Results tagged cacao from David Lebovitz

La Manufacture de chocolat Alain Ducasse

pralines to dip

I don’t think there’s anyone happier than I am now that we now have our very own bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Paris. I remember when the movement started in America, and small chocolate manufacturers started popping up in the most unlikeliest of places by people curious about roasting and sourcing their own beans, then grinding them into smooth tablets of chocolate. I was impressed, but skeptical when it all started. But am thrilled the movement has taken off in so many ways and directions.

roasting cocoa beans for chocolate

For the past five years, Alain Ducasse has been nurturing the same vision in Paris, along with pastry chef Nicolas Berger, who is now running La Manufacture de chocolat, their chocolate atelier not far from the center of the city.

Continue Reading La Manufacture de chocolat Alain Ducasse…

Dandelion Chocolate

Dandelion chocolate

One of the interesting things about leading chocolate tours is that I get to meet a wide swatch of people who have various interests. Some just like to come and taste, others have more professional aspirations. When Todd Masonis joined me a few years ago, we had some talks about his idea of opening a bean-to-bar hot chocolate salon. I had a pretty good amount of experience meeting with – and tasting – many of the American bean-to-bar chocolates, folks who were participating in what Chloé Doutre-Roussel, whose is one of the most knowledgable people about chocolate that I know, refers to as “The American Chocolate Revolution.” And I was encouraging, but also knew of the difficulties these folks faced in terms of building a facility to make chocolate.

Many of these people are mavericks, with the “revolution” starting over a decade ago, and now encompasses perhaps two dozen or so enterprising people who’ve been producing bean-to-bar chocolate in the states. Todd had started a successful internet company so I could tell he had the drive to do something new and interesting, but sourcing the beans and getting the equipment together isn’t easy. So no one was more surprised than me to get a note in my Inbox recently from Todd, who said that inspired by our talks on that trip, he was about to open his new place, Dandelion Chocolate, producing bean-to-bar chocolate in San Francisco’s Mission district with his business partner, Cameron Ring. And I was intrigued.

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Wanted: French Lesson

grue de cacao

In my never-ending quest to improve my French, I had some friends over for dinner last night and was asking them what the word ‘grue‘ meant.

After consulting le dictionnaire français (aka: mon ma bible), the only definition we came across was that a grue was a ‘crane’—as in the long-limbed bird.

Curiously, it’s sometimes used a slang for a ‘working woman’, if you know what I mean. Or one who is ‘facile‘.

So how does any of that relate to ground up cocoa beans?

Chocolatiers and Chocolate-Makers

The other night I was having dinner in a restaurant, and struck up a conversation with the fellow dining at the next table, who turned out to be Swiss. As we talked, the conversation turned to what I did and when I replied that I wrote cookbooks on baking and chocolate. His curiosity was piqued…as well as that of the two Belgian women at the other table.

I knew exactly where the conversation soon would be heading, and of course, I was asked the inevitable question: “Which country do you think makes the best chocolate?”

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Belgian Chocolates

In all honestly, it’s really a pointless question. What if I asked; “What country makes the best wine?” Well, you might answer that there are great wines made in Italy, France, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, etc. And there are lousy wines made in all those countries too.

But is there one country quantitatively better than at making wine than another? Is there some formula that one can follow to show who wins the mantle of Best Winemaking Country in the World? Perhaps one could argue that the soil in one county is better than another, or the weather, or maybe other factors. But for making chocolate couverture, pure, solid chocolate, most of the time the cocoa beans aren’t grown in the countries where chocolate is produced, with a few exceptions.

And is there really a country that makes the Best Chocolate In The World?
Is there some competition going on that no one told me about?

So I answered, “The best chocolate in the world is made in the United States.”

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Theo Chocolate, Hand-Made In Seattle

The man was surprised, and the two women started rolling their eyes and laughing. And my French dining companion just smirked at me, since he knows that I said that matter-of-factly as well, just to irk them. But seriously, I don’t know what was so funny. Maybe they were laughing at themselves for not realizing that there’s very good chocolate produced in the United States.

How silly of them; what were they thinking?

Continue Reading Chocolatiers and Chocolate-Makers…

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.


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.

L’Autre Boulange

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Bread lined up at one of my favorite bakeries in Paris, L’Autre Boulange


So it’s springtime here in Paris. At my outdoor market, I’ve been buying colorful blood oranges from Tunisia and Spain and making refreshing sorbets, then candying the peel to serve alongside. (My grandmother never let me throw anything away…) As the weather gets warmer, dinner’s often a simple salad of peppery arugula and watercress sprinkled with a drizzle of argan oil, a favorite oil, made from argan nuts that have been munched by tree-climbing goats in Morocco, after which they’re “expelled”, then laboriously pressed.

I’ve also been baking tagines (Moroccan casseroles) using spring lamb and plump, sweet prunes from Agen. And sometimes dinner will just be a slice of Terrine Gascon which I get from my local butcher, made from shredded duck confit and I suspect an overdose of duck fat. (I figure if I down enough rosé with it, that will dilute the richness in my system.) There are also many new cheeses that I’m trying at my fromagerie, such as an earthy, crumbly, and pungent bleu cheese from Savoie, ripe and gooey brie de Meaux, and a new favorite, Langres, a copper-colored knob that when sliced, reveals a soft, creamy interior with the lovely sweet-pungent smell of fresh cream, grass, and barnyard.

And I’ve been trying as many new chocolates I can get. I’ve had some lovely bars from Green & Black’s organic chocolate from Great Britain, as well as handcrafted Tuscan chocolates from Slitti and Amedei that I’ll be visiting with guests in May during my upcoming Italian Chocolate Tour.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tuscan chocolates, they are some of the finest chocolates you’ll ever sample. Wish you were coming along?

The International Salon d’Agriculture in Paris

Each winter, the International Salon d’Agriculture occurs in Paris at the enormous Porte de Versailles exhibition center. The French are in love with anything agricultural. I recently saw a huge, room-sized map of France artfully composed of vegetables and fruits from the various regions.

And they love cows. (Well, living in a country with the most exceptional cheeses in the world, I am beginning to worship them as well.) When I last went to the post office, I was offered their newest stamps, which featured a cow. When I showed them off to some French friends that came for dinner that night, there was much ooh-ing and ahh-ing.

Although I do like cows as much as, um, the next person…I was more intrigued by the food representing all the regions of France and several other European communities and Africa. I bought a hunk of nutty Gruyère from the Swiss pavilion that was really, really good and sweet-scented, slender vanilla beans from the Antilles.

There was lots of unusual seafood to gasp at, delicious Basque foie gras conserved with pimente d’Espelette (smoked pepper powder), and much wine to sample, as well as Pommeau, an aperitif of Calvados brandy blended with apple cider.

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I’m Thinking of Giving Up Fish

I meet some lively Africans from the Ivory Coast, who split open a cocoa bean and fed me the slippery seeds within. If you’ve never seen a cocoa bean, they’re beautiful pods filled with slippery, almond-sized beans imbedded in a creamy liquid.

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African Cocoa Beans

Although the Salon is great fun, it’s always mobbed and this year was no exception. The one thing you never want to do is get between a French person and food. Otherwise, look out!

L’Autre Boulange
43, rue de Montreuil (11th)
and
12, place de la Nation (12th)