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Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

Formaggio Kitchen Chocolate  Section

A snapshot of part of the Formaggio Kitchen chocolate section

Not many people get to study food for a living, but even fewer study chocolate. Carla D. Martin, a Lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and “Professor of Chocolate,” studies social issues in the cacao and chocolate industry, from production and processing to personal consumption. She has also co-taught our class on chocolate here at Formaggio Kitchen, and stops by regularly for her favorite bars.

The world of chocolate, and North American craft chocolate in particular, has exploded in the last few decades. Building off of the rising popularity of fair trade and single origin products in the 1970s and 1980s, the French companies Bonnat, Valrhona, and Cluizel were the first to introduce single origin chocolate, bringing the concept of terroir formally to the world of chocolate consumption. Today, the number of artisanal, single-origin chocolatiers has skyrocketed, with our selection of around ten different producers making up just a small sampling of U.S. craft chocolates. When I first started trying the chocolates in our selection, I found defining craft chocolate, let alone picking a bar, pretty overwhelming. As part of my personal education efforts I sat down with Carla to talk about her views on the exciting world of North American craft chocolate, and what it all really means for chocolate lovers!

 

Carla D. Martin

Carla D. Martin

(Rob) How did you get into chocolate?

(Carla) I’ve had a love for chocolate since childhood. I was raised in a hippie household where we didn’t eat a lot of added sugar, so perhaps it was a form of youthful rebellion to eat chocolate at every opportunity. My best friend from childhood worked at L.A. Burdick Chocolates for several years, and one of my absolute favorite things to do was to go and visit her and share in the spoils. Eventually I made an intellectual turn towards social anthropology and African and African American Studies, first in my time as an undergraduate, then living abroad as a researcher, and eventually going on to graduate school. In 2005 or so I encountered – actually at Formaggio, thanks to the thoughtful curation of then-chocolate buyer Emily Setsuko – chocolate bars made with cacao from São Tomé and Príncipe that were totally unique and, given that my research at the time was focused on Cabo Verde and Lusophone Africa, I became fascinated with the story of that chocolate. How did the cacao get there? Who grew it? What were their lives like? How did the chocolate find its way to Cambridge, MA? It was then that the connections among the history of slavery and capitalism, colonial and post-colonial world agriculture, and cacao and chocolate stood out to me.

 

(Rob) So, North American craft chocolate. What exactly is it, and why is it getting so big right now?

(Carla) We are at a moment that those who follow chocolate closely meet with equal parts excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, there is this historically important romance around the ideas of craft production and fair relationships with commodity producers. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, craft chocolate in the US grew slowly but steadily – with companies like Taza Chocolate, Patric Chocolate, and Rogue Chocolatier taking the lead. Even today, these chocolate makers are doing something that is simultaneously retro and new, in terms of how they are choosing and acquiring beans, manufacturing chocolate, and cultivating an audience for their products. Also around this time of craft chocolate expansion, there came the publication of two absolute must-read texts on chocolate – Sophie and Michael D. Coe’s The True History of Chocolate (1996) and Maricel Presilla’s The New Taste of Chocolate (2001) that put centuries of chocolate learning into book form.

Thanks to the work of U.S. pioneers in craft chocolate production, I’ve come to really appreciate this style of chocolate making, which is quite different from industrially produced chocolate sold at commercial scale. Most industrial chocolate, like that from the “Big Five” (Hershey’s, Nestlé, Ferrero, Cadbury, and Mars), is actually chocolate-flavored sugar-fat with milk, plus whatever else holds it together and keeps it from rotting next to the cash register. This doesn’t stop me from enjoying a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but a quick look at the ingredients makes it clear that chocolate is not the key ingredient that I’m craving when I grab one.

North American craft chocolate, on the other hand, is really about the cacao. This is an overgeneralization, but at least it’s true of the good stuff – the beans selected tend to be naturally flavorful and have been handled well post-harvest then lightly roasted. The chocolate is made with only two or three ingredients (chocolate liquor and sugar, sometimes also cocoa butter). A great deal of effort goes into the bar’s production, packaging, and presentation. The best bars let the cacao sing or creatively pair and blend flavors, rather than extracting or forcing out flavor. To say this is not easy to do is an understatement. I’ve come to love the different experiences that you can get from these craft chocolate bars and the nostalgia that you feel when the last bars of a small batch are gone and all that’s left are your memories of the experience. This is the exciting part of craft chocolate.

Today, there are well over 100 craft chocolate producers in North America – approaching 150 now. The trepidation in relation to contemporary craft chocolate comes, though, in that many of these producers are not yet producing what they could be producing – excellent chocolate. There is an enormous learning curve that requires careful study, both of historical texts that shed light on some of the chocolate making knowledge that we’ve forgotten due to industrialization, and of scientific texts that offer insight into flavor, texture, scent, and more. We still know very little about chocolate compared to what we know about coffee or wine. There are so many different pieces of the puzzle that to become expert in all of them takes many years. This is an expensive, challenging, frustrating, impossible, amazing craft, and to do it well, you have to work really hard for a long time.

 

Three Craft Chocolates

Three of Carla’s top picks: Rogue Porcelana 80%, Patric Signature Blend 70%, and Dick Taylor Belize 72%

 

(Rob) Knowing that, how do you identify a good craft chocolatier?

(Carla) I tend to be drawn to the stories behind chocolate – as an anthropologist I love the human side of things. The best craft chocolate makers, like the best in any field, are those who keep trying to learn more about what they are doing. When you talk to a chocolate maker like Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier, you learn that he is constantly tinkering with his process, sorting through beans by hand pulling out any that are subpar, often at significant loss, geeking out on machinery, practicing with test batches, and experimenting with molding techniques. The same goes for Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate, who is currently running his business while working toward a graduate degree in food science, in search of answers to some of the questions he has developed about flavor over the years. Dustin Taylor and Adam Dick, the founders of Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, tweeted out a year or so ago that they scrapped a big batch of their chocolate, at high cost, because they realized it didn’t meet muster and couldn’t justify selling it. The level of attention, perfectionism, and integrity that goes into making the best craft chocolate – well, it leaves me gobsmacked.

There are a lot of critiques of today’s increasingly saturated North American craft chocolate market. One key critique is that too many products on the market are more about the aesthetic than about the quality of the chocolate. No amount of pretty packaging or clever branding can disguise the way that your mouth puckers when chocolate is too astringent, or erase the lingering burnt aftertaste from over-roasted beans.

The main thing I recommend to people beginning to explore craft chocolate is to cultivate a healthy skepticism – ask a lot of questions about the product and be pleasantly suspicious of the answers you get because, from having studied the industry, it’s clear to me that misinformation is too often the norm. So be skeptical, find makers and retailers who you trust – get to know Formaggio’s inimitable chocolate buyer Julia Hallman, for example – and keep trying to learn more.

 

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This post is part one of three detailing my interview with Carla D. Martin. Stay tuned for parts two and three in the coming weeks! In the meantime, you can check out Carla’s blog for news on the latest chocolate-world happenings, and sign up for our newsletters to follow updates to our chocolate selection.

 

Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the blog manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.

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Higher Ground Rooftop Farm

Higher Ground Rooftop Farm

We climb narrow metal steps from the top floor of the Boston Design Center, set out through a heavy, metal door, and over a final raised ledge at the bottom of the door that can only be intended to discourage entrance onto the roof. Even before my eyes adjust to the brilliant sunlight, with my first breath, I can feel the farm in my lungs. It is not exactly just the smell of things growing; more the feeling of being given pure, new oxygen, in even exchange for the CO2 I am offering. When, still squinting, I first see the careful rows of vibrant life, I have that feeling of gazing at a mirage – it seems a bit of that visible, liquidy heat shimmers up into the air just beyond the edge of the rooftop, slightly obscuring the Boston skyline, at eye-level, off in the distance.

Rows of carefully placed, repurposed milk crates open up before me, filled with rich, warm, nutrient soil, brimming over with green accented by bits of red from ripening tomatoes, orange from squash blossoms, and purple from a special variety of basil, peaking through. I almost don’t believe Courtney, when she later explains that of the 1700 milk crates, 500 were filled with soil, and carried up those narrow metal steps by hand – 200 by Courtney and John on their own, and 300 in one morning (10,000 pounds of soil!) with a crew of nine. I walk with Courtney through the raised fields and she gently shows me each species of plant, picking a few tastes for me – the sweet burst of sunshine of a cherry tomato; the striking contrast between the bright citrus of lemon basil, and the soft spice of opal basil; the delicate pepper of perfect arugula. I recognize then, that the deep love and dedication she and John put into their farm every day extend far beyond the sweat and muscle-power they would have expended to lug those first crates up the steep stairs (The remaining 1200 crates lifted over the side of the building with the assistance of a massive crane, and Courtney and John did concede to outsource the crane operation!)

Higher Ground Produce

A sampling of Higher Ground’s current crop — purple basil, squash plants, and greens

Courtney and John had been carrying around the seeds of Higher Ground in suspended animation for years, since they first met in college and acknowledged shared passions for sustainable food, farming, and agriculture. Finally, in July of 2013, following months of impassioned conversations with the – supportive – Boston Redevelopment Authority, mountains of permitting paperwork, several failed attempts to find the right rooftop, and finally, a whirlwind Kickstarter campaign, they were able to plant those seeds on the top of the Boston Design Center. With a relatively short window left in the growing season for 2013, Courtney and John still managed to produce a trial crop of tomatoes – some of those hearty plants, Courtney showed me, have been trying to push their way back in on their own this year, in rows of soil intended for – and planted with! – other crops.

2014 has been their first season of full production, supplying some of Boston’s most outstanding restaurants, specialty food stores, and markets with an exceptional variety of organic fare. Hopefully, by now, if you have been by our South End shop this summer, you have tasted their arugula, tomatoes, and fresh basil for yourself. (They were one of the only farms in the area not affected by the basil blight, so if you were fretting the loss of all the pesto you were planning to make and put away for the winter, there is still basil to be had!)

You might ask, why an open-air rooftop farm in New England, rather than the greenhouse model, which could extend the growing season? First and foremost, Courtney explained, she and John simply love being outdoors, and frankly, the possibility of being cooped up inside a greenhouse was never on the table. Moreover, the open-air farm is actually more economical to run – so it was an easy decision. One of the biggest challenges with an open-air farm, however, is keeping the soil fertile and healthy, without readily being able to use many traditional techniques. For example, in order to fertilize with cover crop (green manure), which would be ideal for the plants, they would have to find a way to turn it into the planters by hand. That is one challenge they have not solved yet, but Courtney is hopeful, “Most of my best ideas come to me while I’m trying to fall asleep at night, so I’m sure some kind of answer will pop in my brain.”

I also asked if they had considered getting bees. Courtney explained that their current lease won’t allow for any animals, big or small on the roof, so they aren’t able to keep bees. (Someone should tell that to the feisty band of seagulls who decided to make part of the roof their rookery for the season!) As good fortune – or good ecological planning – would have it, their neighbors at The Seaport Hotel have nine hives, “so their bees are over all the time pollinating and buzzing the day away.”

Hearing this, and looking out again over the Boston skyline, I start to wonder – of all those rooftops, certainly most (or all??) of them could be suitable for some kind of green activity. The quiet purity of the very air at Higher Ground is so dramatically different from anywhere else in and immediately around the city. What would it be like to breathe in a city filled with rooftop gardens and farms?

Sharing Space with the Seagulls

Sharing Space with the Seagulls

Courtney and John’s lease covers about twice as much of the space on the roof as they currently are using and (assuming a positive outcome from negotiations with the seagulls) they expect to continue to expand the farm, as well as to develop part of the remaining area into a green event space, which would be open to the wider community, in addition to hosting Higher Ground events. They are encouraged by the successes of their efforts so far and their warm reception by the community to continue growing.

With production volume way up, as late harvest crops are peaking, while summer-long crops are still thriving, volunteers willing to put in a few hours of manual love for the farm are welcome and encouraged – especially on Tuesdays and Fridays, which are harvest days. You can contact Courtney and John through Higher Ground’s website to set up a time for a visit and to lend a hand.

Happily, we will be offering Higher Ground produce through the end of the season – be sure to come in and grab a taste of the end of summer to relish.

 

Marianne Staniunas is a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.

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Dizzy feasts on buttercups

Dizzy feasts on buttercups

A cow named Dizzy munches on buttercups, a goat named Isabelle ruminates under the shade of an old oak tree; in Vermont, the rolling green pastures are shadowed only by the cheeses that its distinct flora promotes.

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Consider Bardwell Farm

Consider Bardwell Farm

Four years ago, when I first moved from New York to the Boston-area, I can only describe it as a collision of worlds. Although the change of pace is less noticeable for some, it took me extra time to adjust to the relatively gentle mobility of Beantown as compared to that of the Big Apple.

After finding work at Formaggio Kitchen, and as I established a comfort zone with my newly adopted environment, I was given the opportunity through the shop to visit a series of farms in western Vermont. I had never traveled that far north in the United States before, so I jumped at the opportunity.

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Farmers Jane Field Blend WhiteIn celebration of Independence Day weekend, we’re featuring one delicious American wine. The Farmers Jane project is run by friends and wine lovers Angela and Faith in southern California. This tasty white is made from grapes purchased from a Santa Ynez valley vineyard belonging to the Native American Chamush tribe. In this vineyard Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussane grow together, and the grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented all together at the same time, old-school style. (more…)

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Citrus - lemons, limes, tangerines, oranges and kumquats

As those of you have been by our South End store during the past few weeks may have noticed, despite the slow drag as spring gradually gains ground in the battle to wrest our weather from winter’s claws, we have been fortunate to have a bit of sunshine gracing our shelves. This sunshine comes in the form of produce from the small, organic farms we work with in California. (more…)

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Apple Caramel Pawlet Cheese Pie

The heat of summer is finally over! While that does mean the end of berries, lemonade and cobblers, the season of pumpkins, mulled cider and, of course, apple pie is now in full swing. To celebrate the season, I wanted to bake a non-traditional apple pie using only New England products (and, sneaking in one sweet addition from Brooklyn). The end result was an apple pie with a caramel lavender sauce and cheese crust. And to drink? Mystic Brewery’s Mystic Descendant, a dry stout just bitter enough to offset the sweetness of the pie, with notes of caramel and toffee to complement. (more…)

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