Although the weather outside my window is now sunny, it had until today been gray, dark, and drizzly for the better part of a week. We had our first frost last night, and woke to find the tell-tale signs of condensation on the windows. Fall is here, and it finds me delighting in the thrill of pulling sweaters and down vests out of the closet. My lovely lace-up Guess sneakers with non-marking soles (wow) are back in action, and it’s only a matter of time before hats, gloves and scarves accessorize their way into my everyday wardrobe.
So what to make of this shift in temperatures, in mindsets, in lifestyles? I took advantage of the $.99/lb fading stone fruits by making an upside up plum cake, inspired by a similar one made by friend Brianne. I flavored mine with vanilla sugar, a bit of almond, and plenty of cardamom. I’ve been craving soups. I’m not too appalled that I have to start wearing socks again. But mostly, I’ve been dreaming of the tropics.
A month from now, I’ll be in Hawaii. I’ve never been there before, and I’m incredibly excited. Excited to fly on a plane for the first time in two years, excited to coordinate a poster symposium at the conference I’m attending, and excited to eat the heck out of whatever Spam treats I can find. But I’m not there yet – I have a whole additional month of sock-wearing, cake-baking, and scarf-accessorizing to enjoy first. As I do all of these things, and watch the days grow noticeably shorter, I will remember my first true taste of the tropics. An urban jungle, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota, is where I grew up. Where I first realized my love of ferns. Where I first tried my hand at photography. Where I treasure memories of my mum, as well as of a friend of the family who is no longer with us. Her memory lives on here.
I had the great fortune to visit the conservatory in August. A place of constant solace, I feel most drawn to the fern room, with its vibrant greens and gentle mists. The outdoor Japanese Garden has always held allure, if only for its tea room, which in local St. Paul folklore requires years of waiting, or piles of cash, to reserve for a proper tea. One wing of the conservatory features shrubs, plants and trees with a purpose; fruiting trees mingle with cinnamon, allspice, pepper, and – yes – cacao trees (below, top right). The Sunken Garden, in the opposite wing, features a seasonal display that at the time of my visit included fragrant Asiatic lilies and roses, Caladium, petunias that I actually liked, and gerbera daisies. A nearly-hidden treat, outside of of the conservatory proper, is a small room filled with bonsai of many species and ages, with the oldest aged at nearly 350 years. Having just purchased a juniper bonsai of our own, we hope to keep him going for at least that long.
All of this tropical dreaming has had me pondering the equator a bit more frequently than usual. And when I think equator, I usually also think chocolate. Thankfully, I had a few bars to chase away my 23° N 23° S blues. A while back, the folks at Hagensborg Chocolates in British Columbia, Canada, sent me all three of their single origin Wild B(o)ar chocolate bars. These included the Dark 70% Santo Domingo bar that I reviewed in May, as well as the Dark 64% Madagascar, and Milk 39% Ecuador bars. The Santo Domingo bar was recently incorporated into the lovely fluffy Whoopie Pie Petits Fours, leaving the other two for reviewal here.
Let me preface by saying that I eat a lot of chocolate that isn’t built for snacking on in mass quantities – the darker the chocolate, the less I find that I can eat in one sitting. That said, this is extremely eatable chocolate, both bars being smooth, and lacking the bitterness of many of the darker chocolates I often find myself drawn to.
The Milk 39% Ecuador Wild B(o)ar had an enticing aroma that I found desirably reminiscent of Lu’s Petit Écolier biscuits, my childhood favorites. The aroma also contained a bit of spice, in the cinnamon sphere of things. Tasting this bar provoked an equal food memory, this time of the crayon-shaped chocolates I received in my Christmas stocking each year. While this bar probably isn’t more than a creamy milk chocolatey delight for most, it was a rush of nostalgia for me. The packaging insists that the bar is intense with fruity flavors, but I couldn’t get a good handle on fruit notes – it was just so creamy. This is a well-made single origin milk chocolate bar, which in a world of trendy dark chocolate superstars, is a bit difficult to come by.
The Dark 64% Madagascar Wild B(o)ar, a bit more bracing in style than the easygoing milk bar above, had an initially bitter aroma rounded out with fruit notes. The smooth taste of the bar, which brought citrus to mind, replaced nearly all of the acidity I had sniffed out. Having lost the majority of its bitterness, this was a pleasant bar that retained a character of brightness, with red fruit flavors lingering at the back of the palate.
Thanks to Hagensborg Chocolates for providing the savage and glutonous feast that I enjoyed through these bars, as well as through the 70% bar-become-cake. The liberal use of pigs on their packaging makes me smile, as does their marketing strategy – I’m never happier than when I’m savagely feasting on a good, smooth chocolate bar.
Unit 103 – 3686 Bonneville Place
Canada V3N 4T6
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And to visit the best kind of urban jungle, always spectacular:
1225 Estabrook Drive
Saint Paul, MN 55103