The gold standard for chocolate

One of the things that always amazes me is the complexity of creation some ingredients require. Even more baffling is the fact that somebody actually ate these things the very first time. Who was the first person to eat a pork rind? Who was the first person to create chocolate? The Maya (and the Olmec before them, according to some) made a drink of the stuff, requiring extraction of seeds, pounding, fermentation, mixture with chilies, pimentos and other local, special ingredients. Xocoatl was unsweetened and considered to be a health drink, of sorts. Cortez, in a letter to King Carlos I, called it a “drink that builds up resistance and fights fatigue.”

These days we are again approaching the old wisdom. Chocolate is reported to be a natural anti-depressant and an excellent source of antioxidants. Whatever. I eat the stuff because I love the flavor.

There are, of course, a ton of different types of chocolate. Most connoisseurs will choose the dark variety when using chocolate in cooking, baking or eating with other ingredients. Many people find the taste too bitter and opt for chocolate cut with butter and milk. While there is nothing inherently “wrong” with this type, it does contain much more fat and sugar than the dark stuff.

Many people will tell you that the only good chocolate comes from European sources, and an examination of most restaurant pantries will tend to confirm that. The last time I checked, the lion’s share of the market was split between Calabut, Valrhona and Guitard, with the first being from Belgium and the other two from France. You can purchase these brands at any high-end grocery store. Even Wal-Mart carries Guitard chocolate chips that are great in baking. There have also recently been some American roasters that can compare. Two that I recommend are from San Francisco: Ghirardelli, mostly for chips and Dutch-process cocoa, and Scharffen Berger. For eating, I like the bars produced by Dagobah, a company from Ashland, here in Oregon, and available just about everywhere in Portland, including our own student store in Smith Center. I recommend the Lavender and Xocoatl varieties. Dagobah did recently issue a recall of some of their 70 percent dark bars because of a chance of lead contamination. That is the kind of customer service you get from a small company – no cover up, just taking responsibility.

When it comes to chocolate candies, many people swear by foreign imports as well. The hereditary favorite here is Godiva. Their reputation for customer service is legendary: they once had a service you could order wherein a naked woman on a horse would deliver confections to an address of your choice. They have become so well known, in fact, that you can find their products almost everywhere, including department stores. Since temperature control is so vital for a high-end chocolate, I would shy away from those. There is a Godiva store in Pioneer Place downtown and it is a great last-minute gift source. When my brother was getting married, they prepared a custom box for me and were able to wrap it in ribbons in the wedding’s colors and add a velvet rose for my sister-in-law. I didn’t have to beg or cajole, they were enthusiastic about helping me out and, if there was an extra charge, I didn’t notice it in the already considerable price.

For people who want to keep their money a little closer to home, Portland abounds with extraordinary chocolatiers. As mentioned in a previous column, the Saturday Farmers Market is a great place to see what is new.

A more established option is Moonstruck, with locations in Portland. Their stuff is so good that it was rated in a Consumer Reports taste test. They also had a selection included in the gift box for Oscar presenters this year. I especially like their hot chocolate, which justifies a trip up to 23rd Avenue. Even better is the small shop at Southwest Alder Street, just off of the bus mall. I also enjoy purchasing individual chocolates, upon recommendation of the staff. The seasonal citronella truffle is extraordinary, as was the mousse pyramid, which would make a very classy finish to dinner.

For an option on how to start your evening, you need look no further than Pix Patisserie. They have a full range of desserts and bon-bons, as well as an extensive wine list and a cafe menu. Head chef Cheryl Wakerhauser’s French training shines through in the technical execution of the offerings, which are world class by any measure. The place also gets a very strong Portland feel from the creativity.

Last time I was there I had a concoction called “The Royale with Cheese.” The Royale is a hazelnut praline covered with chocolate mousse on a dacquoise (meringue filled with buttercream) base. The “with cheese” part comes from the small wedge of Brilliat Affin served on the side. While “chocolate with cheese” is shorthand for two things that just shouldn’t mix, I found the combination of the mildly bitter soft rind cheese and the sweetness of the praline to be an eye-opening combination. Like always, I treasure any experience that can teach something new about food in an elegant way.

All of the above options are extremely expensive for the average student. While that is good since these indulgences shouldn’t be a daily thing, it is nice to be able to afford a dessert without having to make major plans first. Have no fear – the Whole Foods dessert counter has you covered. I really like the macaroons, which come in chocolate-dipped and plain varieties. While not certified kosher for Passover, do you really care? When I was brought out of the land of Egypt, is not to skip dessert. They also sell slices of various cakes and tarts.

Sure, dessert is the least healthy part of the meal, at least from a caloric standpoint. From a mental-health standpoint, however, the story is completely different. Life without dessert would be a stark experience, indeed. Luckily, that isn’t likely to happen any time soon. And hey, saving up for quality chocolates saves me from eating miscellaneous junk food daily. Looks like an all-around win.