By The Hair of My…

I recently got this message from someone asking…

“It would be a great help to me if you would be so kind as to just note down some of the problems, bureaucratic and otherwise, you encountered while procuring visas, papers, lodgings, etc.”

Since I don’t have the enormous bandwidth to describe the entire process, nor the urge to re-visit those repressed memories, the very short answer is that the French certainly don’t make it easy to get (or renew) a visa. I guess that’s understandable since so many wholly undesirable people, like me, want to live here. But what I don’t understand is why they don’t make it easier to figure out.
So being a good, responsible person, to that young lady out there, since you asked, here’s some answers your questions:

My first clue that something was a tad amiss was when I was starting the process back in San Francisco, while a friend in Boston was doing the same. Comparing notes, we realized the list of documents requested on the French Consulate of San Francisco’s web site was different from the list of documents requested on the French Consulate of Boston’s web site. When I went into the San Francisco consulate to ask, with both pages printed out (I learned that early on), and pointed out the bizarre discrepancy, the fellow behind the counter snidely replied, “Well, where do you live? In San Francisco…or Boston?”
When I pointed out that that would be like telling someone from Lyon that in order to get a US visa, they would need different documents from someone in Paris, he simply shrugged, and I handed over my dossier and went back home to wait.

The most important thing to realize is that there are two iron-clad rules that you’ll come up against:
One, is that the system is not designed for efficiency, but to employ as many people are possible.
And two, just because it’s someone’s job to help you, that doesn’t mean they have to. Or want to. They’re under no obligation. So you need to get them on your side using whatever means necessary.

(And if anyone out there wants to get rich really quick, open a photocopy shop in France, since everything needs to be copied in quadriplicate. And invariably no matter how prepared you are, they come up with something completely out-of-the-blue.
“You didn’t bring your mother’s sixth-grade report card!? Mais oui, but of course you need that! And we need 5 copies too…oh, and all notarized within the past 30 days…from the town she was born in.”)

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An answer to the part of her question asking about “any problems I encountered procuring lodging”: This was my apartment, the week I arrived Paris.

When I finally did get the paperwork granting me permission to come to France, I foolishly listened to them at the consulate and assumed that having gone dredging up every scrap of paper from my past, I was in free-and-clear. Not so fast, cowboy. Upon arriving in France, I was told, I needed to go to the police station and pick up the ‘real’ visa. But what’s this official looking piece of paper I’ve waited 6 months to get? Oh, just permission to actually apply for a visa.

Okay.

I was not quite a free man in Paris. So once back in town, I head to my local police station. They know nothing, and send me to the main police station in my neighborhood. They know nothing either (This is about the time I started using the phrase, “Welcome to France”, and repeating it over and over and over.) I finally discover that I need to go to this stifling, little dingy office out in the middle of nowhere, where I wait in a long, non-moving line for an hour to make an appointment at the main Préfécture de Police, only to be told that the one piece of paper that I don’t have in my dossier (I forgot what it was, but it was something rather obscure), so I need so I’ll need to come back. Incidentally the Préfécture de Police is located just around the corner from the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette and other less-fortunate souls, waited for the dreaded end to come. As you sit and wait in the crowded, hot room, hoping that if you sit in the last available seat, you won’t be next to someone who doesn’t have access to a weekly shower. And you wait until your name gets called. And you wait.
And wait. And wait. And…
You begin to feel as if you’re about to meet a similar fate as poor Marie.

(Did you know the last time the guillotine was used was in 1975?)

To make a long story short, and to preserve bandwidth, I eventually got my visa, which I need to be renew yearly, and for the most part, everyone I had to deal with (except in San Francisco) was rather pleasant and helpful. (Must be the chocolate I brought them.)
You need to start the process about 8 month before its annual expiration date, so I’ve simply to re-start the process when I go pick up my visa. If anything, at least I am efficient. So today I come home, and there’s an official letter from the government telling me they want the last 12 statements from my bank in the US translated into French (um…Can’t you just look at the dollar amounts? Isn’t that what you’re looking for?) Trying to explain what bank ‘interest’ is to a French person always draws wide-eyed stares, since the idea of your bank actually doing something for you is a rather unusual concept. And trying to explain why there’s ads on your bank statement draws more curious stares.

Welcome to America, I suppose.

So re-armed and re-ready, I head back to the Préfécture de Police to hand over my freshly-translated documents, where they tell me I have to wait a few more months, although my visa’s set to expire at the end of this one. So I need to get a prolongation…at another bureau…way on the other side of Paris. Of course.

Then I need to come back. And do it all again.

Exhausted, I eventually made it back home where I decided that perhaps I should treat myself a glass of something with a high percentage of alcohol, polish off the box of chocolate-covered caramels that I was saving for a special occasion from Le Roux, and look at my picture of Frederick. And since I had the Cognac out, I decided to preserve the few kilos of Mirabelle plums I got at the market yesterday.

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In August and September, the yellow Mirabelle plums abound in big bins at the markets. These tiny plums are small, roughly the size of a French bureaucrats petit boule, and are grown in various regions around France, but especially in the Lorraine, where the best ones are grown, and locals use them to make everything from tartes and jams to crystal-clear eau-de-vie. They’re small and sweet, the perfect size for preserving. Using Judy Rodger’s recipe in The Zuni Café Cookbook for inspiration, I began by rinsing and sterilizing my jars with boiling water.

But in case you’re a stupid boy like me, I don’t recommend making anything involving sticky, searing-hot liquid while wearing only a pair of shorts. As I swirled around the hot water and sugar in the jars, one with a faulty lid began spraying boiling-hot water in a grand arc across the kitchen, and me, eradicating a good amount of the hair from my stomach (couldn’t it take some of the fat instead?), leaving a red welt roughly in the shape of Corsica.

Luckily I live in Paris and there’s no less than five pharmacies within one block, and picked up the best minor burn remedy on the planet: Biogaze, which everyone should have in their medicine cabinet. (Buy some on your next visit if you don’t live here.) After I explained to the wide-eyed pharmacist how I narrowly escaped the world’s first Parisian Bikini Wax, I returned home, patched up my rosy tummy, and continued my project using the sterilized jars, happy that I didn’t sterilize myself at the same time.

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Depending on how many small plums you have, for each pound (450g) of plums, dissolve 3/4 cups (150g) of sugar in 3-4 tablespoons hot water in a 1-quart (1 liter) preserving jar with a well-fitting lid, (or dress more appropriately that I did.) Pour two scant cups of decent, but not outrageously expensive brandy or Cognac the plums. Secure the lid and tilt the jar to mix everything together.

Unlike my stomach, Judy recommends using fruit that’s unblemished, and gives recipes and tips for other fruits including cherries, red currants, figs, and raisins too.

(LATE-BREAKING TIP: 3 days later I noticed the plums floating at the top, not submerged in liquor, were discoloring, so I removed them and slashed each one with a paring knife, hoping that would help them get saturated. Seems to have worked.

LATER-BREAKING TIP: another 2 days later, I noticed the tops of the plums were still floating above the liquor-line, so I drained ‘em and made jam. I replaced them with sour cherries, and am waiting…)

Store the jar in a cool place for a few weeks, then refrigerate. There’s no indication how long they’ll keep, but I hope mine will be ready-and-waiting for me on the day that I finally get my visa renewed.

Hopefully the hair on my stomach should just about returning by then as well.

Three Perfect Days in Paris

In this month’s Hemispheres, the magazine of United Airlines, I was their guest author for their popular series, Three Perfect Days, where I share some of my favorite tips for three perfect days of travel, sightseeing, and…of course, eating.

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If you’re flying on United Airlines this month, be sure to pick up a copy.
The article is also online at the Hemispheres web site, and will be archived there as well.

Interview: Frederick Schilling of Dagoba Organic Chocolate

David: Hey Frederick, I remember meeting you years ago at a Food Show, and was really impressed with both you, and your exceptionally good chocolate. You were so friendly and open about what you were doing, and I saw in you such a passion for producing high-quality chocolate from organically-grown beans. I’m so glad we’ve kept in touch since then, and you’re happy to answer some questions about Dagoba chocolate.

While it’s everyone’s dream to open a chocolate factory, what made Frederick Schilling do it?

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Frederick: I come from a mixed background of music, religion, professional ski-bumming and a passion for food. I actually never liked chocolate as a child or a young adult. It wasn’t until I was cooking at a higher end restaurant in Boulder Colorado that I experienced what a higher quality chocolate was. At the time we were using Valrhona and El Rey and I started to nibble on the bricks back in the pastry corner. It was the bittersweet that managed to maintain my attention and interest. When I started to look into chocolate further and learning of the rich history and lore of cacao, I was hooked. I have a deep appreciation for religion and culture and when I learned of the Aztec reverence for cacao, it really opened my mind to wanting to explore this bean much deeper. That was what got me going.

David: I know how you feel about getting hooked. Those innocent little nibbles can really lead to something much larger.

Why did you decide to go organic?

Frederick: From the beginning of my young adult life, I have been very passionate about sustainability and organics. I was already philosophically aligned with the organic movement before the inception of DAGOBA. So naturally, since I was exploring the idea of creating a food product for the market, it had to be organic.

Aside from chocolate bars, you also have a line of other products, all organic, including chocolate chips, cocoa nibs, hot chocolate mix, and chocolate-covered coffee beans. Where are Dagoba chocolates produced, and why did you choose to open your production facility there?

Our factory is located in Ashland Oregon. It’s a small town in Southern Oregon, just over the California border, in the Rogue Valley. It’s absolutely gorgeous here; and that’s why we chose to have the factory here. The quality of life is pretty uncompromised. I’m able to ride my bike to work, go mountain biking right out my front door, skiing, hiking, kayaking, rafting… there are a plethora of outdoor activities to partake in around here. The town also has the nations largest Shakespeare Festival, so there is the element of theater wafting thru the streets. Interstate 5 goes right by the town so access for shipping product, while not as easy as being located in a major city, is pretty good.

We just purchased 3.5 acres of land in town and will be building a new factory this coming year with completion in the summer of 07′. It’s going to have many ‘green’ aspects to the structure; solar panels up top and permaculture landscaping as a couple of examples. This factory will be open for tours, so make sure you stop by when you’re driving thru!

David: Well, you still look pretty young to me. Must be all that chocolate.
After being in business after a few years, in reflection, what’s been the most difficult part of making chocolate?

Frederick: We just turned 5 in June and it has been one interesting ride. I started the company in my kitchen, hand made the product for the first 1.5 years and have been pretty much making it up and learning as I go along. So while it’s been extremely fun and interesting, the whole experience has a shadow of difficulty because it was founded with blind ambition.

Starting a company is just difficult. It takes a lot of time, hard work, patience, faith and a little ignorance too. The ignorance, while makes things a little difficult, also acts as the catalyst for pushing me. I don’t know something, so I’m going to dig into it. That ignorance eventually turns to skill and knowledge. Then, with that knowledge and skill I start to create more things, usually burying myself in the process, digging up more things that I’m ignorant on, then learning more, then creating more, realizing how much I don’t know, then learning, then creating more, realizing how much I don’t know and so on. It’s a great cycle and one that the creative mind needs in order to maintain itself. We need elements of difficulty to push us.

Yet, as the organic chocolate market starts to gain legs, sourcing enough high quality organic cacao may become very difficult; sooner than later. It’s all about the source, right? As more organic chocolate companies start to spring up around the world, or as current companies come out with organic chocolate, a lot of them will be going after the good beans. It’s already becoming tight. That’s why I’m leaving for Central America in 2 days; to maintain and create new relationships with growers.

In 5 years, it’s going to be very interesting indeed.

David: We leave in two days? I don’t think I can get packed in time. I’ll have to wait for the next trip.
When researching The Great Book of Chocolate, I met a lot of ‘characters’ in the chocolate world…and not all of them were particularly nice. Without naming names (my editor wouldn’t let me, but you can…) can you tell us about any clashes you’ve had?
Why is the chocolate world so competitive?

Frederick: For the most part, everyone I’ve met in the industry is really nice. For the most part, everyone has always spoken to me with openness and really helped me figure this industry out. Yet, I’ve never been a threat to them. I was always considered as this little organic chocolate company – “Oh, how sweet, he’s making organic chocolate”. The chocolate makers/companies that I always spoke to were not making organic chocolate so they were willing to share their knowledge. YET, now that things are changing, DAGOBA is growing and more companies want to move into the organic chocolate market, lips are tightening a bit and vest are being buttoned.

As for being competitive, I don’t think it’s any more competitive than any other industry. Company secrets are company secrets. A lot of the hush-hush attitude that does permeate our industry probably has its roots from the Mars and Hershey dysfunctional relationship from years ago.

The thing is though, when you’re talking about pure chocolate, there aren’t any real secrets. Everyone knows how to make it. Everyone knows what kind of equipment the others use. Everyone knows where cacao comes from. Now, companies are even saying what farm the cacao comes from! So, transparency is actually becoming the “new thing”, right?

David: There’s a lot of talk lately about the ‘corporate’ organic movement, and we’re seeing organics at chain-stores and supermarkets. On the other hand, there’s also increased interest in buying local at farmer’s markets, which are often organic. Obviously you can’t use locally-grown cacao, but where does Dagoba fit in to all of this? And will we see Dagoba at Wal-Mart?

Frederick: A very good question.
This is a huge question David and one that I think of everyday, literally. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer, to be honest; it’s an experiment in the making. Although, like you state, the best choice for food is to buy from the local organic farmer, or better yet, grow it yourself.

On the corporate organic movement; is it wrong to have organics at chain stores? Big box stores? Isn’t this what we, the believers of true food, wanted? To get rid of the artificial food chain? Just because the stores that we now buy our food from are larger than most South Pacific islands, is it wrong that they are providing the people with organic food? This is what the people want. Now I personally don’t shop at the large box stores, but ultimately, I believe this is a move in the right direction. Would I rather see an industrial farm being grown conventionally or organically? The industrial farming model isn’t going away anytime soon, so in my opinion, it’s a move in the right direction; to cut back on the amount of chemicals being applied to the soil. Perhaps in 10 years, the consumer will ‘urge by purchase’ the corporate growers to move back to a “biodiverse” farming model, which is more sustaining to the land. Ultimately it’s up to the consumer to dictate what happens in the marketplace. In 10 years, if the big box consumer, after being educated on what organic means, wants food that comes from an even more sustaining farming model, the big boxes will respond as will the industrial farming operations.

Cacao grows in the tropics, so I’m forced to rely on fossil fuels to get our raw material to us; until I’m able to charter a fleet of large sail boats to transport my cacao to port and then move the beans via biodiesel fueled trucks to our new solar powered factory. As you know, DAGOBA is a company that makes every effort to be as “eco-minded” as possible. We use 100% alternative energy at the factory; use 100% recycled content paper for our wrappers and office paper, we compost our kitchen waste and many other small things. Are we perfect? Far from it. Yet, we’re making the conscious decision to be aware of what we do and how we can improve upon it.

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DAGOBA in Wal-Mart?
I actually just had this conversation on Thursday at our employee meeting. This very question was raised. My response; would it be a bad thing? If more people want organic chocolate, which is made from organic cacao, isn’t planting more trees in the tropics a good thing? Would it be a good thing to go to Central and South America and convert deforested land to fields of cacao trees? I say yes. If we, DAGOBA, can have a positive impact on the tree situation in the tropics, I have no problem going into box stores. For me, it’s not about preserving the ego of the brand perception. Some of our core consumers may be upset if we sell to Wal-Mart, but I would ask them these very questions. I think our core consumer, once they understood the potential good that could come out of selling more organic chocolate, would sympathize with such a decision.

As you know David, cacao is very different than other crops. The vast majority of cacao is grown on small family farms, where they also grow many other crops and fruit trees. Cacao, by default, is already being grown very sustainably in bio-diverse settings. If we can further this model, because of consumer demand, by replanting deforested areas then I can only say I’d be a hypocrite if we didn’t do business with box stores.

We all need to be the Lorax in this day and age.

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David: Another chocolate-maker, not a Lorax, told me that most cacao beans aren’t sprayed much since the locals can’t afford it, but I’ve also heard otherwise.
What’s the truth?

Frederick: Both are true.
As I just noted above, the vast majority of cacao is grown on small family farms and yes, most of them are too poor to afford chemicals. It’s on the larger plantations that spraying will occur and most often it’s the “premium” brands that will buy plantation grown cacao because it’s often of better quality. I believe the government of Ghana will do aerial sprayings from time to time, as cacao is such as important export to that countries economy.

Methyl Bromide is the fumigant of choice for cacao, and this is where the pesticide gets applied. The cacao doesn’t get sprayed on the farm level; it’s at the ports where the cacao gets sprayed. When a container of cacao leaves a countries port, there’s gonna be insects in that cacao, so they fumigate. When the container arrives into port, say in the US, and there is any sign of insects, they fumigate again. I’ve heard that cacao is actually one of the most heavily fumigated commodities in the world. I have a friend in the industry that used to work at a very large chocolate company and his job was to, every Thursday, fumigate the cacao warehouse with Methyl Bromide. He had to have a special handling license to carry out this task. I hear murmur in industry that methyl bromide may be getting phased out of use, which is a good thing, as it’s nasty stuff.

David: I read somewhere that professionals don’t use organic chocolate, since it doesn’t taste as good as ‘regular’ chocolate. What are your thoughts on this and who’s the biggest market for Dagoba chocolate, home cooks or professionals?

Frederick: To the professionals that say this, I would say, in a blind taste test of the San Francisco Chronicle, we beat Scharffenberger and Valrhona. We were awarded ‘best dark chocolate’ – the first time an organic chocolate ever won this award. Taste, is of course, subjective. I personally don’t like a brand of French chocolate that people do back flips over for. To me, it tastes over roasted and the particle size is actually too small, therefore making it feel slimy on my palate. Other people go gaga over it. No right or wrong. I personally don’t enjoy it.

There really is no difference between conventional and organic chocolate when it comes to quality. Taste is taste and conventional chocolates all taste differently. Organic chocolates all taste differently. I would be more than happy to sit down with the professionals that say that organic isn’t as good as conventional and conduct a blind taste test and have them tell me which is organic and which is conventional.

Our biggest market is thru retailers. Our retail bars are what drive our business. We’re a small company and we just can’t compete on price with the big boys for food service business. We do sell our chocolate to a great many elite restaurants who brand us on the menu. But outside of that tiny niche, we don’t sell much in the food service sector. Plus, for the retail bars, it allows me to create more and experiment with flavor infusions, which I really love doing.

David: And are there any pastry chefs that you know who are using your chocolate?

Frederick: Honestly, not off the top of my head. I don’t pay attention to this, even though I probably should. I like what I do and often times get very tunnel visioned in my passion, meaning I don’t pay attention to the “who’s and the what’s” as much as I probably should.

David: Lately, everyone’s obsessed with percentages, which signify how much cacao is in the chocolate. Why do you think that is and do you think percentages are important?

Frederick: I think it started erupting when the health benefits of dark chocolate started to get announced by the media. This is when the public really started to pay attention to the cocoa content, as they were all looking for 70% or higher, regardless of what it tasted like.

I think percentages are important as they act as a kind of barometer for how dark chocolate is. It will rest on the flavor of the chocolate for me, but I’m much more apt to purchase a 65% or higher, so I personally appreciate knowing how much cacao is in the bar.

Yet, we must also remember that cacao percentage is defined as how much cacao is in there, not just cacao solids. So the percentage can include cocoa butter, which will dilute the flavor. So we can have a 85% dark bar that has an extra 20% cocoa butter added, making that 85% bar very mild; and probably pretty nasty too.

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David: To be honest, Frederick, I never really liked milk chocolate until I tasted your Dagoba Milk Chocolate Chai Bar with candied ginger and spices, and a whole new world opened up to me. So I tried some of your others, including the Brasilia Bar with coconut and Brazil nuts, and Latté, scented with coffee beans and cinnamon, and now I’m hooked on milk chocolate, as well as dark! Who came up with all these exceptional flavor combinations? (And how can we become tasters?)

Frederick: I create the products, usually after a bottle of really good wine. The Chai is actually one of my favorites too. Some people say it’s too strong on the spices, but it’s the way I like my chai tea – spicy! I like a lot of cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, anise in my chai tea, so that’s how I wanted to create this bar. I experimented with a dark chocolate chai bar, but the bitters of the dark bar really suppressed the spices.

Once the new factory is up and running with the tours, I’m sure we’ll have the “tasting trial table”, where people can try some of my new creations and write comments.

Ever had a milk bar with bacon bits and sun dried figs? It’s so good.

David: Bacon and dried figs? Sounds like a nice breakfast! I can’t wait for that one, Frederick. I noticed you’ve concocted cacao ‘elixirs’. Who came up with these and what does one do with them?
And what the heck is ‘horny goat weed’?

Frederick: What we did is use vegetable glycerin as the solvent base instead of alcohol, so there is an inherent sweetness to the elixirs. Then, the primary botanical in the elixir is cacao; which we extracted from organic Ecuadorian Arriba Nacional nibs. From there, we built on the botanicals for each formula. THEY ARE SOOOOOOO GOOD!!! The plain Cacao Elixir is like getting your chocolate craving without eating chocolate. There is no cocoa butter, so you’re not eating the fat (nothing wrong with cocoa butter though!). The Antioxidant Elixir is made with copious amounts of berries, so it’s really rich in flavor.

Horny goat weed? Exactly!

David: If someone’s serving a chocolate dessert, what beverage do you think goes well with it?

Frederick: If it’s got a cork in it, I like it.

David: I’m very excited when I learned that you’ve found a source for rare and special Ocumare cacao beans and you’re going to start selling it soon. I’ve had a few Ocumare chocolates and they’re exceptional. Why did you choose to pursue Ocumare, which is rare and frankly, rather costly?

Frederick: Ocumare is expensive and rare.
We were able to secure the majority of last springs harvest and the next harvest. It’s exceptional cacao and the post harvest handling is top notch. I was really impressed with their facility. Ocumare is also certified organic, which many people don’t know. As we grow as a company and my desire to continue to create world class chocolate matures, sourcing the best cacao has to be the primary focus. Without the best cacao, we can’t create the best chocolate.

We’ll also be bringing in some other very special cacao from Venezuela. I happened to be at the right place at the right time and secured some cacao from Puerto Ayacucho. A few times a year, Indians from the Cepai tribe come down from the headwaters of the Orinoco River with wild harvested cacao. It takes them about 15 days in their canoes to bring the cacao to Puerto Ayachucho. If the river is low, they have to go over land on donkeys, which takes about 30 days – one way! They only bring about 3,000lbs per trip, so the supply is extremely limited. The flavor is very unique and I’m really excited to be able to make chocolate from this cacao and offer it to people.

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David: I love your Xocolatl bar, a wickedly-dark bittersweet chocolate with chilies and cacao nibs, which is in my personal Top Ten Chocolate Bar category (actually, my top five.) People think adding chilies to chocolate is new and exciting, but it’s been done for thousands of years. You’re following a long-standing tradition. If that isn’t your number #1 selling chocolate bar, can you tell us what is?

Frederick: Yes, it is actually our #1 selling bar. And yes, it’s paying homage to the Aztecs beverage, Xocoatl. I never expected it to be our #1 selling bar, to be honest. I just wanted to show respect to what had come before me and for allowing me to make chocolate. I think it’s great that it’s our #1 bar, as it just shows that consumers are wanting to try unique things.

David: What’s in the future for Frederick and Dagoba chocolate that readers can look out for?

Frederick: Oh boy, that’s a big question and even bigger answer. People can always go to our website and sign up for our monthly e-newsletter. We report on everything that is happening in our universe and what new products are coming out.

In short, I’m really looking forward to coming out with some really unique single origin chocolates. I just secured some amazing Criollo-Trinitario cacao from the Philippines, so that should be out by the first of the year. A bar made from cacao of Bali. A single estate chocolate from Nicaragua. A bar made from cacao from the Napo of Ecuador. Right now, I’m all about digging down as far as I can go with source and bring these unique origins to the people; instead of blending it. I so love the ability to taste the terroir of cacao from each region, as it is so truly distinct.

It’s a great journey and I’m having fun doing it. And thanks to our customers for giving me the opportunity to do what I do.

Thanks David!

David: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Frederick.
Have a great trip, and I’m looking forward to visiting your factory when it opens next year, and tasting your new chocolates…especially that Ocumare.


Out Of Reach and Out Of Sight

Let’s say you’re cooking dinner.
And you drop something behind the stove.

Like a bit of meat, for example.

Or a piece of broccoli.

But it’s just out of reach.

(Of course.)

What would you do?

France Goes Non-Smoking January 1st

France, one of the last countries to ban smoking in restaurants, is ready to ban smoking, alledgedly on January 1st, 2007. Like most things here, it’s not quite a ‘done deal’…(in French, there’s le conditionelle, a verb tense that gives politicians a bit of wiggle room, like shoulda-woulda-coulda).

Restaurant and café owners feel the ban will hurt business. But I’m wondering: Won’t it help? People will tend not to linger, smoking 4-5 cigarettes après dinner, and clear the tables sooner. Will smokers really stop going out to dinner? That same arguement was brought up in California and New York, and hasn’t proved to be true. And smoking will still be allowed in bars, nightclubs, and Tabacs.

Since there’s a big election coming up next spring, the issue’s rather touchy. No one seems to want to ruffle any feathers and alienate anyone, as Prime Minister Villepan learned when he snuffed out his chances of becoming the President of France when he imposed new employment laws for students, who reacted rather fiercely a few months back, forcing him to backtrack and lose much of his political clout. And French folks aren’t necessarily fond of change; Ségolène Royale, a candidate for President, had to backtrack recently when she mistakenly said that French workers need to be flexible, and quickly changed, saying workers needed to be souple, or supple, instead.

Here’s two articles (from the thread at eGullet):

From Le Figaro, in French, and at Expatica, in English.

Any guesses as to what’s actually going to happen?


Five Things To Eat Before I Die


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After returning from mon vacance, I timidly opened up my e-mailbox, and out spilled a few hundred messages. As I scanned each one, I found I’d been tagged by my pal Matt, who responded to Melissa’s list for Five Things To Eat Before I Die. While the last thing I wanted to think about when I got back from vacation was dying (well, until we hit le traffic bouchon returning to Paris on the autoroute), here it goes…

The Salad Judy Rodgers Made For Me

When we were both working at Chez Panisse, one evening Judy Rodgers asked me if I’d like a salad. “Why yes,” I responded, and a few minutes later she handed me the most memorable dish I’d ever eaten.

The salad was composed of a big pile of bitter, thick leaves of escarole. Tossed in with the salad was just-softened (and still slightly-warm) slices of tiny Yukon Gold potatoes, garlic chapons, slices of baguette that had been toasted and grilled, then rubbed with fresh garlic, with chunks of roasted rabbit loin. The whole salad was bathed in a mustardy vinaigrette, and it was all just the perfect confluence of ingredients, tastes, and textures.

The Corned Beef Sandwich From the Second Avenue Deli

Almost without warning, New York’s Second Avenue Deli closed, taking with them perhaps the best corned beef sandwich on the planet. Okay, before you get all New York on me, yes, there are other delis in New York making excellent corned beef sandwiches (Katz’s, Carnegie, etc…), but the Second Avenue Deli was my favorite spot.

A heaping mound of salty, coarsely-textured stack of sliced meat piled on soft slices of rye bread with the unmistakably scent of caraway seeds. Only a smear of spicy, dark mustard was necessary, before diving in. The seasoned waitresses were always happy to see me, like a long-lost family member, and were never failed to oblige me by bringing me an extra bowl of their crunchy half-sour pickles, which I’d polish off well before my sandwich ever hit the table.

Porcelana Chocolate from Amedei

If you’ve never tasted Amedei chocolate, it’s probably because it’s so rare they can’t keep up with demand. I was lucky enough to spend a morning with Alessio Tessieri tasting the complete line of Amedei chocolate at his small roasting facility near Pisa, in Italy.

Slipping a tablet of Amedei’s elusive Porcelana into my mouth and savoring the creamy, bittersweet chocolate as it melted lovingly into my complete being, was without a doubt, the pinnacle of my chocolate-tasting experience.

Château d’Yquem

Sauternes is a wine made from grapes that are left on the vine until they begin to rot (called ‘the noble rot’, in fact). Although there are several other fine Sauternes made in this region, Château d’Yquem is produced in the town of Sauternes, near Bordeaux, and is situated at exactly the perfect point where the fine mist from two converging rivers blankets the grapes, forming the basis for this noble rot. The half-dried grapes are hand-picked, and each musty, funky-looking cluster produces perhaps just a tiny sip of this precious, sweet nectar.

The first time I had Château d’Yquem, I was asked to create a dessert for a dinner party where a rare vintage from the 1930’s would be presented (actually, all Château d’Yquem’s are rare vintages, since they don’t release a wine during years when the grapes are not excellent.) During dessert, the host of the party (Danny Kaye) handed me a glass of the deep amber-colored liquid, and as I drew the glass up to my face, the smell of caramel, apricots, toast, and fresh mangoes came tumbling out. By the time I tipped the first sip into my mouth, the sweet liquid totally overwhelmed me with it’s fruity complexity. I’ve had subsequent glasses of Château d’Yquem and each one is unique and rare, but that first sip was unforgettable.

Glace Caramel at Berthillon

Living so close to Berthillon, I can practically go there everyday…and sometimes I do! (Except during most of the summer, when they’re closed.) As I ponder which flavor to order while waiting my turn in the inevitable line, by the time it’s my turn, I’ve changed my mind perhaps a zillion times.

I always walk away with the same thing: Caramel Ice Cream.

Imagine biting into a smooth, creamy mound of frosty caramel, with lots of buttery-sweetness but with a burnt, slighty-bitter edge, totally smooth, without being cloying. Paired with a scoop of chocolat amer, a chewy sorbet made from bitter chocolate, it’s two scoops of heaven piled into a neat little cone.My tradition is to race over to the nearby Pont Marie, so I can enjoy my cornet overlooking the Seine and the city of Paris. If you’re in my way, stand back as you’re likely to be bowled over, so I can can make it to the bridge before my precious frozen boules des glaces melt away.

Shallot Marmalade Recipe

shallotjamfinished.jpg

Shallot jam is a wonderful addition to many dishes. It’s a bit sweet and a little tangy, the best of both – and s generous spoonful goes well with roasted meats, pâté, and can dress up a grilled chicken breast. You might not be familiar with shallots, but they are common in French cuisine and are the sweeter cousin to onions. I buy them by the sack at the outdoor markets and in American supermarket, you’ll find them tucked away in the onion aisle.

halfshallots.jpg

Here’s a few general tips on jam-making:


  • Hard & Fast
    Most conserves benefit from being cooked quickly, over moderately-high heat. This allows the ingredients to retain much of their character.

  • Don’t Overcook
    There’s nothing worse than overcooked jam. That’s when the sugar caramelizes, and that flavor overwhelms whatever else is in the jam. There’s not much you can do to save it at this point, so watch out.

  • Brighten Up
    Fruit jams often benefit from a squirt of lemon juice or a shot of liqueur added to brighten up flavors.

  • Don’t Overreact
    Never use reactive cookware when making jams. Materials such as non-anondized aluminum and tin can react with the acids and leave a tinny aftertaste. To avoid burning and hotspots, use heavy-duty cookware with a thick bottom.

  • Don’t Double Your Pleasure
    In general, don’t double recipes. Better to make two small batches, since each will take less time to cook, preserving the appealing flavors of your ingredients.

  • Degrees of Faith
    If you aren’t sure if your jam is cooked to the right temperature, check it with a candy thermometer. For this jam, it’s easy to gauge its cooking, but fruit jams ‘set’ at about 220 degrees Fahrenheit (104 C).
sauteedshallots.jpg

Shallot, Cocoa Nib, Beer, and Prune Jam
About 1 1/2 cups


This goes great with pâté or as a sweet counterpoint to anything rich and meaty. In Paris, there’s normally a gathering before dinner for drinks, such as a kir or a glass of Champagne. I’ve served this with slices of foie gras on toasted brioche, a perfect partnership.

I used the largest shallots I could find since I’m too lazy to peel those little ones. Feel free to substitute raisins for the prunes.


  • 1 pound (450 g) shallots, peeled and sliced
  • 2 tablespoon unflavored vegetable oil
  • big pinch of coarse salt
  • a few turns of freshly-cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) beer
  • 1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 3 tablespoons cider or balsamic vinegar
  • 8 prunes (3 oz/90 g), pitted, and cut into tiny pieces
  • 1 heaping tablespoon cocoa nibs (see Note)

1. In a medium-sized heavy-duty skillet or saucepan, heat the oil and sauté the shallots over moderate heat with a pinch of salt and pepper, stirring frequently, until they’re soft and wilted, which should take about 10 minutes.

2. Add the beer, sugar, honey, vinegar, prune pieces, and cocoa nibs and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the shallots begin to caramelize. While cooking, continue stirring them just enough to keep them from burning.

3. The jam is done when the shallots are nicely-caramelized, as shown.

Store the jam in the refrigerator, where it will keep for at least 2 months.

(Note: You can buy cocoa nibs online, if you can’t find them where you live.)


Related Recipes

Seville Orange Marmalade

Bergamot Marmalade

Apricot Jam

No-Recipe Cherry Jam

Rhubarb-Berry Jam

Free Falafel!

There’s a little bit of a war going on here in Paris on the rue des Rosiers, in the Marais. The Rue Des Rosiers is the Jewish street, sporting several good (and a few bad) bakeries, a few chic clothing stores, but a string of fafafel stands and restaurants. The most famous, L’As du Falafel, is always crowded, and teeming with locals, who come for their Heeb-Hop (Hebrew-Hop, as we call it), and tourists, who’ve read about L’As du Falafel in their guidebooks.

I always feel sorry for the other places on the street. There’s often deserted, while the throngs of people line up at L’As in search of their falafel-fix. The only time they seem to generate any interest is when L’As du Falafel closes for the Sabbath, on Friday nights and Saturdays. But a few weeks ago I started noticing handwritten signs on the place across the street, Mi-Va-Mi, with slogans like “Taste and Compare”, daring to take on the Ace o’ Falafel, just across the street.

Today as I stop by to get my weekly falafel, making a beeline for L’As, I notice a swarm of missionaries agressively confronting passers-by with plates brimming with warm falafel, followed closely by someone with a guest-check book, pen-to-the-paper, ready to take their order. The scene was curious, since the French haven’t quite grasped the concept of ‘Free Samples’ (or competition). When I asked a French friend why anyone rarely offers samples, I was told “Because it’s not ‘correct’. But there’s a guy at the fromagerie on the Î’le St-Louis who’s making a killing offering samples to passers-by, mostly tourists, who get one taste of great French cheese, and invariably come in and make a purchase.

Correct or not, that dude is rakin’ it in.

So although there’s no such thing as a free lunch, especially in Paris, there’s lots of free falafels to be had this week as the street is abuzz with people bearing heaping bowls of freshly-fried falafels. I don’t know how long it will last, and the offer doesn’t extend to those who’ve already purchased. (I tried to get one of the falafel-pushers to augment my half-eaten sandwich, but being très Paris, there’s little interest in the customer after the sale.)

And in an unlikely show of unity, as I was finishing up, I saw one of the fellows from L’As du Falafel pop one of his crisp falafels in the mouth of his main competitor, a woman who was offering falafels from Mi-Va-Mi. She stopped, took a taste, and nodded in agreement before going back to offering her falafels to all takers.

So perhaps there’s something to be said for the absence of competition.

(Although I appreciate the presence of free samples.)

L’As du Falafel
34, rue des Rosiers
Tél: 01 48 87 63 60

Mi-Va-Mi
27, rue des Ecouffes
Tél: 01 42 71 53 72