Days of Wine and Chocolate
2506 University Ave. W., St. Paul
Is chocolate on the verge of revolution, poised to rise up and seize its rightful place alongside wine and cigars as a scrutinized, collected, ruminated upon, and utterly consumable sort of art product? Mary Leonard sure thinks so. In fact, she's so sure of it she's staked her whole future on the idea, casting aside a longtime career in information technology to start Chocolat Céleste, an artisanal truffle operation that opened its doors last February on University Avenue in St. Paul, just off Highway 280.
"Chocolate should be enjoyed like a fine wine, appreciated for all its flavor notes and nuances," said Leonard when I went to visit her small retail shop and kitchen. To spread the good word about the fine nuances of chocolate, Leonard also uses her space to host chocolate tastings for privately scheduled groups, and even chocolate and wine tastings.
Chocolate and wine tastings? You don't find that in the industrial Midway every day. In fact, I feel like that's something I've read about in Cosmo valentine packages more often than I have in the general foodie press. After thinking about it for ten seconds, I had to imagine it's a pairing that lives much more vividly in the imagination than it does in real life: By the time most of us puritanical Americans get to the chocolate part of the meal we're ready to move from wine to coffee. And no matter how much we are all exhorted to buy dessert wine, I can't say that I've noticed too many of us doing so.
However, that was at ten seconds. Unfortunately, as I am constantly vulnerable to suggestions that I am either letting people down (the vast readership who wish you were having wine with your chocolate?) or missing out on some highly pleasurable activity (didn't a lot of movie stars spend a lot of time on silver screens in the 1930s lounging around on satin featherbeds having chocolates and Champagne?), after 20 seconds I suddenly found my arms full of chocolate truffles, my car trunk full of dessert wine, and my friends looking at me across a 96-degree, Minnesota-rice-cooker of an afternoon, politely looking at me as if to say, "Are you insane? Now we're going to drink port?"
You know, there are a lot of reasons why the song doesn't run: "Under the boardwalk/We'll be having some port." Lots of good reasons. And not just because there's no good place in a bikini to carry a brandy snifter. No. After tasting a number of things that are supposed to go well with chocolate truffles--port, zinfandel, zinfandel port--I can report that what really goes well with chocolate truffles, or at least Chocolat Céleste's very, very buttery and very, very creamy truffles, is not port. No, the best things are very sweet wines, with no tannins to speak of to interfere with, or be trumped by, the natural tannins in the chocolate.
The best things I found were two sweeties from opposite ends of the globe: Italian wine powerhouse Banfi's Brachetto d'Acqui, a fizzy, sweet, light red wine that looks like bright pink soda pop in the glass and smells like all the world's strawberries and all the world's happiness, made pink; and Santa Cruz vineyard Bonny Doon's Framboise, an infusion of three kinds of raspberries in an unoaked brandy base. The Framboise is about three times more raspberry than a raspberry could ever dream of being. It's the pure purplish essence of slightly fermented raspberries in a glass, about as focused and concentrated as perfume is--with all the good and all the bad that that implies. I've had the stuff after a meal and found it to be too sweet, too hot with alcohol, too concentrated, too much of everything. But with an intense chocolate truffle such as Chocolat Céleste's Orange Blossom, a bittersweet ganache flavored with orange, the potent raspberry flavor manages to envelop, layer upon, change, and elongate the finish of the chocolate in a nuanced and intriguing way. That's a neat trick!
The Banfi Brachetto d'Acqui, meanwhile, is sweet and clean and makes the whole world seem pretty, pretty, pretty. Chase even an intensely buttery, white chocolate-filled truffle with it and it manages to have just enough acid to cut the butterfat, isolating and showcasing the rich flavors of the chocolate while following up prettily on its own, like a perfect necklace decorating a slender throat. Another neat trick!
After about a dozen truffles and a dozen nifty observations of all the remarkable things the Framboise or the Brachetto d'Acqui could do to chocolate--the Framboise added character to the plain bittersweet ganache Celestial Sweetie, the Brachetto accentuated the tropical, floral notes of the Coconut Crème--I got to thinking life in a rice-cooker was just fine. It was then that I realized that Mary Leonard was onto something. Yes, I think this whole chocolate and fine wine thing, or chocolate as fine wine thing, may go somewhere. If you heed my one dire alarm.
Truly, I have some fears about it all, as this experiment in chocolate and very pink wines seemed at its conclusion perhaps too garter-belt-and-lock-the-doors for the general public. Perhaps I have lived in the Midwest too long, but I must admit to feeling these pairings should be held in some kind of strict reserve, unleashed only under extremely controlled circumstances. For example, during women's book-club meetings held during months with Rs in them. Or at dinner parties where no members are in any sort of couples counseling whatsoever. And in select bed-and-breakfasts that have had their walls profoundly soundproofed.
I'm not kidding. You have been warned. There are truffles, and there are these very pink wines, and then there is your own common sense. Let that be your guide.
Chocolat Céleste truffles are available as one in a box for $3.95; four for $14.95; nine for $29.95; 16 for $49.95. They are on sale both at Leonard's store and at numerous local retail outlets including the Woodbury Kowalski's (8505 Valley Creek Rd., Woodbury; 651.578.8800) and France 44 (4351 France Ave. S., Mpls.; 612.925.3252.). For more locations, visit www.chocolatceleste.com.
Both wines mentioned, Banfi's Brachetto d'Acqui (I paid $16 for a 375-milliliter bottle--they call it "Rosa Regale") and Bonny Doon's Framboise ($15 for 375 milliliters), are available at many local liquor stores, including Thomas Liquors (1941 Grand Ave., St. Paul; 651.699.1860), Surdyk's (303 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 612.379.3232), and the aforementioned France 44.
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