Askanya Haitian Chocolate Review

Askanya three chocolate bars

Askanya single-origin bars from Haiti – (L to R) Paradis Milk Chocolate, Minuit Dark Chocolate and Wanga Neges Milk Chocolate

I know some of you have done it too – chosen an obscure and completely unfamiliar bottle of wine only for its label.  This happens to me sometimes, as if some subconscious emotional response is triggered – “if they are clever enough to dazzle me with their art, they may be smart enough to make good wine.”  And so it was when Les Chocolateries Askayna sent me some samples of their milk and dark chocolate bars.  I get a decent number of chocolate samples sent to me throughout the year and while I eventually taste them all, I don’t have the time to do a proper thoughtful tasting and review of everything.

But the label art on Askanya’s bars moved me with its striking, intricate patterns which are apparently inspired by the local flora and fauna of Haiti.  Besides, this is Haiti’s only premium bean-to-bar chocolate.  How cool is that?  It’s a good thing that the wrapper opens from the back since I aggressively tore it apart, preserved the artwork and began my tasting.

Askanya Minuit Dark Chocolate Review

Askanya Minuit CorrWHAT: Askanya Chocolates Minuit 60% Cacao. 55 g. Ingredients: Haitian Cacao, Sugar, Vanilla Bean.

Where to buy Askanya Minuit Dark Chocolate.

WHEN: January 3, 2016  OVERALL RATING: 85.

AROMA:  Prune, raisin, fig, melon, ham.  A bit meek and delicate. Its aroma reminds me of Costa Rican chocolate with its warm tropical softness.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Wine and the first hints of licorice.  It takes time for the flavor to develop on your tongue.

MIDDLE TASTE: Red fruit runs all the way to the finish floating on a wave of pleasing sugar.  Strawberry notes turn into blueberry turn into apple.

FINISH: Creamy. Pudding, marshmallow.   I normally choose chocolate with a higher cacao content, so the sweetness left me looking for something to drink.  Fortunately I do my tastings with copious amounts of sparkling water on hand and sometimes green tea. Still, This is a happy way to end a good ride – nothing bitter.

TEXTURE: Yields to the bite slightly rather than being completely snappy.  No fatal flaws.  There’s a pudding texture at the end the heightens the pudding taste in the finish.

The bright fruitiness is the star of this show for the Minuit bar. I don’t know which bean variety they are using, possibly a mix, but the flavor is characteristic of high quality Trinitario with somewhat less biting acidity.  Even better, the chocolate expresses several other completely different notes such as licorice and pudding.  In other words, some balance and complexity.

Askanya Wanga Nègès Milk Chocolate Review

Askanya Wanga Neges Close CropWHAT: Askanya Wanga Nègès Milk Chocolate 50% Cacao. 55 g. Ingredients: Haitian Cacao, Rapadou (Artisan Cane Sugar), Milk, Cacao Butter.

Where to buy Askanya Wanga Nègès Milk Chocolate.

WHEN: January 3, 2016    OVERALL RATING: 85.

AROMA:  Floral notes, butter, pistachio, molasses, lavender, yogurt, apricot.  More forward in the nose than Minuit.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Rum, tequila, anise. Slightly tart.

MIDDLE TASTE: Tea, tartness, and tons of licorice.

FINISH: Nuts, dairy, cashew, walnuts, banana, all ending in licorice.

TEXTURE: Smooth and creamy.

I don’t normally eat milk chocolate, so it’s always a bit of a challenge for me to review it.  The Wanga Nègès bar was much easier. With its high cacao content, it almost had me fooled as a dark chocolate bar.  The milk acts more as a flavoring than a base for the chocolate so that the cacao itself is still the main event.  The licorice notes, although absent at the start, were dominant once they got going.  The bar had a very interesting flavor profile and an impressive amount of complexity for a milk chocolate bar – definitely worth trying.

Last Bite:  Like Art for Chocolate

Askanya is buying their beans from an organization of nine cooperatives called Federation des Coopératives Cacaoyères du Nord drawing on cacao farms from the north of Haiti. Each of the nine cooperatives does their own drying and fermentation which may explain the somewhat complex range of flavors found in the chocolate. I like that they are making the chocolate in country, visit the farms where the cacao is grown and establish “local” relationships.

Askanya Paradis Close Crop

Among the most beautiful package art in the chocolate world, Askanya Paradis (not reviewed this time)

Equally exciting is the artwork by Artist Marlie Decopain.  I would put this package art among the best in the chocolate world.  It’s fresh, vibrant and stands apart from some of the other work that has caught my eye in the bean to bar field such as the hipster wallpaper motif of Mast Brothers and Raaka Chocolate.  And, while I’m certainly impressed by the prolific Andreas H. Gratze with his complicated, playful and occasionally seductive characters adorning pretty much all Zotter’s bars, Ms. Decopain’s art seems somehow more relevant to the cacao origin and more moving.  This is not an art contest and I’m no judge, but Askanya’s art rises to the top for me.

How is visual art relevant to chocolate? When you experience chocolate, you should use all of your senses – the art is part of the visual experience of enjoying premium chocolate.  Besides, people give chocolate as gifts and the face of the unopened bar makes the first impression.  Sure, most important is how the chocolate tastes and these bars delighted.

The Chocolate Forest Experience in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica – A Tour with a View

Pod on tree puerto viejo crp

…It never ceases to amaze me when I find a cacao pod growing straight out of the trunk of a tree

A few years back, I went searching for chocolate in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and found some enjoyable and informative tours that explored chocolate making, history and ecology.  Of course, they all had some form of chocolate sampling too.  Upon my most recent return to Costa Rica, I found that a small cafe and chocolate shop, Caribeans, had moved out of the center of Puerto Viejo and closer to Playa Cocles where they started running tours through their “chocolate forest” and factory.  I’ll do a review of Caribeans chocolate later, but for now, here’s what I found on a walk among the cacao trees above Puerto Viejo.

We started off the main road across from the beach.  It was a sunny, dry day that was not so hot as to distract us with thoughts of splashing in the waves.  The first part of the tour was a slow walk alongside heirloom cacao trees hidden among the jungle vegetation.  Most of their trees are Trinatario, a fine variety that’s resistant to the “black rot” fungus that devastated the Caribbean cacao industry during the last century.  They continue to work on restoration of trees through grafting of disease-resistant varieties in a process that takes more than five years.

Carribeans tour pod

Our expert tour guide, Jeff, offers a sample from a freshly-cut Costa Rican cacao pod

Our guide explained the biology of the trees and cacao history of the area while stopping frequently to answer questions.  There was a relaxed, informal, we-have-all-day-to do-this feeling that permeates life in Puerto Viejo.  At one stop, we opened a cacao pod and ate the raw bean surrounded by its mildly sweet citrus-like pulp.  It was nothing like the chocolate that we were about to taste at the top of the hill, but still something that you need to experience if you want to understand where chocolate comes from.

I’ll avoid too many spoilers here and leave a the rest for you to discover.  Let’s just say you will learn more about how cacao is harvested and turned into chocolate both during your hike and when you visit the chocolate “lab” where the bars are produced.

A Chocolate Tasting with a View

View over sea crop

Pull up a stool, breath in the view, and taste some chocolate!

What made this tour stand out was the arresting view from high in the jungle looking out to the coastline.  What an exceptional setting to taste single-origin Costa-Rican chocolate!  Our group sat comfortably in the shade on a deck perched above the trees.  The tasting begins with several single-origin and single-estate dark chocolates.  Everyone gets a healthy-sized slab to nibble, ponder and discuss.  Caribean’s is ethically sourcing cacao from around the area and many of their bars bear the names of the cacao farmers that produced the beans.

Carribeans chocolate tasting

Pairing chocolate with foods and seasonings

The tasting also includes a shot of drinking chocolate and an exploration of flavor pairings. We stepped up to an array of herbs, spices and seasonings and combined them with tiny squares of chocolate in a fascinating exploration of flavor synergy.   This was good fun and evoked more conversation among the group.  Chocolate plus sea salt?  Done that.  Chocolate plus coriander and chili pepper?  That’s interesting.  You can take it in a familiar or strange direction, but either way, it’s a sweet exploration.

 

Is the tour suitable for kids?

IMG_3460

Poison dart frogs greeted us on the path to chocolate

I brought my almost 7 year-old chocolate connoisseur on the tour which lasts about 2-3 hours. It was a bit long for him, but he was a real good sport and was motivated by anticipation of the chocolate tasting at the end despite the somewhat sophisticated slant.   He’s no stranger to single-origin dark chocolate so the rewards at the tasting were well received indeed.

Also, the jungle life found along the trail aided his excitement including red poison dart frogs and a tree with giant thorns menacingly protruding straight out of its trunk.  The hiking is not at all strenuos with many stops along a wide path winding up the hill.  Still, good shoes are recommended – not flip-flops.

You know your kids best, so you can judge.  I would say in general, 10 and up would be a more appropriate age, but if your kids are really into chocolate – dark chocolate – then younger kids may find it enjoyable.

IMG_3483

Kai spots cacao beans drying in the sun

The Best Chocolate Tour in Puerto Viejo?

Each of the five or so chocolate tours in the area has its own merits for sure.  The Chocolate Forest Experience rises to the the top of the list of those I’ve tried so far due to the quality of the chocolate, the picturesque, relaxed setting for the tasting and the convenient location.  Most people staying in the area could easily ride their bike there if not walk.  It also doesn’t hurt that all the people in the operation are super nice.  Other tours offer a make-your-own chocolate experience and yet another is given by local people, adding a sense of authenticity and direct connection with the culture.  If you have limited time, I would place the Chocolate Forest Experience high on your list.

With a slowly evolving chocolate tourism industry in greater Puerto Viejo, the area may just be shaping up to be a sort of Napa Valley of chocolate.  This is, in fact, the vision of Caribean’s owner, Paul Johnson, something I hope to write about soon.  Until then, The Chocolate Forest Experience tour runs five days a week: Mon., Tue., Thu., Fri., Sat.  For more information, visit their website.

Note: I paid for this tour myself and was given no consideration, monetary or otherwise for the review.