Valentine’s Day may be over, but our love affair with chocolate continues. From its MesoAmerican origins to its migration eastward into the fashionable salons of the European aristocracy, chocolate has captivated our imaginations. Despite its sometimes-dark history and questionable health effects (some sacrificial victims of the Mayans and Aztecs were forced to drink chocolate mixed with blood, and wealthy European elites undermined the supposed health effects of chocolate by (over)processing it with alkaline salts, milk, and sugar), the global market for chocolate continues to expand. And although some of the chocolate that makes its way into retail stores in has been harvested by modern-day child slave labor in cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the expansion of fair-trade, ethically sourced, and slave-free varieties of chocolate has meant that we can continue to enjoy our chocolate pleasures, guilt-free.
But guilt-free sometimes comes at a steep price.
In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day I decided to do a little research (yes, research) on some of the best varieties of dark chocolate I had tasted, and some I eagerly wanted to try. I am still in the process of conducting research (because you can only eat so much chocolate in a day), but here are my initial impressions of some of the best guilt-free chocolate out there. Yes, much of it comes with a hefty price tag, but if you consider the many emotional, physical, and psychological benefits of dark chocolate you, like me, may find it to be well worth the extra few bucks.
Noi Sirius Traditional Icelandic chocolate. At first, I balked at the more-than-$4.00 price tag for this one, but when Whole Foods had a sale on these bars last fall, I decided to take the plunge. Now I am addicted and keep my purse stocked with at least one bar at a time. I realized after opening the package for the first time that it consists of 2 thick chocolate bars, which made it easier for me to justify the expense. One of these bars can last me a few weeks if I don’t share (and no, I don’t share, because it’s my medicine), and am judicious in my consumption. Made by the Icelandic chocolate and confection company Nói Sirius, this chocolate comes in a variety of flavors including chocolate milk, bittersweet, extra bitter (extra dark), coconut, caramel, liquorice, almond, and Icelandic sea salt, my favorite. The sea salt flavor is biting and sharp, but if you like the unique flavor of Skyr (Icelandic yogurt), you’ll love this variety of chocolate pleasure.
Justin’s. The company that was started by a student in Colorado seemingly began by accident. As the company’s website notes, Justin was a vegetarian with an active lifestyle who just wanted his roommates to stop eating his homemade nut butter creations. Putting his name on the jar apparently did nothing to stop the thievery, but it did spark something else in Justin, with the encouragement of friends and family who urged him to sell his unique flavors. Justin’s, like Theo’s below, became a part of our family’s chocolate traditions because of a gift from Grandma. It was the year after my divorce, when Grandma lovingly offered to splurge on gourmet Easter baskets for my 2 kids. Since then, my 7-year old has learned that she can usually wear me down when I refuse to buy her candy (or as I like to call it, “junk”) by begging for Justin’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups while reminding me that it’s actually very healthy and therefore good for her. Touché (sigh).
UnReal, the “unjunked” food company, sells candy that claims to be made from 100% real, non-GMO ingredients. Their candy contains no gluten, corn, soy, or artificial colors or flavors. It’s vegan, and certified gluten-free. The company also appeals to customers who have a conscience about their chocolate consumption: UnReal’s ingredients are fair trade and sustainably sourced. I recently tried UnReal’s crispy quinoa dark chocolate candies. To be honest, I’m, not yet sure how I feel about them. The texture is a bit strange to me (or maybe just that it’s quinoa, which just sounds like it shouldn’t have anything to do with good chocolate). However, I can’t seem to stop eating them, so I figure they must be pretty good, since I am very picky about my chocolate.
Theo, the second Easter basket chocolate that came into our lives because of Grandma’s generosity, is all about making, celebrating, and finding inspiration in connections with others to change the world for the better. How exactly do they do that with chocolate? The video testimonials of Theo’s employees suggest a company that is committed to supporting and nurturing all the human elements of its pipeline, from the growers and suppliers to employees and executives, the same way, with care and compassion. As the first fair-trade, organic chocolate factory in North America, Seattle, WA-based Theo claims to practice ethical stewardship an 3rd party verification to ensure that all ingredients and employees involved in the process of making Theo’s products meet the company’s standards for social and environmental responsibility. And the chocolate is pretty darn good, too!
Silly Cow Farms hot chocolate. I bought this because my kids totally guilt-tripped me one winter, as I had apparently promised too many times that I would make them hot chocolate when I could find them some good, fair trade, non-GMO, non-crap chocolate that hadn’t been processed with too many bad things. Leave it to my 7-year old daughter (who was 5 at the time) to not only spot the chocolate mix on the grocery store shelf, but to take the time to read the ingredients and point out to me that this was the kind of good, crap-free chocolate I must have been talking about. Since it was clear that she was not leaving the store without that chocolate unless I was willing to put up with a lot of tears (which I have no problem doing; I must have been in a good mood that day), we picked up a bottle. First, let me say I looove the glass mini milk jug it comes in (that also helped convince me to buy it. Yes, packaging counts for a lot when it comes to chocolate). Second, I have no problem telling you that aside from some incredibly delicious gourmet hot chocolate I imbibed in Paris at some frou-frou café my Paris-based bestie Jenny convinced me to stop in, this is probably the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted, hands down.
Any chocolate in the Chocolate Museum of Paris. One great thing about my job as a professor in is that I am sometimes able to combine research trips with family vacations. A couple of summers ago, my partner and I took the kids along to Paris, where I was giving a talk at an ESCP conference and doing research for my book on Islam and gender activism. One of the unexpected pleasures we got to experience was a visit to the chocolate museum, where we not only got to learn about the “Choco-Story” from its MesoAmerican origins to its present-day innovations, but also were able to sit in on a chocolate-making demonstration and sample the products. Every chocolate we had, from the freshly confectioned, to the gift-store packaged items, was simply fabulous in the way that only the French can do fabulous. If you are a chocoholic like me, and live near or will be visiting Paris, I recommend a stop-over at the Chocolate Museum. Best of all for families with kids, kids visiting the museum are able to “treasure hunt” for special items within the displays and get a special treat afterwards.
Whether you enjoy an occasional indulgence or are a full-blown addict who needs a daily dose of chocolate therapy, I’d love to find out more about your chocolate pleasures.
What gourmet chocolate brands do you recommend?
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