February 2006 archives

Alligators and Flies

When I was a kid, it seems like everyone was wearing Lacoste polo shirts (they were also called Izod shirts back then). The shirt was introduced in 1933 and named for French tennis star René Lacoste who was nicknamed “the alligator” after winning a game bet, the prize being an alligator suitcase.

The shirts came in a riot of colors during the 60′s and 70′s, and it was the fashion at the time to dress in the casual, but dressy Lacoste polo, accenting your outfit with something outrageous and in-your-face (but still acceptable at the country club.) Soon others designers catered to people who wished to be ‘preppy’ by advertising a genteel lifestyle, featuring people turning up their collars. I dubbed it “The Vulcan Effect”, since most of the people looked rather stupid with the tip of the stiff color scraping their ears with a Star-Trek like rigidity, rather than the “I-don’t-care-this-is-how-I-put-my-
shirt-on and that’s-how-it’s-going-to-stay-because-I-can’t-be-bothered-to-turn-it-down”
look that real preppy people did.
I went to prep school and if you flipped up your collar on purpose, you would have had the crap pounded out of you by an upperclassman named Rand or Tad.
Guaranteed.

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Eventually the Lacoste shirt fell out of favor until recently, thanks to a spiffy new ad campaign, and the fact the shirts last forever and are wonderfully comfortable and timeless and well-tailored…all that stuff that makes classic clothing come back into style. And so I searched around some boxes of mine last time I was in the US to see if I could find any old ones (the blue-alligator is the giveaway for vintage Lacoste, they switched to green some years back.)

I had lots of Lacoste shirts during my childhood.
My mother came home with the shirts for me, in super-saturated greens and reds, their scratchy fabric softened beautifully in the washing machine and fit like nothing else. Afterward you broke them in, there was nothing like a good, slightly-faded, generously cut Lacoste shirt.

Except there was one demon that I had to exorcise from my past:

The alligator.

I was terrified of the little blue devil. Baring sharp teeth, his menacing red tongue licking his chops, and a sharp, whip-like tail…it was all too frightening for me to deal with on my little chest, and I was scared.

So I did what every healthy, red-blooded American boy would do: I snipped them off with a scissors, leaving a gaping hole in my shirts.

(I also used to wear my Fruit-Of-The-Loom briefs backwards, since I liked pulling out the waistband several times a day and looking down at the colorful fruits lined up on the label.)

I did manage to find a vintage Lacoste shirt that for some reason has escaped my snipping. The fit was still fabulous and the color, Bordeaux, was a deep, wine-like red, still rich and robust after all these years. Wearing it was like finding that perfect partner who you can take shopping at a nice boutique or to a decent restaurant, but comfortable enough for lounging around with in your flannel pajama bottoms.

So I went to the Lacoste store in Paris and bought another new polo shirt last year.
The color?
Acidulé; a wildly-vivid hue, reminiscent of Chartreuse liquor mixed with Orangina. Then electrocuted. I immediately wore it to a café and was swarmed by tiny flies, apparently as attracted by it’s traffic-stopping color as I was.

Last week I made even more progress in getting over my fear of the Alligator and bought two more shirts. The Lacoste shop near the Bastille was having a liquidation avant traveaux (before the construction), and selling off all their stock at a rather nice discount, something you don’t see too often in pricey Paris. The salesperson loaded me up with a stack of polo shirts, pointed me towards le cabine d’essayage, and before I knew it I was standing at the register with a stack of neatly-folded shirts, in insanely over-the-top colors like Bonbon, Framboise, and Tomate.

I shouldn’t be too hard to spot on the streets of Paris, come this spring.

I’ll be the one swarmed by flies.

Lacoste
70 rue du Faubourg St. Antoine

Miss Edna Lewis

One of the nice things about working at Chez Panisse for so long was that I got to meet a lots of famous and important chefs and cooks. James Beard would walk through the kitchen and say hi, Richard Olney brought bottles of Y’quem for us to taste, and Danny Kaye grabbed the whisk out of my hands while I was making soufflés to show me the correct way to beat egg whites into a meringue.
Well, the correct way…according to him.

Not all were wonderful. (Obviously.)
And in fact, there were a few jerks. Of course, the good outweighed the bad (although the bad had gave us much to talk about afterwards…) and I was so very fortunate to meet and work with some of the great cooks of our times, like Edna Lewis.

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Scott forwarded this photo of him and Miss Lewis, by Bill Osinski, with a note saying that it was their favorite.

I met Edna Lewis during a benefit that we were doing for Meals on Wheels in New York City. I walked in the kitchen and her long-time assistant and companion, Scott Peacock, was stirring what was perhaps that largest cauldron of steaming vanilla-scented milk I’d ever seen in all my restaurant years, using a giant whisk. He looked up with a big warm grin, kept stirring, and introduced himself to me. Scott is a big guy, not just in girth, but in his passion for what he cooks and as he stirred and chatted, he became like an old friend.
I instantly liked him: his southern drawl and charm were too sweet to resist.

Standing next to him, wearing a colorful shawl was Miss Lewis. Scott, the ever-polite southern gentleman and her best friend, always called her ‘Miss Lewis’.
(Imagine if my best friends called me Mr. Lebovitz!)

Edna Lewis offered her fragile, delicate hand to me. It was bony and rough, signs of a life spent in a kitchen; years of chopping, measuring, mixing, and carving. In a tiny voice that was barely audible, she introduced herself. And like a fragile scoop of vanilla ice cream uncontrolably melting on a slice of warm apple pie, Miss Lewis’ voice and manner had a way that would just make you melt.

A tiny woman, she wrote the book, (several books, in fact), on real, down-home southern cooking. Not “Y’all take a tub of Cool Whip, stir in some of this here possum-fat…”, but she taught true southern cooking and was the last of the well-respected authors and cooks to write about the subject she loved so dearly, alongside Scott.

My favorite story that she told me was the difficulty she faced when she wrote her first cookbook. She’d always cooked using coins for measuring dry ingredients like baking powder, salt, and the like. She learned to bake that way, scooping up a quarters-worth of baking powder and tossing that with a few handfuls of flour for making her feathery-light biscuits.
She soon changed how she baked; that a quarter became a tablespoon, a dime’s worth became a teaspoon.

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Edna Lewis passed away peacefully Monday in her home and she’ll be missed by many of us who were touched by her warmth and uncommon grace.

Bicerin Recipe

Bicerin

The city of Torino (or Turin) is one of the great centers of chocolate. In the early part of 1500, a Italian named Emmanuel Philibert served hot chocolate to celebrate a victory over the French at Saint-Quentin. And in 1763, Al Bicerin opened it’s doors and began making a celebrated coffee-and-chocolate drink called il bavareisa. The hot drink was a soothing mixture of locally-produced chocolate, strong Italian coffee, and topped with a froth of whipped cream.

The drink was often served in a small glass, called a bicerin (bee-chair-EEN), hence the name got changed to what we know now today as il bicerin.

Just across the border from France, Torino is the city where chocolate is an integral part of life, and where ice cream on a stick, the pinguino popsicle, was invented in 1935. Now there are exceptional chocolate-makers throughout the city, such as Peyrano and A. Giordano, who still make gianduiotto by hand, selling it at their historic chocolate shop on the Piazzo Carlo Felice.

The Piedmontese region is famous for a few other things than just chocolate and hazelnuts, most notably white truffles, but also for their exceptionally delicious hazelnuts. Back in those days, cacao beans were very expensive and rare, so a local chocolatier named Michel Prochet began blending hazelnuts into the chocolate to extend it, inventing gianduja (gee-an-DOO-ya) and is now perhaps most famously consumed as Nutella, which has become the most popular sandwich spread in the world.

But even now, every afternoon you’ll find the locals stand in one of the city’s historic caffès, sipping a hot bicerin from a small, stemmed glass. Or sitting at a marble-topped table and letting one of the waiters present them with your bicerin, savoring the atmosphere.

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My favorite place is the overly-ornate Baratti & Milano, where I like to sip my bicerin surrounded by crystal chandeliers and bronze sculptures. And I always am sure to pick up a few bars of their handcrafted chocolate or gianduja at the gilded-and-mirrored confectionery counter on the way out. Here’s my recipe…

Bicerin
Two servings

It’s important to use a clear glass; you need to be able to see all three layers.

To make a bicerin, warm one cup (250 ml) whole milk in a medium-sized saucepan with 3 ounces (90 gr) of chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate. Whisk the mixture until it begins to boil, then let it boil for 1 minute, whisking constantly (the chocolate mixture will foam up a bit.)
Afterward, remove it from the heat and set aside. Make a small pot of very strong coffee, or good Italian espresso.

Fill the bottom third of a clear, heat-proof glass with the warm chocolate mixture. Pour in some coffee or espresso. (If you want to help it create a definite layer, pour it over the back of a spoon, into the glass.)

Top with a nice swirl of sweetened, freshly-whipped cream.

Places in Torino/Turin, specializing in local chocolates, gianduiotti, or to find an authentic bicerin:

A. Giordano
Piazzo Carlo Felice, 69
Tel: 011.547121

Al Bicerin
Piazza Consolata, 5
Tel: 011.4369325

Baratti & Milano
Piazza Castello, 29
Tel: 011.4407138

Caffè Torino
Piazza San Carlo, 204
Tel: 011.545118

Gobino
via Cagliari, 15/b

Confetteria Avvignano
Piazzo Carlo Felice, 50
Tel: 011.541992

Peyrano
Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 76
Tel: 011.538765

Platti
Corso Vittoria Emanuele II, 72
Tel: 011.5069056

Tropical Fruit Soup Recipe

Have you ever tasted passion fruit?

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If not, I suggest you do as soon as possible since now is their primary season in many parts of the world. If it’s your first taste of this amazing fruit, you’re in for a real treat. Slice one in half and spoon the seeds and pulp right into your mouth. That explosion of flavor is indescribable; a melange of every other tropical flavor that exists, all in one tidy purple orb.

There’s many different kinds of passion fruit. If you live in Hawaii, you’ll find brilliant-yellow lilikoi which grow prolifically everywhere, and in the southern hemisphere, there’s maricuja, which are large, russet-colored passion fruits. But most of the time you see Passiflora edulis, dark violet fruits, and the best tasting of them all. When sliced open, they reveal crunchy seeds and thick, luscious, fragrant pulp. But just in case you think this fruit was given the name ‘passion’ because of the lovely flavor, the name actually refers to the flower of the vine, which is said to tell the story of the Passion Play with it’s multiple tendrils and stamens.

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Spoon passion fruit over icy-cold slices of blood oranges for an instant, and beautiful, dessert

When buying passion fruit, unless you’re lucky enough to live in a climate where they’re abundant, they’re likely to be pricey (depending on the season.) Fortunately a little goes a long way: the pulp and seeds of one or two fruits will assert it’s powerful flavor into a cake, sorbet, or tropical beverage (with a shot or two of dark rum!)
Buy fruits when they’re inexpensive and freeze the pulp and seeds together. It freezes beautifully.

Don’t be put off by punky-looking fruits. Lots of wrinkles means they’re very ripe and at their peak. (I’ve found perfectly wonderful passion fruits in produce bargain bins, since people pass them over.) Signs of mold, however, usually means they’re too far gone and I’d take a pass on ‘em too.

If you’re making a beverage and wish to use just the pulp, slice your passion fruits in half and spoon the pulp into a non-reactive strainer set over a bowl. Use a flexible rubber spatula to force the pulp through the strainer, then discard the seeds. With a little searching, you can find pure frozen passion fruit pulp if you search though Asian markets or places that specialize in tropical products.

Tropical Fruit Soup with Passion Fruit
4 servings

Use whatever combination of tropical fruits you like or follow my suggestions. This is a fun chance to visit your nearest ethnic market and experiment with any unusual fruit you might find there. Don’t be put off if the soup base tastes strangely spicy by itself. Combined with the tropical fruits, the flavors work. Chill the serving bowls in advance so everything stays refreshingly icy-cold.

The soup base:
1 3/4 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
1 small cinnamon stick
1 star anise
4 whole cloves
4 black peppercorns
1/4 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Zest of 1 orange
1 piece lemongrass, 2 inches long, sliced (use the white part from the root end)
2 thin slices fresh ginger
2 teaspoons dark rum

The assembly:
6 kumquats, sliced and seeded
1 kiwi, peeled and diced
1 basket strawberries, sliced
2 blood oranges, peeled and sectioned
1 mango, peeled and diced
1/4 pineapple, diced
1 banana
2 passion fruit, pulp and seeds
Sugar, if necessary
Fresh mint to garnish

1. To make the soup base, bring the water and sugar to a boil. Coarsely crush the cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and black peppercorns in a mortar, or put them in a plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin or a hammer. Add the spices to the water then add the vanilla bean, orange zest, lemongrass, and ginger. Cover the pan, and steep for 1 hour.
2. Strain the soup base and discard the flavorings. Add the rum and chill thoroughly.
3. Toss all the prepared fruits together in a bowl. Taste for sweetness, and add a sprinkling of sugar if they’re too tart.
4. Divide the fruits into four wide soup bowls and ladle the chilled soup base over them.
5. Tear some mint leaves into tiny pieces and scatter them over the soup. Place a scoop of a favorite tropical fruit sherbet in the center.

Like….Brigitte Bardot!

As the shops re-do their store windows after les soldes, in their half-finished state, there’s always a little note (usually hand-written), saying something along the lines of, “Please excuse us, the window display is in the midst of réalisation

An elderly couple, parents of a friend who live across the street, invited me for dinner last night. Both are in their early 80′s and their apartment is filled with years and years of memories adn relics of a lifetime in Paris. The walls in the apartment are filled with paintings done by their children (who are artists in Paris), shelves have weathered religious figures and peculiar sculptures. Most of the lampshades were so old, the shades were parchment-like, and a giant model of an ancient sailing vessel rests on the wall. The flickering candles dripped copious amounts of wax, spilling over the candleholders, forming little pools on the crisp, French linen tablecloth.

We ate off dinnerware centuries old. My plate had a tableau of some peasants with large blades eviscerating a small cow that hung limply from a tree. Everything else was a hodgepodge of mismatched forks and knives as well as chipped or cracked stemware that had been gathered during decades of accumulating. All evidence of a stubborn refusal to part with a past, I suppose.

They’d been avant-garde window designers in Paris, during the middle of the last century, starting in the 1950′s. And after dinner, the scrapbooks came out (at my urging) as we looked at some of their designs.

Then, I turned the page and saw her…

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“What’s this?”, I exclaimed after I picked myself up from the floor, “C’est fabulouse!”

“Mais oui”, they explained, “…she came to model for the display that we had created for a shop that was opening, and our friend took that picture while she posed for us.”

(If you look behind her, to the right, you can see the crowd gathering outside the window.)

Oh-la-la!très sexy!

Photo by Sabine Weiss

Le Petit Dejeuner of Champions

Garrett’s caramel corn for breakfast…

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Is that wrong?

(Merci Louisa!)

What is White Chocolate?

Some people love it, and others leave it.

It’s White Chocolate, that controversial melange of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk (more on that later). Often there’s vanilla, or vanillin (a synthetic vanilla-like substance) added as well.

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Many people will say they don’t like white chocolate, citing a preference for the dark side.
“It’s not chocolate!”, you’ll hear.

Well, no, it’s not. It’s different. A different kind of chocolate.

Dark, or bittersweet chocolate, contains cacao mass (the ground beans), sugar, cocoa butter, and sometimes vanilla and lecithin.
White chocolate has none of the cacao mass, hence the delicate, ivory-like color, which it gets from the cocoa butter. Instead it’s rich with cocoa butter, which gives it that suave, subtle taste, that I find compliments dark chocolate desserts and bolder flavors. I make White Chocolate Crème Anglaise and pour the cool custard alongside a dark chocolate cake. Or I steep fragrant fresh mint leaves when making White Chocolate Ice Cream.

Cocoa butter is derived from the chocolate-making process, or more specifically, when cocoa powder is made. To make cocoa powder, roastedcacao beans are ground into a paste, known as chocolate liquor, then the paste is pressed through a powerful hydraulic press, which separates the cocoa mass from the cocoa butter. The cocoa mass comes out as a solid block, which is grated into cocoa powder (which is why cocoa powder is always unsweetened and relatively low-fat) and the soft, rich cocoa butter is extracted. I’ve been to factories and watched the process, and the smell of warm, fat-rich cocoa butter is intoxicating.

The valuable cocoa butter is often sold to the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry, since it has the perfect melting point for things like lipstick…and why chocolate melts and releases its complex flavors like nothing else when you pop a piece in your mouth. But it’s also that reason that true white chocolate tastes so good and is loved by many pastry chefs.

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Here’s some tips and facts about white chocolate:

  • Both white and dark chocolates are emulsions. Adding small amounts of liquid, like water or milk, will cause the emulsion to break or seize. Therefore, any milk that’s added to white chocolate must be first either dried into a powder or cooked to a paste, removing the water, before it’s used. So you’ll often find the ingredient ‘milkfat’ on the label.
  • In the United States, white chocolate must contain a minimum of 20% cocoa fat.
  • Because white chocolate contains a dairy product, it’s highly perishable. Purchase it in small quantities as needed (unless you’re like me, and use so much you buy it in 5-pound blocks…as shown above.) I make sure to get white chocolate from a reliable source that rotates and checks their stock regularly. Store it in a cool, dark place, but not the refrigerator, since it’s high-fat content makes it a good medium for absorbing other odors…like the stinky camembert in my fridge.
  • White chocolate will keep for up to one year. If you’re unsure if it’s any good, taste it before using (which most of us do when baking with chocolate, right?)
  • Buy only ‘pure’ white chocolate and check to make sure the label reads only ‘cocoa butter’, and no other tropical fats, such as coconut or palm kernel oil.
  • Due to the higher fat and sugar content, white chocolate melts very easily and at a lower temperature than dark chocolate, but more care should be taken when using it. Avoid excessive or direct heat. I like to pour a hot liquid over it and use the heat from that to melt the white chocolate.
  • There’s only a few companies in America that make white chocolate: E. Guittard, Baker’s, and Askinoise. But most of the white chocolate you’ll find is European-made, perhaps since few American bake with white chocolate.
  • White chocolate should never be pure white. Since cocoa butter is ivory-colored, real white chocolate should be off-white as well. Products labeled as ‘white bar’ or ‘white coating’ are often not white chocolate and just tastes plain sugary and should not be used in recipes that call for white chocolate.

Continue Reading What is White Chocolate?…

Organic and Fair Trade Chocolates

I ain’t Mr. Organic.

I’m one of those people where “local-trumps-organic”.
And taste trumps everything.
But I do generally prefer to buy from a local grower if possible, rather than from someone far away. (Unless it’s Target…then all bets are off!)

That’s what I like about daily life in Paris, those things are still important. You need to know the boulanger, the butcher, the fromager, the waiter at your local café, and, of course, the most important person in France: The Pharmacist.
(Next time you’re a guest in someone’s home in France, check out the bathroom. Holy Mother-of-Merck! The average French person gets 80 prescriptions per year.)

In many cities in America, organic has become all the rage.
Fine restaurants and their chefs are touting how organic they are. Boasting about which farms they buy their lavender-colored turnips from, and how tiny can they get their lettuce leaves to be. Branches of baby thyme are carefully draped over free-range quail eggs from birds that only eat peeled (organic) grapes. Everyone’s so chummy with their farmer, smiling from the pages of Food + Wine magazine, but do we really need to know which farmer grows the most special, rarest species of Japanese blueberry blossoms to be dehydrated and sprayed over diners while they’re spooning up their Smoked Lemon Sorbet?
American cuisine seems to be touting organics so much so that several French chefs have come up to me and asked,
“Why is everyone in America so into organic produce?”

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I usually respond with something along the lines of “Organic is better since you often buy direct from the grower, there’s no chemicals, it’s better for the environment” etc…

On more than one occasion, their response was,
“Well, in France, we use very little chemicals.”

“Er…um, really?”, I think to myself.

I’m not an agronomist, but I’ve been told the opposite. And just like anywhere else in the world, including the US, I am sure that most commercially-grown fruits and vegetables are sprayed with something or other to make them as perfect and blemish-free as possible.

But eventually I realized that organic here is associated with bourgeouis or upscale. Most organic products are more expensive, and of the two organic markets in Paris, the one on the Boulevard Raspail is full of snobbish clients, pushing you aside with their strollers while they reach for their precious organic turnips (like the SUV-driving folks who run stop signs racing to get to yoga, shoving you aside in the aisles of Whole Foods while they chat on their cell phones, drinking their chai lattes, oblivious to anyone around them.)

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But in Paris, the little shops are the most interesting, since you get to interact with the owners and they still take pride in their merchandise and often they like to talk to you. Each shop is like entering someone’s home. A few days ago I was walking down a street near Oberkampf, and passed a nifty little bio shop, an organic shop so clean and modern. Displayed in the window were lots of interesting products and some chocolate bars, but I was in a rush and I kept walking.
But then I stopped, turned around, then went back.

I found inside a small, but rather interesting array of chocolates on offer and I am always looking for new and unusual chocolates. So I picked up a few bars while the owners offered me strips of delicious dried mangoes.

Organic Chocolate
Chocolate, or cacao (the beans ground to make chocolate), is generally grown in very underdeveloped regions quite close to the equator. The climate is inhospitable and the jungles can be very rugged. I would presume that in many of those places, the people are not treated very well who pick cacao pods, nor do they make much money, hence the interest in Fair Trade, where the growers are said to get paid a fair wage for their products. Some of these products are organic, while others are not.

However I’ve been told by one of my most reliable sources for all things chocolate, that most cacao is not sprayed with chemicals and is, for the most part, organic. (In many places ‘organic’ is a term that can only be used if the products are certified and tested, which often requires a hefty fee to be paid. Hence, farmers will often choose to label their products as ‘transitional’ or ‘unsprayed’ even if they are indeed organic.)

But what I like about these organic or Fair Trade chocolates is that the labels are chock-full of information; the region where the chocolate’s grown, the climate, how it’s harvested, what the growers had for dinner last night, how often they go to the bathroom, etc…

It’s all very interesting, and is good for consumers who imagine that chocolate is from some big factory full of test tubes and scientists formulate bars, so it’s nice to see a picture of the happy natives on the packaging.

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The chocolates I purchased were interesting, although they were geared more for mass-appeal rather than the rarified palate that someone such as myself has cultivated. (just kidding…)

The Oxfam chocolate bar is made in Belgium. It has 48% cacao mass and it was a bit sweet, but had a nice fruity aftertaste and it would be great for baking. The chocolate is from Ghana (hence the black woman).

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Another curious chocolate bar I found was made with quinoa.
Go figure.
Quinoa is an ancient grain, very high in protein. The grains are puffed and toasted, then embedded into the chocolate bar. I liked this one.
The chocolate is from the Dominican Republic, from an organization of 9000 little cacao cultivators. The chocolate was nice and dark (60 percent, for those of you into numbers) and had a nice snap. There was not much of a ‘finish’, no long-term aftertaste, and I wish there were more crunchy bits in there.

Still, what a wacky thing to find: chocolate with puffed quinoa!

Here’s some interesting places to check out on the web about organic or Fair Trade chocolates, with information where to buy and taste some of the products mentioned, as well as a few other brands, some that are available in the United States.

Oxfam Fair Trade chocolate in Belgium.

Dagoba organic chocolate from the United States.

Green and Black’s Organic Chocolate, made in England, available worldwide.

Max Havelaar chocolates and other Fair Trade products online.

Some of the chocolates shown, such as the bar with quinoa, are available here.