Thursday, December 31, 2015


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Friday, March 20, 2015

Brooklyn Chocolate in Shoreditch, and Other UK Detours

The Sunday paper selection at my Earl's Court hotel looked meager last weekend, so I made a detour to the corner store to pick up a copy of the Guardian. The Guardian on Sunday, though, becomes the Observer, a transformation I didn't know about but pieced together quickly enough to ensure the leisurely thoughtful morning I had in mind and to avoid spending hours with some irksome conservative rag. So while I'd missed the weekly food section that gets shuffled into the fat Saturday Guardian, I'd luckily walked off with the latest Observer Food Monthly. I was on holiday with my significant other, on a holiday package even, our city break consistent with the statistically probable choices of other tourists in ways they usually aren't. Instead of staying at a boutique hotel or swapping our home for someone else's while stopping here on the way from one place and to another, this was a simple round-trip affair with a standard double room in a standard hotel with a daily buffet breakfast folded into the price. And this is how we found ourselves in guidebook-sanitized West London. And since Nick was working a lot, I was the one left to the leisurely breakfasts and the Sunday papers.

And it was here that I read, in item 41 of the "3rd Annual OFM [Observer Food Monthly] 50," that "Iowan brothers Rick and Michael Mast just opened an impressive new premises on Redchurch Street in East London, their first outside Brooklyn." Wait a minute. Something was familiar here. Redchurch Street? That's the little laneway off Shoreditch High Street, domicile of the no-corporiate-attire-dress-code Soho House-outpost known rather logically as the Shoreditch House, where Nick and I had stayed during our somewhat more characteristically eccentric trip to London this past January. We were then less than 30 days and 100 yards from the Mast's Valentine's Day opening and I'd had no idea. After discovering this item in the Observer, I did some more research. A January article in the London Evening Standard, mentioning the Mast's initial foray into the neighborhood with a pop-up shop at the Ace Hotel last year was only one of many to hoist the signal for a seasoned new crop of London chocolate shops, already a generation ahead of the living-room tasting clubs that eschewed rose and violet cremes in favor of novel high-cacao-percentage chocolates. So, had they been popping up during the first months of the Ace's Shoreditch operation in the winter of 2014, when Nick and I had been wandering around there, too, our first trip to London after we'd met a few months before, together taking an accidental tour through the hotel's unlocked back office in search of the basement sauna, returning to the front desk to ask if we might change to a room with its own turntable?

This was not my first or even second missed connection with the brothers Mast. New entrepreneurs, they'd contacted me in 2007 to sample their Williamsburg-based artisan chocolate. But I was in graduate school in Pittsburgh then and my life felt much blunter than it has at other times before and after, not hip ironically or otherwise. The holiday package we'd booked through British airways this time just briefly set off to a turbulent start. Our flight out of Newark was cancelled, we went to JFK instead, to find that we'd been bumped off a second flight. But four of us were the first to step up to be rescheduled, and that move landed me and Nick, along with Londoners Kai and Louise, in the British Airways Galleries Lounge, a few hours out from the late-night all-business-class flight to London City Airport. Polishing off a bottle of champagne with our friends, we remembered that indulgent winter holiday in east London. Shoreditch is just too much, the Londoners told us, so self-conscious, so branded. Sounds like Williamsburg, I said. I hate Williamsburg. But it's fun for a holiday, our friends confessed. We laughed. Our preferences home and away have something in common, but they're not the same.

I made it to the latest judging session of the UK-based International Chocolate Awards in a nondescript office building behind King's Cross Station on this trip, but not to the Mast Brothers' newly composed Shoreditch outpost. This itinerary had more to do with timing and the geography of London than it did with a discriminating palate. I've said this before: increased interest in and production of small batch-chocolate means that quite good chocolate is so much more easily accessible than it used to be even if the exceptional talents are still as few as they once were. I'm newly curious about the Mast Brothers' florentine-paper-wrapped bean-to-bar bars and about what they do and don't do with the the historic fruit-juice flavors of Central American cacao beans which are increasingly in circulation. I'll pick one up today, but I'm already home so my supplier is likely to be the Brooklyn Larder, a nice walk from my apartment at the south end of Prospect Park, even in the snow.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stories that Could Be Written about Chocolate in Barcelona, Montreal, and Elsewhere

Really? Wait, what? Yes, I'm still here. You might not be. Last time I checked in here, I was driving around England in a 1967 E-type Jaguar. That was about a year after Martin Christy generously introduced me to the haltingly precise chocolate craftsmanship of William Curley on a chocolate tour of London. Nearly another year has gone by, and, after taking the same E-type Jaguar through Spain and France over the summer, I just made another stop in England with my significant other (the very same significant other who drives the E-type Jaguar) to find that Curley now has a counter in the magnificently tiled Harrod's Food Hall, and that such expansion has made his exquisite confections much more accessible if just a touch less precise.

It's been a busy year--a new teaching job, a new partner, and a return to New York that's given me the time, money, and space to reshuffle some of my commitments, focusing a bit more on my person and a bit less on my persona these days. Before I go any further, I'll remind myself to point out that this blog is as much about chocolate as it is about me. So why haven't I written about chocolate at all since the beginning of 2014? Why is that app project stalled and that twitter feed on near hiatus too? Don't I have a professional debt to pay to Brad Kintzer and Zohara Mapes of Tcho for their lively dinner table conversation, to Nat Bledder of Madre Chocolate and chocolate elder statesman Steve De Vries, both of whom invited me to crash on their couches during chocolate trade events in recent years? Isn't there a story waiting to be written about the global chocolate bars arranged on narrow wooden shelves bolted into the exposed brick walls at the new La Tablette de Miss Choco boutique in Montreal?

Oh, yes, of course. Yes, to all of it. There is no lack of material. Quite the opposite. For an up-to-date report on the thriving global artisan chocolate industry written with an appropriate degree of enthusiasm, I direct your attention immediately to Sunita de Tourreil of the Chocolate Garage in the Bay Area. But in keeping with my own odd brand of benevolent antiestablishmentism, the ongoing serge in chocolate quality and information has caused in me, ironically, less and less of a sense of urgency. If I can now find a feature-worthy chocolatier in every small and large city, buy truly wonderful products at Trader Joe's and Marks & Spencer, and easily flip through the channels and watch French TV shows about Vietnamese bean-to-bar chocolate makers--or Vietnamese TV shows about French bean-to-bar chocolate makers--then I'm content with that and I can quiet the search for a while.

Don't worry, I'll be back. And I certainly hope you will be, too. Chocolate in Context has always been flexible and it's sticking around. I'll stop by with recommendations when I have them (though Cacao Sampaka was closed for summer holidays when I passed through Barcelona last month) and recipes I invent with my bulk shipment of a custom chocolate blend from my friend Fernando in Guatemala.

Let's get back to it, then.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ghanian Chocolate and Scottish Scallops

Gosh, where was I? Those homemade confections were six months ago. Since then, a Tuscany-owned Amedei boutique has opened in New York, a Ghanian chocolate shop has been growing on Brick Lane in London (proudly the only black-owned business on the street, though they're going though the common wobbles of "making" their own chocolate by grinding up a tiny batch of cacao beans in the basement while using a supply from the Callebaut conglomerate for nearly everything that they actually sell in the shop), and the unlikely Missouri-based everyman hero of the craft chocolate industry Shawn Askinosie picked up yet more awards this month during the annual food trade frenzy in San Francisco.

If you expected me to be in the middle of it all this past year, interviewing the ever higher profile chocolate entrepreneurs and whisking up subtly superior chocolate cakes, I did too. But I'm going to tell you two secrets about this blog. First, when things are looking up I do prefer my private life to my public persona. And second, I'm a better cook than a baker.

I'll leave it at that except to suggest that if you too find yourself driving around the English countryside in a vintage convertible with the top down on a sunny winter's day while New York is about to be enveloped by the biggest snow storm of the season, then you might want to stop at the Borough Market when you make it back to London to buy a wedge of manchego cheese with a sliver of membrillo from Brindisa, a kilo of scallops and a side of salmon from Furness Fish and Game (pay for the Scottish fish and seafood and keep the little arcs of roe attached to each scallop--they taste great), and handfuls of fresh herbs and Thai chili peppers from the slightly cheaper (than inside the market) veg stalls along Stoney Street.

That was our view, and this was the menu:
Cheese, salumi, and olives
Scallops in Yellow Curry with Spicy Grapefruit Salad
Canal House Teriyaki Salmon with lentils and brown rice
A Selection of chocolates from the best purveyors in town 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fall Chocolate Festivals and Other Back-to-School Activities

Expedition in Oahu with Madre
If this post were a magazine article, I might call it "Falling into Chocolate." Or, more accurately, "Falling behind on Chocolate." But in what I can more or less identify as my adult life, there has always been a (productive) tension between writing that occupies a commercial space, intended to get people to do something or eat something or buy something, and writing that seems to occupy no space other than one in which a reader might find it interesting. Early this year, I was (pleasantly) surprised to find myself back in academia, teaching writing to the freshmen as they begin to negotiate what they might choose to call their own adult lives. And since then I have been dwelling in the latter space a bit more than the former.

So I missed this month's Northwest Chocolate Festival, though Sunita de Tourreil of the Chocolate Garage referred to the event as the "best (dare I call it ‘Happy’?) Chocolate Festival of the year, there is no other like it." The annual UK Chocolate Week starts October 14 in London, but I think I'll have to postpone my inaugural trip until next year. And though I'm very eager to get to Hawaii and see (and taste) what the volcanic soil is doing to the optimistic immigrant cacao trees, I won't be at Nat Bletter's Oahu Cacao Bootcamp in October either--though he does have another camp lined up for spring 2014 already.

At least while classes are in session, I'm sticking around in New York. Luckily, as has also been the case in London, chocolate has been at the forefront of the rather alarming surge in this urban area's local artisanal foods. I'm gladly resigning myself to the glut of Brooklyn bean-to-bar makers along with indulgent distractions such as the new Liddabit Sweets shop in the Chelsea Market.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Afternoon Domori Chocolate Truffles

Three sources are responsible for this momentary indulgence: A recipe from Food52 that I've been meaning to make since February, the imaginative fancies of Italian chocolate maker Gianluca Franzoni, and some very wise words from San Francisco chocolatier Kathy Wiley.

Let's start with Kathy. She's the founder of the Poco Dolce brand and owner of the Dogpatch factory store that goes by the same name. Like the buyers for the Williams Sonoma catalog, Murray's cheese and various other upscale outlets that carry her squares of toffee draped in a subtle blend of dark chocolate in a half-utilitarian decision and half-understated-elegance wrapper, I like Kathy's work and so I stopped by her shop in San Francisco one Sunday afternoon to say so in person. But it was closed that day. I asked her, the next time I saw her, why. "Oh," she said. "We don't work on weekends." Why not? I asked. She answered--and this is what makes Kathy such a cool person--with utterly relaxed conviction--"Quality of life."

Yep. I'll second that. So on this Sunday afternoon, my plan was to do a little bit of work, make some good food, and then be out the door by 6:15 so that I can catch the all-female performance of Julius Caesar in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens tonight.  That gives me fourteen minutes to finish explaining to you how those hand-rolled Domori confections with the buttery sheen ended up in my freezer.

You see, I had that Food52 recipe, plus some almond butter from the Brooklyn Larder, some New England maple syrup, some shredded coconut, a tin of cocoa powder that I wish had been one notch higher in quality, no sea salt, alas (where's Mark Bitterman when you need him), and these four 25-gram bars of Domori chocolate: 100% Criollo, Javagrey, Porcelana, and Teyuna. Each bar, lighter in weight than a pack of dental floss, retails for somewhere near ten bucks--and in a book that's half blind passion and half valuable instruction titled In Search of the Lost Cocoa Domori founder Franzoni tells all about the genetic origins of these couverture chocolates and the rich, fruity, earthy, and roast-ready flavors the beans produce. But on a Sunday afternoon, you can blend all of those flavors together, and I can tell you it's money well spent.

Here's what you do:

In a small pot combine any four 0.88-oz/25-g bars (all the same origin or a variety) of Domori chocolate (broken into quarters) with 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut, 1/4 cup almond butter, 3 tablespoons maple syrup, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or paste. Stir over low heat until everything is slick and combined. Turn off heat immediately. A minute later, start ladling out spoonfuls of the mixture and mold them into truffle-like balls with your hands. Drop a few flecks of coconut on top of each ball. If you have pink sea salt, use some of that here, too. Refrigerate or freeze for at least twenty minutes and then eat.

Quality of life, man.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Baltimore Chocolate BBQ: Good Uses for Bad Wine

On the eve of July, at the height of the summer, during these relatively early morning hours, I'm thinking a lot about planning. I'm coming up with a plan to keep all my chocolate bars in temper in my un-air-conditioned kitchen through the summer (I reckon Steve DeVries or Chloe Doutre-Roussel, in town for the Fancy Food Show, might have a solution). I have changes planned for this blog, which will be eight years old in November. I'm planning events for Slow Food NYC, the global grassroots organization's local chapter, of which I'm now proudly a board member. I signed up for the Creative Capital/Lower Manhattan Cultural Council course in financial and business planning for artists (applications accepted through July 2). I have my own lesson plans sketched out, for my online travel writing class (registration is open through July 1), for a pre-college program for outrageously motivated kids in the city, and for the new job at NYU at that I couldn't be more delighted about beginning in September.

Time may pass us by. We may hear the dinner gong of the first day of summer ring one day, only to turn around and see the sun setting on the summer solstice behind us. But I'm embracing the optimism that accompanies organization and planning ahead. For those of you who would like to join me, particularly by planning the menu for the 4th of July, I present you with a recipe for what one of its originators described as "an innovative use of chocolate zinfandel in a reduction barbecue sauce that a chef de cuisine of Bolton Street came up with--that’s some fancy-ass Baltimore shit."

I will, though, look back just long enough to provide the ever-lingering context to this story.

First, a while back: When I was in California this winter to work on my chocolate app project, I was waiting for a train one evening when I met two young guys who were on their way home from a ball game of some kind or other.  They seemed contented with life in the way that makes being the most interesting people in the world (they were not) unimportant, and they offered me a beer, flirted with me, talked about sports, and told me about their jobs. One of these guys was the marketing manager for a winery and a proponent of their "chocolate zinfandel." Google it and you'll find several versions of this concoction. I can't remember the name of the company this guy worked for, which is probably a good thing because I'd rather remember how sweet it was of him to drive out to the suburbs to leave an entire case of the stuff on my friend Barbara's doorstep rather than to pollute the image of this, um, blend, by mentioning it by name while also pointing out that we left every bottle unopened and decided that Barbara would hold onto the stock and give away the chocolate zin as an occasional gag gift.

Second, going back just several weeks ago to the epic Memorial Day barbecue of the above-invoked chef de cuisine of Bolton Street, Baltimore: I made the trip out to the home of The Wire specifically to partake in the annual gastronomic debauchery hosted by this man and his wife, and along the way I discovered the John Waters-ready Ma Petite Shoe footwear-and-chocolate boutique, which is the exclusive carrier of the quite marvelous sea-salt-caramel brownies made by the local blogger at Charm City Cook.) It would appear that someone had given our host a bottle of just such a chocolate zin, not as a gag but in earnest. A couple of days into the trimming, rubbing, and brining of meat acquired from the best butchers within a 50-mile radius and once belonging to pigs, antelope, kangaroos, and guinea fowl, it become clear that the chocolate zinfandel could redeem itself as ingredient in a distinctive, earthy, blended glaze for one or another gamey meat. Our unfailing host will not be named in the hopes that he will not be incriminated for this repurposing of the schlocky wine gift and that the giver will not recognize himself in these paragraphs and be saddened and offended. But our chef-de-cuisine's partner in grilling and recipe development, Jasmine of the Drunken Fig blog, has no such need to protect her identify and graciously replicated the glazed wild boar recipe for me and whichever readers would like to use it for their upcoming holiday plans.

Rack of Wild Boar with Chocolate Zinfandel Glaze

This dish was prepared over the course of four days by no less than three cooks. In addition to the bottle of Chocolate Zinfandel that went into the glaze, several bottles of wine went into those doing the cooking. This is all to say that the recipe may not be so exact. But it will be tasty.

1.     Procure a rack of wild boar. I recently interviewed the proprietor of a New Orleans restaurant who told me that a guy periodically shows up at their back door with a whole wild boar. But those of us who don’t own a hot new restaurant—heck, I don’t even own a back door—might be waiting a while. You could check with your local butcher, who may be able to special order it, or engage in a little e-commerce at D’Artagnan.

2.     Marinate it. Like most wild animals, boar is lean. Marinating the meat will help it to retain moisture while cooking. It’s also a chance to give it some extra flavor. Our boar spent the night alongside several racks of spare ribs in a cooler filled with cranberry juice, cider vinegar, plenty of salt, miscellaneous spices, and ice.

3.     Give it a rub. You can buy all kinds of pre-made rubs, but this is your chance to take those old spices cluttering your kitchen cabinets for a spin. Toast whole spices over medium-low heat in a cast iron skillet. We used cumin, fennel, coriander, black and green peppercorns, chipotles, and some mystery peppers that turned out to be quite spicy. Be sure to stir frequently to avoid burning. When the seeds are fragrant and starting to pop, take them off the heat and grind them with a mortar and pestle or in an electric coffee grinder. At this point, you can add whatever you want, but lots of salt and a little brown sugar are important. Other things we remember adding include paprika, kaffir lime leaves, and—to give it that Brooklyn comes to Baltimore touch—some finely ground Gorilla Coffee. Massage the rub into the meat and let it sit for at least a few hours and ideally overnight.

4.     Make the glaze. A while back, a Baltimore house guest had left a bottle of Chocolate Zinfandel that nobody seemed to be drinking. We poured this into a pot along with a few chiles from last year’s community garden harvest and brought it to a simmer over medium-low heat. We let this reduce down while we tended to other meat. At some point, we tasted it and determined that we should add some vinegar to balance out the sweetness. In went some sherry vinegar infused with African bird peppers. The goal here is a syrup-like consistency, which can take a while, but it doesn’t need much tending.

5.     Cook the meat. Given the leanness and surprisingly petite size of a rack of wild boar, the technique is somewhere between grilling and barbecuing. You’ll want to do this via indirect heat over charcoal with some nice fragrant wood, maintaining a medium temperature. It should cook for 45 minutes to an hour. If you want to get precise about things, you’re aiming for an internal temperature of about 145. We weren’t so precise.

6.     Let the meat rest for a bit, carve, drizzle with the glaze, and serve.