the delicious dozen from french broad chocolates, in asheville, nc

Do you remember how one year ago, I expeditioned off to the Great American South, where I visited an abandoned playground, chilled out with sad hippies in a tree-fort hostel,  ran out of water in the Everglades (Runs Out Of Water should be my middle name), chased a snake in a forest that was dynamited, and, oh yeah, bought a heck of a lot of chocolate from the French Broad Chocolate Lounge in Asheville, North Carolina?

Many of you probably don’t remember, because you weren’t reading this blog at that time. So to recap, here are three of my favorite photos from the trip, illustrating key take-home points.

Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. Place of fog, rain, and beauty, we had a campground overlooking the area entirely to ourselves.

Sanibel Island, Florida. Place of much seashell collecting, I paused here for some self-reflection and a bit of Florida skyscraper skyline-hating, and I also lost a pair of earrings.

French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Asheville, NC. Place of chocolate. Obviously.

Okay, so that last picture isn’t really one of my favorites, but it is a segue into the focus of this post. I have recently learned that there are benefits to the Facebook that I so long eschewed. Benefits like winning a 12-piece set of delicious truffles and caramels from the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, and having it shipped speedily to your door in a giant box filled with biodegradable (and reusable) chill packs and foam packing material made from corn.

I would expect no less from the hip folk of Asheville.

  

I’ve talked about a fair number of delicious bonbons on this blog, from Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Maine, to B.T. McElrath in Minneapolis, to Dancing Lion in New Hampshire. And while I maintain that Dancing Lion has the most artistic and appealing creations to date, French Broad Chocolates is clearly on the road to greatness.

Established in 2007, many of their truffles are variations on a familiar theme. Lavender, maple, and strawberry balsamic are all repeat creations that can be found behind the counter of any respected chocolatier. But unlike many of the aforementioned respected chocolatiers, French Broad makes truly exceptional products, and in addition to standard fare has some exciting offerings: think pomegranate ginger (which sparkled in my mouth with bright red fruit notes), or fig & port, or one of their six fantastic salted caramels.

As a testament to the tastiness of their chocolate, I will go so far as to say that I really liked their white jasmine truffle, made with jasmine green tea and local wildflower honey – it’s not everyday that I meet a white chocolate I like. In fact, it’s everyday that I spend my time dissing white chocolate.

And while I also enjoyed the fresh raspberry (dusted with pretty pink powdered raspberry), vanilla bourbon (made with vanilla beans and Knob Creek bourbon, it was one of the better liqueur-based ganaches I’ve tried), and indian kulfi (comprised of rose, pistachio and cardamon flavors), my heart belonged to the salted caramels.

The lavender honey caramel was made with local lavender and honey, and was sprinkled with lavender salt. The cashew honey caramel came with – spoiler alert – toasted organic cashews. And the bonbon that stole the show was the seductive sorghum caramel, a milk chocolate dome filled with sorghum molasses-based caramel: it was dark, rich, nutty, and incredibly enticing.

The bonbons from French Broad Chocolates were well-made. None of the truffles I tried had ganache that pulled away from the outer shell. None of the coatings were dry or crumbly, and none of the caramels had hardened or become difficult to eat. Thank you to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, for teaching me the delicious lesson that your shop is about much more than the craft chocolate bars you stock out front.

French Broad Chocolate Lounge

10 S Lexington Ave
Asheville, NC

Hours
Sunday-Thursday 11h00-23h00
Friday-Saturday 11h00-24h00

And coming soon….

French Broad Chocolate Factory & Tasting Room

21 Buxton Ave
Asheville, NC

Grand opening on Friday June 29th from 11h00-17h00. I wish I could be there…

when life imitates art (or in this case, mast brothers chocolate)

I’ve recently been pushing myself, more than ever before, in some strenuous but fun exercisey activities. 29 miles of bike riding on a hard leather saddle one hot and sunny summer’s day? Hoisting myself arm by puny-weakling-arm up into the leafy canopy of a maple tree while sitting in a slightly more comfortable saddle? Back to back days of hardcore hiking with (in my mind) substantial elevation gain? These are all activities that have been part of my recent sporting life.

These photos represent how I spent this past Saturday and Sunday. Enshrouded in mist, wind, fir needles, and – finally – sun, I finally got a taste of what serious hiking feels like. It feels painful. My sunburn, my knees, my leg muscles. But as soon as I got back home, sure enough, I found myself dreaming about signing up for a road race. I haven’t wanted to run a race since March, when I stressed myself out on the New Hampshire coastline, suffering through a sad sack of a half marathon. Recap: I have just proven that exercise is crazy, obsessive, hurtful and fun. All rolled into one.

We find ourselves here at Baxter State Park, a curious gem of a rectangle, located in north-central Maine northwest of the once-booming mill town of Millinocket. Get it, booming? You may know this town as playing host to the trials and tribulation of the Pelletiers, aka the American Loggers. I’ve never seen this show, but I love America. And logging. And fighting for your right to log in America. I have seen an episode of Deadliest Catch – I picture these two shows as being one and the same. Variations on a theme? Am I wrong?

Hiking hasn’t interested me until recently, when the thoughtful prose of a childhood friend, concerning her adventures in backpacking, has come to haunt me. She has a real gift for storytelling, and she isn’t word-shy. I appreciate and respect that. Between her and the madcap outdoor enthusiast I find myself enjoying weekends with, it wasn’t long before hiking made an appearance in my repertoire. Even more fun than hiking, for me, was my brief foray into structured tree climbing. How do these two activities connect?

Through both of them I have been learning about knots. I know one or two knots back from my days in the trusty Girl Scouts, but I don’t remember what they’re called or what their purpose is. Perhaps it would be better were I to frame this as “knew,” rather than “know,” as I’m not proving much knowledge here. But the point, and there is one, is that I’m beginning to learn about some cool knots {do these exist?} and their applicability in outdoor activities. Double fisherman’s knot? Anyone? See, I’m learning.

And what do these knots remind me of? How convenient that you should ask. They remind me of the Mast Brothers Cocoa Nibs chocolate bar, of course.

You may or may not know that I love Mast Brothers chocolate. It wasn’t clear from my early post what exactly I thought about, well, much of anything, really. Good thing I’ve increased exponentially in wordiness! All to make clear to you, just how much I enjoy holding a Mast Brothers bar in my hands. They’re hefty, tasty, and beautifully wrapped. And they’re hard for me to purchase, without a four-hour drive.

This bar, like others that I’ve reviewed recently, was purchased at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge in Asheville, North Carolina. Why did I choose this nibby bar over some of the other Mast Brothers chocolate bars I want to try, perhaps even more? The knots. It’s all about the knots.

This bar is made with 72% Madagascar cacao, organic cane sugar, and cocoa nibs. The cacao is sourced from the Somia Plantation in Madagascar’s Sambirano Valley, and the cocoa nibs are from shade grown and organically farmed Criollo beans. The bar has a cocoa-y coffee aroma that lets out a splash of tangyness when placed on the palate. At this time I noted that there were lots of cocoa nibs on the roof of my mouth.

I began to taste a mouth-puckering fruitiness, which to me, identified strongly with cherries, but perhaps other red berries as well. There was a different fruit flavor at the back of the palate, which tasted a bit banana-like to me. It was a very intriguing flavor that seemed just out of reach of interpretation. The bar had a tart but fudgy finish, and the nibs broke down very nicely in tandem with the chocolate. The nibs themselves tasted nutty and fruity, but were also intriguing and a bit elusive to me. They dissolved well, and didn’t linger (except for the one little tidbit I found wedged in my teeth hours later – good thing I hadn’t gone anywhere).

I thought this bar was very good, but perhaps not grrrreat. Similar Sambirano Valley chocolate that comes to mind here includes Valrhona’s Manjari bar, Rogue’s Sambirano, and TCHO’s Dark Chocolate “Citrus.”  The bar reviewed here fits in nicely with these other products of Madagascar, while adding on a layer of complexity: the cocoa nibs. Of the Mast Brothers chocolate I’ve been privileged to try so far, however, I believe I’ve most enjoyed their Dominican Republic bar. But coming up soon – a review of their Venezuela bar. I have high hopes for greatness.

To visit Mast Brothers, where you can buy chocolate, watch desperado banjo players unleash inspired banjo tunes, and more:

Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory

105A North 3rd Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
718.388.2625

And to visit Baxter State Park, the northern Appalachian Trail terminus (doesn’t it seem like I was just at the opposite end of the AT?), and the one-stop vacation destination spot for many eager hiker-folk come summer:

Baxter State Park

64 Balsam Drive
Millinocket, ME 04462
207.723.5140

joyce kilmer memorial forest gives up the ghost

Welcome back to my continued Stories from the Great South series. It’s an impromptu sort of series. But also, seriously, a serious sort of series. So grab some biscuits, or grits, or gravy, or all three – or head to your nearest Shoney’s, if your stomach can handle it – and buckle down for continued tales and yarns from my recent southern adventures. It’s going to be a bumpy ride – but only because my car currently requires some expensive repairs.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, located in the western tip of North Carolina, and adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After a day of eating some of the best food of my life, spending an inordinate amount on fine craft chocolate, and watching a bunch of dudes drink a plethora of pbr [the city abounds with on-the-fringe hipsters], I was excited to get out of the Asheville region and keep exploring.

Prevoiusly-local-pal had been to Joyce Kilmer before, but hopefully enjoyed the visit as much as I did. It was a fascinating area of virgin hardwood forest, which for that area of the country means some real whoppers of trees. Giant, giant trees. And, possibly more interesting to me, lots of beautiful understory vegetation. There were maidenhair ferns – my favorite plant, rattlesnake ferns (almost wrote rattlesnack: I must either be hungry, or overcoming my fear of snakes; i.e., I could eat snakes for breakfast snacks!), blue cohosh, and all sorts of other gems I was and wasn’t familiar with.

To give you an idea of how enthralling this place is to visit, the easy 2 mile loop trail took us at least two hours to complete. Perhaps closer to three. But we did chase a snake (chomp chomp), identify plants, admire tall trees, and measure some of the larger giants on the path with a d-tape. We appreciated an ecosystem so drastically different than the one we live and work in here in Maine. And we admired the power of nature to bring these giant trees crashing down to earth.

Eastern hemlock trees in the region (and across much of the eastern US) are falling prey to the hemlock wooly adelgid, a pest that feeds on tree sap to the extent that needles are killed. Without needles, these trees can’t photosynthesize, and under prolonged exposure to the adelgid will die. This was the fate of the hemlock trees at Joyce Kilmer, many of which were standing dead, providing great danger to all the slow, eager hikers such as myself. Here is where things get interesting: since Joyce Kilmer is listed as a wilderness, mechanized equipment such as chainsaws are prohibited. Conundrum!

The Forest Service decided to take a sneaky route and dynamite all of the hemlock trees along the trail. That’s right. They decided to take those trees down, and light up the forest, like it’s dy-na-mite. 28 to 35 pounds of dynamite per tree led to a patchy network of downed behemoths that looked as if they had snapped during a major windstorm. The trees that fell across the path had to be removed with crosscut saws. So primitive – so wilderness!

Had management not decided to preventively down the dead and dying trees, they would have had to close the recreational trail for three to five years to allow the same process to happen naturally. It seems much better, for all parties involved, to take the route that was taken. Visitors get to learn about management, while management lets out a sigh of relief that their chances of mortal tree kombat are greatly decreased. I only wish that I had seen more information while at the trail head on what exactly had happened. We were able to deduce that HWA killed these trees, that they were now on the ground, and that crosscut saws had been used to remove trees from the trail. However, it took online sleuthing to find out that the trees had been dynamited (in November of 2010). Perhaps information was posted and we missed it, but still. Dynamite seems like a great tactic to get kids interested in forest management!

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest {directions provided, as an address would do little good}

From the Graham County, NC website:

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is located about 15 miles from Robbinsville in the western part of Graham County. From Robbinsville, take Highway 129 North for 1½ miles to the junction with Highway 143 West (Massey Branch Road). Turn left and proceed West on Highway 143 for approximately 5.0 miles to a stop sign. Turn right onto Kilmer Road. You will drive for about 7.3 miles and arrive at the top of Santeetlah Gap and the junction with the Cherohala Skyway. Bear to your right and continue on for another 2½ miles to the entrance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Turn left into the entrance and it is about ½ mile to the parking area.

The ranger district that oversees the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness:

Cheoah Ranger District

Route 1, Box 16-A
Massey Branch Road
Robbinsville, NC 28771

828.479.6431

And to read about dynamite in action, navigate here.