Chocolate Geeks! Have You Tried These Delicious Artisan Bars?

I’ve loved chocolate – dark chocolate – ever since I can remember.  As a little kid my dad would whisper to me, “Hey, you want some “bittersweet?” Then he’d lead me to his workshop in the basement and share a few bites of the dark stuff.   

Now I find out I was born on National Dark Chocolate Day (February 1), and suddenly it all makes sense: my affinity for good chocolate was genetically determined.  Rather than fight it, I embrace it.    

My partner loves chocolate, too, and we’ve assembled our own list of artisan chocolatiers in Paris that make for a great 3- or 4-day walking tour, structured so we log 7-9 miles a day. 

He likes truffles and filled chocolates, but I head straight for bars, with 70% cocoa content as a minimum.  At that level, quality really shows its hand.  Low quality beans can be disguised when a bar is only 30% chocolate and has lots of sweetness and flavors added.  At 70% or 80%, the cards are on the table.

Artisan Chocolate: A Kinship With Wine

Artisan chocolate bars are like wine.  Each has a taste all its own, influenced by many factors:

  • Single variety from a single plantation
  • Blend of beans
  • Method of fermenting, roasting, and processing
  • Soil, weather, location

Tasting points: Yes, it tastes “chocolatey” but there’s so much more to an artisan bar.  Some of the tasting notes you’ll find: coffee, “red fruit” (think raspberries and cherries), spices, and even floral notes.  Within these taste groups there can be specifics.  Some tasters will report notes of honey, vanilla (even though no vanilla was added), smoky or oaky notes, tangerine or grapefruit, etc.  I’ve even found hints of olives and green bananas. 

Bars also come with additions, like nuts, dried fruits, nougat and more. I’m paying a premium for the chocolate, so hold the groceries, thanks. Spices and herbs, like cinnamon, smoked paprika, and turmeric, and infusions like Earl grey tea are fantastic when done well. 

Wanting to track my favorite bars, their flavors, and notes about them, I started tracking them by making a list of each bar, “rating them from 1-100, and providing short descriptions for myself so I’d remember whether I wanted a repeat if I saw them again. 

The list now contains hundreds of domestic and international bars, it’s 42 pages long (single spaced) and nearing 20,000 words as of this posting. 

I was planning on listing my current favorite bars when New York Times food writer, chef, and author Melissa Clark had the same idea.  I discovered we liked some of the same bars.  She has a fabulous palate and I love her articles, but I know I’ve probably tasted more artisan bars. 

A FEW of My Favorite Brands & Bars:

Chocolate Bonnat: My all-around go-to brand for outstanding chocolate bars, especially the “Haciendas El Rosario” (75%) bar.  Real roasted flavor and aroma, a bit smoky, typical of Venezuelan cocoa.  The 75% Porcelana and Chuao bars are superb — and expensive. 

Pralus: A French maker, most bars are 75% but milk chocolate lovers have options, too.  My favorites here are the Indonesie bar for its woodsy, chocolatey, and intense flavors.  Traditional French roasting method makes it seem richer than a typical 75% bar.  The Chuao and Porcelana bars, two of their “Grand Crus”, are top line favorites, when I can find them. 

 

Chapon:  Like Bonnat, this is another chocolatier who nails it every time.  I first bought it in Paris and the link is to his online shop.  Not cheap, but a chocolate nerd would love it.  I’ve loved all the dark bars I’ve tried.  Most bars have only two ingredients: cocoa paste (ground beans) and sugar.  Has a good “snap” and intense cocoa flavor and aroma.  Favorites: Venezuela Rio Caribe, the Chuao bar (notes of hazelnuts and figs) and the Cuba bar (notes of coffee, caramel, and vanilla).  The latter two are among this line’s  “Cocoa Rare” bars, using exclusive, high quality beans.

Domestic Artisan Chocolatiers, Too! 

Right here in New York City is MarieBelle Chocolate!  I’ve written about the founder, Maribel Lieberman, before.  A native of Honduras, she uses primarily beans from there and deals directly with cocoa growers, especially women, helping them grow their businesses and giving them a US market.  My favorite is the 70% bar sweetened only with milk powder.  It makes for a VERY creamy bar, yet very intense as well.  No added sugar and actually has some protein and calcium!  You’ll either like it or not, but taste it more than once.  Believe me, it grows on you and it’s worth it. 

Arete: I’ve had chocolate from this Tennessee maker before, (their India bar is great) but I just tasted their 709% bar made with Tennessee sour mash whisky and it’s a winner.  The cocoa butter added to the cocoa bean paste is infused with the whisky.  No bitterness at all, it has notes of caramel and vanilla along with the whisky and it’s very friendly to the palate.  I’ll get it whenever I find it.  Note: the maker’s website sells their bars but as of press time their sold out of a lot. 

Without going to Paris, some great online sources for artisan brands:

Chocosphere – Great online source for artisan chocolate, carries a lot of brands.

Barandcocoa.com  Another source online, not cheap but it’s there when you need them and they also have a fairly broad variety.

And the best…Chocolate Covered: UNBELIEVABLE variety — over 1000 different bars in this quirky, small small shop in San Francisco.  It’s my go-to place whenever I’m in town and I always find bars I haven’t tried.  Jack Epstein is the owner and a very nice guy.  If you tell him “Keith from New York” sent you, he’ll know exactly who you mean.

IF YOU FORGOT TO BUY CHOCOLATE, YOU MAY NEED TO EAT MORE!

If your significant other likes chocolate, you probably give it on Valentine’s day, but some science says eating it every day might help your brain function better. Chocolate and its components have been studied a fair amount in recent years, from its effects on blood flow through arteries to performance on cognitive tests.

What exactly does chocolate do to our brains?

This scientific review looked at studies on chocolate’s effects on our mood and found “very reliable effects of chocolate and chocolate components” on lessening mental fatigue and negative moods. Even better: the best effects came from eating “whole chocolate” rather than in pill form or in a supplement-type drink.
The review also looked at studies that showed acute effects of chocolate on brain function. Performance on cognitive tests that measured factors like working memory, attention, and reaction time were improved after giving test subjects single doses of “cocoa flavanols” – the antioxidants in chocolate. Not all studies showed such benefits, and to be fair, most studies used a fairly high dose of cocoa flavanols.

There is also a host of population studies that show “associations” between chocolate consumption and better health, less heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, etc., but these are non-specific and just serve to generate clinical trials.

How does chocolate do all that?

The exact mechanism is still unclear. What we DO know is that eating flavanol-rich chocolate and cocoa improves things like blood flow, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity. Cocoa flavanols also have been shown to stimulate areas of the brain that deal with working memory, so they appear to be biologically active, and positively so.
It’s also possible that the caffeine and theobromines in chocolate are involved. Although caffeine can increase blood pressure, but theobromine seems to overcome this effect, helping reduce blood pressure.

Cocoa flavanols have long been known to improve blood flow. Better blood flow to the brain may be responsible for the cognitive effects. Improved circulation may also contribute to improved insulin sensitivity, among other benefits. Still, there’s a lot more we need to know before saying anything conclusive, but it’s good to know chocolate has some good things going for it besides taste.

What chocolate has the most antioxidants?

Definitely it’s plain, unsweetened cocoa powder, and not the type that the label says was “processed with alkali” or “Dutched”. That process pretty much destroys the antioxidants. Cocoa powder has almost no fat in it, either, so it’s also pretty low in calories. I use it in my homemade hot chocolate (I use about double what’s called for in most recipes!). Aside from it’s use in baked goods, you can add it to smoothies and try adding a tablespoon of add cocoa powder to chili (intensifies the flavor and I highly recommend it!).

As for solid chocolate, the darker the chocolate, the higher the antioxidant level – usually. Not all 70% chocolate will have the same amount of flavonoids, but again, the darker the better.

The presence of milk seems to reduce the absorption of the antioxidants. This study found that having a glass of milk when eating dark chocolate reduced the antioxidant absorption by 46%. Eating milk chocolate alone? The plasma antioxidants were reduced by a full 69%.

Cut-to-the-chase advice on chocolate

If you like chocolate, have it! Yes, it has calories, about 160-170 in an ounce, but with a cup of coffee or tea it makes a better snack or dessert than most. All those antioxidants make getting your cocoa on a good thing. Having milk with it cuts your absorption of the antioxidants, but it’s so loaded you’ll still get a good dose.

Me? Oh, I’m in.

EGGNOG ON! 10 WAYS TO STILL ENJOY THE YEAR’S HIGH-CAL DRINK

I have loved eggnog since childhood. If it were available, and I’d been allowed, I’d have drunk it all year long. To really savor every drop, I’d “drink” it with using a teaspoon. At about 330 calories per glass though, you need to think before you drink eggnog.

WHY SO HIGH IN CALORIES?

Troll through eggnog recipes and it’ll be no surprise why it’s so calorie-loaded. The bulk of traditional eggnog is made up of heavy cream and sugar. Sometimes it’ll include half-and-half or milk as well, but the “old-school” recipes deal with only the heaviest stuff. Then comes the eggs, vanilla, nutmeg and whatever else. Grown-up eggnog also adds rum or brandy – that doesn’t lower the calories, but you might care less about them.
Traditional all-heavy-cream eggnog can run you a good 600 calories a glass! Most eggnog sold in supermarkets however, is a milder 330 calories in every 8-oz. glass. Still pretty hefty. That’s more calories than in two glasses of full-fat milk, only with less protein and calcium. Despite fewer calories, it’s still thick and creamy, owing to the addition of some harmless vegetable thickeners.

10 WAYS TO EGGNOG SMARTER

I don’t want to have an eggnog-free life, but eggnog’s calories do need to be budgeted. Try these tips and you can fit eggnog in pretty much anytime of the year :
• Have a shot, not a glass. Sometimes you want just a taste and a shot will do just fine.
• Add a shot to your coffee for a rich, holiday sweetener.
• Add a shot to your tea, instead of milk. English breakfast tea or black tea are excellent this way.
• Top Greek yogurt with some eggnog and chopped walnuts or almonds. A shot is only about 40 calories – and easy splurge.
• Pour a shot over oatmeal, finish with dried cranberries. Make the oatmeal with milk, for added protein and calcium.
• Have your usual whole-grain cereal with your usual milk but then pour a shot of eggnog over it. the eggnog stays full-strength, so your taste buds get hit with flavor, not calories.
• Dilute eggnog 50-50 with skim milk. 4-oz of each gives you about 205 calories (165 for 4-oz of eggnog and 40 for the same amount of skim milk). Plus, you’ll have lots more calcium and protein and it STILL tastes sweet and rich.
• Go really light: add a shot or two to whole, low-fat, or fat-free milk. With fat-free milk, it’ll bring you home at about 110 calories per glass. Amp up the flavor by adding some extra nutmeg.
• Go high-protein and super-light: 1-oz. of egg substitute, 7-oz. of fat-free milk, two packets of zero-calorie sweetener of choice, nutmeg to taste (I like lots of this spice). You can use sugar, but you’ll have more calories and it’s harder to dissolve sugar.
• No-work eggnog: “Lite” eggnog is plenty available in supermarkets. Calories range from about 190-220 calories per glass. Have at it.
• Bonus tip: Not eggy, but “nutmeggy”: Try heating warm milk with a few dashes of nutmeg and a sweetener of choice. Really great at bedtime.

CHOCOLATE ON VALENTINE’S DAY? NO, EVERY DAY!

A National Confectioners Association survey recently revealed that 94% of Americans reported wanting chocolate on Valentine’s Day.  I didn’t participate in the study but you can count me among them.  I want it every day.  I’m health conscious.  Read on.

For hundreds of years however, Europeans felt chocolate was heart healthy and even aided the liver and one’s digestion, among other benefits.

Chocolate in this country has traditionally been an indulgence, where the expectation is merely good taste and satisfaction – with some calories and fat.

That’s changing.  A lot of research during the past 20 years or so is telling us that chocolate can be heart-healthy, and via a variety of mechanisms.

Science for chocolate nerds

Two components in chocolate seem to be giving the benefits: antioxidants and the fat.

Eating foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, has long been associated with numerous measures of health benefits and reduced health risks, including lower risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.

Chocolate is rich in a subclass of antioxidants called “flavonoids”.  Catechins, epicatechins, and procyanidins are the main flavonoids in chocolate and they’re present in higher concentrations than in most other plant foods, even tea and red wine on a per-serving basis.  Dark chocolate is the third largest contributor of antioxidants to the American diet, after fruits and vegetables.

The fat in cocoa is mostly saturated – usually something we advise reducing in the diet. But not all saturated fats are created equally, and the primary one in chocolate is stearic acid, which seems to have more neutral, not harmful, effects.

Here are some of the benefits studies have consistently shown for chocolate:

  • Lower blood pressure: The reduction isn’t huge, but it seems to lower both the top number (systolic) by about 5 points and the bottom number (diastolic) by about 3 points. Not huge, but better than for most “treat” foods!
  • Improved markers of cardiovascular health: It seems to reduce LDL-cholesterol (the bad one) and raise HDL-cholesterol (good one) – at least when it replaces butter. It doesn’t top olive oil in this respect, but swapping a pastry for some chocolate makes sense.
  • Reduced “platelet aggregation”: This is beneficial because it helps prevent plaque build-up in your arteries.

How to do chocolate right

Yes, chocolate can fit into a healthy diet.  It might even be a good thing, in the right amount.  Here are a few tips if you want to have chocolate regularly:

  • Go dark. Really dark.  The benefits come when the cocoa content is 70% of higher.
  • Take 1.  Figure 1 ounce a day (about 30 grams). It’s only about 160 calories, so it’s lower in calories than most desserts!
  • Swap right. Use your daily chocolate to replace lower-quality foods. This usually means junk snacks.  You’ll find that an ounce of dark chocolate is satisfying.
  • No chewing allowed! Bite a small piece, notice the crackle of the bar, and let it melt in your mouth. Why rush?
  • Take a powder.  Leverage the flavor of cocoa powder! Hot chocolate, smoothies, on Greek yogurt!  Even shake it onto sliced apples or added it to coffee.  It’s almost calorie-free.  Trader Joe’s and Ghirardelli both have great cocoa powder.
  • Don’t “go Dutch”.  Cocoa labeled as “processed with alkali”, or “Dutched cocoa”, has lost most of the antioxidants. I avoid this kind of chocolate. It’s not harmful, just has no antioxidants.

Chocolate caveat

If you have reflux or heartburn, chocolate can irritate the stomach and stimulate acid production.  Chocolate doesn’t have much caffeine, but dark chocolate has more than milk chocolate, and it does have theobromine, which can also get you buzzy if you have it before bedtime.  Also, the antioxidant activity can vary, based on origin and handling methods.

Finally, file this under “nice-to-know”: Mondelez, the huge mega candy company, has a goal of 200,000 cocoa farmers participating in its “Cocoa Life” sustainable cocoa farming program, by year 2020.  They recently announced that they are nearly halfway there, with participation nearly doubling in the year 2015 alone.  Props to Mondelez.

Chocolate on Valentine’s Day.  Call it a gift from the heart, and for the heart!