The Banquet of Life
Haut Cocoa
By Dave Stinton
Nov 28, 2007

This Thanksgiving, my family and I celebrated by eating chocolate on Boss Tweed’s grave.

(I should back up.)

I read a New Yorker article recently about Frederick Schilling, a guy who, despite never having liked chocolate, founded Dagoba chocolates. Dagoba is one of those brands that you see at the checkout counters of wine shops or Whole Foods, the kind that cost over $3 a bar and brag about their fair trade practices and cocoa contents.

By the end of the article, with its discussion of the artistry and artisanship that go into Dagoba’s lineup, I was willing to try one.

I found a Dagoba “Chai” bar: milk chocolate with ginger and spices. Walking down Clark Street, I broke off a portion.

I actually misted up a little.

The chocolate was silky and wonderful, and the ginger and spices gave it a sparkly infusion that filled my sinuses and lingered for an absurdly long time.

Maybe it was the quality, maybe the price, but I managed to keep myself from wolfing it down. Instead, I folded over the foil and stuck the remainder of the bar into my coat pocket, so that 10 minutes later I could feel around in there and notice it was missing.

Cursing under my breath, I retraced my steps and found it on the ground a block behind me. I picked it up off the sidewalk. There aren’t a lot of candy bars I would do that for.

I raved to my family, and when we visited my brother in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving and toured Green-Wood Cemetery, my mom produced a Dagoba Chai from her purse. We sat on a low stone fence around William Tweed’s gravesite and enjoyed the fruits of fair trade cacao over the bones of an infamous plunderer.

• • •

My dad recently decided his wine refrigerator was too unwieldy and gave it to me. As I filled it with my bottles, I realized that I’m intimidated by my own wine collection.

Time and time again, I will bring home a bottle, then find some reviews online that speak in high-flung terms about its “bouquet,” or its “notes,” or how it will be at its “peak” after “2015.” So when I want some wine to go with a frozen pizza and an episode of Pushing Daisies, there’s not a drop to drink.

I don’t want to insult the wine, you see.

“I think you should just drink it,” my dad told me. “Whatever the occasion. Just enjoy it.” (If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the moral of Toy Story 2, reconfigured for alcoholics.)

This encouragement meshed nicely with my new mission to buy a bunch of expensive chocolate bars and see if they were worth it. I’d been sitting on a bottle of Désirée, a chocolate Port-like dessert wine, and one night I sat down, set three dark chocolate bars out on the coffee table, and poured myself a glass.

I generally do not like dark chocolate. But dark seems to have a cachet as the choice of a true chocolate connoisseur. I have also noticed that the higher the quality of the dark, the more I enjoy it. Godiva > Dove > Hershey’s.

I chose Dagoba’s “Xocolatl” (“dark chocolate, chilies & nibs”). Then Green & Black’s “Maya Gold” (“bittersweet dark chocolate with orange and spices”). Finally, Chocolove’s “Raspberries in Dark Chocolate.”

The wine was a little cloying at first, with a finish of dusty artificial chocolate flavor. But as it opened up a little, subsequent sips fared better.

I was skeptical of the Xocolatl. The first sniff put me in mind of baking chocolate, and the first bite was hard, crumbly and bitter. But the more I chewed, the more the chocolate coalesced and the flavors deepened. By the end of the second mouthful, the chilies had spread their warmth across my tongue. It was a nice pairing with the wine, which quenched the heat and replaced it with fruit. I’m not sure what “nibs” are, but I did notice “maca” on the ingredients list, which I believe is a powerful aphrodisiac. Carefully, I rewrapped the foil and moved on to the next bar.

The first couple seconds of Maya Gold gave me a shot of artificial-tasting orange, but it blossomed beautifully into a lovely, mouth-filling blend of chocolate and citrus. The chocolate also smoothed out more quickly than the Xocolatl, probably because of the lower cacao content. This time, the wine didn’t make out as well; its artificiality fared poorly in the wake of the beautiful orange and chocolate.

Finally, I arrived at Chocolove. This brand seems like a bit of a novelty act – each bar is wrapped to look something like a love letter, complete with “seal,” “stamp” and typewriter font. The label promises a “love poem inside,” but first I encountered tiny, bright pink freeze-dried raspberries peeking out from a dark chocolate envelope. This was easily the smoothest chocolate of the three, and its flavor was beautiful, though I wasn’t sold on the almost Styrofoam-like crunch of the raspberries. Not until the chocolate overtook them did the taste fully come into its own. The wine had some strong raspberry overtones anyway, making it seem like a drinkable version of the candy bar, though the bar was definitely the winner between the two.

The love poem was printed on the inside of the wrapper. It was the first half of “I Knew a Woman” by Theodore Roethke, but the remainder of the poem is on the wrapper of another candy bar. (You have to buy the Rich Dark 65% if you want to know what happened after he “nibbled meekly from her proffered hand.”)

Edgar Allan Poe might have been a better choice for the whole lineup. Dark chocolate is for brooding and obsessing. All three were wonderful, but I didn’t feel like I’d been eating chocolate.

Milk chocolate would be Dr. Seuss. High quality milk chocolate would be complex, first-rate Dr. Seuss, like Fox in Socks.

• • •

If you are a candy enthusiast, Steve Almond’s Candyfreak is your Lolita.

He spends a good portion of the book in search of local candies, and he reserves some of his most ecstatic prose for “Five Star Bars” from Lake Champlain Chocolates. But the candy blog Candy Addict disagrees, calling them “just kind of meh” and suggesting Reese’s for future peanut butter/chocolate fixes. “Meh” is about the worst review a gourmet chocolate can get, but I had to taste for myself.

Was it better than a Reese’s peanut butter cup? Yes. Was it $3 better? No.

It had a lot going for it. Smooth, rich milk chocolate swaddled a sweet bricklet of peanut butter and the occasional crunch of crisped rice and peanuts. But it didn’t transport me the way I thought it would.

On a recent lunchtime trip to Walgreens, I picked up a bag of Hershey’s “Cacao Reserve” truffles, to experience that company’s foray into gourmet chocolate. Three truffles are represented – milk, dark, and “spice” – and Hershey’s dutifully lists the cacao content for each (then goes the extra mile by defining the word “cacao” on the back of the bag).

The bag also features the bewildering and disturbing suggestion that you “discover your inner cacao ... from the outside in.”

They weren’t bad – certainly classier than your standard drugstore candy bar. But all three varieties exhibited a slightly unpleasant lingering aftertaste.

Back at work, the woman in the next cubicle refilled a jar of M&M’s she keeps on hand for anybody who wants to partake. The noise always draws people from neighboring offices like cats to a can opener. I wandered over and swiped a few.

After my week of chocolate exploration, the M&M’s tasted chalky and underwhelming, which enabled me to eat them in great fistfuls.

Copyright © 1998-2006 TheSimon.com
View this story online and more at: http://www.thesimon.com/magazine/articles/the_banquet_of_life/01495_haut_cocoa.html