February. The month of hearts. And romance. The month lovers swoon and women without a beloved feel a slight pang of, “No chocolates for me this year.”
I remember the biggest, most ostentatious display of chocolates I ever received. I was dating a rather linear thinker at the time. Romance was not part of his vocabulary; gifts were practical.
So you can imagine the delight I felt the night he picked me up from the airport carrying a heart-shaped container the size of Texas. Brachs in a Box. I can’t remember actually eating those little heart-shaped chocolates, though I may have.
I probably whispered a gracious thank you, eyes sparkling, heart pounding. Surely this display of affection meant a budding romance was about to bloom into something bigger, something brighter, something … well, sexier. I had this yearning to be deeply cherished, spoiled, serenaded with song and, perhaps, even poetry.
And somehow all those dreams materialized in a box of chocolates. Sadly, ‘Brachs in a Box’ isn’t even chocolate. (We’ll get to that.) So how do we elevate the chocolate eating experience, maybe even make it a little healthier?
First, avoid the fancy boxes and wrappings and do a little research. All chocolates are not created equal. Choose the very best chocolate available to you. This is not necessarily the chocolate you see on the shelves at your local grocery store. Here are a few of the suggestions for choosing chocolate:
Consider the Source: Is it ethically sourced? Much of the commercial chocolate you find in grocery stores comes from slave labor. You want to keep your eyes wide open here. If I’m lucky enough to meet the chocolate maker I ask, “Where do you source your chocolate? Is it organic? Is it fair trade?” That’s also what I look for on a label. I stay away from chocolate labels that boast “healthy chocolate” and look instead, at the ingredient list. If I see cocoa beans and cane sugar, I know I am in really good shape. For the most part I try to find small batch chocolate production where every aspect of the chocolate making process is controlled by the chocolate maker, from bean to bar. It matters.
Consider the Number: The percentage shown on many dark chocolate products is the percentage, by weight, of all ingredients derived from the cacao bean. The cocoa solids contribute flavor and the cocoa butter contributes the smooth texture. So the percentage is really the percent of actual chocolate in the product. A higher percentage means more chocolate, and less of the remaining ingredients, primarily sugar. A higher percentage also means a more intense chocolate flavor. However, we don’t want to make the all-too-common mistake of equating quantity (cocoa percentage) with quality. There is far more to chocolate than a number.
There is No Joy in Soy: Soy lecithin isn’t a necessary ingredient in chocolate. It allows manufacturers to more easily blend or “emulsify” ingredients that would otherwise behave like oil and water. It also allows them to reduce the amount of cocoa butter in their chocolate bar and replace it with other vegetable fats in order to save money. That’s reason enough to stay away from chocolate that has soy lecithin on the label.
Ditch the Dairy: Dairy binds with the antioxidants in chocolate and prevents them from nourishing your cells. If you want to take full advantage of the health properties of chocolate, you want to invest in dairy-free dark chocolate.
But even more important than all of the buzzwords and phrases (gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, fair trade, antioxidant-rich, vegan, etc.), learn to appreciate the artistry and intention that goes into the crafting of chocolate that is worth savoring.
Here are just a few of my favorites:
You see the one in the middle? Potomac Chocolate. There’s a funny story around that chocolate. I have great respect for chocolate makers who create a product from “bean to bar” and I travel the country looking for these chocolate makers. Would you believe I discovered this chocolate in Portland, Oregon and it’s produced right here in my own backyard? Based in Woodbridge, VA, Potomac Chocolate was founded in 2010, and is the first bean-to-bar chocolate maker in the Washington, DC area. Ben Rasmussen’s words: “I handcraft chocolate from bean to bar in ridiculously small batches.” Music to my ears.
I invite you to “Google” bean to bar chocolate makers in your area and see if there are any hidden gems in your vicinity. And, the next time you’re in a gourmet chocolate carrying establishment, see if they carry Potomac; it’s stellar.