The Hacienda Jeanmarie – Visiting a Puerto Rican Cacao Farm

February 19, 2017 by Plum Brook Chocolate

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If cacao trees only thrive 20 degrees north or south of the equator, why doesn’t Puerto Rico have any industry?  Every year I wondered this as I made my way to west-coast Rincon where my parents winter. I’d check out the latest on cacao production there hoping to find a farm nearby. During a visit to the agricultural research center in Mayaguez a few years ago I learned that Puerto Rico has an interesting cacao story (see my blog post “At The Foot of a Cacao Tree).  In the 17th century a hurricane wiped out most of the cacao crop and it was abandoned for easier-to-grow sugar cane and coffee.

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Thanks to the Puerto Rico Cacao Project, farms are cropping up again and Juan Echevarria is leading the way.  He began to grow cacao on his family’s farm when he found some 17th century prized criollo trees on the land.  I was thrilled to visit  his Hacienda Jeanmarie a few weeks ago, walking among healthy cacao trees growing in the shade of other crops, seeing the different species and colors of pods and gaining knowledge from this passionate, articulate and intelligent man.

 

 

 

 

Juan explained how he harvests, ferments, dries and processes his beans in a traditional hand cultivated fashion.  He is dedicated to teaching and assisting others with the goal of eventually building a working cooperative that connects small organic cocoa farmers in Puerto Rico to the fine chocolate industry through direct, transparent relationships.

 

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Juan opens a freshly cut pod and offers cacao pulp.

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After fermentation the beans are naturally dried

Historically cacao farmers are impoverished because – put simply – the revenue they receive does not cover their cost of production.  By removing middlemen, farmers increase their value and quality, creating a positive social impact to farming communities while delivering premium quality cocoa to chocolate makers.  Juan is trying to drive this business model in Puerto Rico and to one day have his country recognized as producing some of the world’s best chocolate.

Taking advantage of Juan’s hospitality, I stayed and chatted long after the group on our little tour left.  I sampled his 100% chocolate bar, a rich melody of rustic fruity chocolate flavor and left with enough to make a batch of truffles (a future blog post!).

I will go back to Juan’s farm again and look forward to witnessing the thoughtful growth of cacao production in Puerto Rico through his efforts.  Another incredible experience, place and friendship made in my lifelong chocolate journey.

 

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HOLIDAY TRUFFLES

November 24, 2016 by Plum Brook Chocolate

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TRUFFLES FOR THE HOLIDAYS

The year-end holiday season – whether it involves Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or some other treasured family celebration – evokes nostalgia in many of us. Many of you bake homemade goodies to give as gifts or take to cookie swaps and what is more appreciated than something from the heart and the kitchen?

Creamy and elegant, these truffles have a soft, melt-in-your-mouth filling.  Beautiful enough to give as gifts or serve to guests, this truffle recipe is easy, too!

The key is to keep it simple and use the best ingredients you can find and you will end up with a rich, creamy ganache. What is “ganache” and how did it get that name? It’s simply a mixture of chocolate and cream. Rumor has it that a chef called an assistant a “ganache” (French word for idiot) when he dumped hot cream into a bowl of chocolate. Serendipity I say!

Be prepared to get your hands “dirty” with chocolate!

SPIRITED DARK CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

Yield: 12-15 truffles

Ingredients

4 oz. whipping cream
7 oz. finest quality dark chocolate (61% or higher)*
1/2 oz. butter, very soft but not melted
1 oz. bourbon whiskey (if you’re not a fan of bourbon, substitute another liquor)
1/2 cup cocoa powder

Bring whipping cream just to boil.

Pour slowly over the chocolate and mix rapidly to create an elastic and shiny mixture. Add butter and mix it again with the spatula. Add bourbon whiskey and mix to incorporate.

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Let ganache set for 12 hours in the refrigerator or till firm enough to handle. Dust hands with cocoa powder and shape into one inch balls using a scoop or teaspoon and roll in cocoa to coat surface.

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Drop in cocoa powder and roll around with a fork.

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Lightly lift to parchment paper lined cookie sheet.

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Store covered in refrigerator until ready to serve.  Serve at room temperature.  Enjoy compliments!

Variation:  After rolling in cocoa powder, drop into finely chopped nuts (we like hazelnuts), pressing lightly.

 

*I use Guittard Chocolate, a 4th generation family owned San Francisco chocolate maker. They led the way in the fair-trade movement and make some of the finest chocolate. Other fair trade brands I recommend are Trader Joes or check out Whole Foods, New Morning in Woodbury or your favorite specialty store. Many grocery stores carry fine chocolate fair-trade bars too.

Photos courtesy of Ecole Chocolat.

 

 

 

New Season, New Place

October 18, 2016 by Plum Brook Chocolate

There’s an old saying ‘find the work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’.

I use to have a job, now I have a passion! Don’t always know what drives me but that’s how passions are. Autumn is here and with that begins Season Number 4 (!) for Plum Brook Chocolate. I love what I do.  Working with amazing chocolate and making people happy one chocolate at a time. It’s very satisfying putting a smile on people’s faces.

 

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The Mindful Kitchen

 

I’ve recently moved production to The Mindful Kitchen, a little commercial kitchen in New Preston CT. My landlord Harold is a great guy who is dedicated to fostering local food and small businesses. I’m there producing every Sunday and Monday right next to The Smithy Market. It’s a bright happy place and fun to be part of a new vibe.

It’s another place my chocolate life has taken me. There’s still so much to learn and see. What’s next? I’m not sure but willing to stay open, keep learning and put one foot in front of the other. Right now festivals and orders are keeping me busy and I’m excited for the season ahead!

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Sal de Maras Caramels

February 26, 2016 by Plum Brook Chocolate

This week we made a fresh batch of salted caramel topped with Inca salt brought to me by my brother-in-law John and his wife Helen who recently returned from a trip to Peru. Maras is a town along the slopes of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and known for its salt evaporation ponds. People here still collect salt from the ponds just as they did thousands of years ago.

 

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Peruvian women collecting salt from Maras salt pond. (photo courtesy of JC Dorgan)

 

Since pre-Inca times, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. This highly salty water emerges at a spring from the underground stream. The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels down onto the several hundred ancient terraced ponds. Maras is near the city of Cusco that was once the capital of the Inca Empire. Set at an altitude of 11,150 feet, it’s the gateway to the Inca Trail that ends at the mountain citadel of Machu Picchu.

Peru and cacao share an age-old intimate relationship. It has been said that the cacao shrub originated in the foothills of the Andes where it was domesticated then introduced by the Maya in Central America and Mexico.  Today Peruvian cacao is recognized for its superb flavor and exports are on the rise.

So it seemed very fitting that we give this ancient salt a try!  Flor de Sal is a very robust and salty salt, more so than the milder French Fleur de Sel we usually use to top our caramels.

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Plum Brook Chocolate Salted Caramels topped with Maras “Flor de Sal”. 

 

We love the taste of Maras salt on our caramels!

UPDATE!  Our salted caramels with Maras salt received the blue ribbon – first place – in Connecticut from the CT Specialty Foods Awards 2016!  Whoa!

Farm to Table: The Litchfield Market

November 2, 2015 by Plum Brook Chocolate

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Tonight I roasted heirloom root vegetables from Wild Carrot Farm bartered with some Toffee-Almond Bark. Fresh and delicious! I’m excited to be back at the Litchfield Hills Farm Fresh Market. It’s my 3rd season here and I’m humbled to be among farmers and artisans who are so passionate and good at what they do. I feel like I’m among the royalty of Litchfield County’s farm to table movement…and I am!

It is here that I’ve met some very important people in my chocolate life. Kay Carroll is our market master who is responsible for running things when she is not tending to her maple syrup farm, Brookside Farm II. It is her rich robust dark amber syrup that popped my Sugar Shed Maple Truffle, which eventually led to it taking 3rd place at the CT Specialty Food Awards this year.

 

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Kay Carroll, Market Master at the indoor Market

 

And this is where I met my friend Jim Baker while he was helping his mom Janet set up her honey table (Berry Ledges Apiary).  Jim is the brilliant wine master at Hopkins Vineyard. Our meeting led to co-developing a luxurious Cab Franc truffle that opened the door to meeting the wonderful folks at Hopkins Vineyard.  I’ve had many good times there.

It is here that I met Howard Rosenfeld, owner of The Smithy Store in New Preston and Chef Brendon from At The Corner in Litchfield who both frequent the market as friend and guest chef respectively. PlumBrook Chocolate is now on the shelves in both of these shops!

 

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Raspberry Jam Truffles

 

Ron and Fran, my kitchen landlords at Winding Drive Jams & Jelly are here and it is there seedless fresh jam that gives my Raspberry Truffle its vibrant flavor.  I could fill a page with interesting people who frequent the Market on Saturdays!

This is definitely not your run of the mill farmers market, thanks to Kay’s creativity and attention to detail. Cooking Light Magazine named it one of the 50 best markets nationwide and after a visit or two it is obvious why. In addition to incredible farmers and artisans who offer fresh produce, jams, pickles, breads, maple syrup, honey, natural bison and beef, and more, there is often a guest chef and talented musicians to add spice.

Vendor requirements are very specific with emphasis placed on local, fresh and high quality with a willingness to engage and educate customers about your product. (This is right up my alley since I love to talk about chocolate!) Everyone is so knowledgeable and an expert in their field. I aspire to live up to their expectations and am honored to be in their presence.

My fellow vendors readily share their expertise and support each other. Regular and new customers visit my table each week and I meet so many wonderful and diverse people. From 9 to 96 years old, it is fun to talk about chocolate with everyone.

It has been said that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. I am fortunate to have new teachers every week in my fellow vendors and market customers. It is yet another road in which this amazing journey of chocolate has led me. One of making new friends, gaining a deeper knowledge of the rich farm to table culture in Litchfield County and how it has become such a important and popular movement.

Please visit all of us at the Litchfield Hills Farm Fresh Indoor Market this season and take home some of the best that Connecticut has to offer. Hope to see you there!

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http://litchfieldhillsfarmfresh-ct.org

Click here to see when Plum Brook Chocolate is at the market.

As local as it gets!

March 22, 2015 by Plum Brook Chocolate

Snow showers on the first day of spring?!  Even with winter’s seemingly endless grip, signs of the season are all around us. We all have our favorites. I must admit top of my list of early signs is baseball spring training and opening day.

But spring’s arrival is most elegantly ushered in by its many signs in nature. One of my customers says his favorite is the arrival of the beautiful rose-breasted grosbeaks on his office feeder in Woodbury.  Every year without fail they arrive during the last week of April, neither earlier nor later. Such are the joys and mysteries of the season.

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As I write this, Western Connecticut’s sugar maples are dotted with sap buckets giving way to maple syrup celebrations and announcing the arrival of warmer days. Maple sugaring time, a New England tradition, is underway.

In Woodbury, Flander’s Nature Center taps over 300 maple trees around town to make their syrup.  Its intense maple flavor and rich buttery taste is absolutely perfect on pancakes!  Which is why their annual pancake breakfast – complete with fresh maple syrup – is always a much-anticipated tradition in Woodbury. Demonstrations are being held at their Sugar House this month.

In Litchfield, Brookside Farm II makes four grades of maple syrup the old fashioned way with delicious results. Sap is collected from their sugar bush of 500 trees.  Using a high-efficiency oil-fired burner, their production process yields 100% pure organic maple syrup.  It is Brookside Farm II’s dark amber syrup that makes our Sugar Shed Maple Truffle “pop” with flavor.

At Plum Brook we proudly support our local community and the communities of cacao farmers, sourcing local ingredients and fair trade certified chocolate to craft our delectable creations.  It isn’t just about great chocolate, but about enriching the community through chocolate.  Caring for our community and about communities as far away as South America and West Africa and all the places where cacao is grown and traded is important to us. Folks here in the Northwest Corner and elsewhere in rural Connecticut know that choices about how and where things are grown and produced can make big differences for local communities wherever they may be.

Our Sugar Shed Maple Truffle is but one example of this. This is why we combine fine, ethically produced chocolate with the freshest locally produced and grown ingredients we can find. Love and passion for what we do is included! We think the results speak for themselves and hope you will too.

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” – Proverb

Enjoy!

Chocolate and Beer?

November 8, 2014 by Plum Brook Chocolate

Love chocolate?  Love beer?  Pairing beer and chocolate will lead you down an exciting road to discovery. Not to mention add zest to any get together with friends, office parties, special dinners and family celebrations.

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 How about a beer and chocolate pairing for one of your events?

My family’s interest in craft beer has led us on an active and fun journey of chocolate and beer pairings. You can’t go wrong trying different combinations. There are lots of exceptional and delicious beers to choose from, as Connecticut has established a reputation for making some of the nation’s best craft brews.

Many top quality, superb breweries dot the map. See CT’s Beer Trail for more information.  If you live outside of New England, seek out your own local breweries.  Mass marketed beer certainly has it’s place, but not for our purposes here.  The same is true for chocolate.  Seek out smaller, quality chocolate makers for your pairings.

Of course, we would love to have Plum Brook Chocolate be a part of your pairing fun and so we offer the following suggestions (just a tip of an iceberg really) to get you started on your own journey.  It’s a great way to support your local craft beer industry, taste great chocolate and add zest to your gatherings.  Many of these beers pack a punch, so try sharing a bottle among friends as you move through different pairings.

A Basic List

American Double and / or Imperial IPA: We found the extraordinary Two Roads “Road 2 Ruin” paired with our Caramel Latte blissful.  This big, hoppy brew has plenty of bite.  The caramel’s sweetness and the espresso-salt dusting perfectly compliment the bitterness and hoppy flavor.  Not an espresso fan?  Our Salted Caramel should work just as well.   In general, pairing caramel with a hoppy beer should provide a nice contrast.

American Pale Ale: Try City Steam Brewerys Blonde on Blonde.  Brewed with German and Cascade hops, it touches of sweetness up front and finishes with floral, bitter hops which should interplay well with our Ginger Rum Truffle.  The ginger and floral compliment each other and the truffle’s overall mellow profile should round out the flavors.

Not a true APA, but Willi Brews Certified Gold is another choice for our Ginger Rum Truffle.  The bright, golden ale’s german hops aroma are floral and well balanced and mingles well with the truffle flavors.

Stout: New England Brewing Co.’s Imperial Russian Trooper is a bourbon-barrel stout that will be fabulous with big fruit flavors.  Our Raspberry Truffle’s vibrant flavor and tartness balances some of the stout’s prominent bourbon flavor and pops it’s dark fruit notes.

Imperial Porter:  Thomas Hooker describes their Imperial Porter as “Full bodied..hints of roasted coffee, cocoa with a generous hop finish…smooth yet complex”.  A match made in heaven with our 72% Double Dark Truffle?  You decide!  The truffle’s silky smooth meltdown followed by an intense chocolate flavor that lingers will interplay with the porter’s roasty malt flavors. And it’s delicate profile provides overall balance with this full bodied beer.

If you’ve never thought about pairing beer and chocolate before, what better time than now?  For yourself, your guests or as a unique gift of various local brews and chocolate for your hosts.

Just send an e-mail or give a call and specify the Beer Taster’s Box.  We will fill one of our boxes with truffles designed for your beer pairings.  Suggestions included!

 

 

Hello Fall

September 30, 2014 by Plum Brook Chocolate

Perhaps I should be a little sadder. Because right now, even with New England’s most beautiful season here, a long, freezing winter is right behind it. I love summer and it’s over, so why do I have a feeling of excitement about the days ahead?
Because I know that I will be spending a busy chocolate season doing something I love. Producing even better chocolate, reacquainting with customers and friends and meeting new and interesting people.
I’m excited to have expanded my flavor selection to include some milk chocolate (thank you Ovens of France for requesting white and milk chocolate during these hot days) as well as a killer 72% dark truffle. While I’ll always believe that dark chocolate is the most rewarding chocolate experience, I have come to appreciate a quality milk chocolate, rich and creamy. “Black Pearl”, a divine coconut cream, and Jasmine are 2 new milk chocolate offerings this season.
Onward to fall and winter!

A Day at Better Connecticut

April 22, 2014 by Plum Brook Chocolate

I was honored to be invited to appear in a live kitchen segment on Better Connecticut on April 21. If you tuned in to watch me, thank you so much! I was excited as the morning approached, but nervous too. What could I do in 5 minutes?  What if something went wrong? There were no retakes!

As it turned out, I was anxious for nothing. I arrived at the studio expecting high security, lots of busy people pointing where to go, and overall chaos. It wasn’t like that at all! As soon as I walked through the back door I was greeted with a smile and “Oh, you’re the chocolate lady!” I was introduced to technicians Bob and Hanes, who not only showed me where to go and what to do, but offered support along the way.

My segment was scheduled for 10:45. I sat in the guests’ waiting room, collecting my thoughts as I listened to the quartet of buccaneers who had showed up to promote the Arc’s annual Pirate Party joke and sing.

Finally, it was time! Hanes gave me a microphone and led me into the studio kitchen. “You are going to do great,” he reassured me. I did the final set-up in the kitchen, and voila: Scot Haney and Duby McDowell appeared (I admit that I was a bit starstruck!). When I saw them both in purple, I “thanked them” for wearing their Plum Brook colors, and they put me completely at ease. In fact, the segment was the fastest four minutes of my life!

Pam on Better Connecticut

After the show was over, the crew and audience gathered around to devour the red wine truffles that I made, along with some of our popular buttercrunch toffee. Bob said, “See, it was easy!”

Hanes walked me to the car and gave me a hug as he helped me load my equipment. “You must come back and visit us again,” he said, and I hope that I do. It was yet another exciting adventure on which Plum Brook Chocolate has led me.

Click here to get Pam’s at home recipe for Red Wine Truffles!

At the Foot of a Cacao Tree: A Note from Puerto Rico

March 25, 2014 by Plum Brook Chocolate

From the time that the conquistadors brought cacao across the Atlantic from South America, it has been a difficult-to-obtain luxury in the Western world. The plant only grows within twenty degrees of the equator, requires shade, and produces only a few pods per harvest. This makes the price of chocolate volatile, like the price of oil. Lately, rising demand for cacao in developing countries has created a shortage. According to a March 20 article in the Wall Street Journal, some candy makers are now resorting to a cacao variety called CCN 51 that yields more beans but produces chocolate with a sour flavor. Needless to say, those chocolate suppliers that take maintaining taste and quality more seriously than cutting costs, including our sources, Guittard and Valrhona, are being careful to avoid CCN 51.

We have hope that the growing demand for chocolate will create opportunities for economic development in cacao-producing regions. Fair trade cacao gives farmers in those countries new chances for success. I recently was able to visit Puerto Rico, where the Puerto Rican Cacao Project is evaluating the potential for commercial cacao production on the island. In the mid-1600’s, cacao was one of Puerto Rico’s biggest export crops, until a hurricane at the end of the 17th century caused a food shortage that forced farmers to abandon it. The Puerto Rican Cacao Project collects samples from old cacao trees on the island to preserve their genetic variability. “Unique cacao on the island,” reads its website, “might make Puerto Rican cacao and chocolate stand out.”

My parents winter in Puerto Rico, and while visiting them this month, I decided to go to the Tropical Agricultural Research Station (TARS) in Mayaguez. In this complex, funded by the US Department of Agriculture, cacao and other tropical crops are preserved and studied.  The visitor’s entrance led to a beautiful old hacienda style building, where a friendly woman directed us to the cacao plants.

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The cacao tree I found was 50 years old and 24 feet high. Farmed cacao trees can grow as high as 26 feet and live about 60 years, so this one was definitely mature. Although not abundant with fruit (yes, the cocoa you eat started as a fruit!), the tree was still producing beautiful pods.  Flower buds along its trunk indicated that more pods were in the making, since the pod begins as a beautiful white flower.

Until the day when I actually visit a working cacao farm, this will have to do. It was a thrill to see the tree once named the “food of the gods” up close and personal. To understand how it grows and the elaborate process required to transform a cacao pod into chocolate gives me reverence for this amazing fruit.

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