Wednesday, 18 March 2009

On the Santa Fe Chocolate Trail

"Does Lent count when you're abroad?”
The sight and smell of chocolate was unbearable. Why hadn't I given up something else this year? The woman behind the counter held out a free sample of the house 'elixirs'; it would be rude not to accept. Ignoring my guilt and promising myself that I'd make a fresh start tomorrow, I reached for the Zapoteca.
There are three major reasons why people come to Santa Fe; history, art and food. I'd come for all three but there was no denying that the latter was of overriding importance. For a relatively small city, the standard of cuisine is very high. There are a huge number of good restaurants let alone the numerous gourmet shops and cafes dotted about the town. I was currently stood in one of the latter, the Kakawa Chocolate House, which dedicates itself to the art of chocolate.
The owner, Mark Sciscenti*, as well as being a being a pastry chef and certified herbalist (which sounds suspiciously like some novelty degree), calls himself a 'chocolate historian, alchemist and minstratio'. Not only does he offer chocolate tastings and truffle making workshops from 3 hours to an all day event (oh what joy), but he also lectures in the stuff.
The chocolate 'exilirs' are Mark's specialty, atole-style drinks made of 99% cocoa (or 73.5% for the 'European' samplings) blended with various spices, herbs, plant extracts, nuts and chillies. Around 20 different flavours are on offer, providing an edible time line through chocolate history. Should I try the Mesoamerican Rose Almond or Atzec Warrior or go contemporary with either the Chocolate Chai or Modern Mexican? Finally, I make a decision and sounding like some wine buff, order the 1692 French. 'Highly scented, semisweet and exotic', it was really good, in fact so good that I splurged on the $16.95 (a ludicrous amount with today's exchange rate) and bought a bag of wafers to take home.
With my blood sugar levels rocketing, I get some fresh air by walking around the historic centre. Narrow streets lined with low adobe buildings fan away from a central plaza with an old bandstand and several trees. There is a laid back charm to the town, leftover from it's days as a Hispanic colony. In an 18th century plaza off one of the streets, I find Todos Santos, run by Hayward Simoneaux, one of the top artisan chocolatiers in the country. A small shop specialising in edible art, the milagros (small spiritual trinkets) are particularly popular, as are the moulded saints and miniature altar pieces, gilded with 23 carat gold. For the more secular, there are a range of intoxicating truffles and you can even order a mini Kama Sutra set (suitably priced at $69).
Armed with a box of after dinner saints (for purely redemptive purposes), I leave, a little relieved that the chocolate here is quite literally too good to eat as I am only half way through my chocolate pilgrimage. Hidden behind a mechanic's garage south of town, I eventually found the entrance to the Chocolate Maven Bakery. A cheerful cafe, albeit in a metal warehouse, customers can watch the bakers at work through a large interior window while sipping on the house Mayan Chile Hot Chocolate. In the run up to Easter, everything is covered in eggs and bunnies from the colourful cup cakes to the artisan biscuits. Holding back, I remind myself that my real reason for coming here is the brownies. Claiming to be 'home to the best brownie in the world', the Chocolate Maven sells twelve types, such as Chocolate Chile Piñon (or Pine Nut to you and me), Hazelnut Cheesecake and Orange Truffle. Keeping it simple, I go with the Belgian Fudge which was everything a brownie should be; soft and gooey and really, really chocolaty.
Tempted to try more, I hold back knowing that I still have one last stop. 'Regional flavours' (read chili) are the theme at The Chocolate Smith. Green chili, Ancho, Chipotle; they all feature in various guises and after a couple of samples, my mouth is on fire. I congratulate myself for leaving this to last, a strategic manoeuvre as I am not sure when my taste buds will calm down. Dark chocolate rules here, not the place for the fainthearted Cadbury's dairy milk lover. Particularly fun is the dark chocolate paté (similar to truffle filling), which comes encased in bars and novelty shapes made of wax, the kind they use for Dutch cheese. These are heat/travel proof and apparently popular with Americans who have family and friends in Iraq.
Laden with chocolate, I try not to think about how much I've indulged, let alone spent. At least that's everyone's Easter gift taken care of and I've only another week of Lent to endure. Reeking of the smell of warm chocolate, I feel today's lapse hanging over me. Now, where did I put those saints?

Kakawa Chocolate House 1050 E. Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Tel: 505-982-0388
*Please note that Mark is no longer affiliated to The Kakawa House
Todos Santos 125 E Palace Ave Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Tel: 505-982-3855
Chocolate Maven Bakery & Cafe 821 W San Mateo Rd, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505
Tel: 505-984-1980
The Chocolate Smith 851A Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87505
Tel: 505-473-2111

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