A Valentine Sampler

Monday Jan. 31st, 2011

There are certain comestibles that tickle tastebuds, flutter eyelids, and cause some of us to fairly swoon. They are our favorite foods–waistband and nutritional constraints be hanged. For the devout they are in a category so prized they become Lenten sacrifice; sacrifice supreme. Think: pepperoni pizza, Rocky Road or Chunky Monkey ice cream, caramel mocha triple grande don’t-hold-the-horses latte. Think: raw oysters with Mignonette sauce, deep dish apple pie, or perfectly crusted fried chicken. To be sure, some foods push pleasure buttons …and what self-respecting pantry would be caught dead without a generous store of chocolate and Champagne? Good chocolate and good Champagne, that is.

Save the Earth: It’s the Only Planet that has Chocolate
Chocolate seduces, beckons, beguiles. Powders, truffles, bars, puddings and drinks; frozen, molten, liquid or solid: chocolate settles comfortably on the tongue and gently morphs into a lazy lava spill rippling sublimely over every neuron receptor in our one hundred trillion-celled body. Chocolate makes us happy. Beside its new status as superstar due to its surprising nutritional profile, chocolate conjures meanings that transcend taste. For some, chocolate triggers childhood memory. Who can forget the aroma and decadence of Grandma’s layer cake, Mom’s brownies, or Aunt Lil’s irresistible chocolate chip cookies? For others, chocolate evokes romance. Before they appeared in confectioner’s windows by the truckload, chocolate-dipped strawberries signaled one thing: love was in the air. And so we turn to love and romance as we approach Valentine’s Day. (EARTH TO GUYS: Write this down and tape it to your pick-up windshield–Monday, February 14th, the day after Sunday, February 13th. Some stores are closed on Sundays: plan ahead.)

A Valentine Sampler
The delightful task of sampling chocolates from three local artisans fell to a tasting panel of four separate palates and resulted in a stunning upset by one chocolatier. Truffles were evaluated from Nories Candies in Belgrade, Kitchen T.L.C. and La Châtelaine Chocolat, both of Bozeman. Kitchen T.L.C. was least favored and had a mouth feel of wax or lecithin, scoring low on every point save presentation. Sad, since the round box with tear-drop chocolates presented nicely. Nories Candies were enjoyed, with high marks for their Rich European truffle, born from an old French recipe. Outstanding. (Nories, we are told, was complimented for “the best chocolate mint in America” by an executive from Guittard Chocolates. Not a small feat.) Affordable and cheery, Nories Candies aims to please during the Valentine season, and would happily inscribe your custom chocolate heart with a personal message. (Oh! To be a mouse in the corner when she opens a box and reads: “Will you marry me?” on a slab of gourmet chocolate!)

The undisputed winner in taste and quality was La Châtelaine Chocolat, with resounding sighs of satisfaction and cries for more. Comments from each person were unequivocal: one could taste uncompromising excellence in brilliant combinations of flavors. In addition to their already dizzying array of confectionary concoctions, La Chatelaine has recently debuted new flavors: mango chili, curry, black walnut and cherry. They are working on price point in order to be “affordable for all lovers,” and will offer a special boite de coeurs, or “box of hearts” for V-Day.

If chocolate isn’t your thing, the macaroons at La Châtelaine are comparable (read: exactly the same) as those from the famed Laduree in Paris. (It is inconceivable to visit Paris without returning with a signature green box of Laduree macaroons, even available at kiosks in Charles de Gaulle airport.) Macaroons being the sexy new kid on the block, every confectioner and baker from here to Timbuktu is jumping on the bandwagon. Bumpy ride, that wagon–it takes skill, top-notch ingredients, and patience—patience squared–to make these exquisite “sandwich cookies.” (In a recent bon appetite contest, macaroons bested the Whoopie pie as the victorious successor of the so-yesterday cupcake.)

And for those mavericks who shun chocolate completely (alright, alright, some of you break out in blotches and grow tree limbs from your ears), there is the minor factoid that Béquet caramels—which grace counters in trendy stores throughout America—is headquartered right here in Bozemantown. Who can resist the lip-smacking thrill of one of those caramel creations doing a slow waltz in the mouth? While its salted caramel is a frontrunner for Béquet, other flavors thrill the palate, bringing us full circle back to chocolate, being as how Béquet boasts a salted chocolate caramel (be still, heart) which actually pairs quite well with a hearty Zin.

When in Doubt, Simply Add more Wine, Drink more Champagne, Yada, Yada, Yada

Speaking of pairing, local wine geeks turned toward blends with sugary Muscat grapes when asked to pair chocolate with wine, and “Port!,” they yelled in unison, “Port!” This seems a natural conclusion in order to enhance and compliment sweet, heavy chocolate tones. And yet. Pleasure and taste are amazingly subjective, so… “Throw out the rules and do what pleases you!” yells this writer, “Follow your own rules!” Rule Numero Uno, of course, bringing us to the necessity of Champagne…

While the consensus of said wine geeks was that Champagne does not pair well with chocolate…and there is sound reason for this pronouncement…au contraire! shouts said writer again, who has paired these two staples with splendid results. Champagne, according to Pierre Levron, international wine geek, “is probably the only dry wine to go well with desserts such as (aforementioned) strawberries or even chocolate.” Surprisingly, dry Champagne has been declared a fitting balance to the bitterness of dark chocolate by more than one sommelier. For sure, the more delicate, chardonnay-dominated Champagnes would not hold up to dense chocolate taste. Go make friends with a local wine connoisseur and experiment. Have fun.

By the way, Champagne is said to be low in sulphites, which is potentially good news for those who suffer headaches from most wines, especially reds. Caveat: headaches may come aplenty from cheap Champagne. Unless designated “Champagne Method” on the label, that inexpensive bottle of bubbly most likely had carbonation pumped in. (Bubbles from an inferior grade will be large and short-lived.) Aaahh, but to hold a crystal flute in your hand and study the effervescence from a second, natural, fermentation: tiny, tight bubbles until the last sip.

As with most things, you usually get what you pay for. This makes good chocolates (or caramels) and good wines and Champagnes a luxury, a treat, and particularly darned good Valentine gifts. Not to mention necessary staples in your pantry.

Cynthia Yates cut her teeth in the restaurant business, ran a café in the middle of nowhere, hosted a popular wine group, and was active in the Slow Food movement. An author of several lifestyle books, she has been known to eat on a regular basis.