Article by Margot Liebman
Photos by Aaron Lubarsky*
The selection of Solstice bars I tasted.
When a small box appeared in the mail one afternoon in late December, I was pleasantly surprised. Inside were eight sleek bars of chocolate from Solstice Chocolate, a premier American artisan chocolate maker in Salt Lake City, Utah (Solstice Chocolate, Inc., 469 West Century Drive, Salt Lake City, Utah 84123, +1- 801-871-5935, www.solsticechocolate.com, firstname.lastname@example.org). Each bar was dressed in a smooth, thick paper and foil package that resealed at the top to keep the chocolate inside fresh; and color coded with bold type indicating its origin, cacao percentage, and brand name.
The packaging described the source of the cacao beans used to make it.
The Solstice website, describes its products as a “bean-to-bar chocolate” that is handcrafted using the finest single origin cacao from all over the world. With names like India, Madagascar, and Tanzania, it was easy to know where a bar’s beans originated. I imagined that each bar would taste quite different, but quickly learned that the differences were subtle. From bean delivery to getting packaged bars out the door Solstice allotted between seven and ten days for production.
“Our chocolate is known for having bright flavors. Our origin varieties range from fruity to earthy; there’s something for everyone,” said DeAnn Wallin, owner, Solstice Chocolate when asked by email what distinguishes Solstice products from those of other chocolate makers. “Our bars stand out, each having its own personality, so to speak, and each can be distinguished from the others. Our style is also reflected through uncluttered packaging with bold colors.”
As a milk chocolate lover, it took me a while to appreciate the dark, intense flavor of the Solstice Chocolates. Most of the bars tasted earthy and bitter, and were almost waxy in consistency. Save the one bar of milk chocolate, all the bars boasted 70 percent cacao. That said, it was fascinating to savor the different notes in each bar, and to think about the harvesting conditions that must play a role in how the beans grow.
The bars displayed the percentage of cocoa.
I first tasted Uganda, which had a bitter tone that left hints of berries on my palette. Second I sampled Ecuador. When I looked on the Solstice website, I saw that Ecuador was handcrafted from cacao grown by Camino Verde Estate, a farm located near the southern coastline of Ecuador with an unusual fermentation method. It was a strong flavor, with sweet aromatics and hints of banana and cream. The next one was Bolivia. At first bite, a wave of nostalgia rushed over me. I quickly realized the bar reminded me of baking chocolate. It tasted of honey, nuts, and favorite memories of making chocolate desserts.
When asked how her company selects the beans Wallin replied, “Networking through trusted sources. We receive cacao samples on a regular basis. If one interests us then we test it, research it and decide if we want to invest in using it.”
Tanzania was fruitier, smoother and a bit more tart than the previous bars. Wasatch was exciting, and had an unexpected spiciness. India was more complex than some of the others, with tangy flavor notes and hints of earthy spice. Madagascar was more of a slow experience, as most of the flavors came to me a few moments after the piece had already melted on my tongue. There was a strong citrus tone, and when I looked at the Solstice website I learned that those flavors are believed to be a result of former fruit plantations enriching the soil during French Colonial times.
The bars were molded with a sunburst shape in the center of each square.
For my last delicious morsel, I saved the milk chocolate. The package indicated that the bar was 54 percent cacao, where the dark chocolates were 70 percent cacao. The flavor was denser, and not as milky in texture as other milk chocolates I have sampled. I tasted subtle hints of graham cracker, but that may have been wishful thinking for a s’more.
Solstice Chocolate bars were lovely to look at. The packaging employed a celebratory color palette, and each bar was clearly labeled. A white dot on the country of origin map on the back of the package indicated where the beans were farmed. Knowing where the beans were sourced helped me enjoy the chocolate bars in a different way. I found myself looking for subtleties and thinking about the story of each chocolate in an interesting way. Based on my experience, I would recommend Solstice Chocolate to my friends who like dark chocolate.
The packaging included a closure to reseal it after opening.
Editor’s note: We asked two of our contributors who are dark chocolate lovers to sample Solstice chocolates in February 2018 as well. Here is what they found.
We compared the Solstice Chocolate Madagascar 70 percent Sambirano, a 2.3 ounce bar, with a well-known premium European dark chocolate bar with a similar cacao content and were stunned by the difference in the two. We blended each with hot water and tasted them side by side. Where the hot drink made from the European bar was almost lumpy in texture, had a milky undertone and muted flat flavor the Solstice hot drink was smooth in texture and taste, with a layered tart flavor that was rich with just a hint of pleasant bitterness. It remains memorable after several weeks.
Melting the chocolate into a couple of ounces of hot water created a delectable drink.
We also liked the Bolivia 70 percent Palos Blancos, which came in a 2.3 ounce bar. For a contrast we also sampled the Solstice Chocolate Coconut American Artisan White Chocolate, a 2.2 ounce bar. The coconut burst through immediately past the sweet and buttery texture of the butter colored pieces to become an instant favorite.
We appreciated the simplicity of the ingredients. The Sambirano and Palos Blancos ingredients were organic cacao bean, organic cane sugar and organic cocoa butter. The white chocolate was made with cocoa butter, whole milk, organic coconut, organic cane sugar, and pure vanilla extract.
*The final photo is by Gary Cox.
Article by Margot Liebman
Photos by Aaron Lubarsky
La Maison du Chocolat Madison Avenue store
We thought we knew chocolate until we tasted some of the products of La Maison du Chocolat (1018 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10075, http://www.lamaisonduchocolat.us/la-maison/en_us, +1 718 361-9161), a French company. At the time of our tasting, in addition to locations in France and several in New York City, the company had shops in China, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Macau, and United Kingdom.
Inside the Madison Avenue storeWe arrived on a cool, sunny morning in mid-October as the Madison Avenue store was opening. The city was just waking up, with people on their way to work and the streets starting to fill with the daily bustle. Located in an upscale neighborhood, La Maison du Chocolat’s boutique shared a block with prestigious clothing stores and cafes. During our visit, we each tasted six chocolate truffles, one macaron and two types of hot chocolate. We returned home with a box of six macarons (meringue and almond flour confections).
Macarons on display
At the front of the store shelves displayed various chocolate collections in signature dark brown boxes. There was also a counter with individual chocolates, as well as fresh pastries laid out in the window. The shelved collections of chocolate were organized by individual lines, including: Truffles, Maison Icons, Pralines, Chef’s Creation, Grand Carrés, Chocolate Treats, and the 40th Anniversary line. One of the friendly staff explained that the Maison Icons are the best selling line because they are the most well known, and come in boxes that may be customized.
The shop had the understated aesthetic we expected from a chocolatier: dark brown boxes, neatly organized chocolate truffles on display, and minimal decorations on the walls. In the back of the store there was a small café where we sampled six square chocolate truffles arranged in order of darkness. I started with Akosomno, the darkest chocolate. It was deep and smooth, and revealed an unexpected spicy note at the end. Next was Caracas, a bolder experience and by far the most intense. Boheme, the third on the plate, was the perfect harmony between milk chocolate and dark, the two notes came in and out as it melted on my tongue. I normally do not favor chocolate mixed with fruit, but Salvador was an exception. The dark chocolate mixed with an acidic raspberry ganache (a filling made from chocolate and cream) was tangy and exciting. Crystal touched all the notes evenly for a perfect flavor: it was a delicate blend of crispy, sweet, nutty praline wrapped in silky milk chocolate, finished with a touch of sea salt. Lastly, Grain Dentelle’s milk chocolate blended caramelized nuts and crispy pieces of crepes for a subtle, crunchy texture.
Busy staff behind the counter
It was early in the morning when we tasted the truffles, so we tried to restrain ourselves. We were unsuccessful. The chocolates were so rich and delicious, we ate most of what was on our plates.
We sampled six chocolate truffles
We tried two types of hot chocolate. Guayaquil was like the luxury version of my childhood hot chocolate. It was creamy and sweet, but grounded by the gravitas of fine chocolate. Caracas was an unexpected experience for me. It had a full-bodied flavor with a light texture.
La Maison du Chocolat’s 40th anniversary limited edition macaron
We also sampled a La Maison du Chocolat’s 40th anniversary limited edition macaron, which was filled with dark unctuous ganache and subtle passion fruit within a thin and crunchy chocolate disk and soft, chewy cookie.
In the cafe in the back of the store we sampled six chocolate truffles arranged in order of darkness
As we indulged in the tasting, the staff recounted the story of La Maison du Chocolat, and the reasons they believe their chocolate is so special. Rami Sarabi, country manager, told us that ganache is the secret. Robert Linxe, who founded La Maison in 1977, was known as the “Sorcerer of Ganache.” Linxe insisted on making chocolate the old-fashioned way, which takes three days, according to Sarabi. The result, he said, should be a perfect balance between silkiness and richness. We found this to be true. The flavors came in waves as the ganache melted, making for a layered and sophisticated experience.
One of the display cases
Before Linxe passed away, he appointed his protégé, Nicolas Cloiseau, head chef. Today, Cloiseau oversees over thirty chefs. According to the staff, the chocolate on sale at the company shops was made in France following meticulous, traditional methods, and shipped to the various stores around the world.
Rami Sarabi, country manager, and Eva Rousseaux, manager, Marketing
We were pleased to learn from Rami that all of the cocoa in the shop was from sustainable sources. The staff reported that they could trace each piece of chocolate back to the exact location from which the bean was harvested. We tasted three macaron flavors, Quito, Maracuja, and Rigoletto. Each macaron, we were told, was made in France and shipped to the various stores worldwide. The ones we sampled were not refrigerated. After a week on our shelf they remained fresh. The wafers were soft with a chewy texture, and melted on the tongue.
Quito was an airy and sweet milk chocolate wafer, a perfect compliment to the dark chocolate ganache. The passion fruit of the Maracuja macaron was tangy, its tropical tones highlighting the deeper notes of the ganache. The Rigoletto brought me back to a traditional flavor, with the middle-sweetness of caramel. In addition to being delicious, the macarons looked delightful lined up together.
Our hot chocolate was served in disposable cups.
We loved the rich taste and high quality of the chocolates at La Maison du Chocolat, as well as the luxurious experience of the boutique itself. We plan to return to the shop, sit in the café, close our eyes, and be swept away by the complex flavors.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox*
Bean to Bar Chocolate by Megan Giller
I have had chocolate in a number of forms and locations ranging from exotic and improbable such as a safari lodge and mundane such as my kitchen. I have sampled supermarket milk chocolate bars and dark chocolate gourmet bars, foreign and domestic. Over the years my preference has migrated from garden variety milk chocolate to the more flavorful options offered by specialty brands and artisan vendors. For some time I have been a fan of single origin chocolate bars, especially the plain dark chocolate ones layered with flavors.
My most recent chocolate experiences were enhanced manifold by Bean to Bar Chocolate America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution (Storey Publishing, $19.95), a new book by Megan Giller. Thanks to her detailed descriptions, I became much more aware of the diversity of the domestic craft chocolate movement and dozens of bean to bar makers. The 231-page hardcover book published this year features color photos, color illustrations and chocolate recipes.
Bean to Bar chocolate from Uganda grown and crafted in Africa
My favorite part of reading her book was the gourmet experiences that followed from preparing her recipe for Water-Based Drinking Chocolate (from Aubrey Lindley, co-owner, Cacao). I also tried the Cocoa Tea (from Miss Choco) made with roasted nibs and water, although that was less to my liking. Once I procured the chocolate bars the Water-Based Drinking Chocolate was a cinch. Like the Cocoa Tea the recipe calls for only two ingredients, chocolate (or roasted nibs) and boiling water.
A few ounces of chocolate melted in a little hot water highlighted the qualities of each type we tasted.
For the Water-Based Drinking Chocolate we sampled four chocolate bar varieties, an organic and sustainably produced bar purchased at the supermarket; a bean to bar 70 percent single origin from Uganda made by De Villiers Artisan Chocolate near Paarl, South Africa; and a half and half blend (all we had available were partial bars) of single origin bean to bar Honduras The Lost City 72 percent and Dominican Republic Duarte 70 percent from Castronovo Chocolate from Stuart, Florida.
The beverage made with the supermarket bar was so awful we threw it out without finishing the serving. The Ugandan beverage tasted better although it was lumpy and had a medium to mild flavor, nothing extraordinary. The texture, even after whipping it twice with a small whisk, was lumpy. In defense of the makers it was past its expiration date. It was a good thing that we first tried the recipe with the Castronovo chocolates because we might not have sampled further otherwise.
The Castronovo chocolate bars were our favorites for the chocolate beverage.
The Castronovo blend was delightful, dark and rich with a hint of smokiness and flavors that lingered on the palate. Later, I bought more of the Dominican Republic Duarte, my favorite of the two available at the small shop where I purchased them, planning another Water-Based Drinking Chocolate made with those bars. Also, I want to sample more domestic bean to bar chocolates and plan tastings, maybe even try some of the other recipes in the book.
Megan Giller, author, Bean to Bar Chocolate
Giller, a Brooklyn resident, is a food writer, specializing in New York City and Austin, Texas. She writes Chocolate Noise, a blog. Giller’s chocolate knowledge shines throughout the book and her enthusiasm is contagious. She shares information on the craft movement, the people behind the chocolates from the farms to the makers and their approach to purchasing cacao beans, roasting, processing and making mostly single origin chocolate, mainly with only a limited number of ingredients. She also addresses history, equipment, labels, sustainable practices and pricing. There is a list of her favorite bean to bar makers in the back of the book.
*Book photos: Storey Publishing
Click to buy Bean-to-Bar Chocolate
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
The Gare de Lyon train station in Paris
During a spring visit to Paris, France we went on an overnight side trip to the Seine-et-Marne Department (www.turisme77.co.uk and www.paris-whatelse.com) for the first time. To get there we took a train from the Gare de Lyon in the twelfth arrondissement of Paris to Melun, a city in the Seine-et-Marne. From there we made our way around by car from the train station to the area villages where, despite cold and rainy weather, we explored museums, chateaux, an artist village, a spa, and a pastry shop, spending the night at the La Demeure du Parc, a four-star boutique hotel within walking distance from the Château de Fontainebleau (Fontainebleau Castle), a museum and former royal residence.
The rotunda inside the Château de Champs-sur-Marne looking out on the gardens
Our first stop was the Château de Champs-sur-Marne (see Eighteenth century home museum near Paris worth visit when in Seine-et-Marne area), a 16 room two story structure completed in 1708. Known for its rococo style and its Notable Gardens the former family home had been converted into a museum managed by the French government. After a guided tour in English of the Château de Champs-sur-Marne, we had lunch and a short guided tour in English of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, a private estate open to visitors and my favorite attraction overall. Even when compared with grand former royal residences the property's historic character, artistic harmony and beauty stood out. Before leaving and despite the ugly weather we made our way around the beautiful gardens in an abbreviated self-guided exploration.
Les Bains de Marrakesh in Fontainebleau
The shop at Les Bains de Marrakesh
Before checking into our hotel we had a massage at Les Bains de Marrakech (186 rue Grande, 77300 Fontainebleau, +33 09 81 13 17 21, lesbainsdemarrakech.com, email@example.com). Because we arrived late our massages were cut short. Despite that the staff members were friendly and welcoming. The small facility was spotless and quiet.
The war memorial in Barbizon
The house of Robert Louis Stevenson
Dinner (and breakfast the following morning) at our hotel was excellent. In the morning, we met Véronique Villalba, our English speaking guide in front of the Fontainebleau Castle, a former residence of the French monarchy, for an excellent tour. Following lunch, we headed to the charming artist Village of Barbizon, about seven miles northwest from Fontainebleau. We walked around with umbrellas in hand, exploring the touristy main street and admiring the pretty facades. We popped into Le Musee des Peintres de Barbizon (the Museum of Painters of Barbizon). Although it was crowded at times we enjoyed our visit thanks to our guide's insights and engaging discussion.
Tasty treats at Frédéric Cassel, Fontainebleau
On our way back to our hotel we stopped at Frédéric Cassel Fontainebleau (71-73, rue des Sablons, 77300 Fontainebleau, +33 01 60 71 00 64, www.fredericcassel.com), a shop in the town's popular pedestrian shopping street for espresso, tea, chocolates, and pastries. We had a Vanilla Millefeuille and an Ilanka pastry, a worthwhile sweet ending to our pleasant visit, before our taxi drove us back to the small train station, where we boarded the crowded train back to Paris.
Article by Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
The Petrossian shop window on Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg
Ever hear of Daurenki Impérial, Baika Impérial, Ossetra Impérial, Alverta Impérial, and Beluga Impérial? If you are a foodie you may already have an idea of what the names are, the types of farmed caviar some of which we tasted at the popular Petrossian Latour boutique in Paris, France owned by Armen Petrossian (18 boulevard de la tour Maubourg 75007 Paris, + 33 14 411 32 22, www.petrossian.fr, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Philippe Vanlacker described the types of caviar before we tasted them
On a cloudy spring morning we made our way, braving streets filled with protesters and police, to the Petrossian shop in the city's Latin Quarter, where we sampled various products. Philippe Vanlacker, a friendly English speaking staff person, welcomed us and facilitated the caviar, Royal Salmon, and Kamtchatka Crab tasting. We liked that the only added ingredient was sea salt. There were no preservatives or additives, according to a spokesperson.
A kilogram of fine caviar
The caviar we tried, made from fish eggs and sea salt only, came from China, France, Israel, United States, and Bulgaria. The farmed salmon was from Scotland and the crab, previously frozen, was from Russia. The shop, about 600 square feet in size and staffed by eight people, appeared to be mostly for takeout purchases although it also had a few tables and a limited menu for customers wishing to have a light dish onsite. Our entire tasting was conducted while we stood facing the waist high counters without beverages of any kind.
The interior of the shop
When we asked about the advantages of a store tasting a spokesperson explained by email, “When somedy (somebody) bring caviar home, it means that the man or the woman wants to seduce his/her partner or guest. But most of the time, he/she doesn’t know if they will like it. When they taste in the boutique, the can choose the caviar they have prefered (preferred) because they can taste differents (different) caviars. This is the big difference between internet, the others caviar houses and Petrossian: it’s the only place where you can taste the caviar before buying it.”
There were gift packages to accompany the caviar
Established in 1920 the shop draws local and international visitors the staff explained, saying that many people visit the boutique like a museum and stop to take photos. Some of the staff, including Joseph, Lorna and the owners, have been there for more than 30 years. Everything in the boutique is homemade and fresh, a spokesperson explained by email, adding, “Tourist come from all around the world because they know Petrossian. They want to bring back home a little souvenir, a little gift, and most of the time, they choose caviar because we offer them a cool bag with dry ice inside and they can travel with it.”
The staff person selected a single bite for our tasting from four caviar varieties sold in the metal containers pictured above
We liked the opportunity to sample the delicate products with the guidance of experts so that the caviar we tasted was at just the right temperature and optimum conditions. Too warm and the flavor is spoiled, too cold and it fades, the shop employee explained. The ideal temperature to taste caviar is between 6 and 8 degrees Celsius, he said. Being able to compare and contrast the nuances from one type of caviar to the other was an added advantage as it allowed us to form an opinion from the single tasting serving without having to purchase and prepare a tasting at home.
Cécile Petrossian supervised the tasting
We began the gourmet experience, under the supervision of Cécile Petrossian, Armen Petrossian's gracious and elegantly attired wife, with caviar. While we watched our host pulled out tins from the glass counter before us, explaining the basics about the caviar, which was between eight and twelve months old. He used a special key to open the large cans such as a two kilo Ossetra Reserve container filled with plump sturgeon eggs he showed us before retrieving our sample from a small tin. Philippe handed each of us one serving of several types of fish eggs on disposable wood sticks, explaining wood and mother of pearl are commonly used to avoid distorting the delicate flavor with metal spoons. We were surprised at the slight variations in color, texture and taste of the caviar samples, light and smooth yet each with a distinct characteristic. One was dark, almost black with a hint of fish and salt. The Ossetra Reserve was dark gold and more defined. The Ossetra Impérial eggs were firmer than the Ossetra Reserve with a more pronounced flavor. And the final sample, also with a gold hue, reminded me of the sea yet had a fattier yet subtle taste.
Phillipe displayed a smoked salmon chunk before slicing a sliver for our tasting
At the conclusion of the caviar sampling, we crossed to the opposite end of the shop to the salmon counter, where we sampled several flavors such as Caucasienne, Nature, and Bettrave. All were buttery in texture and seemed to melt in the mouth. Philippe explained their salmon was smoked and aged hanging so the excess fat could drip naturally and allow the remaining flavor enhancing fat to cling to the fish, lending it a rich yet understated taste and texture. We sampled the salmon "tenderloin" in three flavors. The Nature salmon was just that natural. The Caucasienne was prepared with a rub of 12 spices. And the Bettrave was colored with beetroot juice, which made it look like raw tuna. To crown the experience Philippe handed us a bite of Kamtchatka Crab followed by a dollop of the house tarama (fish egg spread).
Several varieties of salmon, some with special marinades like beet root
There were prepared specialty foods
We liked the shop's caviar and salmon selection and expertise and will recommend it to friends wishing to taste the specialty foods in a gourmet environment. The staff's warm service in English enhanced the experience and would draw us back easily.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
The eye catching Prunier facade
For caviar and salmon newbies Boutique Prunier Madeleine (15 place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris, France, +33(0)1 47 42 98 98, www.prunier.com/boutique, email@example.com), a Paris, France seller of farmed caviar and salmon among other gourmet delicacies, offered a low risk tasting. On our most recent visit to the City of Lights we went to the shop's Place de la Madeleine location to try it. The first thing I noticed before even entering the 40 square meter shop established in 2006 was its eye catching bright blue tile facade. Although there were several gourmet shops in a row on the same street it was the Prunier window where I saw pedestrians browsing.
The window displayed vodka, salmon, caviar and champagne products
On the day of our appointment, Douchka Papierski, manager, Boutique Prunier, welcomed us with a sunny smile to match the spring weather. She led us to the Maturation Room, a refrigerated space with three glass walls facing the shop entrance. It was in that room where the caviar used to be stored in the past, she explained as we glanced around at the dozens of empty caviar tins that decorated the back wall. In front of us Douchka had set up two mother of pearl caviar spoons atop ice, two single morsels of the house salmon, and two shot glasses with a splash of clear liquid, one for each of us.
Douchka Papierski greeted us at the shop
We each had a single serving of 5 grams of Caviar Prunier Tradition, which she had prepared in advance of our arrival. She chose mother of pearl spoons because, she explained, metal spoons affect the delicate flavor of the caviar. For those who don't own mother of pearl spoons 22 karat gold and plastic, neither of which alters the delicate flavor of the fish eggs, spoons will work just as nicely, according to her.
Our tasting was in the chilled room where they used to age the caviar
We began with the caviar. As soon as I placed the minuscule fish eggs, from a farm in the Dordogne region of France, in my mouth they melted. The flavor was mild and the texture buttery. It didn't linger long.
The display case shows the varieties of caviar available
Moments later we each tasted the Balik Tsar Filet salmon cube, farmed in Norway and smoked in the Swiss Alps. It too had a mild almost sweet taste and even more buttery texture than the caviar. As with the caviar it seemed easy to eat and we liked it.
One of the shop's refrigerators had Balik Salmon in several sizes
Next, Douchka described the single serving in the glasses as she introduced us to Lactalium, an artisan vodka made from milk from the Auvergne region of France. The nose was unlike any vodka I had sampled before. We each tasted the transparent liquid in our glasses. Perhaps because the smell was so distinctive I was it tasted like vodka. As we walked out of the refrigerated tasting area I wondered if the vodka would taste different with the caviar or the salmon or if the delicacies would have been enhanced by the vodka.
Another display case at the shop
Caviar House and Prunier recipes
The price of the tasting we had, a single serving each of caviar (5 grams) and a similar amount of salmon, was 20 euros per person. The vodka was optional and complimentary "depending on the people, time they have, where they from and what's new at the shop to discover and introduce to clients just like this special vodka of milk," our host explained. As we left she gifted us a copy of Caviar House & Prunier Winter 2015/2016, an intriguing 63-page hardcover color cookbook with caviar, salmon and foie gras photos and recipes from chefs Mauro Elli and Chery Rohner.