Oolong tea from Taiwan infused milk chocolate from Belgium. Dark chocolate from Venezuela drank up black tea from Ceylon. And Napa Valley red wine seeped into organic chocolate from Hawaii. Such exotic flavor and terroir matchups were among the many found at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City in June. What inspired these new combinations? Large amounts of flavonols, the antioxidant-powered chemicals that occur naturally in wine, tea and chocolate. Industry watchers predict that health benefits, flavor infusions and global influences will drive a “chocolate explosion” through 2014. A record number of new chocolate products launched at this trade show reflects an overall increase of 76% since 2006. This means more tasty twists than ever can be found at your gourmet chocolate counter.
“When we launched ‘Box of Bubbly’ last year, we were surprised by its instant success,” says Ed Engoron, owner and head chocolatier of Choclatique, an online boutique in Los Angeles, about his line of champagne truffles ($20 for a box of eight.) “We had to work for the balance that allows you to experience a hint of effervescence.” Choclatique’s new “Napa Valley Collection” features fruity reds and bittersweet darks. The chocolate, sourced from beans around the world and refined in its Los Angeles studio, encases a chocolate ganache infused with red wines carefully chosen from the grape-growing region of California’s Napa Valley. “We wanted to introduce something special for the crush season of our favorite wines,” says Joan Vieweger, Choclatique’s co-owner and marketing specialist.
“Wine Lover’s Chocolate Collection,” from Bridge Brands in San Francisco, is a selection of dark chocolates to pair with wine, “a way for people to experience the subtleties of wine and chocolate together without a lot of guesswork,” says the company’s website. In the heart of Napa Valley, Anette’s Chocolate Factory offers Winter Cabernet Truffle Bar and Merlot Fudge Sauce among its many wine-inspired confections.
Studies from medical institutions (Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins among them) confirm that wine, tea and chocolate contribute to heart health, and sales for each have shot up. Good news drives sales, sales drives marketing, and marketing supports new products. Chocolate generates an estimated $80 billion per year for international companies such as Cadbury, Cargill, Nestlé, Hershey’s and Mars, with dark chocolate sales increasing 49% between 2003 and 2006.
Tea, a complex, storied and antioxidant-laden alkaloid, figures in more chocolate bars than ever before. Chicago-based Vosges Haut Chocolat, long a leader in the flavored chocolates trend, now offers an Earl Grey tea and sweet dark chocolate bar. Theo from Portland, Ore., has a chai tea dark chocolate bar. In a further twist, tea makers and vintners are putting chocolate into their drinks, no easy feat given chocolate’s high fat content (about 50%) and the inherent difficulty in emulsifying with liquids.
All this brewing and crazy chemistry result in products ranging from the sublime to the silly. One chocolate drop I tasted gave me such a mouthful of raw green tea powder that I had to delicately remove it and desperately splash down the residue at a nearby passion fruit juice stand. (My palate thanks you, Ceres Fruit Juices!) One confectioner described a product as “cabernet-flavored pectin jelly drenched in chocolate,” which hints at neither deliciousness nor healthfulness, and tasted like a grape gummy bear dipped in reluctant chocolate.
But even in this melee of fusion and confusion, quality products emerge. Harney & Sons, purveyors of fine tea in upstate New York, created a chocolate mint tea that hits the best notes of both. The Tea Room, another chocolate specialist from California’s Napa Valley, won a silver Sofi Award, the Fancy Food Show’s award for excellence, for its “Green Earl Grey Dark Chocolate” bar.
Despite the grim economy, the Fancy Food Show drew a record crowd of more than 24,000 buyers and specialty food industry professionals from around the world. “Chocolate is a robust category,” says Louise Kramer of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which produces the Fancy Food Show. While not recession-proof, gourmet chocolate is considered an affordable luxury, and many companies continue to post gains. Attendance at the show was up 4 percent from last year and higher than at any Fancy Food Show in the past decade.