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)
Some of you may have read about my first Superfood Muffin recipe, a mix of healthy flours, oils, and ‘superfoods’ like goji berries and chia seeds. Well, today I want to share with you a different version, one that I think I may like better than the original!
While the recipe I use for both versions is similar in many ways, I used a different website for my inspiration this time around—Blissful Blueberry Banana Spelt Muffins provided by oh she glows, a great website about vegan and gluten-free living (and eating).
This time around, I changed up my superfoods. The muffin batter has a similar base, including banana and avocado. But from there I took some different turns, including the addition of almond milk, and apple cider vinegar–thanks to oh she glows’ inspiration. For the add-ins, I incorporated a whole lot of fresh blueberries and a large handful of raw cacao nibs—my new favorite Super ingredient! I bought mine from Chocovivo, an amazing local raw chocolate shop that I will post about very soon. You can also find nibs at health food stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, and of course online.
On their own, cacao nibs (if they are 100% cacao with no added sugar) are quite bitter and potent, but once you add them into a recipe or mix them into a smoothie, their flavor is mellowed out and provides a rich, chocolatey complement to whatever you serve them with, plus a bunch of great minerals and nutrients. Raw cacao nibs are packed with fiber and beneficial polyphenols, much more than processed chocolate. Turns out you can have your cake—er, chocolate—and eat it too!
I wrote about the health benefits of many of the other ingredients in my previous recipe post, so feel free to check it out for more info. If you do make any of these versions, let me know how they turn out and how you modify them. Hope you have fun trying out your own twists on these recipes!
May the Food be with You,
Superfood Muffins: The Sequel
-Approx ½ medium avocado
-¾ cup almond milk (you could use hemp, coconut, soy, or whatever floats your ‘milky’ boat)
-1 tsp apple cider vinegar (if you don’t have any on hand your muffins will still be edible, this just helps the batter rise a little better for a lighter texture)
-1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
-¼ cup coconut oil, melted
-2 cups flour; I used 1 c. spelt, ½ c. oat flour, ½ c. millet flour (you could use any combo of flours your heart desires!)
-1/3 cup coconut sugar (you can find at TJs!)
-½ cup oats
-2 tsp baking powder
-1.5 tsp cinnamon
-¼ tsp Himalayan sea salt
-½ tsp baking soda
-1-2 cups fresh or frozen* blueberries (I used 1 whole punnet of fresh berries)
-Optional add-ins: ¼ cup chia seeds or hemp seeds, ½ cup chopped walnuts, ½ cup goji berries, ½ cup cacao nibs (I went with the nibs, added amazing depth of flavor and are little bits of superfood goodness!)
- Preheat oven to 350F and grease a muffin tin with coconut oil
- In a medium bowl, mash bananas and avocado.
- Add the milk, vinegar, maple syrup, and vanilla to mashed banana/avocado mix. No need to stir it yet.
- Melt the coconut oil in a small pot over low heat (or in microwave). Set aside.
- In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda).
- Stir coconut oil into the wet mixture. Pour wet ingredients onto the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Do not overmix as spelt is a fragile flour.
- Gently fold in your chosen add-ins and then the blueberries, being sure not to overmix as this can result in dense muffins.
- Spoon batter into muffin tin cups about 3/4 full (or if you are like me, all the way to the top!)
- Bake at 350F for 23-27 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean, or when you press the tops gently they are somewhat firm (not doughy) to the touch.
- Cool in pan for about 10 minutes and then transfer muffins to a cooling rack and cool for another 15 minutes.
*Note: If using frozen blueberries, be sure to leave them in the freezer (do not thaw) until just before you stir them into the batter. This helps prevent bleeding—unless you like purple muffins, in which case disregard! J