I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The lost chocolate of Peru

Today I had a rare treat. Even when you eat as much of it as I do, it's not every day that you get to taste chocolate made from cocoa beans that have been "lost" for one hundred years. This morning I had my first taste of Fortunato #4, the chocolate made from pure Nacional beans from Peru, "discovered" by Dan Pearson and Brian Horsely of Maranon Chocolate.

I even got to sample the beans -- which, as you
can see above, are unusual in their white color

The find was remarkable for several reasons. First, Nacional beans are not normally associated with Peru. Rather, this bean predominates in Ecuador, where it is most often associated with the Arriba strain (see Jeff Stern's recent post on The Chocolate Life for an excellent discussion of Arriba Nacional). So finding it in Peru was a bit of a surprise.

Indeed, finding pure Nacional anywhere is cause for celebration. Disease has wiped out much of the Nacional crop over the past century. Cocoa is a fragile tree, susceptible to fungal infections and pests that can devastate entire national agricultural systems, such as happened in Ecuador. To make it more disease- and pest-resistant, cocoa is often hybridized. The result is higher yields, but also loss of purity of strains such as Nacional, whose distinct flavor is eroded when crossed with another kind of bean.

Thus, the discovery of genetically "pure" Nacional -- and in Peru no less -- made headlines. I have been anxious to taste it. The cocoa actually arrived to me yesterday (still up here on the Djerassi mountain), but I forced myself to wait until this morning to try it, when my taste buds were clear.

The verdict: some of the most delicately flavored chocolate I have sampled, ever. Fortunato #4 was wispy and light as a feather, and so creamy I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a bar of milk -- in fact, it was 68% cocoa solids. Its flavor was so fleeting, I had to keep eating more.

If you want to taste it yourself, here's where you can find it. If you do, let me know what you think!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Does it even need sugar?

Yesterday afternoon, while working on my chocolate book, I reached for a piece of what I thought was a bar made from Porcelana Criollo. This type of bean is grown in Venezuela, and it has one of the most delicate flavors of any cocoa variety. It tastes of cream and honey and lying on a blanket in the sunshine, or like someone you love has just given you a soft hug. It's one of my favorites, and I could eat it forever.

What I got instead was a piece of a bar made from 100% cocoa solids, called Coro Noir Amertume Extreme. "Amertume" is French for "bitterness." Both bars were made by La Maison du Chocolat, and they look pretty similar:

Come on, it's close! They're practically the same. And anyhow, my writing area looks like this at the moment, so it's easy to get confused:

Instead of sunshine, at first I tasted nothing at all. The flavor was quite muted. I let the chocolate sit on my tongue, waiting for it to melt, and then suddenly I tasted pure, dark soil with a slight metallic tang, as if I was eating a piece of earth that had just been struck by lightning. I felt a good deal of surprise and looked back at the bar, realizing my mistake.

I had really been wanting that hug of Porcelana, but as I ate my way through the 100% Amertume Extreme (btw, I love that name -- makes me feel as if my chocolate writing is an Extreme Sport for which I will win some kind of medal), I decided that the pure taste of cocoa was also comforting, in its own way. It's earthy and bitter and dependable, at least when it is done well. It made me wonder -- does cocoa even need the sugar at all? My bar yesterday did not. It was enough to just taste a solid rock of a cocoa bean.

What do you think - sugared or not?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Garage chocolate

Yesterday was one of those days when I felt EXTRA glad that my life's work right now is to find the best chocolate in the world.

I came down from the Djerassi mountain to spend a day in civilization with the folks at Dandelion Chocolate in Palo Alto. One thing I liked best about this trip was that it confirmed the legend that the revolutionary companies of Silicon Valley all really do start in a garage.

Cameron Ring and Todd Masonis, founders of Dandelion, have been running their chocolate taste-tests out of a garage now for a couple of years and, true to the Valley's reputation for start-up brilliance, are making extraordinary chocolate. It's some of the best I have ever eaten -- especially their Madagascar bar, which made me feel as if the cocoa beans themselves were melting in my mouth. There was nothing at all -- no lecithin, no vanilla, no added cocoa butter -- standing between me and that sunshiney, almost lime-flavored Madagascar bean.

If you live in San Francisco, you can find Dandelion Chocolate on Thursdays at the Mission Community Market. Their factory and cafe will open soon in the Mission, at 740 Valencia St. Go there and eat their chocolate -- it will be the happiest part of your day.

Todd sorting through Madagascar and Venezuela cocoa beans

Alice sampling Madagascar chocolate as she
measures the size of cocoa particles with a micrometer

Mmmmmmm . . . fresh garage chocolate

The team (l-r): Todd, Cameron, Alice,
and (almost Dr.) Chiann, aka the Wrapping Ninja

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Writing chocolate at Djerassi

I am now living the writer’s dream life, high in the Santa Cruz mountains. For a month, I am a writer-in-residence at the Djerassi program, along with seven other artists, including a playwright, a poet, a choreographer, and a musician. Already my chocolate works are flourishing, including my book, an edited volume, and various articles and short stories.

Djerassi is one of a handful of residency programs around the country that give artists precious time, quiet, and support to work on their projects, far away from the demands of everyday life. This is my second such residency (the first was at Hedgebrook in 2009), and it is once again a true gift.

Djerassi has a remarkable history. It was founded in 1979 by Dr. Carl Djerassi, who, along with his colleagues at Stanford University and the Syntex Corporation in Mexico, invented the Pill. The financial success of the first oral contraceptive allowed Djerassi to purchase the land I am on now -- a sprawling ranch in the brown rolling hills near Palo Alto, which he named, with all the literary inventiveness of a biochemist, the SMIP Ranch: Syntex Made It Possible.

Then, in 1978, Djerassi’s daughter Pamela, who was an artist, committed suicide. Djerassi himself discovered her body. Grief-stricken, over the next year he sought a way to soothe his own soul and honor Pamela’s. The result was the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

At first, the program was only for women, and one artist a year came to live and work in Pamela’s old house. The women found it lonely, though, spending a year on the ranch by themselves. In time, the program expanded to accommodate more artists, and men were invited as well. The ranch's many-sided barn -- a visually striking building -- was converted into studio spaces and sleeping lofts for painters, dancers, photographers, and musicians. The ranch house became a residence for writers, and that’s where I am writing from now.

During the day, I write and run in the hills. In the evenings, the chef arrives to cook a meal that we all eat together up here in the writer’s house. Then we share our work. The other night, the playwright asked me to read a part in one of his plays; I was a soon-to-be out-of-work vaudeville actress from the 1930s. After that, I did a little talk on chocolate and led a tasting of origin bars, which seemed to please the other artists. None of them have edible work like I do.

I’ll share some of my writing as it comes along. Till then, here are some pictures of the ranch.

Twelve-sided barn, where visual artists, dancers, and musicians live

View from the top of the hill where I go running in the afternoon

The ranch is dotted with sculptures by former residents. This is one of my
favorites - maybe giant bowtruckles, or very small Ents?

Family of stick people

Another favorite - giant wagon

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tcho in San Francisco

I did not go to Ghirardelli. I know that it is very famous and has a whole square named after it, and I even planned to visit and eat a brownie sundae with hot fudge. But instead I went to Tcho.

Tcho is the dictionary’s phonetic start to the word “chocolate,” which makes it a cool linguistic artifact and not a weird misappropriation of something Mayan, as I did suspect. It’s also a bean-to-bar chocolate factory, the only one in town after Scharffen Berger’s departure from Berkeley (shame on you, new owner Hershey), on Pier 17 along the Embarcadero. If you visit San Francisco, I insist that you take a tour and eat all the chocolate they give to you.

This is important: you must eat all of it. The reason is because they make a whole line of chocolates, each with a particular flavor - citrusy, chocolatey, nutty, fruity. Talking to Tcho’s chocolate makers made me feel that no one else on earth understood flavor. One of them, Zohara, spends her days tasting chocolate that has been fine-tuned in different ways by their factory machines, determining which one tastes the most “chocolatey.” This is her job.

Imagine having that as your job. Whatever you are doing right now, pretend that all the things on your desk, or in your backpack, or on your boat deck just transformed into chocolate, and your new priority for the workday was to eat it all and figure out which one tasted the best. And this wasn’t some random Employee Appreciation Day benefit, but you got paid for doing it, every single day.

You can approximate that by visiting Tcho and sampling their entire line, as I did. Leaving that factory was one of very few times in my life when I felt that I had approached my chocolate limit, so I think you will not be disappointed.

Next up: a month at Djerassi, an artists residency near Palo Alto, to write a few masterpieces.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Angelino chocolate

Guesses? Any at all?

Come on, it totally looks like brown rice, covered in chocolate and shaped like teddy bears. Yes, it does!

Here, I did an autopsy on one of the bears, so you can see the rice:

This precious thing is (was) called a K Bear, created by Diane Krön of K Chocolate, and was one of the many delicacies I sampled in her postage-stamp sized shop in Beverly Hills. Diane was managing the store when I visited, and introduced herself as “The Chocolate Doctor.” Well, really! I looked around and saw no diploma, and thought it would be more gracious to keep silent about my own credentials.

Instead, I said, “Really? Brown rice?”, to which she replied, “Honey, this is California. What did you expect?”

In fact I had been expecting a lock of Jennifer Aniston’s hair dipped in chocolate, but Diane handed me a large, rock-shaped confection rolled in cocoa powder (“Our secret weapon”), so I ate that too. Between the generous samples of K Truffle, K Spanish Orange, and K Pecan Krisps, I was distracted enough to hand over the better portion of my paycheck for a small bag of dark chocolate (Venezuela, around 80%), and flee back out into the concrete-covered city.

I then made rounds of several more of LA’s finest chocolate shops, buying largish quantities, on my way to meet my friend Dawn for lunch. Dawn is a writer, and has in the past supplied me with many alternate adjectives for the word “brown” (just try writing at book length about chocolate without them). I put before her a sampling of Angelino chocolates and awaited her opinion. Would this be the best chocolate in the world?

“Good,” she declared, “but—it’s not much better than what I could get in a drugstore. As an LA native, I’m embarrassed that we can’t do better. We have no football team . . . and apparently no chocolate.”

So there you go. The best chocolate in the world is not to be found in LA. If anyone has been here and can claim otherwise, I’d love to hear about it. San Francisco up next . . .

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The search begins

And so my next chocolate travels begin. Tomorrow at the crack of dawn, I leave for Los Angeles, and then San Francisco, to eat chocolate made by the Californians. Back in the old days, my chocolate travels were mostly to cocoa farms. But today I am on a different mission: to find the best chocolate in the world.

Will I find it in Beverly Hills, or beneath the Golden Gate Bridge? Maybe. It's possible. The people of California have long been at the vanguard of food revolution in this country, embracing such exotic but salubrious items as the avocado since at least the nineteen eighties, a time when primitives on the east coast still reckoned Boo Berry cereal as fruit and ketchup as vegetable.

 Yum! Thanks, Wikipedia!

So I guess I might find the best chocolate in the world there. Just in case not, though, I have packed some other chocolates to sample and review in the coming weeks.

I will be in California for one month. This amount might get me halfway through. More to come from the road . . .

Monday, September 5, 2011

A new blog is coming . . .

A new blog is coming, and it is going to be irresistible. . . . Check back this Wednesday for the first of many new chocolate adventures.