Escazú Carenero Venezuela Goats Milk Chocolate

Escazu Chocolate Goat Milk - Wrapped

These days, it seems that no matter where you go, there is someone making bean-to-bar chocolate and that is a wonderful thing. So when I was recently down in North Carolina for a conference, I just happened to stumble upon some local bean to bar chocolate without even trying.

Escazú Chocolates have been making chocolate in Raleigh for six years, having caught the bug after a visit to a chocolate farm in Costa Rica. So by this time they have already gone through the teething troubles that come with such an endeavour and the bars they are currently making are really rather impressive.

Escazu Chocolate Goat Milk  - Unwrapped

The one that caught my eye was a 60% Venezuelan origin bar, but not because of the origin of the beans. Rather it was because of the fact that it was made with goat’s milk and I’ve never had any chocolate made with goat milk before. That also means that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect either, so this was going to be an adventure whatever happened.

It is a single origin bar, with the Carenero beans coming from just east of Caracus – they might not be the most beloved beans from Venezuela, but they still have some of the same fruity notes.

The chocolate itself has a tiny bit of grittiness to it – something which I actually like and feel is a good match for rustic flavour of the goat milk.

Escazu Chocolate Goat Milk  - Detail

What exactly the goat milk adds to proceedings is hard to articulate without sounding kind of negative, but you can definitely taste the goat. Or rather, there’s a sweet creaminess with slight tang and a bit of muskiness. It is a really good accompaniment for the earthiness of the chocolate, and the end result is something which tastes more like a milk chocolate than a 60% bar.

Ultimately, it all comes down to how you feel about the goat milk here. If you can take the goatiness, because it is the star of the show, then this is a creamy, delightful bar of chocolate. But I can understand how some people might be a little underwhelmed by a dark milk bar where dairy dominates over cacao.

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A Look Inside The Naive Chocolate Factory

Naive Chocolate

There are few things I enjoy more than looking around a chocolate factory, so when my friends at Naive Chocolate invited me to Lithuania to look around their factory – and judge a dessert & wine pairing championship – I jumped at the chance.

Bean-to-bar chocolate makers are where my real passion lies, so the chance to visit one of Europe’s most remote chocolate maker was something not to be missed. Not only are Naive the only artisan chocolate makers in Lithuania, but they’re one of only a handful in the whole of Eastern Europe.

Naive Chocolate

Like most chocolate factories, there’s not much to see from the outside. The simple, modern factory building on a small industrial estate just outside Vilnius belies the magic that happens inside.

My tour started in the cocoa bean storage area. A temperature controlled room with bags of fine cocoa from around the world. I’ve been experimenting with making my own bean-to-bar chocolate at home over the last few weeks, but I’m still fascinated by the humble cocoa bean. It’s a continual source wonder how much flavour can be extracted from something so small by expert chocolate makers like Naive.

Naive Chocolate

In a room next door are other ingredients. Sugars, milk powders and an array of fantastic fresh and freeze dried delights. Everything is natural and wonderful in its own right, from the tubs of local forest honey to the incredible freeze dried blueberries that look as fresh as the day they were picked.

Naive Chocolate

Next up was the roaster. Naive originally built their own roasting machine; essentially an oven with a rotating drum inside to ensure an even roast. But the company has grown quickly since they started making chocolate just three years ago, and that simple oven has since been replaced by an even more impressive piece of kit.

Naive Chocolate

From there, the beans pass through another high tech looking piece of machinery, the winnower. This breaks the roasted cocoa beans and separates the lighter, papery cocoa shells from the important bit – the cocoa nib. This is often the most difficult part of the process for a small chocolate maker, as there aren’t that many small scale machines on the market. A modern piece of kit like this makes the whole chocolate making process a lot more efficient.

Naive Chocolate

When it comes to grinding and conching, Naive have a whole range of machines. As they’ve grown, smaller grinders have been repurposed to pre-grind sugars and other. There are now roll grinders and melangers of all sizes (including a couple of small tabletop size Cocoa Town machines for small scale development) and a rather shiny looking conch that was empty during my visit, giving me the chance to look inside.

Naive Chocolate

The conch simply agitates the chocolate over a period of many hours. It’s an essential part of the chocolate making process that helps reduce some of the volatiles in the chocolate, developing the flavour. Figuring out the ideal conch time for any given chocolate is part of the skill of the chocolate maker. Too short and the chocolate can have unpleasant, acid notes, and too long and you’ll end up with a bland tasting chocolate with less of the natural flavour notes of the fine cocoa.

That attention to detail can be seen in some of the other machines in the Naive factory. Unlike most small chocolate makers, Naive have their own cocoa butter press, meaning they can create origin cocoa butter from the same beans as their chocolate.

Naive Chocolate

Cocoa butter is added to most chocolate, so being able to use it from the same source as the cocoa beans in a particular chocolate not only helps to produce the best possible flavour, but also makes the finished chocolate true to the origin on the label.

The rest of the factory is dedicated to tempering, moulding and packing. During my weekend visit, a small group from a local business were happily creating their own custom chocolate here under the supervision of chocolate maker Domantas Uzpalis.

Naive Chocolate

Making the best possible use of the factory at all times is just one of the ways Naive are developing their business to ensure future success. As well as producing their own chocolate and organising team building events like the one that was taking place during my visit, you can actually hire the entire factory to produce your own custom chocolate.

Naive Chocolate

Another way the company are diversifying is with new in-house brands. A new range called Mulaté is designed to capture some of the more mainstream chocolate market and has proved extremely popular in supermarkets. It’s this kind of diversification that is helping Naive to be continue to grow their business at a time when many chocolate makers are feeling the pinch.

With more new bars, another new range and all sorts of exciting new developments on the horizon, Naive are continuing to innovate while remaining true to their roots. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

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Gü Hot Chocolate

Gü Hot Chocolate

When it comes to hot chocolate, I’m a bit fussy. I usually make my own with dark chocolate, water, spices and a bit of sugar. It may be a bit of a faff, but I can control exactly what goes into it and tweak the recipe according to my mood.

Sometimes though, it’s an awful lot of trouble to go to, particularly when I’m just in the mood for something comforting. I don’t want to spend half an hour in the kitchen when I get home on a freezing December evening. I just want a big mug of hot chocolate, and if I have to wait longer than two minutes, I start to get really quite grumpy.

That’s where these new hot chocolates from Gü Puds come in. Available in ready made cartons, you simply heat them in the microwave for a couple of minutes for instant satisfaction.

The lovely people at Gü sent me all three flavours to try; regular Hot Chocolate, Salted Caramel and Mocha flavours. And they really are quick, simple and satisfying.

Gü Hot Chocolate

Gü recommend pouring heating the drinks in a jug in the microwave, then transferring to your favourite mug, so that’s what I did for my first test. Doing it in a jug let me give the drink a quick whisk before serving, but I found that even this added valuable seconds to the preparation time, so when it came to trying the other two flavours, I just heated them directly in the mug.

The verdict? I like them! They’re made with whole milk and have a nice, creamy texture. It’s not too thick, and importantly, not too sweet. I enjoyed all the flavours, but the salted caramel was the winner for me and I suspect that will end up being the best seller. The flavour balance is spot on and I quickly found myself going back for more.

The downside of having hot chocolate in cartons is that you could very quickly find it takes up all the space in the fridge, particularly at this time of year. For me, that’s a small price to pay for the convenience of having a great tasting hot chocolate available on demand. Who needs fresh food anyway, right?

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Vanini Chocolate Bars

Vanini Chocolate Bars

Vanini Chocolate is a brand of large Italian chocolate maker ICAM who have been around for over 60 years. This new range of bars is made in Italy from Peruvian cocoa. It’s bean-to-bar chocolate but on an industrial scale. There are six bars in the range, three milk and three dark, and I was sent them all to try.

Vanini Chocolate Bars

First a word about the packaging. It looks quite attractive with a modern feel combined with traditional Mayan-looking designs. In the shops, these bars will have to compete with the likes of Lindt and I certainly think they have the edge over the competition.

The card wrappers are really easy to open, but my one complaint here is that they don’t seem to be resealable in any way. Once opened up, the box can’t be stuck back down, and the sealed inner foil has to be torn open. A minor complaint, but I’m never going to eat a whole 100g bar in one go, so it would be nice to be able to close the pack up after taking a square.

Vanini Chocolate Bars

I thought I’d start my tasting session with the two unflavoured bars in the collection.

86% Dark Chocolate

This is obviously quite a high cocoa percentage, but that seems to be the trend for some of the higher end mass market brands these days. The first thing I noticed when I opened it though was the strong aroma of vanilla, which I found a little disappointing.

Traditionally, vanilla is added to chocolate to cover up any bad flavours, but with a finer flavour cocoa like these bars use, it shouldn’t strictly be necessary – at least not to the extent that it’s been used here.

That vanilla comes through in the taste too, although thankfully not as strong as the aroma. In fact, it turns out to be quite a pleasant and munchable dark chocolate. There’s little in the way of bitterness, and although there’s quite a strong cocoa powder flavour, you do get just a hint of natural fruitiness. It’s not much, but it’s there. It’s certainly much nicer than the equivalent high percentage Lindt bars.

Vanini Chocolate Bars

49% Milk Chocolate

At the other end of the scale we have the plain milk chocolate. I say plain milk, but at 49% cocoa solids, it has roughly two and a half times more cocoa than the likes of Dairy Milk, and you won’t find any nasty added vegetable fats or flavourings here.

Although the flavour is a little more “milk” than it is “chocolate” and there isn’t much complexity to it, I still enjoyed this bar. It’s not too sweet and it’s very pleasant to nibble on.

Vanini Chocolate Bars

49% Milk Chocolate With Orange Peel

This bar (pictured above) is made with the same milk chocolate with the addition of candied orange peel and orange oil. I’m never quite sure about orange chocolate because it always ends up reminding me of Terry’s Chocolate Orange – something I used to quite like but now find sweet and sickly.

This bar is still a little orangey for me. Despite being made with natural ingredients, I always find the combination of chocolate and orange tastes a little artificial. Not really my cup of tea, but a step up from the old fashioned chocolate orange. I know many people who will love this one.

49% Milk Chocolate With Sicilian Sea Salt

This bar again uses the same milk chocolate, this time with just a touch of salt. There may be just 0.3% salt in this bar but it lifts the flavour wonderfully. It’s somehow more chocolatey and even a little sweeter. I liked this one a lot.

74% Dark Chocolate With Nibs

A slightly sweeter dark chocolate with crunchy cocoa nibs. There’s a sweetness and very subtle fruitiness to this chocolate, but it’s not particularly complex. What’s clear is that a lot of thought has gone into the amount of sugar in the chocolate. The result is a nice balance of sweetness and intensity and a very munchable dark chocolate.

62% Dark Chocolate With Rosemary

Certainly the most unusual flavour of this collection, but also my favourite. The small pieces of rosemary in this bar have been sugared to give a great crunch while taking off the savoury edge from what from this strongly flavoured herb.

The result is something that works incredibly well – if you like rosemary! The flavour is sweet at first, then develops a gentle spiciness with a rosemary flavour that lingers after the chocolate has melted. This is one of those chocolates that really shouldn’t work quite as well as it does, and I’m really happy to see something a little different make it through to a more mainstream chocolate brand.

Overall, I’m impressed with the balance of quality and value of these Vanini chocolate bars. They aren’t craft chocolate, but they are a step up in quality from supermarket chocolate and even the likes of Lindt.

They’re not widely available in the UK yet, but I’m sure they will be soon. In the mean time, you can pick them up for 3 Euros a piece from the Vanini website.

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