nilla Wafers or Graham Crackers). The chocolate inside is rather unremarkable - not terribly rich or creamy.
What’s most surprising and pleasant about the Smarties is the flavor of the orange ones. They’re actually orange. Kind of a middle-of-the-road orange, not terribly deep or zesty, more like the Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
The colors are remarkably different than they used to be. I tossed out a little array with some M&Ms ColorWorks as a comparison. The difference is pretty easy to see - the Smarties lack a depth to the color. However, it gives them a little artisan, homespun quality that certainly doesn’t turn me off.
Brits are fierce about their Smarties, and even the little changes in the packaging and colors seem to get people all fired up. Here’s a commercial from last year when the Hex tube replaced the round one with the collectible caps.
Here’s another earlier one that might lead one to believe that there’s something really psychedelic about these candies!
While parents may be happy that the artificial colors are gone, vegetarians aren’t. They now use carminic acid to make the reds, which is made from cochineal insects. (It also means that they’re not Kosher.)
Further, it’s not what Americans would consider “pure chocolate” as it contains whey and vegetable fat fillers. Ingredients are: Sugar, cocoa mass, cocoa butter, dried skimmed milk, butterfat, whey powder, vegetable fat, lactose and soy lecithin. The coating is: sugar, wheat flour, modified starch, colors (titanium dioxide, mixed carotenes, carminic acid, vegetable carbon, riboflavin, copper, complexes of chlorophyllins), glazing agents, beetroot juice and flavourings.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
I was interested in what the UK version of Skittles were like compared to the American Skittles for two reasons. The first is that they don’t use gelatin in them. This means that vegetarians are free to enjoy, but I wasn’t sure what difference it would make in the texture. The second is that UK Skittles aren’t fortified with vitamin C. Did you know that a pack of American Skittles has half our daily RDA?
My friends Bronwen & Jay just returned from Europe and brought this super-sized tub of Skittles for me.
So, how different are Euro-Skittles? First, remember that Skittles were first introduced in Europe, so if anything, we’ve corrupted them with our gelatin.
I got some American Skittles and did a side by side.
It was pretty obvious that the colors aren’t quite the same. The Euro-Skittles are bit dull in comparison, in color and shine. The American Skittles are on the left and the UK sourced ones on the right.
The flavors are the same until you get to purple, which is Black Currant in the UK, grape in the US.
The textures are different. American Skittles are firm, have a pretty crispy shell and long chew that’s a little grainy and then descends back into a grainy sugary mess before dissolving.
UK Skittles are soft and have what feels like a thinner shell. The flavor seems a bit brighter on the citrus ones, especially the lemon that tastes rather like fresh lemon juice.
I’ve never been overly fond of the American Grape Skittle, I eat it, but it’s way down there at the bottom, right after Lime. So I was intrigued by the Black Currant at first. If anything, the whole tub smells like Black Currant (whereas I find American Skittles smell like Strawberry). What I found out is this ... I don’t like Black Currant Skittles. In fact, I might not like Black Currant as a flavor much at all.
I did a little reading on Black Currant, because it seems like a rather traditional British flavor and found that it’s one of the few fruits grown in the UK with high levels of Vitamin C, during WWII it was the only reliable local source. On this side of the pond, Currant cultivation was banned because the plants were encouraging the spread of a disease of pine trees needed for the lumber industry. So as they fell out of the American diet, they were practically forced down the throats of the UK kiddies. (See Wikipedia.)
American Skittles…..................UK Skittles
My dislike of Black Currant Skittles certainly wouldn’t dissuade me from eating Skittles in England or anything. The differences between the two, besides that flavor, are marginal at best. The good thing is that I have a huge tub of them.
Even though they have no gelatin, they’re not Kosher or Hallal.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
I’ll save you from skimming to the end of the review. Yeah, that holds true in the case of American Value bars.
This is a long thin Milk Chocolate bar that clocks in at a respectable 1.4 ounce portion and mentions the price of “4 for a Dollar every day” in a ghastly yellow logo in the corner. The label couldn’t possibly be less compelling if you gave me a version of Microsoft Word 95 to make it in. The package says nothing to recommend it, it doesn’t get our hopes up, it doesn’t lend any expectation to the experience.
Inside the package things get a bit better. It looks like a chocolate bar (and the ingredients reveal it’s real chocolate as well). It smells a little nutty and a little like chocolate. Sweet and less that ultra smooth, it’s a passable chocolate bar to give a child that isn’t very finicky, has a short attention span or perhaps you don’t like that much.
Since the bars are rather attractive (probably more so if you don’t leave it at the bottom of your bag when traveling) I would be comfortable recommending this bar for craft projects like Gingerbread Houses in the style of mid-eighties cubicle farms.
Though the Milk Chocolate bar was plain, it wasn’t pretending to be anything it wasn’t. The Four Finger Wafer Bar is a KitKat clone. Instead of the simple declaration of the contents that the Milk Chocolate bar has, this one says that it’s “Crisp Wafer Fingers Covered in Smooth Milk Chocolate.”
Oh, now they’ve raised my expectations. I’m expecting some smoothiness and some crispiness.
The wrapper features more design than a lowly word processing program could handle. This does not make it any more attractive. It’s not your monitor either, there’s a strange green cast to the package as well.
There are, in fact, four fingers. They are, in fact, crisp. They do not taste like KitKat fingers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. These are a bit less flaky and light. Looking at the ingredients I see that maize flour (corn) is used instead of wheat flour of a Hershey’s or Nestle’s KitKat. I actually rather enjoyed the malty corn flavor of the wafers. However, the chocolate here was funky. It had an odd flavor to it, kind of like a new car smell.
This bar was made in the UK (the Milk Chocolate bar was made in the USA). Taquitos.net has a few of the other Dollar General candies reviewed. I get the sense that Dollar General just subs out the manufacture of all of their candy - the Rocklets they sell under their own name are made by Arcor in Brazil, this four fingered bar in the UK and the milk chocolate bar in the US ... so you wouldn’t expect them to be so consistent.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
They say that smell is one of the most powerful memory and emotional triggers of the five senses. I’m inclined to believe that, some scents I’m just drawn to because of pleasant associations. The Apothecary’s Garden hard candies, I think, work well with the idea that you can get comfort in a simple reminder of something you have found pleasant in the past.
The cool part about them being encapsulated in candies is that you don’t have to light any incense or candles. The scent is self contained and if it’s not something everyone likes, well, they’re probably less likely to even catch a whiff of it if it’s in your mouth (well, unless you know them very well). I’ve been traveling around this month working on my novel and selecting these as I go along to match my prose.
Lavender (soothes, balances and harmonises) - these little oblong pieces match the blossoms best of all of the candies in this line. The flat lozenges look like a sprig of lavender, or perhaps an itty bitty light purple corn cob. The little ribs and bumps on the candy were kind of fun to run my tongue over (though they dissolved rather quickly). There was less of a floral taste to the candy and more of a balsam and pine taste with that oily menthol note that fresh lavender blossoms have. It was definitely soothing, and I’d probably reach for these when I have a tickle in the throat.
These would be great for novel scenes that involve morgues, streets with open sewers, and long bus trips where the characters are forced to sit in the back next to the toilet and around the chain smokers.
Rose (helps maintain balance and harmony) - I was expecting a soapy floral candy and was pleasantly surprised at how mellow this candy is. It has a hint of acidity to it that gives it a roundness, kind of a like a touch of honey or a barley sugar candy. The rose isn’t very strong, but reminded me quite a bit of some of the better Turkish Delight I’ve had over the years.
I’m not quite sure what the prescription difference is between the Rose and Lavender, but it’s nice to have the same effect but not the same flavor, I suppose.
This candy would go best with pastoral scenes of mother and baby bonding, main characters grappling with losing a parent, and after scenes of characters taking late-night public transportation after a rave or evening of clubbing.
Rosemary (helps maintain mental alertness) - I have to admit I wasn’t sure if rosemary could make a good candy flavor. It’s a rather strong herb, with a distinct and rather acrid flavor if you chew the fresh needles. (If you chew the dried ones, well, you may as well kiss a porcupine.)
This one reminded me of a woodsy cough drop, kind of a menthol and spearmint flavor mixed in with a pine wreath. They little candies are quite cute, the smallest of all that I tried, with two different designs in there, one a geometric pattern and the other a little flower medallion.
These would be great when writing scenes where there is a conceit of a ticking clock of some sort and the main character must diffuse a bomb. It’s also good for courtroom dramas and jury deliberations and any novel that involves delicate surgery or analysis of lines of computer code.
They really do soothe the throat and were, along with the Licorice and Anise, my favorite of all the Apothecary’s Garden candies.
These would be perfect for novels set in orchards or with fields of flowers as well as Gothic tales featuring mysterious tribes with ancient ways. Other novels that would be a good accompaniment include those with erotic passages involving food and adventurous quests across great expanses of land and sea.
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.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.