Mixing It Up Mayan Style at the PEM

Posted: July 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Event, Salem | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

There was a serious party in our mouths last night as we sampled spicy Mexican hors d’oeuvres, Taza chocolate, and a variety of specialty beers. Another part of our bodies was stimulated, too—our brains.

We had a great time at the Peabody Essex Museum where about 150 people gathered to learn about chocolate’s importance to the Mayan culture and why it was considered the food of the gods. The event, Beer + Chocolate = Food of the Gods, was held in conjunction with the museum’s Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea exhibit, which runs through July 18.

We sampled a variety of treats like flatbreads with cinnamon chile butter, mini beef burritos, vegetable empanadas, and chicken morditas with chipotle crème fraiche. While we sipped the various beers and enjoyed the food, we learned a great deal about Mayan chocolate culture from PEM assistant curator George Schwartz. For example, chocolate’s rarity and association with the maize god and the sea made it so valuable it was sometimes treated as currency.

The other speaker was Taza Chocolate founder Alex Whitmore, who told us an enormous amount about the chocolate-making process, from fermentation to grinding and finishing. We had never tasted Taza’s products and were completely blown away—the cacao nibs are processed in a stone grinder, producing an amazing texture. The chocolate feels grainy for a moment, then melts in the most wonderful way, allowing you to taste all the flavors of the bean. (For those interested in seeing the action, chocolate tours at the company’s new Somerville facility begin in August.)

Seven chocolate-influenced beer samples were delivered during the presentation, with Schwartz describing each one’s origins. There were four chocolate stouts, an American stout, a craft brew from Dogfish Head designed to re-create one of the earliest chocolate beverages in the New World, and a saison that was a favorite with all—a rare beer crafted by Brasserie Fantome in Belgium.

After the presentation, we had the chance to create our own chocolate beverages. Each table was given two plates of chocolate to combine with hot water in a large pitcher. We aerated the mixture using a molinillo (wooden whisk) and added our choice of ingredients like allspice, chili powder, vanilla, and honey. The resulting mixture was incredibly rich and full flavored—about as far from Swiss Miss packets as you can get. The chocolate froth created with a molinillo or by pouring from one ceramic pot to another evokes its original connection to the sea, in the form of foam.

If you’re a chocolate lover, we highly recommend trying Taza chocolate, which is available at Whole Foods and gourmet markets like Shubie’s. We tasted plain, vanilla, cinnamon, chile, yerba mate, and salted almond (my favorite). We also tasted two unusual treats from North Shore chocolatier Turtle Alley: chile bark and a luscious chocolate stout truffle.

We also recommend the PEM’s food-related events. Although not inexpensive, this unique event in the museum’s gorgeous atrium featured a satisfying abundance of beer, chocolate, Mexican treats, camaraderie, and intellectual stimulation.


Home-Town Favorites for Valentine’s Day

Posted: January 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Beverly, Danvers, Gloucester, Marblehead, Marketplace, Salem, Sweets and Treats, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »


Looking to score extra points on Valentine’s Day? Skip that box of prewrapped chocolates from the drugstore and head to one of these North Shore favorites. You’ll get better quality, more interesting choices, and personalized service—all while supporting your local chocolatier.

Harbor Sweets
If your sweetie likes all things nautical, you cannot go wrong with Sweet Sloops, an addicting confection of toffee, pecans, and white and dark chocolate. There are many other sea-themed chocolates available from the tiny Harbor Sweets factory in Salem, and they can be purchased in almost every North Shore town, including Shubie’s in Marblehead, Henry’s in Beverly, The Partridge Tree Gift Shop in Danvers, Connolly’s Pharmacy in Hamilton, Bruni’s in Ipswich, LuLa’s Pantry in Rockport, and Valentine’s in Newburyport.

85 Leavitt St, Salem
(978) 745-7648

Pride’s Crossing Confections
This converted train station on Route 127 is the place to go if you need gifts for a variety of tastes. The shop is jam-packed with everything from bags of chocolate covered potato chips and pretzels to cases of fudge, truffles, soft-centers, and white chocolate-covered confections. Don’t miss the famous turtles (seven varieties) and buttercrunches, all hand-made on premises.

590 Hale St, Prides Crossing
(978) 927-2185

Stowaway Sweets
It doesn’t get much more charming than this tucked-away shop in a former mansion, where the chocolates are extremely high quality and you can select each piece that goes in the box. Do not, under any circumstances, skip the meltaways.

154 Atlantic Ave, Marblehead
(781) 631-0303

The Cocoa Belt
This elegant shop is a new favorite, both for its selection of delicious truffles in sophisticated flavors like black forest, cappuccino, and champagne and its ability to improve on perennial favorites like peanut butter cups and scotch kisses.

58 Maple St, Danvers
(978) 774-4332

Turtle Alley
Known for its luscious turtles, this local maker also stocks an impressive supply of fruit slices, caramels, and fudge. We are especially fond of the kicked-up versions, including spicy peanut butter cups and almond chipotle turtles.

91a Washington St, Gloucester
(978) 281-4000
Museum Place Mall, Salem
(781) 740-0660


Sweet and Hot Hits the Spot

Posted: April 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Gloucester, Salem, Sweets and Treats, Turtle Alley | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

A longtime listener of WFNX, my ears perked up a few weeks ago when DJ Julie Kramer and The Sandbox were on air waxing rhapsodic over chocolates from Turtle Alley, a chocolatier with locations in Gloucester and Salem. I looked up the company online, and one glance at their press, which includes kudos from the omnipresent Rachel Ray, made me realize that we at the Dish were apparently the last people on earth to find out about the infamous turtles.

Eager to rectify the situation, we headed over to the Salem store, located in the unfortunate Museum Place Mall, to try the tasty terrapins. The store’s owner, Hallie Baker, handcrafts the chocolates in small batches with the freshest ingredients available and offers an impressive variety of turtles, barks, peanut butter cups, and other confections. We appreciated the fact that the turtles are available made with almonds, cashews, pecans and even macadamia nuts. The chocolate was rich and even, and the caramel was soft and buttery.

Like many chocolate makers today, Baker isn’t afraid to experiment with interesting taste combinations, the results of which piqued our taste buds as well as our interest. While the basic turtles were enjoyable, the real stand-outs were the spicy peanut butter cups and the almond chipotle turtles.

The peanut butter cups start out subtly, and then the mix of smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, chipotle, and a secret blend of spices create a warm, almost autumnal infusion of taste. The heat in the turtles is more straightforward, provided by a layer of chipotles and adobo tucked in between the chocolate and the caramel. When you bite into that, you’ll know it. Nowhere is the spice overwhelming, though—we found the savory combination of sweet and hot balanced and quite pleasing.

If spicy chocolate isn’t your thing, Turtle Alley’s other offerings range from solidly respectable to wonderfully delectable, the fleur de sel caramel and the chocolate-covered coconut being the most memorable. The company’s line of candy fruit slices blow away the supermarket variety—we tasted the new pomegranate flavor, which was juicy and flavorful.  Turtle Alley’s motto is “Life is short. Sin a little” but after tasting some of these confections, a little might not be enough.

Turtle Alley
91a Washington St., Gloucester
(978) 281-4000
Museum Place Mall, Suite 110, Salem
(978) 740-0660