Category Archives: Travel

Seattle chocolate extravaganza

It’s a tough life, this chocolate gig. This weekend, I’m off to Seattle to judge not one, but two, chocolate contests.

Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon
Taking place from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, the Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon features a selection of chocolate bars and confections from (mostly) the Pacific Northwest. This event used to be in July, so I’m glad to see it moved to a more sensible time of year. I think it paid off for the organizers, because this event is sold out!

This will be my second year judging, and I’m looking forward to learning more about new-to-me companies. I’m also pleased to be leading a chocolate-tasting workshop at 3:30 p.m. If you’re attending, please say hi!

The Chocolopolis Serious Chocolate Contest
I’m a huge fan of Chocolopolis; in fact, it’s often the first place I stop when I’m Seattle. On Sunday, May 15, they’re hosting the Serious Chocolate Contest, which challenges arm-chair pastry chefs and chocolate bakers (their words, not mine—though I’m happy to borrow) to use bean-to-bar chocolate in creative ways.

The deadline for applications is 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 14. Apply now!

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Vancouver Hot Chocolate Festival

I’m back and nearly recovered from a crazy weekend in San Francisco. The good kind of crazy, though. Like eating Meyer lemon sorbet from Scream Sorbet while basking in the sun. Without wearing my winter coat. In January. Southern California, you’re so weird and wonderful.

While I was there, I also had the fortune of attending the Good Food Awards and the Fancy Food Show. Talk about a great food weekend.

Back in Vancouver, I’m keeping cozy with sweaters and mittens. And, just in time to tide you through the rainy drizzle, there’s the first annual Vancouver Hot Chocolate Festival. Included in the list of participating places are two of my favourite spots, Chocolaterie de la Nouvelle France and Thomas Haas Chocolates, plus new upstart Campagnolo Caffe and everyone’s favourite gelato place Bella Gelateria.

The festival runs from January 15 to February 13, and each participant is donating a portion of their proceeds to charity. How’s that for a win-win situation?

Read more about the event from CityFood Magazine or check out the event calendar.

Participating businesses:

A bit of housekeeping

Confession (and not one that will be surprising to you): I have been incredibly delinquent with this here blog. And I have no valid excuses. Offline, things have been rather busy and yes, I’ve been travelling, but that’s not a real excuse for abandoning the loveliness that is blogging. It isn’t even that I don’t have anything to say. I just can’t get my proverbial ass into the proverbial chair to write something witty and chocolatey.

So, erm, sorry.

The thing is, I’ll be on the road for the next four weeks. I’m packing my insanely large suitcase and heading to a place where I hear that access to Google, Facebook and Twitter are suspect. A place that is home to 40 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (though I won’t be visiting all 40—just three of them) and an incredible diversity of food that makes my mouth water.

That’s right, I’m heading to China. On the itinerary: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and sites in between.

(Incidentally, China is one of the largest potential markets for chocolate, but problems with reliable storage, temperature variations and shelf life prevent it from being a lucrative market. So far, anyway. I’m curious to see what passes for chocolate in China. I wonder if certain so-called luxury brands will do well, simply because they’re western. I will report back.)

I’ve never been to the Mainland, and the last time I was in Hong Kong, I was five years old. I got off the plane, saw a sea of Chinese faces, extrapolated to the only place in Vancouver that also featured a sea of Chinese faces, and asked my mom if we were in Chinatown. I can see the look on her face, crystal clear, as she realized just how Canadian her daughter was.

Anyway, this Canadian girl is in for some culture shock and a crash course in Mandarin. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’ll be tromping around the Great Wall of China, standing in Tiananmen Square or eating Peking Duck where it was invented. Also on the itinerary: one line item that simply says “Dumpling Feast” (insert ecstastic dumpling dance here), a trip to a tea plantation and a visit to a silk factory.

And you’d better believe that I’m bringing my eating pants and a half-empty suitcase.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company

I’m always looking for chocolate, and I’m continually surprised and delighted by teeny tiny chocolatiers in the most unlikeliest of places. For example, my recent trip to Salt Spring Island find of Chocolate Beach. Or, more recently, on my fabulous weekend in the mountains of Rossland, B.C., visiting the Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company

I think the universe conspired to put this little shop on my radar. I found them through Twitter, and then my friends G & M, who live in Rossland, mentioned this great little chocolate shop that had just opened in their town. With G & M’s recent nuptials in Rossland, it seemed that it was time for us to meet face-to-face.

Trish Dyer, the chocolatier, is delightful with just a hint of sass. If I had had more time in Rossland I would have taken her out for a beer so we could revel in our mutual sassiness.

As fate would have it, I had to settle for a mere box of chocolates. There’s a nice selection of traditional flavours, updated by using local or regional ingredients, and some decided wackiness.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company: Wasabi!

The wasabi confection is adventurous and ambitious. I popped it in my mouth and experienced a tongue-whooping blast of wasabi. My nasal cavities braced themselves for the pain that usually accompanies that kind of wasabi power, but it never came. Instead, the wasabi mellowed into chocolate ganache with serious brownie notes. I can’t say that I love it, but the play on senses is definitely intriguing.

There’s the requisite sea salt caramel: perhaps a bit heavy-handed with the salt but the caramel is thoughtfully chewy without being sticky. Standouts include Noir, a classic French truffle, delightfully dark, perfectly smooth and rolled in cocoa powder. The filling in the truffle is a bit softer than the other Mountain Nugget confections, and I like it.

The peanut butter barrel is essentially two peanut butter cups stacked on top of each other to look like a barrel. I preferred to eat it as two peanut butter cups—one treat spread over two tasting sessions. Peanut butter and chocolate are a natural combination, but the peanut butter here really sings. It’s a rich, deep nut butter that tastes like the peanuts roasted in the oven for a minute more than they were supposed to—not because anyone forgot about them, but because they wanted to hang out a bit longer, dammit. This peanut butter is badass.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company - assortment of chocolates

The star of the show has to be the coconut log. A grown-up version of Bounty bar, this is a white chocolate ganache with toasted coconut, maybe a hint of honey, and just a touch of saltiness to cut through the richness. Choose from dark or milk chocolate on the outside, and get two because you won’t want to share with anyone.

There’s also a nice selection of bars with inclusions (that is, chocolate bars with stuff in them) like almonds, dried fruit and nuts.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company
2076 Columbia Avenue
Rossland, BC
250.362.3338

Marriage, macarons and mountain time

Lean in close, and I’ll tell you a secret.

I don’t really like people.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no curmudgeon, and I’m social enough when I need to be, but let’s face it: I’m an introvert. And I’m a writer. And as much as I hate to stereotype, that really does mean that, given the option, I’d rather sit inside with a good book than go to a raging kegger.

(That said, had you asked me the same question five years ago, I probably would have picked the kegger. So maybe this is just a sign of getting old.)

Increasingly, getting old(er) has meant more moving around, and friends moving around. A few years ago, two of My Most Favouritest People Ever, G & M, moved to the mountain town of Rossland, B.C. And while I was sad to see them go, I recognize that this means that I have another place to visit and discover, and more opportunity to miss—and look forward to seeing—two of My Most Favouritest People Ever.

Bears are in Rossland

Things are different in the mountains.

G & M got married last weekend in their backyard, surrounded by a small group of friends and family. We sat on bales of hay and watched two people agree to continue having exquisite adventures with each other. And before I even had time to shed a tear, they were kissing. It was done. And it was lovely.

G & M are pretty simple people. In lieu of a gift, they asked me to bring something sweet for dessert. And though I know they benefited from it, I think they also understood that that was the gift I really wanted to give them. Food as love.

So I brought macarons. I know, they’re almost irritatingly trendy right now, but even I’ll admit that they’re awfully pretty. And when done right, they’re one of my favourite things. So, one of My Favourite Things for two of My Most Favouritest People Ever. And let’s be clear—I didn’t set out to bring macarons. But Rossland is a nine-hour drive from Vancouver. Between nine hours without refrigeration and my desire to not spend the morning of the wedding in a kitchen, macarons just made sense.

Wedding macarons, raspberry and nutella

Turning a hotel room into a macaron factory is easier than you might think.

I made the cookie portions in Vancouver and froze them in preparation for the drive there. The morning of the wedding, I transformed the hotel room desk into a staging ground for macaron assembly: pink ones full of raspberry jam, chocolate ones full of nutella. Of course, some of the macarons didn’t fare the car ride so well…good thing, too, as every good (pastry) chef tastes her wares before serving them to guests.

The reception, dinner and dancing passed by in a blur. I have vague memories of salmon with mango salsa, a caramelized nut bar on shortbread, kicking off my high heels and bouncing around the dance floor and generally revelling in the glow of being around Good People.

Whether it was the hangover (literal and figurative) of the wedding or the innate idyllic nature of Rossland, that feeling permeated the entire weekend. It wasn’t long before I was saying hi to everyone walking down the street. That simply doesn’t happen in the city. And watching kids run into their friends on the street and make impromptu plans to play with each other? It’s nice to know that still happens.

The more time I spent in Rossland, the longer time got. I stopped checking my watch to wonder what I was supposed to be doing. I hiked to the top of a mountain. I took a nap in a park. I stopped to chat with people. I poked around antique shops. I sat in the children’s section of a bookstore and looked at picture books.

And it was wonderful.

Now I’m back in the city and trying to hang onto that feeling of mountain time. Savouring the morning cup of coffee and staring out the window, thinking about what the day holds. Striking up a conversation with strangers. Because I can.

Salt Spring Island weekend mini-vacation

I’m not sure if it’s a sign of getting older, or the fact that I moved from a house into a high-rise apartment building, or the fact that there are two construction sites across the street from me, but I’ve been finding the city tiresome. Don’t get me wrong. I love Vancouver, I love my neighbourhood (and its impressive 95% score on a walkability index) and I love not having a car.

View from Salt Spring Island getaway house

This is an arbutus tree. I never knew they were red. Or so pretty.

But still, it’s nice to have friends who invite you to islands for long weekend mini-vacations. Friends with parents with houses on Salt Spring Island. You know, friends with parents with houses on Salt Spring Island with views like this from the back porch.

And speaking of said porch, candelit dinners with friends are also wonderful. One night it was barbecued ribs, another night handmade pizza.

And piiiiiie. One strawberry-rhubarb, one blueberry. I did not, however, bake them in this darling little wood stove—I used a convection oven. But they sure look pretty on top of it, so let’s just pretend. Let’s also pretend that this picture isn’t blurry. And I’ll pretend that I hadn’t been drinking wine in the sun all afternoon.

Pie!

Pie! One strawberry-rhubarb, one blueberry. Both delicious.

Salt Spring Island, for the uninitiated, is a mecca of educated hippie artistic fantasticness. Where nary a multi-national chain can be found, and where there are no fewer than three soap companies. (These are clean hippies, understand.) And at last weekend’s Saturday market, it seemed that the entire island could be found at the city square.

And what a market it was. Gorgeous pottery, hand-knit hats, sock monkeys, carnival masks, tie-dyed yoga pants, hula hoops: it was all there. And, of course, lots of artisan food vendors and stunningly fresh produce. The farmers market aisle was fragrant with the scent of basil, and everywhere you looked there was an heirloom tomato more perfect than the last. And stripey Portuguese garlic, all coy in its basket.

Portuguese garlic at Salt Spring Island market

Stripey!

I discovered that Foxglove Farm, with its farm dinners, accommodation and education programs, has the best raspberries that I’ve tasted in years. I ogled the selection of fresh goat cheeses from Salt Spring Island Cheese Company (almost too pretty too eat).

And yes, I found chocolate.

Salted caramels from Chocolate Beach

Caramels with Himalayan sea salt. Tasty.

Chocolate Beach is a teeny tiny chocolate company run by Joanne and Rob Burns. She’s the chocolatier, formerly goat cheese maker, formerly something else. She’s now retired and making chocolates with certified fair trade chocolate from Cocoa Camino. Her sea salt caramel, a pleasantly chewy caramel dipped in chocolate and topped with pink Himalayan sea salt, was lovely. Rob manned the other side of the booth with an impressive display of fudge.

While I didn’t try this tarte au chocolat, it’s awfully pretty. And I’m a sucker for a cursive chalk on a chalkboard. It helps that this table was run by a very friendly French couple who spoke like zees.

Tarte au chocolat

Cue accordion music and Audrey Tautou cameo appearance.

My sweet tooth also spied other treats: stacks of buttery shortbread from Bite Me! Gourmet Treats and honest-to-goodness cannoli from an Italian food stand.

And, because I clearly hadn’t had a decadent enough day, I had a pineapple-coconut popsicle from the Salt Spring Island Fruitsicle stand. Self-proclaimed “creators and purveyors of delicious, fruit based iced lollies,” these were the hit of the market. Popsicles that taste like real fruit. How novel.

All in all, a great weekend away.

Stacks of shortbread

Stacks of shortbread from Bite Me! Gourmet Treats

Cannoli

I love cannoli, but I can't get a good cannoli in Vancouver. These were good (but not like the stuff you can get in Montreal).

Chocolates from Chocolate Beach at Salt Spring Island market

An assortment of chocolates from Chocolate Beach

Candlelit dinner on Salt Spring Island

Life was made for candlelit dinners with good food, good wine and great company.

Sunset, glorious sunset from the porch.

And now I'm just being mean by posting this. But look! Stunning!

Claudio Corallo Chocolate

(My sincerest apologies to the Chocolate 201 folks who are waiting for Claudio Corallo tasting notes. Consider this a meandering introduction to man and his chocolate. The Claudio Corallo tasting notes are in the next post.)

Claudio Corallo store in SeattleI confess that Claudio Corallo Chocolate was one of my primary reasons for doing Chocolate 201. Period. I think it’s one of the best—if not the best—expressions of what artisan bean-to-bar chocolate is and should be. Don’t get me wrong: the others that I highlighted in the series are immensely talented chocolatemakers who do a wonderful job. But from a philosophical standpoint, it’s hard to beat Claudio Corallo.

I’ve mentioned before the numerous steps that go into the transformation from cacao bean to chocolate bar. For most, this process includes harvesting, fermentation, drying, roasting, winnowing, grinding, conching and tempering. Not only is that a lot of steps to get right, but with each step you get further away from the original product. And, as happens with mass-market chocolate, the number of steps means that you can end up with something totally divorced from the starting product.

There are a number of reasons why Claudio Corallo is different from all other chocolatemakers, but I think there’s one important distinction: He grows the cacao himself, on the tiny islands of Sao Tome and Principe where he lives. Other chocolate makers work directly with farmers or buy plantations, but Claudio actually grows cacao. He takes immense pride in this.

Claudio CoralloWhen I had the out-of-this-world experience of meeting him earlier this year, he made a point of saying that he isn’t a chocolatemaker; he’s an agriculturalist. His mission is to grow the best beans that he possibly can, and then to do as little to them as he delicately transforms them into chocolate. He’s a soft-spoken, reserved man. As he doesn’t speak English, we communicated in French. (Very. Slow. French.) He speaks with such passion about what he does, and though he’s reserved, he got quite excited about certain topics, nearly buzzing in his chair. He is adamant about expressing the true chocolate, and paying attention to the little details.

Little details like picking out the germ from each cacao bean. Each cacao bean starts from a germ, which is a fibrous woody thing about 1 centimetre long. It doesn’t taste very good, and it doesn’t have a very nice texture. Most chocolatemakers leave the germ in because it’s so arduous to remove it. Claudio insists that the germ is removed, and his staff go through each bean and remove the germ by hand before it is ground.

From there, most chocolate is conched, but not Claudio’s. His chocolate goes straight to the tempering table where it is spread into thin slabs, then hand-cut and packed into spacey-looking silver packets. Chocolate is typically conched to decrease the particle size, drive off undesirable flavours (acetic acid—vinegar—being one of them) and enhance desirable flavours. Claudio doesn’t conch his chocolate because he wants it to be an expression of the bean, not some polished-up version of it. It speaks to the pride that he takes in the starting material; it’s so good, why mess with it?

The end effect is a chocolate that tastes like cacao beans: specifically, Claudio’s cacao beans. He makes a 100% bar, and it isn’t the least bit bitter. It’s aromatic, nutty, earthy and full of all kinds of flavours that I’ve never tasted in chocolate before. It tastes wild, like a wet forest floor. And I mean that in the most wonderful way. Despite no added sugar, the chocolate doesn’t taste bitter.

Claudio Corallo product lineWith such fanatical control over each step of the process, you’d think that there would only be pure chocolate bars. Well, you’d be wrong. There are inclusions—that is, stuff in the chocolate—like sandy sugar, candied ginger, candied orange and cocoa nibs. And each one is done in a very particular, analytical way.

I’m not the only one who’s completely enamoured with Claudio Corallo’s chocolate. The BBC did a short film about Claudio Corallo, and he was mentioned in an excellent article about chocolate and terroir in Gastronomica’s Winter 2010 issue.

There are also pictures and information about Claudio’s operations on his website. See how chocolate gets transformed from bean to bar.

Claudio Corallo’s flagship store is located in Seattle, WA. The next time you’re in town, stop by for a visit.

Claudio Corallo Chocolate
2122 Westlake Avenue
Seattle WA 98121
206.859.3534