mucho mundo

muchoMucho Mundo Chocolate is the first museum in Mexico dedicated to enhancing the experience of chocolate – as if chocolate needed any help. But beyond the purely hedonistic aspects of consumption, the museum puts chocolate in a historical context, tracing its origins back to the Mayans, who first fermented the seeds inside cacao pods and used them to create a hot bitter drink we’ve come to know as chocolate. The favored drink of kings and priests, it was considered food fit for the gods. When the Aztecs gained control over the Maya, cacao seeds were elevated to the level of currency, making drinking chocolate a luxury few people could afford. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to a wider European audience, yet is still remained a product almost exclusively consumed by the wealthy until industrialization brought about the arrival of solid, mass-produced chocolates. Today we take the ubiquity of chocolate for granted, but a demonstration in Mucho’s test kitchen made clear to me how labor intensive making chocolate the Mexican way once was: first you heat the metate, a traditional grinding stone, while shelling as many roasted cacao pods as you need. (Hint: more than you think.  Roasted cacao seeds are as addictive as cocktail peanuts.) Then grind them on the metate by flicking your wrists with a mano, an elongated pestle. Add a handful of raw almonds to the mixture – their natural oils will slowly release and bind the cacao together – and a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar. After a bit of sweat you’ll have a crumbly paste, which can be added to water to make drinking chocolate, or serve as the base for baked goods and, after further processing and tempering, chocolate bars. I scooped up a bag of the crumble and munched on it as is; savory, slightly sweet and spicy, it was a tart reminder of why I hate milk chocolate: the fat in dairy dilutes the pleasing bitterness of the cacao. Which, I guess, is why the world is divided between devotees of milk and dark chocolate. On some things we must agree to disagree, however; after experiencing the effort involved, I won’t pop a truffle into my mouth with casual disregard again.

mucho metate

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from fallow to cocoa

tobago cocoa estate

In the early half of the last century cocoa was one of the major crops grown on Tobago and many of the island’s larger plantations, such as the Roxborough, Richmond and Goldsborough Estates – all over 100 acres and more in size – devoted their efforts to the cultivation of prized Trinitario cocoa beans. But something inexplicable happened and by the 1970s, the situation had changed drastically: cocoa production on Tobago was all but abandoned and the great estates were left to ruin. Hoping to rejuvenate the once lucrative industry, native Tobagonian Duane Dove returned to the island after several years living and working in Europe. Over the past decade he invested in reinvigorating a fallow estate and the result is Tobago Cocoa Estate: part plantation, part history park. Though no actual chocolate is produced on site – the roasting and blending of the beans happens in France – a visit to the estate still makes for an enlightening look at how an artisanal producer manages to retain the hands-on traditions of caring for the plants, harvesting the pods, and drying the beans for export. The best part, however, is saved for last: samples of the estate’s Gold Medal-winning chocolate paired with a smooth single-barrel rum.

cocoa pods

cracking open a cocoa pod

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j’ouvert

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As the name implies, J’Ouvert is the official opening of Carnival. And this being Trinidad, the party starts early. At 4AM the various bands assemble to kick things off with music, mud and copious amounts of alcohol. Smeared with paint, oil, mud, and even chocolate, the party moves to the streets, parading through the capital of Port of Spain until the sun comes up and the bacchanal reaches a fever pitch of dancing, singing and frenzied acts of simulated sex. It’s not for the faint of heart – or the abstemious for that matter. J’Ouvert ain’t pretty – it’s rather debauched, come to think of it – but it’s also a whole lot of fun.

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live blog: my friend, candy

One of the multifarious joys of Ireland is the extreme quantity and quality of chocolate candy available in bar form. To my mind Cadbury has a virtual lock on most of the good ones, like Wispa, Flake, Twirl, and the best-selling Dairy Milk. Yet Nestle has Quality Street, the individually wrapped chocolate and toffee bon-bons that come packed in a box or tin. (Good luck finding a house in Ireland that doesn’t have such a tin in the cupboard.) Everyone has their favorites but mine are the coconut eclair tied up in bright blue foil and the “Purple One,” which comes wrapped in – wait for it – purple foil and once featured an entire Brazil nut drowning in caramel and covered in chocolate but has since been downgraded to a more manageable hazelnut. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good – just not exactly the same.) Well, lo and behold, you clever Candy Man: the company recently figured out they could extend their brand reach by turning the roster of bite-size candies into adult-sized bars. First out of the gate and into my mouth is the Purple One.

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hardcore cacao

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brusselicious

Every couple of years the Belgians feel compelled to pronounce it the Year of Something: a few years ago Brussels was the capital of fashion and design, after that it was the year of the comic strip. This time around the government has declared it a year focused on something I have a particular fondness for: gastronomy. Welcome to the appropriately named Brusselicious.  Land of lambics, waffles, and moules frites, the country has a few surprises up its sleeve, too. Like Brusselicious XXL, an exhibition of some 35 monumental sculptures of iconic Belgian foods (sprouts, natch) scattered throughout the city. And the Tram Experience, a two-hour trip aboard a liveried city tram, which takes in the sights as you wine and dine on a menu concocted by a rising chef with a fondness for classic Belgian cuisine. (Carbonnade, anyone?) In the works are chocolate-themed weeks, picnics in the parks, and many a chipstand crawl, but the event that has me licking my lips while looking for the seatbelt is 140-feet up in the air. In a city known for its Surrealist bent, a series of Dinners in the Sky are the ultimate culinary dream. Already successfully staged in Las Vegas, Sao Paolo, and Sydney, 22 guests and one starred-chef will experience “high cuisine” while dangling over the capital.

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churros & chocolate

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they call it ginja

We interrupt our sightseeing for a quick beverage break – yet again. Ginja is a Morello cherry liqueur popular across Portugal as an aperitif or midday pick-me-up.  Here in Sintra I found it served in a chocolate cup, although typically it comes in a shot glass with an alcohol-soaked piece of fruit at the bottom. Tastier than Robitussin, you’re still not going to find it taking up precious space on my liquor shelf.  As a taste of Portugal, however, I’ll raise a toast to anything served in dark chocolate.

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kid in a candy factory

One of the neatest activities available at Hershey Park’s Chocolate World attraction is the new interactive Create Your Own Candy Bar experience.  Donning factory aprons and hairnets, you get to select from a handful of candy bar ingredients, activate the machinery, and watch your personalized bar get drenched in milk chocolate.  Next, head to the interactive design kiosk and customize your packaging.  (Having consumed far too many sweets already, I chose to design mine as a gift for a diabetic friend.) At the end of the production line, collect your bespoke milk chocolate-crispy rice-graham cracker-chocolate chip-cookie bits-bar in its own presentation box for a one of a kind souvenir topped with kiss-shaped sprinkles.  Then see how long you can resist the temptation to break the seal and steal a taste.

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