I have a confession to make: I eat so much chocolate I buy it in bulk. Okay, that said, let’s talk about more delicate patterns of consumption. When I open a bottle of wine and turn to my stash of chocolate, I don’t want a handful of chips. I want each bite to be a chocolate experience. You have artisanal bars, molded chocolate, and chocolates – or as Sarah Hart prefers to call them, bonbons; and in French, “bonbons”, are “good good”. Hart’s kitchen is behind the counter of Alma Chocolate, a boutique nestled in the row of restaurants at 140 NE 28th Ave. Her little chocolate packages hold any flavor imaginable to satisfy the palate, and your loved ones.
People who cook with chocolate, make chocolates, or chocolate bars all have something to say about what makes an artisanal chocolate. Hart says, “The human touch makes some ineffable difference.”
A man comes into Alma Chocolate and says, “Last time I had the bourbon. I think you put a little extra of the Maker’s Mark in it.”
“Yeah,” Hart smiles. “We’ve been going a little heavier.”
The man buying chocolates points to a tray of chocolates in the glass case and says, “How about a Marshy.” Hart places a chocolate in the box and suggests, “Have you had the Marzipan?”
“Hmm,” he deliberates and decides on Sabrina, Ginger, and Cardamon chocolates.
Sarah Hart makes chocolates of sundry flavors. “I use a lot of herbal infusions and spices. When you’re eating them, you stop and think about it. You taste the flavors and don’t just gobble them down.” She confides, “Some of my stuff tends toward the savory side, so they’re not really candy.”
How about fig stuffed with blue cheese then dipped in chocolate? Or try a Thai-style Peanut Butter Cup; Hart explains, “It’s sweet, but based on ginger, coconut milk, peanut, chile, and lime . . . but instead of garlic, I have chocolate.” You can also enjoy a dark chocolate Rosemary with 74% chocolate (not a lot of sugar). Hart points out, “Rosemary tends toward more savory cooking and is often used with meats.” There’s also wine-soaked figs in a little chocolate cup with goat cheese, but these are fresh from the kitchen and have to be special ordered.
The door opens and in walks a man who wants to buy a box of chocolates. “How big?” Hart asks in a familiar repartee to determine box-size. “Let’s do ‘eight-to-ten’.” He looks through the glass case at trays of chocolates. “Let’s do two of Bourbon, two of Royal Crown, two of Rosemary Fleur-de-lis.” Hart places each chocolate in the box. “And two of Salted Lavender,” he concludes. Hart reaches into the case with silver tongs and says, “That’s pretty much mandatory to do two of those; they’re our biggest seller.”
“And how about one Cardamon and one Marzipan,” he adds.
Making chocolate, “like wine-making, a lot can go wrong when you’re making it,” Hart informs me. “They have to be good beans. Then they’re fermented and roasted.” The packaged chocolate bars on the shelves at Alma Chocolate are all small artisanal companies. Hart points out, “With the smaller companies – kind of like a wine maker – you can have a chocolate bar that is very different from year to year.” Hart’s first pick is “bean-to-bar makers, starting from raw chocolate and making it all themselves.” Next, she selects any bar that’s organic or fair trade; and lastly, there’s some European imports so consistently appealing, you “can’t call them artisanal, but they’re really good.”
And a caveat to consumers: corporations gobble up good chocolate bar-makers just as readily as we eat chocolate bars. The Hershey Company purchased Ashland-based Dagoba Organic Chocolate in October 2006. You would never know it from the label, and it’s not on the “Our Story” section of Dagoba’s website, but the press release from Hershey’s contains all the savory details of the merger.
There’s an ongoing debate about hand-crafted chocolate: when does a chocolate go from being artisanal to being commercial? Just as the ratios of chocolate solids (pasty) to cocoa butter (oily) determines how it feels in your mouth, the taste is entirely subjective to your experience. Hart defines artisanal chocolates as “hand-made, small batch with high-quality ingredients.” She purchases bulk chocolate called “couverture”, French for “covering”. When making bonbons, the chocolate covers the ingredients. Another word to refer to the craft is “Fonduer”, from the French “fondu”: to melt. “But I’m not just a melter,” Hart retorts. “I prefer ‘chocolatier’. I use chocolate. I make chocolates.”
Hart started Alma Chocolate with a chocolate molded in the shape of a heart and gilded with gold. She sold them packaged in see-through wrapping alongside arts and crafts booths at Portland events and Thursday art walks. Her shop is a force multiplier, and now there’s a growing variety of molded chocolates. Alma Chocolate has chocolate acorns, pinecones, and dark chocolate Grey Squirrels. And if your tastes run a bit more mystical, you can bite into a chocolate icon.
“The gold-leaf is super paper-thin,” Hart says. “It has to be 23 or 24 karat to be edible. I use 23. We spray the molded chocolate with an edible lacquer to make the gold stick. The gild is all hand-applied, then we brush it, to take away the gold in the detail.” Naturally, the gold leaf doesn’t stick as well in the crevices, lines, and folds of the molded chocolate and brushing it away gives the icons an antiqued appearance.
When chocolate Santas and Easter Bunnies look too silly for your taste, chose from a range of chocolate icons: a large sacred heart, a small flaming heart, a laughing Buddha, a contemplative Buddha, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and more.
There is ambrosial liqueur in you, when you eat chocolate. You might say, “It tastes divine.” Others say it’s sinfully good, but however you balance the forces at play, it doesn’t have to be a Valentine’s Day, to say I love you with chocolates.