My most recent trip to New York City – which I think of as not the Big Apple but the Big Truffle because of the abundance of chocolate deliciousness – was quick but scrumptious.
I was in town for the annual Fancy Food Show this summer (click here for my blog post on the 3 main trends I tracked there!), and in between Show visits, I took the opportunity to visit some of my favorite chocolate spots and other venues, while also scouting some new ones.
Since my time on this short trip was quite limited, I focused mainly on Manhattan’s much-transformed Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, one of my favorites in NYC, because its central location west of the Theatre District and Times Square, and along the Hudson River, makes it easy to get downtown or uptown; it’s filled with wonderful bakeries and restaurants; and the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center is within walking distance.This once-gritty neighborhood was the setting of the original Law & Order TV shows (that sound effect!). Today the neighborhood is part “gayborhood,” part chocolate and pastry paradise, and all delight.
by Valerie Beck, Chocolate Expert and Chocolate Broker
New York City – the “Big Apple” – turns into what I call the “Big Truffle” every summer during the Fancy Food Show. Chefs, brands, and chocolate makers from across the country and around the world set up displays, so that retailers, the media, and brokers can come see and sample what’s new.
As a chocolate consultant and broker, who never misses a chance to visit friends, clients, and my favorite shops and museums in NYC, the Fancy Food Show is a joy every year.
The trends I focused on at the Show this year were craft chocolate (small-batch chocolate made from fair trade or direct trade cacao), fine chocolate (made with premium ingredients for chefs and consumers), and fine pastry and dessert (made with premium ingredients).
While in NYC I also received a special delivery of a new Dutch chocolate brand not yet sold in the States, attended a mini college reunion for classmates who live in or near New York or who like me were traveling there, and did some chocolate scouting (click here for the separate blog post on the heavenly chocolate and pastry I scouted) – scroll on for Fancy Food Show deliciousness!
Starting with standouts in craft chocolate:
Some favorites in the fine chocolate category, also organic of course:
Some fine pastry and dessert hits:
I love placing great artisan brands into great upscale stores, and am already looking forward to the next Fancy Food Show.
Chocolate follows laws of temperature, starting with the fact that cacao trees like to grow in hot, humid climates near the equator. But good chocolate making or chocolate shops don’t necessarily depend on geography; some of the best chocolate in the world is made in the Midwest, such as Askinosie chocolate which led the bean-to-bar or craft chocolate movement and is located in the Ozarks of Missouri. And how many people would have predicted a generation ago that then-downmarket Brooklyn would become a hotbed of upscale craft chocolate?
So what was I doing in central Illinois? In my role as a professional speaker, I was invited to give a talk to an influential philanthropic ladies group in Springfield, IL. Click here for my blog post on that tasty talk, and on sweet Springfield. I had heard about Cocoa Blue and reached out. I boarded the train in my hometown of Chicago, and my first priority after getting off the train in Springfield, where my fabulous host from the ladies group picked me up, was to visit Cocoa Blue!
Cocoa Blue chocolatier/owner Joshua Becker makes delicious truffles, chocolate bark, and more, using top-quality ingredients. It was a pleasure touring his kitchen and shop and talking with him about his vision to create classic chocolates, his pastry and chocolate training, and the new tempering machine he’s ordered – another law of chocolate is that it must be “tempered” or properly crystallized through correct temperature changes while mixing, otherwise it won’t stay smooth or glossy. For more, see David Lebovitz’s famous post on How to Temper Chocolate.
Another law of chocolate: chocolate seems to attract former lawyers! Joshua and I are both former attorneys (and indeed so is Shawn Askinosie).
If Springfield’s “favorite son” Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer, hadn’t become the 16th President of the United States, would he have become a chocolatier? Pure speculation of course! But, before Lincoln, the Founding Fathers certainly loved chocolate – for instance, Benjamin Franklin used to sell it out of his print shop in Philadelphia – but that’s a story for another day.
Joshua and I discussed similarities in our backgrounds: he became interested in becoming a chocolatier after spending time in The Netherlands as a study-abroad student; my transformative chocolate moment that ultimately inspired me to start my business took place while studying in Paris, when I tasted my first piece of truly fine European chocolate.
We both went to law school and became lawyers, and both exited that profession for something sweeter: Joshua attended Le Cordon Bleu, fulfilled his dream of becoming a chocolatier, and embarked on the next phase of his journey by opening Cocoa Blue. I started the original Chocolate Tours, grew my business across the US (including in Philly, where our chocolate tour groups paused outside Ben Franklin’s above-mentioned chocolatey print shop), exited the tour business, and am now the founder/CEO of Chocolate Uplift where my talks, consulting and brokering work, and Chocolate Freedom Project take me to places as diverse as New York City, Ecuador, and central Illinois. Click for a podcast on my story of leaving the law.
Back to Cocoa Blue’s exquisite chocolates: I was impressed by the purity of flavor, precision of technique, and respect for the classics, plus Joshua’s special creative touches. For example, the dark chocolate truffle was rich yet clean, with pure chocolate notes – precisely what a top-quality classic truffle should be.
Then there was the marvelous chocolate macadamia bark. Macadamia nuts aren’t frequently paired with chocolate, but I think you’d agree with me that they should be after tasting Cocoa Blue’s white and dark versions. The creaminess of the nut harmonized with the creaminess of the chocolate, while the roasted and salted aspects gave a nice counterpoint to the sweetness.
Cocoa Blue Chocolates are delightfully classic, deceptively simple, and deliciously innovative.
by Valerie Beck, Chocolate Expert and Sweet Speaker
What do chocolate and President Abraham Lincoln have in common?
They have honesty in common, when the chocolate is made with real ingredients and fairly traded cocoa beans.
Why the “Honest Abe” comparison at all?
Because I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time in sprightly Springfield, Illinois, 200 miles from my home in Chicago, where I gave a chocolate wellness talk, and where Abraham Lincoln lived much of his adult life, practiced law, campaigned for office, and was returned for burial after his assassination.
One of the elements of my talk involved playing a game I created called “Sometimes, Always, Never: What’s Really In Your Chocolate.” The way it works: I explain which ingredients and origins to look for in chocolate bars, and which to avoid. Then we have audience members read the labels on a variety of chocolate bars I’ve brought, and we talk about where the cocoa beans came from, and what the ingredients are in each chocolate bar are. Knowing the health, labor, and environmental benefits or risks, the group decides whether each chocolate bar is one that they might sometimes choose for themselves and their families, one that they can always feel good about choosing, or one that they would never want in their household.
The game resulted in some surprises as it does every time, and then of course we ate the chocolate bars that the group decided to put into the “Always” pile! This included delicious, healthful, fair trade chocolate bars by Alter Eco, Dick Taylor, and El Dorado. The latter is made in Ecuador and is not yet available in the US, and this group was my first group to sample it!
I was impressed with the group, and moved by the glowing testimonial I received:
“Valerie is an exuberant and extraordinary speaker who superbly involves the audience as she presents such interesting facts about chocolate and wellness. She is very friendly and personable, yet a cylinder of dynamite showering listeners with delightful energy! The manner in which she shares her heart, soul, lively humor and vast knowledge makes her presentations quite enjoyable. Valerie is highly recommended as a speaker to your group!”
Janie Rast, Ladies organization, Springfield, IL
Thank you, Ladies of Springfield! I appreciate your hospitality, eagerness to hear about chocolate’s health benefits, and openness to my Chocolate Freedom Project to raise awareness of child slave labor on West African cocoa farms and of fair trade alternatives that are healthier and more delicious. “Keep eating real chocolate!”
There’s even more deliciousness to this sweet Springfield story:
I arrived in Springfield the day before my talk and checked into the Inn at 835, a captivating antiques-filled bed-and-breakfast. The rooms were lovely, breakfast was delicious, wine and cheese hour at night was a charming touch, and the chocolate chip cookies at bedtime were the ultimate!
From the Inn, it was a short walk to the Abraham Lincoln Museum. This was my third trip to Springfield since this exceptional museum opened 10 years ago, and I’ve visited the Lincoln Museum each time. I continue to notice additional details in the exhibits, such as the pile of legal papers in the re-creation of Lincoln’s utterly disorderly law office marked “if you can’t find it, look here.”
The exhibit that shows the 4-year Civil War in 4 minutes, using a video map of the US, music, and a running tally of the dead, but no spoken words, always makes me weep. And the exhibit in which the late journalist Tim Russert broadcasts about the 4-way presidential race “Campaign 1860” always makes me smile.
I followed my museum visit with some chocolate scouting – of course! – and some sightseeing, and enjoyed every element of my sweet Springfield visit.
by Valerie Beck, Chocolate Expert and Chocolate Broker
As soon as I saw the chocolates by Chocolatasm on Instagram, I knew they were something special. When I tasted them, I was impressed with their exquisite subtlety and delicate yet impactful flavor combinations. And when I spoke with the chocolatier behind the brand, I knew he was a true professional.
Chef/chocolatier Paul Kearins was born in London, worked as a pastry chef and chocolatier in Amsterdam, and now lives and creates in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
When I asked him how he develops his unique flavor combinations such as white chocolate with lime and muscovado sugar, or milk chocolate with honey and blueberries, or dark chocolate with lemon and Ethopian coffee, he told me that ever since childhood he’s had the ability to remember smells and to combine them in his mind with other smells.
His olfactory creativity plus his skills as a professional chef and chocolatier come together magnificently in his brand Chocolatasm.
To taste Chef Paul’s delicious creations is to experience a gentle and pure poetry of chocolate and other flavors. His chocolate doesn’t overwhelm, it delights. Chocolatasm is available at beloved upscale lunch spot and market Foodease inside Chicago’s Water Tower Place (a popular Chicago Chocolate Tours spot back when I operated the original Chocolate Tours as founder/CEO), and I’m thrilled to have brokered the relationship between such a special brand of artisan chocolate, and such a fabulous seller of artisan foods.
For a peek behind the scenes, enjoy this Chocolatasm video.
Keep eating chocolate!
Come see me on Instagram too! Your friend in chocolate,
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans – also called cacao – which are the seeds of the fruit of the cocoa tree, native to South America. That’s why real chocolate (artisan chocolate, not industrial chocolate) is high in antioxidants, magnesium, fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients, making it a “superfood.”
Real chocolate is low in sugar
An entire bar of artisan dark chocolate has less sugar than one serving of commercial yogurt, tomato sauce, or breakfast cereal. “Bean-to-bar” chocolate, also called craft chocolate, is a back-to-basics trend resulting in delicious artisan chocolate. It’s made with only two ingredients: cocoa beans and sugar. There’s no need for palm oil, soy lecithin, or any harmful or unpronounceable ingredients!
You don’t want to risk not eating chocolate
Artisan dark chocolate can lessen the risk of death by stroke and heart disease by up to 45% according to a recent study. Also, people who eat dark chocolate at least once a week have a lower body mass index than people who never eat chocolate, because cacao boosts your metabolism. Hence the name of my popular talk: “Eat Chocolate, Be Skinny!” Why are the health benefits in dark chocolate, by the way, and not milk chocolate? Because milk blocks the body’s ability to absorb chocolate’s nutrients.
You can avoid slavery chocolate
Today, 70% of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa, where 2 million children are forced to work in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms, so that the developed world can have cheap chocolate. Moreover, most West African cocoa beans are of lower quality due to climate change and diseased cocoa trees. Choose fair trade or “ethical chocolate” instead of “slavery chocolate,” and look for labels that indicate the origin of the cacao, just as you would for wine or coffee. This way, you and your family will enjoy delicious and sustainably made chocolate that’s good for farmer, foodie, and field. Ethical chocolate costs more, but it lasts longer – you might eat a bar in a week, instead of 30 seconds – it’s better for your body, and it lets kids go to school instead of to unpaid labor.
The Chocolate Freedom Project is coming to a school or office near you
What is the Chocolate Freedom Project? It’s walking and talking to raise public awareness of where chocolate comes from. I’m planning to walk to Hershey, Pennsylvania, to raise awareness of child slavery on West African cocoa farms, and to promote ethical chocolate brands. Along the way, I’ll speak at schools, offices, chambers of commerce, and associations, and to food bloggers and community groups. Visit www.valeriebeckchocolateuplift.com, or contact me at email@example.com to schedule a presentation anywhere, schedule permitting.
The number three is a magical number in realms such as literature, the physical world, and popular culture.
Think of The Three Musketeers, the three dimensions, and the three members of groups ranging from The Supremes, to The Beastie Boys, to Destiny’s Child. And how about the trios of Facebook, twitter and Instagram, or the Three Tenors, or the Red White and Blue!
Here’s a delicious trio for you: ice cream, cookies, and pie – with an overriding chocolate theme, of course!
I attended a wonderful “ice cream social” event to celebrate three first-class brands: Big Gay Ice Cream of New York and Philadelphia, Hot Chocolate restaurant and dessert bar owned by award-winning chef Mindy Segal, and beloved Chicago pie shop Bang Bang Pie, held in Bang Bang Pie’s back yard in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The event hashtag combined the names of the businesses into #bighotbang, naturally!
The event featured luscious ice cream sandwiches made with Big Gay Ice Cream and Mindy Segal’s cookies – peppermint ice cream with “Black Sabbath” chocolate cookies, and dulce de leche ice cream between ‘nilla wafer cookies (that combo is the “Bea Arthur,” named for the late actress, who was a distant cousin of mine, but that’s a story for another day).
Also at the party: Bang Bang Pie a la mode including lovely chocolate pecan pie with vanilla Big Gay Ice Cream. (There was a blackberry sage pie too, which was certainly delicious though you may know I believe that dessert without chocolate isn’t dessert at all but is salad. : )