It’s easy to find good drinking chocolate in Mexico, but a lot harder to find Mexican made fine tasting chocolate, you know the kind you melt on your tongue as you concentrate on the subtle flavor notes – the only kind that satisfies us chocophiles. Swiss made Lindt chocolate is available in the finer grocery stores here and friends traveling abroad are kind enough to bring me back boxes of Valrhona and bars of Dagoba and Green & Black, but I live here in Mexico and I really want to enjoy fine Mexican-made chocolate. After all, Mexico produces 10% of the world’s cacao, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find fine chocolate here. A large percentage of the cacao beans are exported, I’ve learned, but fortunately I have discovered a few world-class Mexican chocolatiers creating excellent chocolate made from cacao beans harvested right here in Mexico. The most well known and influential is José Ramón Castillo. I went to Mexico City last Friday night to meet him at a chocolate tasting.
Jose Ramon Castillo, considered by international experts to be one of Mexico’s top 10 chefs, is warm, personable and passionate about his country and its ingredients. Chef Castillo’s vanguard approach to chocolate making begins with using a single source of cacao (in his case 100% produced in Mexico, unlike the European approach which uses a blend of cacao beans from various cacao producing countries). He also doesn’t add any dairy products, refined sugars or preservatives. He then wraps, fills, infuses this distinctly Mexican chocolate with popular local fruits and flavors.
My American friend, Lee accompanied me to the tasting held at the swanky Damiana Condesa restaurant. We arrived fashionably late and joined the other guests seated at an outside table. Chef Castillo finished up a press interview while his assistants assembled an assortment of chocolate samples on plates. Along with a growing crowd of pedestrians, who obviously recognized the famous chef from his successful chocolate television show, we watched as he posed charmingly for the camera.
Once the event began Chef Castillo guided us on a chocolate tasting adventure that included 21 different handcrafted chocolates from his factory and store Que Bo! located in Polanco, a chic neighborhood in Mexico City. First we sampled 6 different types of chocolate including white chocolate, milk and dark chocolate all the way up to a 95% dark chocolate (oooh bitter). Between each sample Chef Castillo asked us to clear our palette with a sip of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and to close our eyes as he described typical scenes one sees everyday in Mexico, like the street vendor who sells whole mangoes on a stick, dipped in a chili-salt mixture. We opened our eyes just long enough to pop that chocolate morsel into our mouths to taste the flavor he had just described. Sample after sample he led us on a sensual, cultural and culinary journey through Mexico. It was fun to watch the different facial expressions of the guests as they sampled Roquefort cheese enveloped in chocolate or the look of utter bliss on most faces when they sampled the white chocolate truffle. My friend Lee and an elegantly dressed older Mexican woman definitely winced at the Roquefort and chocolate combination. My personal favorites from Chef Castillo’s collection are the Maracuyá (Passion fruit), Tamarindo, Jamaica (Hibiscus flower), Manzanilla con miel (chamomile with honey), café de Olla, and cappuccino chocolates. Some of the other “bombones”, we tasted that evening included piña colada, mandarin, strawberry, lime pie, apple with cinnamon, grapefruit, guayaba, and tazcalate (a mixture of ground corn, pine nuts, achiote and vanilla – a prehispanic recipe for consuming chocolate as a beverage). I was disappointed there wasn’t one of Chef Castillo’s famed mole poblano chocolates to try, but that just gives me an excuse to visit Que Bo!
After the tasting and signing of my personal copy of his book Kakaw, which recently won the Gourmand World Cookbook award as the Best in Category and Content in Paris, France, Chef Castillo and I discussed the cacao crisis in Mexico where 80% of the national production is being lost to a fungus infestation destroying the plants, as well as his efforts in harvesting and protecting cacao trees in the Soconusco area in Chiapas. We made preliminary plans for a trip to Chiapas in August to film a video. I can’t wait!