The food in Vietnam is amazing. I don’t know how I can even begin to describe my feelings as I taste one delectable dish after another. In short, I feel like I’ve come home. It’s a strange feeling since I’ve never been here, nor have I ever really tasted proper Vietnamese food save the odd bowl of pho or bun.  
Vietnamese food tastes like what food should taste like. There is so much variation in flavor because the Vietnamese use an astounding array of fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, basil, etc) plus limes and chilies. They emphasize texture in food as well and as a result, there’s always lots of crunch from fresh bean sprouts or crispy fried things. It’s all so good!  
We’ve explored the country a bit starting in Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta and now we are in central Vietnam in a town called Hoi An which is surrounded by rice fields and vegetable gardens. There seems to be a very direct connection from the field to the table here with the farmers coming into the markets daily to sell their produce. It’s not like at home where there are weeks between visits to the grocery store. Fresh food is a daily affair. Restaurants get fresh meat and produce from the market every morning and outside our hotel(which is in a residential neighborhood) you see women on mopeds or bikes delivering fresh greens to our neighbors. I read that 75% of Vietnamese people live in rural areas of Vietnam. That’s the largest population of rural inhabitants of any country in the world. That means most people here work on fields and in rice paddies, or fish the waters for their sustenance. It’s not surprising then that the food here is so good.  
Something about Vietnam reminds me of being a kid in Germany. The village where I lived was surrounded by fruit orchards, vineyards and pastures. Our neighbors had chickens roaming in their backyard. These foods turned up on my grandmother’s table cooked up in some delicious way. Perhaps that’s what I’m tasting when I eat in Vietnam. Fresh and wholesome ingredients brought alive in the hands of someones grandma.



Cacao and coconut

We are taking a package tour on the Mekong Delta. These tours always stop at tourist traps where they demonstrate handicraft or candy making. On our tour we stopped at a coconut taffy making workshop but to my surprise, there is cocoa growing in the surrounding plantation. Mekong River Cacao! Who knew?
I asked our guide what they do with it here and he said that they bring it to a co-op where they process the cacao to sell. It’s an extra way to make a “dong” I guess.
We were led through the steps of coconut taffy making process. It starts with the flesh which is pressed for the milk. The milk is then cooked over a fire for many hours until it becomes taffy. It’s then cooled on a table, cut and wrapped.
The taffy is quite good: Slightly smoky and not too sweet with good a coconut flavor. Should keep us going for more touristic action.






Tea tasting in Malaysia

We are currently in Malaysia now after spending a magical week on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand. Today we stopped in Ipoh which is a city about 2 hours north of Kuala Lumpur. The city is near some hot springs, which we swam in, but it is also one to some great culinary culture.  
When we rolled into town we parked directly in front of a tea shop called the Purple Cane House. They had an enormous selection of Chinese tea in one half of the space and a garden restaurant in the other half. We sat down and saw that they were serving a set of 4 puddings made from green tea, oolong tea, jasmine tea and caramel, so we ordered them and tried to pair them with our teas.  

Darius had jasmine tea and felt that the oolong pudding matched best due to contrasting flaovrs. The jasmine tea and jasmine pudding was not enough contrast. The green tea pudding had too much contrast.  
Cy had the pu-erh tea which was earthy and full bodied. It had Lots of tannins. It went well with the jasmine pudding.  
I had a delicate Chinese black tea, It went well with almost all of the puddings, but tasted best paired with the caramel pudding. When taken together, the caramel brought out some caramel notes in my tea which might have been a type of oolong tea.


Finding chocolate in Bangkok

[After taking a long flight across the Indian Ocean, Kerstin arrives in Bangkok, Thailand!]

I had read about a certain chocolate buffet that takes place on the weekends at the Sukothai Hotel in Bangkok. I knew it was going to be nice because it was billed as a champagne and chocolate buffet. I decided that if we were going to splurge on one thing in Bangkok, it would be this, and to further convince myself I argued that I really needed some fodder for a blog posting.
The buffet takes place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 2:30-5:30 and costs 950 baht or 1250 with champagne(the equvilant of about $30 and $45). We arrived at 5pm on Friday so we felt a bit pressured to gorge ourselves before they started breaking down the buffet table. I went a bit crazy, ordering the kids to take a plate and eat as much as they wanted of everything. I myself had difficulties deciding what I should have first. The opera cake? The puff pastry with chocolate cream? The dark chocolate truffles (I do believe I popped a couple of those in my mouth while piling desserts on my plate)? In the meantime Cyrus was at the hot chocolate table mixing up his own special blend of drinking chocolate that included a generous serving of Valrhona Manjari chocolate (smart, considering we just came from Madagascar home of the Manjari).
Ilona went straight for the cupcakes and licked off the icing as her chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce melted into a puddle in her bowl. Darius opted for the sushi (fish, not chocolate).

I realized that I was more excited than the kids were to be presented with the idea of the all you can eat chocolate buffet. (Ilona later on told me that she is tired of doing chocolate things on this trip. Who are these kids?). This must have been a fantasy of mine since childhood because I obviously was more excited than any one else in the family.
In the end, I really didn’t taste the desserts too carefully, so focused was I on what I should have next before they shut the whole thing down. Lucky I made a few notes that said: Excellent sticky toffee pudding! Darius’ iced drinking chocolate is one of the best things I’ve ever had!

In conclusion, an all you can eat buffet is best done when you have a lot of time and is perhaps more enjoyed in the anticipation of it rather than the actual experience. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact I was really impressed with the selection that the Sukothai offered its customers, particularly with the hot chocolate bar that offers customers a choice of 15 types of chocolate to blend into their signature drink. The service was also impeccable. The beautiful Thai servers didn’t make you feel at all bad for losing control as you ravaged the buffet table. This is definitely a cool thing to do if you are ever in Bangkok and want to experience some of the glamour that the city can offer. Just give yourself a lot of time and don’t bring the kids because they’re going to take the fun out of it!

Two Chocolate companies in Madagascar

If there is one thing that I have learned while being in Madagascar, it’s that there isn’t much of a chocolate culture in Madagascar. Cocoa was introduced in the 1920’s by the French so there is no history of native chocolate preparations. If people consume cocoa, they either eat it fresh from the pod or they buy western style candy bars.

There are a couple of chocolate makers on the island. The biggest one is Robert Chocolate and there’s one called Cinagra as well. Both make milk and dark bars with the dark chocolate ranging from 62 to 72 percent. Robert also makes Bon bons and confectionaries which they sell in their European style boutiques. Robert chocolate has a distinctive almost under roasted flavor (albeit fresh tasting) and I quite liked their Bon Bons. The 250 gr. box we purchased in Antananrivo was quickly consumed by the family.

However, I preferred the chocolate from Cinagra whose 44% milk chocolate I found in a shop in Diego Suarez, a town on the north of the island. It was surprisingly delicious and nicely balanced, with good acidity and it got me through some difficult times traveling through there.

We got the chance to tour the factory when we got to the capital of Antanarivo and as difficult as it was to get there(we were squished into a hot car ride stuck in traffic for an hour), it was worth the trip.
A very nice man by the name of Shaheen Cassam Chenai runs Cinagra. He started it about 5 years ago after meeting Francois Pralus who mentored him on the art of chocolate making. Cinagra complements his import/export business, which imports, among other things, all of the country’s Bounty and Snickers bars!
The Cinagra factory is pretty small (compared to the Valrhona and Bonnat facilities) and the tour was quite short, starting in the storage room where the dried beans are kept. Shaheen then took us around to the roaster, which was a small coffee roaster and then he showed us the refiner, which cleverly combines 3 functions: grinding, blending and conching. Next Shaheen showed us the tempering machine and cooling tunnel where the liquid chocolate is turned into bars. There was no production on the day we visited, but it was mesmerizing to watch the assembly line of women workers packing the chocolate bars piled high next to them into gold foil wrappers and sealing them shut; one woman brushing off the bars, the next placing them into the foil, the other folding them, etc. I wondered if they appreciated their work or hated it. I guessed the former was probably true since the country suffers from severe poverty and work is difficult to find, especially in a nice air conditioned room.
It was amazing for me to see how hard people in Madagascar worked to get cocoa off the trees, fermented and then dried. It takes almost 2 weeks of diligent labor. In the end, the farmer gets only 2 euros per kg. (or 3 euros if the bean quality is high). It was nice to see more of the profits and jobs staying in Madagascar.
At the end of the tour Shaheen told us about his new project of making high end bars for the European market. We got an exclusive look at the new packaging designed with the help of chocolate expert and consultant, Chloe Doutre Roussel and we tried the combava bar which is made with a local citrus fruit, as well as a spicy pepper bar. Both are delicious.
It was exciting to see someone be innovative and try something new. It’s even more exciting to see it succeed!

Visiting the SOMIA plantation in Ambanja.

The day after we visited the family farm and the coop, we got a special tour of one of the biggest cocoa plantations in Madagascar, the Somia plantation.  Somia is run by Bertile’s Akkeson’s family (Bertile is the man we had lunch with on the beach on at Nosy Be) and supplies beans to some of the best chocolate companies in the world.  Somia is managed by a French agronomist named Ivan, who greeted us at the gates to show us around.

The first place we stopped at was the nursery.  There were 24,000 baby cacao trees getting ready to be planted.    Most of them were criollo/trinitario types because they produce better tasting beans.  Ivan explained that Somia was a mixed plantation with criollo, trinitario and forestero trees.  It is this particular mix that creates the distinctive flavour of Madagascar beans.

Next Ivan drove us to the plantation where we could take a closer look at the trees.   On the way there, he pointed out patches of empty spaces near banana trees  where the new trees would be planted.  Banana trees are one of the shade trees planted near cacao trees to protect them from direct sunlight.

The plantation looked healthy and beautiful.  There were lots of ripe pods hanging from the trunk.  Ivan cut one open and showed us how both criollo and forestero beans could exist in one pod.  He also explained that the beans exhibit a range of flavours, with some trinitario tasting like forestero and some more like criollo.   I was learning more about cocoa agronomy in this one hour talking to Ivan than I had after years of doing my own research.  Ivan was obviously passionate about his work and he had years of expertise to draw from.  He told us that he started working with cacao on the island of Sao Tome, Africa.  The very same place where Claudio Corallo produces his great chocolate!

Ivan explained that one of the reasons that this plantation was so healthy was because there were good density between the trees.    Good density creates good circulation which decreases the need for maintenance.  All that’s left to do in these ideal conditions is to trim the trees of “suckers”.  Suckers are small branches that take energy from the main branch of the tree, resulting in a smaller yield.  A good tree will produce 80-90 pods per year.

We asked Ivan if there were any predators or diseases that were a threat to trees.   Ivan said that the biggest threat was probably thieves coming into the plantation at night!   He said that the conditions in Madagascar are perfect for growing cacao and that the trees are not affected by witch’s broom or some of the other diseases that can kill off trees.  As a result, the plantation is 100% organic.

Our trip to Madagascar coincided with peak harvesting season, which is from September to October (there’s a smaller one from March to May), so we were able to see the fermentation and drying of the beans in full swing.  Ivan brought us back to the farm where the beans are fermented and dried.  The first thing that hit me was the smell of fermenting beans, sharp and vinegary,  interspersed with the warm smell of drying cacao.  I felt both repulsed and attracted to those smells and it was exciting to see the process in action.  There were many people working on the farm.  Somiya employs up to 750 people during peak harvest season!

Ivan is very strict about the duration and method in which the beans are fermented and dried.  During the harvest, the workers take special care to separate the pods from trees that are pure criollo from the rest. Fermentation happens over the period of 6 days (5 days for the batches with only criollo beans).  All the beans are then dried for 7 days.  He explained that the drying should start slowly at the beginning and then speed up over time because the  husk needs to be wet and porous to all allow the unwanted acids to escape. If drying is too fast, the acids can stay trapped under the husk and the beans will taste like vinegar!  The ideal moisture level of the beans when they are finished drying is 7.5 %.

After our tour, Ivan invited us into his house for a drink and a chat.   He brought out some chocolate for us to try using the beans from the plantation.  The chocolate had that distinctive acidity and tanginess that I love.   My favourite chocolate concoction, however, was the chocolate rum that Ivan brought out just before we left.  His friend had made it using the Somia beans.   It was sweet and chocolatey and was a perfect way to end our plantation visit.

Click here to see all the photos.

Photo gallery from our visit to the SOMIA plantation.

We have one last posting from Madagascar coming up from our visit to Antananarivo. Stay tuned!

Christmas 2011: From our Edmonton shop

We know you love exploring the holiday offerings of our European and U.S. counterparts as much as we do, but here’s what’s coming out of our own kitchen this season:

Our classic offering is undoubtedly the Chocophilia Christmas Trio. Three chocolate barks in either a milk or dark box, all wrapped up in the handsome label created over at Edmonton’s Vanguard Works. In both boxes you’ll find sheets of our favourite Fleur de Sel Toffee on 49% Venezuelan dark-milk. Accompanying this lovely in the dark box is Peppermint on 66% and Orange-Pistachio on 64% Madagascan dark. For milk lovers, we’ve added a Raspberry Linzer Torte on 38% and a beautiful sheet of white chocolate with Fruit and Nibs studding the top.

This year we are excited to add ganache-filled Chocolate Logs to the shelves. Delicate butter ganaches in Peppermint, Eggnog, Orange spice and Gingerbread are enrobed by milk and dark chocolates.

As in the past, Mendiants in milk, dark and white chocolate are also gracing the shelves this season. Two of each of Crème Brûlée (white), Ginger-Sesame (milk) and Fruit and Nib (dark) can be found stacked near the bark, wrapped and ready to share.

Finally, milk and dark Santa Claus lollipops can be found in the “truffle case,” and next week roasted almonds enrobed in our Fleur de Sel chocolate will find their way into the shop.

We must thank our chocolatier, Becca Grant, for this year’s lovelies. Many hours go into this season, and we couldn’t do it without her.

Meeting the people who grow the cacao for Madecasse.

Madagascar grows some of the best cocoa in the world and Ambanja is where it all comes from. It’s on the northwest part of the island and we went there on Sunday to visit a few plantations. Two technicians from the American chocolate company Madecasse took us to two farms and explained the harvesting, fermenting and drying process.

What struck me most was how labor intensive this work of cocoa processing was. We didn’t see the harvesting, but the job of fermenting the beans looked back breaking. It takes 5 days to ferment beans properly and they need to be turned often and moved from one fermentation bin to another. At this point the beans are moist and heavy. Once the fermentation is done, the beans go outside to dry. The workers have to put the still wet beans into large burlap sacks to transport them to the drying area. The beans are first dried on cement and then moved to drying racks that are wheeled in and out of the sun over a period of 7 days. They then need to be sorted and bad beans need to be picked out. Only the good beans are made into the Madecasse bars.

Frederic and Elli (full name: Elian Guy Randrimihazja) picked us up from the port of Ankify and drove us into the town of Ambanja which is the commercial centre of the Sambinaro Valley region. It was incredibly hot and humid, and we were all wilting. We checked into a simple motel in town called the Palma Nova and then drove out to this first farm called the Mangabe family farm. This farm is a traditional Malagache family farm, with all the work being done by an extended family and neighbours. The proprietor of the farm is Mr. Lalatina Mangabe, shown in the group photo with us. He and his wife Dauria and their daughter Karen live and work on the farm. Their plantation contains the usual mix of cacao varieties that makes Madagascar cacao special: criollo, trinitario and a little forastero. As we walked through the grove of cacao trees, Frederic explained how there a mix of beans in each pod. He opened a pod and sliced through a bean for us, showing us the  creamy coloured interior  of a criollo type bean. In the same pod, he cut through another bean that was dark purple, a more forastero type. Before the Mangabe farm started working with Madecasse, they did not really pay too much attention to post-harvest processing: short fermentation, short, haphazard drying.

Madecasse has partnered with the Mangabe farm to help them improve their cacao by helping them acquire drying trays, building a better fermentation system and building a storage room for the drying trays. These simple additions to the farm have made an enormous difference to the quality of the cacao that the Mangabe family can produce. In addition to the investment in equipment, the team from Madecasse visit the farm every day of the week, sometimes bringing up to 10 extra labourers with them to help the Mangabe family ferment, dry and sort the beans. Without this extra support it would be very difficult for the family to follow the exacting regimen that is required to make great cacao. Forgetting to turn the beans one day, or keeping the drying beans in the storage room , out of the sun, for too long, will make the beans unusable, so the attention to detail is key. As we learned about all this work, it really hit home how difficult it is to create the quality that we taste in Madecasse chocolate. I think I will savour the chocolate even more than usual next time I eat one (which may be for a while!) because I will be imagining the faces all the people who worked so hard to make these bars a reality. A lot of people throw around the term “bean-to-bar”, but when you feel connected to the earth where the cacao trees grow and the family growing the cacao, it is a whole different ballgame.

After we had a snack of jackfruit with Frederic and Elli, we drove to the second farm supplying Madecasse with beans, called the Cokafa co-operative. It was a little different from our first experience: we drove right through a village of about 1000 people and pulled up at a fenced-in drying deck. Cokafa is a co-operative that is part of the village of Antrankarana, about 20 minutes drive from Ambanja. This is a new project for Madecasse, about 3 months old, and  12 families in this village have joined the cooperative and are contributing beans so far. They hope to add 15 more families in the near future. Madecasse has helped the cooperative build a better fermentation system and drying trays. We met with the vice-president of the co-operative, Mr. Jean Bathelemi, and as we looked on, Frederic and Elli checked on the progress of the fermentation and drying.

Our thanks go out to the team at Madecasse (USA), Michael, Frederic and Elli (Madagascar). We really appreciate all the time and effort they provided to help us see how the cacao growers of the Sambirano Valley make great cacao.

Here is a gallery of photos from our visit. Captions are provided under each picture, so click on the gallery to get started!

Click here to see all the images.

December Bar of the Month: Zotter’s Bacon Bits

Before we delve further into this bar, a little background is certainly needed. Firstly, what’s the deal with the bacon-chocolate combo? And next, what’s the deal with Zotter!?

Bacon + Chocolate. It might not seem like a natural fit, but think of the pluses on both sides. Bacon is smoky, rich and salty, whilst chocolate can exhibit a range of fruit, smoke and earthy flavours (just to name a few), as well as a sweetness that wonderfully contrasts ingredients like bacon.

Over the last decade, chocolatiers (especially those in the U.S.) have played with this combo, bringing salty-sweet to forefront. I posted back in October on some of the chocolatiers I encountered in Portland. One of them is Xocolatl de David, and he’s pushing the sweet-salt contrast to the extreme, mixing things like Parmesan cheese, and even foie gras (hello, “Foietella”), with his chocolate. To this day, one of our most requested items is the chocolate-covered bacon we break out around Fathers’ Day.

Zotter, a bean-to-bar manufacturer hailing from Austria, is one of the only European makers we carry playing with salty and savoury ingredients. Their ganache-filled “hand scooped” bars became a quick favourite of customers, with Fig, Walnut and Blue Cheese, Bacon Bits and Rosemary Polenta bars mingling with more classic efforts like Marc de Champagne, Scotch and Coffee. You can browse their many flavours here.

Last month, we appealed to you, our customers, to send us your pick for December’s Bar of the Month. After much deliberation, we decided that Zotter’s Bacon Bits bar (and the spirited nomination it received) was the right choice. Smooth 70% dark chocolate enrobes a cinnamon-infused milk chocolate ganache, studded with crunchy hazelnut nougat and salty pork crackling. The bacon flavour barely hits you until the end, so if you’ve tried the combination before in a more obvious form – i.e. bacon dipped in chocolate – and didn’t love it, there’s still a good chance that this bar will delight. It’s creamy-crunchy texture and salty-sweet flavour makes it a definite favourite among Zotter-lovers, and hopefully you’ll fall in love too.

A serendipitous meeting with some chocolate makers on Nosy Be

After visiting Chocolat Bonnat in Voiron, France, we made our way back to Paris and boarded a flight for Madagascar. It was a long flight (about 10 hours), and we arrived in the airport in capital of Antananarivo, nicknamed Tana, at midnight! After waiting in immigration for an hour for our visas to be issued, we went to a hotel near the airport and crashed.

The next day we went back to the airport and grabbed a 2 hour ride in a prop plane to the island of Nosy Be, also called the “The Island of Flavors” (L’Isle des Parfums). It is a island off the northern coast of Madagascar that has been developed for tourism, and it is not far from the cacao growing region of Ambanja.

While we were waiting for the flight to Nosy Be, Cyrus met a woman named Alice who had just arrived from San Francisco.  Alice said that she was going to fly to Nosy Be  and then travel to Ambanja to visit a cocoa plantation. She is the chocolate maker at a new company called  Dandelion Chocolate and she and her business partner Cameron were visiting Madagascar in order to source beans. Several days later, Cyrus got a call saying that they would like to meet us at a restaurant on the beach before they got the plane back to the mainland. Our lunch was organized by Bertil Akesson, part-owner of one of the  largest plantations in Madagascar that we had arranged to visit the next week.

Alice and company arrived about 1 hour late due to boat trouble (not unusual in Madagascar) and we had a quick lunch so that they wouldn’t miss their flight. Besides Alice and her partner, Cameron, there was Bertil and Oliver, a chocolate maker from Germany. As we sat down for lunch, I was beginning to put it all together: Bertil’s father founded a plantation in the 70’s, and that plantation sells beans to some of the best chocolate companies in the world. Oliver and Dandelion were there to source these wonderful beans and to learn more about the plantation. And the reason that we were there having lunch with them was because Cyrus is a great communicator and had the sense to borrow my aunt’s cellphone before leaving Germany, getting a local sim chip, and staying in touch with our friends at Madecasse who were arranging our visit to Ambanja!

During lunch I sat next to Oliver and he asked me if I knew of a certain distributor in Calgary. “He’s the distributor of Coppeneur”, I said and then Cameron announced “Well, this is Mr. Coppeneur!”. This information totally blew me away. What are the chances of randomly meeting Oliver Coppeneur at a beach side restaurant in Madagascar?  What luck to be at the right place at the right time. It was exhilarating to  feel like I was part of some global cacao network. This chance encounter cemented my belief that what we were doing, traveling the world in search of cacao,  was the right thing.

We now were anxious to begin  our trip to the cacao growing region of Madagascar, the Sambirano Valley, and the town of Ambanja.

Christmas 2011: From around the world

As promised, items handmade at our Edmonton shop will be out later next week, just in time for the 1st of December. For now though, we thought we’d showcase holiday themed items that have arrived from various parts of the globe. First up, Italy.

Our two favourite Italian manufacturers, Amedei and Venchi, have sent us some great chocolates this season. As per usual, Porcelana, Chuao and ‘9’ bars are on the shelf from Amedei, in addition to their Toscano and Gianduja bars. We’ve also brought back their classic ‘For You‘ drinking chocolate – 63% chocolate combined with finally ground almonds and hazelnuts for a decadent, warm sipping experience. Finally, 70% Toscana Black Napolitans are stacked in the shop, ready to head into dark chocolate lovers’ stockings.

Along with their gianduiotti and White Chocolate Hazelnut Spread, Venchi has sent on festive gianduja nutcrackers, enrobed in dark chocolate for Christmas enjoyment.

More ‘Pyramides‘ from France’s François Pralus have also made it to the shelves, this time with a new addition – the Pyramide Biologique. This version features 75% organic chocolate from Ghana, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Tanzania and Madagascar. Have a serious chocolate fiend that needs to be satisfied? The classic Pyramide de Tropique features all ten of Pralus well loved single origin chocolates, so you can travel around the globe right from the Christmas tree.

For those that may have been relegated to the naughty list, they still deserve a little chocolate, right? We have just the thing, courtesy of Michel Cluizel. Coal is out, potatoes are in… chocolate hazelnut potatoes that is. Adorably wrapped in sacks by our staff, perfect for stockings of all shapes and sizes.

Zotter of Austria has released new artwork for the holidays, and we’re expecting brand new Marc de Champagne with a New Year’s theme, along with fun Christmas caramel bars and familiar favourites any time now.

Our neighbours down south have created some truly beautiful gift boxes and treats this season. From long time favourite, Patric, comes new additions to his OMG lineup – a dark chocolate laced with mint, an aptly named mocha bar, and finally, a cappuccino bar that will have you enjoying its beverage namesake in solid form from now on.

From Askinosie, the most adorable gift box we have come across (and believe me, we see a lot) – the Chalk-late Box. This one is filled with four of their award winning dark single origin bars. Best of all, you get to leave the recipient a message… I think the one Rachel left (above) sums up our feelings…

Finally, we must hand it to Theo for their excellent Christmas creations – a milk Gingerbread bar and a dark Peppermint bar. We’ve been loving the latter, but we’ll let you be the judge.

We know there’s a lot to choose from, so to make it a little easier, we’ve created totes and gift boxes that are ready to go. They’re all available in shop, but for a little preview, feel free to check them out over at

There you have it. All of these items are sitting amongst the garland and Christmas lights now adorning the shop, waiting to be scooped up. We love helping to create custom gifts for the chocolate lovers in your life, so be sure to ask myself (Marianne), Rachel or Maite for a little assistance if need be. See you at the shop soon!

Meeting Stephane Bonnat

[This post was from early November 2011, but was delayed due to difficulty from posting from Madagascar, which has unreliable power and internet services! Stay tuned for the Madagascar reports coming soon.]

We all drove up in the alps to a place called Voiron which is the home of Stephane Bonnat and the House of Bonnat. Clay Gordon had made the introduction, and Mr. Bonnat himself called us after Cyrus left a message in French on his answering machine. It was pretty amazing to me that we would meet the man behind some of my favorite chocolate.

When we got to his shop we were invited to wait in his office, which had the feel of some undetermined era. There were old family photos on the wallpapered wall and other paraphernalia collected over the decades including framed chocolate bar wrappers and what appeared to be a golden ticket! When Br. Bonnat entered the room through a creaky wooden door in the back of his office, he explained that the door suffered some damage from a storm that blew through the town the night before. “It’s the only thing that’s happened around here in 100 years”, he said jokingly.

Mr. Bonnat is 4th in line to run his family’s chocolate company. His great grandfather started it in 1884 and it is the oldest family run chocolate company in France. Stephane Bonnat takes the tradition of chocolate making very seriously. In excellent English, he told us that one of his goals is to make chocolate that creates the feeling of nostalgia by allowing people to taste what their parents had tasted: “the first time you eat chocolate, it leaves an indelible mark” he said “and I want people to experience that every time”. As we were listening to Mr. Bonnat, he was beginning to leave an indelible mark on us too — that perhaps this was Willy Wonka in the flesh.

Stephane Bonnat is highly energetic and enthusiastic about everything. He believes that great chefs need to be interested in many things (He is crazy about chocolate but he also loves riding motorcycles and traveling). It is this curiosity that triggers his imagination because “chocolate is imagination”. He is also a bit of of a mad scientist drawing his inspiration from antique chocolate making equipment which he collects and restores. As we walked around the factory floor, he would point to a machine and say, “this is another old new machine I bought”. He believes that old equipment makes better chocolate and after years of loving his chocolate, I am in full agreement.

In the Roald Dahl book, the character of Willie Wonka is paranoid about spies and infiltrators who want to steal his recipes. Stephane Bonnat is very open about his chocolate. He gave us a full tour of his facilities and even told us the ratio of beans to sugar and cocoa butter that he uses in his bars. He is however, suspicious of chocolatiers who make claims to having the best chocolate in the world, namely some unnamed Italians. In his opinion, the difference between French and Italian chocolate is that “the French are innovators and the Italians are followers” To him, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, or in the taste of the chocolate, in this case. The Bonnat family has been making chocolate for 137 years and that’s a long time to perfect a recipe!

Some things we learned about our visit to the Bonnat shop and Factory:

1. His dad started making single origin bars in the 80’s, which was revolutionary at the time.
2. They support programs in Peru to reduce cocaine production by having farmers plant cocoa trees instead of growing coca.
3. They still produce a complete line of Bon bons and pastries which they sell in their tea and chocolate shop in Voiron.
4. They have 2 retail locations in Tokyo that are run by local partners.
5. He uses organic and kosher milk powder in his milk chocolate bars.
6. Bonnat is very concerned about allergens. He doesn’t add soy lecithin to chocolate and his dark chocolate bars are made in a special room to avoid cross contamination.

Thanks to Clay for the introduction, and thanks to Mr. Bonnat and the House of Bonnat for their hospitality. We really loved our visit. Vive Bonnat!


What is Gianduja anyways?

We have lots of gianduja hanging around the shop for the holidays, so we thought we’d better re-introduce this amazing treat so you can get to enjoying it.

Gianduja was first invented in Turin, Italy by Paul Caffarel in 1865. By grinding hazelnuts into a paste and then adding it to chocolate and sugar, he was able  to produce a creamy, nutty treat. Originally this confection was shaped into gianduiotti (below)almost like an upturned boat – then wrapped in foil. Today though, it comes in an array of forms, including bars and spreads.

Which gianduja do we love?

From Venchi, classic gianduiotti wrapped in gold, both in small and larger sizes. They also sent us holiday Nutcracker boxes, with 10 pieces of gianduja festively bound. And finally, jars of white gianduja spread (think Nutella), with a hint of vanilla.

Amedei boasts one of the best gianduja bars we’ve ever tried, combining beautiful hazelnuts with their amazing craft chocolate. They also produce a drinking chocolate that combines finely ground hazelnuts with their 63% dark chocolate – a serious treat to sip during the cooler months.

And finally from French maker François Pralus, Barre Infernales. These beauties come in a brick style shape, and feature a hazelnut gianduja paste, studded with whole hazelnuts, all enrobed with either milk or dark chocolate. We can never get enough of either.

So there you have it. Hopefully you’re able to sit down over the holidays to savour this Italian beauty. We promise you will be hooked forever.

Drinking Chocolate Flights – Saturday, November 19th from 1-5pm

Whilst in Portland, I got to visit Cacao Drink Chocolate and taste the most amazing Flight of three drinking chocolates (below). So, as a nod to this Portland shop’s genius (and to celebrate the first snow and cooler temperatures), we will be offering Drinking Chocolate Flights this coming Saturday, November 19th, from 1-5pm. Guests can sample three types of drinking chocolate for $5. Here’s what’s on the menu:

Amedei’s “For You” Classic – This is the ultimate, folks, straight from Tuscany.

63% percent chocolate with finely ground hazelnuts, almonds and a little vanilla bean.

Vosge’s Bianca Couture Cocoa – The lightest of the three, this

concoction contains white chocolate, lemon myrtle and lavender.

Chocophilia Spiced Drinking Chocolate – Our house version of the

Mayan classic, with a hint of cayenne to warm up cold fingers and toes.

We will be putting out a couple tables so you can sit down and savour each elixir. Hope you will join us!

Tell us about your favourite bar…

We’ve been choosing our favourite bars over the past few months, and for December’s ‘Pick of the Month’, we’d like a little help.

Leave a comment below (or e-mail us at marianne [at] kerstinschocolates [dot] com) telling us why your favourite bar should be December’s feature. We’ll pick the most passionate response and give the winner their favourite bar on the house.

There are a couple caveats:

Firstly, no Porcelana.

Secondly, we like to use the monthly features to highlight some of our single origin/imported selections that people might not normally pick up. So no Chocophilia bars, please.

Other than that, any bar in the shop is game. We’ve now received all our Amedei, Amano, Madécasse, Askinosie, Bonnat, Michel Cluizel and François Pralus, so there’s lots to choose from. Happy tasting!


Edit: Here’s a list of bars currently at the shop. Madécasse has been left out since they were featured in our November pick.

Amano – Ocumare 70%, Ocumare 30%, Dos Rios, Guayas, Morobe, Cuyagua (Limited Edition), Montanya (Limited Edition)

Domori – Lattesal, Biancomenta, Cappuccino, Latteamaranth, Peperoncino, Biancoliquiriquia

Amedei – ‘9’, Chuao, Toscana Black 70%

Michel Cluizel – Los Anconès, Concepcion, Vila Gracinda

Bonnat – Madagascar 75%, Asfarth (dark milk), Surabaya (dark milk), Java (dark milk)

François Pralus – Indonesie, Tanzanie, Trinidad, Colombie

Askinosie – Del Tambo, Tenende Tanzania, Nibble-bar

TAZA – 60%, 70%, 80%

Patric – 75% Madagascar, PBJ OMG, Mint OMG, Mocha OMG, Cappuccino

Visiting the Valrhona factory

I made sure to brief the kids before we toured the Valrhona factory. I was especially concerned that Ilona would do some damage so I explained to her that we would be visiting a chocolate factory kind of like Willie Wonka’s factory except that there would be no Oompa Loompas. To that she said, “I’ll be the Oompa Loompa”, which I thought was cute. I told the kids that this visit was very important to me and that in a way, I had won the golden ticket. This piece of information got their attention pretty quickly. I told them that they had to behave and reminded them of what happened to the kids in the story who didn’t follow Mr. Wonka’s rules. “Do you remember what happened to Violet Beauregard when she refused to stop chewing gum?” I asked. “She turned into a giant bubble and flew away” Ilona said. “And do you remember what happened to Charlie?”. “He got to keep the factory” Darius said. “Exactly” I said, “Except I don’t think we will be able to keep the factory, but you might get something good”. The next day, the kids put on their protective clothing not once, not twice, but three times and listened quietly as our guide, Luce, walked us along the gleaming factory floors explaining the functions of many different machines including roasters, conchers, and winnowers. I think their favorite machine was the robotic arm that picked up boxes and piled them neatly into stacks to be shipped. “I think that’s your Oompa Loompa”, I told them.
Here’s what Darius had to say about the visit:
Valhrona chocolate factory

I thought the Valhrona chocolate factory was very interesting. I still can’t believe the effort you need to put in to make good chocolate. After this tour it became obvious to me why Valhrona is so much better than the leading mass chocolate enterprises who value speed and money over quality and ethics.
From my point of view, there are four things Valhrona does that the leading brands of low-quality chocolate do not do, (among many other smaller things.)
1. Unlike other chocolate factories, Valhrona takes the time to make their chocolate perfect. It takes them 8 to 10 to days to get the finished product. Other bigger companies can make a bar of chocolate in only 1 or 2 days. But, if they really cherish quality other companies would take their time.
2. Valhrona staff will go straight to the producers to ensure good quality, safe working environments, and consistency in their chocolate. They also always get the cacao strait from the plantations and co-ops, rather than buying it from a cheap provider and not knowing where the chocolate is from. This is why Valhrona is much more ethical then the other large chocolate companies.
3. They education pastry chefs how to properly work with chocolate and improve their techniques. This is vital if you want the future generations to continue the chocolate legacy.
4. It tastes so darn good!!!!! Valhrona puts in so much quality that when ever you bite down on a piece of chocolate, you feel like you are in heaven! And the gianduja !!!!!




Maggie Walt’s Hidden Gems Bazaar

We’re excited to be participating in Maggie Walt’s Hidden Gems Bazaar this year! Eleven other local businesses will be on hand at Maggie’s Fashion Underground (11217 Jasper Avenue) to offer up their wares on November 4th and 5th.

There will also be goody bags and door prizes (including a Milk and Dark Chocolate Lover’s Box from us), and fun presentations on both Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. Plus, we’ll be handing out samples of our Spicy Drinking Chocolate to take the chill away (it looks like it’s coming this weekend, folks).

We hope to see you there!

Friday, November 4th from 5-9pm

Saturday, November 5th from 10am – 6pm

November Bar of the Month: Madécasse 67%

Madécasse sent us a brand new shipment towards the end of October, and we quickly re-fell in love with their 67%.

All of Madécasse’s bars are not only made with Madagascan beans, but are manufactured in Madagascar as well, a practice which is thankfully becoming more common with dedicated chocolate-makers. It’s always helpful to know that chocolate can be an ‘ethical idulgence’!

Many of you know and love the overt tart flavour typical to bars from Madagascar – the Pralus and Patric versions, both fast sellers at the shop, are probably the most notable among citrus-lovers. This 67%, I think, is a step in a different direction. Aromas of berries and wood dominate, and while one might expect punchy citrus and bold sour notes up front, this bar is a bit slow to develop (Madécasse characterizes it as ‘mellow & subtle’). First to appear on the tongue are tart berries, almost astringent, which lead into a deeper, more complex raisin-y quality, suggestive of red wine. Last comes a cedar woodiness (reminiscent of the Cocanú Holy Wood that Marianne brought back from Portland) coupled with a slight tobacco edge to finish off, drying out the mouth a bit like most Madagascars will do.

Overall, this bar is a great example of how chocolate makers can coax out the most subtle flavours in cocoa beans and bring them to the forefront, making a bar that truly stands apart from the rest. For Madagascar devotées, this bar has enough of a familiar flavour to keep you happy – but for those who like a richer, fuller chocolate, this is definitely one to try. And make haste! This particular bar, along with the 63%, is currently being phased out by Madécasse – we’ve got plenty right now, but they’ll go fast.

Paris chocolate tour with Chloe

The day after our visit to the Salon, Cyrus and I joined Chloe Doutre-Roussel‘s chocolate education/chocolate tour. It was pretty awesome. I’ve been wanting to meet her since I read her book, The Chocolate Connoisseur, several years ago. Her book helped me gain an understanding of fine chocolate and build a vocabulary to better explain what I was tasting.

We started the morning out by tasting some chocolate.  It was fascinating —  I learned to taste chocolate in a different way. Chloe suggested that instead of picking out various notes in the chocolate, we should take note of how the chocolate makes us feel. She used the metaphor of a symphony to describe tasting chocolate. There’s the beginning, the

crescendo and the end. You don’t dissect the piece while you listen, but every once in a while your ear picks out the piano or the violin. Overall you listen to music for the pleasure that it gives you. It’s should be like that with chocolate. I hadn’t thought of it, but she said that you choose a chocolate because of the way it makes you feel, and you do the same when you choose the music you want to listen to.

Afterwards we went to Rue St. Honore where we visited 2 chocolate shops: Michel Cluizel and Jean-Paul Hevin. We compared the difference between a fresh truffle and one that was made to last a long time. The fresh one from Hevin was as delicious as I remembered from a year ago. We concentrated on plain dark ganaches and a rocher made of praline (roasted hazelnuts and caramelized sugar). The difference between them was interesting.

My favorite rocher was the one I tried at La Maison du Chocolat. It nearly brought tears of joy to my eyes. During our morning discussion, Chloe told us that the French don’t forgive inconsistencies in quality. Once you’ve messed up, you don’t get another chance. Thank you La Maison for always delivering!

We stopped at Pierre Marcolini (who has partnered with Nestle since 2007 but is still making great chocolate as far as I can tell) before ending the tour at Gallery Lafayette where Chloe dropped us off at the chocolate section. She suggested we buy our gifts here because they have the best selection and best prices for gourmet bars in the city. Knowing I was planning a visit to the Valrhona and Bonnat factories, I decided against buying anything, but didn’t stop me from marveling at the selection (and prices!).

Chloe’s tour was a huge highlight of my trip to Paris (dare I say I enjoyed it even more than the Salon du Chocolat?). It was great to meet someone so influential in the chocolate world and to learn from her the secrets of enjoying chocolate even more (which I had thought  was impossible!). Once again I am in awe of how much there is to know about chocolate, and I am inspired after meeting people who are truly knowledgable.

Paris Salon du Chocolat (Grand Publique) 2011

At the Michel Cluizel booth.

The Salon du Chocolat was everything I expected and more. It seemed like every chocolate shop in France represented there and every type of chocolate imaginable was for sale. Next to the showcases popping with colorful bon bons, there were booths with mountains of chocolate barks, dipped marshmallows, and macarons, over which the French are obsessed. There were spreads, and pastes and creams and even some fois gras laced with chocolate for your baquette.

Painted Chocolate Sphere At the Pralus Booth

The chocolate came in many shapes from cocoa pods to hand painted spheres to penis shaped lollipops. People were crazy for those. At Chapon, they scooped single origin mousses with or without cocoa nibs into little paper cones which you could take with you while you wandered around. It dawned on me that perhaps I am more of a consumer of chocolate than than I am a maker.

We came pretty early with the kids and Cyrus’ folks. The plan was to see as much as we could together until Ilona got tired and then to separate. I think Ilona lasted about 45 minutes before refusing to visit any more booths. She did agree to watch the Peruvian dancers with her grandpa who also rejected our agenda of visiting and talking to anyone who would either facilitate a plantation or factory tour or who would dole out free samples.

Simone From Sabadi with his Sicilian Chocolate

There were a few bean to bar makers there who we spoke to about the former. One was Michel Cluizel whose rep was pretty positive about the likelihood of visiting the Maralumi plantation in Madagascar. The other was Bonnat who has a factory in Boiroin, France. We spoke to Stephen Bonnat’s sister and brother-in-law who were extremely nice and genuinely wanted to help us facilitate a factory visit.

Kerstin With Rasmus Bo Bojesen at the Oialla Chocolates Booth

Samples were everywhere but we bee-lined it to the good stuff: Pralus, Jean Paul Hevin, Pierre Marcolini. We bought some things that would travel well and make good presents (look out staff at Kerstin’s Chocolates- good things are doing your way!) and then of course, we also got treats for ourselves. I got a beautiful box of chocolates at Franc Kestener ( I tried them today and they are really incredible), some chocolate neapolitans from a Sicilian chocolate maker named Sabadi who makes unconched chocolate flavored with fruits and wild herbs found in Sicily, and a 100g bar of chocolate by a Danish chocolate maker who turns wild Amazonian beans into a masterpiece.

By late afternoon, the place was a mad house and the grandparents took the kids to the Eiffel tower so we could continue our shopping, I mean, our networking.

Chocolate Logs, a traditional treat.

We stopped briefly to listen to chocolate expert, Chloe Doutre Roussel speak about the differences between good and bad chocolate. I wanted to say hello because we were signed up for her chocolate tour the next day.

Macarons, Lovely Macarons

I was impressed with the information present at the salon. There were educational lectures, musicians and dancers from cocoa growing regions and other visual aids aimed at connecting the grower to the consumer. Some bean to bar makers brought machinery, and some brought beans in order to educate people chocolate origins.

A Chocolate Hedgehog

A Chocolate Hedgehog

My favorite moment was speaking to a man who runs the chocolate museum we visited in Paris (the very same museum where Ilona spilled her hot chocolate on the man). He told me about an ethnic group in Panama who consume cocoa daily and use it for ceremonies not unlike the ancient mayas would have hundreds of years ago. I was happy discover that there are others who share my passion about discovering other cacao cultures.

The Salon du Chocolat is a huge spectacle that speaks to our passions: for pleasure (chocolate), for knowledge (about chocolate) and for great skill (the chocolatiers).

Darius And Ilona trying some of the confections.

Michel Cluizel Bars

Day One at the Salon Du Chocolat

We went up to Paris to see the opening day of the Salon Du Chocolat at the Porte De Versailles expo center. After a long subway ride, we arrived and excitedly went in!

We left the kids back in Fontainebleau with Grandma and Grandpa. Don’t worry! They will come back to the Salon over the weekend (when it is open to the public.) First, here is a short video that shows some of our impressions of the Salon and the World Chocolate Masters competition.


The French member of the jury was one of our chocolate heroes, Patrick Roger. As you may remember, Kerstin went to his store in Paris this March, as reported in this blog posting. It was great to see him evaluate all the the sculptures with an expert’s eye.

One of our early favorites was the Japanese entrant, Umezaki. Like everyone else, he only had 3 hours to assemble his sculpture. He had a very complex delicate design, and he executed it with ease.

We saw that the Canadian entrant was a woman, Veronique Rousseau, from Quebec. She was the first woman to ever represent Canada, and she came out blazing. She was the only one of the 19 finalists to use a carving technique instead of molds. This meant that her scuplture weighed over 60kg, but it looked uniquely artistic. Watch the video above for some action shots of Veronique working!

The Dutch contestant won the WCM title, and his sculpture was large and scary! I think the shock value was what pushed him ahead of the pack. I hope Veronique comes back next year to try again!

At the end of our day we had a great chat with our Japanese chocolate hero, Koji Tsuchiya of Theobroma Cacao, a pioneer of fine cacao in Japan.

Stay tuned for our report from the “Grand Public” Salon, coming in a few days!




World Chocolate Masters 2011 (preview)

We made it to the Salon du Chocolat! The chocolate masters are currently underway. Some of The best pastry chefs in the world are competing for the title of world chocolate master. They are making wild and wonderful chocolate sculptures and there’s a huddle of judges observing and calculating including my favorite Parisian chocolatier, Patrik Roger! We haven’t made it to the public salon yet. We must pace ourselves.


A tour of the chocolates of Fontainebleau

Outside of Frederic Cassel in Fontainebleau

Fountainebleau is a town on the outskirts of Paris. We are here with Cyrus’ family who is visiting from the Netherlands and New York.
The town is famous for its palace and palace gardens which date back about 400 years. To be honest, I don’t know much about the history of the place. I’ve been too busy checking out the Fountainebleau food scene.

Kerstin at Frederic Cassel

Much to our surprise, Fountainebleau has at least 6 chocolate shops within about a 1km radius. We visited 2 of them today.
The first is a French franchise called “Jeff de Brugge”. Our B&B host purchased it and has given it to his daughter to run. He gave us a tour and explainded the operations of the business. The selling point seems to be that the chocolate used in production comes from their own cocoa bean coop in the Ivory Coast. It’s something that they advertise on their brochures and marketing material. It’s good to see that there’s a demand for responsibly traded cacao. The chocolate was o.k. I preferred the bark which used a 70% cacao over the bon bons.

The bon bons at the place up the street, on the other hand, were REALLY good. The shop is called Frederic Cassel and everything looked pretty wicked. There was a good selection of macrons as well as a other pastries, cakes and baked goods. I purchased a few bon bons to try and loved the bee pollen one I had earlier.

I’m a little concerned about my chocolate consumption as we approach the Salon du Chocolat which starts tomorrow! Cyrus and I will take the early train in to Paris and hope to get there when the doors open at 9am. There we will meet the great chocolatiers of Paris and France. Stay tuned for photos and updates in the coming days!

A fountain in Fontainebleau

A Chocolate-y Afternoon Tea Party

UPDATE: Cally herself will be in the shop with us for the afternoon! She is preparing 3 different tea blends, and will be selling some of her wares as well. This is a good chance to stock up and hear a bit about her future plans!

Rachel, in particular, has been waiting to host a chocolate-y tea party for quite some time now, and it’s finally here!

We hope you will join us on Sunday, October 23rd, to celebrate fall and chocolate at the shop. Three custom tea blends from Cally’s Teas will be served alongside our sweet and savoury menu:

Pear and walnut tarts with The Cheesiry’s Pecorino, Radish tartines with butter and sea salt and Pickled cucumber sandwiches with Smoky Valley chévre.

On the sweeter side there will be ginger scones with lemon-white chocolate cream, orange shortbread dipped in Valrhona’s 64% Manjari and an assortment of our bark and confections.

Tea will be served at 1pm, and again at 2:30pm. We will have a few tables in the shop for those who would like to take seats, but please note that (due to the size of our space) we encourage mingling amongst other chocophiles.

Tickets may be purchased online, by phone or in shop for $12. All guests will receive a 10% discount off of any purchase.