Chocolate puts on airs: cocoa bean culture takes shape
Engineering a designer chocolate is rapidly turning into the kind of science and art typically associated with viticulture. Like winemakers, fine chocolate makers these days consult the pedigree of chocolate ingredients,such as how the cocoa beans were harvested and roasted, in order to introduce new flavors for sophisticated palates.
Chocolate sales ebb and flow with the celebration of holidays, peaking around Valentine’s Day and Christmas. Local luxury chocolatiers are currently stocking their kitchens for Mother’s Day, making shopping lists aimed at a growing market of intellectual and sensitive chocolate consumers.
Zev Rovine, sommelier for Park City’s Spotted Frog Book Store’s Wine Bar, estimates that the chocolate market began to change a decade ago, as part of the specialized food industry movement that includes cheeses, cured meats, salts and pasta.
"Certainly it’s well behind the development of wine in the order of a few hundred years," he says. "But chocolate is a food that has the potential to create that kind of depth."
Rovine has noticed chocolate packages will now even suggest a wine pairing such as Syrah or a Cabernet, though he prefers port himself.
Stein Eriksen Lodge Executive Pastry Chef Raymond Lammers has made chocolates for 21 years in the form of truffles and elaborate centerpieces.
"I think people are much more educated about higher-end chocolates," he said. "In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of articles written about it in the culinary industry it’s been much more publicized"
In 2006, Lammers calculates he purchased 4,300 pounds of chocolate for the Lodge’s Chocolate Atelier, incorporating flavors such as licorice, lemongrass, chai tea and curry into his confections.
"I try not to follow the trends, I try to create trends," he said. "What I like about chocolates is that the only limits are the limits you put on yourself. Your own restraints are the only restraints when it comes to chocolates."
Chefs have been known to travel to watch Lammers expertly table chocolate on marble slabs (a process of mixing heated chocolate to control the temperature) at seminars and demonstrations, such as the Utah Chocolate Show and the Utah Bakers Dozen.
He says the best chocolates have the most delicate shells and skills require time and practice to develop. Inspiration for flavors can come from travelin, visiting candy stores, cafes or grocery stores anywhere, he says, and can begin with a good chocolate or a good spice or fruit. It’s about instinct: making good chocolates is about trial and error, Lammers explains.
Lammers is generous with his knowledge, but when he creates his hand-made truffles, he likes to leave behind a little mystery.
"I like to leave people a little curious. I like them to linger, thinking, ‘what is this? I’m not 100 percent sure,’" he says. "I’ve had too many chocolates where people use too much flavor I like to make sure the chocolate won’t interfere with the flavor and the flavor won’t interfere with the chocolate."
The Salt Lake-based shop Xocolate (pronounced show-ko-lot), is named after the Aztec word for chocolate, a South American culture that was one of the earliest to consume the cocoa bean as part of ceremonial offerings at rituals. According to a historical synopsis on the company Web site, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was responsible for introducing Europe to chocolate in the 1500s, following the Spanish occupation of Central America.
"We make chocolates with chili powder and lime inside and we do a lavender and lemon," says Xocolate’s Assistant Manager Hilary Wilkinson. "And while a lot of shops use machines, everything here is hand-dipped and we don’t use any preservatives."
For Mother’s Day, Xocolate’s best-seller is an assortment of chocolate-dipped dried apricots, mangoes, papaya, peaches and pluots, a complex fruit hybrid of plum and apricot.
Part-time Deer Valley Snow Park Lodge pastry chef Alexis Taylor began her own artisan chocolate company at the beginning of this year after studying chocolate at New York’s Culinary Institute of America. Before becoming a chef, Taylor received a graduate diploma in art history, and considers her chocolates as mini sculptures.
Her company, Cioccolata, is named after the Italian word for chocolate, and offers three truffle collections, featuring flavors like "Bellini," which blends peach and Prosecco, a sparkeling Italian wine, and "Bittersweet Chili," which combines dark chocolate and spicy chili powder. She also has a slate of chocolate "barks" and toffee, such as cashew cardamon and almond.
She hand-dips her chocolates for a very natural, rustic look, and is especially careful about the texture at her truffle’s center known as the "ganache." Instead of chopping up and mashing her fillings, she developed a method of infusing flavors.
In part, Taylor attributes the new high-end chocolate industry growth to new information on the health benefits of the cocoa treat.
"There seems to be a new article in papers about the health benefits of anti oxidants every week," she said. "And I think that’s part of the reason why it’s really going the way of fine wine You even see companies like Hershey’s coming out with fancier chocolates. It’s really taken off."
To learn more about Housemade Chocolates from Stein Eriksen Lodge’s Chocolate Atelier, visit http://www.steinlodge.com/dining/chocolate.
For more information about Cioccolata luxury chocolate, visit http://www.cioccolatalux.com.
And to learn more about Xocolate, visit http://www.xocolate.com .
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When it comes to the U.S. census, let’s just say Park City has… room for improvement.