A month and more of chocolate

 

Somehow, even though Valentine’s Day is just one chocolate-focused day in the year, the number of “chocolate engagements” (so to speak) around that holiday seems to reproduce and multiply to fill a whole month or more. This year was no exception, and I spent February and indeed March very busy with chocolate.

Everything was a highlight! My dear friend and chocolate colleague, Bill Fredericks, also known as Chocolate Man, and I were invited back to give a second talk and tasting event for The Whole U. The Whole U is UW’s initiative to “foster community, promote holistic wellness, and share the great perks available to UW faculty and staff,” which I guess makes Bill and me a “great perk!”

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Photos courtesy of Quinn Russell Brown, The Whole U

Last year, we began our talk for The Whole U in the Hub on Seattle campus. We had just reached the chocolate tasting portion when the fire alarm went off! Bill and I looked at each other incredulously, and then everyone leapt up to grab all the chocolate and file out of the building. With our hundred or so attendees, we gathered outside in the rain, everyone sheltering their small paper cups full of chocolate from getting soaked. It was comical to stand there in the downpour, with people crowding around us to ask which chocolate was which, and what flavor notes they could expect from each. Eventually, we were allowed back inside to gather up our things, and learned that the alarm had been set off by a burnt bag of popcorn in a microwave . . .

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Photo courtesy of Quinn Russell Brown, The Whole U

This year, we returned, triumphant, to complete the whole talk and tasting with no building evacuation. It was a very enjoyable event!

I returned to Seattle campus the following week to give another talk, this time solo, for the UW Libraries InForum series. I had been truly delighted to receive an invitation to present to this regular gathering of UW librarians. I have been part of UW, as a grad student and as faculty, since 2001. Over nearly sixteen years, the UW library system has felt like nothing so much as a friend—both the vast collection of books (which I love), and the talented, generous librarians themselves. It has been a great source of comfort to me over the years to know that literally any piece of information I wanted, for research or even leisure reading, I could find at UW libraries. I certainly would not have accomplished the research and scholarship that I have without them, so it was a real pleasure to give back in even a small way and host a research talk for the librarians group.

My event, “From Tree to Taste: A Journey from Cocoa to Chocolate,” included a tasting component. I must once again laud the librarians who attended for their diligence in sorting the “data” that I provided on their plates, and for their excellent forbearance as I made them wait to taste that “data,” as I explicated the many features of the chocolate trade.

In addition to the talks, I also appeared on two NPR affiliate radio broadcasts. I always enjoy doing radio interviews, and I particularly appreciated the insightful questions of both my recent interviewers. For KUOW’s Local Wonder program, I spoke with Ruby de Luna to answer the listener question, “Why does Seattle have such a large local chocolate industry?” For KCUR, of Kansas City, MO, I appeared on Suzanne Hogan’s segment, “For a Missouri ‘bean to bar’ chocolate maker, it’s not just about the candy.

In addition to my book manuscript work, I had two other writing opportunities around Valentine’s Day. As I wrote in my last post, it was my great pleasure to contribute a guest post for San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate blog. The tireless and talented Molly Gore solicited and brilliantly edited my post, for which I am so grateful. “Why I teach my students about chocolate” is about my pioneering UW Bothell class—the first university class in the country devoted entirely to chocolate.

I also collaborated with Curtis Vreeland, confectionary industry expert and principal of Vreeland & Associates, to write an article on “artisanry” in the craft chocolate industry, which is due out shortly. I look forward to sharing that piece just as soon as it is published.

And then, after all that, I went on holiday! I was very glad to have time with my family in New York and also with my boyfriend’s family in South Africa. I arrived back in the US on Monday, and dove straight back into chocolate work. From San Francisco airport, I drove up to Moshin Vineyards in Sonoma County, where I hosted an absolutely delightful wine and chocolate pairing event. Somehow the jet lag had not yet hit after 36+ straight hours of travel from Cape Town, and it was a real pleasure to talk and taste chocolate (including Dandelion Madagascar, Dick Taylor Madagascar, and Trader Joe’s Ecuador) with the guests.

The pairing event kicked off my week here in Sonoma, as writer-in-residence at Moshin Vineyards. My grateful thanks to Marcy Gordon and Writing Between the Vines for supporting this extremely productive, rejuvenating time here at the vineyard. I have been hard at work on a processing chapter for my book Cocoa, for Polity Press. It is further along than I had even hoped it would be. I feel so fortunate to have spent a week focused completely on writing in such a stunning and peaceful environment.

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Finally, my thanks to Julia Lander for re-integrating me into the world of human conversation yesterday evening, after my week of solitude with words, and the exceptional tasting of Moshin wines! Till next time, happy spring to all.

 

 

Bar Launch: jcoco arabica cherry espresso

I had the pleasure on Thursday evening of attending what I realized afterwards was my first ever official bar launch. Though I’ve been studying and working in chocolate for much more than a decade, I’d never been to a new chocolate launch before. And if there are more in my future, the jcoco arabica cherry espresso launch certainly set a high standard for taste and elegance.

Seattle Chocolates is a standout company in this city, and I’ve always enjoyed their chocolate. The company does a particularly nice job with its truffle bars, which celebrate not only Pacific Northwest ingredients—San Juan Sea Salt, Rainier Cherry—but actual fun. As in, fun things about life. Birthday Cake Batter Milk Chocolate Truffle Bar takes the prize here, whose wrapper comes complete with birthday hat and red balloons. The Thanks-olate bar is an extremely close second.

But the launch event was for a bar by jcoco, which is Seattle Chocolates’ line of American couture chocolate. The arabica cherry espresso bar is the first-to-market chocolate infused with CoffeeFlour, and we were there to learn what that meant. I do keep an eye on the coffee market, at least from time to time. As primary agricultural commodities, cocoa and coffee share some economic aspects, and it can be useful to compare them. But I don’t follow coffee closely, so I was intrigued to learn about CoffeeFlour. Dan Belliveau, formerly with Starbucks and the innovator behind CoffeeFlour, explained it quite nicely, and I’ll do my best to re-explain here, though using an analogy I do understand (cocoa!).

Just as chocolate is made from the seed of the cocoa tree, so too is coffee, the drinkable product, made with the seed of the coffee plant. Also as with cocoa, the coffee fruit itself is not the focus; we’re only interested in the seed. Coffee does diverge a bit from cocoa here, because its fruit is a little more substantial than that found within a cocoa pod. Coffee fruits look like cherries, and are referred to as such. The fleshy fruit of those cherries is removed to get at the bean inside, and then, to my understanding, becomes exclusively a waste product. CoffeeFlour is doing its best to change that, by making a usable product from that fruit. What they are making is flour.

 

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CoffeeFlour, from the CoffeeFlour website

Chefs around the world have been experimenting with this flour. I read, for example, about the launch of CoffeeFlour bagels in Japan, at Bagel & Bagel, a large chain. Those bagels even have chocolate chips in them! But while it is interesting to read about food innovations, it is even better to taste them. We were quite privileged at the jcoco bar launch to be in the good hands of Chef Jason Wilson (of the former Crush restaurant, which is now a CoffeeFlour lab), who did an extraordinary job in treating us to his CoffeeFlour cooking innovations. I was greeted at the door with a Bacardi rum cocktail infused with jcoco chocolate and CoffeeFlour, and then my gaze fell upon a vast spread of foods, most of them espresso in color, that were all made using CoffeeFlour. Certainly, if the goal was to demonstrate its range and culinary flexibility, Chef Wilson succeeded marvelously.

We had olive fritters with CoffeeFlour ricotta, arabica cherry espresso, and quinoa. There was a pork tostada with arabica cherry espresso mole and salsa fresca. A hit of the evening, from what I overheard in conversations throughout the small dining room, was the arabica cherry espresso glazed beef short rib, bleu cheese, and cauliflower fritter.

It is quite challenging to eat and talk at the same time (or even to eat and listen), and I had a lot of technical questions for Dan Belliveau. But I had already been sorry not to be able to help myself to seconds of the savories, so when we got to the arabica cherry espresso and CoffeeFlour brownie sundae with salted peanut butter and caramel ice cream, I abandoned decorum and ate a whole second sundae while standing at the bar talking with Dan, asking questions through my mouthfuls.

I had a lot of questions because, quite frankly, when you study an agricultural commodity for a long time, you get used to a sameness in the structure of trade, a consistency around what we can accomplish, for better or worse, within a giant and static system. It is rare to encounter innovation on a large scale—such as finding a new food use for a substantial harvest by-product. As wasteful as we may be at this stage in our evolution, humans have demonstrated the capability in our collective past to make extremely efficient use of the edibles that nature provides. So to realize that no one before had thought to make something out of the coffee cherry on an industrial scale, to commercialize it and put it to a range of food uses, was quite surprising and intriguing to me.

One of those uses, of course, is to infuse CoffeeFlour into chocolate, which was the reason behind the launch. jcoco has infused CoffeeFlour and espresso into their arabica cherry espresso bar, and it’s the first chocolate to do anything of the kind.

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What’s in the bar? From jcoco arabica cherry espresso webpage

That one is available now to buy. At the launch, however, we were treated to a different tasting as well. We first sampled the base 60% Seattle Chocolates chocolate. Then, we tasted three more bars, all with the same base chocolate, each infused with CoffeeFlour from a different origin: Vietnam, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Because I have long been used to tasting single origin chocolate for its varied flavor profiles, it didn’t strike me as significant at first when I tasted distinct flavor differences among the bars. But then I realized that, because it was the same chocolate base, the flavor differences were coming from the CoffeeFlour. I was tasting the fruit of the coffee plant. It expresses terroir, too! This felt astonishing to me, but it oughtn’t have. I mean, different apples have different flavors; so do actual cherries. Maybe it was because I have no firsthand experience with coffee cherries—I’ve never held one, never tasted one. But in those chocolate bars, I suddenly became intimate with this fruit. It was a new and unexpected food learning experience for me.

Thanks so much for having me at your lovely launch event, Jean Thompson, Chef Wilson, and Dan Belliveau. I look forward to watching the story of CoffeeFlour further unfold.

A Bay Area Long Chocolate Weekend

The five days from last Thursday through Monday were among the most energizing and productive for my chocolate research and learning, ever. When I last blogged on Friday, I was in the midst of observing the excellent work of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute at its first US-based Cacao Grader Intensive workshop. It was a real pleasure to witness the training program, which is part of the Institute’s broader work to generate and share cocoa evaluation methods. Carla Martin (Harvard University), the institute’s co-founder (along with Colin Gasko, Rogue Chocolatier), kindly took the time to talk with me afterwards, and shared her vision for the FCCI. As the craft expands in new directions, discussions around what makes “quality” chocolate have become more prominent both within the industry and beyond. Carla and Colin are creating incredibly thoughtful, evidence-based approaches to developing a common, workable vocabulary around quality for this industry.

Among the many things that impressed me from our conversation is the FCCI’s strong grounding in information-gathering and sharing amongst many industry stakeholders. Carla described a variety of ways that the FCCI is amassing much-needed data around how to evaluate cocoa quality, and these methods involve near constant feedback loops. The instruments seem to me very sensitive to context specificity, while at the same time paving the way for people to talk meaningfully with one another about cocoa quality across a wide variety of industry positions, from farmers to importers to makers. As conversations in craft circles can slide easily into debates over flavor and quality “rankings” based on personal preference or anecdote (to be clear, those are my words, not Carla’s or Colin’s), the FCCI’s thoughtful, data-driven, and in many ways egalitarian approach is most welcome. I truly look forward to seeing their programming expand, and to the impact it will no doubt have on quality assessment across our chocolate world.

And after that impressive showing, there was even more at the FCIA events. This year, the Fine Chocolate Industry Association celebrated its largest ever attendance at the conference. It was an honor to host a Table Talk, on my recent research into chocolate artisanry. I was delighted to have pretty much a full house for the talk and humbled by the level of interest in this work—about how we can define artisan in a rigorous way, and use data to understand how consumers make sense of it. I shared some of my findings at the talk, and was grateful for the insights of industry experts into defining and applying “artisan” during our discussion. My publication on this work is forthcoming, and I look forward to sharing it soon—even more now after a successful talk at the FCIA. Many thanks again to Pam Williams (FCIA President) and Karen Bryant (FCIA Executive Director) for all their work organizing such a wide-ranging and thought-provoking education program, and for having me to be a part of it. I already look forward to the FCIA east coast gathering, coming this June to New York.

The Dandelion Chocolate brunch, the morning following the FCIA conference, was probably the most concentrated gathering of chocolate folks I have ever experienced. It was not possible to turn in any direction without running into someone who has made, or is making, some notable contribution to the industry. Just as memorably, I was never more than six inches from some nice brunch-y treat. All I needed to do was reach out my hand and, voila: something delicious to eat or drink (the thickly rich European-style hot chocolate was the winner for me). I was particularly happy to finally meet in person Bertil Akesson, of Akesson’s Single Estate Chocolate whose work in Madagascar cocoa I have talked about for many years in my teaching and presentations.

I was also very glad to have had the chance over the long weekend for several conversations with Jessica Ferrero, of Bar Cacao. While we correspond over email, meeting in person can make possible the kinds of thought-provoking conversations that don’t necessarily grow out of message exchanges. As I presented and talked through my analysis of the term “artisan” for the chocolate industry, Jessica shared her thinking around other terms, particularly “bean to bar,” and made me realize that these deserve our scrutiny as well. I am hopeful (hint, hint) that Jessica will write a posting soon with her thoughts on this, as they were enlightening to me. I’m also thankful to have been able to attend Jessica’s Bar Cacao tasting event, with Chloe Doutre-Roussel (Chloe Chocolat). The chance to hear Chloe speak is never one to miss, and her deep knowledge of flavor and tasting methods is always a source of inspiration.

The Fancy Food Show was a final highlight, though I did not get to spend quite as much time there as it takes to visit all six thousand booths. Instead, I joined a small roving group of chocolate people, including Sunita de Tourreil of The Chocolate Garage and Seneca Klassen of Lonohana Hawaiian Estate Chocolate, to hang out and taste samples at the A Priori specialty food booth and then the Crio Bru table. I am particularly grateful to Matt Caputo for the enlightening conversation at A Priori, to Bertil for a taste of his 100% bar, and to Cassandra Durtschi for the marvelous cup of Crio Bru Ecuador Light Roast cocoa drink. As I explained to Cassandra, with their lovely product I might at last fill the morning-hot-drink gap in my life. As a person who doesn’t drink coffee (likely the only one in Seattle), I have often longed to clutch a mug of hot drink in my cold hands on the dark, rainy mornings, and now that yawning chasm of desire can be filled. A million thanks!

Dr. Chocolate’s Own News Roundup

This week, my own chocolate news roundup. It’s a busy weekend for US chocolate, on top of other recent chocolate developments for me. I am in San Francisco, for the winter Fine Chocolate Industry Association conference, and all the exciting events that pop up around FCIA time. It’s like an early chocolate spring.

This year, the FCIA weekend is well-timed for my own work. The gathering of makers and industry experts in the Bay Area has given me opportunity to launch research for my new book! I have contracted with Polity Press to write the volume Cocoa, for their fantastic Resources series. I love these books:

There are about ten published titles already, with more in the works (including, now, my own). Each book in the series focuses on one commodity, and gives an accessibly written, yet detailed and contemporary account of the global political economy of that resource. University students use these books widely, but so do general readers who are interested in that particular good. I am, quite frankly, delighted to be author for the Cocoa volume, and have dived straight into the work.

Already, people with deep knowledge of the cocoa and chocolate industries have generously given of their time, which has been such a motivating start to the book-writing process. I’ve been interviewing practically from the moment I stepped off the plane here in San Francisco, and can see chapters coming into clearer focus as a result.

I’m also giving my own talks this weekend, and began yesterday evening with an event at The Chocolate Garage. I’ve known the Garage founder, Sunita de Tourreil, for some years now, and have always wanted to do an event at her unique chocolate space in Palo Alto. As Sunita describes it, “The Chocolate Garage is both an idea or a place. The idea is that you can shape the future by choosing what you love.”

The place is an actual garage, near to downtown Palo Alto, and it’s filled with the selection of chocolate bars that Sunita curates, very carefully, which meet her high and thoughtful benchmarks for both flavor and ethics. While currently open on Saturday mornings to anyone who wants to come by and check out the selection, The Chocolate Garage mainly operates on a membership model. Sunita has fostered a community of people who come together around a shared motivation to pursue, in all possible meanings of the term, better chocolate.

Given the high level of “chocolate education” among Garage members, I decided to do a bit of a provocative talk around the imagery used to advertise chocolate, which mostly appears on bar wrappers. It was a full house, and I am so appreciative to every Garage member who stayed for two full hours (or more!) to engage in discussion of issues that are very close to my heart. Thank you to Sunita for hosting me, and to all the very thoughtful chocolate lovers who made the evening an educational one for me too.

Today, I have the pleasure of observing the Cacao Grader Intensive workshop, of the recently launched Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. Institute founders Carla Martin (Harvard University) and Colin Gasko (Rogue Chocolatier) are on hand, leading attendees through tasting methods and more, as are Jamin Haddox (Certified Coffee Q Grader) and Chloe Doutre-Roussel (Chloe Chocolat). More on this to come. For now, it’s tremendously exciting to see a room full of people focusing with studiousness and care on the art and science of tasting. Before my eyes, the FCCI through its Grader Intensive is expanding the horizons of how we evaluate and appreciate cocoa and chocolate.

Up next tomorrow: the Fine Chocolate Industry Association day of events. I am very much looking forward to my Table Talk on the meaning of the word “artisan” in the chocolate industry today, based on my recent research. And then the Fancy Food show, along with more chocolate events, research, presenting, interviewing, and writing as the weekend unfolds. If you haven’t been to an east coast or west coast FCIA weekend, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best gatherings of chocolate nerds around!