Monday, December 29, 2008

Salt & Chocolate

Salt and chocolate is a beautiful combination that is all the rage in the artisan chocolate scene. We must talk it up a fair amount on our Chocolate Tours, because a customer recently asked me if I've had my blood pressure checked. (My acupuncturist continues to marvel at my low blood pressure, so there!) Salt enhances the flavor of most foods, but is a particularly nice match with milk chocolate - cutting some of the sweetness and adding complexity.

When I was growing up, the only salt my mom used was the blue Morton brand with the little blonde umbrella girl. Now the world of gourmet salt is vast and almost overwhelming. Using kosher salt in any good recipe is just about a given, even for my mom. Sea salt was the first artisan salt to capture the attention of American chefs, especially those with French training. Artisan sea salts are typically natural and organic, harvested from the sea with very little treatment or refining. The mineral content and quality of the water is what creates a fine salt. The most common salt added to chocolate is fleur de sel, a type of grey sea salt. It is harvested by hand by "paludiers" in France and named for the aroma of violets created when the salt dries. Like wine, different regions produce fleur de sel of varying styles. The best known are Britanny and the Camargue, where you can horseback ride through the salt flats.

Chocolatiers also experiment with pink salts. Michael Mischer uses a Murray River sea salt, whose pink flakes come from the largest river in Australia. And Katrina Markoff of Vosges likes pink Himalayan salt mined from the Himalayan mountains in Tibet. So enough of the history lesson...What are some of my favorite salty sweet chocolate creations?

1) Charles Chocolate Cashew Bar

I love filled chocolates from Charles, but his widely available bars have never made it into my shopping cart, until now. Chuck Siegel has developed a new "Emeryville Collection" of chocolate bars exclusive to Whole Foods. I guess if you don't live in the Bay Area, Emeryville sounds exotic. Each bar features organic Straus Family cream and butter, nuts and, of course, salt. My favorite is the Cashew Bar, a blend of roasted cashews, fleur de sel and 41% milk chocolate.

2) Domori Latte Sal
This bar has made me an unofficial member of the Domori "Cult Cacao." Domori is an Italian chocolate maker that actually owns their own plantations and focuses solely on the quality of cacao - without adding vanilla or even soy lecithin. At 44% cacao, its flavor is deep and rich. Like most of the bars listed here, the addition of salt (fleur de sel here) is not overpowering and makes the chocolate even more memorably satisfying.

3) Vosges Goji Exotic Candy Bar
This Vosges milk chocolate bar is a tribute to the Himalayas - with pink Himalayan salt and the goji berry, both harvested from the mountains of Tibet. A staple of health food stores, the goji berry (also known as the wolfberry) is believed to be full of astounding nutritional benefits. But whether or not the goji berry will make us live until 252, like a famous goji loving Chinese emperor, I'll still love this Vosges bar.

4) Rococo Dark Sea Salt Artisan Bar
I know we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I loved Rococo even before trying the chocolate because of its beautifully unique packaging. Chantal Coady is the woman behind this British chocolate company. She specializes in unique flavor combinations (like basil and persian lime), but this simple sea salt and milk chocolate is one of her best. The bar is 37% cacao, all organic. The plastic wrapping displays various antique French molds Coady uses for her bars, and as a bonus, is re-sealable.

5) Michael Mischer Milk Chocolate with Toffee and Murray River Sea Salt
When customers on our Chocolate Tours say they like toffee, I won't hesitate to direct them to this bar. Toffee and chocolate is quite sweet, and so the addition of salt just makes sense. The bar is 38% cacao milk chocolate, made by hand in his small Oakland kitchen. Like all Michael Mischer bars, the clear packaging showcases the beauty of the bar within.

6) Recchiuti Fleur de Sel Caramel

Nearly every modern chocolatier makes a fleur de sel piece. But there are many ways to do this. Some are just too heavy handed with the salt for my taste. Others are quite goopy, when I prefer a thicker ganache center. That is why the Michael Recchiuti fleur de sel is my first choice when I'm looking for a salty sweet filled chocolate. It's a pretty little piece, enrobed in bittersweet chocolate and marbleized with Venezuelan white chocolate.