Bacon, Sea Salt and Violets: Vosges Haut-Chocolat

Aside from being a prolific traveler, my Chicagoan friend John is a rather splendid gift giver. He’s made an annual habit of sending me a parcel bursting with delicious treats from the States, and I was lucky enough to have my doorbell ring with the delivery of this year’s instalment just a few weeks ago. Along with my yearly dose of Lucky Charms cereal and Ghirardelli’s chocolate Squares, this parcel offered sweets and chocolate from John’s recent travels through Hungary and a few select chocolate bars from a Chicago-based company I’d not heard of before: Vosges Haut-Chocolat.

The three Vosges chocolate ‘tablets’ John had picked immediately caught my attention, even amongst the landslide of Ghirardelli Squares pouring from the cardboard postage carton (John essentially uses Ghirardelli Squares instead of foam packing peanuts. Not that I’m complaining). Not only was the packaging sleek and beautiful, but the flavours sounded incredible: dark chocolates with exotic ingredients like black Hawaiian sea salt and hickory smoked bacon – and even one of the bars inspired by The Hunger Games!

I love trying sweets and desserts that centre around experimental and playful flavours, so I was super excited to try these Vosges chocolates. On the back of each bar told a little story on the various flavour inspirations, and of Vosges founder Katrina Markoff’s own inspiration in beginning the company with the notion of bringing to life her extensive world travels through chocolate. Now that’s one giant, incredible collision of two of my favourite things in the world! And, now I come to think about it, definitely a suitable name for any future autobiography: ‘Travel and Chocolate: The Terri Coad Story”.

Mo’s Dark Bar – 62% dark chocolate with hickory smoked uncured bacon and Alderwood smoked salt

bacon2Inspired by childhood breakfast plates laden with chocolate-chip pancakes, bacon and syrup – this chocolate bar really is something else. The bacon pieces were wonderfully crispy, and flavoursome in a way that wasn’t overpowering in its inherent, you know, bacon-ness. In fact, it seemed that it was actually the Alderwood smoked salt that really set this chocolate bar off. The ‘savoury’ sensation of the chocolate was incredible as that smoky flavour sat on the tongue for seconds after the dark chocolate dissolved. This bar also comes in 45% milk chocolate, so I’d be interested to taste the change with a much sweeter base!

Black Salt Caramel Bar – 70% dark chocolate with black Hawaiian sea salt and burnt sugar caramel

caramel2Mat and I polished this one off in record speed; it was definitely our favourite. I’m not sure I’ve tasted a caramel quite like it. A ‘burnt sugar caramel’, it was dark and deep and for me evoked the smells and tastes of home baking. The black Hawaiian sea salt (a blend of sea salt and volcanic charcoal) seemed to play more into intensifying that sensation, rather than standing out as a particularly distinguishable flavour on its own. Delightful!

 Effie – 62% dark chocolate with dried strawberries and candied violet flowers

effie2‘Effie’ is one of three of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire inspired chocolate bars released by Vosges. Along with Katniss (44% milk chocolate with apples, uncured hickory smoked bacon and Alderwood smoked sea salt)  and President Snow (72% dark chocolate with blood orange and tellicherry peppercorns caramel), this range conjures each character in most delicious form. I’ll admit that in tasting this I expected it to be similar to Lindt’s Excellence Strawberry Intense block, but I was quite surprised! Whilst Strawberry Intense is really very sweet, the candied violet flowers of Effie balance with the dried strawberries to create something much lighter. It’s fruity and floral and lovely.

I was quite obviously very impressed with my sampling of the Vosges chocolate bar range. The flavour combinations are sensational and the chocolate itself is high quality. There are plenty more flavours that sound amazing, like the Red Fire Bar (55% dark chocolate with Mexican ancho & chipotle chillies and Ceylon cinnamon) and even a Crispy Carrot Bar (45% milk chocolate with crunchy carrot confit and Valencia oranges)! If by your own travels, a friend or family member’s – or even if you have an in-country supplier like me, track down a Vosges boutique or stockist and get your hands on some of this stuff quick smart.

Soumah of Yarra Valley

Discovering the magic of the Yarra Valley was a big highlight of 2013. After an incredible all-day wine tour with Vinetrekker in February, Mat and I found ourselves drawn back time and time again. It’s easy to forget just how close it is – but from Parkville it’s often less than an hour’s drive before the sprawling green vineyards make the big city feel a world away. We recently took the opportunity to spend some time in the Yarra Valley over the New Year period to relax and see in 2014 with our good friends, Food and Wine.

A visit to the Soumah cellar door was recommended to us by Ozzie, one half of a delightful duo that helm Tuck Inn – a gorgeous bed and breakfast in Healesville of which I cannot speak highly enough. Ever eager to make their guests’ stay in Healesville an enjoyable one, Donia and Ozzie are a wealth of knowledge on the area and love to give recommendations and advice on how best to make use of any time in the Yarra Valley. Small and no-fuss, Soumah sounded like the perfect place to begin a lazy day amongst the vines.

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Soumah is located less than ten minutes’ drive from Healesville in the town area of Gruyere. We arrived just before midday and will freely admit to the excitement of finding the place to ourselves!

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The Soumah brand was launched in 2010, and takes on the cool climate of the Yarra Valley with a Northern Italian varietal twist. The winery’s pride at the moment seems to be the award-winning ‘Savarro’ – a white wine made from Savagnin grapes with an interesting story behind its name. As the lovely lady taking us through our wine tasting told, apparently Australian grape farmers and winemakers mistook the Savagnin Blanc grape as another variety, the Albarino, for years! Only recently has it come to light that most ‘Albarino’ vineyards are in fact Savagnin Blanc. The Savarro name gives a nod to both varieties. To be honest I’d not heard of or tasted either – but the 2012 Savarro we tried was a really pleasant change from some other Yarra Valley whites we’d tasted. We ended up buying a couple of bottles ($26 ea.) and some surprisingly delicious Chardonnay cleanskins ($15 ea.) as well.

The cellar door tasting consisted of a generous eight or nine wines, and is free of charge for groups under six. As the only visitors at the time, we were really able to take our time tasting each wine and listen to the story behind each. In the end we picked a glass each of the 2012 Pinot Noir ($10 ea.) and set up on the outdoor seating area with an Italian cheese board of Black Truffle Pecorino, Buffalo Parmigiano, quince jelly, fruit, nuts and lavosh ($18).

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The vineyard view from the outdoor seating area was beautiful, and can definitely still be enjoyed in cooler months from the rear indoor seating area (there’s even a wonderful wood fire for winter visitors!). It certainly depends on what you’re looking for when choosing which wineries to visit in the Yarra Valley, but the quiet, relaxing atmosphere of Soumah is something we really loved. If that sounds like your style – or the Domaine Chandons and Yering Stations of the ‘Valley have simply got you a bit worn out – I’d definitely recommend a trip.

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Soumah of Yarra Valley | 18 Hexham Road, Gruyere, VIC 3770
http://soumah.com.au/
Open | Mon – Fri : 11:00am – 4:00pm, Sat – Sun : 10:00am – 5:00pm

Soumah of Yarra Valley on Urbanspoon

Sweet Stories from South-East Asia

I was thinking about my various travels recently, with the idea of perhaps putting together a post along the lines of my ‘Top 10 Desserts from Around the World”. However, as I thought back to my South-East Asia adventure in late 2008 – a 29-day Intrepid tour looping Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia- I realised that most of my memorable dessert-ish moments from that trip don’t really fall onto a list like that. Some, I can barely remember the details to even begin a recommendation. Others are simply little travel happenings that rather made the dessert memorable. These are the ones I’ve written about here. They may not be truly reflective of a country’s traditional cuisine – but they are nevertheless the stories that have stuck with me!

(I apologise for the lack of any photos. Seems twenty-year-old Terri hadn’t quite developed the foresight to photograph such things!)

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An Ice-Cream Miracle | Vientiane, Laos

It was on this South-East Asian trip that I discovered what would come to be a recurring craving whilst traveling – simply a delicious, refreshing ice-cream. As things go, ice-cream was not particularly easy to come by in many places I visited on this trip. I tried as best I could, however, and this actually led to some fun little expeditions. The pinnacle of such ice-cream ventures was that of the Lao captial, Vientiane.

Some fellow travelers and I had spent the day exploring the city by bike, and the sweltering afternoon sun prompted a decision to search for a frozen treat. We trawled the surrounding streets, but the sun was getting hotter and the ice-cream situation was looking dire; there’s only so long you can drag around your friends in such a seemingly futile pursuit.

That’s when I heard it. A faint yet distinct tune rang through the quiet neighbourhood we were staying in. Slowly, it edged closer and closer, until the tinny music took form in the shape of a lone Lao man pedalling a bicycle with a big ol’ freezer tacked onto the front.

(This is when I first suspected I may have very mild superpowers in the ability to manifest my dessert destiny.)

In an otherwise completely deserted street, we dove into this man’s makeshift ice-cream cart like kids on Christmas morning. In being unable to read the local language, it was always a bit of a gamble choosing ice-cream flavours in South-East Asia – but I lucked upon a chocolate Paddle Pop type ice-cream filled with condensed milk. I’m not sure whether it was actually one of the greatest ice-creams I’ve tasted in my life (I’m a sucker for condensed milk!), or the whole magical-ice-cream-bicycle-man-appearing-out-of-nowhere-at-precisely-perfect-moment phenomenon merely amplified it to godly proportions – but I even today I crave that chocolatey, condensed milk wonder a lot.

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Sweet Milk | Vientiane, Laos

It would be the very night of the Ice-Cream Miracle that I would continue my apparent condensed milk crusade. My tour group visited a wonderful restaurant in Vientiane called Makphet, which trains and staffs street kids and at-risk youth in the kitchen and front of house. Run by Friends-International, the organisation also has restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia and I highly recommend supporting this cause if you find yourself in the area.

As we were prompted to order our beverages at Makphet that night, I was excited to find ‘Ice Coffee Lao with Sweet Milk’ beaming up at me from the menu. Yes, the wording was a little strange – though I naively put this down to a Lao-English translation thing. The weather was still sweltering and I could think of nothing better than a refreshing, cold iced coffee – something I hadn’t seen on a menu in Thailand or Laos so far on my trip. Now, a typical Australian iced coffee is a delightful concoction of milk and coffee, a scoop or two of vanilla ice-cream and a generous serving of whipped cream atop. What arrived at my table was something very, very different.

I was given a tall glass of cold, black coffee. Ice cubes bobbled and clinked at the top around a straw that stood totally upright in the centre of the glass. This apparent magic was in fact due to the inch of condensed milk that lined the bottom. As a strictly white-coffee drinker and yet a total floozy for all things condensed milk, I was torn between two worlds. And it wasn’t just any black coffee, either. It was strong black coffee. But in that Lao restaurant in that Lao heat, it was perfect. Icy cold, simultaneously super bitter and super sweet – it wasn’t the last time I had that style of iced coffee whilst on my South-East Asian trip! The style is actually more renowned as a Vietnamese beverage, which was quite convenient given it would be my next destination…

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World Heritage Listed Chocolate Mousse | Hoi An, Vietnam

One thing I hadn’t been expecting before visiting Vietnam (mainly because I was rather naive and did like, zero research before this trip) was the French influence. Colonised by France in the mid 1800s through to the 1950s, footprints of French culture remain in modern Vietnam by way of language, architecture and cuisine. I was, of course, delighted by the cuisine part – not least because of the French-style bakeries that proffered all the croissants and crepes a girl could ask for.

The Vietnamese patisserie that stole my heart, however, was that of The Cargo Club in Hoi An. Situated on the South Central Coast of Vietnam, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such has been conserved in all its old-world enchantment. My tour group stayed here for three days, and every single one of those days I visited The Cargo Club with a few similarly seduced travelers. The restaurant is a large, two-storey colonial building by the riverside and (lucky for me) has wholeheartedly embraced all things dessert – and in fact has become hugely renowned for it.

The one dessert that blew us all away was the chocolate mousse. I actually can’t even remember what it looked like (and this is why we take photos of our food, people!) – I just know it was one amazing little piece of chocolate paradise that had us coming back for more. Literally. Every day. The life of an obsessive dessert-lover can sometimes be a lonely one when journeying afar; fellow travelers aren’t always quite as keen to venture on a quest simply for something sweet. The Cargo Club was definitely not one of those cases. As much as I’m willing to seek out a treat myself, sitting down in Vietnam with a group of people sharing the mutual appreciation of a table-full of chocolate mousse and other sugary delights is a wonderful memory!

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