I wrote last week about taking part in this year’s Oregon Chocolate Festival, this 17th version reimagined in a virtual, online form. This week I got to delve further into the experience, beyond watching the numerous, informative videos about all things chocolate made available to those who purchased the $15 “entrance fee.”
Last Saturday my husband and I picked up a curated box of assorted chocolates for those who purchased tickets and live within a certain radius of the event’s usual host, the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites. We sampled single-origin dark chocolates from Brazil and Peru, lovely chocolate-dipped biscotti, creamy chocolate caramels and the unique flavors of Masala chai and matcha tea ganache truffles. All came from within Oregon and Northern California; how lucky we are to have such talented chocolatiers so close at hand!
Our next tasting experience was delivered via FedEx, in the form of a box containing two varieties of cheese from local award-winning Rogue Creamery and three types of also-local Lillie Belle Farms chocolates. For me, “local” means these side-by-side businesses lie just three miles from my house — very handy! This added-fee experience included a half-hour online video chat guiding tasters through the event with Jeff Shepherd, artisan chocolatier and owner of Lillie Belle, and Alex Paloma, cheese pairing expert at Rogue Creamery. It was both fun and enlightening to get the backstory of how each item we tasted was developed and produced while also getting some pointers about how to match different types of cheeses and chocolates to come up with complementary pairings.
The Creamery’s Cheese Is Love two-year aged cheddar, pleasantly sharp and slightly salty, was paired with Lillie Belle’s Sunshine Daydream 45% buttermilk chocolate bar. Shepherd switched up the milk-to-sugar ratio of traditional milk chocolate and added in powdered buttermilk to create a less sweet, more milky chocolate with a tangy back flavor, calling it his best chocolate. He and Palermo suggest letting the chocolate melt in your mouth before taking a bite of the cheese rather than sandwiching them together. In pairing milk chocolate with cheese, they suggest choosing a sharp, tangy cheese, such as Parmesan (but usually not a blue cheese), to draw out the dairy in the chocolate. Palermo also talked about seeking to match textures, looking for the same creaminess on the palate.
We also tasted a 70% dark Colombian chocolate bar, with Shepherd enthusiastically talking about the “fruity and robust beans” sourced from an indigenous community in the Andes and describing the experimentation it took to get just the right roast on the beans to draw out their flavor. We could clearly taste a subtle, burnt-orange flavor and appreciated its smooth texture. It was matched with the Bluehorn Blue cheese, soaked in an organic red wine which adds an underlying fruitiness and results in a more mellow blue cheese. Shepherd’s ideal for a good pairing: two flavors that, when combined, create a new, third flavor. In this case, he noted a mellow spiciness that he compared to a subtle, anise-like flavor. Palermo suggested when pairing dark chocolate with cheese, look for balancing textures and look for more complex cheeses, like sheep or goat cheeses or lighter blue cheeses (wine-washed or cave-aged with a rind).
We finished up the tasting by enjoying Lillie Belle’s Smokey Blue Cheese Truffle, a collaboration between the Creamery and the chocolatier that came about 15 years ago. The process of incorporating a Rogue blue cheese with chocolate was long and fraught with a lot of “terrible” chocolates, said Shepherd, before they arrived at the incredible result: an emulsion of the smokey blue and heavy cream blended with milk chocolate, hand-rolled and then dipped in dark chocolate and, finally, rolled in crushed, smoked almonds. Shepherd describes it as “chocolate cheesecake with a smoked almond crust.” What a delicious mouthful and an example of a perfect chocolate and cheese pairing!
The session ended with Palermo and Shepherd agreeing such tastings should occur on a regular basis. If you’re interested, they suggest signing up for the creamery’s “E-Moosletter” on its website for future announcements. I have to say, I came away from the experience with a greater appreciation for the care and thought that goes into creating bean-to-bar, single-sourced chocolate and great cheeses. I also picked up some useful pointers about pairing the two, and we’ll be using what we learned for some fun tastings in the future with friends.
— Patty Vanikiotis, associate editor/copy editor
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