Chocolate has entered my life at fun and surprising moments, causing me to suspect cocoa-dar. One such experience occurred as my husband Mark and I traveled in 2006 in our van from Paris south on a small road to Carpentras via the towns of Dijon, Lyons, and Avignon. As Mark drove, I usually read or worked on the computer or slept. At one point I just happened to pick up my head in time to notice a bright orange check mark against a black backdrop which I amazingly recognized as the logo for Valrhona chocolate, having seen the chocolate bars on sale at Trader Joe’s in San Diego. We were able to pull over quickly, park, and check the map, realizing that we had luckily happened upon Tain-L’Hermitage , the small town base of Valrhona , reputed to be one of the best chocolate makers in the world. To our delight, and, admittedly to our gluttony, every item for purchase was also available as samples, from curry flavored chocolate, to chocolate covered nuts, to bon bons, to hot chocolate. We tasted it all. Then, as we paid for our purchases, the cashier threw in even more treats! Good thing my cocoa-dar had been working.
It kicked in again later in the trip when we changed our travel route to Turin to cross the Alps from Menton and Sospel, France into Italy. Mark managed the truly scary switchbacks in the van in very mild weather. At the tunnel at the border, we approached a red light, a very long red light, a light that remained red though there was no traffic, a light provided with a timer so we know that, good travelers that we are, we waited for 20 minutes. Finally, with the permission of the green light, we traversed the tunnel to find snow on the other side. We put on our sweaters, enjoying the beautiful contrast from one side to the other, the snow covered chalets scattered over the mountainsides. Just as we entered the valley, we chanced upon Venchi , Spaccio del Cioccolato. This Venchi chocolate factory, in business since 1878, offered a well stocked liquor bar as well as a very large selection of chocolates, including its specialty rum balls made with Cuban rum. Without hesitation we celebrated our arrival in Italy, the dramatic drive through the Alps and the change from warmth to snow, with chocolate.
My cocoa-dar engaged once again when we visited Turin. Chocolate admittedly was the reason for the visit to Turin, as I especially wanted to try the chocolate drink known as bicerin and also to sample the hazelnut filled chocolates, a specialty of the area. We found what we were looking for, and much more. The small, low ceilinged, candle lit shop called Caffè Al Bicerin, founded in 1763, is reputed to be the best source of this drink of Turin, having created it back then. Always run by women, the Caffè’s location near the santuario of the Consolata, meant that women often broke their Lenten and communion fasts there. The drink and the café are named after the handle-less glass in which the bicerin is served.
As Mark and I savored the much anticipated bicerin–layered hot chocolate, coffee and cream–we unabashedly stared across the small room as a couple of men scooped something thick and chocolaty out of a bowl. Checking with the waitress about it, we learned that they were eating warm chocolate soup poured over hazelnut cake called torta di nocciole con cioccolate calda. We could not resist; what a terrific two course chocolate lunch that turned out to be.
After a bit of shopping in the Al Bicerin chocolate shop next door, and, yes, amazingly a bit more tasting, our plan to leave Turin was undone by cocoa-dar. On the way back to the van, Mark stopped in a store to look for a map for the next leg of the trip. There, we learned about the Turin chocolate festival, taking place, then, just a square or two away. Wow! Wow! Wow! Without hesitation we delayed our departure from Turin to enjoy our first chocolate festival, featuring chocolate makers from Turin and elsewhere. The several day, annual festival includes chocolate related entertainment, tastings and classes. After wandering the booths, savoring the treats and stocking up on chocolate pasta and a most delicious chocolate liquor, we finally left Turin. When our religion major daughter asked whether we had seen the Shroud of Turin , we rabbis licked the chocolate off our fingers and embarrassingly admitted that we had completely forgotten about the shroud.
My cocoa-dar also works pretty well stateside. A couple of years ago my lovely congregants, knowing of my interest in chocolate, wanted me to meet their family friend Carole Bloom, author of several dessert books, including Chocolate for Dummies and All About Chocolate. At that time Carole was on a book tour so we could not meet though we then both lived in San Diego county. In August, 2008, Mark and I were on vacation in San Diego taking yoga classes in Carlsbad. As visitors we happened to overhear names of other people in the class. After the fourth class, I saw the woman named Carole enter a car with the license plate "DESSERT." My cocoa-dar suspected that this might be the Carole Bloom I had hoped to meet a couple of years ago. A few moments later, Mark and I made a stop at the nearby Chuao Chocolate store where we saw one of Bloom’s books displayed; the picture confirmed my suspicion. So, Carole Bloom and I finally met, thanks to my cocoa-dar. I plan to keep perfecting that cocoa-dar.