Saturday, July 23, 2011

Alter Eco: Dark Quinoa

I had big plans for this blog post -- had those plans not been derailed by graduation, employment, and an obscene heat that is entirely inhospitable to chocolate eating, this post would have arrived sometime in April -- it would have documented a curious intersection of contemporary food trends and the Exodus of the ancient Israelites -- yes, that Exodus, which Passover commemorates.

Alter Eco: Dark Quinoa
Cocoa content: 61%
Notable ingredients: rice-quinoa crisps
Origin: Bolivia

So, remember a few months ago, when the weather actually allowed for breathing and long pants, when we gathered around the table to nibble on bitter herbs and denounce chametz, a few of us were obsessed with this New Agey (and yet still, ultra Jewy) question -- is quinoa Kosher for Passover? I don't think we ever really got a definitive answer, but that question stoked my interest in this bar. And then I let it sit on a shelf for a few months. That seems to be happening a lot around here recently.

Three months later, this bar represents nothing more than another chapter in the long tradition of rice crisps masquerading as other things in chocolate bars. Given that this company -- Alter Eco Fair Trade -- actually sells plain old quinoa sourced from Bolivia in addition to chocolate, I was expecting crunchy little pseudocereals instead of these uninspired rice puffs. Ok -- granted -- quinoa rice puffs -- but still, this bar was no more distinctive than your average Nestle Crunch bar.

Next week, another selection inspired by the days of yore -- perhaps not so yore as the release of the Israelite slaves from Egypt, but pretty yore nonetheless. This guy gets a C.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mast Brothers Factory Tour Pt. 1

I know that I'm only supposed to write about chocolate bars here, and I know that to write about anything else I risk compromising the mission--and with it, the very integrity--of Chocolates I Have Known. And I do want to write about chocolate bars, but today I've come to discuss how they are born--not their taste, nor their distinctive features, nor their hubristic missteps of design--well, maybe I will talk about those things, too.

Last week I went on a tour of the Mast Brothers chocolate factory, located on a quiet block near the waterfront in Williamsburg. This blog has Known the Mast Brothers before--it's a rather new company owned by two brothers, one formerly of Gramercy Tavern and one formerly of Jacques Torres's Manhattan factory. They make mostly single-origin chocolates, and they exclusively use organically-farmed cocoa in all of their products.

The first thing we did upon arrival at the factory was we sat as a group at a table in the front room, adjacent to the storefront area where chocolate bars, nibs, chips, and baker's bags are sold. A whimsical fellow named Ian passed around a couple of dried cocoa pods, which are the vessels that house the cocoa fruit in which the beans are lodged. He explained to us the difference between Criollo and Trinitario beans, both of which the brothers use in their product. Then he handed us hairnets and we were on our way into the factory.

Out front, behind the sales table, a few men were preparing the chocolate bars to be wrapped. After cooling into their bar-shaped molds, the chocolate bars are set on wire trays, and the men pick up each bar, wrap it in gold foil (or as our tour guide said, plainly "gold,") and sets it in a pile to later be wrapped in patterned paper by a team of volunteers. They work alongside a couple men who sort through newly arrived beans, aiming to remove stones and little bits of debris from the beans before they are processed in the factory. One time, they found a lizard's heard.

Beyond this group, the conching process takes place in a loud, hot room. The chocolate is spun with sugar in metal vats for three days, breaking down in the heat created by the friction. It spins for three days.

When it's entirely broken down, it sits and ages for a month in a second metal vat. It develops a chalky, textured patina and allegedly develops in flavor during this time. Ian said that the chocolate would taste "green" if it went straight into bars before being aged.

Upon fully aging, the chocolate is re-melted in a brief tempering process, after which it is set into chocolate bar molds, dressed with various nuts and other dressings as applicable, cooled in a refrigerator, and set on a wire tray to then be wrapped in gold foil by the gentleman out front. The birth of a chocolate bar in this factory is a thing that begins and ends on the same table.

You know from reading my previous blog posts that I have not been absolutely crazy about Mast Brothers chocolates. I taste the care and deliberateness that goes into the production of each one, but I still haven't found any of these flavors to be absolutely delicious--and sweet and forgiving--and fun--the way the best chocolate is, I think. Taking this tour, I recognized and appreciated the company's sincerity at every step of the way. They don't cut any corners and they clearly do things the way they know is the right way, with no exceptions. I like companies like that--I work for one. But maybe sometimes the "right way" is more of a romantic flourish than a studied pursuit of flavor--we are in Williamsburg here, after all. For instance, Ian told the group that just a few days earlier, the Mast Brothers had sailed in with something like 20 tons of cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic. On a sailboat. A schooner! Apparently it hasn't been done in like 70 years. Safe? No. Precedented? No. Cost-effective? Please! But romantic, right? The Mast Brothers have a vision of how things should be done, and they stick to that vision. More than ever, I wish I loved their chocolate.