A product review blog primarily focusing on food + drink that is organic, sustainable, wild-harvested, ethical, or otherwise well-produced.

Tag: gourmet

Wandering Aengus Cider – Golden Russet at 1.5 years

WANDERING-AENGUS

After scouring the country in search of organic craft alcohols of all sorts, we’ve discovered a significantly larger number of ciders than we have anything else. Organic beers are slowly but surely on the rise, as are hard alcohols and wines, but ciders have got them well beat out.

Let us clarify. Speaking purely numbers, wines easily take the cake for the highest organic count, with plenty of certified and non-certified vintners keeping their process clean from field to bottle – Domaine Huet of Vouvray and Domaine Leroy of Bourgogne being prime examples of the latter – but the issue of ‘spoofing’ in the wine industry deeply muddies the debate, and is too big a detour to address properly in this article. That aside, the majority of wines marketed as organic in the United States are simple, mass market table wines, so if we’re talking about alcoholic drinks meant to be paid any kind of serious attention, the numbers quickly become very different.

Even though it’s incredibly satisfying every time we find an unfamiliar organic, biodynamic, or otherwise well-produced alcohol, it is frustratingly difficult to do so*. Most alcohols don’t even list their ingredients, let alone tell you anything about them, so if they don’t make it clear upfront what they’re working with, there’s no way to know without some thorough online investigation or direct contact with the producer, which of course takes quite a bit of commitment. When we’re on the hunt, we literally turn around every unfamiliar bottle desperately searching for any sort of indication.

During a hunt of similar description, we found Wandering Aengus**, specifically this Golden Russet single varietal cider (one of a series of theirs) in the Bend Whole Foods. Even though we’d only had a Golden Russet apple once before (in the hibernal Northeast for those who are curious), the experience was powerful, and to this day it easily tops our favourite apple list. That said, we were justifiably stoked to see a cider made from our very hard-to-find favourite apple.

A cidery based in Salem, Oregon, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks works exclusively with heirloom cider apples. The apples that go into the Golden Russet cider in particular all come from a single orchard in Ashland, Oregon where they are grown using organic methods, and then fermented into cider and bottled by Wandering Aengus. Our bottles are from the October 2014 harvest, and were bottled after a 5-month fermentation period in March 2015. We say bottles plural because we’ve got a second one we’re keeping racked to pull out in a few years after it’s had a chance to age a bit more.

Their single varietal miniseries (others of which have been made from Wickson and Ashmead’s Kernel apples) stands pretty drastically apart from their main line of ciders – all of which are hefty blends, using 20+ different types of apples per bottle. The label design on this series reflects the contrasting simplicity, employing the Celtic trinity knot (meant to represent the interwoven relationship[s] of fruit, cidermaker, and technique) as its only iconography on a single-coloured background.

Golden Russet at 1.5 years:

On the nose, it’s lovely; mellow, light, and clean. It smells like a straightforward, bright cider that one would expect to be relatively accessible. On the palate though, it offered some surprising quirks that for many might be harder to handle, most of which can probably be attributed to the unique character of Golden Russets, but the rest we’d chock up to being opened prematurely. Oddly enough, Wandering Aengus themselves suggest a drinking age of as young as 1 year.

The first thing you’re likely to notice is that this is a deeply sour cider, and a dry one at that, so you won’t find respite for your acidified tongue in an immediate response of sugars as you drink. This profile fairly well represents our experience of Golden Russets as a whole fruit. Sharper than they are sweet, their appeal lies largely in the complex flavours of their skin, particular brightness, and the unique texture of their flesh. These basic characteristics (excepting textural elements, of course) appear to have been transformed by the fermentation only in terms of exaggeration, at least so far. Secondly, there is a wonderfully forward minerality that’s got an electric quality which combined with the strong acids makes for a fun kick; at times tasting almost straight-up salty.

To get more out of the young cider, we ate some strong tasting foods in hopes of knocking out primary aspects of its profile in order to show off more underlying features. Following a quick bite of finger limes, which stifled the brighter notes, we detected the not exactly flattering-sounding but nonetheless interesting scent of ‘cat urine’ most often associated with certain Sauvignon Blancs, and after a bit of extremely (perhaps even overly) ripe Camembert, a vegetal blueberry note was revealed that, though subtle, lingered for quite some time.

Texturally, this cider’s sort-of funny, as the bubbles appear to be largely inactive until they hit your mouth, at which point though, they become blatantly obvious: fairly coarse and medium-large.

Though there may be some things in those past few paragraphs that sound intriguing, we should state that while this was by no means a bad drinking experience, it was also not a particularly good one. Unless you feel like desperately hunting down the sensations listed above, your experience is more likely to be of a fairly one-note, high acidity, moderately dry, minerally cider. If that’s what you’re into, you’ll enjoy it, but we found it to be unbalanced, obnoxious, and lacking depth. Interesting, sure. Enjoyable? Less sure.

Ultimately, 1.5 years just doesn’t seem to have been enough time to do these Golden Russets justice. Only time will tell. As fun as its shocking acidity may be for kids like us who grew up on sour candy, hanging out with this young and overzealous cider for an entire evening proved to be tiresome. Though this first encounter with Wandering Aengus was admittedly underwhelming, we’re not closing ourselves off to future possibilities. Ciders of different apples and vintages could prove more impressive, and you never know, that second Golden Russet could have something exciting in store.

*We suspect that a significant contributor to the difficulty of obtaining organic alcoholic beverages (even in stores which otherwise specialize in sourcing good, organic products) is that too many people assume the belief that drinking alcohol is already unhealthy – a point we’re not going to agree with or debate – and so therefore if they’re going to do it, do not see any reason to drink organic. Unfortunately, this stance completely misses the much more important factors of environmental impact and sustainability. If you take issue with the vast swaths of monoculture corn and wheat that currently dominate our agricultural landscape, it is imperative to consider that those same ears of corn are becoming your whiskey, and the wheat, your beer. Sourcing organic, biodynamic, and heirloom materials is about protecting and supporting biodiversity, reducing soil degradation, and limiting toxic agricultural pollution (among other things) infinitely more than it is about personal health.

**The name Wandering Aengus comes from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ poem entitled: The Song of Wandering Aengus.

 

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Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat

marou-chocolate-craft-bean-to-bar

We first encountered Marou by chance while wandering around the small specialty shop Chelsea Market Baskets in NYC. Its ornate packaging helped it stand out amongst the store’s particularly large (and better than normal) chocolate selection, and their regional hyper-specificity piqued our curiosity. Being modest, we started with just the Bà Rịa bar, and as always, hoped for the best.

It delivered in shocking spades. We had had our fair share of craft chocolates, many of them single origin, but there was something understatedly yet vastly different about Marou. For a year since, we’ve looked forward to sampling a broader selection of their original series. Still with the taste of the Bà Rịa bar in our memories, we knew this was going to be an important tasting.

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With so many craft chocolatiers cropping up these days, it seems necessary that we go into a bit more detail regarding Marou.

Marou is a Vietnamese bean-to-bar chocolate company, based in Saigon, started by two Frenchmen named Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou (the name Marou coming from MA-ruta + Mou-ROU). Unlike the majority of origin bar series (which are now so popular they practically make up an entire subset of the craft chocolate scene) that are differentiated by country (e.g. Belize, Ecuador, Samoa), Marou’s bars – not just their cacao fruit but their sugar cane as well – all come from within the single country of Vietnam, specifically Southern Vietnam, and are further subcategorized by their respective provinces.

They work directly with small family farms who not only harvest, but also dry and ferment the beans* they cultivate, so that a firm division is established between the growers and the chocolatiers (this is a relationship we have yet to see disrupted on any sort of large scale in the chocolate world. Even Cacao Prieto, who own the farm that grows their fruit, still have it shipped up to their Red Hook, NY factory for production). Though Marou specifically addresses matters of ‘fair trade’ (they pay the cacao farmers well and maintain close relations with them), and the generally biodynamic approach of their growers, there are just enough informational gaps in regards to farming practices that we’re left frustrated.

Much cacao that goes into ‘bean-to-bar’ or craft chocolates is organic, if not in certification, then in practice. Most cacao-growing regions don’t have to force their fruits to excel, so generally little outside help is needed in producing quality material. Additionally, cacao trees prefer to grow in the shade of other trees, which encourages biodynamic farming practices in lieu of the more common monocropping which so dramatically disrupts natural ecosystems. In keeping with this pattern, the source fruits that become Marou’s bars are grown with minimal intervention or fertilization, however some of the farmers may on occasion employ unspecified sprays** to defend against aphids and other invaders – the only definite exception to this being the cacao grown in Tiền Giang.

We recently had the opportunity to talk more with Marou directly, and Samuel had this to say regarding the farming practices of their growers:

“On the farms that we visit regularly we’ve never seen any farmer spray any pesticides on the cacao trees; of course we have no way to know for sure whether all other farmers that provide pods to our fermenters are the same, but based on 5 years on the ground buying cacao we’re pretty sure that the cacao we use is not sprayed with toxic stuff.”

As for the bars themselves, all are wrapped in a coloured paper corresponding to the colour of the fruit from which it’s made. Though they have explicitly talked about using Trinitario cacao (a sort-of messy hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, and in this case red in colour) in their Bà Rịa bar, nowhere else had we seen or heard mention in regards to the rest of the line. We were confused. If they’re so touting terroir, and if the bars are all in fact Trinitario, wouldn’t disclosing this information further support their thesis?

Samuel had this to say:

“Trinitario is not so much a variety as a loose definition of varieties that are hybrids of Forastero and other cacao varieties. Cacao trees in Vietnam come by way of Malaysian hybrids that were selected a couple decades ago and introduced by the Nong Lam Agricultural college in HCMC. Most of them are labelled Trinitario but more precisely they bear technical names like TD2, TD5, TD18…, that’s before farmers do their own crossbreeding, grafting, etc…

Unlike a French wine farmer that will plant a whole field with say Cabernet Franc and another with Sauvignon Blanc, the various cacao hybrids are usually planted together haphazardly by Vietnamese farmers, which makes good sense to avoid diseases (clones of the same hybrid tend to succumb to the same pests / diseases en masse), but is less than ideal to control what goes into a specific cacao harvest.

So to answer your question: we don’t give more precise variety indications because the information is not really available in a meaningful way. A typical heap of cacao pods at the farm presents a variety of shapes and colours betraying the fact that it comes from a number of different varietals.”

Additionally in this article you can hear from Marou their thoughts concerning chocolate and terroir (which is of course critical to their practice, seeing as the geography of each bar is taken to be such a defining feature of each), and take from it what you will. There they talk about their belief (one we share with them) that both the variety of cacao and its growing location play heavily in determining the bars’ characteristics. How this is even a contested matter at this point is beyond us. To think that soil conditions among other things wouldn’t influence the flavour of a highly environmentally sensitive plant seems absurd. Whatever the influencing factors might be, the result is an impressive lineup of chocolates with incredibly rich, well-defined, but also illusive characters.

marou-bar

Because of these bars’ complex nature, we broke up our tasting into 4 sessions over the course of a week. Though the core profile of each is strongly evident, there are clouds of meta-flavours surrounding them that are maddeningly difficult to define.

The following notes are written in order from lightest to darkest in terms of percentage of cacao:

Tiền Giang, 70% – This bar, for us, was an unexpected though once experienced unsurprising meeting of strong colour association (specifically that of a very dark, sort-of midnight purple) and physique or physicality. Though it’s indisputably a delicate bar, we found ourselves repeatedly returning to adjectives that if describing a human would relay an opposite form. What one of us characterized as curvy, thick, and sultry, the other called bosomy. Magnolia, lavender syrup, and other decadent floral aromas suggested themselves, all this underscored by a creaminess reminiscent of extra marshmallowy instant hot cocoa.

Đồng Nai, 72% – We found this to be the ‘friendliest’ of the bunch, despite its being slightly darker than Tiền Giang. The flavour is rich, but in a gentle way, with a dark caramel or butterscotch note adorably dominating the palate. Its got a sunny disposition that lights up in your mouth immediately, while bringing to mind things like buttered popcorn and walnut. On first tasting, one of us was reminded of turmeric, mustard flower, and other curry type spices, but over subsequent tastings couldn’t manage to return to the sensation.

Lâm Đồng, 74% – This bar played out like one of those mystery novels that has you all turned around right up until the end, at which point you’re presented with a conclusion so simple you’re shocked you didn’t see it earlier. In general, it possesses an airy quality; light, accessible, pleasant. But to locate specific notes was stupidly challenging. After extended deliberation (but mostly after a lot of experiments with different ways of tasting and untasting) we finally found what had been lingering on the tips of our tongues – toasted brown rice! Once we made this breakthrough, a cascade of more specific associations became clear: genmaicha (a Japanese green tea blended with toasted brown rice), brown rice crispy treats, the old-school health food classic Rice Dream ice cream, and even plain brown rice syrup.

Bà Rịa, 76% – Returning to the first bar we tried, we were instantly reminded of what we had for so long been anxiously awaiting. Despite it having been a year, upon even the first bite, its flavour came back with such familiarity that it felt much more recent. Such is the distinctiveness of Marou’s bars. As before, the first thing we noted was the intensely sour though decidedly not ‘citrusy’ brightness (which actually hits you first on the nose), followed by the flavour but not the spice of cayenne pepper, and then a hint of carob. It had an intangible tropicality for both of us, yet neither of us could say quite why. In fact, there is much we aren’t able to say about this bar, as its peripheral character seemed to constantly be shifting upon inspection, avoiding any in-depth sort of analysis. This is a quality that is present in many complex foods and drinks, but which in Marou (and particularly with the Bà Rịa bar) has an almost purposefully devilish, trickster-like quality that though frustrating is also admittedly fun.

Bến Tre, 78% – While it may seem odd, as darker bars are typically the most complex, and the flavours here are in no way cookie-cutter, this was in a way the quickest bar for us to understand. It was all rather plainly laid out. Briefly, but right upfront was something akin to burnt wood, or charcoal, followed by an unusual sour punch – a combination of lime creamsicle and soured butter or cream. Overall, it’s hilariously bright for being the darkest in the lineup.

Then, of course, texture is the other half of the equation. We would argue that even more so than flavour, texture illustrates the greatest contrast between one chocolatier’s product and another’s – partially because that is where more of their work takes place. The fruit itself provides most of the flavour. Eschewing the fermentation (something Marou only does themselves in the case of one bar) and roasting of the ‘beans’, tempering (what creates chocolate’s texture) is where the most distinctive mark is made. The difference between a bar from Dick Taylor, for example, and a disc from TAZA is enough to make you wonder how these two are considered to be the same basic ‘thing’.

The texture of Marou’s bars remained consistent throughout the line. Unlike with Mast Brotherswhose texture in our experience provides little in the way of personality, Marou clearly takes great care here, and as we’ve seen from their ingredient sourcing to their labels, leaves nothing overlooked. Each bar was exceptionally smooth without sacrificing dimension, having just enough fine granularity to suggest their origins (ground, dried cacao) but not so much as to call attention. With every bite, they perfectly gave beneath our teeth, while providing a wonderfully satisfying percussive crack. Once chewed (or just allowed to sit in the mouth), each melted just slowly enough to occupy a consistency most similar to brownie or cake batter, where both the liquid (cocoa butter) and grain (cacao bean and cane sugar) are discernible as separates but experienced still as one entity.

One of the best things about these bars is how clearly hands-off the makers are with them, respectfully allowing the cacao fruit to really shine. Attempts to ‘engineer’ food never result in complexity as rich as what nature provides, as the best vintners know (so much of what Marou has to say seems to echo the knowledge of wine-making’s rich history) and as any well-raised heirloom fruit, vegetable, or animal will evince. It’s easy to approach chocolate creation using other historical chocolates as a reference point, but to wholly listen to the fruit from start to finish and allow it to point in the direction of a new chocolate takes great restraint as well as sensitivity.

Though their distribution is currently very narrow, the awareness of and hence the demand for Marou is steadily increasing. In a creative field awash with products labeled ‘craft’ and ‘artisanal’ that don’t provide further evidence for said descriptors beyond their packaging, here is chocolate that speaks for itself of the artistry that goes into its production. We would appreciate more clarity in regards to the farming side of things, but hopefully that will come with time and frequent inquiry from curious consumers.

It will be interesting to see just how much demand Marou will be able to accommodate as they grow, or what form(s) their growth might take. According to their current model, there is only so much growing they can do before they become another entity entirely. Perhaps the world of chocolate will increasingly reflect the world of wine, with the best selections of any given production getting snatched up by speculators and distributors reselling at a premium which reflects the current state of availability and market interest. For the sake of our wallets and the appreciation of good food by all we certainly hope not, but if any craft chocolate is deserving of its high dollar value, Marou is it.

*Note: What are generally referred to as cacao ‘beans’ are in fact the fatty seeds of the cacao fruit.

**This is the biggest informational gap, and it is in regards to this more than anything else that we would appreciate a bit more transparency; what kind of ‘sprays’ are being used? – as those can range from entirely benign to highly toxic and/or environmentally damaging.

 Mountain Culture Kombucha

While passing through Virginia recently, we came upon a brand of kombucha we’d never seen before which turned out to come from some local brewers: Mountain Culture Kombucha. Admittedly, the goofy-casual branding on the bottles had us skeptical about the quality of what they might contain, but their ingredients seemed solid and their flavoural aims were intriguing enough. So, we picked up three flavours that covered a decently broad scope and crossed our fingers.

Mountain_Culture_Kombucha_Original_Appalachian_Harvest_Citra_Hops

By the time we had tried the first one, we were already back on the road. If only we’d known while we were still in Virginia how incredible these were! We would have picked up one of every flavour. These are brilliants brews; so far, across the whole line. Our selections were Citra Hops, Original, and Appalachian Harvest. To get a sense of the brewer’s baseline approach when trying new kombuchas, we always make an effort to pick up an ‘original’ if they produce one. It’s an important barometer once you start trying their blends.

We already mentioned that part of what convinced us to give Mountain Culture a try was their unique flavours. Citra Hops? We’d yet to have hops in any kombucha (excluding kombucha beer), and most certainly not such particular, fun varieties of hops (they use centennial hops as well as the eponymous citra hops). With Appalachian Harvest, the name drew us in. It clearly communicated a flavoural impression without relying on explicitly named ingredients or gimmicky-cute titles (e.g. Fred Astaire Pear or Elite Beet). Others we’ve yet to experience include a mixed mint blend that includes one of our favorite mint varieties – chocolate mint, and Sumatra Sunrise, a coffee-infused kombucha and the only one of theirs to use honey.

Extreme balance and delicacy struck us most about Mountain Culture. For having such strong personalities, every one of the varieties we tried was almost weirdly understated, ‘quiet’, and remarkably tasteful, with a physical lightness that nearly lifts you up with it (likely a result of Mountain Culture’s apparent preference for green tea as opposed to black). But that alone doesn’t get close to explaining the miracles these bottles contain. For all their delicateness, they are intensely clear and focused. The two biggest kombucha problems are entirely avoided: it isn’t yeasty, or vinegary. The effervescence is perfect – fine, concentrated, and released gradually and consistently throughout. Not too strong at the outset, and not going flat five minutes after opening. Even their appearance is distinctive, with the colours of all three possessing a glowing quality similar to what you might see in fresh whey from good raw milk.

Despite Mountain Culture’s complexity, these are by far some of the most accessible kombuchas we’ve had. If you’ve yet to successfully convince people that kombucha can be anything other than just a ‘silly health tonic’, these would be a great place to start. Seriously, you could serve these in place of champagne or prosecco at a fancy dinner party and no one would be disappointed, except of course those expecting alcohol.

Citra Hops provides incredibly refreshing perspectives on both kombucha and hops. Dried hops have such a wonderful smell, and making a simple tea from them with lemon juice is lovely. It’s sad that they’re an ingredient so inextricably related to beer for most people, as they’ve got much more going on flavour-wise than the ‘hoppy’ quality generally identified in a typical beer profile. In the context of a kombucha, which is lighter than pretty much any beer you’re likely to find, hops gets to have fun and lend its floral and fruity notes, leaving its bitter baggage behind. Citra Hops explodes at the top end with bright citrus, particularly grapefruit and lime, with a delicate rosewater-like quality balancing out the high end.

Their Original is a radically unique essential kombucha. Especially surprising in relation to Citra Hops, as so much of what seemed to be decoration from the hops was actually coming from the brew itself! The intense lightness, the smooth profile, and excitingly elusive citrus seem to characterize Mountain Culture as a whole, at least what we’ve had of it so far, and for these qualities to come from the kombucha alone is incredible. More than with most kombucha lines, this Original is very much a part of the other flavours – not only tying them together as a series or serving as a carrier, but playing an integral part in their identity. The way it handled sweetness was so perfect it could almost slip by unnoticed; like the temperature outside matching that of the surface of your skin. To craft a kombucha of such piercing, quiet beauty without adulteration shows true artistry on the part of brewmaster Peter Roderick.

Mountain_Culture_Kombucha_Appalachian_Harvest

Though these all blew us away, Appalachian Harvest was especially different, both in appearance and taste. Its color is a distinctive hazy orange, almost unnatural looking before you remember the ingredients. Its flavour is a skillful balancing act of carrot, apple, ginger, and of course kombucha. Though its not unusual to find these three ingredients together, the way it’s done is unlike anything we’ve ever had. Carrot contributes earthy, rooty tones that are somehow light, nonintrusive, and pleasantly avoidant of its typical association with juice bars. Ginger is surprisingly subdued, adding the slightest electric zing without ever getting to its usual point of bite. Apple is almost unidentifiably mild, except as a very gentle supporting sweetness outside the kombucha base’s profile, rounding out the picture perfectly. Appalachian Harvest appreciates aspects of all three flavours that ultimately feel deeply familiar, highlighting by association elements of each that you may have forgotten were even there.

Ingredient wise, it seems as though Mountain Culture is doing everything right, but we can’t say for sure as their labeling is a bit unclear. As is pretty much standard for kombucha at this point, they are organic and unpasteurized. They use spring water, which always gets a plus in our book, and especially so when they’re trying to reflect their regional character by using local water sources. On their site it says they use fresh-pressed juices and ‘raw sugar’, which would be amazing and rare, but on their bottles some juices are labeled ‘fresh-pressed’ and others are simply ‘pressed’ (leading us to think probably cold-pressed but bottled juices), and the sugar is just evaporated cane juice. We’re betting this is probably just a case of a young company that hasn’t gotten their labeling and information unified yet, rather than any sort of purposeful evasiveness on their part.

If you happen to live in Virginia or otherwise find yourself in the area, lucky you! Grab as many as you can get your hands on! Unfortunately for most of us, Mountain Culture is currently keeping close to home, and doesn’t appear to be available in stores outside the state, with D.C. being the one exception. It’s also available by delivery in select parts of North Carolina.

Cacao Prieto – selections from the Criollo series

Cacao_Prieto_Original_Dominican_Spice_Craft_Chocolate

Since the Mast Brothers emergence from Brooklyn in 2007, craft chocolatiers have become an integral part of the urban Northeast’s artisanal foods scene. Of course the Mast Brothers are practically a household name at this point, but their former position as ‘those chocolate folks from Brooklyn’ is no longer a tenable title as three other companies also hailing from the area seem to be gaining a strong foothold: Fine & Raw, Raaka, and Cacao Prieto. Being the least familiar with the latter (as their distribution seems to have the smallest radius), we were intrigued when we came upon them recently; first by the nicely typeset, open-framed boxes of their organic, single-origin fruit-and-nut ‘bark bars’, and then by the decadent packaging of their Criollo series. Impressive production standards, including the fact that they own and operate the farm their cacao and sugar both come from, made the decision final.

As now seems to be expected of craft chocolate producers – at least in Brooklyn – Cacao Prieto has a factory/store which offers tours and tastings of both their chocolate and a variety of liquors (many infused with cacao) that they also produce in-house. Their founder, Daniel Prieto Preston, is a former aerospace technologies inventor, a background which after moving into the role of chocolatier he brought to the field in order to invent and improve upon various chocolate-making machines he felt had yet to reach their full technological potential. Chief among these is Prieto Preston’s Vortex Winnower – a custom winnowing machine which is made to separate cacao nib from husk to a degree of exactitude that has until now been otherwise unachievable.

In trying to select two bars which might best represent their general approach, we went with Original and Dominican Spicethough other flavours such as Orchid and Absinthe were also tempting.

You can’t help but take notice of the Criollo series’ packaging. It’s attractive. That said, beyond simple aesthetics it becomes a bit problematic. In this line of bars, the design appears to be directly referencing the Dominican Republic’s colonial history, as well as another popular export from the republic: cigars. Here we find the company’s name ‘hand-written’ on a cigar-style label in a script that feels designed to give the impression of its having been penned by an early colonist-turned-plantation owner. These labels impose themselves on the underlying ‘primitive’ patterning which appears to be very vaguely hinting at the idea of traditional Dominican art or textiles. Then to make things official, the outer label is reinforced with an embossment of the Prieto seal, putting the final stamp on this miniature drama of semiotics. Of course, we aren’t assuming any of these details are intentional, but feel they warrant mentioning.

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Once unwrapped, the two bars appear identical in colour, which makes sense as all their cacao is of the same hyper-specific origin. Their minimalist gridding stands in sharp contrast to their highly stylized exterior packaging. There’s no bas-relief artwork cast on the bar’s top, no geometric texturing of each square, just chocolate effectively divided into rectangular pieces. The background connecting all the pieces is both disarmingly thin and reassuringly sturdy, making for an easy and clean breaking off of each bite, as well as an unaffected minimalism and lightness that feels very contemporary.

Biting into the bars, we were both immediately underwhelmed. Where’s the cacao fruit? Hidden beneath the dark roast perhaps, as that’s most of what we found we were tasting. The roast is, in its own right, lovely, but it definitely makes for a much more uniform flavour profile, one that is far more distanced from its roots than we expected from a company that so touts the distinctiveness of their ‘terroir’. Texturally too, the degree of smoothness, though impressive, didn’t do anything for us. Initially exciting, the silky extremity ultimately felt artificial, similar to ice cream made with a Pacojet. Likely appealing to some, but not to us.

The Original bar was a subtle experience. With none of them being particularly distinctive, most of the flavours we found had to really be reached for. There was an element of dried fruit, specifically one of raisin, which was nicely distributed throughout, giving it a good rounded balance. The high, slightly fruity, pre-bitter part of coffee was present as well. Overall though, it’s just a really well-made, ‘classic’ chocolate. Classic in the sense that it tastes familiar and comforting, favours roast over fruit, and strives for uniformity in its texture. It would make for a really great s’more.

Dominican Spice defied our expectations as well, but in a much more interesting way. Knowing it was to contain allspice, clove, cassia (cinnamon), and nutmeg, we were prepared for the spices to be much more heavy-handed; a ‘flavoured’ chocolate bar. We were instead confronted with a very tastefully balanced ratio of cacao to spice. Achingly restrained, so delicately handled that it felt more like an example of a slightly different varietal than an alteration of the bar we’d just tried. For the most part, none of the spices stood out on their own, but together formed something akin to a mild winter tea or a good eggnog. In different moments, we briefly tasted dried blueberry, chicory, and at one point a spiciness that was difficult to attribute a source to.

It should be said that we have definite preferences in chocolate bar styles. Generally, we like to experience the cacao plant itself in some way, whether that’s by highlighting its true fruitiness, or by leaving enough texture behind to help draw attention to its original seed state. Cacao Prieto produces bars that do neither of these things, but with that said, for a certain and other taste, these could be near ideals.

Despite our indifferences, the bars are undeniably strong from a technical perspective. Nothing is wrong with them, per se. They’re smooth, rich, and incredibly well-balanced. They may not be carving out radically new territory in the field of chocolate bars, but they’re certainly refining aspects of it. There’s a lot of subtlety to their craft, and the basic ingredients are all highly traceable and seem to be coming from an excellent source. Though they’re not our cup of tea, we do appreciate Cacao Prieto’s intended trajectory.

Dupont’s 2011 Organic Cider (Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie)

Etienne_Dupont_Cidre_Bouché_Brut_de_Normandie_Organic_Cider_Domaine

We picked this cider up on a sort of hasty whim from a small health food store in Jacksonville, Florida named Grassroots Natural Market that had an uncommonly fantastic selection of beers, wines, and ciders for such a tiny shop (and a natural foods-oriented one at that). For whatever reason, there aren’t a lot of organic ciders and beers out there yet, so when we come across ones we haven’t seen, such as this treasure from French producer Domaine Dupont we feel like we’re obligated to give them a try. It wasn’t until a few days later when we went to photograph and review this bottle that we noticed it was from 2011, which is quite well-aged in cider terms. They can certainly age longer, but even the producers themselves suggest five years is about the end of the curve before potential decline, so this one was definitely peaking by the time we’d gotten to it.

After we popped the cork, but before we started in on sniffs and tastes, the intensity of the cider’s carbonation was more than apparent. Pouring it into our glasses, it was almost unreal how persistent the bubbles were. It looked as though they were being pumped into the glass from beneath the table it was so effervescent. In total, we were sipping for at least half-an-hour, and by the time we were through they were still going pretty strong. The color was a deep ambery-gold, slightly cloudy, with a bit of sediment on the bottom.

The leather hit us right away. Overpowering, touching on suffocating at first, it remained present and up-front the entire time. On the nose, on the tongue, it is off-dry, medium-bodied, carbonated leather extract. Underneath, there was something like the deep syrupy part of overripe pineapple, with the sweet element of tobacco coming in to meet the two in the middle. Very fun blend of flavours. The tobacco-leather quality could even be described as smoked paprika. As it opens up, you can start to catch the apple of the cider for a millisecond as it hits the front of your tongue, then on to the leathery tobacco again, before finishing with black or kalamata olives at the back.

Our favorite effect was perhaps that eventually, if allowed to sit on your tongue for long enough, the warming of the cider in the mouth released the comforting flavour of warm cooked apples, which after such a distinctly non-apple experience was a welcome reminder of this beverage’s origins. Funny that the most present apple taste was one of cooked apples, seeing as the cider is unpasteurized!

We’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for Domaine Dupont from now on, and cannot wait to find out what different vintages might have in store for us.  It shouldn’t be hard to spot them as their labeling is gorgeously minimal, with a nicely textured paper stock on a good heavy bottle. It’s a pity there aren’t more domestically produced unpasteurized ciders made with organic apples. We have no problem reaching overseas for quality, but it seems silly that we should almost have to. We’ll be heading to the Pacific Northwest soon though, and in that area surely we’ll find more ciders along these lines. If you have any recommendations, please let us know!