Sun 17 Aug 2008
The object pictured here serves as a model of the principle that sometimes the most inspired ideas are the simplest. This is a thin disk of dark chocolate, 75 percent cacao, that holds on the center of its slightly convex surface a scattering of crushed pink peppercorns. Take a bite. The chocolate is lush, smooth, powerfully flavorful with a slightly astringent edge. Then the crunch and heat of the pink peppercorns burst on your palate, and the lushness of the intense chocolate and the flagrantly spicy, peppery effect get mixed together in a tremulous yin and yang, ego and id, Cheech and Chong of paradoxical, challenging yet wholly satisfying deliciousness.
This tiny miracle of culinary incisiveness is made by Veré (pronounced very), a chocolate company in New York City founded and directed by Kathy Moskai. Moskai has bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees in painting and fine art from the Yale School of Art and Architecture, so it’s no fluke that the packaging for Veré chocolates is quite distinctive, spare yet captivating. (Previously she was founder and president of HUE, the fashion legwear company.) All of the Veré chocolates are 75 percent cacao, made from beans sustainably grown and responsibly harvested in Ecuador. The couverture, the chocolate liquor from which candy is manufactured, is produced in Ecuador, so Veré owns the process “from bean to box.” The company uses a low glycemic sugar to keep the sweetening of the chocolate as minimal as possible. And all the ingredients for the flavored bars are organic.
So, all these details can make you feel good about yourself, if not about the world in general, but forgetting that do-gooder agenda, what are the Veré chocolates like?
We spent several weeks trying various products from the company, the truffles (almost more savory than sweet), the brownies, the flavored bars, the clusters, the caramels, the pink peppercorn wafers (wafer are also available in cacao nibs, espresso, tamari almond and spicy pepita) and the “Crunchy Stuff.” (All these products were supplied by the company.) With a couple of exceptions, they were flat-out wonderful.
The artistic philosophy of Veré seems to be understatement. Truffles (a box of four for $10; 16 for $35) and caramels (a box of four for $8, 16 for $28) are small, about the size of one die. Truffles come in cream, cognac, coffee and Earl Grey tea; the caramel flavors are lavender (decadent), rose and pistachio (wonderful), walnut and fennel, the Asian-themed ginger and sesame, lemon and poppy seed (like a pound cake), cinnamon and pecan, spicy pumpkin seed and salt and cacao nibs. Brownies (12 for $12) occupy all of one bite. The wafers come five to a box (for $7.50, cheap in my view); so it was two each for LL and me, and then we had to call in a team of surveyors to measure and divide the fifth.
We also doted on the Organic Bars, especially the Espresso + Anise and the Raspberry + Lemon, while the Ultimo Dark was like mainlining chocolate right into the brain. We didn’t care for the Banana + Macadamia Organic Bar; it just wasn’t a winning combination for us.
The clusters, chocolate-almond and so on, seemed pointless, almost primitive. Likewise the “Veré Crunchy Stuff” snack mixes — Pump’dcorn, So Good It’s Nuts and Coco Crisp — though that didn’t prevent us from scarfing the stuff down. Still, Veré is best when its products are the most pure and intense.
Now, as to the wine.
We had some friends over for dinner, and I served Veré chocolates for desserts, four small pieces each on large white plates, befitting the elegant and quasi-religious nature of the Veré experience. I opened a bottle of Banyuls 2004 from the great Rhone producer, M. Chapoutier (about $24). Banyuls is a vin doux naturels, that is, a fortified wine to which a spirit is added before fermentation is complete, raising the alcohol level and keeping the wine sweet. The region Banyuls is far from the Rhone, though, being at the far western edge of Roussillon, overlooking the Mediterranean, almost to Spain. The primary grape is grenache noir.
This example was luscious, offering roasted plums, black currants and fruit cake with hints of orange zest, dried spices and even a hint of bittersweet chocolate. It’s similar to port but lighter, more delicate than intense or weighty. It was delightful with the Veré chocolates.
A couple of nights later, I grilled a ribeye steak outside and to drink with it, I opened a bottle of a new wine, the Phifer Pavitt “Date Night” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley (about $75). A few inches of wine remained in the bottle when we finished dinner, and on an impulse, I said, “Let’s try this with a couple of the truffles and caramels.” I’ll be writing about this wine more thoroughly in a week or so, in a post about California cabernets from 2005, but let me say that this sumptuous wine’s combination of black fruit flavors, especially like roasted, meaty plums, and its elements of mocha and dried ancho chilies and its vibrant mineral character with the Veré chocolates made us feel as if our timbers had been shivered, our socks turned inside out and fires lit along the little watchtowers of our taste buds. This was a seriously seriously good match.
Veré products are available pretty extensively in New York and California and in a more limited manner in a dozen other states. Visit the company’s website for more information or to order online.