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June 14, 2005

Pierre Marcolini — 'World's Best Chocolatier'

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He's pretty confident, wouldn't you say?

I know of a few or ten chocolatiers who might beg to differ with Mr. Pierre Marcolini's self–assessment but let's not be petty.

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Rather, let us look into the basis for this rather extravagant — to say the very least — claim.

In an article on fine chocolate by David Baker that appeared in last Saturday's Financial Times, Marcolini was quoted as called himself "the Hermès of chocolate."

This guy (Marcolini) is pretty full of himself, what?

Read the story and decide for yourself.

    Learning To Talk Chocolate

    We start with a taste of Ecuador.

    The little square of chocolate in Deborah O'Neill's hand looks expensive.

    The colour is deep and warm.

    The surface throws back the light in a sophisticated, confident way, suggesting layers of interest.

    The edges are smooth and clean.

    This, I can tell already, is quality.

    I make to pop it in my mouth but O'Neill puts her hand up to stop me.

    "Wait," she says.

    "First, look. Then, smell. Then, bite."

    Welcome to the world of the chocolate connoisseur.

    O'Neill is the UK partner of Pierre Marcolini, a Belgian chocolatier who likes to call himself the Hermès of chocolate.

    From a small cafe/shop just off London's Kensington Church Street, she is starting a small crusade to lure Britons away from their Wispa bars and Walnut Whips and on to the likes of the single-estate Ecuadorian chocolate we are trying here.

    The UK, she says, is the biggest consumer of chocolate in the world - we eat 12kg of the stuff per person every year, compared with 6kg in France - but 80 per cent of that is what she politely calls "high-street" chocolate.

    "In France, 80 per cent of the chocolate they eat is quality."

    On cue, I sniff the square.

    It smells not chocolatey, not sweet, but well, as a novice I have no words for it but I am sure they will come and at last I am allowed to put it in my mouth.

    Now the vocabulary starts to grow.

    "Earthy", I grunt, as the chocolate starts to melt down the sides of my tongue.

    "Soft", "fluid", "engaging".

    I realise there is a progression of taste from a gentle, adult beginning to Willy Wonka-like abandon as the chocolate melts and flavours develop in waves.

    And all from a single piece!

    This never happened with a Galaxy bar, at least not to me.

    There is more on the table but after a square I am strangely satisfied.

    It has left a creamy aftertaste that lingers long after it has gone down and I just want to sit and relish.

    Deborah looks on approvingly.

    A convert has been made.

    Like coffee, chocolate, or rather cocoa, is a fruit and, like coffee, it raises the same issues of fair trade and quality control.

    Sixty per cent of the world's beans come from the Ivory Coast and go mostly to the big players.

    But the more interesting varieties can be found in low-lying tropical regions of the Caribbean, Asia and South America.

    It is small producers who are teaming up with European and US manufacturers to produce a more sophisticated product.

    The only problem is getting the rest of us to buy it.

    Chocolate production is long and labour-intensive, taking about eight weeks from tree to bar, but it provides plenty of opportunities for high quality chocolate manufacturers to influence the outcome.

    After picking - there are two harvests a year, one in February/March and the main one in October/November - the seeds are removed from the fruit, dried and fermented in the sun.

    Much of the basis of the chocolate's flavour is created at this stage and good manufacturers will go out to the region to have a hand in the process.

    For many producers this is the end of their involvement (very few taste the final product, says O'Neill) as the seeds are shipped to manufacturers for roasting, pulping, in which the beans are shelled and separated into chocolate pulp and cocoa butter, and finally pressing, when the pulp is squeezed between rollers to make it smooth and elastic.

    "This final stage is where the chocolatier exerts most control," O'Neill says.

    "The aim is make the biggest particle in the pulp less than 30 microns across, a size that is undetectable by the palate."

    Look at the ingredients on a regular bar of chocolate and you will find little that has much to do with the typical cacao tree (including a high proportion of vegetable fat).

    Move up to the specialist stuff (£5 for an 80g bar, for example) and the list shrinks.

    White chocolate consists of cocoa butter, cream and sweetener, and that's it.

    Dark chocolate has the smoothed pulp, some cocoa butter and maybe a little vanilla.

    Milk chocolate is as above with milk solids.

    The beauty is in the simplicity but the simplicity leaves no room for mistakes that can emerge during mass production.

    Instead you have a palette of subtle flavours a winemaker would be proud of, hence the attraction of becoming a connoisseur.

    We return to the tasting.

    Next is a 72 per cent Java.

    As she breaks off a piece for me, O'Neill is lightly dismissive about the 72 per cent.

    "You see these percentages everywhere," she says, "but they are not really a good guide of how good the chocolate is going to be. All it is telling you is that the total proportion of pulp and cocoa butter combined is 72 per cent. You don't know how much of each the manufacturer has used and that can make a big difference. Here we put in about 68 per cent pulp and 4 per cent butter but others might do differently. What matters more is the quality of the ingredients. There is no magic number although 66-75 per cent seems to be a good range."

    I rinse my mouth out with the mineral water on the table (thankfully, no spittoon in sight).

    The Java appears to have no smell, at least not to my unpractised nose, but it has a fine reddish cast that looks more daring than the Ecuador.

    I put it in my mouth and wait.

    At first nothing happens.

    Deborah's eyes fix on me but I taste nothing.

    I am wondering if my first grand chocolate experience has been too much for me when suddenly there is an explosion of flavours.

    Deborah's eyes meet mine, she has put a piece in her mouth, too, and, together we indulge.

    She gasps coquettishly: "Can you taste them? Can you? Cinnamon, vanilla, cherries running down the side of your tongue... ?"

    I can, I do and I want more.

    It is an almost ecstatic moment.

    Java seems too childish to be allowed in this shop, all those fruity flavours coming out of nowhere, but it is a superb chocolate and it is the one I make a mental note of to tuck away for some more private indulgence later.

    As the taste subsides, I wonder, in our post-coital haze, if I have simply been taken in by O'Neill's suggestion.

    If she had said "liquorice", would I have tasted that instead?

    But later I try Java on friends without saying a word and, while some sense raspberries instead of cherries and others trade cinnamon for nutmeg, they all get the explosion.

    It really is a damn fine chocolate.

    From flavours, we move on to more abstract ideas.

    O'Neill is keen on words such as "sour", "silky", "rounded" and "long in the mouth".

    It feels a little self-conscious using wine buff terms for a piece of chocolate but that is only because the chocolate I am used to has never warranted such treatment before.

    Bite into a single-estate product and you are soon reaching for the thesaurus.

    "Like wine," says O'Neill, "cocoa doesn't express itself immediately. It has more than 400 flavours."

    We break for a hot chocolate, which chez Marcolini comes in an espresso cup and is made with steamed milk and chocolate flakes.

    It falls exactly between the sharpness of cocoa powder and the sweetness of hot chocolate and is a million miles away from bedtime.

    This is an adults' drink.

    O'Neill says she often serves it instead of coffee at a dinner party - and it probably contains the same amount of caffeine.

    The morning's highlight is a limited-edition Porcelana Criollo.

    The criollo bean is the Jamaican Blue Mountain of the chocolate world, prized by connoisseurs for its subtlety (and, like Blue Mountain, sometimes a little too subtle for the rest of us).

    The tree is usually harvested only about every seven years and its beans produce just 2-3 per cent of the world's chocolate.

    We both take a square.

    For me, it is complex, kind of sweet/bitter/fruity/creamy and it is rather hard to describe even with my new show-off vocabulary.

    The best I can do is "smooth", but luckily Deborah is lost in her own thoughts.

    "I've only been eating this a few months and it is so complicated I am still trying to work out when to eat it," she says, eyes rolling in delight.

    "For me, it just talks a lot."

    I agree, but I am already longing for another run on the roller-coaster with my friend from Java.

    We end with a "simple" Venezuelan ("gentle", "slow opening", "almonds") and a white chocolate and raspberry praline from the counter (delicious, but somehow too fiddly after all this single-estate purity).

    Chocolate has a long way to go before it is appreciated as widely as wine but as I leave I ask O'Neill if we will ever be seeing chocolate vintages.

    "Not yet, but they will come. Different years produce different chocolates. But you need to educate people first. Today we are just at the beginning."

    Pierre Marcolini, 6 Lancer Square, off Kensington Church Street, London W8 4EH. Tel: +44 (0)20 7795 6611; www.pierremarcolini.co.uk

    Chocolate tastings are usually held on the last Tuesday of every month at £20 per person.

I think all you can determine from the above is that it would a lot of fun to attend one of the monthly tastings at the Marcolini shop.

The next one is exactly two weeks from today, on Tuesday, June 28.

June 14, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

SRM–Red — The secret weapon of great tomato growers

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Last Thursday's New York Times Garden Q & A by Leslie Land touched on the somewhat mysterious properties of red plastic mulch, considered by some gardeners the secret to seriously great tomatoes.

Here's the actual exchange:

Q. I keep hearing about using red plastic mulch to improve tomato production. Will it work under unstaked plants, which cover their mulch by midsummer?

A. You are hearing about SRM–Red [above], a reflecting sheet mulch.

The far red light it reflects tells tomatoes that they are being crowded by competitors.

The plants respond by growing larger and fruiting more.

The tomatoes, which can also sense the light, get bigger and more enticing.

But it only works if the mulch stays uncovered and keeps reflecting thoughout the growing season.

"Plants need a constant reminder," said Michael J. Kasperbauer, the lead researcher for the joint Agriculture Department adn Clemson University team whose experiments in the 1980s are cited by so many red mulch sellers.

The more far red light the fruits receive, the stronger the effect, he said, so the mulch works best when tomato plants are pruned and staked.

Sources include Abundant Life Seeds (abundantlifeseeds.com; 541-767-9606) and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (groworganic.com; 888-784-1722)

June 14, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

MrSapo.com

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The site describes itself as "an aggegator of numerous search providers, allowing you to access them from a single window."

A reviewer wrote of it, "MrSapo is perhaps best described as as being a meta–interface site. You get a single search box and the one search site, with buttons that enable you to perform your search at any of the many choices available, but only one at a time."

"Many" is the operative word: I counted 42 choices just for a basic search, with many others under "Images," "Audio," "Video," "Reference/Academic," "News," and "Blogs."

Man, there are some bizarro names out there: how about "Surfwax," "BananaPile" [possibly a deep black Gwen Stefani project], "Genie Knows," "Splat," "Hippo," "Incy Wincy" [I am not making this up — click the link and see for yourself], and many, many more.

James Fallow, this past Sunday in his New York Times column, wrote that "the bizarrely named but extremely useful MrSapo.com has become my favorite search portal."

If you think James Fallows has a good head on his shoulders then maybe you should emulate him.

June 14, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ShimmerScreen

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There are beads, and then there are beads.

In the Pool Room (above) and Front Bar of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City, Philip Johnson's iconic mid–twentieth century masterpiece of quiet grace, "strings of rippling brass beads are strung horizontally in gentle swags down the windows," wrote Stephen Treffinger in last Thursday's New York Times.

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Amazingly, the company that manufactured those beads, BCM Architectural, is still making them, along with a wide variety of others in myriad shapes, sizes, colors and finishes.

BCM works mainly with architects and designers but they also sell directly to individuals not in the business.

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The company also provides the custom aluminum tracks required for hanging the beads properly.

The beads have a lacquer sealant to make them easy to clean: you simply vacuum them or wipe them down.

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Have a look at the company's website and see what's possible.

Might be a cool way to add world–class elegance.

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Light handled in the right way is a powerful force; just ask any Jedi knight you happen to see.

June 14, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: 'Wrap Rage'

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I'd never heard this term until this past Sunday when I read about it in an article in the Washington Post about the increasing hostility of consumers to packaging requiring a near thermonuclear detonation to open it.

Turns out the British have studied the problem in great detail and compiled statistics on injuries associated with opening packages: over 60,000 injuries caused by "wrap rage" — the British term — have so far been recorded by medical authorities there.

These most often occur when consumers resort to knives and scissors to deal with stubborn packages, only to end up performing an unintended self–phlebotomy.

Here's a link to a BBC News story from last year about the problem.

Here's a link to Joyce Gemperlein's Sunday Washington Post story.

Here's the Post story in case you're just not in the mood to go anywhere else.

    But the Dang Thing Won't Open

    Today's Packages Make Customers Twist and Shout

    Mona Doyle recently filmed people attempting to open bags of pre-cut lettuce.

    The tape plays like a bit from the television show "America's Funniest Home Videos."

    Everybody uses force and torque that would otherwise be reserved for the gym.

    Either the bag opens suddenly and sprays lettuce all over the floor, or defeat is conceded and scissors or knives are employed.

    When Doyle, whose Philadelphia company does research about food and beverage packaging, showed the tape to an audience of produce packers, they chuckled.

    But Doyle says that belligerent packaging is making consumers spitting mad.

    They use words "hate" and "difficult" to describe products that seem to be welded shut.

    Why, oh why, are we not yet a slide-lock or, at least, a press-and-seal nation?

    More and more food packages -- for cereal, potato chips and pre-cut salads, for example -- are being marketed as "convenient," but neither the formerly effective "pinch-and-pull" technique nor that old fallback, teeth, can open them.

    In many ways, food packaging has come a long way since the days, for example, when potato chips were sold out of bins.

    The common snack bag has evolved from waxed paper ironed into packets in 1926 by the female employees of Laura Scudder's potato chip factory in their California homes. (Thomas Edison, by the way, invented waxed paper when he was 25 years old.)

    Also in 1926, Karl Prindle, an employee of DuPont, developed moisture-proof cellophane.

    Prindle is also responsible for later developing the zip-tab for cellophane packages.

    Zip-tabs are the thingies that stick out from under the cellophane on a package. When you pull them, the cellophane tears.

    Many modern snack bags are now made of polypropylene materials that bar humidity and moisture, which make Cheez Doodles and the like droopy.

    That layer is bonded to a microscopically thin sheet of aluminum that keeps out rancidity-promoting oxygen, says Mary Ann Falkman, editor-in-chief of Packaging Digest.

    In addition, most package seals aren't formed by glue these days but by pressure from huge metal jaws that clamp down on the layers.

    The reason for such intricate packaging is to keep food fresher longer -- this cuts down on waste and saves the company money.

    Secure packages also eliminate spillage during shipping. But these days "security" is perhaps the more effective buzzword.

    This is because "poisoned" is a much scarier word than either "stale" or "messy."

    Fears of food tampering predate even Snow White and the wicked Queen with her apple.

    But more recent fuel on the fire includes the 1982 lacing of Tylenol with cyanide, which resulted in a revolution in the drug- and food-packaging industries.

    That was reinforced by the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001; then came the Bio-Terrorism Act of 2002, which outlines measures to protect the food supply.

    A recent report about concern that school lunches could be a target of terrorists may fuel this fire further.

    And need I even mention those amazing before-and-after pictures of Ukrainian opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned at a dinner during his campaign for president?

    "Packaging is now a very important part of people's purchasing decisions," Doyle says.

    "It didn't used to be. But now there's this Catch-22. Yes, packages need to be harder to open -- be tamper-evident -- boy, do they need to be sealed. But, especially with aging baby boomers, the packages must become easier to open."

    "A lot of [older] people tell us that they just can't cope with bags that they need scissors to open, and so they don't buy them," Doyle says.

    It also irks people that, once opened, the bag is often ripped down the side, making it impossible to use it to seal in leftovers.

    Doyle has no solid statistics on injuries caused by our hassles with packaging, but they do exist in England.

    One study there shows that "wrap rage," as it is called by the Brits, has been the cause of more than 60,000 injuries.

    These often occur when consumers resort to knives and scissors to deal with stubborn packages, according to a 2003 report in the Daily Telegraph.

    That said, here's a paradox: Hard-to-open bags don't seem to be stopping us from buying pre-cut lettuce, considered the biggest marketing phenomenon in the history of produce.

    Sales of the convenience item are soaring.

    The Produce Marketing Association reports that sales hit $2.6 billion in 1994, then $8.8 billion in 2003.

    The numbers are expected to zip up to $10.5 billion in 2005.

    Obviously, cutting our own lettuce into bite-size pieces irritates us even more than cutting open a bag.

    Doyle says American consumers' demands for ease and convenience have evolved over decades and, once given an easier way, we demand even easier ways.

    In plain language, we are spoiled.

    For example, American consumers were once thrilled with press-and-seal zippers on plastic storage bags.

    But as time has gone by, Doyle has found that more and more people say pressing the two sides of a plastic bag together until the grooves mesh is trickier and more time-consuming than it seems.

    We now consider slide-lock bags, which have a plastic nubbin you pull across the bag to seal it, to be the most consumer friendly.

    Doyle says food producers may understand that consumers want slide-lock salad greens and potato chips, but so far they are unwilling to spend the billions of dollars it would take to change the packaging.

    Still, she is optimistic and foresees a world in which grocery stores are full of slide-lock bags and packages that look and work something like the plastic-lidded cardboard canisters that contain raisins and oatmeal.

    I comforted myself with her vision last week as I spent 10 minutes in a school cafeteria prying 13 foil lids off single-serving containers of chocolate pudding because, even when kindergartners dropped them on the floor, they wouldn't open.

    They frustrated fifth-graders, too.

    The lids were not only tight under assault from my fingernails, they burped pudding onto my shirt as I finally broke each seal.

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    Go ahead, laugh.

    June 14, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Trouble maker or innocent bystander?

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    $24 for the two here.

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    You can decide while you wait for them to arrive.

    June 14, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Musée de la Magie (Museum of Magic)

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    It's in Paris, France, and Gayle Keck, in Sunday's Washington Post, wrote that it is a most fascinating little museum.

    The website is in French only, but the actual museum requires no knowledge of French whatsover.

    There are around 15 interactive "curiosities" in the subterranean museum, reached via a stairway down from street level.

    The museum itself is housed in ancient vaulted chambers built of stone.

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    It also contains old stage tricks, wooden props from centuries past, old magic show posters and much in the way of incunabula.

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    June 14, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Kittypod

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    Los Angeles product designer Elizabeth Paige Smith noticed that her cat loved to scratch the industrial strength corrugated cardboard she was using for one of her commissions a few years ago.

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    So she invented the Kittypod, a scratching post/cat bed made of the material.

    There are now a variety of models available, ranging from the original (top) to more streamlined, architectural versions (above and below).

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    Meeow.

    [via Frances Anderton and the New York Times]

    June 14, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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