Sweet Travel: Our 2015 Chocolate Uplift Travel Club Destinations

Sweet Travel: Our 2015 Chocolate Uplift Travel Club Destinations

by Valerie Beck, chocolate expert, culinary travel pioneer, and founder of the one and only Chocolate Uplift Travel Club

Here's to sweet takeoffs and landings in 2015 and beyond!
Here’s to sweet takeoffs and landings in 2015 and beyond!

Happy new year!

Have you made your 2015 travel plans yet?

Let’s make them sweeter: travel with me to one or more of the below destinations, where I’ll open my address book of friends and contacts I’ve made throughout my chocolatey career, and will take you behind the scenes to visit top chocolatiers and chefs. We’ll experience the local culture the way the local style-setters do, and we’ll enjoy the best in food, fashion, art, and of course chocolate.

A few of the trips have 2 packages to choose from: all-inclusive, or a la carte. The double-package trips are Miami in January, LA in March, DC in April, Charleston and Savannah over Memorial Day weekend, Boston in May, and NYC over Veteran’s Day weekend.

And, you can vote on where you think our Labor Day and Columbus Day trips should go!

Scroll down for dates and destinations, contact me at chocolateuplift@gmail.com to book or with questions, and here’s to sweet travel!

2015 Chocolate Uplift Travel Club Destinations

At a previous Miami Chocolate Festival: brigadeiros (Brazilian truffles) by Samba Gourmet
At a previous Miami Chocolate Festival: brigadeiros (Brazilian truffles) by Samba Gourmet

Miami Chocolate Festival, Miami, Florida. Friday 1/23 – Sunday 1/25: Miami Chocolate Festival at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Package 1: $2,000 includes hotel, meals, excursions, Chocolate Festival, meet-and-greets with select chocolatiers at the Festival. Package 2: $100 includes meet-and-greets at the Festival.

Florence chocolates
At Migone Chocolates in Florence

Florence Sweet & Chic, Florence, Italy. Wednesday 2/11 – Tuesday 2/17: Florence Artisanal Chocolate Festival, and Ferragamo Fashion & Shoes. Encompasses Valentine’s Day and President’s Day. Package: $3,200 includes hotel, meals, excursions, Festival, meet-and-greets at the Festival, tour of the Salvatore Ferragamo headquarters and museum.

View from my room at the Surfcomber Hotel, Miami Beach
View from my room at the Surfcomber Hotel, Miami Beach

SOBEWFF: Celebrity Chefs on the Beach, Miami, Florida. Friday 2/20 – Sunday 2/22. South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Package: $3,000 includes hotel, meals, excursions.

On last year's Beverly Hills Bakery Tour
At Le Mervetty on last year’s Beverly Hills Bakery Tour

Turner and Truffles, Los Angeles, California. Friday 3/20 – Sunday 3/22. J.M.W. Turner exhibit at the Getty Museum, and our own Beverly Hills Bakery Tour created by Valerie Beck. Package 1: $2,200 includes hotel, meals, excursions, private tour of Turner exhibit, Beverly Hills Bakery Tour. Package 2: $120 includes private tour of Turner exhibit, and Beverly Hills Bakery Tour.

At our private tasting with Chef Santosh at Co.Co.Sala last year in DC
At our private tasting with Chef Santosh at Co.Co.Sala last year in DC

Cherry Blossoms and Chocolate, Washington, DC. Friday 4/10 – Sunday 4/12. National Cherry Blossom Festival, and Chef’s Dinner. Package 1: $2,350 includes hotel, meals, excursions, private Chef’s Dinner and chocolate tasting with a celebrity pastry chef. Package 2: $150 includes Chef’s Dinner and chocolate tasting.

About to sample fresh cacao in Ecuador
About to sample fresh cacao in Ecuador

Cacao Origin Trip, Quito and other points in Ecuador, South America. Friday 5/1 – Tuesday 5/5. Cocoa Farms and Capitol City of Enchanting Ecuador. Fly to Quito through Miami or Houston. Package: $2,500 includes hotels, meals, excursions, private tours of cocoa farms, meet-and-greets with cocoa farm owners and chocolate makers.

Sweet home Chicago
Sweet home Chicago

Sweet Home Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. Friday 5/15 – Sunday 5/17. National Restaurant Association Show additional activities including the original Chicago Chocolate Tour created by Valerie Beck. Book your own Show and hotel arrangements. Package: $150 includes private Chef’s Dinner, and Chicago Chocolate Tour.

Sweet Savannah (photo: Visit Savannah)
Sweet Savannah (photo: Visit Savannah)

Memorial Day Weekend in the Sweet South, Charleston, North Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Friday 5/22 – Monday 5/25. Two sweet and chic cities. Package 1: $3,000 includes hotels, meals, excursions, private tastings with pastry chefs and chocolatiers. Package 2: $200 includes private tastings with pastry chefs and chocolatiers.

Presentation of the original Boston Cream Pie
Presentation of the original Boston Cream Pie, on a previous Boston trip

Boston Sweet, Boston, Massachusetts. Friday 5/29 – Sunday 5/31. Sweet springtime, including the original Boston Chocolate Walking Tour created by Valerie Beck. Package 1: $2,750 includes hotel, meals, excursions, private tasting of the original Boston Cream Pie, Chocolate Tour. Package 2: $200 includes private tasting of the original Boston Cream Pie, Chocolate Tour.

Sweet Labor Day Weekend, destination tbd, cast your vote! Friday 9/4 – Monday 9/7.

Sweet Columbus Day Weekend, destination tbd, cast your vote! Friday 10/9 – Monday 10/12.

Rome
Rome

Eurochocolate: Italy Sweet and Chic, Perugia, Pisa, and Rome, Italy. Friday 10/6 – Friday 10/23. Eurochocolate Festival in Perugia, Italian cashmere, artisan chocolate of Pisa and Chocolate Valley, Roman chocolate and gelato. Package: $6,300 includes hotels, meals, excursions, Festival, private tour of an artisan chocolate manufactory, private tour of a cashmere manufactory, meet-and-greets, Rome’s oldest chocolate shop, Roman gelato tour, Italian fashion visits.

Behind the scenes at Mast Brothers Chocolate
Behind the scenes at Mast Brothers Chocolate

The Big Truffle: NYC Veteran’s Day Weekend, New York, New York. Friday 11/6 – Tuesday 11/10. Chocolate, art, fashion, and a parade, in New York City, including our own New York Pastry Paradise Tour created by Valerie Beck. Package 1: $3,300 includes hotel, meals, excursions, private tour of a chocolate manufactory, Pastry Paradise Tour, fashion and style excursion, museum visit with VIP status, Veteran’s Day parade viewing. Package 2: $300 includes chocolate manufactory tour, New York Pastry Paradise Tour, fashion and style excursion, museum visit.

Grilled chocolate croissants for brunch (photo: Cao Chocolates)
Grilled chocolate croissants for brunch (photo: Cao Chocolates)

Art Basel Miami Beach, Miami, Florida. Friday 12/4 – Sunday 12/6. Art Basel Miami Beach Festival, including our own sweet and chic excursions. Package: $2,800 includes hotel, meals, excursions, art festival, gallery parties, our own chocolate brunch, our own macaron tasting.

Cheers from Miami!
Cheers from Miami!

See you soon – onward and upward!

~ Valerie

chocolateuplift@gmail.com

9 of the Most Luxurious Hot Chocolates in the World

9 of the Most Luxurious Hot Chocolates in the World

by Valerie Beck – chocolate expert, speaker, and consultant, and creator of the original chocolate tours

Hot chocolate ideas
At-home hot chocolate ideas

I hope you’re enjoying a scrumptious holiday season!

Few things are as delicious or comforting as hot chocolate on a winter day. (Thought I love it in warm weather too!) What makes hot chocolate luxurious? The richness of the chocolate, the creaminess of the preparation, and the elegance of the setting can all play a role.

Below are some of my favorite luxurious hot chocolates that I’ve enjoyed recently, from sweet home Chicago, and around the world. I look forward to hearing some of your favorites, and sampling with you if you join my Travel Club!

Hot chocolate luxury, in alphabetical order:

At Gran Esperia in Rome
La dolce vita at Bar Antonini – Caffe Gran Esperia in Rome

1. Bar Antonini – Gran Caffe Esperia in Rome

Gran Caffe Esperia, part of the Bar Antonini group, is a classic Roman cafe on the banks of the Tiber River. Their hot chocolate is so thick you could practically stand up a spoon in it. It comes with a dish of whipped cream on the side, and you can cut your hot chocolate with as much or as little cream as you like. This hot chocolate is not just for winter. Sitting at an outdoor table in the spring, and sipping this marvelous concoction as Rome drifted past, was a luxurious way to enjoy la dolce vita – the sweet life!

Rome awaits our Travel Club in October 2015, along with the town of Perugia, two hours north and home to the largest chocolate festival in the world, Eurochocolate. Contact me at chocolateuplift@gmail.com if you’re interested in sweet travel!

Hot chocolate at Capogiro Gelato Artisans
Hot chocolate at Capogiro Gelato Artisans

2. Capogiro Gelato Artisans in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is the most underrated city in America. Those in the know, know that Philly is a foodie city, that Capogiro makes some of the best gelato on the planet, and that their rich and luscious hot chocolate makes them a winter as well as a summer destination.

When I first expanded Chicago Chocolate Tours and opened Philadelphia Chocolate Tours several years ago, the city was hit with a blizzard, which was unusual for that part of the country. Being a Chicagoan used to extremes of weather, it didn’t occur to me to cancel anything due to snow, and Capogiro’s hot chocolate warmed the hardy souls who came out on those snowy tours! The Italian-style hot chocolate is served with a pitcher of additional molten chocolate, and a side of housemade whipped cream topped with cocoa powder. If you add a dollop of Capogiro’s incredible gelato, made with milk from hormone-free cows, you’ve got a hot chocolate affogato. (You’re welcome!)

Taste for yourself the last weekend in April, with our Travel Club!

Rich drinking-chocolate at Casa Gangotena in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador
Afternoon tea is really afternoon hot chocolate at Casa Gangotena in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador

3. Casa Gangotena in Quito, Ecuador

Cacao is native to South America, and I tasted some fabulous chocolate in Ecuador, including cocoa beans from small family cacao farms, and from larger innovative cacao estates. The hot chocolate at Casa Gangotena, South America’s #1 rated hotel, was so exquisite that from the first sip I took, time seemed to stop, and the sounds of the lovely afternoon tea around me seemed to cease. This hot chocolate was prepared with water, not milk, and I can almost taste the delicate and fruity flavors of the cacao again as I write this. Highest-quality cocoa beans are the foundation of chocolate luxury, and enjoying this particular beverage in the spectacular setting of Casa Gangotena added to the glamour.

Travel Club alert: let me know if you’d like to visit Ecuador in May 2015, for visits to cocoa farms and more from our home base of Casa Gangotena!

Firecakes hot chocolate
Doughnuts and hot chocolate at Firecakes

4. Firecakes Donuts in Chicago

I love the fresh, light doughnuts at Firecakes, and I love their new Valrhona hot chocolate, with housemade marshmallows. Its luxury comes from its top quality ingredients and its richness: it’s basically ganache (chocolate mixed with cream) that you drink! The hardest part is choosing which doughnut to pair with your hot chocolate. (Hint: triple Valrhona chocolate cake.)

Frozen hot chocolate minis at Graham's 318
Frozen hot chocolate minis at Graham’s 318

5. Graham’s 318 in Geneva, IL

Do opposites attract? Fire and ice go together beautifully in the irresistible frozen hot chocolate at Graham’s 318, the coffeehouse location of Graham’s Fine Chocolates. Both are in gorgeous Geneva, Illinois, an elegant town on the Fox River, one hour west of Chicago. The frozen hot chocolate was always a hit on the chocolate tours that I opened there a few years ago. Luxury can be a delicious frozen version of hot chocolate, by the fireplace at Graham’s 318, on a getaway out of the city.

Dipping a canele into the ganache hot chocolate at Hendrickx
Dipping a canele into the ganache hot chocolate at Hendrickx

6. Hendrickx Belgian Bread Crafter in Chicago

The hot chocolate at Hendrickx is available only in the winter, so is it a good thing that Chicago winters last so long? You can decide that for yourself, but what’s certain is that the ganache hot chocolate by Chef Renaud at Hendrickx is rich, thick, and pure in flavor. When I created Chicago Chocolate Tours and then a Hot Chocolate Tour route, the hot chocolate at Hendrickx was an instant crowd favorite. Lately I’ve taken to dipping a different Hendrickx pastry into the hot chocolate. Their lovely new caneles (French cake-like pastry with a custard-enhanced center and caramelized crust) work magnificently for luxurious dipping!

Mexican hot chocolate with salted caramel-cinnamon marshmallows at Katherine Anne Confections
Mexican hot chocolate with salted caramel-cinnamon marshmallows at Katherine Anne Confections

7. Katherine Anne Confections in Chicago

I love what I call “Aztec Revivalism” at Katherine Anne Confections: the molten Mexican hot chocolate is spiced with chili peppers, similar to how the Aztecs flavored their chocolate 2,500 years ago. Owner Katherine Duncan is an innovator who makes her amazing ganache-based hot chocolate in multiple flavors including bourbon caramel hazelnut. Her housemade marshamallows also come in a variety of flavors; enjoy the luxury of mixing and matching!

Brewed chocolate at Mast Brothers in Brooklyn
Brewed chocolate at Mast Brothers in Brooklyn

8. Mast Brothers Chocolate in New York

Revolutionary-era Americans like George and Martha Washington and Thomas Jefferson brewed their chocolate, similar to the way we brew coffee or tea. Benjamin Franklin was such a chocolate lover he sold  blocks of brewable chocolate out of his print shop in Philadelphia. (When I created Philadelphia Chocolate Tours, it was fun adding a stop outside of his print shop!) It’s exciting to see versions of brewed chocolate making a comeback. After touring the Mast Brothers chocolate manufactory in Brooklyn, I headed a few doors down to their brew cafe, where I chatted some more with Rick Mast and his team and sampled their delicious drinking chocolate, brewed with cocoa beans and water. It was smooth and flavorful, with the luxury of simplicity.

Save the date of Veteran’s Day weekend, when our Travel Club goes back to NYC.

Hot chocolate bar at NoMI Chicago
Hot chocolate bar at NoMI Chicago

9. NoMI in Chicago

Pastry Chef Meg Pralus’s rich, molten hot chocolate is the centerpiece of her creative Hot Chocolate Bar at NoMI at the elegant Park Hyatt Chicago: choose toppings such as whipped cream, cinnamon, dark chocolate, white chocolate, or candied orange peel – or all of the above in my case! Housemade marshmallows are also on the buffet, and you can have your hot chocolate spiked or “virgin.” The luxury of embellishment!

With Katherine Duncan of Katherine Anne Confections
With Katherine Duncan of Katherine Anne Confections

I wish you a merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a sweet new year!

Your friend in chocolate,

~ Valerie

chocolateuplift@gmail.com

Top 3 Things I Love About Ecuador

Top 3 Things I Love About Ecuador

By Valerie Beck

Chocolate expert and founder of Chicago Chocolate Tours and Chocolate Uplift chocolate services, encompassing tours, travel, tv, speaking, consulting, importing. http://www.chocolateuplift.com, http://www.chicagochocolatetours.com 

Glorious gilded San Francisco church, in Quito
Glorious gilded San Francisco church, in Quito

After visiting enchanting Ecuador for a week in September 2014 as part of my ongoing consulting project with the Trade Commission of Ecuador to promote their quality fairtrade cocoa beans and chocolate, I’m convinced that this country is the best-kept secret in the Western Hemisphere.

Here’s why: the delicious and ethical chocolate and cacao, the incredibly fresh and flavorful cuisine, and the stunning landscapes. I could go beyond that to the beautiful textiles, the fascinating history, and of course the warm and wonderful people. But then this post would be more of a book. Indeed, that’s an idea! Well, more posts on more items are coming soon.

For now, here are the top 3 things I love about enchanting Ecuador!

1. Chocolate

With a freshly opened cocoa pod on a Pacari family farm
Here’s yours truly Valerie Beck with a freshly opened cocoa pod on a Pacari family farm

Ecuador is known for its chocolate, or more specifically its delicious fairtrade cocoa beans from which chocolate is made. Ecuador is the 6th largest grower of cocoa beans in the world, though they’re a small country around the size of Nevada.

I visited two cocoa farms during my trip: the incredibly innovative Camino Verde farm in the coastal province of Balao, and a delightful small family farm in the Amazon basin that is one of 2,500 such farms growing for Ecuador’s Pacari Chocolate brand.

Both farms were revelatory. Being able to go to the source, receive a beautiful cacao pod from a beautiful cocoa tree, open the pod and taste the sweet, floral, flavorful pulp surrounding the beans, and even eat the raw beans themselves, was a meaningful experience because it showed me firsthand the first steps of the chocolate process and the magic of how chocolate begins as fruit.

Part of the beauty of Ecuadorian cacao is that it is grown in a socially responsible way, mainly on small family farms. Contrast Ecuador’s fairtrade, ethical, and sustainable farming and labor practices, with the human rights abuses prevalent in West African cacao, including child slave labor, as well as the general lack of traceability of West African beans. We want to know where our food, chocolate, clothing, everything comes from, and we want the practices to be ethical. Seventy percent of the world’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans grown in West Africa, mainly the Ivory Coast and Ghana. This means when someone picks up popular commercial chocolate brands in the drugstore, they’re buying unethical chocolate, the fruits of abomination.

Cocoa tree nursery on the Camino Verde farm
Cocoa tree nursery on the Camino Verde farm

A way to make sure you’re buying slavery free chocolate is to buy South American chocolate, or chocolate from other regions of the world outside of West Africa. Look at the chocolate bar’s label to find the origin of the cocoa beans, just like you would see the origin of the grapes on a wine bottle label, or the origin of coffee beans on a bag of coffee. Look for words like fair trade or direct trade, or simply look for place names like Ecuador.

I’ll share more about Ecuadorian cacao, and about steps we can take to end slavery on cocoa farms, in other posts. You can also click here for CNN’s reports on chocolate’s child slaves.

Here’s to delicious and ethical Ecuadorian chocolate and cocoa beans!

Vegetarian ceviche at Barlovento restaurant, at our Harvard Club of Ecuador luncheon
Vegetarian ceviche at Barlovento restaurant, at our Harvard Club of Ecuador luncheon

2. Cuisine

Cacao is nature’s perfect food, and the rest of the food in Ecuador was also glorious. Another reason I love Ecuador: the cuisine is fresh and light, with amazing flavors and ingredients not found elsewhere, due to Ecuador’s incredible biodiversity and variety of climates. Plus, the food is not laced with GMOs and artificial ingredients, so instead of eating industrial food which can bring disease and obesity, you’re eating real food which brings health and fitness.

As a vegan-ish vegetarian, I found a huge range of flavorful and satisfying options created from fruits, vegetables, and herbs, such as the refreshing vegetarian ceviche I had at Quito restaurant Barlovento. The Harvard Club of Ecuador was kind enough to hold a luncheon for me while I was in Quito; it turns out the Club President and I were at Harvard Law School at the same time. The restaurant is owned by the mother of a student at Kendall College in Chicago where I’m an Adjunct Professor, and the owner is also a friend of the Club President. Small world-ism in action! The Honduran Ambassador to Ecuador was also at the luncheon; it was a treat to sit next to Madam Ambassador and talk cacao!

Meanwhile, seafood lovers visiting Ecuador will also find amazing options due to Ecuador’s location on the Pacific Ocean, and meat eaters will have no shortage of creatively prepared dishes.

Pitahaya fruit with black seeds, and taxa fruit with an oblong shape
One of my favorite Ecuador breakfasts: pitaya fruit with black seeds, and taxo fruit with an oblong shape

Did I mention the fruit! I tried many varieties I’d never seen or tasted before, such as pitaya which was similar in appearance to dragon fruit and tasted sweet, and taxo which was extremely tart and citrusy. I had to be shown how to open and eat these amazing fruits, and the lesson was worthwhile!

Chocolate comes from fruit, and since I already raved about Ecuador’s amazing cacao at the beginning of this post, I’ll move on, though I could go on and on about other incredible cuisine experiences in Ecuador. Watch for a separate food-focused post!

Cotopaxi mountain along the flight from Quito to Guayaquil
Cotopaxi mountain along the flight from Quito to Guayaquil

3. Landscape

Earth is beautiful. What makes the part of Earth that is Ecuador so visually spectacular and so rich in plants and animals, is that this small country has three distinct climates – along the tropical Pacific coast in the west of the country, in the Andes Mountains running down the center of the country, and in the Amazon basin to the east – or four if you count the Galapagos Islands which are also part of Ecuador.

Sunrise view from my room at Casa Gangotena, on my first morning in Quito
Sunrise view from my room at Casa Gangotena, on my first morning in Quito

I visited the three climates on the mainland, starting with the fresh mountain climate of capital city Quito, 9,400 feet up in the Andes Mountains, some of whose peaks reach 15,000 and 20,000 feet. Around twice as high as Denver, or as high as about nine Sears Towers stacked on top of each other, Quito has a majestic setting, cool clean dry air, and temperatures up to the 70s during the day, and down to the 40s at night.

I am grateful to enjoy radiant health, yet had altitude headaches and dizziness the first two days, including during the wonderful meetings I had with cacao growers, chocolate company owners, and government leaders during day 1. (I think the people I met with took my lightheaded giddiness for enthusiasm, and in any case I was enthusiastic!) I didn’t take any altitude medicine, but chocolate helped (chocolate helps everything!), and after 48 hours I was fine though constantly thirsty. Happily, my fabulous hotels Casa Gangotena and Hotel Patio Andaluz provided all the water I could drink, and all was well.

with vicente
With Vicente Norero of Camino Verde at the Aromas del Ecuador chocolate and cacao meetings

Next, I flew from Quito to Guayaquil, which is the largest city in Ecuador and the main port city. The flight over the spine of the Andes was just 50 minutes, and once in Guyaquil I was in a beautiful, summery, hot and humid Miami-like climate, only with mountains on the horizon. From Guyaquil, our Trade Commission group drove 2 hours through small towns and verdant plains, until we reached the Camino Verde cocoa farm, described above. Tropical glory!

The third climate on the Ecuadorian mainland is the Amazon climate. Back in Quito, we drove down the mountains – the roads were new, wide, and provided dramatic views – to an elevation of around 2,500 feet. The air was soft and moist, the trees and foliage were lush, and the Pacari cocoa farm we visited was fantastic, as described above.

pacari pod
About to sample fresh cocoa beans and sweet pulp on a Pacari cacao farm in the Amazon basin

Because Ecuador is on the equator (hence the country’s name), climate changes not by season but by altitude. Visiting the equator itself, just outside of Quito, was a blast. There are actually two equator monuments or museums: one marks the actual equator, and the other marks where Europeans thought it was.

Here’s what happened: the pre Incan people knew exactly where the equator was. They knew astronomy and nature, and the sun figured in their worship and daily life. Then a French expedition came, studied the situation for 8 years, and said no, the equator was 240 meters away (or around 787 feet). Then, in the 1990s, GPS confirmed that the equator is right where the ancient people said it was.

Standing on the equator - the real one
Standing on the equator – the real one

Today, the Mitad del Mundo large monument and theme and shopping park around the “French” equator honors the work of the Europeans, celebrates history, and promotes development. Several hundred feet away on the actual equator, the Museo Intinan marks the real spot with charming and interesting demonstrations such as how water – and ocean storms – circulate clockwise on one side of the equator and counter clockwise on the other, while honoring the ancient people with reconstructions of their style of home and life.

By the way, getting to and around Ecuador was extremely easy. No visa is required for US citizens. I flew 3 hours from Chicago to Miami, changed planes, and flew 4 hours from Miami to Quito. Quito is on central time, so it was the same time there as in Chicago. And Ecuador does not have its own currency but uses US currency, which goes quite far there. A taxi ride across Quito for example was $2. So, arriving at and enjoying the gorgeous landscapes, sights, and flavors of Ecuador was safe and simple.

Independence Plaza (Plaza Grande) in Quito
Independence Plaza (Plaza Grande) in Quito

I’m looking forward to traveling again for more enchanting Ecuador – contact me if you’d like to join a group trip!

~ Valerie

chocolateuplift@gmail.com