Friday, December 21, 2012

Vosges Rocks My World Sometimes

To say that the Artisan Foods movement is in full swing is an epic understatement; you’d be hard pressed nowadays to find any food, from cured meats to dried fruits, to a simple staple (or so we thought) like salt, that doesn’t have a bevy of artisanal versions on the shelves of your local fancy food store. From the weird to the wonderful, it can be a ballet of pleasures and perils as you experiment with artisan foods.
One artisan path most definitely worth venturing down is chocolate. Chocolate, it has been said, is like sex: even at its worst, it’s not that bad. So if you just close your eyes and grab blindly at a towering rack of chocolate bars on your next grocery trip, odds are you aren’t going to be horribly disappointed. But if you’re interested in some direction in your search, and you have an adventurous palate, allow me to recommend Vosges artisan chocolate bars.
First off, Vosges is responsible for, hands-down, the most creative, original, and thoughtful flavor combinations I have encountered in the chocolate bar world. While I can’t say that the actual, pure chocolate itself is my absolute favorite (for that, I’m a big fan of Tcho), the bars, as a whole, are far greater than the sum of their parts.
When you bite into the thin, delicate chocolate, you do taste the chocolate first: soft, round, and creamy milk chocolate, and mildly tannic dark chocolate, these set the canvas in your mouth for the additional flavors to begin to appear. Then, you begin to recognize notes of bitter, of heat, of umami… each bar is its own taste experience, with an impressive spectrum to choose from. The ingredients used to create said experiences range from the exotic and opulent Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, to dark and stormy stout beer, to a bit of “is this really in a chocolate bar?” wasabi. Despite doubts you may have, the bars are carefully crafted to achieve balance and harmony, very much in tune with the theme and feel of the text on the back of the bar, which includes the (admittedly unnecessary, but whimsical and sort of cute) instructions on how to properly eat the chocolate bar to best savor and enjoy it. You can also read about the creator, who did a stint with the Adria brothers in Spain, one of many experiences that no doubt inspired and shaped her palate and her artisanal hand.
Here are some of my tried and true favorites from Vosges; bear in mind this is just a small fraction of the collection of chocolate bar flavors and other assorted products they produce, but it’s a good start if you’re looking to try them out before heading into the more outlandish (yet consistently tasty) combinations, many of which I can guarantee you have not tried elsewhere. You may also notice some recurring themes and flavors in my choices; just rest assured Vosges makes products with far greater range than I have represented here.
is there anything it doesn't go with?

Mo's Dark Chocolate Bacon Bar: One of the many Vosges’ bacon-laced bars, I like the simplicity of this one, and the delicate smokiness from smoked sea salt and applewood smoked bacon. The 62% cacao is on the lighter side for a dark chocolate, but it provides pleasant, earthy undertones to bring out the smoke from the other ingredients. This was the first Vosges bar I ever tried, brought to me as a birthday present when Julia visited me in San Sebastian, so it holds a special place in my heart.

the original fake bacon
Barcelona Bar: Even simpler and more traditional, the Bracelona Bar contains hickory smoked almonds and sea salt in milk chocolate. The salt is more pronounced here, and of course complements the almonds perfectly. I should note that smoked, salted almonds are a common culinary alchemy that inevitably and inexplicably evoke the flavor of bacon. So essentially, the flavor profiles between this and the previous bar are similar, but definitely not the same; their juxtaposition illustrates the subtle differences that can alter a flavor profile completely. Milk chocolate and dark chocolate offer quite different backgrounds for their ingredients, and thus yield different experiences. Beyond argument, the flavors of salt, as well of those of bacon (whether real or imitated) clearly compliment chocolate.

hemp seeds: not just for hippies
Woolloomooloo Bar: Its hard-to-sound-out, harder-to-spell name is actually a suburb of Sydney, Australia, a subtle nod to the continent and intended to honor the aboriginal claim to Australia’s prized Macademia nuts. They accompany coconut and hemp seeds (yes, hemp seeds!) in this milk chocolate bar. The Macademia nuts, roasted and salted, are much more subtle than you might expect, allowing the uniquely nutty hemp seeds to shine through. Bonus: hemp seeds are packed with essential fatty acids that your body needs to make you pretty. Chocolate that’s good for your hair, nails, and complexion means you have endless justification to polish off a bar, right? Right?

volcanic salt: won't burn your tongue
Black Salt Caramel Bar: This 70% cacao bar is infused with burnt sugar caramel (think caramel but richer, deeper, and more all over your mouth in flavor) and black Hawaiian sea salt harvested from volcanic pools in the ocean around the islands. For me, the caramel takes the lead as it sets the backdrop for a faint nuttiness from the igneous salt, and the resounding dark chocolate accents the whole experience with pleasing bitter notes. This is another simple but brilliant combination that results in something delicious and elegant. You may notice that this is now the third bar to feature salt, affirming the creator’s affinity for its power in pairing with chocolate. Spoiler alert: it won’t be the last bar on this list to do so. 

stout suds
Smoke & Stout Caramel Bar: Alderwood smoked salt (there it is!), and some more of that burnt sugar caramel are now paired with an even creamier, richer ingredient: Chocolate Stout beer. This takes things to a whole other level, adding layer after layer of complexity and flavor, like wrapping yourself in down blankets on a dark and stormy night. I have always been a fan of booze in desserts; I think both are indulgent and ideal bedfellows when treating one self. This bar exemplifies that comfort and luxury in every sweet, earthy bite.

sanctioned cannibalism
Gingerbread Toffee Bar: Perfect for the holidays and as laden with nostalgia as it is with scrumptiousness, this bar combines toffee, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice on a backdrop of slightly dialed down, 65% cacao dark chocolate. Its flavor is delicate and refined, despite the congress of potentially overpowering ingredients. Indicative of the Vosges style, this softening of flavors seems to prolong the experience of what is designed to be, in Vosges words, “experiential chocolate.” Even if it does make for a milder bar of chocolate, it certainly makes for an enjoyable one.

These are just a slice of what Vosges has to offer, and they take things to all corners of the Earth and the palate; case in point, they make a milk chocolate bar with curry powder. Assuming your curiosity is piqued, you can feel comfortable narrowing down your selection amongst the dizzying array of chocolate bars you may soon see before you. In a potential sea of chocolate, you can trust that Vosges will be a beacon worth swimming to.

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