Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Seattle Chocolate Salon

The Seattle Chocolate Salon
July 12, 2009
Bell Harbor Conference Center

9:30am. I fortify myself for the day ahead with a huge, bland breakfast: oatmeal, an egg, a little fruit. No sugar, no caffeine, no dairy...not yet.

11:15am. I would have gotten to the Chocolate Salon when the doors opened at 11, if only Pier 66 had been were I thought it was. That was Pier 54--some 5 blocks away.

So I'm sweating and out of breath when I get in the Will Call line with a printout saying that I, humble blogger, am entitled to a press pass (I emailed a question about the event and got a voucher in reply: deus ex machina!).

"You're late," say the young woman behind the desk, as she outfits me with a VIP wristband. I start to stammer an apology and she dimples and laughs: "Oh, don't worry, there's probably some chocolate left."

Inside the main hall three things hit me at once: the smell of the chocolate, the size of the crowd, and the fact that everyone is wearing a VIP wristband.

The first table I spotted quieted my fears. William Dean Chocolates was reassuringly top-heavy with samples. Since it was also mobbed with guests, I made a first round of the less-crowded tables.

At the Oh!Chocolate booth a chocolatier sat at a marble slab rolling tiny balls of fondant or snips of candied apricot in melted chocolate (photo above). Plopped down on squares of waxed paper, the newborn truffles were snatched up immediately, and I wasn't the only one trying to lick the excess melted chocolate off the paper.

Oh! is a family business now run by the original owners' daughters, with the help of three grandsons; their Mercer Island store will have its 35th anniversary next Valentine's Day. The Madison Park branch offers guests the chance to get down and dirty at weekly hands-on chocolate classes.

At Intrigue Chocolates I grazed on "fresh truffles", defenseless blobs of flavor-infused fondant blanketed in cocoa powder but not enrobed in a hard chocolate shell. While deconstruction seems so very modern, owner Aaron Barthel is actually looking to the past: "French truffles--the original--are free of the distraction of the hard shell." From a repertoire of about 70 boozy, herby, and fruity flavors (plus one dubbed "the Doctor") , Intrigue makes 6 flavors monthly. Their shelf-life is about like a gallon of milk: a month in the fridge.

The strong flavors brought out strong reactions. I snuck seconds of my favorites while other members of the gathered crowd gushed about flavors that didn't actually taste like much to me.

The samples at Claudio Corallo were made of much sterner stuff. Shallow white dishes held shards of hard, glossy, high-percentage dark chocolate made by an Italian chocolatier who lives and works on his own cacao farm in Brazil. Corallo's control over his product was most appreciable in the 100% bar, made with no dairy, sugar, or added cocoa butter; it tasted clean and creamy and not at all bitter. Balls of candied ginger coated with the 100% dark were also a delicious surprise, as was a "French curry" truffle designed by the pastry chef of Seattle's Crush restaurant; the garlic and spices were as subtle and warm as the ganache.

12:45pm. Things are getting a little out of hand. Most of the chocolatiers have carefully separated their "sample" products from their "sale" products, but some guests are too jazzed to notice the difference. I see one woman reach over a tray of quartered truffles to a gift box of whole ones; she plucks out 3 or 4 and one after the other pops them, whole, into her mouth, as she slowly wanders to the next table. The incredulous chocolatier just sighs, quarters the remaining truffles from the plundered box, and sets them out on the display tray.

What with the delicious smells and the crush of affluent people swinging tote bags and exchanging cooking tips, my mind wandered, momentarily, to a farmers' market. And then came to an abrupt halt as I thought of the major difference between the two.

Next to none of the people in this room had actually grown the chocolate they were fronting. A goodly number probably couldn't say where their cacao originated, having bought their blocks of couverture from mass-producers such as Valhrona or Callebaut. These mass-market chocolates are a blend of "bulk" beans, cacao sourced from all over, and brought together for a desired price point or flavor profile. The origins of the individual cacao beans are lost to the melting pot; they become "French" chocolate, or "Swiss" chocolate, regardless of where they were actually grown.

Why this is an issue for some, is that the agricultural practices and labor conditions associated with cacao production can be quite troubling. Although you don't hear much about "sweatshop chocolate" or "blood chocolate", cacao, like diamonds or cheap t-shirts, often comes to us on a tide of human misery. Joe Whinney, founder of Theo Chocolates, observes that awareness of this issue is growing and that consumers are increasingly looking for accountability: "[Make sure] nobody gets hurt...and then you enjoy it."

But while with enough cash and a free morning you can pester the farmers at a local market until you are satisfied that you are buying the happiest goat milk or the greenest green beans, acting as a responsible consumer of chocolate is not always so clearly scripted. With the exception a small concern in Hawaii, cacao farms are not particularly accessible. Cacao grows in sweaty and often remote areas within a belt circling the earth twenty degrees to either side of the equator. The average American consumer is unlikely ever to meet a cacao farmer face-to-face, much less to visit a cacao farm.

So what's a conscientious chocoholic to do?

Divine Chocolates ("Heavenly Chocolate with a Heart") makes a good argument for seeking out Fair Trade. Divine is co-owned by the farmers in Ghana who produce the cacao for its range of flavored bars; according to the company literature, this arrangement ensures that farmers "...get a guaranteed Fair Trade price to invest in their communities". Theo, too, uses only Fair Trade chocolate, and Whinney says that Fair Trade branding sends a strong and straightforward message to consumers.

But when I asked the Divine rep to estimate for me the amount of Fair Trade chocolate at the Salon, he reckoned 10%--at best. As Whinney admits, "There's a certain level of administration that has to go into Fair Trade certification." Theo helps its suppliers meet the additional associated costs, but not every chocolatier can go so far. Among the chocolatiers who addressed the ethical aspects of their products, there was little finger pointing (except, on occasion, at certain industrial makers of chocolate-flavored candy) and a general agreement, to quote Lauren Adler of Chocolopolis, that, "Fair Trade isn't the only way."

For example, Carter's Chocolates are eco-concious, largely locavore, and wrapped in recycled or biodegradable packaging--but they aren't certified Fair Trade. Carter's sells truffles made from "flavor" beans, speciality cacao that makes up only about 10% of global production and remains identified by its country of origin, even after it has been processed by chocolatiers in another country. Knowing the pedigree of their chocolates allows Carter's to choose suppliers who are known for good labor and ecological practices--as well as for great tastes that pair seamlessly with their "local flavor" ganaches that feature" Washington State dessert wines, ales from Pike Brewing Company, top shelf liquors, natural fruit purees...". Carter's owner is also keen to see the conditions on his suppliers' farms for himself, and is planning his first visit to a plantation in January.

2:15pm. Samples that would have seemed stingy at the start of the Salon are starting to look more and more sensible. Guests are not supposed to take samples home but I see more and more people turning their plastic water glasses into to-go cups filled with cut-up truffles. On some level this is anti-social behavior akin to filling up water bottles from a frat party keg--but on the other hand, it seems like the only way to give those chocolates you encounter towards the end of the day a fair try. You can cleanse your palate until it squeaks but you won't truly taste anything it you're eating it against your stomach's groaning protests.

In a series of afternoon presentations, many speakers also addressed chocolate's impact on the health (and happiness) of consumers. The term "organic" was used but not much discussed--perhaps people are assumed to know where they stand on that issue already.

Lauren Adler advised the audience on how to read the label on a bar of dark chocolate: acceptable ingredients are cocoa liquor/solids/mass, some cocoa butter, lecithin, real vanilla (not fake vanillin). Real dark chocolate should contain no additional oils or dairy ingredients. She also explained that "dutched" or "dutch-process" cocoa may look darker and more potent than reddish natural cocoa, but that the added alkali salts have stripped the cocoa of some nutritional value and flavor (though when baking, one should use whichever process is called for by the recipe, as they have different rising properties).

Joe Whinney also addressed the topic of "raw chocolate", a promising but unresolved new category of healthy treat. The claim is that raw, cold-processed chocolate maintains much higher levels of cacao's natural antioxidants; the problem is that without heat, it can be difficult to draw out that last little bit of moisture that will otherwise cause the cacao to mold. At Theo they have been able to slow-roast the beans at a low enough temperature to still be considered "raw", but haven't yet found a way of overheating the beans during grinding. Whinney predicts that true "raw chocolate" is in the pipeline, but for now, should be treated with some skepticism; he also pointed out that the level of anti-oxidants in a chocolate has as much to do with its genes as with how it was processed.

3:30pm. So much for chocolate as health food. Once again I'm sweating and out of breath, and I seem to be on the verge of a panic attack.

On my way out I stop to make a purchase (of which, more later) from the now barren William Dean table. The attendant shakes his head in amazement at the empty trays: 3,000 samples inhaled in around 4 hours.

Time to go home and eat. Brown rice and steamed vegetables sounds good.

The Salon website lists official prizes and honors, but here is my own subjective list of things I would thoroughly enjoy eating again (in no particular order)...

Theo Chocolate Bread and Chocolate
Claudio Corallo 100% Dark
Divine Chocolate Dark Chocolate with Mint

Claudio Corallo Ginger Balls (candied ginger rolled in 100% dark chocolate)

Decadent Tastes Lemongrass Ginger Truffle
La Chatelaine Chocolat Co. Olive oil et Amande Truffle (dark chocolate covered chocolate ganache with extra virgin olive oil and toasted almonds)
Intrique Chocolates fresh truffles in Mojito and Saint Basil
Carter's Chocolates Amaretto Truffle
William Dean Chocolates Mexican Mango Truffle ("layer of mango pate de fruit on top of a layer of milk chocolate ganache infused with fresh lime topped with a sea salt infused green chilies enrobed in dark chocolate")

Ubiquitous sea-salted caramel:
Oh!Chocolate Honey Orangeflower Caramel
Posh Chocolates Turkish Coffee Caramel with Espresso Brava Sea Salt