Saturday, May 30, 2009

The End of an Era

The Hilton Village Parlor and Restaurant is no more. This was the go-to spot for ice cream growing up. Sure, it was clear over in Newport News and not my native Hampton. Sure, it wasn't homemade--they served Hershey's ice cream. Sure, they were always out of at least a handful of their advertised 50 flavors. But it was a wonderful place with a unique character that will be missed.

We'd go there after plays at Peninsula Community Theatre, both as cast and audience members. We'd go there after church sometimes, a group of us. We'd go there when, well, I just got a group together for the very purpose of getting ice cream.

My best friend James and I played an acoustic set there in summer of 2002. Besides all the toys and games littering the inside--chess boards, a pool table, Foosball and more--they sometimes had musicians inside. Since the owner recognized me from my frequent patronage, I asked if my band could do an acoustic set there (even though the music usually featured inside was more of "listener-friendly" than the punk stylings of Persona Non Grata). Of course we could! She let us set up outside amongst all the old toys and giant stuffed animals that decorated their part of the sidewalk. This type of activity along with the chaotic state of the Parlor's decor caused some friction between the business and some of the other, more reserved businesses in the otherwise high-end district. But that's what the Parlor was all about: fun.

That's not to say it was all giggles. Connie, the owner was generally friendly, but occasionally testy with customers. But in a down home way, not a "I don't know, I just work here" way. The owners were just a different crop of folks. (Her husband once ran for public office, though the signs advertising this indicated he was running as a write-in vote!) But, as with many small businesses, the owners were a constant presence and had pride in running their own business. I think it was only family that ever worked there, with maybe a few close friends thrown in, which means everyone was working there because there was some sort of investment. It wasn't just a summer job at DQ.

But now DQ is the only option, but there's no such thing as Blueberry Cheesecake soft-serve. Oh, and there's Lame Stone, which will happily overcharge you for low-quality, melty ice cream. Welcome to the death of small town America. We're not talking a one-horse town here, there are 1.8 million people in the metropolitan area. Is it too much to ask for more than a handful of local eateries on our side of the water? Do we really need another chain restaurant destroying the identity of our cities into one big suburban strip mall?

The loss of the Hilton Village Parlor and Restaurant is a sad one indeed. The business represents many things to me, not just a place to get one's ice cream fix. I don't think many of my readers are from Hampton Roads, but if you are, I invite you to share any memories of the Hilton Village Parlor & Restaurant in the comments.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Flavors: Ben & Jerry’s Class of 2009

It’s that time again: new flavors for the summer months! After last year, which didn’t have a dud in the bunch, I was excited for the next batch. In summary, it seems this years’ offerings are tasty, but somehow don’t seem new.

Pumpkin Cheesecake. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ben & Jerry’s understands that cheesecake ice creams must be subtle or they will overwhelm the consumer, preventing future purchase. While this flavor isn’t new, it is new to the grocery store. Hopefully it will spread pumpkin-love into a year-round craze, like it already is in Trinidad.

Chocolate Macadamia. I haven’t met an ice cream flavor with macadamia nuts I didn’t like. Sadly, I’ve also never met one that lasted long. (R.I.P. Aloha Macadamia and Haagen-Dazs’ Macadamia Brittle.) Vanilla and chocolate ice creams aren’t mixed together often, like they were in Ben & Jerry’s forgotten flavor Bovinity Divinity; mixing the two classics almost tastes like a new flavor, like a lighter chocolate. Following Ben & Jerry's long history of ice cream ethics, this “Flavor with a Mission” uses Fair Trade cocoa and vanilla.

Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road. Your humble (yet all-knowing) narrator reported this flavor premiere a year ago. It was only available in Vermont then; Ben & Jerry’s is now sharing the love. This unlikely combination of ingredients (chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cookie dough, white chocolate chunks and toffee/brittle-esque bits) is tasty, but isn’t revolutionary if you’ve had Everything But The… and Half-Baked.

Mission to Marzipan. The drippy marzipan swirl overpowers a few bites, but most are heavier with soft chunks of almond cookie. (The almond cookie pretty much tastes like the graham cracker chunks in last years Imagine Whirled Peace.) Since the flavor is in sweet cream ice cream and does not contain actual almonds, it doesn’t have much almond flavor. I am happy to say, though, that the follow-up burps are very almond-y.

What else is new? Triple Caramel Chunk is back in the grocery store freezer after being gone for a few years. This flavor is like a super premium version of Denali’s Caramel Caribou, the often-licensed younger sibling of Moose Tracks. Caramel ice cream with a caramel swirl and chocolate-covered caramel cups to boot! Welcome back!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Step 2 to Becoming a Chocolate Connoisseur

After learning Step 1, all about how chocolate is made, I wanted to understand even more about fine chocolate and the wide variety of products available. I knew just the place to go.

Chocolopolis is a wonderful little store located at the top of Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. They have a distinction among chocolate stores because of the products are organized by the region the cacao is sourced from. Having purchased a long list of chocolate items from the store, I can easily say that the products are of high quality. With so many exotic options from a variety of countries, the challenge is choosing. Lauren Adler, the owner of Chocolopolis, was so kind as to educate me about the different options. Here's what I learned:

There are seven sections in the store, three of which are devoted to specific countries. One of these sections focuses on products made with beans from Venezuela, which is often regarded as producing the finest cacao, being more subtle and balanced. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get beans there because political turmoil in the country has resulted in some fields being taken over for military bases. Cacao beans from Ecuador have varying boldness, but are bolder than those of Venezuela. There is an endangered bean there, arriba nacional, which is one of the most sought after, known for its floral and fruity flavors. Over in Madagascar, beans are characterized by the their acidic nature--due to the soil in which they they are grown--which produces a remarkably bold flavor. The result of combining the roasted acidic beans with sugar create what many describe as red fruit flavor, often cherry or raspberry, and sometimes having a hints of citrus and cinnamon. Naturally, Lauren reminds me, this all depends on the bean and chocolate maker.

Chocolopolis' also features a section dedicated to broader regions, which perhaps have less predictable in the beans they produce. In Southeast Asia, for example, some countries roast their beans in ovens, which produces a smoky flavor, which is sometimes subtle, sometimes earthy, and, with bad beans Lauren tells me, "It can taste like a bonfire! It's all a matter of bean quality, produced during fermentation and drying." (For more info on these steps of chocolate making, read about how chocolate is made.) The Ivory Coast produces 40% of the world's cacao! This is part of the bigger statistic that Africa, which of course includes Madagascar mentioned above, produces 68% of the world's cacao, over-two-thirds! "But often these are not the highest quality beans," Lauren points out. "Certain areas like this benefit from Fair Trade regulations." (Some companies like Theo Chocolate use only Fair-Trade certified beans.)

Of course, there are also chocolate products with cacao sourced from South and Central America, where all cacao plants originated before they were moved abroad during the slave trade. (Chocolate's central role in Mayan society  is fairly well-known. Used as currency (!) cacao beans were also crushed up and used by their ruler for drinking chocolate.) Theobroma cacao is the species of origin. Having the longest history with the plant, more than any other region in the world, naturally beans from South America vary widely. One example which may not come as a surprise is that Colombian cacao can often have a coffee flavor.

Being someone who values a deeper knowledge of the sweeter things in life, I needed to ask Lauren how I could become more knowledgeable about all things chocolate. "Tasting, of course, is the best way. You have to build up your palate." (Just the answer I wanted to hear!) She also recommended a few well-respected books:

Wanna win an Amazon gift card so you can start reading now? My friend's read-tastic blog, Melissa's Bookshelf, is hosting a contest anyone can enter. Just make sure you mention you heard about it here at Marisa's Ice Cream!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pistachio in My Moustachio

In Italy, I ate many pistachio desserts: an incredible pistachio cannoli in Milan, pistachio gelato in multiple cities and a tourist trap cookie in Venice. But the best (somehow surpassing the cannoli) was Cioccolato al Latte Bianco con Pistacchio, a white chocolate bar by the Tuscan chocolate maker Amedei.

I first heard about Amedei from Lauren, the owner of Seattle’s Chocolopolis, who told me that many chocolate aficionados consider Amedei to be the finest chocolate maker in the world. This reputation equates to expensive chocolate. (How expensive? Let’s just say two bars cost more than my train ticket from Florence to Cinque Terre.) While Amedei is a small company in Tuscany, their products can be found in fine chocolate stores in other parts of the world. Yes, the price will cause you to do the math and determine the cost of each individual square. But don’t be deterred! Buy it, then have a seat, eliminate distractions, unwrap the chocolate, inhale its scent, take a bite, let it sit on your tongue and experience the glory of fine chocolate. You will quickly learn that one of these chocolate bars can be (and should) amount to several servings due to its high impact flavor. Amedei is a must try for dark chocolate lovers.

Lucky for me, I had experienced the euphoria that is Amedei once before my trip to Italy. Because of this, I allowed myself to purchase one of their products that wasn’t their famed solid chocolate. Having never seen pistachio offered in any candy before, it was a quick and easy decision. So excited about the prospects of pistachios in chocolate, I completely overlooked the word “bianco” (“white”) on the package. In fact, you may have already dismissed this bar upon hearing the words “white chocolate,” a candy racism I, too, once subscribed to. (Some are not even convinced because white chocolate is only chocolate by name. By definition, it is cocoa butter extracted from the cocoa bean.) But listen, brothers and sisters! From first bite, I knew it was one of the best pieces of candy I had ever been witness to. The white chocolate used here provides the perfect creaminess to compliment the subtle pistachio flavor. The amount of sugar added to the white chocolate is just enough to equal the saltiness of the featured nut. And crafted with pistachio in mind, white chocolate is never the dominant flavor.

It’s not often a person can call a dessert life-changing or say that they have learned a valuable lesson by eating it. But Amedei’s Cioccolato al Latte Bianco con Pistacchio has done just that: This bar has helped me see the error in rejecting a chocolate based on its color. And to any naysayers pooh poohing my words, maybe it can do the same for you.

Next time: An expert explains chocolate!