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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a presentation anywhere, schedule permitting.
When people ask me where to find bean-to-bar chocolate, or slavery-free / ethical chocolate, there’s a new store I now add to the list: Cocoa + Co. in Chicago.
People also often ask me for a good chocolate cafe or coffee shop in Chicago, and I add Cocoa + Co. to that list too.
And, when people ask me how to tell if a chocolate bar comes from ethical sources, I give them the answer – below.
But first, imagine a chocolate shop where you can support the community of fair trade and direct trade cacao growers, support the community of artisan chocolate makers and chefs, and enjoy your own community of friends while enjoying some of the finest chocolate brands in the world. Such are the glories at Cocoa + Co.!
Store owner Kim Hack carries some of my favorite bean-to-bar chocolate brands, such as Dick Taylor and Original Beans. I’ve also found new favorites through her, such as Marou and Omnom, which I’d followed on Instagram and finally tasted and fell in love with after buying them at Kim’s shop!
Kim also brings in fresh local pastry and bonbons, has space for private chocolate tasting parties, serves luscious drinking chocolate, and has a well-curated chocolate grocery and cookbook selection.
These are wonderful components of the community of chocolate, wouldn’t you agree!
Back to our question of how to tell if the chocolate bar in your hand comes from ethical sources: read the label for what it says, and for what it doesn’t say.
That is: look first for the origin. If you see a country or an estate of origin listed, chances are already high you’re holding a bar of ethical chocolate. Just as a bottle of wine or bag of coffee tells you what country or estate the product comes from, an ethical chocolate bar will tell you that too. The label might say Peru, or Madagascar, or the Camino Verde Estate in Ecuador which I visited last year, or another location, so that you’ll know the source of the cacao that went into making the chocolate.
You can also look for a fair trade symbol, but there are multiple certifications and an ethical cacao farm may or may not have them.
Now look for what the label doesn’t say: if no origin is listed, you can be relatively sure the cocoa beans came from West Africa, which produces over 60% of the world’s chocolate, and which does so with a scarred supply chain often involving diseased cacao trees, poor flavor bulk cacao, and even child slave labor. This is the supply chain of the big chocolate manufacturers who sell in grocery stores and advertise on TV. And this is why I’m organizing a Chocolate Freedom Walk, to raise awareness of where our chocolate comes from, and to promote ethical chocolate with fun tastings and giveaways at my speaking engagements and along the route.
Ethical cacao is not only ethical, it tastes infinitely better, gives you various flavors such as earthy or fruity based on the soil (terroir) and the art of the chocolate maker, needs no artificial ingredients, and gives you the health benefits that you’ve heard about. And it includes you in the sweet chocolate community of growers, makers, and enjoyers, which you can also join at Cocoa + Co.
Some of my former “Big Law” colleagues tell me they’re jealous that since I left the practice of law years ago, now instead of going to Bar Association conferences, I go to conventions called the Sweets and Snacks Expo and the Fancy Food Show!
Chocolate makers, confectioners, and chefs exhibit their latest offerings at these delicious conferences, and store buyers, media, and others show up to see and sample what’s new. There are also educational sessions, awards, and parties, as thousands of people from the industry come together.
I’m headed to the summer Fancy Food Show in New York this week, and am thrilled to report on this spring’s Sweets and Snacks Expo here. SSE was again held in sweet home Chicago, and it was filled with wonderful old friends, exciting new friends, and a particular encounter with Big Chocolate that perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me but did. Keep scrolling for:
Sweet New Friends, and
New Chocolate Friends
Have you heard about the Chocolate Freedom Walk that I’m creating, to raise public awareness of child slave labor on West African cocoa farms and to promote fair trade alternatives? I talked about it with three members of the Hershey’s corporate relations team at the Sweets and Snacks Expo, and their response surprised me.
You see, I wanted to give Hershey’s and other large commercial chocolate brands the opportunity to share a press release or other communication about steps they are taking toward sustainability and developing ethical chocolate supply chain sources, as it’s well known in the chocolate world that 60% of the world’s chocolate is made from cocoa beans from West African farms, where child slave labor occurs.
Instead, the corporate affairs people replied defensively. The team consisted of a man and two women. The man became animated and aggressive, and asked how the artisan fair trade chocolate brands would like it if he protested them. The two women shut down and froze, saying not a single word; not “leaning in.”
Meanwhile, I’m optimistic about the bigger picture, because everyone wants to know where our food comes from, and we love delicious and healthful chocolate.
And I’ll keep you posted on the Chocolate Freedom Walk!
Chocolate is love, and here’s to the creativity and love that go into America’s favorite flavor: chocolate.
Picture chocolate, pastry, fashion, jewelry, and more, under one roof.
Picture that roof over my favorite building in Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center (which was the main branch of the Chicago Public Library when I was a little girl).
That was the scene for the April edition of Dose Market, a dynamic marketplace that showcases chefs, designers, and makers of all stripes. The market was co-sponsored in April 2015 by the Lake FX conference for artists and entrepreneurs, which added an extra touch of excitement.
Add the fact that among the makers showcased were longtime chocolate friends, and soon-to-be-made chocolate friends, and of course I attended. I attended, I chocolate scouted, and I enjoyed.
What exactly is chocolate scouting? That’s my term for exploring the world and finding delicious chocolate and pastry. It’s something I’ve always done: on any trip to a new city, even as a child, I always wanted to find the best chocolate. That hasn’t changed, and I chocolate scout where I live and where I travel, for business and for pleasure.
Dose Market at the Chicago Cultural Center featured some exquisite and creative chocolate and pastry offerings from old friends…
Washington, DC, is particularly sweet in spring, when cherry blossoms bloom, and chocolate innovation springs forth, as I re-discover every year on my springtime trip to our US capital.
DC’s cherry blossom trees were originally a gift from Japan, facilitated by author and traveler Eliza Scidmore, who fell in love with the sweet blossoms in Japan and enlisted the wife of President Taft to help coordinate the trees with Japan in 1910 and 1912.
Today, the city blooms beautifully in spring not only at the “usual” sites such as the Tidal Basin with its spectacular views of the monuments, but also in special and strollable corners of the city such as Stanton Park, and restaurant-rich Dupont Circle.
As for chocolate, we chocolate lovers know it is a gift as well. Chocolate comes from cacao, which is the seed of the fruit of the cocoa tree. The Aztecs believed cacao was the fruit of the gods. At beloved Co Co Sala chocolate lounge and boutique, the chocolate is heavenly indeed.
Chocolate blends nature and art, and it’s perhaps that juxtaposition of natural forms and artistic vision that has drawn me to the Alexander Calder mobile at the National Gallery of Art in DC, ever since I first experienced it on a DC visit at age 8 and wanted to bring it home with me. The glorious 76-foot work wouldn’t quite fit on the airplane, and I’ve visited it on my trips to DC ever since.
Back to our regularly scheduled chocolate, it’s always a treat to see another longtime friend in DC, Jane Morris of J Chocolatier, who creates unique and flavorful artisan chocolate bars, such as my new favorite from her, the fig/walnut/pepper chocolate bar, which she sells from her adorable weekends-only perch atop a charming boutique on Barracks Row.
In addition to visiting old friends, I always love making new ones, and was thrilled by DC’s newest doughnut shop, District Doughnut, where the goods are pastry-inspired, fresh, light, not too sweet, and absolutely delicious and delightful.