Category Archives: Cooking

Black Star Farms: PR Fitness, Pizza, and a Pig’s Life

Marathons, llamas and wood-fired pizzas? Count me in.

This past Saturday was the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, and several fellow PR Fitness runners took part. I did not, as I am running the upcoming Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon, but I was camping in the area, so after my own run (a measly 9 miles) I joined their post-race celebration at Black Star Farms near Suttons Bay.

I’d never heard of Black Star Farms, but I learned they are well-known for their winemaking, equestrian center, and bed-and-breakfast (an impressive-looking mansion that serves as the inn). They are also a fully operational farm, raising vegetables, fruits, and livestock, which visitors are encouraged to see. And they have a cafe with the aforementioned pizzas.

Not only do llamas provide wool, they are excellent guard animals and chase away predators like coyotes.

Not only do llamas provide wool, they are excellent guard animals and chase away predators like coyotes.

One of our runners knows Don, the managing partner, and he gave us a personal guided tour, filled with stories and a fascinating description of the farm and its operations. Here are a few highlights:

– They have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where people prepay for shares in the farm’s produce and receive regular deliveries of fresh, in-season vegetables and fruits as well as eggs and baked goods.

– The farm is environmentally verified for farmstead and cropping by MAEAP, which means they are following practices that support the environment and reduce pollution.

This experimental hothouse is inexpensive to set up and can grow crops ten months out of the year.

This experimental hothouse is inexpensive to set up and can grow crops ten months out of the year. (Click to enlarge)

– Don tries to encourage young people who want to be farmers by making land available to them and helping get their operations started.

In addition to being a good steward of the land, Don considers it his mission to educate people about farms. “Many people have never been to a farm,” he said, and when he asked the group how many of us came from a farm family, only one hand went up. He feels it’s important to “reconnect” people, particularly urban residents, to where their food comes from. As an example, he told us about Copper the pig.

"It's our responsibility as farmers to serve the animals - that they live healthy lives. And then they serve us."

“It’s our responsibility as farmers to serve the animals – to see they live happy lives. And then they serve us.”

Copper had been raised as a pet in a residential neighborhood. But he grew too big to keep, so his owner offered him to Black Star, and Don took him. The owner brought along Copper’s blanket and teddy bear and begged that the pig be kept in the house, or else he would be lonely. Don put him in a pen with the goats. Soon he’d dug himself a wallow and happily settled in, and was a popular attraction. The goats ate the blanket and teddy bear.

One morning that fall Don entered the dining room at the inn and said hello to a family just finishing their breakfast. He asked them what they planned to do that day. “We’re going to see Copper,” they told him. “We hear he’s really cute.”

Don pointed to the remnants of the sausage on their plates. “You’ve already met him,” he said.

The hind legs of these long-haired pigs are worth $1,000 each. Sorry, Wilbur.

The hind legs of these long-haired pigs are worth $1,000 each at market. Sorry, Wilbur.

The family was shocked, as I suppose most of us non-farmers would be, but pigs are something the farm raises, and farmers cannot afford to be sentimental about their crops. “It’s our responsibility as farmers to ensure the animals have a good life,” he said. “And then they are harvested, and they serve us.” Animals, as a farm resource, are harvested when the time comes, just as vegetables and fruits are.

Oh yes, and the pizzas are very tasty (click here for a photo of one). I had the basic Margherita (cheese, sauce, basil), but other items you can have include goat cheese, chicken, and prosciutto. Guess where that all comes from.

Next up – some fun facts about winemaking in Michigan.

The Amateur Chocoholic Reviews: Madecasse 80% Chocolate Bar

Madecasse 80 percent - front wrapper“AT MADECASSE we pay farmers a fair price for their cocoa. Then we do something unheard of. We make our chocolate in Madagascar. This creates 4 TIMES the impact of fair trade cocoa.”

Where I got it: Whole Foods, Ann Arbor MI
Price: $4.99 for 2.64 oz. (75g)
Cocoa percentage: 80%
Website:  http://www.madecasse.com
Reviewed by: T.A.C. (Jeff)  and Rachel (D.o.T.A.C.)

While signing over my paycheck at Whole Foods in exchange for lunch, I caught sight of this bar at the checkout counter. I am usually immune to the siren call of such things, but dark chocolate is the exception. And hey, how can I resist helping cocoa farmers four times more?

Story (from the website):

The founders of Madecasse were Peace Corps volunteers in Madagascar, who “fell in love with the country and people and wanted to do more,” and settled on making chocolate, with an extra twist. Africa grows the majority of the world’s cocoa, but very little (the site says less than one percent) is made into chocolate there, so they decided to go “bean-to-bar in Madagascar,” as the wrapper says.

“Our products represent that personal connection to the island,” the site says, “a deeper understanding of the rich and complex flavors hidden inside the varieties of cocoa, vanilla and peppercorns found exclusively in Madagascar. The result is unique, satisfying products unlike anything you’ve tasted before.” (The chocolate bar does not contain any actual vanilla or peppercorns, so I’m assuming the flavor notes are picked up from the soil.)

MORE: How Chocolate Gets Its Taste (from The Chocolate Life blog)

Appearance:

Madecasse 80 percent - back wrapperThe simple, rustic-looking wrapper with appealing green-on-cream easily caught my eye. An interesting feature of this wrapper is that it opens like an envelope, so you don’t need to tear it apart. The gold foil inside wrapper added a touch of elegance.

The chocolate has a subdued sheen, and a cocoa pod is stamped into each of the individual sections.

Texture:

A slow but even melt in the mouth that releases the intense flavor gradually (a good thing). Very smooth mouthfeel.

Flavor:

The wrapper claims “strong and complex” and the chocolate lives up to it. With an 80% cocoa content I expected, and got, an intense cocoa flavor. Sucking on a section allowed me to taste all the various flavors, while chewing one brought out the mild sweetness primarily. I am not sure which I prefer. I got a hint of vanilla as promised, but could not pick up any “peppercorny” flavors. I also got an intense fruitiness which ended in an almost sour aftertaste. I believe many people will enjoy this (and Rachel did), but I personally do not.

The Bottom Line

Jeff’s Rating:……..★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)
Rachel’s Rating:…★★★★☆ (4 out of 5 stars)

This is a very smooth and intensely flavored chocolate, as promised. If you prefer a “brighter” flavor profile, by all means give this bar a try. I give it three stars only due to personal taste preference, not to any flaws in the chocolate.

The maker’s approach to helping African farmers is laudable, and if that means a lot to you, that’s another reason to try this brand. The more support we can give to fair trade practices, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

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NOTE: The Amateur Chocoholic (a.k.a. “T.A.C.”) is my new moniker for such reviews. (This replaces the “Quickie Chocolate Reviews” postings.)

Did you like this review? How can it be made better? Would you like to see more? Let me know.

Quickie Chocolate Review: Peppano Stone-Ground Chocolate

“Stone ground, single source cacao beans handcrafted into world class chocolate. Made with care in Tecumseh, Michigan. We hope you enjoy!”

Peppalo - Wrapper

Where I got it: Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market
Price: $6.00 for 2 oz. (56g)
Cocoa percentage: approx. 75-80%
Website: http://peppalo.com
Reviewed by: Jeff (chocolate snob) and my Dungeons & Dragons gaming group (barbarians, but what can you do?)

My run this morning took me past the local Farmer’s Market, which is just starting to put out the spring flowers and, as usual, was loaded with the fare of local bakers – breads, cookies, pastries, and, as it turned out, stone-ground chocolate. A nice young lady named Rebecca at the Peppalo booth told me about their bars.

Story (from Rebecca):

Peppalo chocolate is made at the Boulevard Market in Tecumseh. They offer dark chocolate, sea salt, and smoked chocolate varieties. It’s just cacao beans, which they grind at the market, and sugar. Many chocolate makers, even higher-end ones, add small amounts of vanilla or extra cocoa butter to smooth out the texture and flavor. Not here.

MORE: The use of cheap vegetables oils by ‘Big Chocolate’

I bought one each of the dark chocolate and smoked chocolate bars, and coerced my weekly D&D gaming group into a taste test. It was hard to get them to put down the carrot sticks and whole-grain crackers, but I managed.

Appearance:

Peppalo - TextureThe wrappers are simple but distinctive, with vibrant colors (the sea salt bar is apple green) and a bold, clean font. The bulls-eye in the “O” is eye-catching. The bars are smaller than average – 2 oz. vs. a usual size of around 3 oz., which, I think, helped me decide to buy two types instead of one. And as the price per ounce is on par with the high-end bars at the nearby Zingerman’s, a smaller size probably has a better chance of getting bought at the outdoor market.

The chocolate does not have the polished sheen of other bars, and when snapped, the interior looks grainy. This is characteristic of grinding chocolate with stone, and expected. According to the Peppalo website, a bit of grittiness is left in “to enhance the natural flavor profiles of the cacao beans.”

MORE: How stone-ground chocolate is created.

Texture:

Mouthfeel is grainy. Don’t look for the velvety texture of a Pralus bar here. A couple of the D&D gang didn’t care for this texture. The smoked chocolate was a bit more smooth than the regular dark chocolate, although this could have just been due to differences between batches. It does not dissolve quickly on the tongue, but a little light chewing brings out the full flavor.

The gang takes a break from slaughter and pillage to taste-test the chocolate.

The gang takes a break from slaughter and pillage to taste-test stone-ground chocolate.

Flavor:

The regular dark chocolate has the intensity of a strong dark chocolate, but the sugar adds sweet tones that I tasted at the same time, but separately. I got more of a “burst” in flavor than with other bars, which I enjoyed very much.

The other bar had a pronounced wood-smoke aroma that we could smell without even opening the wrapper. The smoky flavor was milder than I expected but definitely subdued the sweetness, tasting at first more like smoked meat than chocolate. One of the D&D gang said it was very good with Coke. I tried both types with a cup of my favorite French roast coffee, which paired nicely with the dark chocolate bar but didn’t do much for the smoked variety.

The Bottom Line

Dark chocolate:
Jeff’s Rating:……..★★★★☆ (4 out of 5 stars)
D&D group Rating:…★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)

Smoked chocolate:
Jeff’s Rating:……..★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)
D&D group Rating:…★★☆☆☆ (2 out of 5 stars)

I enjoyed the regular dark chocolate, but I prefer a smoother texture for eating out of hand. I’d like to try it again as a drink, perhaps with some cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper. The smoked variety was interesting but didn’t do it for me.

As for the D&D gang, reviews were mixed. Stone-ground chocolate appears to be an acquired taste. Both bars were completely consumed, however.

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Did you like this review? How can it be made better? Would you like to see more? Let me know.

Quickie Chocolate Review: Chocolove Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate

Chcolove Almonds - WrapperWhere I got it: Plum Market, Ann Arbor MI

Price: $2.00 for 3.2 oz. (90g)

Cocoa percentage: 55%

Website: www.chocolove.com

Reviewed by: Jeff (chocolate snob) and Rachel (educated chocolate snob)

From last time’s high-end, single-plantation bar (Sao Tome 75%) we return to Earth with a more approachable and affordable choice.

“Tucked away in Boulder, Colorado sits an unassuming building,” says the Chocolove website, “where a little magic takes place… Every day, decadent chocolate bars are carefully crafted using the timeless combination of chocolate and love.”

This bar has a more general appeal to those who don’t care for a strong dark chocolate flavor. With a cocoa content of 55%, it’s more in the range of semisweet than dark.

Jeff’s Rating:……..★★★★☆ (4 out of 5 stars)
Rachel’s Rating:★★★★☆ (4 out of 5 stars)
.

Story: (from the wrapper)

“At first bite, crunchy almonds release their flavor in a swirl with chocolate. The sea salt crystals continually reset your sweet taste buds and make a tantalizing taste combination that keeps you wanting more.”

Chcolove Almonds - Contents

Appearance:

The wrapper has a pleasing color, but it seems a bit too busy, especially in contrast with the elegantly understated Pralus Sao Tome bar from our previous review. To me, it’s trying a little too hard to get my attention, with the gold seal, stamps, and various illustrations. However, when all the Chocolove offerings are grouped in the display (middle two rows below), they really stand out. So what do I know?

Full Chocolove Display - Plum Market

Click the image if you want to read the labels on the other bars.

Texture:

The bar snaps cleanly into its squares. There’s a feeling of fullness in the mouth, in a good way. It isn’t delicate, dissolve-on-the-tongue chocolate; this is full-bodied stuff, although I’d prefer a slightly higher cocoa content. The almonds are large enough to provide a satisfying crunch and add chewiness, again in a good way.

Flavor:

This bar is proof that dark chocolate and almonds were pretty much made for each other. The flavors are balanced and complement each other well. The other key here is just the right amount of salt to enliven both the almonds and chocolate without making me reach for the water bottle.

The Bottom Line

Jeff: If you’ve read or heard about Michael Moss’s new book Salt Sugar Fat, here’s the textbook example. This bar uses all three to create something that’s really hard to stop eating. That with the bargain price makes it an incredible value. Good thing I’m cranking up my weekly running mileage.

Rachel: What he said.

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Did you like this review? How can it be made better? Would you like to see more? Let me know.