Friday, March 23, 2018

Tony's Chocolonely: Chocolate Eggs

Easter is quickly approaching, so right here I have the first of the Easter chocolates I'll be covering (I don't expect to do many because most Easter chocolate is the kind of chocolate I don't cover anymore, but hopefully I'll get at least one more). This set of chocolate eggs comes from Tony's Chocolonely, a company I discovered before at World Market. This set, however, I found at Natural Grocers. Natural Grocers doesn't kid around with the kinds of products they're willing to sell, so you can count on them to have one or two products like this for each holiday (sometimes they do sell out of them a little early, though, since I think they like to avoid wastefully overstocking).

The style here falls into the casual category. A label wraps around a small egg carton housing a dozen chocolate eggs. Now, even though the label calls them "great big chocolate eggs," these are not big. They're quite small. So I don't know if the label is meant as a joke or if they're just describing them as being "big" as in greatly wonderful.

They do look cute: a dozen colorful chocolate eggs wrapped up. As someone who is no longer used to buying Easter chocolate, it's exciting to actually have a silly chocolate product like this that I can get behind. Because, of course, you'll recall that the main objective from Tony's is 100% slave-free chocolate. The inside of the label states: "Alone we make slave free chocolate, together we make all chocolate 100% slave free. So we ask you to join." Amen to that, eh? Easter's the perfect time, too, to start thinking about the products that we support on a regular basis. I'm not trying to make you feel guilty about getting a chocolate Easter bunny; I just like to remind people to choose ethically sourced chocolate products more often than not until they eventually become all that you want to buy.

So. What kind of chocolates do we have inside of this carton, besides colorfully-wrapped ones? They come in five flavors: milk chocolate (red), dark chocolate (blue), milk chocolate caramel sea salt (orange), dark chocolate pecan coconut (turquoise), and dark chocolate almond sea salt (green). Some of these I have commented on before in other reviews of Tony's. I personally prefer their milk chocolate to their dark chocolate: both are sweet, which to me makes more sense for milk than dark. The milk chocolate caramel sea salt, as I've mentioned, has almost more of toffee pieces in it--which seems to work better for this egg shape than for the chocolate bar. The coconut isn't strong in the dark chocolate pecan coconut, and the pecan pieces are small; they're just light flavor/texture additions. And the dark chocolate almond sea salt likewise has small pieces of almonds that only add a little bit of flavor/texture; the salt almost adds more.

Of course, the fact that all of this chocolate is sweet and even the fact that the flavored chocolates aren't strongly flavored means that it's perfect for a set like this. The look is casual. And these chocolate eggs can be enjoyed by both children and adults. You can set them out as part of an Easter display or give them as a gift. You can even remove the label easily and add a little card on top to personalize the carton. This set makes a great option for choosing ethically sourced chocolate this Easter.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Dragons and Dinosaurs

Yesterday, Sylvia went to visit the dinosaurs at Pangaea: Land of the Dinosaurs. One dinosaur meets more dinosaurs--which means there are at least two kinds of dinosaurs still alive. Dragon dinosaurs and this kind of dinosaurs:

Sylvia chose to have her photo taken with one of the Irritators. They claw at the air like they're playing the piano. This one kept on raising its head to try and intimidate us; I had to wait until he leaned down enough that he would be closer to Sylvia.

I think she quite fits in with the other reptiles there. Except that her eyes don't glow so fiercely--and she certainly doesn't claw at the air as frighteningly or musically as the Irritators do. She is more tame and sedentary than they are.

Bearded dragons love Pangaea.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Disney Boys: Part 9 - Hercules

Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, and Part 8.

Moving right along from 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, we have Hercules from the very next following year. For the nineties being the era of "girl power" and for there being so much focus from Disney on giving different traits to the princesses (Ariel's spirit, Belle's intelligence, Mulan's physical abilities, etc.), the decade also brought plenty of male characters to the Disney bunch. And that's good: we need both the guys and the gals with all their good traits in fiction and in life. 

I would make a comment about how the emphasis with Hercules on physical strength is different from the emphasis for the princesses, except that Mulan came out the following year and Mulan also went through fight training to become her own type of hero. Interestingly, Mulan and Hercules start off on flip sides. Hercules, though he becomes stronger, starts off already physically strong; his journey is learning what it is to be a real hero. Mulan already knows what it is to be a hero: that's what drove her to take her father's place in the war--her journey was more physical, in learning how to push herself to learn a new type of skill set. 

Hercules starts off a little blind. Hopefully that isn't too much of a stereotype there, but then again, his story is just a hero's journey story, so it's all archetype, anyway. Stereotype, archetype, what's the difference, after all? Hercules is born to the highest place, even higher than princesses like Aurora and Snow White. He isn't a prince; he's a god, the son of Zeus, born to live on Mount Olympus. Like Maleficent with Aurora, the actions of Hades cause Hercules to grow up away from his royal birthright. Also like Aurora, even living as a common person isn't enough to disguise Hercules.

He stands out. Born inherently strong, Hercules remains physically strong even down on earth. He didn't have to work for this strength like Mulan did; he just has it. And he doesn't know how to use it. He wants to help but all he does is make a mess of things, even physically knocking over the whole town center. Like so many at the start of their journey, he feels out of place and longs for something more. Hercules feels like he's supposed to be somewhere else--which is quite true. He isn't just Cinderella looking longingly at the castle before she starts her day of work; he truly was born to live up in the sky instead of down on earth. So that makes sense. But notice what else he dreams of. Not just of belonging but also of cheering crowds. Therein lies the problem: Hercules is just a young person dreaming about fame and acceptance. Even when he says, "I would go most anywhere to feel like I belong," he doesn't truly understand where "anywhere" will be and what he will have to do to gain what he seeks.

When Zeus tells him that he must become a hero to regain his status as an immortal, Hercules is, like a young person once more, excited and eager. He promises not to let Zeus down and now sings that he will "face the world, fearless, proud, and strong." Yet he's still seeking a "hero's welcome." He sings about being fearless and strong without realizing yet what strength is.

Even when he trains with Phil, Hercules learns strength, agility, and technique. But he's still just that same young man, only with an ego now to replace his awkward feeling back at home. He thinks that now that he can control his strength, everyone will finally love him. His first encounter saving Meg goes awkwardly and he oddly introduces himself as a hero in Thebes, only to receive laughter in response. And even when he does help them? What does he say then? "I did great--they even applauded." He still has the wrong focus. 

When Hercules talks to Zeus again, what does he tell him? That he's beaten everyone he's fought and that he's famous. Zeus didn't ask him to fight anyone or to become famous; he asked him to become a hero. It is only at the end, when Meg gives him a reason to think of someone else before himself, that Hercules finally acts out what Zeus has been hinting at. Diving in to save Meg from death's grip even at risk to his own life, Hercules finally achieves his immortality. As Zeus says, "a true hero isn't measured by the size of his strength but by the strength of his heart." Being able to fight had nothing to do with it. 

And did you notice? By the time the crowds did cheer for him, Hercules no longer cared about receiving their cheers. He was just focused on Meg by that point. A hero doesn't seek glory for himself. Very classic journey there. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

NutWhats: Ocumare 92% Cacao

Following up with a second bar from local chocolate and candy company NutWhats, this week we have their Ocumare 92% Cacao bar. How could I resist getting a 92%? Such a higher percentage ends up being a test to use for categorizing companies--and when the style of a bar in the lower 90% range aligns with my tastes, this can be one of my favorite cocoa percentages.

We have the same style of packaging this time, just with a different pattern and purple foil instead of red. Using this colorful foil and this type of paper then allows for endless possibilities of looks that will all still be recognizable and distinct. While the label does mention that this cocoa is sourced from the Ocumare de la Costa Valley in northern Venezuela, there is nothing this time about the cocoa being fair trade or organic. Unless we just don't have official labels for this one (which is possible), then those traits don't apply here (it would be nicest if they did).

The color is darker for this bar than it was for the other. While the aroma is deeper, as well, this one, interestingly, doesn't have that bitter twinge. The initial hit on the tongue, though, is bitter (and floral). The strong bitterness is reminiscent of Lindt's 99% Cocoa bar, of which I was never a fan. Past the halfway point, the flavor does get a little warmer and mellower. The flavor notes are plum, strawberry, and caramel. I don't catch all of that. A general berry flavor, which is similar to plum, perhaps, but strawberry? No. And caramel? Generally that's a sweeter flavor note, usually for milk chocolate; I don't pick up any caramel here.

Naturally, of course, if you move on to a second bite, your mouth will already be attuned to the flavors, so the bitterness will be almost completely gone. Yet still I find this chocolate either too dark or just not in the right style for me. Mainly I find it only to have a very dark chocolate flavor, which isn't what I like from a 92%. I like for high percentage chocolate to lure me and coax me and romance me, and that just isn't what the flavor here does.

They did get the texture right, though, I must mention. Texture can start falling apart when you start getting into high cocoa percentages if you're not careful, and yet this bar has the same type of smoothness that the lighter bar had. It doesn't have that almost crumbly texture that Lindt's 99%, for instance, has (granted, 99% is higher than 92%).

I'm left to conclude here that the style of this bar just wasn't my style. Give it a try if you like to flirt with bitterness; otherwise I would suggest staying with the lower cocoa percentages like the Peruvian 82% from last week.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Light and Dark

The radio was playing some snippets of interviews with singer Mandisa--and I just found the way that she phrased things to be reminiscent of things that I have realized about myself, as well. Sorry that I can't give exact quotes here, but she said something to the effect of being right on the line between being an extrovert and an introvert, that she needs alone time and time around people, and that sometimes too much alone time can be destructive for her. Again, I'm paraphrasing.

That is exactly what I've realized, too. There was a time when I thought, I can't live alone, I don't trust myself to be alone for that long. Bad things can happen in my head when I'm alone for too long. Maybe we're all like that; how do we know if we don't share it with others? The thing is, sometimes the alone time fades when you're around other people--and so you don't share what happened when you were alone because that time doesn't exist anymore.

When you're alone, you're the only one who can recognize and stop destructive thoughts in their tracks. That's what I've been realizing lately: there are so many lines of thought that you need to put to an end before they even begin. With so many things, just don't even go there. And when you're alone, you need also to remember that you're not alone--and that puts an entirely different angle on things. Rather than looking at your time not being around people as the alone time, it's your time with God. That changes things, doesn't it? It becomes easier to see those negative thoughts coming and it becomes easier to experience positive thoughts.

I need to spend time around people. There's this unifying feeling of being around others and realizing what we all have to offer that feeds a part of your mind and makes the world feel like a place full of shining lights.

But what about when something happens to make you cower, to make you not want to go out among all the people because they're not shining lights anymore, they're spears jabbing out at you in accusation, waiting for you to fall down?

You breathe and you pray and you don't cary that burden of fear. How many burdens do we carry without even realizing it? How many of us are walking around so weighted down without even realizing it? We don't need to carry all of that; we can lay those burdens down at the throne. And then?

You're back at that alone time thing of stopping destructive thoughts in their tracks, except this time you're doing so while you're around people instead of just while you're alone. Don't let what is good (in this case, interacting with other people) be taken from you. Don't listen to lies (there's another song that's on the radio right now: "fear, he is a liar"). Move forward, not backward. And remember that even if you do fail, all you can do is keep moving onward. We're all trying to improve all the time, anyways, right? So bear that in mind instead of acting beaten just because one thing didn't go over well.

Don't let yourself be destroyed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Barber of Seville

What a grand old time of randomness Arizona Opera's production of The Barber of Seville was last weekend. There I was thinking oh, maybe Rossini's style isn't my favorite (I find I like Puccini's style more) and maybe I like the dramas more than the comedies (the dramas are all about violence and sadness and so they are very exciting). But this was much fun and in many ways fell in a completely different vein from Rossini's Cinderella last year.

I've read The Barber of Seville, of course, and we're all familiar with a bit of the music of this opera ("Figaro, Figaro, Figaro," sound familiar to you?); maybe that also helped. And it was kind of one of those shows where you didn't even need to be following along with every plot point or understanding all the intricacies of what's going on with the music, etc. to just have a grand time watching.

Even with a fairly large setting like Symphony Hall, this production had the performers coaxing the audience to spur them on. I hadn't realized that the aforementioned "Figaro" tune is sung by Figaro himself (he's basically singing about how he's awesome, so it's quite funny to have those lyrics along with that tune). So Joo Won Kang basically came on the stage and said, oh, don't you love me, audience? And everyone did. Things like that.

In general, too, there was this sense sometimes of, I don't know what I'm watching but it isn't what people think of as being the opera, is it? I thought I didn't like comedies as much, but this comedy of randomness definitely caught me up. And this time I liked Rossini's music with the lyrics and plot; I didn't feel that disconnect between the two that I felt with Cinderella. This time I felt like the grand and bouncy (is bouncy the right word?) feeling of the music went well with the randomness of the plot.

I did regret right away when glancing at the program that I came on a night when Katrina Galka and Anthony Ciaramitaro weren't there; they're beginning to feel like old friends after seeing them at Aria Jukebox and at different productions. And they must have been great as Rosina and Count Almaviva. (Not to say anything against Stephanie Lauricello and David Margulis, though, of course.) I did get to see Zachary Owen as Don Basilio, Jarrett Porter as Fiorello, and Stephanie Sanchez as Berta, though, so there were still familiar faces (or voices?).

Alright, then, another famous opera tackled. Have you ever watched The Barber of Seville live? I tell you, opera is a pretty awesome form of art entertainment.

Friday, March 9, 2018

NutWhats: Peruvian 82% Cacao

At long last, I have arrived at another of our local bean to bar chocolate makers. NutWhats is based out of Chandler, which is on sort of the northeastern side of the greater Phoenix area for those of you out-of-staters. One reason why it took me so long to get to this company was that I initially had the impression that they just made candy. Their name sounds like a candy maker rather than a chocolate maker, and their website just talks about their candy, as well. But if you visit their table at the farmer's market or any other event, you will find plenty about their chocolate bars, as well.

How does one choose two chocolate bars to look at from a full line? Randomly, of course, how else? Otherwise I just keep getting Madagascar bars from everyone--and while Madagascar-sourced cocoa is quite nice, also it is nice to regularly try other types of chocolate as well, right?

So we're starting off with the Peruvian 82% Cacao bar. The back of the wrapping tells me that this cocoa is both organic and fairly traded, so thumbs up there. Speaking of that wrapping, it has quite a singular look, doesn't it? The outer wrapper is like an extra thick piece of tracing paper with that bold pattern on it; underneath, the foil is just as bold in a bright red color instead of the more traditional shades of gold or silver. In a world of sleek and couture-looking chocolate wrappings, something like this definitely brings in a memorable edge.

After everything that was going on with the outside, the bar itself is plain in its look. Its aroma comes with a bitter twinge. Initially, however, it tastes sweet and falls smooth on the tongue. The twinge bitterness does return as a flavor for a moment before fading away into that sweeter side again. I found the flavors not quite fruity or earthy, possibly something like banana. (The tasting notes do list banana, strawberry, and mango.) It's surprisingly mild for an 82%; you don't even get any of that bitter twinge once you come around to the second piece. Granted, there aren't too many flavor notes here; mainly this is a nice solid chocolate sense. And that's what some people like best.

Sometimes I hesitate to approach chocolate bars like this from a company that mainly markets candy. Candy is one thing and chocolate is another, so only so many people can do both well at the same time. Usually the chocolate ends up being mediocre. This Peruvian bar, however, delivers a nice classic chocolate vibe.