December 13, 2006
Kowalski's Almond Dark Chocolate
When the local supermarket starts carrying a particular product, you know that product has gone mainstream. Fortunately, we are speaking about dark chocolate here and not something horrifying like cheese in a bottle. Unfortunately, the growing presence of dark chocolate in the supermarket aisles is by no means a guarantee of good taste. Its not that supermarkets purposely aim for cheap product, but rather, the economics of the retail business are fundamentally different the business of a traditional chocolatier. In selecting chocolates for retail, consistency becomes more important than innovation and value becomes more desirable than quality. Of course, I am speaking in generalizations here and it is entirely possible that some supermarkets in the world are offering excellent chocolate under their own label. In fact, I am aware of a couple of such products and will review them in future entries.
In the meantime, I have come across my first bar of Kowalski's chocolate, Almond Dark. Kowalski's is a family-run supermarket from the lake-filled state of Minnesota. Somewhere between the racks of delectable deer jerky and luscious lutefisk, Kowalski's has introduced its very own line of dark chocolates. The chocolate wrappers are notably sparse on wording and I personally don't know too much more about Kowalski's, so I can't offer much background on the chocolate. I can describe its taste, or rather, in the words of a real Minnesotan describe it as "Mmmm...Sweet. Very sweet. You bet!" That pretty much sums up the Kowalski's Almond Dark chocolate experience. Of course, there are also almonds too, but a few nuts doesn't make the chocolate a sensation. I'm giving it 1.5 cocao beans based on the sugar-laden chocolate base, but I have to admit that I have a weakness for dark chocolate and almonds and, if given the chance, I could feast on this chocolate all day.
November 20, 2006
Goldkenn, Cacao Origins Venezuela
Goldkenn may not be the best known of Swiss chocolate brands, but it does seem to have cornered the duty free market. While chocolate connoisseurs and perhaps even other chocolate producers will shrug at this interesting, but seemingly useless tidbit of information, let us consider the broader implications of this fact. What begins as an impulse purchase on a business trip or a vacation, may actually be many people's first introduction to the world of real dark chocolate, the moment when one breaks away from old conceptions of "chocolate" based on years of Hershey's kisses, Cadbury's eggs, and Mars bars. If this is the case, then Goldkenn sits right on the frontlines of the dark chocolate revolution, an un-sung chocolate missionary in the battle for the hearts and taste buds of the people.
Fortunately, Goldkenn happens to produce some pretty decent chocolate. Two of the company's country origin bars have been a hit, at least in this humble author's opinion. Trindad and Sto. Domingo managed to delight with complex, but very accessible, flavors. Venezuela, a 72% bar made presumably from Venezuelan criollo beans (although the packaging does not mention it), is also an accessible bar, especially for those still pondering the merits of high cacao chocolate. The chocolate is sweet and buttery with no hints of the more complicated aromas found in many premium dark chocolates -- however, this formula is also the major downfall of this bar. An edge on the sweetness levels works well for trinitario and even more so for forastero chocolate bars, where a pinch of well placed sugar can mask the flaws of a lower quality beans and simultaneously bring out the more positive aromas in the beans. In a criollo chocolate (assuming we are dealing with a criollo chocolate), too much sugar is disastrous -- the depth and personality of criollo is lost, leaving behind a still good, but somewhat plain chocolate bar. Goldkenn Venezuela reminds me of Frey Venezuela, another sweet and sumptuous chocolate bar that lends itself to copious amounts of consumption, without ever revealing the true character of its cacao beans.
September 16, 2006
Villars, Noir (72%)
Chocolate Villars is often overshadowed by its better-known compatriots, such as Cailler, Nestlé, Toblerone, and Lindt, despite the fact that the company is one of the oldest producers of chocolate in Switzerland. Founded in 1901 by Wilhelm Kaiser, who was just 28 years old at the time, Chocolat Villars was an instant commercial success. The company's rapid growth and focus on the consumer (considered an innovation at the time) soon brought the company and its founder into conflict with the rest of the chocolate industry. Kaiser pulled his company out of the chocolate cartel, which had been fixing prices at the expense of the consumer, thus touching off a period of collusion and infighting in what became known as the "Chocolate War".
Only Switzerland could hold a "Chocolate War" and actually find sufficient combatants to participate. In fact, a more accurate description of the conflict would be everyone from the chocolate cartel against Villars. Amazingly, Villar emerged from the hostilities with an even greater market share, due to a brilliant marketing coup on the part of Kaiser. With producers and distributors lined up against him, Kaiser slashed his prices and built a parallel distribution chain with branded stores selling Villars chocolates. We see this kind of business model all the time today, but back in 1910, this was a true paradigm change. Today, Villars co-exists on store shelves with Toblerone triangles, Lindt boxes, and Cailler bars, but for a long time the company held a reputation as the black sheep in the industry.
With that little history lesson out of the way, we turn to the real task at hand: checking out the wares. The verdict is mixed. Villars Noir 72% is a straightforward dark chocolate bar. The taste is mild, with virtually no hidden flavors or tones aside from a slight woody taste. There is a nice balance between sweet and bitter and a very crisp consistency which makes a pleasing snap when you first bite into the bar. However, that is all the bar has to offer -- there is nothing extra to appeal to your palate, take hold of your taste-buds, and leave you craving for more.
August 29, 2006
Dolfin, Noir (70%)
Most people would agree that a deep love of chocolate would be an essential prerequisite for starting a chocolate company. Here is what Michaël Poncelet, one of the founders of the family-owned Dolfin, has to say
We fell in a chocolate vat when we were small.
Apparently, the Poncelet boys used to hang around
August 22, 2006
Cailler sees the Darkness
Since undergoing a marketing makeover earlier this year, Cailler chocolate has battled a deadly, but predictable, consumer and retailer backlash to its eco-unfriendly packaging and aggressive pricing policies. The local press smells blood in the water and has taken to frequent and
Indeed, a most ominous dark cloud hangs over Cailler. As soon as the new Cailler bar hit store shelves, environmental groups were in an uproar over the plastic packaging,
...about a month after the relaunch a consumer association from French-speaking Switzerland, the FRC, published the results of a study into the amount of non-recyclable waste that the sexed-up chocolate would create. It dropped a bombshell: the wrapping around 100g of Frigor chocolate, a popular Cailler brand, weighs 50g.
Sales were down 20 percent from January to May and local retailers have taken their case to the consumer with below-the-belt advertising about Cailler. The discounter Denner was particularly nasty, while being creative, with
Cailler sells packaging. Denner sells chocolate.
Having completely alienated its traditional consumer base in Switzerland, Nestle is apparently moving forward with an export strategy for its battered Cailler brand. Sweets Global Network reports that the importer
In fact, these tribulations in the Swiss market might be worth it, if Nestlé could achieve sufficient growth in international markets to compensate for its losses domestically. Unfortunately for Nestlé, Cailler is a pretty "Swiss" product. Exports have accounted for only 5 percent of Cailler's turnover until now, meaning there is hardly any international presence to leverage for new, immediate sales.
Nestle insists it is too early for a post-mortum and notes that the coming holiday season traditionally accounts for the majority of sales. To be fair, it is indeed too early to pass judgement, but one has wonder if the execs in Vevey might just be praying for a little miracle now.
August 16, 2006
Sprüngli, Grand Cru Arriba, Ecuador (72%)
Sprüngli has tempted many a hungry tourist with it delicious power-covered truffles and delectable Luxemburgerli, colorful cream-filled cookies which disintegrate if you attempt to take them beyond Switzerland's borders. In recent years, Sprüngli has started to apply its flair for confectionary creativity to the budding world of dark chocolate. I've come across dark chocolate truffles covered with a fine layer of cacao powder and Santa Claus figures molded entirely from premium dark chocolate. On a recent trip to the local shopping center, I found myself *accidently* in the Sprüngli shop, where I *accidently* discovered that Sprüngli now has a line of dark chocolate bars. Accidents aren't always bad, you see.
As with all good things, moderation is the best guide. Fighting back the urge to devour the whole Sprüngli dark chocolate line in one go, I picked out just one bar, the Grand Cru Arriba. It turned out to be a good pick. Grand Cru Arriba makes use of the Arriba cacao beans from the Esmeraldas region in northern Ecuador. High-end chocolate bars tend to use Criollo cacao beans, but occassionally Arriba, supposedly one of the better Forestaro varieties, makes an appearance. Sprüngli Grand Cru proves that Arriba can be the centerpiece of a very good chocolate. In fact, everything about this bar is dedicated to dark chocolate purism, from the the crisp break of the thin wafers, to the subtle, but unmistakeable dark chocolate aroma, to the lightly smoked and fruity taste. Grand Cru is neither as complex in flavor nor as smooth in consistency as some other high-end bars, but these features are ultimately personal preferences. The bar is otherwise quite flawless and, therefore, earns a well-deserved five beans in my book.
August 12, 2006
The irresistible lure of the dark side
The world is coming around to the attractions of dark chocolate. Confectionarynews.com reports that
July 29, 2006
Wellauer, Grand Cru Java (64%)
Chocolate has never been the exclusive province of big brands and mega-corporations in Switzerland. There has always been room for smaller players and even one-man shops to offer new chocolates to the market and carve out a loyal regional, and sometimes international, clientele. The dark chocolate market, while fairly new to Switzerland, is proving to be no exception to this rule.
As tempting as it is to try all seven origin bars at once, I've managed to resist this urge and settle for just one at a time. We start with the Grand Cru Java, made from Criollo beans harvested in Java, Indonesia. The bar is obviously of similar composition to the Pamaco Indojaco, another premium dark chocolate produced with Javanese Criolllo and previously reviewed here. Before commenting on the taste, it is worth mentioned that Wellauer's Grand Cru Java has been exquisitely designed and packaged. The golden-wrapped chocolate is slipped in a dark corrugated exterior container. Nestled within the layers of packaging is a large red-hued bar with fine impressions of the cacao beans and the Wellauer logo.
Despite its 64% cacao content, Grand Cru Java is fairly sweet and notably lacking any hint of bitterness. The text accompanying the chocolate mentions coffee and tobacco tastes, but these particular flavors are fairly subdued. Instead, the bar delivers more fruity notes, including a strong hint of figs. Overall the taste is multi-faceted and balanced, which makes for an excellent chocolate. Grand Cru Java is particularly suited as a sumptuous after-dinner dessert, given its sweetness and creamy consistency. And, yes, it is as good as, if not better than the Pamaco Indojaco.
July 9, 2006
Mousse au Chocolate Maracaibo
Coop's Fine Foods line of premium products is a bit of a hit or miss affair. Some products are truly innovative culinary creations, such as the
Mousse au Chocolate Maracaibo has the potential for gastronomic greatness, by subverting plain-old chocolate mousse with a good dose of dark chocolate goodness. Unfortunately, Mousse au Chocolate Maracaibo falls short where it most counts. Good mousse must be smooth and creamy; anything else will not lead to a memorable mousse experience. Mousse au Chocolate Maracaibo is more like a frozen custard. With sufficient time out of the fridge, it does evolve into something more creamy, but it is exceedingly difficult to get beyond its dry, brittle texture. The result is disappointing, especially since the Maracaibo cacao flavors remain sadly locked in the mixture and are never really given a chance to show their superior tastes.