Sunday, January 25, 2015

Proper Chocolate

Handmade chocolate from Chocablog

Once, when I was in my early 20s, I put in a stint at a very exclusive chocolate shop in London around the busy Christmas period, where I worked in their basement packing chocolates into very fancy boxes all day long. It was kept chilly in the basement for obvious reasons, and we wore thin cotton gloves so as not to leave fingerprints on the wares. We were taught how to pack them tightly so that they didn’t shuffle around when the box was handled. Best of all, we were told we could eat as many as we wanted.

Packed just right

There was a good reason for this: by the third day I’d had about as much as I could consume before realizing that if I kept on, my pants wouldn’t fit. It was a decent holiday job, as holiday jobs went. But then the owner, a young chap, decided it was a new policy to pat down the female employees as they left each night to make sure the merchandise wasn’t leaving with them. Surely it would be counterintuitive to smuggle chocolate in the warm folds of a bra? Not for this guy. No thanks. So that was the abrupt end of my career as a chocolate packer.

In general it seems to me that there are four levels of chocolate. Starting in the proverbial basement there is the cheap stuff epitomized by the eponymous Hershey bar.

Blech. Don’t eat this.

Then there are the global brand bars you can find in your supermarket that cost a little more. After this you have to go into a chocolate shop to find smaller, artisan chocolate maker brands that produce interesting combinations that are many times more expensive than the stuff your average person spends. This is special occasion chocolate. Finally, in the rarified attic, nearer to God, are the individuals who still make their chocolate in small batches by hand. These are far harder to find, and almost impossible unless you live in a BIG city of actually know them.

It must be noted that the more costly the chocolate, the better it is. Naturally if costs more for an individual to produce and distribute bars than it does for a vast conglomerate, and the overhead built into the price is greater for a single shop than it is for a supermarket. But cost isn’t the whole story.

Chocolate is alchemy: a delicate balance of ingredients and production method and atmospheric conditions that transforms raw stuffs into gold. Chocolate makers are part gourmand, part magician.

Thus is came to pass that when the opportunity to try some chocolate made by hand presented itself, I jumped at it. Dom Ramsey, editor of leading chocolate review site Chocablog and general chocolate expert, has started making his own bars.

Worth their weight in gold!

They come sealed in their own golden pouches, each batch and bar numbered with the bean’s country of origin and ingredients. The ones I ordered were made from Ecuadoran beans in late December 2014. Here is a video of a similar batch from these beans being made.

Ecuador 70% (Batch 5, Bar 8)

The first thing that hit my brain when inhaling from the freshly opened pouch was that this chocolate smelled like rich red wine. Strong and bitter and full; the kind of wine that requires an equally robust steak to go with it. It’s also a little ashy, the way some coffees can be. It snapped nicely and had a mellow mouthfeel. The chocolate is a perfect thickness so that it melts at a perfect rate when held on the tongue. The hot, wet cave of your mouth is infused with a burst of flavor, as if you were eating that steak, drinking that wine, and eating desert all at the same time. As I write this, ten minutes later, I still carry a faint sensation of floral bitterness from it. Dom said “Intensely chocolaty & nutty with a hint of cherries.” This is true. I like dark chocolate with salt — Dom’s bar makes that seem very sweet by comparison.

Ecuador 48% (Batch 6, Bar 7)

The milk chocolate made from these beans has the same strong, visceral scent, and is far more flavorful than most milk chocolates I’ve tasted, and also far less sweet. The flavor dissipates quickly once it’s melted off your tongue. I found the mouthfeel to be crumbly as opposed to waxy, the way a bitter Cheshire cheese is compared to a Colby. It melts easily, but is slightly sticky and grainy. The added whole milk powder and soy lecithin feel like they’re still dating the cocoa rather than making babies with it. I expect that a little more experimentation will help this along. In any case, a taste of this will serve as a brilliant counterpoint to the chalky and sickly sweet milk chocolate you might be used to.

Dom’s fledgling chocolatier career is well worth supporting. Check out what he does and order some from him. You’ll be able to say you were an early admirer. Tell him I sent you! 

Thursday, January 1, 2015


The British, a people generally given to colorful verbal fireworks, draw upon a large palate with which to express nuances of emotion others perhaps rely on visual symbols to convey. Emoticons, for example, have become thelingua franca of textual expressiveness. One of the most direct phrases is “for f*ck’s sake” (FFS), usually delivered either as a stand-alone comment or as a post-script to a larger statement of a fairly obvious fact. 

Someone accidentally knocks over a can of paint; “oh for fuck’s sake,” they say, to themselves, to express their annoyance with a hint of self-condemnation. Someone watches some other hapless soul knock over a can of paint; “watch what you’re doing, for fuck’s sake,” they will cry, to emphasize their point. The volume at which this profanity is delivered varies; whispering it to oneself is the equivalent of an aside one wants another to catch one thinking, as opposed to saying. Someone’s mother-in-law knocks over a can of paint; “for fuck’s sake,” they mutter quietly just within earshot. 

To beg action for something or somebody’s sake is an ancient form of idiom. Those with a less vivid vocabulary might use “for Pete’s sake” instead. The Pete in question probably refers to Saint Peter, who has the power, after all, of refusing one entrance to heaven. You therefore implore sense on the part of the hapless person to whom the comment is directed, lest they find themselves at the pearly gates with one foot stuck in a can of paint. To call upon the sake of Saint Peter is one step removed from asking patience from God, as in “for God’s sake,” or Jesus, as in “for Christ’s sake.” All of the above seek the attention of a force for good, as in “for goodness’ sake.” When things get really desperate, we might say “for crying out loud.” 

But what is a sake to begin with? A sake, in any of its archaic forms, refers to a dispute, a lawsuit, a cause or strife. To have or bring a sake is akin to a legal suit; it is related to a charge. To claim something happen “for God’s sake,” then, is to request that it happen in God’s favor, to support His cause. 

Fuck, of course, is quite a different cause to appeal to. In this case, the fuck in question is the same entity as the one in the phrase “I don’t give a fuck,” or in other words, wits. When you say “for fuck’s sake,” you appeal not to a higher authority, but to your own tolerance for stupidity; you appeal to preserve your wits — hence its use on occasions which call for common sense. 

Mapping Ourselves


When I was a girl, I wanted the whole world, so for my birthday I asked for an Atlas. Back in 1979, that was just about the only way you could be given the whole world (unless you asked for a globe). I was an avid reader as a child — I read everything in the house that could be read. Mostly that involved field guides, cookbooks, old National Geographics, a Dictionary, album liner notes, and the odd work of fiction. There wasn’t a lot to read — and maybe that’s what caused me to read what there was in the depth that I did. I know now that a lot of the esoteric knowledge I have came from that time; the things I know I never learned in school. I grew thirsty for knowledge I could acquire from books — and that thirst has never left me. I am still a non-fiction reader first and foremost. 

British was pink

Yesterday, I was rearranging my books, and in sorting out shelves, realized I now have several large Atlases, all library orphans whose time in the spotlight has been eclipsed by Google Earth and changing national borders.. They are beautiful objects, their pages detailing a flat world in a mass of lines, symbols, colors and names that never fail to bring wonder. 

London! So pretty. 

I wonder if my own children will ever be non-fiction nerds like me, or ever be drawn to peruse a giant book for hours on end, now that they have the world on their phones. 

I wonder if asked where they come from, and who they are, what they will say?

Philately Phail

How bland

Dear Europe

I know that sending letters and birthday cards and wedding invitations and thank you notes is passé and that making a journey to a post office and queuing up and buying stamps and sticking them on an envelope is boooring and time consuming and possibly exposes one to the germs of humanity, and that the postal services are, as a result of the internet, losing revenue like it’s going out of style, but come on. 

Is there any excuse for this?

France, your stamp is so dull and lacking in imagination that it beggars description. It features three paper airplane motifs, which is cute as a concept, but disastrous in execution. 

England, what has become of your noble philatelic tradition? Why is your stamp so big? Why is it brown? The image is cleverly composed of a wavy line of text “The Royal Mail” and recalls the classic young monarch of her early reign. Yet all is lost because it is designed so that the mailing information is printed right over the queen’s face, surely shooting itself in its own foot?

And what of the essential information written on an envelope: the name and address? Each of these necessarily obscures that, forcing the English stamp in particular to bend over the top. 

Stamps used to be beautiful. They used to be something you’d tear off the corner of a delivered piece of mail to keep. Stamps ought to be designed to enhance calligraphy or good penmanship for an aesthetically winning object worthy of the price of postage. 

That’s more like it! 

Europe, you give me the sads :-(