"Chemically speaking, chocolate really is the world's perfect food."
--Michael Levine (a nutrition researcher), The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars
We are on the cusp of a second revolution in chocolate.
Fifteen years ago, most chocolate fell into one of several categories: overly-sweet, mass-produced American milk chocolate candies and chocolate bars; specialty "chocolate box" stores like Russell Stover with chocolate-covered cherries, chocolate-covered nuts, and the like; and a few kinds of imported European chocolates, like Lindt. In the last 15 years, we have had two revolutions in chocolate that give chocolate lovers some new, outstanding choices.
Revolution 1 -- "Pure" chooclate bars. About a decade ago, there was a revolution in the kind of chocolate you could find on the shelves of Houston's best food stores. The revolution happened after the European Union, in 1994, began requiring chocolate makers to identify the percentage of cacao. Suddenly, chocolate producers began to compete to see who could make the most hardcore, "pure" chocolate. The 70%-plus cacao bars are my favorites. Typically, this new, stronger tasting chocolate was marketed based on its country or region of production. This revolution was much like the Starbucks revolution in coffee -- an overnight shift from weaker, less flavorful coffee, marketed by brand instead of by growing region to a much stronger, intensely flavored coffee specifically marketed by region of origin.
Revolution 2 -- Gourmet chocolate. Now, a new revolution is emerging. It is the use of this wonderfully strong chocolate in combination with other gourmet ingredients. This is the revolution I appreciate because the real artistry of cooking is in creating new, wonderful combinations. This movement goes where chocolate has never gone before.
An outstanding local gourmet choclatier is Richard Kaplan, who sells chocolate under the name Brown Paper Chocolates. Kaplan makes a large, unadorned 4.5 ounce cube of chocolate that he sells in a brown box. Each chocolate has a mixture of gourmet ingredients, such as:
-Dark chocolate with almonds, tequila, ancho chili;
-Dark chocolate with pistachios, cointreau, dried cherries, orange peel;
-Dark chocolate with espresso, Kahlua, cocoa nibs;
-Milk chocolate with cashews, Jack Daniel's and sea salt;
-White chocolate with pistachio, coffee liquor, caramel, orange peel.
Brown Paper Chocolates are for people who don't just love chocolate, but who need chocolate. They are quite simply the best chocolate I have had anywhere. The chocolate flavor is particularly intense. Unlike traditional American chocolate bars, Kaplan heightens, rather than dilutes, the flavor of the chocolate with small amounts of other ingredients. For instance, ingredients like ancho chile, espresso, sea salt bring out some of the best aspects of chocolate flavor.
These chocolates work particularly well with dessert wines. For instance the dark chocolate with ancho chili is great with late harvest zinfandel. The white chocolate with pistachio is great with sauternes.
I bought Brown Paper Chocolate when Kaplan first began selling them himself at the Saturday morning Midtown Farmer's Market at T'afia. He made helpful suggestions about wine pairings. Now you can also get them for around $6 at Spec's downtown, or for around $9 in the cheese aisle at Central Market. I also saw them at Berring's Hardware (!?). Soon Brown Paper Chocolate will be everywhere.
An outstanding local chocolate vendor is the Cutting Garden. The Cutting Garden does not make their own chocolates; instead they buy them from around the country. These resemble the old Russell Stover-style of boxed chocolates, but they are the prettiest, most artistic chocolates I have ever seen. A box of these chocolates is an impressionistic swirl of colors, and true to this style, each chocolate has a surprise flavor inside. Plus they taste a lot better than Russell Stover.
To try this revolution, go to the Cutting Garden for little chocolates that taste good, look like art, and make a wonderful gift. Or get a Brown Paper Chocolate if you want to gnaw on an ugly block of chocolate that explodes with wonderful flavors.