Valrhona: Serious about chocolate.

Yesterday, Valrhona Chocolate hosted a Single Origin Chocolate dessert tasting and demonstration at 350 Rhode Island Street– otherwise known as the new home of the California Culinary Academy. The joy I was experiencing in anticipation of having superior-quality chocolate waved in front of my face for the next few hours was only slightly dampened by enormous, cold space of the new school.

I knew I was in for some serious chocolate business here– the first person I met in the waiting area before the program began was Alice Medrich, the James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and arguably one of our country’s leaders in chocolate know-how. As we stood chatting about, well, anything but chocolate, other guests appeared with name tags designating their own, singular origins– pastry chefs of every candy stripe from around this city: Aqua, The Ritz-Carlton, Slanted Door, SPQR, La Folie, and a number of others. In terms of chocolate expertise, I was in way over my head, but I was there to learn, participate, and taste. Emphasis on taste.

The host of the afternoon’s program was Valrhona USA’s own pastry chef, Derek Poirier. Greg Mindel of Spruce, played Ed McMahon to Poirier’s Johnny Carson.

It is no small feat to entertain me for three and a half hours while sitting on a tiny, uncomfortable stool, but Poirier managed to pull it off. He began by explaining how –and how not– to make an emulsion. In this case, a chocolate ganache. The crowd was most attentive.

There was, however, dissension in the audience, with one man who happened to be an expert in molecular crystallization in firm, but polite disagreement. Yes, these people were serious about chocolate. I did my best to try to keep up, asking my neighbor, Cooking with Amy‘s Amy Sherman (who is, by the way, a rather smart woman) if she understood everything. As part of the tiny, non-chocolate expert contingency, she confessed she did not. I was happy not to be the only one on that tiny, chocolate short bus.

But the discussion was very informative. Many of the techniques discussed one can easily apply to home cooking. The emulsion discussion was a prime example. “What do you need for an emulsion?” Poirier asked the audience,”Fat and water plus a bit of agitation at fusion point (35º C).” I thought how easy he made it all sound. And then I thought about what might happen if a large number of plus-sized people happened to be lolling about in hot tropical waters during an earthquake. Unlikely, true, but the thought took away my focus for a moment.

As he demonstrated a perfect cream and chocolate fusion, Poirier exclaimed, “This is very sexy– kind of like Heidi Klum.” I suppose he was referring to the smooth, beautiful consistency of the mix, but I couldn’t help thinking of the cream-like Ms. Klum’s own, more personal blending with hot chocolate, her husband Seal. Now that’s a good emulsion.

Over the course of the program, we tasted a number of desserts, most of which were quite happy-making. My hands down favorite was the “Cityzz….”, which also happens to be among the least attractive photos I took all day. This blend of meringue, chocolate, and hazelnut strip was gorgeous on the tongue and by far the least complicated of the day’s fare. Wondering about the name, I asked Mr. Poirier if it was named by a non-Anglophone. He believed this was so, which can only explain the odd spelling and over-extended ellipsis. Whatever the case, it suggests a weariness of urban life, as can only be conveyed by a Rhône Valley-dwelling Frenchman.

Other, more complex dishes were created, tasted, and discussed, like the disturbingly named Strawberry Melba Transparence, the components of which (almond streusel, strawberry marshmallows, whipped praline, and strawberry coulis [made to demonstrate a use for Valrhona’s Absolu Cristal, a neutral-tasting mirror glaze]) were far more effective when tasted separately.

After several hours of dessert intake, the class experienced the telltale signs of sugar crash-and-burn: restlessness and fatigue. Poirier sensed our collective squirming and moved things along accordingly, setting us free to chat among ourselves and with him.

The mission– to connect professional Valrhona fans to each other and to the product– was accomplished and, I think, rather well.

Granted, this was a clear promotion of Valrhona’s products, but the attendees were, by and large, using this chocolate for one very simple reason– it’s possibly the best chocolate around. Fair trade, intellectual, small production, and, though not certified-organic, pesticide-free.

And it’s what many of the big boys and girls in Bay Area Pastry World are using and, therefore, what very well may be going into your stomach the next time you order dessert.

If you want to play with Valrhona Chocolate at home, you can find it for sale to the public, along with other fine chocolates, online at The Chocolate Source.

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One Response to Valrhona: Serious about chocolate.

  1. Amy says:

    What a fun day! Thanks for asking such good questions and sharing all the sweets. Who knew you had to have a degree in crystallization to make dessert?

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