2042 Marshall Ave., St. Paul
544 S. Broadway,
Like most of the first organic farmers in southwestern Wisconsin, Micheal Roberts has a love of his land that attaches to much more than the land: He loves the worms that dance between the roots of prairie sweet-broom; he loves the meadowlarks catching caterpillars in the apple-scented twilight; he loves the red foxes hunting meadow voles in the quack grass; and he especially loves the invisible wee beasties that live throughout the soil and make it all possible. It is a deep love, and even sometimes a painful love, when he considers that his beloved might be harmed some day, in the days or centuries after his death.
Consequently, he is now selling chocolate truffles in the middle of the city.
Well, it's like this: Like most of the founding fathers of organic agriculture around here, Roberts found himself 30 years into an organic life, and just about out of his mind with disappointment about the success of "organics." He's wildly dismayed about how much of it has been taken over by big agriculture (Dole organics, anyone?); he's saddened that the very word "organic" seems, to a younger generation, to mean something between "gourmet" and "trendy"; he's bereft that the dreams he and his generation poured themselves into seem to have wafted away on commercial breezes. Dreams like the one where our rivers wouldn't catch fire, that arsenic wouldn't be fed to chickens, that a greater consciousness of the earth as a thing to be nurtured and not a resource to be exploited would take hold.
But, here's where Roberts diverges from the other counterculture folks who despair of Whole Foods Dream Dilution: He has a background in pastry and chocolate (he was part of the original crew working at Lake Pepin's Harbor View Café) and is an essential optimist. So when, in his reading, he found what he thinks is the real answer to saving the planet, he dropped everything and got to rolling truffles.
What is that answer? Here it is, for no added cost this week in your free newspaper, the key to saving the world: perennial agriculture.
Huh? Okay. A perennial is a plant that lives a long time; it goes quiet in the winter and comes back in the spring. Every tree on your block, any rosebush your grandmother tended for 40 years, every bushy rhubarb patch you can't kill with an axe, that's a perennial. Annuals are anything that has to be planted every single year, again and again, by seed, like corn, wheat, marigolds, and such. The problem is that when annual plants are planted en masse by man they are done so by tillage; that is, by breaking the top crust of hundreds of continuous acres and plying them with tractors, plows, combines, sprayers, spreaders, and all the various things that open up the earth and expose the wee beasties below to sun and rain and strange chemicals. This tends to change and kill almost everything down there. This means that, eventually, in this part of the world, everything can run downhill with the next big rain, ending up in the Mississippi and later the Gulf of Mexico.
Micheal Roberts (who does indeed spell his first name in an unusual way) has concluded that tillage and annual agriculture are destroying our land and endangering all of the beings that call it home, from the most microscopic ones that live on the roots of prairie sweet-broom to the most fashionable ones who knot Hermès scarves around their pretty throats while they wonder what hostess gift to bring. Luckily, the solution to saving the earth is deliciously easy: All that the pretty girls in the big cities have to do to save the pretty far-flung meadows with their pretty meadowlarks is to eat the finest truffles. And, to a lesser extent, enjoy the finest chocolate sauce, cocoa, coffee that was roasted yesterday, and grass-fed beef.
Well, first, Roberts would have you know that the finest chocolate, which represents somewhere around 5 percent or less of the world's harvest, is a variety called Criollo, a shade-grown perennial that fetches a premium price, thus allowing Criollo chocolate farmers to earn a living from the stuff and avoid tilling their soils. (The opposite happens with plantation-raised Forastero chocolate, the lesser stuff that goes into most of the world's chocolate bars, which is tilled in the sunshine, fetches a terrible price, and is generally speeding things to heck in a hen-basket.)
Meanwhile, Criollo chocolate was the food of Aztec warriors, and, if you read European newspapers, is lately touted to be nature's perfect food. It's full of vitamins, minerals, iron, antioxidants, and natural antidepressants. It lowers blood pressure, improves your cholesterol profile, boosts the immune system, makes your brain bubble with endorphins, and provides about a hundred reasons to be eaten on airplanes, including that it might just be an aphrodisiac, may prevent deep-vein thrombosis on long-haul flights, and, even--heavens!--acts as an antibacterial agent to inhibit tooth decay. And this is chocolate we're talking about, not margarine, and not even the benefits of replacing your loved ones with heaping piles of steamed kale.
Try out the health benefits on yourself with a quick stop by Roberts's brand-new Marshall Avenue store in St. Paul. It's his second shop; the first was in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which is where he transforms chocolate he buys from the Venezuelan company El Rey into his own line, Legacy Chocolates, and hopes to launch his own one-man revolution, cementing the environmental stability and economic vitality of one perennial crop at a time. First, chocolate and shade-grown, fair-trade coffee, next, beef, later, with your help, the world.
Rarely do green dreams go down so pleasurably. Walk into the new store and you'll see the dream in a single refrigerator case. Inside is what looks like a thousand two-ounce lidded take-out cups. Inside each is a single chocolate truffle. Each cup bears a computer-generated label: 85 percent espresso, 73.5 percent classic Champagne, 41 percent pistachio, and so forth. These percentages each refer to the amount of cocoa mass, the part that isn't butter, cream, or sugar, in the chocolate shell of the truffle.
The 85 percent chocolates, then, are nearly devoid of cream and butter and are sharp and clear, bearing the deep, midnight wine resonance of a bat's cry in the dark. The 41 percent are Legacy Chocolates' version of milk chocolate, and taste light with lactic acid, the way sour cream tastes light. The 73 percent are winelike and focused, but have enough sugar that you can distinguish different notes of, say, mustard and tea tannin. The 58.5 percent ones taste like high-class candy. You can learn everything you want to know about what these percentages mean by lining up a row of ascending chocolates. Which are your favorites? Which ones do your friends prefer? Who's right? Fight it out with knives. More natural endorphins!
But seriously, this percentage chocolate thing is very much the wave of the future. Pretty much all of the coming wave of upscale chocolate things will have these percentages on them. (There's even a British chocolate-fan website called seventypercent.com.) Me, I've even tried little dry wafers of almost 100 percent chocolate, which reminded me, in taste, of something a Renaissance painter would grind with linseed oil to use when portraying mahogany shadows.
At Legacy Chocolates you can get the chocolates in two forms. There are medallions, which are little pucks of pure chocolate or, of course, in the case of things such as pistachio, pure chocolate with the nut in question, which is not me. While these medallions are wonderful for scientific inquiry, the really glorious taste sensation is to be had in the chocolate truffles. The truffles are also sold in the various percentages, but in their case the percentages refer to the chocolate shell around a silky chocolate filling made with real organic local butter and cream from the Hope Creamery folks (cementing another good little economy, you know).
This filling is about 60 percent pure chocolate, and tastes like some kind of elegant nighttime heaven, rolling across the tongue in dizzying crescendos of deep and deeper. The truffles labeled "classic" are those covered, on the very outside, with cocoa powder, the most traditional way of making a chocolate truffle, and the way that makes the morsel most resemble a real truffle, dug from the ground.
If you get a classic 85 percent then, let it come to room temperature, and when you eat it you will really be off on a roller coaster of sensation. First, the bitter powder of the cocoa covering, then the Sangiovese-like chocolate with its tea, raspberry, coffee, sour cherry, and tannic notes. Then the explosive deep silk of the truffle center melting on your tongue. And then the long, long, half-hour finish of the chocolate, which leaves you feeling like you just consumed a whole world, and not a mere 16 grams of chocolate.
Legacy Chocolates also sells a few, a very few, other things: They have a marvelous packaged cocoa, which they blend with organic evaporated cane juice sugar, which gives it a richer, broader taste than refined sugar. It's spicy and deep in just the right way. They also sell the coffee beans that they roast in Menomonie in 10-pound batches. There are only a few bags on hand at any time, and they remove any coffee after it's three days old, because Roberts is adamant about the horrible quality drop-off that happens when coffee goes stale. Personally, I don't know of anywhere in town more adamant about fresh coffee beans.
They also sell a wonderful product made from cold-brewing their fresh-roasted coffees: Take this coffee concentrate or mocha concentrate and add it to hot water, for coffee, or milk and ice, for iced things, and it's pure, mellow, and thrilling. Any iced-coffee fanatic is ordered to get over there as soon as the first tank top of spring is spotted.
Finally, they sell a chocolate sauce that is essentially that wildly lilting truffle filling let loose. Roberts says that Kowalski's may start carrying this stuff, which on the one hand I think might be the most exciting thing to happen to home desserts this year, and on the other hand I think may lead to more and more Minnesotans skipping their dinner entrées altogether and simply progressing from salad to bowls of chocolate sauce.
Maybe not, though, if they could get some of Roberts's grass-fed beef. Which just might happen. When I spent a morning in Legacy Chocolates talking with Micheal Roberts, he conceived an idea of selling his beef at the chocolate store. If this works, it will be the best thing to happen to one-stop shopping since they put chips in gas stations. Roberts raises Highlander cattle, which are long-horned, longhaired, smart Scottish cows that can live outside all winter.
"They might have horns four feet across," Roberts told me. "One time we found a coyote crushed to death; we didn't kill it. Everyone complains about wolves: They're gonna eat my livestock! I'll tell you what, they're not going to eat my livestock."
These Highlander cattle live on the pasture all summer, moving from field to field on Roberts's farm. This action mimics the behavior of bison, which used to move from field to field themselves. Many prairie plants require big animals to distribute their seeds in manure, or to plant them by piercing the prairie crust with their hooves and trampling seeds into the ground. Roberts has been raising pasture-fed beef in an effort to avoiding tilling his soil for the last 15 years. This experience in perennial agriculture, coupled with his long-ago experiences as a pastry chef, is what led him to start making his chocolates in Menomonie. In Wisconsin, the chocolates are part of a coffee shop, but Roberts had doubts about his ability to manage a coffee shop long-distance, so he decided to make his Twin Cities outpost retail only.
"There's about 500 people in Wisconsin that keep me alive," Roberts told me that one morning in his store. We chatted for two hours, and a single pair of women came in the door but ultimately decided against buying anything. (Legacy truffles cost $1.50 each.) "I just hope I can find another 500 people here who want to make choices that matter."
"Choices," considered Roberts, turning the word over, as if it was an agate he kept on his desk. "It all goes back to the word "legacy," which is the idea this whole place is based on. There's a Lakota proverb: 'You are known by the footprints you leave.' Choice matters, is what that means. Every choice you make while you're on this earth, that is your legacy. If you, by your stupid, arrogant insistence on chemical and material agriculture make choices that leave the earth barren, that's your legacy. When you go eat fast food from the drive-up, your choices impact what the countryside looks like. It's your choice that creates 10 miles of stinking feedlots in Wyoming. It drives me crazy--we eat without concern for our grandchildren. What are they going to eat when our soil is all in the Gulf of Mexico?
"There are some people who think: 'It's our duty to destroy the earth so that we can be saved. We are instruments of God's will when we go through the drive-through, to make the world uninhabitable so that He will return.'" Hearing himself say this, Roberts shakes his head, as if to dispute it. He has the weathered tan of a farmer, the rangy stance of someone used to finding irregular terrain. "If we would eat with our grandchildren in mind we would eat very differently. Well, you got it out of me. I was told not to bring this up, but it's why I'm here. Walker Percy says: 'Sometimes you just feel like you have one eye in the land of the blind.' That's how I feel sometimes.
"Corn is the big killer of this continent, and soybeans right behind it. Why are we depleting the fertility of this wonderful, wonderful country for these tiny short-term gains? I don't think it's any coincidence that we have the cheapest food in the world and the most expensive health care. Everybody wants a pill to cure heart disease, but they don't want to talk about where the heart disease is coming from. My friends say, 'You'll never change what people eat.' I say, I'm not trying to change what you eat. I'm here saying, Eat steaks and chocolate! I'm not trying to change what you eat, just the way it's produced."
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