I have a penchant for picking out the most expensive products at farmer’s markets. Whether it’s raw honey, organic pomegranate juice, or avocado hummus, I’m a sucker for specialty artisanal foods.
By far one of my greatest weaknesses is for good quality, vegan dark chocolate—and it just so happens that my local farmer’s market is happy to oblige in the form of Chocovivo, a small artisanal chocolate making company that makes minimally processed, stone-ground chocolates free from dairy, soy lecithin, and refined sugars.
While I typically buy Chocovivo chocolate at the farmer’s market (they maintain a stall at the Culver City market on Tuesday evenings, and one at the Mar Vista market on Sunday mornings), the company also has a small storefront on Washington Boulevard where they host chocolate tastings (awesome!), both of solid chocolate and assorted hot and iced chocolate drinks as well.
One evening I just couldn’t hold out anymore, and I convinced by boyfriend to accompany me on a chocolate tasting adventure. Even before you enter Chocovivo, the storefront lures you in with its warm, rich lighting and whimsical wooden décor. Is it a wine bar? Tapas bar? Nope! It’s all about the chocolate in this place! When I entered the shop, I felt like Dorothy leaving Kansas (a.k.a. Culver City) and landing in Oz (a.k.a. magical chocolate land). Or many Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but with none of the weird song/dance numbers or snotty children–although they do call the chocolate makers Oompa Loompas here.
No, this is a very adult type of candy store—where couples sit closely on bar stools made out of tree stumps, leaning in towards each other as they share a thick, indulgent cup of dark hot chocolate, or sample a platter of various home-made cacao concoctions. Lining the walls are various cacao products for sale, including the chocolate bars—in myriad flavors—that Chocovivo is perhaps most well-known for. Also for sale or hand filled bags of raw cacao nibs, cacao powder, and chocolate spreads. It was hard to keep my cool when all I wanted to do was try IT ALL.
It turns out, you pretty much can. One of the menu options is a chocolate sampler (along the lines of a wine or beer flight, or cheese sampler)—you can choose how many chocolates to sample, all the way up to the max, which is thirteen (I’ll give you one guess which option I went for!). I had my partner in chocolate crime with me, so I figured we could handle it.
As the store assistant began pulling open drawers behind the counter and removing various pieces of chocolate to line our plate, he explained the process of harvesting, fermenting, roasting, and grinding the cacao to turn it into the bars, powders, and spreads before us. Chocovivo does not use any sort of heat processing—a step most chocolate producers use to maximize efficiency—they just grind the cacao using traditional lava stones, then mix in pure unrefined can sugar and whatever flavors they are using for each type of chocolate bar. Their website explains the process, and their relationship with cacao farms, in more detail. The result of their approach is a high quality chocolate that retains much more of the natural nutrients, as well as flavor, contained in cacao beans. Chocovivo chocolates are all vegan, natural, organic, with no additives (e.g. soy lecithin, cocoa butter, etc.).
For someone who has never tried minimally processed chocolate before (or dark—I’m talking 80% chocolate), Chocovivo may take some getting used to. The bars have a slightly gritty texture, from the pure ground cacao beans, and a rich, slightly bitter flavor that is non-existent in processed milk chocolate—because milk chocolate has barely any real chocolate in it at all! Needless to say, the texture and the flavor are actually what draw me to Chocovivo. A little goes a long way—the two of us only made it through about half of our chocolate flight—but the complex flavors and textures are ooh-so-satisfying.
Included in our tasting flight were four types of plain dark chocolate (ranging from 60% to 100% pure cacao!). Of these, I’d have to say I preferred the 85%, followed by the 75%, which was just ever so slightly sweeter and milder. My boyfriend was more into the lighter side of dark, going for the 60%.
Then came the blended chocolates: Almond with sea salt, Shangri-La (black sesame with goji berries), Mayan Tradition (cinnamon and spice), Cherry-almond and Black peppercorn, and coffee and vanilla bean. Each of these was intriguing in its own right, and it wouldn’t really be fair to rate them in any order. However, the Shangri-La is one of the most uniquely flavored chocolates I’ve come across, definitely worth a taste. I always love coffee flavored chocolate because of the contrast between sweetness and bitterness, and the cherry-almond flavor was satisfying on a number of levels. But we weren’t done yet.
There were also the limited edition blends: Macadamia Nut and Coconut, Lavender and Lemon, Nibby Bar with raw cacao nibs, and Hazelnut and Sea Salt. Wow. Talk about an overwhelming array of flavors. We bravely took our time sampling each one and compared notes. The macadamia/coconut blend was the richest, the nibby bar was an all around winner with nice texture and flavor, but my favorite was the lavender/lemon combo—a slight perfumy fruitiness balanced with rich dark chocolate. Out of all of the thirteen flavors, the only one that fell flat, surprisingly, was the hazelnut/sea salt blend. Neither of us thought it compared to the rest—something about the flavor fell flat. Perhaps it was just a bad bunch of hazelnuts, or not the right balance of nuts to other ingredients. But it was the only bar out of the thirteen that I wouldn’t miss.
Even though we couldn’t finish our chocolate flight, I felt it was my duty to try something else on offer, perhaps a warm chocolately drink. I also was looking for excuses not to leave this adorable sanctuary of a shop so I could continue to watch the oompa loompas (that’s literally what they call the chocolate makers at this shop) work their magic on the other side of the glass. So, ignoring my satiated stomach and my already-overloaded on polyphenols brain, I ordered a hot chocolate that blended a mix of dark and mayan spice with almond milk.
As we waited for the drink, I watched the owner of the shop, Patricia, meet and greet various customers, explaining with passion the various aspects of her business and the sourcing of her chocolate. I worked up the nerve to approach her and chat for a few minutes, and even took a picture with her! It’s always rewarding to meet the entrepreneurs behind socially and environmentally forward-thinking ventures.
The hot chocolate was incredible; thick, rich, warming, soothing. But soooo intense after 13 other chocolate flavors! I tried to finish as much as I could (also pressuring the BF to help out), and eventually we slid off our bench seats, still in a chocolate stupor, and wandered out of the shop just before closing time (oh, and I definitely had a doggy-bag in hand with our un-eaten remnants of the chocolate flight).
I had successfully fulfilled a lifelong dream of eating chocolate, and nothing but chocolate, for dinner; and supporting a wonderful local business while I was at it! Chocovivo is an absolutely perfect place to go on a cute first date, a romantic second, third, or hundredth date, or just to treat yourself or a friend to a hot (or iced) chocolate after a long week. And if you are serious about your dark chocolate love affair, Chocovivo is your answer to satisfying that craving in a healthier, more sustainable, and enjoyable manner.
Chocovivo: Culver City, CA
There are way too many varieties for me to provide individual ratings, but you can get the gist of my preferences above. However, here is my overall rating for Chocovivo chocolates.
Health: 4 out of 5 (this is taking into consideration that dark chocolate is meant to be enjoyed in small portions. However, Chocovivo chocolate is unprocessed, organic, full of natural vitamins and minerals, and has very low sugar. Therefore, as far as chocolates go, its pretty much as healthy as you can get–especially if you choose the pure, darkest varieties. Chocolate has many health benefits that I won’t go into here, but only high quality chocolate like this contains significant amounts of these nutrients)
Taste: 4-5 out of 5 (depending on the variety; for those who prefer milder chocolate, stick with the 60% and blended, for the purists, go for the darkest for ultimate taste bud pleasure!)
Ambiance at shop: 5 out of 5 (Adorable, very cute date spot as well as just fun to browse in, friendly staff, can watch chocolate being made)
Every Wednesday USC hosts a farmer’s market on campus for students, staff, and community members alike to conveniently purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, and a variety of snacks and prepared foods. I love famer’s market day because it’s a wonderful excuse to take a stroll outside for a little while, get some sun, and pick up a few snacks to stash in my desk at work.
Today I visited the market on the earlier side, before many of the stalls had been set up. My stomach was growling, and I was still craving something more than the tangerine and almonds I had already purchased. I noticed one solitary stall on the far end of the pathway with a small crowd of students in front of it. I decided to check it out, and discovered a magical little table displaying an assortment of mouth-watering chocolate treats.
The woman behind the table immediately greeted me with a contagious smile. She introduced herself as Kimberly, the sole owner and chocolatier of Bond Bar. Kimberly explained that she runs a very small operation; in fact she makes all of her chocolate bars and barks in her home, and sells that at a few wineries and specialty markets.
She sources quality Belgian chocolate (her website mentions that she studied abroad in Belgium where she was inspired to pursue her chocolate making endeavors) and combines it with both sweet and savory elements to create irresistible bars. The chocolate bars on display contained flavors ranging from coconut and cookies and cream to peanut butter toffee crunch and ‘Celebration’ a bar that supposedly tastes just like birthday cake. Not all the bars are vegan, but many of them are, and most are gluten free as well.
Kimberly gave me a sample of the vegan/GF dark chocolate bar with dried cherries and roasted almonds. Needless to say, it was amazing! The 72% cocoa content contrasted nicely with the slight sweetness and tartness of the cherry, and savory aspect of the almonds; plus the bar is topped off with a subtle hint of cypress salt for an even more complex flavor. When you unwrap the bar, you can actually see big chunks of cherry and almonds all throughout, not like the more processed store-bought variety.
Now these are not your typical delicate chocolate bar—these Bond Bars are hefty! A single bar probably ways a quarter of a pound, and is much thicker than a typical chocolate bar. It almost looks like fudge in the wrapping. So even though the price per bar may drop your jaw momentarily ($5-10 at the market, up to $12 online), I can vouch for the fact that you are actually getting the same quantity of chocolate that would normally be in 2-3 ‘typical’ sized bars, and therefore is not actually so outrageous—especially considering the small scale at which Kimberly is producing her products.
Besides, I’m always inspired by individuals who are brave enough to start their own businesses, especially when they are genuinely passionate and driven enough to take a risk and produce something for others to enjoy. Kimberly won me over instantly with her friendly, enthusiastic disposition as she described her products and business. I was happy to support her by purchasing one of the cherry/almond bars (and almost immediately devouring a good portion of it with my colleagues upon returning to my office!).
The quality of the chocolate is apparent, and the variety of flavors Kimberly has on offer is impressive. There is no nutrition label on the bars, so I cannot determine the quantity of sugar or other ingredients in the chocolate. I will likely inquire next time I attend the market to get a better idea of the ingredients Kimberly uses. I would also be more likely to continually purchase a product like this if I knew that the cocoa and other key ingredients were organic and/or fair trade, which would further justify paying a higher price. But I know that with a small business, you have to take one step at a time (check back in the coming days for my review of Chocovivo, another local artisanal chocolate company that is making minimally processed, organic stone-ground chocolate, as well as KindKreme, which produces vegan raw chocolate desserts).
These bars are definitely a bit of an indulgence, but if its a choice between home-made dark chocolate or the sickeningly sweet kettle-corn that’s taking over farmer’s markets by storm, I’ll choose the artisanal chocolate any day of the week!
Dark chocolate Bond Bar with dried cherries and toasted almond ($10)
Health rating: 2.5 out of 5 (no nutrition label on the bar, so this is qualitative; the cocoa content is fairly high at 72% which is good, but there is definitely a decent amount of sugar—not sure whether it is refined or not—and perhaps soy lecithin as well)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (rich dark chocolate taste with generous amount of cherries and almonds, in a thick satiating bar; I could handle a bit more bitterness though)
Dark Chocolate Bond Bar with Sea Salt
Health rating: 2.5 out of 5 (see above)
Taste: 4 out of 5 (Wonderful rich dark chocolate flavor, just slightly too sweet to be my fave, and not as complex as the cherry/almond bar above, which is still my fave)