Friday, March 25, 2022

Stone Grindz: Almond Butter & Black Lava Salt

Too much time has passed since I covered anything from Stone Grindz, and the local Scottsdale company has certainly kept busy during that time. Today we're looking at their Almond Butter & Black Lava Salt 80% Dark Chocolate bar. This one came in a simple clear sleeve that showcases the alpacas on the squares. What could be cuter than eighteen almond butter alpacas? 

The chocolate has a rich semisweet aroma. Although it is a tad darker than it appears in the pictures, the chocolate is fairly light for having an 80% cocoa content. We'll find out why soon. I also noticed that the texture when I broke off a square seemed soft, which I first attributed to the warmer spring weather (even though I suppose it's still cool indoors). You can see I hadn't thought too much about how the almond butter and black lava salt would manifest. Because the next thing to notice is that there are no visible almonds nor salt crystals.

But the label says almond butter not almond slivers, you say? Well, often there is some room for interpretation when it comes to labeling chocolate bars. Like with all the chocolate bars that say they have caramel in them only to reveal crunchy, toffee-like candy bits inside. So I could see opening up an almond butter chocolate bar to find slivered almonds within its depths. After all, does the thinness of a standard chocolate bar give enough space to fit in a layer of almond butter Reese's Cup style? 

Not really, unless you do little pockets in each square like Ritter Sport does. What we have going on here is much more interesting--especially since I believe this is the first time I've come across this approach. The chocolate feels so soft when you break into it and when you put it in your mouth because the almond butter is mixed into the chocolate. And the salt is brought in, as well, versus just sprinkling it on top. Sit and ponder that for a minute.

The texture is like chocolate but softer and smoother--but not in a plasticy way. You can tell it isn't from added oil (even coconut oil), which gives a different sort of smoothness. This makes your mind do a double take. Is it like ganache? Like a chocolate nut spread? That last one really does hit it. And again, I mean a chocolate spread that does not contain oil (like Nutella does). This feels more pure and also richer. And more flavorful. 

The salt acts as a seasoning to it all. You don't get hits of salt flavor like with some chocolates, but the salt's presence is definitely known from the moment the chocolate hits the tongue. The black lava salt has an added depth of flavor, but is not too strong or too sharp. It adds to the overall feeling of this chocolate bar being familiar and yet also very different. 

There was a moment where I wasn't sure what to expect from this bar. I just knew I wanted to try it because I've had some pretty great Stone Grindz chocolate before. And this one has left me quite floored, in a good way. The texture and the balance of the three flavors combined with the purity of ingredients is a major win. The fact that there is depth from the darker chocolate and yet also a kind of sweetness and mildness from the almond butter means that this will also appeal to a wide variety of palates. And of course there is no milk here, for those to whom that's important; in fact, this is my probably my favorite non-dairy, nut butter chocolate. It reinterprets the concept in a way that feels completely approachable. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Redeeming Love: Comparison & Contrast

It's a long story about why I finally read Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. But I had a lot of opinions on the book before I had even read it. One of these opinions is my annoyance that the Christian fiction genre is mainly composed of romance novels. I like a good love story, too, sometimes (or even a trite one occasionally), but romance novels are a slightly different angle than simply love stories--and anyways, do we really have nothing else to create for the Christian fiction genre? Why can't the Christian romances just be a subset of it, instead of its bulk? 

But why get mad at one book for this? Especially a book that so many people love and describe as life-changing. While I wouldn't go so far as that, there were certain things in it that were well done and that I could relate to. One of the things I have been working on in my life is learning how to have relationships--and when I say learning, I mean that I'm going about it differently than I have in the past. So I did greatly relate to Angel's difficulty accepting/understanding a new way of looking at relationships in her life. Sometimes Christian fiction (whether novels or movies) places emphasis on a character's big moment of discovery. But like Francine Rivers says in her endnote, sometimes those changes take time to become part of our lives. And when we are choosing to live differently, that transition will happen gradually as we come into more awareness and let it sink into each aspect of our lives. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the book, the plot is inspired by the book of Hosea in the Bible. Hosea was a prophet that God led to a marriage which became a metaphor for the way in which Israel kept breaking their covenant with God and seeking other gods. Just as God would still call his people back and still love them no matter how often they turned from him, Hosea also still accepted his wife back after she kept turning away to prostitution (and I think the reminder is relevant that many of the other religions at this time included prostitution as part of temple worship). So in Redeeming Love, Michael marries Angel, who has been a prostitute since she was a child. There are some notable differences there with the story in Hosea. I think the book does a better job at describing the transition out of trauma back into love and fellowship than it does describing continued acceptance in the face of continual backsliding into sin. But I suppose it's still a picture of God's redeeming love either way. 

By the way, the original version of the book came out in 1991, and the version that is in print now came out in 1997. I think it got a little "cleaned up," though I can't speak to the differences since I only read the current one, not the original. This one is not explicit, though it does talk about sex a lot and then some more. It also, within the plot, compares and contrasts rape and consensual, God-designed sex. Just in case you were wondering.

Reading this book put in mind a couple of other stories. Because it came out in the nineties, did it launch the Christian romance novel genre? Most of those books seem to have been published since then, no? I remember really enjoying Deeanne Gist's The Measure of a Lady, which dealt with some similar topics. A young woman finding herself alone with her younger siblings in a wild Western town had to learn how to hold herself as a Christian and protect her siblings while also allowing them to make their own choices and offering help without judgment to the people of the town. I found it very relevant to what it's like being a Christian in society today. It's reminiscent of the way in which many of the characters (Michael in particular, of course) offer help and acceptance to Angel. I also thought of Love Comes Softly, which is kind of like a G-rated version of Redeeming Love, no? Clark shows Marty a new kind of love that she couldn't have imagined before--and through his love, she gets a glimpse of God's love and also gets an entirely new way of living. And it comes "softly" and slowly, just like with Angel. 

And the other story I thought of was The Copper Queen, which is the opera film that Arizona Opera just released last year. I suppose I thought of this one easily because I haven't read/watched a lot of stories about prostitutes. So of course this one would come to mind. But it also came to mind because all of the complaints I had about how redemption was portrayed in that story were done completely differently in Redeeming Love. (Click here to read that post) All of my issues with the opera were flipped and changed in this novel. Angel isn't redeemed by a man--and Michael never used Angel, so his love for her is pure. Michael's love for Angel is nice, but it's God's love that redeems her. 

So while I'm not on the bandwagon about loving this book, it does set up a good theme, one we would do well to remember. The content is still a little heavy for me personally. But if the story is helping people reflect on their own lives, then that is something good. 

Friday, March 18, 2022

Belvie: Lam Dong 70%

Belvie marks another new chocolate company for me. Founded in 2015, they are a fairly new company. The further uniqueness, however, lies in the fact that this is chocolate sourced in and made in Vietnam. I believe those are both new to me--Vietnam is not a common cocoa origin. One of the founders of Belvie is from Vietnam and the other from Belgium. The bar I'm looking at today is the Lam Dong 70%; the cocoa beans are trinitario variety. 

Even with the orange accent, the packaging is sleek and neutral, yet still leans toward a traditional versus modern look. The pale color is reminiscent of unbleached paper of the past, and the lush landscape image reminds me of the Romantic art style. And yes, you can also see on there the Gold award from the Academy of Chocolate Awards in 2017. I take a Gold recommendation from them seriously.

Unwrapping the paper reveals a golden bird on the inside, which is a nice touch. So also is the small sticker that seals the inner paper shut; I can't remember when I've come across a seal like that before. The mold for the chocolate bar is great, as well. There is such a simple and sleek look that it doesn't immediately jump out as being different. Yet the way in which the squares form a radiant burst from the logo in the center is indeed a unique look. With a chocolate bar like this, when you break pieces off they're not necessarily going to break along the design lines. So you can just choose yourself however small or big you want the pieces to be.

There is the slightest hint of bitterness to the chocolate's aroma. Instantly the flavor is warm and sweet with richness. At first I wanted to call one of the flavor notes I was getting perhaps either nutty or woody; it wasn't one of the more common flavors. There is also an underlying hint at bitterness without the chocolate being bitter; I don't know that I've ever come across such a subtle and effective use of chocolate's bitterness. The finish and aftertaste are quite revelatory; I described it as an almost mushroom richness. 

Once I looked at the flavor notes, I see kiwi, raspberry, and licorice, as well as "an intense chocolate flavor that lingers on the palate." They're not exaggerating about that last part. Licorice isn't a flavor note I think of often (and not one that I would generally think would be favorable), but it does fit in well with those final flavors. As for the kiwi and raspberry, all I can say is that they're not citrus--and it's generally citrus notes that I think of as fruity. So maybe that's why I didn't describe this chocolate as being fruity. 

This chocolate is incredible, and it does taste like the idyllic landscape with the trees and mountains and waterfall on the packaging. There is a simplicity and pureness to the taste, and yet the flavors are so elevated as to set up complete elegance. From this chocolate bar, I would highly recommend trying anything you might come across from Belvie. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Tempest in Our Hearts

Although they were back doing live shows last fall, I haven't had a chance to watch any of Southwest Shakespeare's current season until seeing The Tempest last week. It's playing in repertory with Farinelli and the King until March 19/20. 

I'm familiar with some of the basics of The Tempest, but this was the first time I had seen a full production. It's quite grand, jolly fun, isn't it? I tend to prefer the tragedies over the comedies, but this one follows a slightly different tone than is most common with the tragedies. Sometimes the comedy is all about innuendo; that wasn't as much the case here. And with the addition of magic, the plot has a wonderfully random quality. People drop in here and there, setting up a series of little tableaus in which we can focus on separate elements one after the other. 

Then also we have some heavier concepts within the themes. Director Ingrid Sonnichsen's notes in the program explore the idea of forgiveness in the story. Most specifically she refers to Prospero's forgiveness of his brother and the freedom it gives him from isolation. That's great. We can look at the island as a sort of metaphor for how we try and deal with the circumstances we have faced in life. Prospero, with the help of Ariel, is messing with the people he used to know and making them turn this way or that. He's trying to manipulate circumstances in the way he wants--which compares to the past, in which he was, you could say, a victim of circumstances. But along the way of playing with the magic of this island, he comes to realize that he doesn't need to play the game anymore. 

There is a line in the play that I wish I could quote back. It was about love, about how love should stand fast through all circumstances or storms. At least, something to that effect. That's terrific. It connects to forgiveness, too, because of course as people we all fail one another in one way or other at some point; love needs to be willing to accept that and endure through it. We agree to work through the difficulties rather than to run away. We face the tempest head on. 

Though simple, the set effectively put us on the strange island. I particularly like the way in which the draped strips of cloth at some point in the play lit up with lights. It added to the otherworldly, anything-can-happen feeling. For a chance at escapism and for a dive back into Southwest Shakespeare after a long break, The Tempest hit all the right notes. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

To See the Views

 Lost Dutchman State Park looms in the distance when you are headed Southeast out of the Phoenix area. The area is filled with myth: so many have searched for the rumored Lost Dutchman Mine and have only met with their demise instead of gold. Reading the stories, it's easy to see how people can get caught up in the hunt. Yet I think that the great mystery of the Lost Dutchman is about more than gold. 

Maybe it's just because I have a fascination with the volcanic, but I find the entire surrounding area fascinating. The Apache Trail and Boyce Thompson Arboretum. There are so many shapes, colors, and textures in the land. Perhaps this is why people become obsessed with trekking across the landscape: they say it's in search for the gold when they're really under a spell by the land itself. 

The state park offers a few short trails, as well as the one up to the flatiron. Since the latter lies beyond my non-rock-climbing skills, I stuck to the lower trails. They make a small web, so I went up and then down and across and up and back down instead of just doing one small loop. That way I was able to fully soak in the views and textures. Difficulty level is moderate: most is fairly mild, but there are a couple of places that are a little steep or rocky and a little bit of loose gravel that necessitates careful footing. 

Though the weather when I went was in the 80's, there had been snow the week before. So sadly I was only able to see a couple of hidden wildflowers. But snow and rain are good, so I can't complain. And anyways, the geological colors and shapes kept me just as entertained as fields of spring wildflowers would have. After a couple of hours of wandering trails, I had lunch beneath the Dutchman, then made my way home to change before heading out again.

The evening brought me to a dual event in Downtown Phoenix celebrating Southwest Shakespeare's new artistic director, Debra Ann Byrd, and the opening of the Adeline Luxury Living apartments. The event was held in one of the complex's outdoor living areas, complete with culinary delights from surrounding restaurants.

We had a chance to hear performances from both the Southwest Shakespeare Company and the Phoenix Theatre Company. Maya J. Christian's performance of "Too Beautiful for Words" was my first introduction to The Color Purple, and her delivery was indeed beautiful. 

While I was at the Lost Dutchman, I gazed at Downtown Phoenix off in the distance. Then in the evening, I had a chance to go up to the 25th floor of Adeline and look on the last tinges of orange left from the setting sun. 

The location puts it right by both the Footprint Center and Chase Field and does give great views of the lights of the city--but more exciting to me was the way in which South Mountain provided an organic frame for the view. 

From the lonely mountains to the heart of the city, that's where you'll find me.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Amedei: Jamaica Cru Single Origin 70%

Simply trying out a new chocolate company is always exciting to me, but even more so is trying a cocoa origin that I rarely come across. This is my first encounter with Amedei, which is an Italian company and I also don't think I come across a lot of Italian chocolate companies. The bar in question is their Jamaica Cru Single Origin 70%, and Jamaica is certainly not the most common cocoa origin. So that means I had some exciting new territory to cover.

As a company, Amedei seem like a pretty standard couture chocolate company. That is, there is high class in the packaging style. Matte brown and light, burnt orange are accented with gold, and the card box folds out (in a unique folding, I might add--I particularly like the little tab that allows you to close it up again) to show info on their different chocolate bars and the cocoa beans involved. The Cru line of chocolate bars emphasizes the different cocoa origins of each one. 

Despite all that, though, a preliminary look at both the packaging and their website reveals fairly little information. We see the country of cocoa origin and what awards they've won and that they conch for 72 hours, but that's about it. I tend to assume fair trade when it comes to artisan chocolate because I figure if they're creating partnerships with specific cocoa farms then they're probably supporting a positive network (as opposed to bigger companies buying bulk "fair trade" cocoa without asking questions about whether or not it really is). But there really isn't any allusion to that. 

There are basically two standard chocolate bar sizes, one bigger and one smaller. Inside the card box, this one looks like it would be the former until you unwrap and see that the bar is in fact fairly small. After all, it's listed at 50 grams; 50 gram bars just usually come in smaller packages, so this one kind of tricked me. I rather like that. Along with the quest for fair trade chocolate, I think we also need to be willing to eat less cocoa, and smaller chocolate bars (that don't feel like they're small) are part of that solution. It also helps keep the cost seeming more reasonable even if it's the same amount per gram.

The cream wrapper is a little unusual, or at least less common. Its outside looks like paper, but the inside is silver and foil-like. The ten Amedei squares have a simple striped pattern on their edges which ties in with the little logo symbol that's on the front center of the card box. There is a rich, warm, and inviting chocolate aroma. 

From the beginning, the chocolate's flavor had an unusual tone, sort of rich and foggy. Normally I might refer to chocolate as either blue or red, but this felt purple. The image was of a darkened cave or the last shreds of dusk at the close of day. That is, deep and mysterious and yet also not at all bitter. It was also not sweet--and it is sometimes possible for 70% chocolates to be on the sweet side. Past the halfway point of melting, the chocolate became more tender. Here is where it gained more of a brownie feeling or a straight chocolate flavor. The effect was rich and simple and yet with that same depth from earlier. A mild zing comes in the aftertaste.

It's the depth perhaps that gives this chocolate its unique quality. Depth can be associated with flavor layering. But that isn't really what this chocolate has. The depth instead is from the way that the flavor hovers within the depths. It's atmospheric. So I appreciate that I got a different type of experience. This is also a chocolate which will have wide appeal given the lack of bitterness and the inclusion of some straightforward cocoa notes.