Everybody loves travelling for pleasure, but a recent trend sees more and more people travelling with a purpose. One of the best ways to combine purpose and pleasure is gastronomic tourism. There are wine tours along the California coast and whisky tours of the Scottish highlands.
If Manitoba travel writer Doreen Pendgracs has her way, chocolate tourism will be the next big thing.
A professional freelance writer who focuses on travel, Pendgracs has just released her fourth book, Chocolatour: A Quest for the World's Best Chocolate. The independently published book chronicles a four-year chocolate odyssey that took her from the Amazon jungle to the Alps of Switzerland. And this is just the first volume.
"It became a massive project for me and one that I think will consume the next 10 years of my life," says the Winnipeg-born Pendgracs, who spoke to the Free Press from her home in Matlock. "And I willingly agree to that. I can't think of a more sumptuous topic to research and investigate and share." (You can follow her project at chocolatour.net.)
Pendgracs starts by looking at where cocoa is grown, which is always within 20 degrees of the equator. She explains why chocolate has historically been precious and expensive. "Growing cacao is extremely difficult," she points out. "It's all hand done."
"Everything is harvested by hand, and then the pods are cut open by hand, the beans are extracted by hand, then put into bins to ferment and then to roast. There's a lot of labour involved."
Then Pendgracs heads to Europe. (The second volume will deal with the Americas and the Caribbean, while the third volume will examine Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.) She looks at how chocolate is crafted by chocolatiers (who start with couverture chocolate made by companies like Ghirardelli, Callebaut or Valrhona) or by chocolate makers (who begin with unprocessed cocoa beans). She rhapsodizes over chocolates created with Piedmont hazelnuts, sea salt and extra-virgin olive oil, with lemon peel and chiles, with Iranian pistachios and Earl Grey tea.
After offering such tempting descriptions, it's only fair that Pendgracs advocates giving in to chocolate cravings (in moderation). In support, she cites the winningly titled book Why Women Need Chocolate by nutritionist Debra Waterhouse. It turns out that eating pure dark chocolate releases endorphins, a natural anti-depressant.
And there are other documented health benefits. "I was amazed at just how good chocolate is for us," Pendgracs relates. "As children we were always told chocolate is bad for our teeth, for our skin, for our weight." And while you don't want to gorge on sweet chocolate candy, if you stick to pure chocolate (70 per cent or higher cacao) and limit the quantity, chocolate can be part of a healthy diet.
"Chocolate has more antioxidants than any other power food on the planet," Pendgracs points out. It gives red wine a run for its money.
Speaking of wine, we're used to wine snobs talking about "terroir," that unique combination of soil, weather and grapes that gives a wine its specific character. Chocolate fanatics are starting to think this way, too, with a new emphasis on "origin chocolate" from specific growing regions. Cacao from Madagascar has fruity undertones, for example, while Caribbean beans tend to be lighter-bodied.
Each artisanal chocolate makers also brings his or her own style, something Pendgracs discovered as she was researching the book.
"I would be trying to understand the essence of what they're doing," she says, "and I soon came to realize that just like with chefs, they put a piece of their personality into what they're creating."
Pendgarcs offers lists to help readers find the right chocolate match. Are you "Sophisticated, Elegant?" Or "Exotic, Sensual?" Or maybe "Playful, Adventurous?" Pendgracs has a chocolate maker for you.
If you're looking for artisanal hand-made chocolate in Winnipeg, you can check out the work of Constance Popp. But you can also find good bar chocolate from some big-name labels, Pendgracs confirms.
"I just had a heyday at the Lindt store," she says, which offers "excellent quality at affordable prices." Pendgracs particularly loves the company's dark chocolate with sea salt.
Good-quality chocolate bars have a one-year shelf life, but when it comes to chocolate truffles or bonbons, "the good stuff only has a shelf life of one to three weeks."
And it's too fragile to be shipped. This is where the travel comes in. If you really want to get good great chocolate, Pendgracs says, "you have to go to the source." In March 2014, she'll be leading a real-life choco-tour, taking a group of 20 Winnipeg women to Switzerland, a country where each citizen patriotically consumes an average of 9.5 kilograms of chocolate a year.
Closer to home, Pendgracs is also helping to organize a chocolate dinner at McNally-Robinson's Prairie Ink on Nov. 2. Chef Karen Nielsen will use chocolate, savoury and sweet, in every course.
Pendgracs is careful to point out that Chocolatour is not a cookbook. She likes eating chocolate, she says, more than she likes cooking or baking with it. But there are a few standout recipes, as well as some sage advice on chocolate pairings.
Mostly the book is about love, Pendgracs says -- "my love for passionate people, my love for travel and my love for the gastronomical world," which all come together, deliciously, in chocolate.
The Simplest Chocolate Dessert Ever
Good-quality bar chocolate
Wine, beer, coffee or tea
Just serve together. This is a simple way to end a meal and encourage people to linger over coffee or wine. According to Pendrgracs, you want to pair like with like. Deep, dark chocolate goes well with a big, bold red wine like a Malbec or a Bordeaux. With milk chocolate, she advises a rosé or a white Zinfandel. With white chocolate, consider champagne or a sparkling white. To pair chocolate with coffee, look for coffee with chocolatey undertones, like a Tarrazu from Costa Rica.
Tester's notes: Absolute proof that sometimes the simplest things are the best.
Guinness Chocolate Truffles
1 kg (2 lbs) dark chocolate (O'Connor uses a 72 per cent cocoa Royal French chocolate), chopped
400 ml (1 3/4 cup) heavy cream
100 ml (7 tbsp) Guinness Extra Stout Beer
Zest of one orange, finely grated
Cocoa powder or desiccated coconut to coat the truffles
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, add the cream and Guinness and bring just to a boil. Add the chocolate and grated orange zest. Mix together until the chocolate is fully melted. Leave the chocolate mixture until it is cool to the touch, but not set.
Take generous teaspoons of the mixture and roll in your hands to form small round truffles. Dust in cocoa powder or coconut. (O'Connor prefers the coconut as it adds a lovely flavour to the truffles.) Set in the fridge for 2-3 hours.
-- From executive chef Justin O'Connor, of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, Ireland
Tester's notes: First of all, I halved the recipe, and even then I blew my food budget to buy 500 grams of good dark chocolate and ended up with a dangerous amount of truffle temptation. Unless you're making truffles for a crowd, you might want to do the same.
You can find an utterly charming how-to video in the recipe section of guinness-storehouse.com. The chef in the video uses a double boiler. If you opt to go without it, make sure to use a heavy-bottomed pot over low heat with constant stirring. I ended up chilling the melted chocolate mixture in the fridge for a little, and then letting it sit on the counter just a bit to finally get a ganache that was soft enough to work with but firm enough to hold its shape. And you do want to work quickly or your hands will end up covered in warm chocolate.
Pendgracs points out that the truffles will be as good as the chocolate you start with, so try to use good-quality chocolate, chopped quite fine. I used Godiva 72 per cent cacao.
Jade Mountain's Bittersweet Chocolate Rum Mousse
340 g (12 oz) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
30 ml (2 tbsp) spiced gold rum
60 ml (1/4 cup) butter
60 ml (1/4 cup) espresso coffee, divided
5 ml (1 tsp) granulated gelatin
400 ml (1 3/4 cups) whipping cream
In the top of a double boiler, combine chocolate, rum, butter and 30 ml (2 tbsp) espresso. Melt over barely simmering water, stirring constantly. Remove from heat while a couple of chunks are still visible. Cool, stirring occasionally, to just above body temperature. Pour remaining espresso into a metal measuring cup and sprinkle with the gelatin. Allow gelatin to "bloom" for 10 minutes, then carefully heat by swirling the measuring cup over a low heat. Do not boil or the gelatin will be damaged. Stir mixture into the cooled chocolate and set aside. In a chilled mixing bowl, beat cream to medium peaks. Stir one-quarter of the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in the remaining whipped cream in two batches. There may be streaks of whipped cream in the chocolate, and that's fine. Do not overwork the mousse. Spoon into martini glasses and chill for at least one hour. Garnish with chocolate swirls. (Serves 4.)
-- Courtesy of Chef Allen Susser
Tester's notes: Not a traditional mousse made with eggs, but it's nice and creamy, and the gelatin helps stabilize the whipping cream. Pendgracs reports that Chef Susser's key to making a dynamite chocolate mousse is spiced rum. He likes to use the Kweyol Spiced Rum, produced by adding whole pieces of local spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla.