It becomes clear as Tim Mountz rhapsodizes about the pawpaws he has been foraging near the Susquehanna, shaking trees, having them rain down - by the dozens! - that Chris Curtin has no clue what he's talking about.
The two of them are at the big pine table at Talula's Table, the Kennett Square ode to local eating - Mountz, who grows heirloom tomatoes and 20 varieties of fingerling potatoes and herbs at his Happy Cat Farm, spread discreetly on the gentle hills of Winterthur, the du Pont estate; Curtin, the European-trained chocolatier, who heads up Éclat Chocolate, the high-end, artisanal chocolate shop in West Chester.
The pawpaw is a rare breed in Wisconsin, where Curtin grew up. But along the rivers hereabouts, and on old farmsteads, you still find intrepid stands. It is America's largest native fruit, papaya-sized, custardy and aromatic, hinting - Mountz says by way of explanation - of notes of sweet banana and mango.
Curtin's eyes widen: "I could do something with that. I think I could definitely do something with that!"
And so one more lightbulb has flipped on in Curtin's quest to reimagine the chocolate bar, a sideline he swore he'd never get into (he's known more for his lush, caramel-filled chocolates and wafer-thin tasting disks of single-origin chocolate) until, well, he made about 500 as a test run in the last couple of weeks. (They're thicker, so they hold flavor several months longer than mendiants, the delicate wafers. Which don't exactly fly off the shelf.)
Whether pawpaw-infused chocolate will come to pass is no sure thing. But already Éclat is offering (at outlets such as Di Bruno Bros., Fork, and Talula's Table) dark bars infused with Happy Cat's lavender and basil, rosemary and a lovely, citrusy lemon verbena.
They are extraordinarily bright, three solid ounces, high cacao content (about 70 percent), best eaten by the darkly rich break-off block. And in the land that gave rise a century ago to the ubiquitous nickel Hershey bar, they retail for up to $8 and more.
So the revisionist chocolate bar follows the trajectory of seasonal gelato and artisan bread, locally roasted coffees and the proliferation of joyous craft beers, standing against their cheaply industrial icons - promising a whole new ethos and, particularly, flavor. An Éclat bar (the Happy Cat variety, and a second kind called "Obsession" with Japanese, Peruvian, and Belgian accents) is to a sugary, slightly sour, milk-chocolate Hershey bar as a steaming La Colombe espresso is to a cup of Dunkin' Donuts with too much cream: The ingredients are more interesting. The level of genuine chocolate is higher. The flavor profile, superior.
Éclat, of course, is hardly the only new bar on the block. At weekly farm markets, John & Kira's, the socially conscious chocolate-maker in North Philadelphia, sells "Urban Garden Bars" infused with mint grown by city schoolchildren and an orange-rosemary (milk) chocolate bar. Walk into Whole Foods, or into the Cheese Company in suburban Narberth, and behold a counter lined with out-of-town contenders - a chalky Italian bar called La Suissa; bars from Minneapolis chocolatier B.T. McElrath (including a hugely popular number called the Salty Dog, involving butter toffee pieces in 70 percent dark chocolate with sea salt); bitter Lindt bars of up to 99 percent pure chocolate; Berkshire Bark; Godiva's "extra dark Santo Domingo chocolate"; Madecasse, which employs the beans of Madagascar. (One of Talula's bars is produced in Italy, but in "the Aztec tradition," densely rustic and brittle, sugary enough to melt for hot chocolate. One at Di Bruno's is accented with smoky bacon, which isn't quite as gross as it sounds.)
But if premium chocolate - if not necessarily chocolate bars - is already far faster-growing than the stagnant workaday stuff, it's not just chocolate bars that are being redefined.
Cacao is grown exclusively within 15 degrees of the equator, hardly qualifying as "local." So Curtin is trying for a hybrid - having his African beans roasted and processed in Bucks County now, and sourcing his herbs (for the organic Happy Cat bars) from rural Chester County.
And as soon as he can, he plans to roast in West Chester, offering the chocolatier's version of farm-to-table; he calls it "bean-to-bar."
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