Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Chocolate Milk: The Remix

It's birthday party time again and what mother doesn't get anxious over planning the menu? As for drinks, soda is a definite "no no" and juice boxes now irk the environmentalists and the health conscious. I even heard one mom saying that cold drinks are no good for kids. Who knew? At my son's next party, I'm going to go out on a limb and offer up an old drink with a new spin - Got Milk Chocolate Flavored Straws by the San Francisco Chocolate Factory.

To keep my party on the greener side, I'll give each kid a clear plastic cup (BPA free of course) filled with cold, organic skim milk. And then for the good stuff - a plastic straw filled with tiny chocolate beads. Insert into milk and watch it transform from white to brown. Et voila - chocolate milk! That's what my son calls a "special treat."

I must be a little bit picky and say that the taste is not as rich and chocolatey as premixed chocolate milk. (In April, the SF Chronicle Taster's Choice deemed Berkeley Farms chocolate milk the best of the bunch.) In fact, I'd suggest small cups of milk to be sure you'll taste enough chocolate. Admittedly, it's a gimmick, but a very cute one. Given the effort it will demand from preschoolers, it almost counts as an activity. Combine that with a bouncy house and you've got an instant party!

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Perfect Wine to Pair with Chocolate

Last Thursday I found myself with a tray of 18 different chocolates, ranging from a sweet milk truffle to an extra dark artisan bar. The task? To find the perfect wine to pair with chocolate. As an expert panelist at the Taste TV "Chocolate Seizure" event, I had to put aside my fussy concerns about the differences among the various chocolates that made the selection of one perfect wine impossible. And I needed to get over the fact that port was not an option - my favorite wine for chocolate pairings. Instead, I cast my vote for one of the three "pre-approved" red wines created at Crushpad: the merlot, the cabernet or the zinfandel. We were making history, since this is supposed to be the first red wine specifically designed for consuming with chocolate.

I applaud Taste TV for once more rallying together this city's chocophiles and oenophiles for another sold-out chocolate event. Unlike the SF International Chocolate Salon this spring, the guest list for Chocolate Seizure was limited and so there was a bit of breathing room. And the price for the general public was a very reasonable $40. Many of San Francisco's small time chocolatiers benefit from the exposure in Taste TV events. Present Thursday night were the usual suspects: Jade Chocolate, Amano, New Tree, Coco Delice, Saratoga and the Tea Room. Appearing for the first time was TCHO, drumming up support for their "beta" chocolate experience. The best piece of chocolate I tasted that night was the Jade Hawaiian sea salt bar. But back to the wine...

If you haven't been to Crushpad yet, make a beeline. Or at least make a beeline to the wealthiest person you know and get them to sponsor your creation. We're talking $5700 to $10,700 a barrel. Crushpad sources the best grapes from local Napa and Sonoma vineyards. They'll meet with you to determine what kind of a wine you want to make, and then you can be involved in the process (from grape-crushing to designing the bottle) as little or as much as you want. For the busy salaryman, the Crushpad web cam offers a live connection to your grapes. And it was through this process that the three options for the 08 "Domaine de Taste Amerique" were born.

It was a close call, but the Cabernet ultimately prevailed. It wasn't my vote; I just couldn't get past its almost effervescent quality, since Crushpad decided to pour the cab well before it was ready. And I'm told it could be at least another year! But when that time comes, a future reserve bottle of this "cult, boutique" wine should be making its way to my home. In the meantime, I'll be enjoying the wines we're pairing with chocolate on our new San Francisco Gourmet Chocolate and Wine Tour.

With all this talk about pairing wine and chocolate, I can't help but think of Chloe Doutre-Roussel, whose little pink book The Chocolate Connoisseur is a favorite among my tour guides. For her, warm water is what you drink with chocolate. At 6 am, when your taste buds are most fresh. Sorry Chloe, but the people have spoken.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Artisan Chocolate Maker Roundtable

So you think you wanna become a bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate maker? I’d have second thoughts after listening to five chocolate manufacturers share their struggles at an event sponsored by Slow Food Nation on Labor Day. Present was the criminal lawyer turned chocolate maker Shawn Askinosie, the laid-back Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, the articulate Mexicanophile Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate, ex-glassmaker Steve De Vries of De Vries Chocolate and the ultimate perfectionist Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate. With only a few jokes made in the almost 3 hour long panel discussion, these guys take their chocolate very seriously. The panel was moderated by Alexander Morozoff, publisher of the glossy Cocoaroma Magazine.

What’s so hard about making your own chocolate? You get the best leftovers, you’re loved by all the women and you’re raking in the dough given the recent surge in dark chocolate sales. Ask Shawn Askinosie just how challenging it is to source cacao, especially from farmers who are certified organic. He once wired $28,000 to a Venezualan pastor and not a single cacao bean made its way back to his Missouri factory. And then there is the tempering; many of these guys still have burns on their hands from mistakes made with this grueling aspect of the cacao production process. There are also very few resources out there to guide young chocolate entrepreneurs. Art Pollard’s “new” antique conching machine came with a simple 1 page “instruction manual.” Steve De Vries tried to learn about making chocolate from library books; they all started with the phrase “melt chocolate.”

These chocolate artisans are proud of what they make, but there was a fair amount of frustration in the air. For one, why is every major chocolate company latching onto the term “artisan” in the hopes it will buffet their sales? Most panelists agreed that in order to be called artisan, a company must have one expert who manages the entire process of making chocolate. In that case, it is a bit of a Catch 22. Artisan chocolate makers need to make money by selling more chocolate; if they sell a lot of chocolate, they’ll need to hire more help and perhaps sacrifice the quality of their beans. At some point, they won’t truly be artisan but they will be profitable. And there is the problem that the American public, raised on sweet milk chocolate bars, will never truly appreciate what they do and still aren’t ready to fork over $10 for a chocolate bar.

Some panelists made light of the concern that artisan chocolate may be perceived as an elite food, like arugula and other foods that plague Democratic presidential candidates. According to De Vries, anyone should be able to afford a $10 chocolate bar. And as I say on my Chocolate Tours, the very best chocolate bar costs far, far less than the very best bottle of wine. But that doesn’t really address the problem. Americans are used to buying $1 candy bars. If artisan donuts suddenly cost $10 apiece, only a real food snob is going to think the cost is worth it. Shawn Askinosie expressly wants to stay away from chocolate snobs, instead aiming at “chocolate geeks.” For that reason, he decided to make a white chocolate bar, even with added nuts. For the rest of the chocolate purists on the panel, many of whom eschew soy lecithin, vanilla and even cocoa butter, that is taking things a little too far.

The real reason chocolate bars should cost $10 (or even more) is not to put money in the pockets of “elite” chocolate makers. Rather, it is to fairly reward the farmers who grow the beans that are essential to quality cacao. The panelists all make an effort to pay the cacao farmers they partner with prices that are above fair trade, with Askinosie even giving his farmers a “stake in the outcome.” And this is what Slow Food is all about – recognizing the agricultural ties inherent in everything we eat, including a chocolate bar.

So while listening to these artisan chocolate makers reaffirmed my own career choice, it seems I’m not the only woman choosing to enjoy fine chocolate rather than make it. It’s an observation I’ve made before, but why are there so few women in the bean-to-bar chocolate world? These guys talked about the importance of understanding science and engineering, so maybe the lack of female representation in these fields is part of the problem. Or maybe, like me, women are just too busy feeding the kids to make weekly trips to plantations from Africa to Equador. Alex Whitmore said that if they have another Artisan Chocolate Roundtable next year, there will be 5 times the number of participants. I hope so, and I hope at least one of them is a woman!