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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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.

Everything is Butterful…

Vermont ButterI look at the shopping list for the dinner I am preparing for friends and see butter scribbled just under bread and above asparagus. Simple enough, go to the dairy section and grab a pound. Ah yes, for the uninitiated that may be fine. But I have a good crusty bread in my cart and would love the Vermont butter with coarse salt that comes in this cute wooden basket with blue gingham paper. I will be reducing a sauce with butter for the fish so I have to think, what do I want that flavor to be? I hate to admit this, but I love butter. I don’t dream of it, or think about it all the time, just when I need to cook with it, or when I walk by the refrigerator section of a grocery store , or am traveling to a country that specializes in dairy, or am eating toast, or …there are so many times to think about butter. Some people can’t pass by a shoe shop for danger of being lured in by footwear. My obsession is butter.

I blame England for my addiction. Okay, it isn’t completely responsible. I do remember sitting at a holiday meal with my sister-in-law – long before English butter entered my life – loading our baked potatoes with pats from the silver dish and laughing that the potato was just a delivery vehicle for the butter. It is something I’ve enjoyed since I was a child, when we had “real butter” on Sunday and margarine during the week. Living on my own meant “real butter” daily.

But it was mid 1990’s, while vacationing in the Lakes District of England that I first ate farm fresh butter. We sat around the kitchen table of our little cottage, eating the scones we had picked up that morning. I remember biting into it and the flavor jumping out at me. It was so light yet had so much flavor, not just fattiness, it was like eating fresh cream only better. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is the country known for shortbread ,which is just butter held together with some flour and sugar. My favorite cookie.

We slathered butter on everything we ate in England and Scotland. When we returned home, the poor American butter felt inadequate and we’d sit at the dinner table and sigh over the English version. But we got on with our lives and the British butter became a faded memory.

Come the year 2000 we made a trip to France. We bought some butter at a local farmers’ market and as we were biting into the baguette laden with it, my daughter and I both looked at each other and exclaimed, “Oh my God, the butter.” Yes French butter was just as good, sometimes better, than the English.

Jean Yves Bordier Butter

Jean Yves Bordier Offering Butter

It has everything to with where and what the cows are fed as well as the hand of the producer. I read about the famous Brittany butter maker Jean Yves Bordier. When asked why his butter is so good he said, “I haven’t invented anything new, I use old methods that respect the land, the animals, and tradition.” That respect is what makes his cow’s milk churn into such a creamy delight.

I was now on a mission to learn more. When I went to the Fancy Food shows trade shows for people in the gourmet industry, I found myself in the dairy aisles talking to the artisan butter makers. This is how I found the stuff not carried in the big chain stores: Vermont Butter and Cheese company , Sierra Nevada, and Meyenberg Goat Butter. I learned about cultured butter (the cream is slightly fermented adding depth of flavor) more popular in Europe, and sweet cream butter (made with pasteurized milk).

One day I was waiting in the checkout line at my local grocery store and there was Saveur Magazine with a whole issue devoted to butter. I had hit the mother load. I bought several copies, certain that everyone would want to enrich their knowledge of this golden goodness. Isn’t it funny that when you are intensely interested in something you assume everyone shares your enthusiasm?

An article in the magazine lead to me to Restaurant Jean in Paris. They serve the Brodier butter from Brittany. I had to try it. Yes it was worth the trip. I was in a local French market and noticed their huge assortment of butter from around the world. I filled my basket with Anchor from New Zealand, Pamplie from the French Coast and at least thirty dollars worth of other butters from all parts of the globe. Oh the decadence, the joy of being able to sample such an array all in one sitting.

French ButterMaybe it isn’t just the butter that captivates me. It is the fascination of where products come from, how they are made, what makes each different, much to the boredom of my friends sometimes. I don’t want to eat something just because it is touted by the latest gourmet magazine or blog. I need to see for myself, form my own opinion. My shop feeds this obsession by allowing me to taste five different english toffees before deciding which I’ll carry. Recently we opened four different bags of potato chips to determine which had the best potato flavor. Today I listened to the man behind the counter at Canter’s Deli as he explained how to reheat the pastrami I had just bought to bring out the best flavor. It is the pride he had in his pastrami that delighted me. Artisan product is crafted by someone who wants to bring out the best in the material he is working with, whether that be stone, fabric, or cream.

It comes down to the search for truth in every aspect of life; my true passion. They say curiosity killed the cat. It won’t kill me, but it certainly contributes to the fifteen pounds I chronically want to lose.