Friday, July 21, 2017

Madecasse: Honey Crystal Dark Chocolate

If I have been going on the trend of milk chocolate and a bit of white chocolate for the lighter days of summer, then the light dark chocolate (at 63% cocoa content) of Madecasse's Honey Crystal bar should be a perfect transition into the end of summer.

Now, it might seem that I've come to yet another in the series of toffee/caramel/honeycomb/sugar crystal chocolates. However, this one is distinct in three ways. First, there is no salt like many of the other bars had. Second, these crystals are smaller. And third, their flavor is of sugar and not at all of caramel. They are composed, by the way, of honey and sugar.

The chocolate that carries these honey crystals looks and smells like dark chocolate, not at all milky or watered down. After all, it is 63% and not 54%, so it isn't super low on the cocoa content, even if it is on the lower side. Looking very closely at the surface, you can see tiny light dots underneath where all of the honey crystals reside.

When the chocolate first touches the mouth, the warm flavor of the cane sugar comes in. Then the reddish tones of the chocolate begin to make themselves known; it's mild dark chocolate, pleasing in its richness while also never becoming bitter or too deep. I recommend a combination of chewing and allowing the chocolate to melt. A little chewing is of course necessary given the crunch of the honey crystals, but too much chewing will mask the flavors of the chocolate and thereby take away half the flavor profile.

These honey crystals, as I mentioned earlier, are small. For reference, I'd put them at about the same size as coffee grounds. So their crunch is light and rather springy. The effect of  this texture almost makes the chocolate feel like it's a rougher grind, like Taza chocolate, even though technically you can tell that this is not that type of chocolate because it still melts normally in between all the little crystals. Still, it's an interesting and unexpected effect.

All the labeling states that this is a honey chocolate, from the name of the bar to the yellow color on the card box. I don't, however, taste honey specifically; I taste sugar. I'm not complaining, though: it is a similar flavor to honey. And when I say sugar, I mean the richer flavor of less refined sugar--even if Madecasse uses regular white sugar, the flavor comes across well. This is sweet in a good context. Basically, it's dark chocolate with sugar mixed in as a separate element. You have the fuller flavor of dark chocolate but also with the sweetness and the flavor of sugar. I would call this a mildly flavored chocolate: it's technically flavored but not so much as a mint chocolate or an almond chocolate.

This chocolate is in between milk and dark, in between snacking chocolate and evening chocolate. Or, as I hoped, exactly the type of chocolate to use to transition into the end of summer.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Living as a Victorian

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman is not a short coffee table book with tidbits about Victorian social etiquette and the language of the fan and things of that sort. Rather, this is a dense four hundred pages that cover as many aspects of daily Victorian life for the three social classes as is possible.

It's organized according to the day: the first chapter is "Getting Up," the second is "Getting Dressed," the ninth is "The Midday Meal," etc. And as each chapter moves into a specific part of a person's day, the focus moves to a particular subject. Clothing, medicine, sanitation, work, leisure activities and games, and on. If, like I have, you've read your share of Victorian novels, then some of the language of it, if you will, will be familiar. For instance, I was just talking about Louisa May Alcott--and Goodman's explanation of how tennis became popular reminded me of the scene in Jo's Boys when Bess and Josie go to play tennis. Or when learning that many women were willing to justify wearing foundation because they thought of it as more of a skincare product than makeup, I thought of a question in An Old-Fashioned Girl that's lingered in my mind--"'Does Trix paint?'" ("Painting" of course in this context meaning "wear makeup.)

So in many ways, reading this book is reliving old stories--or putting new life into fiction. It is also, as I mentioned, as detailed as anyone might want. (Yes, there is always more information to find, but this is as thorough a collection of information as you can probably find put together into a single book.) You don't just learn the what's; you also learn the why's. For instance, in learning what people were most likely to eat for breakfast, you learn the differences in what types of food were available in the northern or southern parts of England. (Here I will point out the one drawback of this book for me personally. Though plenty of the information is applicable to the time period in general, the focus is on British history. I was referencing Alcott, but really I should be thinking of Bronte and Dickens instead. Still all very wonderful to learn--I just wish I had a volume like this for American history, as well, though I wonder if that one might not be even more varied given the huge territory that is the U.S.)

What is perhaps the best thing about this book is that it covers the specific area of history that most interests me. I don't just mean the nineteenth century: I mean the concept of the daily lives of regular people. There was a time when I thought I wanted to major in history in college. Then I took A.P. U.S. History, and decided that I didn't overly love learning about all the wars and politics; what I liked was the historical, not history. That is, the culture that is covered by literature. (I've since realized the flaw in my reasoning. It is necessary to learn the basics of history first and then narrow in on your preferred focus. Even Goodman references politics and a bit of war in her book on daily life--because it's applicable and each element affects the others.) Anyway, this book reminded me of that interest in history that I once had. (It's all because of my early focus on Little House on the Prairie, which truly was a narrative describing daily life.) With this book, she reminded me that history isn't just studying the battle tactics of this or that war. I mean, there is some dark material in here, as well, but mainly I much more enjoy learning about how people spent their regular lives than how nations fell to the ground as they fought.

For anyone interested in the nineteenth century, Goodman's book is a must, a thorough guide that is both entertaining and informative. She draws from studies by other historians, firsthand (written, of course) accounts, and her own experiences in historical reenactment. She doesn't present the Victorians as an oddity or a peculiar species, and she doesn't talk about their methods as bizarre or inferior. Instead, she gives the reasons why things were done as they were and explains attitudes toward such methods. It's all straightforward and real. Whether you're also into reenactment or museum work, of you study either history or literature, or you're simply interested, I would definitely recommend getting this book.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Kylo Ren, Darth Vader, the Dark Side, and the End of the Jedi

All of the hints about Star Wars: The Last Jedi have been implying that there will be a new attitude toward the Force. Luke thinks it's time for the Jedi to end, presumably because he sees flaws in the Jedi perspective. Snoke deliberately keeps Kylo stuck on the line between the dark and light with the idea that having both sides is what makes him more powerful. Then there's Rey in the trailer, seeing a balance between light and dark in a vision. And some of the books and Rebels address other details, as well. Ventress, for instance, uses the dark side without letting it "control her" in Dark Disciple.

With all of this, here is my concern. Star Wars has always been about dark and light and this versus that and repetition and everything of that nature. However, it is central that dark is dark. I worry that the new perspective will go too far into saying that there is no dark. Rather, that the dark is not itself negative. It's a fine line there to say that the dark side isn't negative but can simply be used in a negative way.

Maybe some people would applaud a change like this (and maybe this isn't even the direction the story is going, in which case this whole post whole just be meaningless conjecture), saying that it embraces an open mind. But those were the Emperor's words when he put down the Jedi and tempted Anakin over to the dark side. How can we (or should I say how can Luke) suddenly start backing the Emperor's perspective?

Dark is dark and light is light. If you undo this simple fact, then doesn't everything else unravel? Anakin's fall and Vader's redemption--aka. the true heart of Star Wars?

Or maybe there's another possibility. Maybe Luke is making a mistake--or maybe he made one in the past. Maybe he thinks or thought that it was possible, after all, to harness the dark side without being consumed by it. I mean, this is arguably what Kylo is trying to do (and he's a great example of why it doesn't work: he's being eaten alive from the inside because of the darkness he surrounds himself with)--maybe he learned the technique from Luke and not just Snoke. That's why Luke feels responsible and had to go seek solitude. Maybe he explains all this to Rey, and it is Rey who, like a a ray of sunshine, turns him back toward looking at the light (actually, that doesn't sound very likely--especially since Rey will probably get her own temptation toward the dark side in this film).

I mean, for Luke to say that it's time for the Jedi to end almost sounds not worth saying--do the Jedi even exist anymore? Obi-Wan and Yoda were the last Jedi, and then Luke tried to take up the remnants. But all he had was the Force, and the Jedi were about more than just the Force (there are, after all, other Force-users in the Star Wars universe). So the Jedi kind of already have ended--and maybe now Luke is just admitting that simple fact that they are moving forward rather than backward. And that's always been the case, hasn't it, even in the EU? I haven't read stories yet where Luke and Mara Jade marry and have children--but the Jedi didn't marry. Simple things like changing the Jedi lifestyle could be what Luke means about ending the Jedi.

Because if he means that the dark side isn't really dark, then either he's wrong, there is some other detail that will help explain things, or I'm going to have a hard time accepting this change of perspective.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Green & Black's: White Chocolate

Green & Black's is the original conscious chocolate brand. They were out there promoting a new attitude toward chocolate before many of today's top companies with the same style even existed. Green & Black's being the type of company that is also content to stick with a good product versus constantly trying out new or trendy flavor combinations, I long ago stopped paying attention to them. In fact, I only buy Green & Black's now if I'm in a pinch and need chocolate for a recipe (usually I have plenty on hand leftover from all my reviewing).

It's been so long that I don't even remember what Green & Black's tastes like--or which of their bars I reviewed online (for Chocablog). I think most of my reviews of Green & Black's were what I call my "practice reviews," reviews that I never published or posted anywhere but simply wrote in the beginning for fun, the short pieces that helped me get the hang of the style.

So I thought I might try and start over and review Green & Black's sometimes. After all, I know that I've never done any reviews on their products on this blog.

I'm also giving a second look at white chocolate. After enjoying the white chocolate truffle from Black Butterfly, I started wondering why I (probably like many people) avoid white chocolate. It's nice when I do eat it--I just never choose it.

Today, then, I'm looking at the Green & Black's White Chocolate, which comes in at a 30% cocoa content. White chocolate, as you know, contains only cocoa butter as its sole cocoa bean derived ingredient. That's why it can look and feel like it's missing something--if you compare it to milk or dark chocolate. And you'll also want to remember that many candies are called white chocolate when they don't even have cocoa butter; there is of course a huge difference between simply sugar and sugar with cocoa butter.

I'm still used to the Green & Black's outside packaging because their bars are for sale everywhere, but I had forgotten how nice their foil is. An almost matte, slightly coppery gold with the G&B name printed in shinier letters. Then the familiar twenty-seven pieces are inside with their little leaf logos. Beneath the creamy white surface, you can see the spots of Madagascan vanilla. I do love to be able to see the vanilla because this proves that there is real vanilla.

The chocolate smells like butter and sugar and vanilla, like a combination confection and ice cream shop. The flavor, too, is butter and vanilla with plenty of sweetness. Remember that while the ingredients may all be organic, the first ingredient is still cane sugar (followed by the cocoa butter and milk powder and vanilla). So you approach a bar like this in the same way that you would approach a dish of vanilla ice cream: with an appetite for the sweeter things.

That said, something sweet can still be cheap or not. Here, of course, you can tell that the ingredients that form the basis for this sweetness are quality. And I would say that this chocolate has less of the slight chalkiness that's usually characteristic of white chocolate (and which I don't really mind); I'm not sure if this is a result of how it was made or if it's just that I'm tasting so much of that vanilla that I can't notice anything else.

The vanilla is the primary flavor, which is why I compare this chocolate to vanilla ice cream. And while I wouldn't want to have only white chocolate and never any milk or dark (are they even the same species that we can try to compare them?), I think I will try and give a little more attention to white chocolate in the future.

You see, this chocolate reminds me of all those weird candy bars, like cookie dough flavor and that sort of thing (not that I've ever had cookie dough candy, but I see it around). So I feel like people who crave that type of sweet and that type of indulgent "chocolate" might be able to use white chocolate as one of their candy bar replacements. This is me advocating for choosing fair trade chocolate. I can understand how you might not want to replace cookie dough chocolate with most of the fair trade bars (even their milk chocolates tend toward the "darker" side and the fair trade candy bar market is still developing). So try white chocolate.

What I'd really like to see is a milk chocolate with a white chocolate center. I feel like I've had this before (maybe from Ritter Sport?), but I want one of the organic/fair trade brands to do it. I can't see Green & Black's trying it because that just wouldn't be their style. Theo, maybe? My point is, by looking back at an old reliable brand like Green & Black's, I'm looking forward to a new zone of possibilities.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Life Creates Legend

Don't ignore legends, call them nothing worthy. Don't cling solely to history books, believing they have the truth.

The truth is in life, and life creates legends.

A historical description of an event will tell you nothing except one or various perspectives on what happened. But a legend will tell you a theme, a truth displayed by an event. History can teach this, too, but only if it is lifted from history to legend.

Sometimes we reject making stories out of history--without realizing that we do this all the time and it's simply the way we process things. Gathering facts is a detective's work. Preserving facts is a recorder's task. But making stories out of history is an artist's work.

Historians can be artists, weaving messages out of past events. So, too, are painters and writers, musicians and directors. They are not trying to duplicate history--because the past is over as soon as it has happened; they are taking the life of the past and the life of the present and blending them together to create something new. Sometimes it's a social message, sometimes it's a universal theme, and sometimes it's a question, maybe a question about the future.

Legends are born out of life and grow to become something more powerful than a list of facts. Legends are expression.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Black Butterfly Truffle Selection

Word on the street was that a new chocolate shop had come in to Prescott. So naturally, being in Prescott this past Sunday, I found myself paying a visit to this new shop. The location is in Firehouse Plaza right off the Square (behind Whiskey Row/Montezuma St.). It's right next to you if you're walking around the Square--just situated in such a way that, unless there's a shop or restaurant that you favor in Firehouse Plaza, you're not as likely to stumble across it without already knowing that it's there. So this is me reminding you exactly where it is so that you will go there.

The name of this chocolate shop is Black Butterfly Artisan Chocolates. A butterfly hangs outside the doors to welcome you over. Inside, the shop is fairly simple and also intentional about details. There are open cocoa pods on display and a photo of a cocoa tree's flower on the wall--little reminders of where this chocolate came from. (It's a difficult shop to photograph because of all the light coming in from the glass wall.) The main event, though, is the glass case that houses the truffles, mendiants, and chocolate coated fruits.

I have, over the years, seen many truffles. This being the case, I am usually quick now at getting a sense of their visual style and whether they appear weak, mediocre, posh, rustic, etc. Black Butterfly truffles have artistic style. Not too modern. Not rustic. Not overly glitzy. Just simple with the right touch of embellishments and enough variety in shapes, colors, and designs from one truffle to the next to keep things interesting.

Let's start with the truffle that isn't in the picture below. That would be the Lavender Apricot Caramel, which was painted in pearly white with a touch of purple. (The sign on the wall, you'll note, refers to all of these as bonbons; I just call them all truffles for the sake of simplicity and out of habit.) I was mistaken with this one: I thought it was a milk chocolate, but it turns out to be white chocolate. I probably wouldn't have chosen white chocolate, but the choice turns out to be rather nice. The chocolate has a pleasant sweet-chalky flavor, and the caramel is smooth and light. You get that kind of peppery, citrusy tang from the lavender in a visible but not overpowering way. A slight fruitiness comes in from the apricot but not too much. The effect reminds me of summer and of light and fruity drinks enjoyed outdoors. It's the white chocolate specifically that keeps everything feeling light and refreshing in a way that milk chocolate probably wouldn't. It isn't overly sweet, either; it was simply fun and enjoyable.

From the lightest we move now to the darkest, the Cognac. In the traditional French style, this one is more rustic in style, coated in cocoa powder (which sadly melted into the chocolate before I could get a photo--sorry about that). Yet there is still an extra visual touch: the truffle is stamped with a cocoa flower on top, making me think of letters sealed in stamped wax.

This truffle is dense yet still smooth in texture, and in flavor it is rich yet with a sense of vanilla sweetness lingering about. I managed not to taste the cognac specifically until halfway through because I was focusing more on the chocolate's flavor and texture. Then I started picking up that tangy richness; it does elevate this truffle. Instead of staying with a standard French truffle flavor, it picks up more richness and individual interest. This is a sophisticated truffle, one that I can slowly savor or set as the finish to a fine dinner. It has a masculine style that goes along with dark wood libraries and leather chairs. I would definitely recommend that the Cognac be one of the truffles you try from Black Butterfly.

Third is the truffle that might just have been my favorite, the Blackberry Sage. This one comes in a cylindrical shape and is painted solid purple with a design of circles on top. A couple of air bubbles show that it's handmade, while the perfectly detailed paint job shows care and attention to detail.

The first flavor to come in is the chocolate, followed by the sage, then a touch of blackberry, and then more sage. From here, the blackberry and sage keep going back and forth until you finish mainly with the chocolate. Now, while the use of herbs can make chocolate exciting or unique, they can easily taste overpowering or simply odd, conjuring up images of roasted chicken instead of truffles. However, the balance of flavors in this particular truffle shows a particular restraint and a knowledge of just how much of each flavor to use. The sage gives the idea of richness to the blend while also maintaining lightness with its almost minty flavor, and the blackberry adds the idea of sweetness. Together, they form a perfect balance.

To finish off, we have the Palet D'Or. This is a plain square with rounded edges and a touch of gold on top. It's a classic, elegant look, as traditional nowadays as the rolled-in-cocoa-powder French truffle style. Compared with the others, this one is much softer when you bite in because there is more ganache. I also want to call this one the sweetest of the four, although technically that title probably goes to the white chocolate. Maybe it's just that gold usually makes me think of extra dark truffles, and this one almost tends toward a milk chocolate side. It does have some rich, flavorful tones that allow for slow savoring (it finishes with a warm, nutty flavor), but overall it's on the lighter side. I'd recommend this one for people who worry that the Cognac might be too dark for their tastes.

(The other chocolate pictured is one of the mendiants, with rose and something else--it wasn't mine, though, which is why I'm not reviewing it individually.)

Black Butterfly's chocolatier and owner is Tracy Taylor, and from these four chocolates, I can say that she absolutely knows what she's doing and for that reason I hope her shop does well. These chocolates felt unique. They weren't exactly like others that I've had before, and yet they weren't so different that they were shocking or weird. Every element was carried out just right, and everything is in the right balance so as to delight without estranging the palate.

If I'm not mistaken, Tracy makes the chocolate that she uses for the bonbons, mendiants, chocolate bark, etc. It's all from Venezuelan cocoa beans--and they're fair trade, which of course I love. She also mentioned that soon she'll be offering chocolate making classes and the chocolate will also be used for wine tastings/pairings (I'm not sure if the wine tasting will be at the Black Butterfly shop or elsewhere). So there is already plenty to look forward to in the future. I am well pleased: I really don't have any negative comments about these truffles. I'm absolutely thrilled to have a good chocolate shop in Prescott. I'm there fairly regularly, and it's a nice area that could use a shop like this--for visitors and locals alike.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy Fourth of July

Land that raised me. 

Land that loved me.

Land that I am here to love.

The United States of America, today is our day to honor you our home.

I have no pictures from this weekend because I haven't really been taking many, but I have been busy with Fourth of July celebrations as usual.

Friday I baked an apple pie (using Martha Stewart's recipe). Saturday I was able to spend a little bit of time hanging out at the park enjoying the shade and the grass and the trees. Sunday I spent in Prescott, visiting the art fair at the Square and a new chocolatier in the area (review coming on Friday). And yesterday, Monday, brought me to Flagstaff and their fireworks celebration, which is always a welcomingly cool weather experience in the middle of summer. I draped myself in stars and stripes and red, white, and blue.

Today is for quiet. The chicken is on the grill (a whole chicken cooked on top of a beer can). The watermelon is cut. I've already watched Sara Romey's coverage of Disneyland's Fourth of July fireworks from Sunday night and might watch it again later tonight.

Today is for contemplation. This year my theme has been to enjoy what we have in our daily lives because of where we live. I enjoy great beauty and I enjoy great possibilities.

Happy Independence Day to the U.S.A.