Saturday, June 21, 2008

Boston Chocolate: The Best and the Most Generous

"I have to find Lee Napoli," I said as I walked out the door of my old roommate Paige's apartment in Boston last Saturday. I'm not sure how I expected to find her, since I all I knew was that her less-than-one-year-old chocolate shop was in the South End, as was the apartment I was walking out of. But I guess the fates were smiling on me that morning because as we walked down Tremont Street we came right up to an easel sign advertising the ChocoLee shop around the corner on Pembroke.

Paige and I walked in and found Lee hard at work, wearing her James Beard Award chef's jacket. I told her that someone at Boston University's gastronomy program had insisted I come to sample her confections. I decided not to mention that I was the keeper of a chocolate blog--it seemed a bit superfluous on a Saturday morning.

"What are you making?" I asked. They were Earl Grey bon bons, and Lee (a self-taught pastry chef and founder of the Professional Pastry Guild of New England) graciously began to explain the concept of infused ganache, but I already knew that the bergamot perfume that Earl Grey brings to dark chocolate makes that kind of bon bon one of my favorites. "Ohh, can I have one?" I asked with just a streak of teenage girl. Lee dipped two squares of ganache into a pot of tempered chocolate, waited a few seconds for them to set, and drizzled white chocolate over the top. She waited a few more seconds and offered them to us.

I asked Lee whom she thought the best chocolatiers in the area were. "The best chocolate in Boston is right here," she said, "there's no one else." I laughed. "I say that jokingly," she said, "but I do believe it." And a week later, after trying what was on offer at competitors like the new Aroa on Washington Street, I believe it too.

I asked Lee how much we owed her, and she said not to worry about paying for two little pieces of chocolate and sent us on our way. Paige and I were headed to the chocolate buffet at the Langham hotel. To get there, we had to follow the route of the annual Boston Gay Pride Parade, which was delightful--I'd forgotten that Massachusetts, with civil rights advocacy and health insurance for everyone, is such a wonderful place to live. The Langham buffet(with its frilly yet average desserts) is really better suited to teenage girls than chocolate bloggers--the best part of it was Paige being such a good sport in taking me there.

As usual, I ran out of time before I could do everything, but I did find my way to the Taza factory across the street from a commercial laundry facility in Somerville (near Cambridge). I'd tried their signature "stone ground" chocolate bars before but I'd always thought the unconched chocolate was just a gimmick, an attempt to do something different that sacrificed one of chocolate's greatest European innovations (conching is what transforms gritty chocolate into the smooth stuff that you can roll around your mouth). But co-founder Alex Whitmore (in between answering my questions about cocoa butter, pesticides, and antique machinery) explained that Taza's goal is interact more fully with cacao's places of origin than their competitors, not only by developing strong relationships with growers (they pay above the Fair Trade price for beans) but by creating a product that stays close to traditional recipes for preparing cacao. That's why Taza uses small molinos (grinders) from Oaxaca and turns out an unconched product. "I think we make the best Mexican chocolate in the world," Alex told me, "but I'm sure many people in Mexico would disagree." I'm not so sure--I tried the discs of vanilla- and cinnamon-flavored drinking chocolate intended to be blended with milk or water, and not only did I prefer them to Taza's chocolate bars but I preferred them to any drinking chocolate I've tried in Mexico or Central America.

By the time Alex and I had finished talking, it was about one in the afternoon. I had a flight to catch at three. I think Alex's partner Larry Slotnick asked if I was crazy and I think I said yes. So I helped Larry pack up some samples he was about the mail to Minnesota, I got into his car, breezed by one of the farmer's markets where Taza staff sell chocolate and meet customers one-on-one, and then rode back to the South End with Larry, who generously dropped me off at Paige's front door.


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