Monday, February 27, 2023

Alter Eco: Mint Creme Truffle Thins

Last week, we took a look at the Silk Velvet and Classic Dark Truffle Thins from Alter Eco. Now it's time for what is perhaps the more exciting of the Truffle Thins line, the Mint Creme variety. The obvious product comparison here is Andes Mints. Ingredients-wise, Andes Mints contain artificial flavors and colors, in addition to the palm oil (versus the coconut oil that Alter Eco uses). So even if you don't consider coconut oil enough of a step up from palm oil, there is a definite step up in not having those artificial ingredients. Everything with Alter Eco is also organic and in theory the cocoa is fair trade. 

As soon as you open the foil seal, the peppermint oil aroma breaks free. Like with the other Truffle Thins, Mint Creme is also a regular truffle from Alter Eco. So it's the same concept here as with the truffles, just smashed into a chocolate bar instead of a sphere. We have the same white filling, just in a thinner layer. The result, once more, is that you can taste much more of the chocolate. If we're making the comparison to Andes Mints, the basic effect is the same, just much purer and more chocolatey. This is true dark chocolate here. While it isn't strong or deeply dark, it does have simple dark flavor that isn't overpowered by the peppermint oil. If you enjoy tasting the chocolate, that alone makes this a superior product.

The mint is still strong, of course, as mint is. You also get some sweetness from the sugar and milk and added cocoa butter, giving it that sweet indulgence feel. All of the different flavors, particularly the two elements of mint and chocolate, are well-balanced. It's been a while since I had a Mint Creme Truffle, but I do believe I prefer the proportions here. Of course, though, I'm sure that will vary depending on the person. 

Because of its familiarity, this is a super straightforward product. But it's enjoyable. Though I have little specific to say about it, I do call it a success. 

Friday, February 24, 2023

One Hundred Years of Solitude of Living

While definitions tend to be hazy on what exactly magical realism is, the general idea of it has fascinated me for a long time. That idea of having non-real-world elements take place within a story as if there were nothing odd about them--often of having emotions become concrete, physical parts of the story. So, of course, I was long overdue to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. The very ways in which this book defies definition are the ways in which it acts as a definition of magical realism.

I knew this book would be . . . different. But I don't think I knew how different until I actually got started in it. It definitely has some odd content, like some close relatives lusting after each other. But even content like that that's usually a turn-off I didn't mind so much because I was just really enjoying the writing style. And this is reading the book translated into English. It has to have such a powerful original way that it was written in order for that uniqueness to come across in translation (and it's also praise to the translator, Gregory Rabassa). 

I realize that not everyone will enjoy this writing style of which I speak. It's long-winded and colorful and rambling. Long sentences stack up into paragraphs that are pages long. One side note becomes a whole extended side story with vivid details. One character's emotion literally blossoms into flora and fauna. Butterflies start flying around the house when one character falls for a certain guy. Ants start to take over the house as the family is deteriorating. The livestock are extra productive when the one guy keeps a relationship with his mistress. One character lives off of eating dirt. Another preserves dead bodies by keeping mercury in the room. It's all past random--and yet it's cohesive at the same time. The "non-real-world elements" make sense within the emotional context. They're not just random; they go along with the story (which I believe is the difference between magical realism and surrealism, after all). So as long as you as the reader can go along with it all, it's a fascinating read.

Notice that I say that a certain character does this or that--instead of naming the character. If you thought it was difficult to keep characters straight in Wuthering Heights where there are only a couple generations and only a few characters who share the same name, this is a whole other level. One hundred years from the title is literal: we see generations pass for the Buendia family. And they all keep naming their children the same three names. The best advice truly is to not even try to keep track of who is who. Just keep reading. As long as you follow along with each side story, that's enough. I only referred to the genealogical chart a couple times. You only need to keep more detailed clarity if you're doing an analysis of the book. Just for a casual first read, you can just take it all as it comes.

There are plenty of specific themes that you could get into if you were studying this book. There's plenty of content about the political situations in the country. There are musing about life and death. About industrialization. About age. About family. But the most basic concept that you will find within it all is the passage of time and life. People are born, they grow up, they have life-changing experiences, they die, they are remembered for a time, and then they are forgotten. Life becomes a swirling wheel of repetition. It repeats because what came before is no longer remembered. It's a fascinating portrayal. And I so appreciate that writing style of vivid, emotional, metaphorical detail. It's refreshing to read something so unique. What's the fun of reading a million books that are all the same?

Monday, February 20, 2023

Alter Eco: Truffle Thins -- Silk Velvet and Classic Dark

When taking a look at the Peppermint Creme Truffles from Alter Eco this past December, I mentioned my excitement to try their new Truffle Thins chocolate bars. The comparison for the mint version will, of course, be to Andes Mints--but those will come next. First we're taking a look at the plain versions, the Silk Velvet and the Classic Dark, which correspond to existing Alter Eco truffles.

The basic concept is the same as with their truffles: coconut oil is used in place of fresh cream so that the chocolates can have a long shelf life in order to be on grocery store shelves. You may want to note that both of these chocolates do still have milk in them, so the purpose of the coconut oil isn't to make them non-dairy. The difference in having the ganache as a layer inside of squares of chocolate versus inside truffle-sized spheres is significant. 

You get more chocolate this way and less ganache. This is preferable to hide the ultra smooth texture. What do you mean hide the smooth texture, you ask? I realize that coconut oil is a preferable oil to use than others--but is still gives a slightly different texture than cream does. So when you have a smaller proportion and thickness of the ganache, you're going to notice that texture difference less, if at all. If you really enjoy that extra smoothness, that might be a downside. But if you prefer having more chocolate, then this format may be your preference. Generally, a rounder texture feels smoother and more luxurious because it has to melt in your mouth more. (Think about the difference eating a Hershey's Kiss versus a square of a Hershey's bar.) So the overall feel of the Truffle Thins versus the truffles is a little darker--with the ganache as an element rather than the main focus.

The Classic Dark is described as dark chocolate with a chocolate creme filling, whereas the Silk Velvet is supposed to be a blend of milk and dark chocolate--I believe it's still just dark chocolate on the outside, but with a milk creme filling. Both fillings still contain whole milk. There is a subtle difference, though perhaps not the one you would expect. I find I prefer the Classic Dark because it feels more, well, classic and straightforward. Whereas the Silk Velvet, though somewhat milkier, feels somehow darker, as well. It does have more of a contrast between the idea of milk chocolate and dark chocolate. 

While perhaps I should be advocating to eat more plain chocolate versus chocolate with added ingredients, like the coconut oil here, I do really like the idea of these chocolate bars. It would be nice to see them in a smaller size, as well--sort of a more candy bar like style. They're an everyday indulgence type of chocolate. I'd much rather reach for Alter Eco cocoa than many other brands--and the coconut oil is the "worst" ingredient. As a halfway place between a chocolate bar and a truffle, this is a satisfyingly indulgent product. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Giselle: Ethereal in Tragedy or Beauty?

Nothing stirs soothing feelings of tragedy so much as a live stage production. Ballet Arizona's Giselle promised just such a pleasing concoction of ethereal sorrow with its description of a scorned almost bride who returns to haunt her lover in the graveyard. But I'm left wondering whether the ballet entirely met my Gothic expectations.

First, though, a note on the venue. This was the first time I had attended the Madison Center for the Arts, so I was curious about the venue itself, in addition to the ballet. There is benefit to being off of the 51 and away from busy downtown, especially on Super Bowl weekend. It's also a plus that the center has its own free parking; parking is always something to factor in when planning to go to Symphony Hall or another downtown venue. No worries about safety, either, especially if you're going alone, as I often do. This venue is much smaller than Symphony Hall, and so also has quite a small lobby. The design is simple but elegant enough for the more well-dressed ballet crowd. 

Seating is all on one level; while the rows are tiered, it isn't by much. At Symphony Hall, there are a few seats that can get even those of us shorter folks with lower sight-lines a clear view--but there didn't seem to be much avoiding all the heads in the way, unless you are all the way in the front rows. This may seem like nitpicking, but it really is an annoyance when you can't see the dancers' feet in a ballet--and when your view often cuts off at their waists. (I realize that I took a last minute, less-than-perfect seat. But being a few rows in wouldn't have made much difference.) Add to this the fact that the music was played from speakers instead of by a live orchestra and, well, I'm not sure that this venue is good enough for Ballet Arizona (especially at normal pricing).

Venue comments aside, what I most enjoyed about this production was the set design. Act I opened with a Snow White scene: physical, peasant cottage in the foreground and dreamy, royal castle in the background. Absolutely exquisite. And the pastoral setting perfectly conveys that feeling of innocence that we have in Giselle's early moments, when she believes in the love of Loys/Albrecht. Equally stunning was the cemetery backdrop for Act II, in which the moon glows with that ethereal beauty for which we were all hoping. 

What was odd to me was that, without reading the synopsis, I don't think I would have at all realized what was going on in the cemetery. That in itself isn't entirely odd: it's because you need a synopsis that one is included in the program when you go see a ballet. But what I mean is that I wouldn't have understood not just the plot but also the emotions of the scenes. The Willis are supposed to be these "malevolent spirits" set on bringing the male characters to their deaths--but when they're all dancing together, it just looks pretty. I don't feel the characters' fear. There is a little darkness when the set of spirits come out with their wedding veils on; it's reminiscent of the bride in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. But I was expecting more of a push-pull type of dance when it came to their interaction with Hilarion and Albrecht. Something more deeply disturbing like what you get in Swan Lake (although perhaps I didn't feel like I got that because Giselle isn't quite as famous as Swan Lake and Swan Lake is famous for good reason). Still, it had its moments. The pretty music had its moments of becoming achingly tragic. I do love the achingly tragic. 

So while I had mixed feelings about this ballet, ultimately I'm left with images of the gorgeous sets and the emotional expression it all conveyed. And perhaps that was the ethereal that I craved to find. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Moon Rises over the Desert

We are accustomed to the moon waxing and waning. Now is your chance to see it; now it is hidden. Of a similar nature is the latest exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden. Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram is only here for one week, starting today. The garden is open a little later to give visitors more of a chance to see it at night (though I'd imagine it's also a daytime novelty). 

You'll first catch a glimpse of the giant, 23-foot diameter moon while driving to the parking lot. The moon's surface is taken from NASA imagery and it is lit from within, so it truly does look like a giant moon. Your mind does a little excited double-take because it looks real except that you know the size is too big to be real. 

Though you can get up close to the moon in the Desert Terrace area, you can also play a bit of hide and seek from the surrounding areas. Off to the side, halfway towards the Wildflower trail. Or from the Desert Portal, to see the moon peaking out from behind the plants. The view is nice and clear from the Herb Garden. It's almost more fun to see the moon from these areas because it plays with your sense of reality a bit.

But the main viewing area is right next to or even under the moon itself. There are a few seats and beanbag-like-cushions to sit or lounge on while looking at the moon. It truly is huge, so the encouragement to take your time looking at it is welcome. Lying directly under it gave me more awe about having something so big perched above my head and not falling on me than awe about the moon's beauty: this was a little too close, close enough that I could see the fakeness of the printed photos on the surface. But walking around the moon and viewing all of its sides is fun: we usually don't get to check out all the angles of the moon.

The accompanying soundtrack by Dan Jones is quiet--or at least it was when I was there. I much prefer this more subtle approach to sound. I think everyone else did, too. That is, people seemed to be enjoying lounging, taking a few pictures but mainly just sitting and contemplating and quietly talking. There were also telescopes on this night to look at some real views in space. There is a whole schedule of events for the week, with music and yoga and crafts and photography.

The setup is like a modern art installation--but it has "museum" in the title and is more about photorealism than art, so I enjoyed it in a casual way, a way I don't generally enjoy modern art. But because I found myself enjoying looking at this moon for its realism, I wondered why I was going to a real live, natural garden in order to look at a fake moon. (And I realize that this is a traveling exhibit that will be in many different places, probably not all botanical gardens.) Maybe the answer came with sitting around this group of people surrounding said fake moon.

While gazing up at this moon, we got to have the same type of feeling of awe that we get in looking at the real moon. The lighting in it was great. But because it was bigger and closer to us, we still got to look more closely at the details of all the craters on that familiar surface. We got the chance to study a little more. And in staring up at the fake moon, we got to see glimpses of the real, skimpy stars visible from inside the city. We had a shared appreciation for taking a moment to enjoy the idea of nature. 

And then, while driving home, I saw the real moon. It was golden, the color of glowing sunflower petals. And I asked myself again why I had just been staring at a fake moon when there is a real moon in the sky tonight. But you know, that might just be the answer, too. Of course Man's fake moon pales in comparison to the real moon. Man's creation can't match God's creation. But we do love to create just like our Creator did, don't we? We see the moon that gets us excited for reasons scientific and aesthetic, and we make our own version, and then in turn we are inspired to go back to that original source. If having a giant, fake moon travel around to different exhibits gets people to renew their awe for the real moon, then that's rather nice. I wouldn't go out of my way to see this exhibit, but if you fancy a garden visit this week, it makes a pretty complement to the naturescape.