GLOBAL GROCERIES | Local and luxurious Valentine's Day chocolates and choices

Once considered junk food, chocolate – at least dark chocolate – is being touted as the newest magic food, an antioxidant that can lower cholesterol, prevent cognitive decline, improve blood pressure, prevent stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Is it true? Studies from Harvard Medical School and research published in the Journal of Nutrition, among many others, seem to say it is. And at least for Valentine’s Day, I choose to believe.

So, on February 8, I drove to the Mississippi Market Co-op at the corner of Selby and Dale in the tony Summit Hill neighborhood for a Chocolate Tasting and Gift Fair, hoping to eat local and get healthy.

I confess that I’m really not much of a sweets eater. Even in grade school, I declined the cookies and cupcakes passed out at monthly birthday parties. (Yeah, I know. I’m weird.) But, I make an exception for chocolate and ice cream.

My first stop was at the Mississippi Market’s own sample table where Christine, one of the Market’s ‘food ambassadors’ was distributing one of the market’s Valentine season specialties, a rich and deeply chocolate devil’s food cake (amazing) and showing off small gift boxes containing chocolate truffles, chocolate covered fresh strawberries and cookies. At $10, it’s a perfect Valentine’s gift.

At the Barsy’s Almonds table, I chatted with owner Barbara Spenader, who was handing out samples of the company’s "Naughties," a delicious cocoa-covered almond with a touch of cinnamon and cayenne and the “Sweeties," a cinnamon-roasted almond that is reminiscent of chai tea. Barsy’s makes five flavors of almonds, but “These are the sweet ones, for Valentine’s Day,” said Spenader. Barsy’s started at the Midtown Farmer’s Market six years ago. The almonds can now be found in 19 states including a number of co-ops and specialty shops in the Twin Cities.

BT McElrath, the renowned Northeast Minneapolis chocolate kitchen, has a Valentine’s Day Chocolate Collection – chocolate bars, truffles, passion-fruit mousse-filled "Passion Hearts," and dark chocolate "Love Notes," with romantic messages airbrushed on top. Chocolate-hungry shoppers lined up to try all of them. Beyond the seasonal indulgences, BT McElrath sells nine kinds of truffles and seven kinds of "bites," among which the "Salty Dog" bar is a best seller.

And while it’s hard to wrap up a carton of ice cream in pretty paper and present it as a Valentine’s gift, the chocolate ice cream from award winning Izzy’s Ice Cream (garnering a "best of" from Saveur, Food and Wine and Reader’s Digest and taking home a win on the Food Network’s contest Throwdown!) had people lining up for samples. Liz Lorge, the kitchen manager at Izzy’s said she’d already handed out 300 mini-scoops despite the below-zero temps outside. “Our regular chocolate ice cream is darker than most ice creams,” she said. “We use a dark red cocoa and chocolate liquor and our ice cream has 16 percent butterfat.”

For those still skeptical of the health food claims for chocolate, a chat with Pol Sorquist, who with his sisters Wendy and Liz started making Pashen Bars (pronounced passion,) will erase all doubt. The cacao bars are crafted with organic buckwheat, pumpkin seeds, goji berries, almond butter, cacao, sesame seeds and local honey. And if sprouted, dehydrated, gluten free and biologically active phenolic compounds don’t interest you, the flavor will. They taste like sophisticated, chewy chocolaty extravagances. “It’s more like a breakfast bar,” says Sorquist. “It’s quick energy for runners and bikers.” A whole bar is lavish, both in flavor and price, averaging about $5 a bar, but for most folks, a few bites should satisfy.

According to Guy Grad, the floor manager at South Lyndale Liquors, Valentine’s Day is not all about chocolate. Sometimes, it’s about the alcohol, especially champagne from France. He has strong opinions on what to buy.

“Everybody knows Veuve Clicquot – they recognize the label so they buy it,” says Grad. “But, what you should really look for is a grower’s champagne, by a small production, family-run grape farmer.” He recommends Pierre Callot paired with strongly flavored foods like Indian or Thai. “The food has a bite and Pierre Callot helps cleanse your palate.”

Beyond the traditional champagne, Grad recommends dessert drinks for Valentine’s Day. “Warre’s 2011 Vintage Port is amazing,” he says. He also raves about Koval’s spirits, organic small batch liqueurs, made by a family-owned Chicago distillery, using ingredients from local small farmers. “For Valentine’s Day, you should try the Chrysanthemum and Honey Liqueur. It makes perfect romantic Valentine’s Day cocktails.”

Grad says that while sales of champagne and red wine go up slightly around Valentine’s Day, they usually don’t sell a lot more alcohol than usual. “A lot of people go out instead.” But even then, it’s nice to come back home to chocolate and something to sip.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

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    Stephanie Fox's picture
    Stephanie Fox

    Stephanie Fox (stephaniefox2 at tcdailyplanet dot net) has a Master's Degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. She moved to Minneapolis of her own free will in 1984.