Chocoholics Anonymous: From Cake to Craft
I confess: I wrote a poem about chocolate cake in the eighth grade. My mom pulled it out of the oven and it was just so, I don’t know, gooey, sitting there, wafting cocoa scents that would tempt an ascetic. All evidence of that poem has now been destroyed, although it took much more time to realize the silliness of my stanzas than to scarf a few slices.
My mom didn’t seem surprised. After all, I was the person who, at three years old, invented an ingenious new way to lick the batter out of the bowl: by putting it on my head, with my tongue stretched out to catch the chocolate as the aluminum rotated. Spatial intelligence was never my strong suit, and after I accidentally lacquered my hair with batter, my mother threw me into the bath. Needless to say, I ended up with a mouthful of soapy water instead of endless cocoa.
Flash-forward 30 years and my heart almost stopped when I walked into a small shop in Portland, Oregon. The walls brimmed with brightly colored packages that almost bounced off the shelves, jars of sweet-looking nectar beckoned, and a few fulfilled faces sat sipping something dark and dreamy.
“Cacao. Drink chocolate,” the store’s sign said. “Yes,” I replied.
On that first visit I timidly bought a bar from the huge collection, judging it solely on its pretty wrapper. “Are you sure you don’t want to try anything?” the salesperson asked as I retreated into the cool Portland evening.
That night, after devouring all of the delectable chocolate in my Airbnb apartment, I couldn’t sleep. And it wasn’t from a sugar high. This stuff was different from the Snickers bars and chocolate hearts that I was used to: darker, more real. I’d had enough of candies with creams and fillings. It turns out they masked the real treat, the chocolate.
But what did the guy at Cacao mean when he offered to let me try something?
I couldn’t stay away for long: The next day found me waiting at the store when it opened at 10 AM. My new best friend, co-owner Aubrey Lindley, an effusive, brown-haired thirtysomething, walked me through bite after bite of chocolate.
“This 75 percent Madagascar from Patric is really fruity,” he told me as he handed me a square.
I nodded, but he could tell I was lost. “The beans are from Madagascar,” he explained. “That country is known for really citrus-y tasting cacao, and Patric knows just what to do with it.”
I put the square on my tongue, and under the layer of chocolate, it tasted bright, almost like an orange. This wasn’t your after-dinner Dove chocolate heart with an inspirational message.
Beyond all the complex flavors (even though there are only three ingredients: cacao, cane sugar, and cocoa butter!), the darkness was different too. Hershey’s Special Dark only hits 45 percent cocoa solids, and this bite measured 75 percent. Still, it tasted smooth and sweet, creamy without any milk.
Aubrey watched my face. “Try a nuttier chocolate,” he said, breaking off a piece of Amano’s Ocumare bar from Venezuela.
I closed my eyes. Roasted nuts. Like the most decadent, tiny fudge brownie that has ever existed.
“What’s, like, the weirdest thing you have?” I asked him. Clearly I was getting more comfortable with this whole idea of eating chocolate for free.
He let out a wild giggle. “This one,” Aubrey said, pulling another Amano bar off the shelf, this time from Dos Rios, in the Dominican Republic. “It’s yeasty, almost like bread.”
Or beer. Chocolate, like beer and coffee (and wine, our old snobby friend), holds many different tastes. Berries. Citrus. Nuts. Leather. Grass. A number two pencil. Chocolate can take on many strange flavors, especially when you compare two different bars. As Aubrey placed different squares side by side, I could taste the entire world in chocolate.
It turns out that chocolate is no longer only coming from France or Belgium or even good old neutral Switzerland. American makers now match and even (in some cases) exceed the masterpieces coming from big European companies like Valrhona and small makers like Pralus. This new movement of bean-to-bar makers is producing bolder, bigger chocolates. Distinctly American chocolates.
I finally got it. Food lovers are just as likely to nibble on a high-quality chocolate bar as they were to sip an expensive bottle of wine. This new-school chocolate resembles a vintage Cabernet Sauvignon more than a good old Hershey’s, with prices ranging from $7 to more than $200 to match. In other words, these makers are transforming chocolate from a kid’s sweet into an artisan luxury food.
Two hours later I waddled out of the store with enough theobromine to take out a pack of wild dogs, and with a new determination to find the makers changing our tastes. I wish I could say it was for some intellectual purpose or humanitarian good, but nope, I just wanted to eat some chocolate.
Back at home, I gleefully cleared out black beans and canned tuna from the pantry’s biggest shelf to make room for bars from Askinosie and Rogue and Fine & Raw. Sure, I could eat chocolate until I was brown in the face. But finding the best chocolate from the best makers? Well, that was a different beast.
My new project, Chocolate Noise, is a collection of essays about those craft chocolate makers that cuts through the noise of hype, reviews, and top 10 lists to capture a moment in time, the beginning of the bean-to-bar chocolate movement in America. As Shawn Askinosie, the founder of Askinosie Chocolate, says, “It’s not about the chocolate. It’s about the chocolate.”