I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The great chinstrap chase

When I left for the Antarctic, my brother, who came here a couple of years ago, told me to expect many wonders, but not to even try to imagine what those wonders would be. He was right, because on the very last day in the Antarctic, our ship was privy to an extraordinary moment that was like National Geographic come to life.

Everyone on board had been thrilled on our last afternoon when we spotted a pod of orcas; we had, unusually, seen very few whales on our trip. Afterwards, most folks had gone down to dinner, but I was sitting up in the bar with two shipboard friends, Eric and Stephanie. Steph was looking out a window and remarked that the orca pod was back. Eric and I went over to have a look.

The orcas were moving in and out of the waves nearby, and we marveled as they swam right up close to the boat. Next thing we knew, a little chinstrap penguin flew out of the water, just ahead of the whales. We looked at one another in amazement as we realized what was happening. A great chase had begun.

We ran outside, not even stopping to put on our parkas, and watched the spectacle unfold. It was the most thrilling event I have ever seen. The pod of whales included two babies, no more than a few months old, and the adults were training them to hunt. Orcas are basically assholes, and will kill for sport as well as food, and they set out to give the poor little chinstrap the fright of a lifetime.

The penguin, meanwhile, had discovered that it could use the hull of the ship for cover, and was desperately weaving in and out of the whales, trying to get behind or beneath the Sea Spirit. The whole pod had risen to the surface for the chase, not ten feet from us as we leaned over the rail, leaping over one another and twisting spectacularly as they pursued the penguin, who was literally flying for its life. Twice it slammed into the ship's hull, and we covered our faces with our hands, sure that it had knocked itself out, expecting every moment to see blood. But that little penguin recovered like lighting. Each time it surfaced again, we cheered.

By then other passengers realized what was happening and all came swarming out from the dining room. Soon everyone was rushing back and forth, calling out, "They've gone forward! Go forward! No wait, they're swimming back. Other side, other side!" The Sea Spirit listed from side to side as everyone ran from port to starboard and back again, the expedition staff were knocking passengers out of the way to take their own photos, and even the captain came down from the bridge and was running back and forth with the rest of us.

It was as thrilling as the Hunger Games, or any lion chasing a zebra on tv. Orcas are skilled hunters, and very deft in the water. Over and over again they lunged at the chinstrap, and the crowd would gasp in horror. But each time the penguin reappeared, flying out of the waves for all it was worth, hurling itself from death's jaws like a champion. The crowd cheered and threw fists in the air, and all around there were cries of¨Go penguin! Go penguin!¨ (From all except the marine biologist, that is, who was rooting for the whales).

Penguin definitely enjoyed home court advantage. On top of its mighty will to live, I think it was spurred on by all our cheering. It never gave up, never wavered, not even when it crashed into the ship. At long last, the orcas turned and swam away. We watched as the chinstrap made great, flying leaps in the other direction, fast as possible. It is surely a much-decorated hero or heroine now in its colony (difficult to tell the gender, really).

It was two days before there was any other conversation topic on the ship. Not a single person was left unmoved, and for me at least, I do not think I shall ever see its equal.

Penguins (of course)

Penguins are the funniest creatures. I have now seen thousands of penguins, and I do not think I could ever tire of watching them. Everything about these birds is silly, until they get in the sea, when they are compact, speedy underwater flyers. But on land, they are comedy.

Four species of penguin live in the Antarctic -- the Gentoo, Adelie, chinstrap, and macaroni -- and I saw all four.

left-->right: chinstrap, Adelie, Gentoo

We were extraordinarily lucky on our voyage and made several landings that are not often possible due to weather conditions, including one at a place called Baily Head, the largest chinstrap penguin colony in the Antarctic. With an estimated sixty thousand breeding pairs, plus many more singletons and juveniles, it is literally a penguin city, with a downtown and suburbs and a port and highways in between.

Penguins make highways everywhere they live, dirty little roads of compact snow streaked with poop, where they walk along alone or in little parades, stepping graciously out of the way of oncoming traffic. The smell is atrocious. Their snow-white bellies are often covered in their own filthy brown crap, their ebony backs streaked with the white stripes of some neighbor's projectile poo. It's actually hard to get a photograph of a nice, clean penguin, unless you catch them right by the sea.

walking through puddles of poop at Baily Head

They are the busiest creatures. Penguins have many tasks to do in the course of their day: waddle or toboggan back and forth from their nest to the sea to hunt for food, build and repair the nest, engage in pre-breeding rituals, mate, sit on eggs, feed the young, and ward off predatory skuas, the large brown birds that enjoy eating penguin eggs and young chicks.

A penguin's most prized resource is the pebble, which the males use to build their nests. Pebbles are pretty much central to the penguin existence, and even their pre-breeding ritual is pebble-based. When a boy and girl penguin like each other, they both reach their necks down to the ground and rise back up again, mimicking the act of picking up a pebble.

Once they mate, the male continues to collect pebbles to fortify the nest, while the female sits on the egg. But the birds build their nests pretty close to each other, so penguin rookeries are one gigantic pebble-stealing fest, with everyone skulking around their neighbor's nest waiting for them to look the other way, or simply grabbing pebbles outright, which results in much squawking and beak-waving.

The funniest part is watching the young mated males bring pebbles back home. These first-time fathers have worked out that pebbles are important, and that they need to continually make home repairs and improvements, but they often don't understand that they have to drop the pebble within the female´s reach as she sits on the nest -- if she gets up and leaves the egg exposed for more than a few moments, it will freeze. I watched one young Gentoo walk all over the beach, finding the best sorts of pebbles, bring them back home, and drop them about a foot away from the female, who would stretch her neck out in vain while the male walked away to find another. The bird did this about twenty times while I watched, and every time some neighbor would just grab the precious pebble away. Poor young fool.

Chicks! Gentoos lay two eggs each breeding season.

The thing that impressed me most about penguins is their industriousness. They are constantly on the move, their feet making a sweet little pitter-patter on the snow. They don't mind about humans at all. I could stand practically amongst them, and they would simply go about their penguin business. A few times, a curious one would walk up and stare at me, but mostly they just got on with their lives. It was a privilege and a treasure to be amongst them, and a natural comedy.

Whales next time, and one more penguin.

No untouched wilderness

This is the first of several blog posts I will write about Antarctica, and certainly the most sobering. Along with many passengers on this ship, I came to Antarctica believing I was visiting a place that had been relatively untouched by humans – the last great wilderness, or something like that. But from the very first landing we made, in the South Shetland Islands just northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, I learned that this is very much not the case.

The human footprint in this part of the world is large, and marked by an almost inconceivable violence against nature. We have killed nearly every animal that makes this part of the world remarkable, except, perhaps, for the krill. One of our early landings was at a place called Whaler's Cove on Deception Island, where I spent several hours wandering along a beach littered with the remains of what was once a very productive whaling station. A mudslide destroyed or crippled most of the buildings some time ago, but we could easily see the remains of an airplane hanger, living accommodations, and the enormous barrels used to process whale blubber. The beach was littered with whale bones.

The scale of devastation wrought by whaling in the Antarctic is hard to believe, and as a tourist who prizes any sighting of these animals, I still do not understand how any person, much less the thousands who worked in the industry, could be so brutal and careless of their life. The largest mammal on earth, the blue whale was the biggest prize, as it yielded the most blubber. Whalers were not seeking meat, but oil – oil that lit the street lamps of London before electricity, and supplied power for the early Industrial Revolution. Blue whales were hunted nearly to extinction, and a single whaling station could process hundreds of thousands of animals. Today there are fewer than a thousand blue whales left on earth.

After the blues, whalers hunted fins, seis, right whales, and humpbacks, all of them also large, reducing populations of these animals by ninety percent or more. They left only the relatively small minke whale to its natural course. With its competition decimated, the minke has actually flourished in the region, and is one of the most often sighted from the vessels that cruise in these waters.

Though their oil output was meagre, penguins were not spared the slaughter. Penguins have no natural predators on land and are easy to capture and kill. Hunters who could not find a place in the whaling industry caught penguins and threw them live into boiling vats, to sell the scant amounts of fuel they yielded. Seals they clubbed or skinned alive for their pelts, driving these populations to near extinction as they became very rich back in the northern latitudes.

Even the contemporary fishing industry continues to decimate seabirds, as the petrels, shearwaters, and great albatrosses are caught on fishing lines. Without drastic changes to fishing techniques, the only possible outcome for some of these birds is extinction.

I did not expect to learn any of this on a voyage to Antarctica; I thought I was some kind of intrepid explorer, headed to vast tracts of untouched wilderness. But there was evidence of human occupation on nearly every landing we made, from refuge huts to research equipment to old concrete structures whose purpose was no longer clear. In the north, we learn that no nation lays claim to Antarctica, that it is a free continent, populated by a tiny number of benign scientists who want to preserve the place for posterity. But that's not what I saw.

Britain, Chile, Argentina, and Australia all lay claim to different parts of the continent – indeed, Australia claims the whole eastern third. These countries fly their flags wherever they put up a hut or piece of research equipment. Under the treaty that governs Antarctica, other countries – the US, Russia, China – can ignore these claims and put up their own research stations, but the place is far from free of territorial wrangling.

Under the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, commercial industries are prohibited from mining the continent´s mineral resources, but there are surveyors down here all the same. In fact, the great polar resource reserves are concentrated in the Arctic, which is being much more rapidly laid to waste by industry, but rest assured that if there is something of value that can be mined or extracted from Antarctica, someone will find it, and they are looking even now. The environment is protected, but I do not know how strong that protection will be if someone finds a truly valuable resource deposit.

And then there are the tourists – everyone from people on ships like me, to the climbers who come down here to hike unnamed peaks (and then name them after themselves), or ski or sled to the South Pole. There are people all over this continent, all looking to take a piece of it, literally or metaphorically, for themselves.

Having said all that, a great deal of natural beauty remains, and there is enough animal life to keep tourists happy, at least for now. Global warming is of course affecting this place, and climatological change undoubtedly presents the most significant threat of all to the continent, far beyond what even the whalers accomplished. I now know enough about this place to want to come back, but that will most likely be a few years away, and I dread to see the changes that might take place in even that short amount of time.

So that is a bit of a black introduction to Antarctica. I will write next time of something more cheerful, like penguins.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In the Drake Passage

We are now at latitude 59 degrees south and longitude 62 degrees west, in the middle of the Drake Passage - some of the nastiest waters on earth. A few hours ago, we passed through the Antarctic Convergence, where two oceans meet, and warm(er) waters hit cold, creating conditions for life to flourish beneath the waves. We had birds again! This afternoon I saw many of the iconic ocean birds from this region, including the cape petrels with their lovely speckled black and white wings, the small, fast Antarctic prion, and my favorite - of course - the albatross. We had a few black-browed and brown-headed albatrosses following the boat this afternoon, just after we passed through the convergence, and it was marvelous.

I am very glad to be out at sea. Ushuaia was a pretty cool city for the end of the world, and I had a good, long four-hour trek along the Beagle Channel during my one day there, but I wanted the sea, and now I have about as much of it as anyone could wish for. The Drake has not been so bad, with 6-8 meter waves to start and less now, but most of the boat has been seasick anyway. This morning at the bird lecture, half the audience looked like corpses and there are some people who just walk around with barf bags. I have been completely fine, so one of my favorite activities is sitting around in the lounge or bar watching everyone else stumble around, getting their sea legs.

There is a large party on board from China, and I am rooming with two of the women from their group, including the leader. This has been a wonderful opportunity to begin learning Mandarin. So far I have learned the staples - hello, how are you, thank you, and goodbye, but also some nice context-specific vocabulary, including "penguins" and "many penguins." Tomorrow I will learn iceberg, whale, and albatross. I have not yet asked the word for seasickness.

The one aspect of this trip that I do not yet know how to classify is the eating. After all my first class plane rides and several meals on what is basically a luxury cruise, I feel like a goose being stuffed for foie gras. I sit in confined but humane spaces, and people continually serve me rich meals, and then before I have had a chance to digest, it starts all over again. But my brother told me  that as soon as we arrive in the actual Antarctic, my body will want every calorie it can get, so I guess I should just be glad for the chance to stock up now.

We have made such good time through the Drake, going at or near the boat's maximum speed of 14 knots for most of the journey so far, that the captain is hopeful of reaching the South Shetland Islands tomorrow by lunchtime. It's possible we might be able to make a landing as soon as tomorrow afternoon. It is almost too exciting to even think about, but we could see our first penguins (chinstrap) by tomorrow!

This blog alone has used up 25% of my alloted megabytes for this journey, so I think pictures will have to wait till I am back on land. But I will send wildlife updates as soon as we have some good ones. Till then, zai jian!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Getting to Ushuaia

OK, I am on the edge of delirium for not having slept for two days, but before I head back to the hostel and to bed, I want to explain exactly what it took to get here to Ushuaia, Argentina -- the port of embarkation for Antarctica and almost the farthest point on earth from Seattle.

I left my apartment on Friday morning at 3am, with Shuttle Express to SeaTac. (My friend Shawn Fowler gets a prize for getting up at 3am to send me a bon voyage text!) At 6am, my flight left SeaTac for Dallas.

Because I booked these flights almost a year ago, all the flight times had changed, leaving me with just 40 minutes in Dallas to make my connection to Miami. Which would have been fine, except the pilot missed our approach to the runway, and we had to fly around for a while and get back in line, which meant by the time we actually landed, I had just 20 minutes to get from one end of ginormous Dallas Fort Worth airport to the other. Two other people were also connecting to the Miami flight, and together we sprinted through the airport, arriving as they were just closing the doors, sweating profusely.

Then we sat on the plane for two and a half hours, because first they found blue toilet water leaking from the side of the plane, and then coffee. This was mysterious, so they ended up shutting down the entire water system and importing bottled water and moist towelettes for the comfort of passengers en route. Except there were two different supplies for bottled water and moist towelettes at Dallas Fort Worth airport, so we had to negotiate with both and wait a long time. I seized this opportunity to poke my head into the cockpit and smile at the pilots, who invited me in and offered me a jumpseat. We spent a lovely half hour together, and they showed me all the dials and knobs that they use to fly the plane.

Finally, we took off and flew to Miami, where I boarded a magnificent brand new Boeing 777 for my overnight flight to Buenos Aires. Normally I am an Economy flier just like the rest of the 99%, but this time I had a luxurious Business Class seat. I believe I had more square footage than my last two apartments in Seattle combined, along with a seat that transformed into a bed, a down duvet, personal giant screen television, champagne, gourmet food, and a personal amenity kit that probably cost more than my rent. I watched Cowboys and Aliens from my bed and felt very glad and like I was glimpsing the lifestyle of the 1%.

In Buenos Aires, I deplaned, changed money for whatever it is they use here in Argentina - I am so tired I have not even figured out the word for the currency yet - and took a one hour shuttle ride across Buenos Aires to the domestic airport, Jorge Newbury. I saw as much of Buenos Aires as I could along the way - cattle ranches, high rise apartment buildings, cobblestone streets with Paris-esque balconies, and many plazas with revolutionary statues. The Argentines are also all phenomenally good looking and appear to have unique intellectual pursuits - among many other places of higher education, I saw (if my translations were correct) an Academy for Perfectionism and Experimentation, and an Institute for Courage and Creativity. Interesting place, Buenos Aires. Hopefully I can go back there one day and take a closer look.

Jorge Newbury afforded the most interesting sight of all, as it was right across the street from an ocean promenade. I took a walk along the seafront and marveled at the sight of totally opaque, brown waves in every direction as far as my eye could see. I had never seen such a thing before in my life. It looked exactly like chocolate milk, and I am not even saying that because of my own relationship with chocolate. It did not even smell of the sea. But no one seemed to mind, and early rising Argentines were out running along the promenade and sailing on the disgusting, disturbing brown sea, and even fishing in it, I guess for blocks of mud or chocolate fish.

Then it was a five hour wait for my flight to Ushuaia, and three hours to get here, and here I am, at the end of the world. Tomorrow I trek in the National Park and see the Beagle Channel. Now I go back to the hostel and to bed, because I think I can no longer form words without some sleep. Next post, more coherent!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The seventh continent

All has been quiet on the chocolate front since the Seattle festival, but it is time now to complete another goal: to eat chocolate on all seven continents. I've already got North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Tomorrow begins the quest for Latin America and Antarctica.

At 3am, I start a two-day journey to the bottom of the world: the Antarctic continent. To prepare for this - certainly my longest single journey, and quite possibly my shortest trip abroad ever - I have been reading about Antarctica for the past few weeks. My favorite book so far has been Antarctica: A Guide to the Wildlife. It's a slim guide. The chapter called "Terrestrial Plants and Insects" is just one page long, documenting several lichen and some mites. The next chapter is about a single krill. The first page has a sketch of the krill; the next, a different sketch of the same krill, only cooked.

I'm pretty sure that the krill is about to become the most captivating creature in my world. As the crux of the very short Antarctic food chain - plankton --> krill --> whale - it forms the link between the world's tiniest animal, and its largest mammal. Right now the krill are in season, so the waters are teeming with life.

Mostly, though, I think the main tourist attraction in Antarctica is ice. This isn't ice as we know it, like ice cubes, or iced tea, or even Snowcones. Antarctic ice appears to be a different breed entirely, powerful in a way that we of the temperate latitudes probably will never understand. Here is a short video to illustrate what I cannot adequately capture in words, mainly because I have to leave at 3am for the airport: wondrous Antarctic brinicle.

See what I mean?? Antarctic ice is awesome and terrifying, especially for the poor starfish.

Anyhow, I'm bringing some chocolate with me, so I can eat it in South America and then on the Antarctic continent itself. I have a nice bar packed in my backpack. I will hope that it does not go out of temper on the journey. More to come from the road, assuming I can find some computers along the way.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Saturday lineup: NW Chocolate Festival

Just one day to go now until the festing begins. Tomorrow this time I'll be at the Seattle Center, getting ready for the start of the Northwest Chocolate Festival -- the largest gathering of bean-to-bar makers, educators, and confectioners in the Pacific Northwest.

Buy your tickets now, they're going fast! http://nwchocolate.com/

As Education Director, I'll be on stage pretty much all day doing talks and other events. Tomorrow's lineup:

10am - Politics of Single Origins talk, World of Chocolate Room

11am - Meet the Maker interview with Amano's Art Pollard, a live interview for the volume I am co-editing with Brian Cisneros for UW Press, Chocolate: Turning the Wheels of the Food Revolution

1pm - Moderating panel, Sin or Saint? Guilty Pleasure or Healthy Treat: The Nature of What Draws us to Chocolate, with fabulous panelists Aaron Barthel of Intrigue, Autumn Martin of Hot Cakes, AJ Wentworth of Chocolate Conspiracy, Audrey McManus of Babeland, and Karlie Markendorf of Aphrodite's Attic.

5pm - Interview with Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolate, also for edited volume.

See you there, come hungry!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Northwest Chocolate Festival - this weekend!

One minute I was on top of a mountain in California with the coyotes and bobcats, working on my chocolate book, and the next -- whoosh, back in Seattle, where I am now spending every minute getting ready for the Northwest Chocolate Festival. Though I had a pretty big stash of chocolate with me in the mountains (over forty different bars that I tasted and rated for a month), it was nothing compared to the choc-normous spread we'll have at Seattle Center this coming weekend:

October 22 & 23, 2011
Seattle Center, Northwest Rooms
Tickets in advance and at the door all weekend

We have twenty bean to bar makers -- an unprecedented number at any chocolate festival -- as well as confectioners, pastry chefs, dessert makers, sculptors, and more, all of whom will be sampling their chocolate wares. With three thousand tickets already sold, we're set to be yet again the region's largest gathering of chocolate makers and chocolate lovers.

I am Education Director for this festival, and my job is to work with the craft makers and confectioners to make sure that while our thousands of attendees are eating chocolate, they're also learning about it - where it comes from, how it's made, and why we should care about cocoa trees. Here are some of the highlights at this year's festival:

- Fresh cacao, straight from the pod, presented by Bill Fredericks, The Chocolate Man. This is unique! I'm still amazed myself that we're doing this, because outside of the farms themselvs, which are all in the tropics, you just cannot taste raw cocoa. But you can at NW Chocolate Festival, thanks to Bill, who will be treating us to the taste of this fruit when it's fresh, before fermentation, before drying, before it turns into a chocolate bar.

- The lost chocolate of Peru, from Dan and Adam Pearson at Maranon Chocolate -- the very same Fortunato #4 I blogged about a few weeks ago. The Pearsons will discuss their discovery of this rare pure strain of Nacional in Peru, and then Karen Neugebauer of Forte and Aaron Barthel of Intrigue will treat us to a taste of this delicate chocolate in their confections.

Happy festival-goers will also
* meet cocoa farmer Leonor Cayapa Tapuy, from the Kallari cooperative in Ecuador,
* watch the creation of chocolate sculptures,
* learn how to pair chocolate with wine, tea, beer, and gin,
* taste Autumn Martin's Chocolate Whiskey Milkshake,
* and watch bartenders go head to head at the Chocolate Cocktail Throwdown!

More to come soon about my talks and panels. For now, if you live in Seattle, buy your tickets!

Friday, September 30, 2011

The lost chocolate of Peru

Today I had a rare treat. Even when you eat as much of it as I do, it's not every day that you get to taste chocolate made from cocoa beans that have been "lost" for one hundred years. This morning I had my first taste of Fortunato #4, the chocolate made from pure Nacional beans from Peru, "discovered" by Dan Pearson and Brian Horsely of Maranon Chocolate.

I even got to sample the beans -- which, as you
can see above, are unusual in their white color

The find was remarkable for several reasons. First, Nacional beans are not normally associated with Peru. Rather, this bean predominates in Ecuador, where it is most often associated with the Arriba strain (see Jeff Stern's recent post on The Chocolate Life for an excellent discussion of Arriba Nacional). So finding it in Peru was a bit of a surprise.

Indeed, finding pure Nacional anywhere is cause for celebration. Disease has wiped out much of the Nacional crop over the past century. Cocoa is a fragile tree, susceptible to fungal infections and pests that can devastate entire national agricultural systems, such as happened in Ecuador. To make it more disease- and pest-resistant, cocoa is often hybridized. The result is higher yields, but also loss of purity of strains such as Nacional, whose distinct flavor is eroded when crossed with another kind of bean.

Thus, the discovery of genetically "pure" Nacional -- and in Peru no less -- made headlines. I have been anxious to taste it. The cocoa actually arrived to me yesterday (still up here on the Djerassi mountain), but I forced myself to wait until this morning to try it, when my taste buds were clear.

The verdict: some of the most delicately flavored chocolate I have sampled, ever. Fortunato #4 was wispy and light as a feather, and so creamy I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a bar of milk -- in fact, it was 68% cocoa solids. Its flavor was so fleeting, I had to keep eating more.

If you want to taste it yourself, here's where you can find it. If you do, let me know what you think!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Does it even need sugar?

Yesterday afternoon, while working on my chocolate book, I reached for a piece of what I thought was a bar made from Porcelana Criollo. This type of bean is grown in Venezuela, and it has one of the most delicate flavors of any cocoa variety. It tastes of cream and honey and lying on a blanket in the sunshine, or like someone you love has just given you a soft hug. It's one of my favorites, and I could eat it forever.

What I got instead was a piece of a bar made from 100% cocoa solids, called Coro Noir Amertume Extreme. "Amertume" is French for "bitterness." Both bars were made by La Maison du Chocolat, and they look pretty similar:

Come on, it's close! They're practically the same. And anyhow, my writing area looks like this at the moment, so it's easy to get confused:

Instead of sunshine, at first I tasted nothing at all. The flavor was quite muted. I let the chocolate sit on my tongue, waiting for it to melt, and then suddenly I tasted pure, dark soil with a slight metallic tang, as if I was eating a piece of earth that had just been struck by lightning. I felt a good deal of surprise and looked back at the bar, realizing my mistake.

I had really been wanting that hug of Porcelana, but as I ate my way through the 100% Amertume Extreme (btw, I love that name -- makes me feel as if my chocolate writing is an Extreme Sport for which I will win some kind of medal), I decided that the pure taste of cocoa was also comforting, in its own way. It's earthy and bitter and dependable, at least when it is done well. It made me wonder -- does cocoa even need the sugar at all? My bar yesterday did not. It was enough to just taste a solid rock of a cocoa bean.

What do you think - sugared or not?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Garage chocolate

Yesterday was one of those days when I felt EXTRA glad that my life's work right now is to find the best chocolate in the world.

I came down from the Djerassi mountain to spend a day in civilization with the folks at Dandelion Chocolate in Palo Alto. One thing I liked best about this trip was that it confirmed the legend that the revolutionary companies of Silicon Valley all really do start in a garage.

Cameron Ring and Todd Masonis, founders of Dandelion, have been running their chocolate taste-tests out of a garage now for a couple of years and, true to the Valley's reputation for start-up brilliance, are making extraordinary chocolate. It's some of the best I have ever eaten -- especially their Madagascar bar, which made me feel as if the cocoa beans themselves were melting in my mouth. There was nothing at all -- no lecithin, no vanilla, no added cocoa butter -- standing between me and that sunshiney, almost lime-flavored Madagascar bean.

If you live in San Francisco, you can find Dandelion Chocolate on Thursdays at the Mission Community Market. Their factory and cafe will open soon in the Mission, at 740 Valencia St. Go there and eat their chocolate -- it will be the happiest part of your day.

Todd sorting through Madagascar and Venezuela cocoa beans

Alice sampling Madagascar chocolate as she
measures the size of cocoa particles with a micrometer

Mmmmmmm . . . fresh garage chocolate

The team (l-r): Todd, Cameron, Alice,
and (almost Dr.) Chiann, aka the Wrapping Ninja

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Writing chocolate at Djerassi

I am now living the writer’s dream life, high in the Santa Cruz mountains. For a month, I am a writer-in-residence at the Djerassi program, along with seven other artists, including a playwright, a poet, a choreographer, and a musician. Already my chocolate works are flourishing, including my book, an edited volume, and various articles and short stories.

Djerassi is one of a handful of residency programs around the country that give artists precious time, quiet, and support to work on their projects, far away from the demands of everyday life. This is my second such residency (the first was at Hedgebrook in 2009), and it is once again a true gift.

Djerassi has a remarkable history. It was founded in 1979 by Dr. Carl Djerassi, who, along with his colleagues at Stanford University and the Syntex Corporation in Mexico, invented the Pill. The financial success of the first oral contraceptive allowed Djerassi to purchase the land I am on now -- a sprawling ranch in the brown rolling hills near Palo Alto, which he named, with all the literary inventiveness of a biochemist, the SMIP Ranch: Syntex Made It Possible.

Then, in 1978, Djerassi’s daughter Pamela, who was an artist, committed suicide. Djerassi himself discovered her body. Grief-stricken, over the next year he sought a way to soothe his own soul and honor Pamela’s. The result was the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

At first, the program was only for women, and one artist a year came to live and work in Pamela’s old house. The women found it lonely, though, spending a year on the ranch by themselves. In time, the program expanded to accommodate more artists, and men were invited as well. The ranch's many-sided barn -- a visually striking building -- was converted into studio spaces and sleeping lofts for painters, dancers, photographers, and musicians. The ranch house became a residence for writers, and that’s where I am writing from now.

During the day, I write and run in the hills. In the evenings, the chef arrives to cook a meal that we all eat together up here in the writer’s house. Then we share our work. The other night, the playwright asked me to read a part in one of his plays; I was a soon-to-be out-of-work vaudeville actress from the 1930s. After that, I did a little talk on chocolate and led a tasting of origin bars, which seemed to please the other artists. None of them have edible work like I do.

I’ll share some of my writing as it comes along. Till then, here are some pictures of the ranch.

Twelve-sided barn, where visual artists, dancers, and musicians live

View from the top of the hill where I go running in the afternoon

The ranch is dotted with sculptures by former residents. This is one of my
favorites - maybe giant bowtruckles, or very small Ents?

Family of stick people

Another favorite - giant wagon

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tcho in San Francisco

I did not go to Ghirardelli. I know that it is very famous and has a whole square named after it, and I even planned to visit and eat a brownie sundae with hot fudge. But instead I went to Tcho.

Tcho is the dictionary’s phonetic start to the word “chocolate,” which makes it a cool linguistic artifact and not a weird misappropriation of something Mayan, as I did suspect. It’s also a bean-to-bar chocolate factory, the only one in town after Scharffen Berger’s departure from Berkeley (shame on you, new owner Hershey), on Pier 17 along the Embarcadero. If you visit San Francisco, I insist that you take a tour and eat all the chocolate they give to you.

This is important: you must eat all of it. The reason is because they make a whole line of chocolates, each with a particular flavor - citrusy, chocolatey, nutty, fruity. Talking to Tcho’s chocolate makers made me feel that no one else on earth understood flavor. One of them, Zohara, spends her days tasting chocolate that has been fine-tuned in different ways by their factory machines, determining which one tastes the most “chocolatey.” This is her job.

Imagine having that as your job. Whatever you are doing right now, pretend that all the things on your desk, or in your backpack, or on your boat deck just transformed into chocolate, and your new priority for the workday was to eat it all and figure out which one tasted the best. And this wasn’t some random Employee Appreciation Day benefit, but you got paid for doing it, every single day.

You can approximate that by visiting Tcho and sampling their entire line, as I did. Leaving that factory was one of very few times in my life when I felt that I had approached my chocolate limit, so I think you will not be disappointed.

Next up: a month at Djerassi, an artists residency near Palo Alto, to write a few masterpieces.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Angelino chocolate

Guesses? Any at all?

Come on, it totally looks like brown rice, covered in chocolate and shaped like teddy bears. Yes, it does!

Here, I did an autopsy on one of the bears, so you can see the rice:

This precious thing is (was) called a K Bear, created by Diane Krön of K Chocolate, and was one of the many delicacies I sampled in her postage-stamp sized shop in Beverly Hills. Diane was managing the store when I visited, and introduced herself as “The Chocolate Doctor.” Well, really! I looked around and saw no diploma, and thought it would be more gracious to keep silent about my own credentials.

Instead, I said, “Really? Brown rice?”, to which she replied, “Honey, this is California. What did you expect?”

In fact I had been expecting a lock of Jennifer Aniston’s hair dipped in chocolate, but Diane handed me a large, rock-shaped confection rolled in cocoa powder (“Our secret weapon”), so I ate that too. Between the generous samples of K Truffle, K Spanish Orange, and K Pecan Krisps, I was distracted enough to hand over the better portion of my paycheck for a small bag of dark chocolate (Venezuela, around 80%), and flee back out into the concrete-covered city.

I then made rounds of several more of LA’s finest chocolate shops, buying largish quantities, on my way to meet my friend Dawn for lunch. Dawn is a writer, and has in the past supplied me with many alternate adjectives for the word “brown” (just try writing at book length about chocolate without them). I put before her a sampling of Angelino chocolates and awaited her opinion. Would this be the best chocolate in the world?

“Good,” she declared, “but—it’s not much better than what I could get in a drugstore. As an LA native, I’m embarrassed that we can’t do better. We have no football team . . . and apparently no chocolate.”

So there you go. The best chocolate in the world is not to be found in LA. If anyone has been here and can claim otherwise, I’d love to hear about it. San Francisco up next . . .

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The search begins

And so my next chocolate travels begin. Tomorrow at the crack of dawn, I leave for Los Angeles, and then San Francisco, to eat chocolate made by the Californians. Back in the old days, my chocolate travels were mostly to cocoa farms. But today I am on a different mission: to find the best chocolate in the world.

Will I find it in Beverly Hills, or beneath the Golden Gate Bridge? Maybe. It's possible. The people of California have long been at the vanguard of food revolution in this country, embracing such exotic but salubrious items as the avocado since at least the nineteen eighties, a time when primitives on the east coast still reckoned Boo Berry cereal as fruit and ketchup as vegetable.

 Yum! Thanks, Wikipedia!

So I guess I might find the best chocolate in the world there. Just in case not, though, I have packed some other chocolates to sample and review in the coming weeks.

I will be in California for one month. This amount might get me halfway through. More to come from the road . . .

Monday, September 5, 2011

A new blog is coming . . .

A new blog is coming, and it is going to be irresistible. . . . Check back this Wednesday for the first of many new chocolate adventures.