Preparing for Chocolate

So here’s my list:

  • Dick Taylor
  • Amano
  • Divine
  • Moonstruck
  • Lake Champlain
  • Valrhona
  • Theo
  • Vosges
  • Jomart
  • John Kira’s
  • Maison Bouche

Those are the high-end chocolates that will become the basis for a future article about the phenomenal growth of high-end chocolates. My question to you: what else should be on this list? Which high-end chocolate bars have I missed–the ones that you see a little too often at Zabar’s, Fairway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market, Wegman’s, and other foodie emporia.

While you’re munching on that question (which I hope you will answer by adding a comment below), I suppose you’ll want to know that the third edition of the very popular book, The True History of Chocolate, has been published. Written by Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe, it’s been republished since the mid-1990s.

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According to the authors, “cocao is singularly difficult to grow. With few exceptions, it refuses to bear fruit outside a band 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. Nor is it happy within this band of tropics if the altitude is so high as to result in temperatures that fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.”

I wish I could report that chocolate offers specific psychological or medical benefits, but the authors, whose research is extensive, discount these theories. Still, “some doctors claim it to be an antidepressant.”

As for the early days of chocolate, much of this history is related to the stories of the Maya and Aztec people, and the authors provide lavish accounts of their cultures, and the role of chocolate within those societies–very nearly 100 pages of information, stories, illustrations, and more.

I’ve always been skeptical of the phrase, “Columbus discovered America” but Columbus was, in fact, the very first European to encounter the cacao bean which was considered quite valuable by the natives. Apparently, in 1502, Columbus took a wrong turn, ended up near what we call Guanaja, and took possession of goods, including what Ferdinand Columbus called “almonds”–“They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price,” he wrote, “for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stopped to pick it up as if an eye had fallen.” As the authors ponder who might have been the very first European to actually taste chocolate, it seems certain that the first encounter was sometime in the first half of the 16 century, and that over the course of the next century, chocolate had become very popular among those in the Spanish court, most likely the result of many interactions with their New World explorations. Gradually, chocolate made its way into the noble houses of Italy and France, and eventually, England, where it was the most popular drink until the new hot beverage, coffee, took its place. Around 1700, both chocolate and coffee were routinely served in the coffee houses so despised by royalty because they were (probably quite rightly) as hotbeds of political conversation.

For most of its 28-century existence, chocolate was enjoyed as a hot beverage, and sometimes, as a cold one. It’s only recently that chocolate has been offered in its current form, a solid. The modern chocolate industry began in England with a Quaker entrepreneur named John Fry. They became quite rich as the sole supplier to her majesty’s navy, at the time a formidable force at the core of the British Empire. The rival: another Quaker entrepreneur named John Cadbury, who owned a coffee-and-tea shop in Birmingham. They served ” traditional chocolate drink” at the shop, eventually expanded their operation, and won the patronage of  Queen Victoria. Cadbury was an aggressive businessman, and a clever one. In 1868, Cadbury introduced the first “chocolate box,” decorated with “a painting of his young daughter Jessica holding a kitten in her arms.” Cadbury was also responsible for the first candy box specifically made for Valentine’s Day. All of this transpired in at the heart of England’s Victorian era. Bear in mind that the Quakers despised alcohol–so chocolate was quite the appropriate substitute. At about the same time, the Swiss chocolate industry takes shape with Mr. Lindt and later, Mr. Tobler (think: Toblerone) rising the level of quality ((this time, Swiss Calvinists). In the U.S., the chocolate entrepreneur was “pious Pennsylvania Mennonite” Milton Hershey who concerned himself with production efficiency (think: Henry Ford, a contemporary), and mass production.

So here we are today, and I am beginning to prepare for an article about the world’s best chocolate bars. One certain model will be Valrhona, a small Swiss company with just 150 employees that supplied the restaurant trade, but not consumers, with the some of the world’s finest chocolate. Their best? In the 1980s, it was called “Guanaja 1502” and now, you know why.

Now that you know more than you may have wanted to know about chocolate, please lend a hand and comment on your favorites, especially those high-end bars that no reasonable person would buy or eat in quantity.

Let’s give unreasonable a try.

Valrhona? Just based upon this web advertisement, I'm sold. (And you?)

Valrhona? Just based upon this web advertisement, I’m sold. (And you?)

If You Give a Child a Cookie…

20130425-101009.jpgMiss Bartell (my fourth grade teacher): Would you rather have one cookie or four cookies?

Me: Four! I want four cookies!

(Miss Bartell shows me one enormous cookie and four tiny cookies.)

Me: (sheepishly) Miss Bartell, may I change my answer? I think I want one cookie.

Miss Bartell: Are you sure you want the one big cookie? You may change your mind, but only this once!

Me: Is this a trick?

(Room filled with the chuckles of fourth grade classmates)

Me: Are they both the same cookies? Does the big cookie taste the same as the small cookie?

Miss Bartell: Good question! Why don’t you taste them both and you tell me?

Me: I can try them both?

Miss Bartell: Yes, I will allow that because you asked the right question!

Me: (tasting) Well, the small cookie is sublime, a dense and chewy combination of what seems to be the finest Valrhona Classic Dark Chocolate, notable for its complex and balanced flavors…

Miss Bartell: And the big one?

Me: Tastes like Suzanne’s smelly armpit!

Suzanne: Hey! Be nice!

Me: Okay, okay, sorry. It smells kinda funny. The cookie tastes like it was made in a factory. It’s stale, the chocolate is flavorless, the dough is gummy…

Miss Bartell: Suzanne, please distribute one of the small cookies to each of your classmates.

Suzanne: (sneering at me) Yes, Miss Bartell.

Me: Miss Bartell?

Miss Bartell: Yes?

Me: Thank you for teaching me never to accept the obvious first answer, to always ask the second question, and to seek context for the information I receive from you and others who routinely attempt to control my mind.

Miss Bartell: Don’t talk with you mouth full.

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