Whiskey and chocolate: the next big food pairing?

whiskey chocolateWhiskey and chocolate are two of my favorite things — but together? I was suspicious. That is, until I attended a pairing event at Union Square Wines here in New York City, hosted by Pacari Chocolate and Compass Box Whisky. Somehow, the flavors came together perfectly, and not just because of my whiskey buzz and sugar high (though those were there too).

The tasting consisted of five pairings, some traditional and others more off-beat. The one that blew me away was a pairing of the award-winning Hedonism, a vanilla and toffee-flavored Scotch grain whisky blend, with Pacari’s Amazonian Lemongrass chocolate. When the high citrus notes of the chocolate hit the sweetness of the whiskey a whole other flavor emerged, which lingered nicely in my mouth for quite some time.

Another popular pairing was Compass Box’s Orangerie, a Scotch whisky infused with hand-zested orange, cassia bark and clove, with Pacari’s Aji Chili-Coriander Spiced Chocolate. The sweet and the spicy came together just right and the coriander added an extra kick.One reason the pairing event worked so well is that both Pacari and Compass Box are artisan brands. Pacari is the first single-origin organic chocolate produced entirely in Ecuador with biodynamically-grown ingredients. Compass Box is a boutique Scotch whiskymaker and craft blender, known for blending specially-selected whiskeys from Scotland using natural processes, without chill filtering or artificial coloring. Because both the whiskey and chocolate are produced naturally and in small batches, they are able to retain many of the lipids that get lost in large-scale manufacturing — a big contributor to the flavor explosions I experienced from many of the pairings.

Drooling over your keyboard yet? New York-area foodies hankering for a taste can attend a pairing event on March 27 at the St Giles Hotel New York — The Court. Tickets are $35 and available here.

Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam

Dutch cheese
I’m addicted to it. Every time I’m in Amsterdam the first thing I do is get some to satisfy my craving. I couldn’t think of a trip to Amsterdam without it. Yeah, you know what I mean.

Eating Dutch cheese!

I’ve always wondered why some countries get famous for certain foods. Why is Belgian chocolate so great? Why do the Dutch make such fine cheese? Why aren’t the Dutch the chocolate experts and the Belgians famous for cheese?

While in Amsterdam I went to a Dutch cheese tasting at the Reypenaer Cheese Tasting Rooms, the shop and showroom of one of the nation’s leading cheese manufacturers. They hold hour-long cheese tasting classes most days, where you get to taste a variety of cheeses and learn about the process of making them.

This class will teach you all you need to know to be a bore at cocktail parties. For example, most of us know that aged cheese is more flavorful, but why is that? As cheese ages it loses moisture, and moisture dilutes taste. As cheese ages, calcium and salt will form crunchy little white crystals called cheese crystals. This is a sign of maturity in a cheese. Very large crystals are a sign of well-aged cheese.

Some cheese has holes in it. This is caused by gas produced by bacteria. One would think that flatulent germs would be a bad thing, but as anyone who has eaten holey cheese knows, it has a sweet flavor that’s quite pleasant.

Local conditions affect the flavor, and this is one of the reasons The Netherlands is one of the leaders in the cheese industry. Warmth and humidity makes cheese mature more quickly. The Dutch region of Beemster is considered one of the best regions for cheese because its between to stretches of water.

The grass the cows, sheep, or goats eat is also a factor. For example, some cheese is only made with milk produced from animals eating grass in springtime because this is the richest and most lush grass of the year. Weather conditions affect dairy farmers almost as much as they do crop farmers. The rainy dutch weather ensures rich grass most years. England and Ireland have lots of rainfall too, and so it’s no surprise they have some excellent cheeses.

When tasting cheese, slice it thin as that allows for more oxygen. Drink some water between each sample to cleanse your palate. It’s best to sample both with and without wine. During the tastings we tried different wines and ports with different cheeses. I found that the flavor of all but the most mature cheeses was drowned out by the strong flavor of port. Lighter wines allow for the flavor of the cheese to come through, and the right combination of wine and cheese improves the taste of both.

The cheese tasting class was a great way to spend a rainy Dutch afternoon, and of course everyone ended up buying something in the shop! So if you’re at a loss for something to do while waiting for Amsterdam’s nightlife to kick in, stop by and learn something about Dutch cheese.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Down-home cooking in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Belgian chocolate: so good you can snort it

Belgian chocolate
Back in grade school, my friends and I used to eat Smarties, those little sugar tablets that were so popular back then. Some of us, wanting to show off, used to pound them up and snort them. There was no better sugar rush. We used to call them “Snorties”.

Well, we should have copyrighted it, because now in Belgium they’re snorting chocolate. Not just any chocolate, but gourmet Belgian chocolate. I discovered this at the appropriately named The Chocolate Line in Antwerp. The “applicator” is a plastic catapult that launches little piles of powdered chocolate into both your nostrils. To see a closeup of the nostril catapult, check out the gallery. There are lots of photos of more traditional chocolate and chocolate making too.

So how does it compare to Snorties Smarties? Not nearly as granular, easier on the nostrils, and a better aftertaste, although I didn’t taste the raspberry flavor that was supposed to be mixed with the chocolate. Good for clearing the sinuses too.

Belgium is justly famous for its chocolate. It has some of the best chocolatiers in the world and many of them live in Antwerp. The Chocolate Line is one of the most famous. It’s located at the elegant Paleis op de Meir, a palace that’s now converted into a museum, cafe, and chocolatier workshop. Here you can see elegant chocolate creations being made.

Chocolatiers dot the city. I also visited Günther Watté, which doubles as a cafe. After sipping a delicately flavored cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain with the traditional piece of chocolate on the side, I explored their wide selection for something to bring home. For other recommendations, see the well-researched Amsterdam Tourist Guide’s Belgian chocolate page.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Antwerp: Belgium’s historic and modern port!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Belgian chocolate

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Photo of the Day (7.11.10)

Does all this sweltering Summer weather have you feeling sweaty this week? Why not cool off for a second with today’s refreshing Gelato photo, courtesy of Flickr user Leslie at The L-List. Taking photos of your food while you travel can be a fun way to remember a particularly great meal or a special ingredient you just don’t want to forget. In the case of today’s photo, there’s also plenty of interesting visual elements that catch the viewer’s eye. The Macro technique does a great job of making you feel like the viewer is about to take a big old bite. I can almost taste that Gelato now…

Have any great food photos from your own travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of your delectable shots as our Photo of the Day. Food-loving photographers should also check out Gadling’s Food Photography Contest ending tomorrow. We’re giving away over $400 in photo gear.

Conflict bubbles over Swiss “Champagne”

The French are a particularly jealous bunch when it comes to the sparkling wine better known as Champagne. As Anna pointed out in this earlier post, European trade laws mandate that only sparkling wine from the French region of the same name can truthfully be labeled as “Champagne.” The French government has taken numerous steps to preserve their ownership of this name, going so far as to restrict the number of French vineyards that can operate within the Champagne region and filing numerous lawsuits against other wines that try to use it.

But lately, French efforts to restrict the Champagne brand name seem to be getting out of hand. As this article reports, the small Swiss town of Champagne, first named in the year 885, is fighting the French government to continue using the city’s name on its local wine. Apparently the city used to sell as many as 110,000 bottles of local wine using the town’s name, a quantity that fell to only 32,000 bottles last year when the Champagne name was removed from the label. That’s quite a difference.

While the whole naming controversy does seem a bit silly, I can understand the rationale. The French have cultivated a world famous brand and have profited handsomely from its popularity. The same is true of any other famous foodstuff, be it vodka from Russia, steaks from Argentina or oranges from Florida. But just how much of the popularity of a famous food brand is hype and how much is substance? Some will argue that nothing beats the “real thing,” but ultimately I think it’s a question that can only be answered by our stomachs. Some might scoff, but maybe a Swiss Champagne is equally as good as a French one? France, it’s time to grab a glass of bubbly and chill out.