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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.

CHOCOHOLICS REJOICE! It’s Healthy(ish)! Here’s the Evidence!

I love chocolate, particularly dark chocolate.  I make no apologies, and the more I learn about chocolate and the cocoa bean, the more I realize no apologies are needed.  It’s no joke, cocoa has health benefits.  Indeed, if I ruled the world, dark chocolate would be a deductible medical expense. 

Perhaps the science isn’t quite sufficient to justify chocolate as a deductible medical expense, but it ain’t junk food either.  There’s enough info on Theobroma cacao to warrant treating it with respect.  

What Makes Chocolate “Healthy-ish”?

Chocolate is loaded with antioxidants.  It contains flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals with anti-inflammatory powers and benefits for the immune system.  There are several subgroups of flavonoids, such as anthocyanidins that give foods like Concord grapes and red cabbage their purple color, and flavones, found in celery and bell peppers.  It’s the  flavanols however, that give chocolate (and other foods like tea and blueberries) it’s healthful properties.

So, What’s Chocolate’s Impact On Health?

Improved blood flow: This review of the research studying the combination of eating cocoa flavanols and doing aerobic exercise improved cardiovascular risk factors and vascular function (read: improved blood flow).  Cocoa helps reduce blood pressure by relaxing the walls of the blood vessels, improving blood flow, not only to the heart, but also to the gray matter of the brain.  This doesn’t mean eating a candy bar will make you a genius, but there may be bennies from eating some dark chocolate regularly.

Cholesterol benefits: Cocoa consumption seems to raise the HDL cholesterol (the good form) and reduce the “LDL cholesterol” (the bad one you want less of).  It works best when your total cholesterol levels are high.

Reduces “oxidative stress”: In a just-published systematic review of 48 studies on cocoa, the researchers found that cocoa consumption “plays an important role in the human metabolic pathway through reducing oxidative stress.”  Oh, bring it on.  

What’s oxidative stress?  It’s caused by “free radicals”.  Free radicals in your body can “nick” or damage the cells in arterial walls, making it easy for plaques to adhere and build up, clogging arteries. Cocoa consumption seems to help prevent free radicals from forming.  Ever taste rancid oil or nuts?  You’re tasting “oxidized” food damaged by free radicals.

Adapted from Tuenter, et al.

In the Mood

In this review of studies that looked at chocolate, mood, and cognition, the authors developed a “mood pyramid”.  They placed more general mood benefits from the flavanols at the bottom, since these are benefits associated with flavanols in other foods as well.  Secondary mood benefits appear to come from the caffeine-theobromine combination in chocolate. 

More specific is a possible dopamine effect from a substance in chocolate called salsolinol.  This is emerging research, but the hypothesis is that salsolinol may play a role in the impact of chocolate on mood.  Just how much chocolate you’d need to eat is still unclear. 

The Fine Print

Yes, there is some.  Some of the research found benefits from low intakes of chocolate, as little as 7.5 grams.  Other studies used significantly more however, up to 100 grams a day and produced good results.  (How do I sign up?)

These cocoa flavanols are NOT present in all chocolate foods.  Read labels: if it says, “cocoa processed with alkali” you can pretty much forget getting any flavanols.  This form of cocoa is also known as “Dutch-processed”.  The process makes cocoa appear darker (see photo) and taste a tad less acidic but it blows the antioxidant content to smithereens.  Some chefs and bakers prefer this type of cocoa for recipes.  I do not.  Give me the lighter powder on the right.  I like my flavanols, thanks.

Chocolate isn’t calorie-free.  Solid bars have about 150-170 calories per ounce.  I keep it to a max of 2 ounces a day, but an ounce of good chocolate, at 170 calories, makes for a rich snack or even a lower-calorie dessert.  Fair enough.  Cocoa powder however, is low in calories and the most concentrated source of cocoa flavanols, so use it to make your own hot chocolate.  I sweeten with stevia or a no-cal sweetener to minimize added sugar calories, and often add some cinnamon or other spice (smoked paprika is a favorite of mine).   

Get a high — in percent cocoa.  The most benefits are seen with chocolate that has at least 70% cocoa solids.  Not a problem for me, but it takes getting used to.  Go gradually!