If, like me, you aren’t going anywhere this year due to the pandemic, I have a suggestion that might ease the pain of no vacation travel a little: Travel the world through chocolate. If there are specific chocolatiers you like, you can order from them directly — if they ship to your location. Or if you are in a more adventurous mood, there is a one-stop shop here in SFBA with chocolate bars from around the world.
San Francisco’s Chocolate Covered carries 1,000+ different bars from around the world. If you have memories of chocolate you’ve had on previous travels, or just want a taste of chocolate from a new place, there’s a good chance they have something to satisfy your cravings. (And if you want to get to know your local chocolate better, the Bay Area is always well represented at Chocolate Covered.)
With my wanderlust thwarted by COVID-19, I emailed Chocolate Covered’s owner Jack Epstein, and told him:
I’m in the mood for some chocolate from far-flung locales, since I can’t go anywhere myself. Would you put together a sampler pack for me of all dark bars with different flavors/inclusions and send it to me, please?
I included my budget, specific requests (no wasabi), and phone number. Jack called me the next day with recommendations, we settled on what I wanted, and I gave him my credit card info. A few days later, my package arrived of 11 bars from Europe, Asia, South America, Central America, Canada, and the Middle East.
OK, it wasn’t as amazing as a trip to all of these places — or any of these places — would be, but I was still excited. All of the packaging was attractive, and I couldn’t resist trying the most unusual sounding bar first: Licorice & Sea Buckthorn from Goodio of Helsinki, Finland.
This was a raw, organic, and vegan 53% cacao bar. Since it was raw, it was a little soft, but it broke nicely with a snap. It had a savory/coconut smell vs. a “chocolate” smell which I attribute to its lack of roasting and the coconut sugar and flakes added to the chocolate.
Since I’ve never had sea buckthorn, I didn’t know what to expect. The packaging describes it as “piquant,” which could mean spicy or tangy (and which is a word I should definitely add to my taste descriptors vocabulary). To me, the chocolate had an immediate light licorice taste, then a little sour and grassy/vegetal taste, and finally coconut. It had the grainy texture I expect from raw, stone-ground chocolate.
Licorice was the strongest taste and lingered. I assume the sour taste was the sea buckthorns, while the grassy taste was the raw chocolate. At any rate, there wasn’t a pronounced taste I would describe as piquant. It seemed like the sea buckthorn was there to tone down the licorice flavor.
While this was a 53% cacao bar, it was not a milk chocolate bar, or even a non-milk chocolate that uses nut milks or other non-dairy substitutes. This was a simple dark bar of cacao beans with added cocoa butter, and sweetened with coconut palm sugar. The inclusions were coconut flakes, sea buckthorn powder, anise, and licorice root.
This was the most “out there” bar of the pack. If you like raw chocolate and licorice, you should try it. The licorice is not a strong flavor in this bar, and seems like a good match for the vegetal taste of raw chocolate. And if you eat raw chocolate for its health benefits, sea buckthorn has a whole list of its own health benefits too.
Jack included a second bar from Goodio that was an unflavored, single origin bar. Also raw and stone ground, the 71% Arriba uses cacao from Ecuador.
As expected with the higher cacao content, it had a darker, more bitter flavor, with fermented and nutty overtones. It was a little harder, but had the same grainy, stone ground texture. It didn’t taste as raw, so I liked it better, and it even had a little coffee aftertaste.
If you aren’t a raw chocolate fan, but want to eat raw instead of traditional roasted chocolate for the health benefits — or want to try a raw chocolate that is closer tasting to roasted chocolate, this would be a good one to try.
Coffee & chocolate +
The next bar we tried was my favorite.
The 62% Dark Chocolate with Coffee & Cardamom from Mirzam Chocolate Makers in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is definitely a gift-y bar with a fantasy sea/sky-themed illustration and an embossed logo — plus the chocolate description in pretty Arabic script — on the soothing blue packaging.
And the bar inside has a beautiful, swirling sea — or is it leaves? — overall design. Even before tasting it, I loved it.
The bar was great with an immediate coffee flavor. The cardamom served to give the bar a more intense coffee flavor but was not pronounced itself. It was a delicious combo that I loved and recommend.
Mirzam is a bean-to-bar maker, and this bar is supposedly a single origin bar, but there was no information on the packaging as to where the cacao came from.
The rest of the bars we tried this time were all good to great bars, but this is the one I would stock up on for myself and to give as gifts to coffee and chocolate-loving friends. The packaging and the bar itself are attractive, and the embossing on the wrapper is a nice, low-key luxe touch.
Indian bean to bar
Pascati is another bean-to- bar maker, but they are located in Mumbai, India. They source their beans in India, which makes them the first Indian cacao I’ve tried. They are Fair Trade and USDA Organic certified.
I tried their Mango Dark, which is a 60% dark chocolate with small freeze dried cubes of mango scattered on the back of the bar. The front of the bar is a series of square pillows that make breaking off pieces easy. It had a good snap and a smooth mouthfeel.
This is a good, simple bar with distinct chocolate and mango flavors. The fruit pieces are small enough and have a dense texture, so they don’t have that unappealing spongy texture that some freeze dried fruits have. At the same time, because they are freeze dried, they have a fresher mango taste than traditionally dried mango has.
Unlike what I expect from an Indian candy, the bar was not too sweet. Both the chocolate and mango tasted good and balanced each other. It’s not a fancy bar, but it’s attractive in its simplicity and is expertly made. I would buy it again, and maybe see what other fruit flavored Pascati bars Chocolate Covered carries.
The big square brightly decorated box from Chocolate Tree, a Scottish bean-to-bar maker, contained 2 bars of their Mezcal Nibs 70% cacao chocolate. The monkeys on the packaging hint at the origins of the chocolate used in this bar. The criollo beans called Tabasqueño and grown in Mexico are supposedly a wild hybrid spread by spider monkeys and ancient civilizations like the Mayans.
The bar had a light boozy top note from the mezcal (agave-distilled liquor), that paired well with the fruity chocolate. Since most mezcal is produced in Oaxaca, which is famous for its chocolate culture, this seems like an inspired, yet logical, combination. The finely ground nibs, which added depth to the chocolate taste, also gave it a satisfying, crunchy texture. This is definitely another bar I can recommend.
I have tried another bar from Chocolate Tree, the Porcelana, which is made with a rare cacao grown in Venezuela, and which our group of tasters liked a lot. Chocolate Covered carries several bars from Chocolate Tree; I think I might have to check out the whole line.
Cradle of chocolate
Another bar made from Mexican cacao in my package was from a Mexican producer, Cuna De Piedra. The name translates as stone cradle, which maybe references the metate, the grinding stone traditionally used to make Mexican chocolate by hand.
Cuna De Piedra is a bean-to-bar maker in northeastern Mexico, whose mission is to work directly with Mexican cacao farmers to provide them with better support.
The Cuna De Piedra bar I tried was the 73% Mexican Cacao from Comalcalco, Tabasco with Hibiscus Flowers. It uses single estate cacao from the state of Tabasco in Mexico.
And there were just 3 ingredients listed on the label: cacao beans, cane sugar, and dried hibiscus flowers. Like the cacao, the hibiscus flowers are also a local ingredient that they source directly from the indigenous community that grows it in Mexico.
The chocolate had a reddish hue, and the hibiscus gave a tangy overtone to the dark chocolate. It was a good dark chocolate with a slightly grainy mouthfeel. But the graininess wasn’t from the chocolate; it was from the small bits of dried flowers scattered over the bar that gave it a nice crunchy chewiness and extended the hibiscus tang.
Cuna De Piedra has a line of bars using Mexican cacao and other local ingredients like coffee, sea salt, and Mezcal. It would be interesting to compare their Mezcal chocolate bar with Chocolate Tree’s version.
Travel the Silk Road
The Canadian bar in my round-the-world package was made by Qantu, Cacao et Chocolat in Montreal, Quebec. Named for the national flower of Peru, they are bean-to-bar makers who use Peruvian cacao for their bars.
With a name like Silk Road, this bar definitely fit my theme. It’s a 70% single-origin bar with 11 spices, mostly Asian. The cacao used, Chuncho, is from wild trees that grow in the mountains near Machu Picchu.
I liked the spice mix of fennel, ginger, cassia (cinnamon), cardamom, white pepper, rose, star anise, long pepper, Sichuan pepper, saffron, and clove that was sprinkled over the back of the bar. It made it so that every bite was a little different depending on which spices/herbs were in that bite.
The first time clove was the dominant flavor with spicy heat following. Another time anise was the top note with a little peppery spice after. A few times I’d get a piece with rose petals on it which made it a little floral, but not too much for me who generally doesn’t like to eat rose flavored chocolate. Cardamom and cinnamon were consistent subtle notes throughout the chocolate.
It’s a good bar, a delicious fruity dark chocolate (as expected from Peruvian cacao), with a good snap and smooth mouth feel.
Literally gift chocolate
A South American bar in my package was from ÓBOLO Chocolate, the first Chilean bean-to-bar maker, established in 2013. Like Qantu, ÓBOLO uses Peruvian cacao but adds some Chilean ingredients to their inclusion bars.
In the Cáhuil Sal De Mar bar I got, it was Chilean sea salt that the package described as “traditionally harvested from the Humboldt Current.” I had to google Humboldt Current to discover it’s a cold water current that flows up the side of Chile to the Galapagos Islands. It supports fisheries and cold-water species like sea lions along the way.
It’s also supposedly a low-salinity ocean current, which seems like a bit of a bummer for harvesting sea salt from. However, it’s a pretty big deal salt-wise, with the Cahuil salt lagoons being certified and protected as an artisan salt region that produces sea salt with its own distinct mineral taste.
The 70% bar was sprinkled with the gray sea salt on the back. Other than the salt, the bar is just 2 ingredients: cacao beans from Pangoa in the Amazon rainforest (also somewhat near Machu Picchu) and cane sugar, both organic.
I tasted the salt first, and it did have a unique mineral, not salty, taste. It also faded quickly; and the bar’s distinctive, very fruity Peruvian chocolate flavor took over. It had a smooth mouthfeel, and was not bitter at all, just a little fermented and astringent at the end.
A good óbolo chocolate indeed to give your friends who want simple, quality chocolate without additives. They also make the same bar without salt in 3 different cacao percentages.
Chocolate with a mission
Another South American bar in my travel package was from Mission Chocolate, which is aptly named. Its founder and head chocolate maker/chocolatier, Arcelia Gallardo, works with Latin American cacao growers, chocolatiers, and chocolate makers to improve the industry there, plus she teaches indigenous women across Latin America to make chocolate.
Mission Chocolate is based in Brazil and uses Brazilian cacao and sugar. Her inclusions are also Brazilian, such as the guava used in the Dark Chocolate 70% with Candied Guava bar. The bar had only 4 ingredients: organic cacao, organic sugar, guava, and cocoa butter.
The squarish bar’s wrapper had an eye-catching, all-over watercolor illustration of tropical leaves and irregularly shaped dots that maybe reference the candied guava cubes in the bar. An applied label had all the bar’s details. Simple, but effective packaging.
The bar itself was thin with a good snap. It had an appealing dark brown color and low-contrast reddish-brown guava squares pressed into the back side.
The flavor was not what I expected. It had a nutty, almost smoky flavor, not a tropical fruit flavor. The chocolate was not very sweet, and the guava seemed like more of a texture than a flavor inclusion, and gave the bar a slightly sweet, faintly guava aftertaste.
It was interesting to me how different cacao from the east side of the Amazon rainforest tastes (more savory and nutty) than from the west side (fruity Peruvian flavors). It would be fun to pair inclusion bars from Mission Chocolate with matching flavored Peruvian cacao bars.
More savory chocolate
The bar from Fossa Chocolate of Singapore sounded interesting: Macadamia & Shiitake. Shiitake is not an unusual flavor to me — I love mushrooms — but it is unusual as a chocolate inclusion. Yeah, there is the whole truffle vs. truffle thing, but chocolate truffles are called that because their shape resembles the original truffles, not because of how they taste.
Fossa is a bean-to-bar maker that works with cacao farmers around the world and incorporates Asian flavors in its inclusions. Shiitake is by no means their most unusual inclusion: Shrimp and Bonito Flakes or Salted Egg Cereal easily top that.
The bar’s packaging was simple, but elegant. The wrapper had a recycled paper, slightly speckled/textured look with all of the text and hand drawn illustrations of mushrooms and macadamia nuts printed in dark red.
The wrapper said the beans were sourced from Bolivia. It’s a dark bar, but it didn’t say on the wrapper what the cacao percentage is.
The bar itself had a good chocolate smell, and the mold was a set of squares with different graphic patterns on them. The chocolate was visibly speckled with the finely chopped nuts and shiitake mushrooms flavoring the bar.
It had a good snap, and was a crunchy chocolate from the caramelized nuts with an earthy overtone from the mushrooms and a roasted nut aftertaste. The chocolate had a pronounced fermented flavor and was slightly bitter.
In addition to cacao, cane sugar, cocoa butter, macadamia nuts, and shiitake mushrooms, the ingredients included sea salt. But the bar was not salty; I’d have to say there was just enough salt to enhance the flavors, but not call attention to itself.
This was a surprisingly good bar. I liked it more and more as it melted, and the flavors spread out. I didn’t taste mushroom; instead it was more roasted macadamia with a savory, mildly earthy overtone from the mushrooms. And the savoriness smoothed out the bitterness of the dark chocolate. The initial crunchiness was a bonus.
Tree to bar + tea
The last bar in my travel pack was a tea infused bar by Fu Wan Chocolate, the first bean-to-bar maker in Taiwan. Most of their chocolate is also tree to bar from cacao grown in southern Taiwan, where Fu Wan is located. And the teas and other inclusions flavoring their bars are mostly from Taiwan as well.
Southern Taiwan is not in what is the traditional cacao-growing belt around the Equator, but due to climate change and new agricultural techniques, they have been able to grow cacao for the past 10 years. The Taiwanese government has been encouraging farmers there to switch to cacao to replace the betel nut industry which has suffered there due to over-farming. While the cacao is not yet certified as organic, the cacao used by Fu Wan is not subjected to any pesticides.
The bar I tried, the 62% dark Taiwan Tie- Guan-Yin Tea had a strong tea smell and a soft break. It was a little grainy with a strong tea and dried fruit flavor.
I don’t get any of the tasting notes, which sounded great: bay leaf, fennel seed, clove, mint, guava, and orchid. Instead, it had a strong fruity smoked tea flavor to me.
While the bar mold was somewhat plain — a set of easy-to-break-off squares incised with an even pattern of vertical and horizontal stripes — the packaging was simply elegant to look at, and cool to open as it was a complex die-cut and folded wrapper that continued the elegant cover graphics on the inside. This would make a nice gift for your tea-loving, environmentally conscious friends.
Plan your own trip
Now that I’ve done this once, I’m getting ideas for other “trips.” A single country, a city, a continent, maybe one growing region. Jack can probably hook me up.
Currently, due to COVID-19, Chocolate Covered offers walk-up service — you can’t go inside, they serve you at the door — and if you’re not in the area/unable to visit in person, they will ship chocolate to you. If you’d like them to ship you chocolate, use the contact form on their site, email them, call them @ (415) 641-8123, or send them a message on their FB page to get started.