Monday, August 13, 2012

Chocolate Bliss

The source of Micah's smile? I'm guessing it's his magical chocolates.

I'd have eaten the whole tray if I wasn't in civilized company. 
One of the best things about being a writer is the inevitable learning process that each new assignment becomes. You can't help but absorb information and expand your horizons when you're researching and writing about new things. Take chocolate, for instance.

OK: I already knew a thing or two about chocolate. Mostly, that I like the way it tastes. In France, there is no shortage of dark chocolate for vegans to indulge in, so I do it regularly (as in every single day). And with the opening of Un Monde Vegan, I even have access to white chocolate, and non-dairy-milk chocolate. C'est magnifique. But I digress.

Last month I was invited to attend a chocolate-making class by a visiting American and fellow vegan who would be teaching three workshops in Europe. Two of them happened to be in Paris, and while I didn't have a specific story in mind for this experience, I figured I'd come up with something. (I eventually did.)

One of a few "super" ingredients that give these chocolates that
extra  special something.

It's hard to let go when the chocolate tastes this good.

Micah and fellow raw chocalatier Frederic Marr turn on the handsome,
just like that.

On a balmy July afternoon I cycled across town to ChocoLatitudes, a new-to-me chocolate boutique on a quiet street tucked between Montparnasse Tower and Montparnasse cemetery. I arrived just in time for introductions; there were approximately 10 of us, an equal mix of Anglophones, Francophones, and one Italian to round things out. Initially, I sat myself at the back, thinking that since I was here to observe and report, I wouldn't need to be in the thick of the action. Laurence, ChocoLatitudes' owner, thought otherwise, and positioned me in a front-row-center sort of spot, with awesome views of the chocolate yumminess and the choco-maestro himself, Micah Intrator.

Enter ChocoLatitudes if you dare to be tempted by chocoholicism.

One of many vegan treats that await at ChocoLatitudes.

Laurence, fellow vegan and ChocoLatitudes' lovely owner.
Micah began dabbling in chocolate-making several years ago, mostly as an experiment. He wanted to package all the goodness of the superfood smoothies he made for himself each morning into a compact, portable form that would allow him easy access to sustained energy throughout the day. Turns out chocolate was the perfect vehicle. Today, he makes exquisite confections and sells them at artisan shops in and around his hometown of Chapel Hill, NC.

I won't stop staring until you let us taste.

How long until those are ready?

Throughout the two-hour class, Micah tutored us in the fine art of chocolatiering, making it look easy, fun, and kinda cool--in spite of the goji berries. Using interesting and unfamiliar  (to me) ingredients such as maca, mesquite, and lucuma, he created some of the best-tasting stuff I've ever had the joy of devouring. As a "reporter," I hadn't anticipated active participation, but all professionalism fell by the wayside when the samples started making their way around the room.

With the first taste, I morphed into ChocoMonster.  Hadn''t Neal Barnard written in one of his books that chocolate (like cheese) has opioid properties that mimic the same intoxicating feeling you get from heroin? This chocolate was so intense I could practically feel the opioids rolling around in my mouth. Especially in the Chocolate Caramel Crunch bars. Heaven on a stick. (Without the stick.)

The Italian contingency sampling the secret ingredients.

Stepping out into the street after the workshop, I had the sensation of soaring on a chocolate-covered cloud--one from which I hoped never to descend. I finally did, though, hours later. And since then, I've been dreaming about those chocolates, and remembering that chocolate high with a bittersweetness matched only by the dark, chocolately goodness of those magical confections.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wine, Women, and Song

A cafe in the tiny village of Plazac, France. On the menu: vegan gaspacho, an assiette vegetarienne (vegetarian plate), fruit smoothies, and Tibetan momo. Not your average French cafe, in other words.
I met Jachi at Pine Hill Waldorf School in Wilton, New Hampshire, when we were both in the 6th grade and I was the new kid in class. My dad was the janitor there, and later at High Mowing Waldorf School, in exchange for tuition for me and my brother. For a self-conscious pre-teen trying to fit in, this was a never-ending source of shame and embarrassment.

Jachi didn't mind that, nor did she seem to mind hanging out from time to time in our funky cabin in the woods, where our main water supply was generated from an old-school hand-pump, the bathroom was an outhouse, and all our meals were prepared on a wood-burning stove. Jachi was special in that uniquely non-judgmental way, and on many other levels: She was a talented violinist, a sophisticated world traveler, and she possessed a precocious spiritual maturity for an adolescent (she meditated daily!).

Flowers in the French garden Jachi's mother planted and continues to nurture
My favorite memories from that period were sleepovers at Jachi's family's home on Curtis Farm Road, surrounded by apple trees and rolling green hills. She even had her own horse, and on weekends when I stayed the night, I'd help scoop poop in the barn, and occasionally take the horse for a quick ride.

One of our fellow classmates and Jachi's neighbor down the road was Julianna Margulies (she was a year ahead of us in school), and I can still remember the day we walked to her house to deliver get-well greetings when Julianna was sick with the flu. Her  mother, a pre-Raphaelite beauty with long raven ringlets, served us grapefruit halves sprinkled with turbinado sugar, which we ate with special serrated spoons. It was a magic moment! (Even then, Julianna had star quality, and looked like Sleeping Beauty when we sat at her bedside.)

A village scene, avec velo, wisteria, and wine barrel

When my family left New Hampshire to return to California, I lost touch with Jachi, who continued her Waldorf education before heading off to Sarah Lawrence, then Yale, while I graduated from high school then became a vagabond  in Hawaii and Los Angeles before finally settling down for the long haul in San Francisco. Our trajectories were similar, yet different; she attended good schools, studying literature, creative writing, and finally music (the violin, still), while I went to a public schools and studied writing (journalism) and finally entered a graduate program in English literature.

On the road in the Dordogne Valley
Skipping ahead many, many years, Jachi and I reconnected from our respective homes in Brooklyn and San Francisco, never supposing our actual paths might cross again in an unexpected place: France!

Jachi met her husband at a Buddhist retreat in the south of France, in a little town in the Dordogne Valley, and after several years of the fast-paced life in the Big Apple, they decided to chuck it all in and move to his native France. On her way back to New York to put her apartment on the market, she passed through Paris, and we arranged a coffee rendezvous at Gare d'Austerlitz which stretched into a multi-hour middle-school reunion at a nearby brasserie. It was a great feeling to reconnect with an important person from my past, and such a surprise to discover a sense of connection. You never know if you'll have that, but we did.

My temporary home in Plazac sat at the end of this slender footpath
Recently, I received a phone call from my dear friend with an invitation attached: Would I like to attend her first live violin performance in France--in a private chateau!--the following week down in the Dordogne? Why, yes, I would! On a warm and bright July afternoon, I hopped a train down to Les Eyzies, where I was greeted by Jachi's husband. After being deposited at my temporary accommodations in the tiny village of Plazac, I freshened up and met my roommates--Jachi's friends from New York via Italy. Together, we shared a late lunch of bread, wine, and fresh tomatoes, then set off for the chateau ensemble.

One of my temporary roommates--and a bowlful of juicy heirloom tomatoes season with fresh basil
Jachi and her pianist Luba dazzled us with Beethoven, Franck, and Kreisler, each sonata more beautiful than the next. In between and afterward, we drank Champagne and socialized, and I thanked my lucky stars for the chance to experience something so special in a fairytale setting, surrounded by interesting people. Later, we met at a restaurant where 15 of us dined at a big table on the terrace, eating pizza and sipping Italian wines. It was magic.  

The Chateau du Peuch looks much the same today as it does in this vintage photograph.
From the chateau's front steps looking out over the valley and nearby hills.
Twenty-four hours later, I was back at my Paris apartment, savoring the memory of the experience, the spell not yet broken.

Is there any more perfect place for a reunion than an ancient stone house in the South of France?