For the Love of Chocolate

I am sitting at my desk wondering what tack to take on this article.  I decide to nibble on a chocolate bar for inspiration  mmmm… 61% Venezuelan, the sharpness of the criollo beans  turns into a fatty full mouth feel then mellows to a long full finish. The Pacari Chocolate Bars in our shop from Ecuador however may be my favorite.  The cacao is richer and somewhat mellower yet deeper tasting than the Venezuela, there is a slight taste of green banana and I swear I can smell tropical  flowers.   Yet both these chocolate bars are only cacao beans and sugar.  Why the extreme difference?

Chocolate will vary tremendously depending on where it is grown.  It has terroir, much like  wine.  There is no good English equivalent for the word terroir.   It is so much more than just the soil – terroir is from the word terra for earth- yet it is more about the characteristics of the  region in which something grown.  It will include the air, the humidity, the sun, fog, the flora and fauna.   All this affects the taste of the fruit.

cacao trees

Cacao Trees

Cacao is grown within about 20 degrees of the equator.  This is why you won’t find fields of cacao trees in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  And by the way, there are no cacao trees in Belgium.  Belgian Chocolate is a way of processing the cacao to make chocolate. The only place the United States where cacao is grown is Hawaii.  What do you think of when you think of that band near the equator?   Tropical Rainforest? Volcanos?  High Humidity? Yup!  There are a variety of factors depending on if the cacao is grown in Africa, Madagascar or Mexico. The beans are often fermented outside so banana trees, or any other plants, in the area will affect that flavor of the beans. I am sure you have experienced this with coffee too.  A South American bean manifests very differently in the cup than a Arabian one.

 

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Cacao Pods



I am talking about pure cacao which is used for single origin chocolate, not candy. The cacao beans are grown in big colorful pods that hang off the trees.  They break the pods open and extract the beans which are sitting in a milky liquid. There is a huge difference between a single origin chocolate bar and Hershey’s with Almonds, they aren’t even in the same food group.   I am not making less of a Snickers bar, but a candy bar is cheap cocoa mixed with a lot of sugar and other fun ingredients to make a confection. There is no terroir in candy, just as there isn’t in a cheap jug wine.   The cheap jug wine may be fine with your pizza, but you don’t expect it to have the complexity of a great barolo.  Just two different things entirely.

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Fermentation of Cacao Beans in Ecuador

One important fact is that cacao is traded as a commodity on the exchange in New York and London.  People making chocolate generally just buy a container at a set price.  Even when a region is specified you don’t know exactly where or how the cacao was grown.
Luckily there  are now a lot of companies specializing in single origin chocolate which comes from specific regions, even certain plantations.  These are some of the most interesting chocolates out there.  They have a range and depth of flavors that make them stand out from your ordinary grocery store check out stand chocolate bars.

There has been a huge rise in the last few years of manufacturers who buy directly from, and are involved with, the plantations where they buy their beans.   Since most cacao is grown in or near the rainforests of the world, it is vital to be sure the chocolate we consume is coming from companies that promote the sustainability  of the environment as well as fair wages to the workers.   This is important for a number of reasons.  When farmers are underpaid for their product they have to grow more and more of it to make a living.  In doing so they will overgrow on the land and cut down more and more of the rainforest so they can grow more and more.   The best cacao comes from plantations that are shade grown, near a rainforest because  there is a relationship between the animals and trees of that area and the cacao plants.dict-taylor

A horrible side to the business of cacao is the slavery that still exists especially in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, many of these slaves are children.  These two countries alone produce over 50 percent of the world’s cacao.


Buying Fair Trade Certified products (an official designation after investigation of the operating process) and knowing which companies buy directly from the growers will help ensure you don’t buy from slave plantations.  Such brands as: Pacari, Dick Taylor, Divine, Goodio, Tcho,Cocoa Parlor and Choco Vivo are just some of the companies we have carried. They buy directly from the farmers, not always easy because  of the power of the co-ops who control the cacao trade in many countries. The better manufacturers share the profits with the farmers and give back to the communities where cacao pods are grown by  educating the farmers on how to get better crops through better technology, and setting up educational scholarships for the children of these villages so they have more choices when they grow up.


Some of the largest companies like Hershey and Godiva still won’t say exactly where they source their cacao. Cadbury in the U.K. and elsewhere outside the U.S. is Fair Trade whereas in the U.S. (owned by Hershey) they can’t make that claim.  Lindt is able to claim sustainability and lack of slave chocolate so draw your own conclusions.sea salt and caramel

 


Not everyone participates in the Fair trade program, due partly to the fees they charge and the red tape, but many deal directly with the farmers and are doing a lot of good as well as getting magnificent raw materials. This data is easy to find out since many promote it on the label.  One company we know buys from a plantation in Ecuador. The workers had never tasted the finished chocolate before. They had always just shipped them out as raw materials, all the beans were exported worldwide. This company treated them all, and still do, much to the delight of all the workers. I hope you too are delighted with whatever chocolate you eat next.  There are so many to explore, here’s to a very enjoyable journey.

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Chocolate Decadence:  Everything is made by responsible producers

 

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A Day on the Farms

We got to see baby Water Buffalo! That may not be enough reason for you to get up in the early morning fog and hop on a van that promises to take you to three farmstead creameries, but that was enough incentive for me. Luckily Wally, my partner in adventure and my husband of 35 years, will jump on any bus that holds the promise of fresh Water Buffalo Mozzarella.

water buffalo at Ramini Mozzareally

Water Buffalo at Ramini Mozzarella

The tour was part of the California Artisan Cheese  Festival that is held in Petaluma each spring. We chose this one because each creamery had animals on property (so we got to see baby animals), each had different animals, and all were family run.

 

First up: new kid on the farm Ramini Mozzarella.

Milking Barn and Cheese Room

Milking Barn and Cheese Room

One of only two small Water Buffalo farms in Northern California, Ramini is determined to duplicate his Italian ancestors steps in making top quality Mozzarella de Bufala. Listening to him enthuse as he speaks of his herd – 36 buffalo with only 10 milking currently- and the process of milking and making the cheese all in one day you know this is truly a passion. Why else would you spend all day milking your buffalo, hand making the cheese, and taking exceptional care of all your animals? It is one loooong day.

 

IMG_4398But his pride is evident, as is the taste, as we sample a plate of his cheese with tomatoes and basil. It doesn’t get any fresher than this.
Some facts about Water Buffalo Farming and the Cheese: The milk is about 10% fat, three times the fat of cow milk. His babies stay with the mom for about a week, then go down to nursing once a day, but they will naturally start eating grass after about 3 days and will be on full grass after a month. He keeps them with the moms during the day, they both do better as a result.

Second: Valley Ford Cheese Company, they’ve been a dairy farm for over 90 years.

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Valley Ford

The Cheese Company was started in 2008 but the roots to this dairy go back to 1918 when Pietro and Maria Bianchi bought 640 acres for dairy farming.   It has stayed in the family all these years and its primary business is still to sell milk, with Clover Stornetta being one of their clients.   Pietro’s granddaughter, Karen Bianchi Moreda, who had been working with the dairy most of her life decided she wanted to try her hand at artisan cheese making as well.   Leaning on her family’s Northern Italian heritage, but using the terroir of Northern California, she fashioned Highway One, a semi hard Fontina style cheese with grassy notes, and Estero Gold, a harder cheese with a nuttiness like Asiago, that develops and crystalizes as it ages.   She sells the Estero Gold at 6 months and 18 months. She now has a 12 month Estero Gold that we love, but sadly it isn’t on the open market just yet. But we are standing by.

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Valley Ford Cheesemaker, Joe Moreda, giving us a peek of his test batch of gorgonzola

 

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Calf at Valley Ford

 

Third: Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese, an irrepressible couple who, in addition to running a cow dairy, decided to make goat cheese so Bonnie, the wife, could keep all of her goats. All 160 of them!  Bonnie and Don have been married for 49 years, their enthusiasm for their goats and their cheese provided laughter and inspiration.

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Bonnie DeBernardi

Ah, I’ve heard this story before. It could almost be the beginning of a joke: A woman buys a few goats…kind of like, “a man walks into a bar…” or “there was a priest, a rabbi and a minister.” This time the woman is Bonnie DeBernardi and she buys 2 cute Nubian goats (those with the bunny like floppy ears) for her grandkids to play with. That was back in the 1990s. Now she has 160 goats which she tends personally while her husband Don makes goat cheese three times a week. This is in addition to running a dairy farm. Those goats, so cute, so alluring. And thank goodness! The cheese Don is making is delicious.

Don DiBernardi

Don DeBernardi

Like many farmers we’ve met in Northern California Don is of Swiss and Italian Heritage. He decided he wanted to do what his Granddad did, so off her went to study cheese making with relatives in Switzerland. He also had an expert come in and help him after his first few batches had gone wrong. He has the smallest cheese making room I’ve ever seen and a small shed that acts as his aging room. At the age of 70 he still finds joy in each batch and expresses wonder at each one, somewhat amazed by it all. After tasting his goat brie and his 6 month semi hard goat cheese I was amazed too. I hope to have his cheese at Fancifull soon. Right now he is only selling in Northern California, but if I have my way, I’ll get a wheel or two down here as well.

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Baby goats

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Mom and Baby

I relish the opportunity to visit these farms firsthand. One gets to smell the air, meet the animals and get a true view of what it takes to bring a cheese to market. This isn’t something you do because you have nothing better to do.

The word passion comes to mind often as I talk with these artisans. I look it up and see it comes from Latin, Pati which means “suffer.” Now that is interesting. I don’t think any of these people would say they suffer, but they do work long hours, are slaves to their animals, and will throw out a whole batch of cheese they have worked on for months if it isn’t right. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

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A goofy looking one, but persistent in getting attention

I want this one

I want this one

Artisanal Cheese Definitions

There is much talk of Artisan food in the world right now, we wanted to take a moment and clear up a few terms .

Artisan: Made by hand by traditional methods. A person is there during every part of the process, checking each stage. Artisan Cheese will more reflect the environment and the differences in milk from season to season. Craftsman is a synonym. A skilled person is at the helm.

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Farmstead cheese from these goats at Fat Toad Farm

Farmstead: The animals are on the property where the cheese is being made. The cheese makers have a farm and make the cheese there. Not all artisan cheese is farmstead, Cowgirl Creamery, for instance, gets their milk from Strauss Organic Dairy.

Commercial: As the name implies commercial cheese is made in large batches. It may not have the variations of an artisan cheese but some of it can be quite good. Rembrandt Gouda is one example of a popular commercial cheese. Fromage Affinois is another. It depends on the company and the care and pride they take in their product. And of course, it always comes down to taste.

Industrial Cheese: This is larger than just commercial. There is one company in California that makes 2.4 million pounds of cheese a day. No one sees the milk, it is piped in, pasteurized, put in a tank, buttons are pushed, cheese comes out. This is often sent to restaurants, pizza parlors, food service and used for private label.

Processed Cheese Food: Has a minimum of 51% dairy product by final weight – meaning milk or whey. And it may contain one or more optional ingredients. Whereas there are some spreads that are okay, many add oils, chemicals and artificial flavors to make them shelf stable for years.

At Fancifull great care is taken in selecting the cheese we carry in the shop and design into our Gift Baskets. We take pride in the research we do regarding the food on our shelves and are committed to bringing you the best in a variety of price ranges.

Hand Flipping the curds at Beecher's in Seattle

Hand Flipping the curds at Beecher’s in Seattle

Goat Cheese being drained

Goat Cheese being drained

The Golden State

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Opening Night Cheese Tasting

The Golden State

“Eureka! There’s gold in them thar hills.” That was the cry of the 49ers who came to California in the 1800s looking to score a fortune in the gold rush. Now up in the hills of Marin and scattered throughout the state, is gold of different kind. It still of the land, but in the form of milk and dairy products.

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Northern California has long been considered a food epicenter – focusing on family owned farms producing organic product. The establishment of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) helped assure that the area of Marin would continue to support farmers and green space rather than being overrun by condos. You can learn more about MALT here: http://www.malt.org/

The call of gold lured me and Wally to load up our wagon and head up north to those very same hills in March to attend and help with the California Artisan Cheese Festival which was held in Petaluma from March 22nd-24th.

The weekend was filled with tours of local cheese makers’ facilities and farms, seminars (beer and cheese at 9:30 am anyone?), tastings, meals, and a Marketplace on Sunday. We attended our first festival last year and immediately became members of the Guild which gave us the opportunity to help set up and run their booth at the Marketplace. Having to be there at 9 am was difficult, but talking about the work the Guild does and the classes they offer in conjunction with the College of Marin was gratifying.

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New Kids on the Block Seminar

Since we teach classes and hold tastings in our shop, we like to get as much insight as we can from the Cheesemaker perspective to share with our students. This lead us to the New Kids on the Block Seminar early Saturday where we got to listen to and ask questions of four Cheesemakers who were bringing new cheese to the market. They spoke frankly about their development process and the challenges in introducing a new cheese to the American public. Janet Fletcher of the San Francisco Chronicle lead the discussion with the cheesemakers and asked pointed questions to keep the info flowing. One of our favorite new cheeses is Point Reyes Bay Blue. Cuba, the cheesemaker for Point Reyes, talked about how he has refined this recipe for years before releasing it. While visiting Point Reyes two yeas ago we had the opportunity to try it in its first stages! Patience pays off. The new Bay Blue is astounding and already winning awards. But it took over two years to get it right! That is a lot of time and effort. We felt fortunate to be able to experience its evolution, it gave us terrific insight into the process of taking a pretty good cheese and turning it into a great one.

New Kids on the Block

New Kids on the Block

Luckily for our Fancifull Customers we have an in with the dairy, so they shipped us a wheel even though it isn’t in wide distribution yet. Nice to have friends in high places.

Toward the end of the seminar, our moderator, Janet Fletcher, let us know that she had just released her latest book: Cheese and Beer . I bought one immediately (and had her sign it). It has lots of information that should contribute to some tasty classes at Fancifull in the near future.

At lunch, we shared our table with the folks from Cypress Grove, another of our favorite cheese companies. Wally would eat Humboldt Fog every morning if he could and I have to say the same about Midnight Moon.

The afternoon held a wine pairing seminar with old world and new world cheese and wine. Old World basically means Europe while new world speaks to the U.S. and Australia. The class was very similar to what we offer in our classes at Fancifull but it was fun to be a student rather than the teacher. There is always so much to learn and Laura Werlin, author of several books on cheese, was a terrific tour guide.

Laura Werlin, our fearless leader

Laura Werlin, our fearless leader

This cheesy weekend left us brimming with ideas and new product to bring into our shop. There is just so much great cheese out there, how do we sell it all? Answer: One wedge at a time.

OId World/New World Wine and Cheese

Old World/New World Wine and Cheese

Quit Wining and Enjoy Life

I’ve been on forums and read many a discussion regarding fine wine and “cheap” wine. One recent discussion revolved around what is the lowest cost wine you are willing to drink if you have a fine palate.
It is funny, because even though I sell wine for a living and have tasted thousands of wines from all regions of the world, I am intent on not becoming a wine snob. As I read about the pain people go through drinking “lesser” wines it made me think. I certainly love a good white burgundy, which is rarely a bargain, but I’ve also had $10 bottles of wine that are fine. I have no desire to go through life wearing blinders, closing myself off to whole categories of things and people. Here is what I realized: traveling is what can really make the difference in your palate and sensibility.

Our Wine Garden In UmbriaRecently, in Umbria, we bought many a bottle of local red wine at under 7 euro a bottle, some as little as 3 euro. When you are sitting on a porch in the hills, looking over Lake Trasimeno surrounded by herbs and olive trees, eating wild boar salami, peccorino cheese, focaccia and the like this wine is fine. I can’t imagine lamenting the quality of the wine – and some were better than others, and noted for the next trip to the store. It opens my taste buds to a greater variety of wines and food when I get home as well as how to enjoy them. This “far niente” is contagious. I grab a bottle of red, create a cheese plate and sit in my backyard with friends and enjoy the day, bringing a bit of Italy to them. For my formal Christmas dinner with prime rib I may opt for a better Bordeaux or perhaps a burgundy, it just seems to go with that particular flow and meal. Pairing food, wine, and atmosphere is one of my passions, so I indulge at every opportunity.

The impact traveling has had on our relationship with food and life is significant. I am thankful that it has taught me to relax and enjoy what is in front of us and take it as a whole rather than pick it apart. While attending a seminar on Italian wines I heard a famous restaurateur speak who had a wine cellar of tremendous renown. Tasting a simple wine from Sicily, he explained its virtues: it was a well made wine yet you don’t expect too much from it but it would be great with Pizza Margherita. He said it isn’t a “meditation wine,” meaning one of those big complex wines that you sip in front of a fire and marvel at the depth and textures in the wine – and possibly your life.
Isn’t that true of so many things we enjoy? There are movies you see to just relax and laugh and those that shift your viewpoints, books to read on the beach and those that require more time and attention, art that is playful and that which has a message to impart. Wine is no different. You still want well-made wine with balance and a degree of complexity, just as when I read a light book I still want good story telling.

The secret is to always find the good in life, relax and drink it in.

Fancy Food Show 2010

Attending the Fancy Food Show in New York is not for the weak of mind, heart or stomach. It fills a cavernous 675,000 sq ft jammed with over 180,000 products from 2500 exhibitors representing 81 countries. Whew! You have 3 days to explore and find the lucky ones that will make it back to your shop. You either want to run out screaming or sigh and take a toothpick and start tasting, regretting those reservations you made for dinner because, let’s face it, you won’t be hungry for hours after the convention floor closes.

Exhausting as it is, I do get the chance to meet vendors, see new product and compare products through tasting. This is a godsend when trying to determine which is good enough to make it onto the shelves of Fancifull or be designed into one of our gift baskets. I once was sold on a cherry in liquer that had good packaging. Two rows over there was another manufacturer, with a simple label, but oh my, they were so much better. There was no contest.

I really am a bit crazy about tasting and finding the best. I found a fantastic cheese from Utah that is rubbed with espersso beans giving it a slightly sharp flavor that melts as you hit the more mellow cheese. Next booth over was the guy from Colorado who made wild boar sausage better than what I ate recently in Italy. Sampling, comparing and talking gives me an opportunity to get to the heart and soul of the food, rather than buying due to convenience, marketing or a glitzy package.

The number of artisan producers who had booths at the show surprised and thrilled me. This is an industry ruled by the big boys, who mass produce with often more care to the bottom line than the quality of the product. (I do have to say there are some big companies who do it right, I don’t want to slight them or anyone making a great tasting product). I am proud of the number of American Craftsmen out there who are creating cheese as good if not better than Europe and the chocolate makers sourcing fair and good chocolate as well as the many women I met starting their own baking companies. The good ones really stand out – small doesn’t always mean better which is why tasting the product is an imperitive. Their passion and dedication is contagious and I can’t wait to share their products with you. I delight in introducing you to new artisans and delicious food, it is a mission with me, and one which we can all savor.