At the Fancy Food Show, virtually everything you’ve ever seen on the grocery store shelf is yours for the taking, plus unreleased products and the rarest foods: jamón Ibérico (the porcine equivalent of Kobe beef), fresh mangosteens, black garlic (I don’t know what the big deal is: it tastes like salted prunes) and crudo from David Burke Townhouse.
When I was young (relatively speaking; I’m 27), I tried hundreds of samples and had the clarity of mind to describe almost everything I ate. Clearly I’ve abused my tastebuds; this year, I got palate fatigue at sample #2. But this is what I do to in the name of research.
The Chocolate (this is what we’re here for, after all)
Better Than Nutella
Chocolate-hazelnut spread is my favorite condiment, and I sought out ones that were better than Nutella and my homemade version. A half dozen of them were too sweet, resembled a ball of shortening or were just underwhelming.
The winner by far was Pralus. The deep, toasted hazelnut flavor could only be matched by their exquisite chocolate. They also debuted two single-estate Venezuelan chocolates (Sorry I can’t remember the names. Blame it on the fatigue.). One tasted like raisins, and the other had soil notes that morphed into coffee. Amazing what a couple degrees in latitude can do to chocolate. The chocolate-hazelnut spread is available at Zingerman’s and Murray’s Cheese (Greenwich Village only). They run out quickly, but I think it’s worth checking back everyday. While you’re there, also pick up the Infernal Bar, a brick of chocolate-covered chocolate-hazelnut spread.
Coming in a close second is Marco Vacchieri from Italy. The poor man’s version is Sunland’s chocolate peanut butter (a paltry $5 for top quality stuff). Because it’s made with Valencia peanuts, which are naturally sweet, there’s very little added sugar.
Top Chocolate Bars
I actually tried Pacari last year but didn’t include them in my roundup. I’m usually not fond of Ecuadorian chocolate because it tends to be neutral. Pacari, however, is strong and fruity. They also don’t use vanilla (only the bravest chocolate makers attempt this).
It’s one thing for a chocolate maker to personally source his beans, but Claudio Corallo is the only one I know who actually grows them. When they’re harvested, they’re fermented for nine to 17 days (instead of the usual two to seven) and not conched. Conching makes chocolate smooth, but Corallo insists that it sacrifices flavor. As a result, his chocolate is among the most complex I’ve had.
I’m going to break the rules and promote something that’s inaccessible to 99% of the population. For the best ice cream OF YOUR LIFE, you need to get a $4,000 Pacojet, 80% Claudio Corallo chocolate and a killer recipe or pastry chef. The Pacojet makes ice cream in reverse: instead of churning a liquid base, you start with a rock-hard frozen mass, and the blades shave it till it’s literally smoother than silk. It’s eons ahead of gelato and frozen custard. The machine’s been around for 20 years. Where have I been all this time?
Some practical applications: if you know of a restaurant with a Pacojet, run there as fast as you can. And only use the best ingredients in your ice cream recipes.
White chocolate doesn’t hold the same value as the dark stuff (it’s not legally chocolate anyway), but I think it’s because most people haven’t tasted good white chocolate.
Most white chocolate is made from deodorized cocoa butter, which gives the bar its characteristic paleness. Deodorizing masks inferior cacao, but you also lose subtle flavors. Even if you find white chocolate without any vegetable fat (avoid “white coating” and palm kernel oil), most likely you’re only tasting the milk and vanilla.
El Rey Icoa is made from non-deodorized cocoa butter, and it shows in the flavor. Coming in second place is Askinosie (read my review of their 70% chocolate). It’s the least sweet white chocolate I’ve had, and the goat’s milk adds a mellow note. The San Jose del Tambo with cocoa nibs is a winning combination: sweet and bitter.
Madécasse’s (aka Malagasy) entire chocolate-making process, from growing to packaging, is done in Madagascar to benefit the locals. The chocolate has a long finish and is favored by pastry chef Pichet Ong.
Escazú, of Raleigh, N.C., debuted two years ago and shows promise as another small-batch chocolate maker. I’m fond of the 60% dark chocolate with goat’s milk. It has a sharp flavor, and the goat’s milk doesn’t taste like hay (in lesser brands it does, though).
Coming up in part two: everything else.