Searching for the Ideal Chocolate

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Photo by CaseyJ (Got Orange?)/Flickr CC

I actually wrote about this back in November. But then, in the way that these things can sometimes slide, what we thought was a "done deal" turned out to be a bit...underdone. We were ready, but the chocolate bar wasn't. It's actually a good story in terms of what it takes to hit the quality levels we're looking for in the artisan food world.

When we worked on the original mock-ups last spring, we totally loved the bar. But then when we got back the next set of test batches a month or so later, for some reason we just weren't as excited. It was hard to say exactly what it was that was wrong, but I was working on the project with Zingerman's chocolate expert Emily "Duff" Anderson and managing partner Grace Singleton, and they both have really great palates. So when they subtly said that something wasn't right I knew enough to stop there. But I'll come back to the problem in a minute.

The good news though is that now the bar's actually arrived. It's on the shelves, you can buy it, and we can all eat it! And it's still as really, really, really good (I'm quoting a six-year-old who was having dinner at the Roadhouse not that long ago) as it was when we first started experimenting.

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The idea for the bar dates back to an experience I had when I was down in Papantla, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, near Veracruz and home of the original vanilla. While I was there, I was intrigued to learn that people frequently chop vanilla pods and use them in their cooking (as opposed to just scraping out the seeds, as we usually do here). It made sense, then, to mix snippets of the really good organic vanilla bean we use so much of anyway and get it into a bar of the amazingly good, Missouri-made chocolate we've been getting from Shawn Askinosie, down in the unlikely spot of Springfield.

The cacao for this bar comes from the Soconusco region of Mexico, an area that's been known for excellence in chocolate since the time of the Aztecs. Although it'd fallen out of favor for many centuries, Shawn has led the way back to getting great cacao from small farmers there, going down and spending weeks working with the growers on all aspects of their work. The bar is only lightly ground by most chocolate standards.

El Rustico means "the rustic one." I really like that it's a little rough (literally) in texture, but that its flavor is as big, bold, and really good as anything that might be considered more refined. The sugar crystals will crunch and melt on your tongue as you eat.

So back to the mysterious short-term fall-off in flavor. I say "short-term" because what we've got on the shelves is every bit as good as the original mock-ups that had us so excited when we were getting going.

While we wanted to blame the banking crisis, that didn't quite seem to cut it. But after a few weeks of trying to figure out what was wrong and what to do about it, we discovered that the problem was in the vanilla--the first bars had been made with top-notch beans we were very high on, and the quality of the bean came through beautifully in the finished bar.

Unknowingly, in the interim, we'd been sent some other beans--not bad, but not as good. And in drilling ourselves to go back through every step of the process to figure out what could have gone wrong, we realized that these new beans were falling short in their flavor.

A few phone calls, a week of patient waiting to get them, a lot of hand-snipping by Grace, then another week of waiting while Shawn and crew crafted a new set of test bars, and...we were relieved. El Rustico was back to where we wanted it all along. In fact, the entire first batch sold out unexpectedly fast, and the second batch of bars is coming any day. If you haven't already tried it, check it out soon.