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

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The Terroir of Chocolate

As I sit at my computer thinking about this article I’m nibbling on a chocolate bar, 61% cacao from Venezuela. mmmm… I’m enveloped by the sharpness of the criollo cacao beans, followed by a slightly earthy and nutty flavor that mellows to a long full finish. Venezuelan Chocolate may be my favorite. Although I do have one from Ecuador in my shop that is richer and somewhat fattier tasting than the Venezuelan, a slight taste of green banana and I swear I can smell tropical flowers. Yet both these chocolate bars are only cacao and sugar. Why the extreme difference?

Chocolate will vary tremendously depending on where the cacao is grown. It too has terroir, much like wine. There is no good English equivalent for the word terroir. It refers to the characteristics of the region in which something grown. Soil is a big part of it, but it includes the air, the humidity, the sun, fog, the flora and fauna. All of this affects the taste of the fruit.

Cacao is grown within about 20 degrees of the equator, which is why you won’t find fields of cacao plants in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The only place in the United States where cacoa is grown is Hawaii. What do you think of when you think of that band near the equator? Tropical Rain forest? Volcanos? High Humidity? Yes, and a variety of other factors depending on whether the cocoa is grown in Africa, Madagascar or Mexico.

I am talking about pure cacao which is used for single origin chocolate, not candy. There is a huge difference, chocolate and candy 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 jug wine may be okay with your pizza, but you don’t expect it to have the complexity of a great Bordeaux; just two different things entirely.

Cacao is traded as a commodity on the exchange in New York and London, so 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, quality can be spotty and labor practices not inspected.

A movement has developed in the last few years of specialty chocolate makers who are directly involved with the plantations from which they buy. These artisan companies make single origin chocolate, with the cacao coming from only one plantation or a small group of farmers, producing some of the most interesting chocolates out there. They have a range and depth of flavors that make them stand out from your ordinary supermarket chocolate bars.

Since most chocolate is grown in or near the rain forests of the world, it is vital to be sure the chocolate we consume is coming from companies that promote the sustainability of the environment, including organic growing, 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 huge amounts of it to make a living. In doing so they will overgrow on the land, deplete the soil and cut down more and more of the rain forest so they can grow more and more cacoa, resulting in a less flavorful cacao bean. Sadly slavery exists on some of the cacao plantations, especially those in Ghana and the Ivory Coast; the two countries that produce the largest percentage of the world’s cocoa

On the other hand, there are fair trade and direct trade merchants who not only pay appropriately, but give back to the communities where cacao is grown, by developing programs that enrich the area in many ways. Many farmers are aware of the quality of their beans , they can – and do- command high prices for them when they deal directly with the manufacturer. This allows them to control their destiny as well as giving them the wherewithal to continue to grow prized beans such as the criollo I was just enjoying. So you can eat your chocolate with a clear conscious and open taste buds.

My suggestion is go out and gather some bars of chocolate and perform a tasting. Some brands I recommend are: Taza, Pacari, Claudio Corallo, Chuao, and Malie Kai ( this last being one of the few single origin Hawaiian Chocolates). For these manufacturers chocolate is a labor of love: they hand pick the best beans directly from the growers, most are organic, and Corallo grows and manufactures his own chocolate on the island of Sao Tome off the West Coast of Africa.

When tasting good chocolate treat it like tasting good wine. Go slowly, notice the texture of the bar, take a small amount at a time, allow it to melt a bit in your mouth – warmer chocolate will give off more flavor- make sure it hits the various parts of your tongue to get the most out of the flavor, and exhale through your nose so you pick up the nuances through your sense of smell. Also be aware of the finish. How long does the flavor last after you swallow it? You’ll find you need much less of good chocolate to satisfy you than you would if you were eating a sugar and additive packed candy bar. Next time you are at a good gourmet store, look at the chocolate shelf, notice the single origin and organic chocolates and give yourself a treat. Warning: once you start down this road there may be no going back.

Terry August, 323/466-7654, terry@fancifull.com