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.

Spring and Easter Are On Our Minds

March 10, 2014 by Plum Brook Chocolate

At Plum Brook Chocolate, Easter is one of our favorite days of the year. At no other time does chocolate play such an important role in bringing the family together around the holiday table. We use chocolate to tell the story of the Easter’s true meaning through age-old symbols of the triumph of life over death.

While the lamb’s association with the Easter story comes straight from the Bible, other symbols of the Resurrection were derived from pre-Christian traditions. Rabbits, for instance, were associated with Eostre, the pagan fertility goddess from whom our Christian holiday most likely derived its name, and the ancient Egyptians and Greeks buried their dead with eggs.

Bunny cropped

I like that Easter doesn’t have a fixed date like Christmas. At the Council of Nicaea, the Church fathers decided that the date of Easter would depend on the lunar cycle and equinox because of Passover. Back then, people used the moon to determine the passage of time, and they wouldn’t have had trouble figuring out when Easter would take place. Now that we rely on clocks and other devices to show us what we once learned from nature, the shifting date lends the holiday an air of mystery appropriate for a celebration of eternal life.

I only hope that we won’t have to wait as long for spring this year as we will for Easter. April 20 is a long way off! I suppose it’s fitting to give this particularly harsh winter extra time to run its course, so that the Easter Bunny doesn’t get lost in the snow.

Showing Our Love For Our Community This Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2014 by Plum Brook Chocolate

One of the best things about being a local business owner is that it strengthens your ties to the community. It’s been wonderful to receive support and enthusiasm from fellow citizens and businesses in Woodbury who are excited that our town now has one more good thing to offer. We love our community, and are excited about a special event this Valentine’s Day weekend that will bring all of Woodbury together. Thanks to the efforts of Charles Bartlett and the Woodbury Mini-Golf Committee, helping your neighbors has never been more fun! The annual Indoor Miniature Golf Open is taking place at the Woodbury Senior Center from Feb. 14-17, and one round costs just $2 to $4. The proceeds benefit Woodbury Community Services, which helps those in town who are in need.

A bake sale will be held during the open on Saturday. When asked to donate something, I thought: what better way to wrap up Plum Brook’s Valentine season than with a few plates of chocolaty confections to support those who need our love and generosity the most? So, I whipped up a batch of shortbread cookies (adapted from this recipe) and melted the week’s last few ounces of chocolate.

Cookies

Mmm… They taste like little heart-shaped pieces of chocolate-drizzled pie crust. I hope these tempting treats will fetch Community Services some good donations!

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Please join me in supporting Woodbury Community Services and coming to the Indoor Miniature Golf Open. I hope to see you there!

Celebrate Valentine’s Day with Local Wine and Chocolate

February 10, 2014 by Plum Brook Chocolate

Some of our friends in Connecticut don’t realize that in their own backyard, they can find gourmet food and drink that rivals what they are used to buying from other coasts and other countries. It isn’t uncommon to find maple syrup from Vermont in a Woodbury family’s pantry. Granted, it may be more convenient to get all your grocery shopping done in one stop, but there’s nothing like covering your pancakes with syrup fresh from your neighbor’s tree. As for chocolates — well, never mind chocolates. Take wine. Isn’t the art of winemaking better left to the easygoing residents of places like northern California, where the sun shines on the grapevines all year long?

Certainly not! Those who have followed the state’s Wine Trail can attest that these New England hills, soil, and seasons produce a manner of wine that is Connecticut’s own, and one that we can be proud of. If you’d like to try one of the best examples of Connecticut wine, we at Plum Brook Chocolate suggest that you take a drive through the rolling hills of southern Litchfield County — beautiful even in winter, when the bare trees and old stone walls are powdered with snow — to Hopkins Vineyard in New Preston, located on the north side of Lake Waramaug. Tastings take place in the vineyard’s antique barn, at a cozy bar overlooking a panoramic view of the surrounding highlands. For $7.50, you can try seven of the vineyard’s award-winning wines, including the delightfully crisp “Duet,” a blend of Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc, the smooth, semi-sweet Peach Wine, and my favorite, the Cabernet Franc: rich, earthy, and deeply satisfying.

We have had the pleasure of working with winemaker Jim Baker and winery manager Rachel Greklek on creating a Cabernet truffle made with this sumptuous wine. Jim and Rachel could not be friendlier taste-testers. After working with them, I recognized that their perfectionist determination and keen attention to the details of flavor and texture help explain why Hopkins wines are so good. We have worked hard to perfect a truffle that will be worthy of their Cab Franc, using the best chocolate that we can find — a Valrhona Grand Cru — and are especially proud of the result!

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Our new Cabernet truffle is available in sampler boxes just in time for Valentine’s Day. Speaking of the holiday, our friends at Hopkins are hosting special wine tastings accompanied by an artisan food platter (featuring our chocolates) and live music next Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening, the 14th through 16th. If you’re looking for an extra special Valentine’s Day evening, check it out! For more information, visit the vineyard’s website.

Chocolate for a Cold Night

January 24, 2014 by Plum Brook Chocolate

I often wonder if the winters have gotten colder since I was a child, or if children are simply more tolerant to the weather than adults. Probably the latter. As a child, I played outside with my friends well into many a bitter midwinter evening, and I don’t remember the chill ever bothering us much. What I do remember is racing inside as fast as we could the moment we heard that Mom was making hot chocolate. I must say that it never tasted better than it did under those circumstances. However, Plum Brook Chocolate’s “Velvet” Drinking Chocolate mix is rich, flavorful and satisfying enough to bring back those fond childhood memories of coming in from the cold, and to make many new ones.

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As adults, of course, we even have the chance to improve on the hot chocolate experience by adding our favorite liqueur. Our packaging suggests adding Kahlua to our drinking chocolate, but the possibilities are vast. Amaretto, peppermint schnapps, bourbon, or high-quality Jamaican rum like the Meyer’s we use in our ginger truffle all blend nicely into our cocoa.

In addition, our truffles can be combined with other warm drinks for a fulfilling winter lift. Because we endeavor to produce chocolates that leave a deep, enduring aftertaste, the taste of one small truffle from Plum Brook Chocolate can linger as you finish your whole cup of tea. Of course, you’re welcome to have more!

Here are some tea-and-chocolate pairings that we recommend:

  • Ginger Rum + Tazo “Zen” (a green tea infused with lemongrass)
  • Sugar Shed Maple + blueberry tea (available from Celestial Seasonings and others)
  • Winter Night + Earl Gray, or a stronger black tea

We hope that you can stay warm this January with Plum Brook Chocolate!

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