Askinosie Chocolates: From the Bar to Beans, to Better Bars

by Ari Weinzweig

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the puns—Shawn Askinosie is a now retired (because he tired of it) trial lawyer who left his very well paying work at the bar to pursue his passion for chocolate making. Working to buy amazingly good beans at the source and then to bring them back to his hometown of Springfield, Missouri (you read that right) and make them into incredibly good chocolate bars. I say “better bars’ both because the chocolate itself is exceptionally good, and because it’s pretty clear from what he says it’s very clear that the work with the cacao has been far more rewarding (spiritually, at least) than what he was doing before.

Shawn’s chocolate is written up in the current issue of Zingerman’s News but I wanted to get it in here too because I’ve learned more about it since I wrote the newsletter piece, and also because the more I learn and the more I taste, the more I like it. Anyways you can get the full story in the newsletter (or I can email you the essay if you like!) but here’s the gist of it:

Here’s the gist of what’s getting me going:

1. The flavor

This chocolate tastes really amazingly good. I keep going back and tasting and retasting, sort of expecting to be underwhelmed at some point. But I’ll tell you, I actually like the chocolate more now than I did three months ago when I first tried it. The flavors are long, big, wide, complex, and compelling without being in the least being overly extreme in any one direction. In fact, I’ll just say that this chocolate fills the bill in terms of our definition of “full flavor”—it’s extremely complex, it’s very, very well balanced and it’s got a really great finish that stays with you with ever more appeal for a long, long time, even if you only eat a single square. It’s just really, really good.

2. The raw material

Every one that makes good chocolate says they “buy the best beans” but of course there are huge variations in quality—saying it and doing it are two very different things. But because it’s pretty much impossible to make a great chocolate like this from mediocre cacao, I feel pretty confident saying that this guy’s actually doing just what he says. Unlike most small chocolatiers, he’s actually going straight to the agricultural source and buying cacao beans from the growers. Shawn has spent significant time in South and Central America in order to meet every single one of the farmers from whom he’s getting cacao in order to get to know them and what they do. “Because of that,” he explained, “I’m able to literally evaluate the beans before we get them delivered. I direct the exact fermentation and drying specifications of my beans and this is the greatest influence of taste that there is.” The fermentation piece of this is huge—every really great chocolate maker talks about it at length, but few consumers yet understand how much difference it makes. It’s a credit to Shawn’s work with teaching fermentation techniques to the growers that the chocolate is as good as it is.

3. The chocolate making

Shawn is nothing if not fanatical about the attention to detail in each piece of the production, a trait which probably makes his wife crazy sometimes J, but from which the rest of get to benefit. All that little itty bitty detail stuff is what takes something from pretty good to the really amazing level of greatness that I that these bars are at (which I still attribute somewhat warily because they’re so relatively new) (or the Zzang bars from the Bakehouse—see below for more on those).
“There are only a few places to effect taste,” Shawn said on the phone last fall. “The farmers have the first three—growing, fermentation and drying. Then we have the rest—roasting, conching and the finishing. That’s where we try to not mess up what the farmers have created.” To focus his chocolate on the pure flavor of the cacao, Shawn decided not to use any of the lecithin or vanilla that are commonly used in most commercial chocolates. He does add a bit of cocoa butter, which, quite remarkably he makes himself in Missouri. The latter is almost unheard of in a production this small. Only a handful of chocolate producers—all much bigger than Askinosie—do it. I’m glad he is—it makes a small but very significant difference in the flavor and quality of the chocolate.

4. Connection

So much of what we do here in the ZCoB is about connection—hooking up the people who make the food, with the people who sell it, and then on to the customers (and us!) who actually eat it. It’s what I’ve come to call Six Degrees of Connection (I don’t like the negativity of “Six Degrees of Separation” though the alliteration of the latter is clearly better.) Our original connection with Shawn came, as many of you already know, through Jack Stack who runs Springfield Remanufacturing and co-wrote Great Game of Business (with Bo Burlingham) . . . maybe today I’ll call him the Babe Ruth of Open Book Finance—it’s not a place I’ve ever before learned about a really good new food, but, hey, connections are connections and good karmic stuff comes back to you many times over so it’s great that a hook up we’ve had for so many years in the finance and world went on to lead us to one of the best new chocolates I’ve had in ages.
Shawn takes that connection thing seriously too. Unprompted by me he said, “Part of what I want to do is to connect the people who eat the chocolate with the people who grow the beans.” He’s doing it. Like I said, the guy’s been to visit every single one of the farmers he buys from in Ecuador and in Mexico. Not only did he buy their beans though—he also later brought them finished chocolate to taste. Many had never had finished conched chocolate of any sort; and certainly hardly any (if any) had ever had finished chocolate made from their own beans. He also went down to meet them and thank them for all the work they were doing. He said that they uniformly were shocked to see him and that no chocolate maker—no one—had ever before come down to thank them for what they were doing.

5. Sustainability

While I’m starting to feel like the word itself is quickly becoming an “over-used resource,” I don’t have a better one to offer right now so let me just say that pretty much everything about this chocolate is set up to be sustainable. Shawn is paying over Fair Trade prices for the cacao, which I think, is great. As so many of our other like-minded producers have done, he’s committed to those prices as long as the quality of the beans is good. At an equal level of amazingness, Shawn went back later to actually review Askinosie’s early financial performance and deliver the first set of bonus checks to the growers—you can imagine the shock (in a good way) from them over that one. The packaging is all environmentally sound. He’s open book finance all the way back to the growers and has gone back down to Mexico and Ecuador to give the farmer’s their first bonus checks. And he’s doing some really great work with kids in need in his hometown of Springfield to teach them about chocolate as well.
So with that as background, here’s the details on the actual chocolate. There are four bars and I really think that they’re all amazingly good.
First up is the one from Mexico—it’s a 75 percent dark chocolate made with cacao from the area of Soconusco in southern Mexico. While today it’s just a tiny town on the country’s Pacific Coast, six or seven centuries ago Soconusco was to cacao what Bordeaux is today to grapes; in fact, the Aztecs took over the region simply because the cacao beans that came from there were so darned good. The area long ago fell off the radar of most everyone in the food world, but now, thanks to Shawn’s work, we all get to taste the fruit of the labor of Soconusco’s farmers—this is the first time this cacao has been used to make chocolate outside of Mexico in over 100 years! And it’s darned good stuff. (Through Shawn’s educational efforts the Soconusco growers have begun to ferment their cacao, something that wasn’t done in the old days but is one of the keys to making great chocolate from any cacao today.)
The more I eat this chocolate the more I like it. It’s got a very wide flavor that spreads out across your mouth side to side—not to sound stupid, but it’s just pretty darned delicious. Lots of really good, long lingering low notes accompanied by mellow but meaningful liveliness, very long finish with sort of dry red wine textures in the mouth maybe? It’s definitely not too sweet at all, which I like a lot. Little bits of flavor keep coming out long after you finish eating it. I like the not overly finessed feel it has in the mouth. I like the finish too—low and centered and very pleasant, lingering nicely long after you’ve finished eating it.
The second bar is the one made with nacional cacao (the variety of beans also known as Arriba) from Ecuador. The cacao it’s made from comes from the tiny, centuries-old village of San Jose Del Tambo, which lies in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. It’s got a cacao content of 70 percent, so it’s slightly less dark than the Mexican bar. As Shawn aid at the tasting session when he was here a few weeks ago, “it’s a completely different in taste from the Soconusco bar. It’s 70% cacao but in one of those nobody ever believes it but it’s true anyways, sometimes (like this time) lower percentages of cacao might taste “stronger” than others that have more simply because the beans are different. This is a good example of that because although it has less cacao in it, it really does taste darker than the Mexican bar above. It’s got a really big flavor, a big creamy mouthfeel, not too sweet in the least. Lots of delicious, dark low notes, really long finish.
The third and fourth bars are simply the two chocolates above, but each with the addition of cacao nibs from their respective home regions. I really like both of them, in part because the addition of the nibs makes the flavor slightly darker and deeper and less sweet, and because I really like the textural contrast you get from their crunch.

PS: Zzang!

Shawn came into town on a Sunday evening before going to the Zingerman’s Experience Seminar the next day, and went by the Deli to get some food. Among the many things he bought to take back to his hotel room he bought a Zzang bar, figuring he’d have a bite or two at the most for dessert (given that he eats a lot of chocolate it’s not like he needs more). He ended up eating the whole thing that night, and announced in the ZingTrain seminar the next day that the Zzang was the best candy bar he’d ever had. High praise from a very picky chocolate person with very good taste.

PPS: Don’t miss the newly arrived Chalk-late boxes for Valentine’s. When you see one at the Deli you’ll get the name. Very good gift . . . very good.

Fralinger’s Mints

by Ari Weinzweig

fralinger's-mintsI’m not exaggerating when I tell you that we spent literally spent over a year looking for a mint that would be what we wanted to offer guests after dinner at the Roadhouse. I think I must have tasted five-dozen different mints or after-dinner sweets before we finally found Fralinger’s Creamy Mint Sticks. In fact, I was sharing that same sentiment with a regular Roadhouse dinner customer the other day and I said, “It’s hard to believe, but it took over a year to find these.” He looked at me with a straight face, and said, “That’s not hard to believe at all. That’s what you guys do.” And I realized, he’s right. The search for the small touches that will take any experience from good to great is what we do.

What I know about this search is that it usually takes a really long time – a year isn’t excessive at all for us. Two years is often more like it. It’s nice to think (as I often do) that all this stuff should be worked out before one ever opens for business or starts selling a product. But of course, it just doesn’t work that way in real life. Because in real life, you don’t get to spend a year researching mints before you open a restaurant. When you put together your priority list, things like construction, staff training, wines, steaks and fish suppliers are all likely to come before mints. Then with lots of inquiries and tastings and web searches and samples getting sent, coolers breaking, staff turnover, snow storms, and a thousand other things I’ve already blocked out, it takes a year if you’re lucky.

We used to buy our mints from some very good producers who have good products, but for whatever reason they just didn’t quite hit it for me. They were good on their own, but not so good in the context of what I think needs to come after a meal.

Funny thing is that I could have been on to these all along because the Fralinger’s folks work with Tony Cox, our Dallas-based Mail Order advisor. One day, I was particularly frustrated with this whole mint thing and I emailed to Tony asking if maybe he knew of a mint that we might use. Turns out, not only did he know one, they were one of his clients. My mistake for not asking Tony earlier on.

And lucky we are because these are really good mints. Their formal name is Fralinger’s Creamy Mint Sticks. The Fralinger famly has been in the mint business in Atlantic City, NJ since the 1880’s. Joseph Fralinger, “a former glassblower and fish merchant,” (I’m sure you all know a lot of people who were former glass blowers and fish merchants) started a retail candy shop on the Boardwalk. Today it’s a fifth-generation, family-owned business, and the mints are made to the same recipe as they have been for many decades. They’re still double-wrapped in wax paper marked with the old green and white Fralinger’s logo. They have a long, delicate mintiness that fills the mouth slowly but doesn’t hit you over the head, and a really nice, sort of creamy, almost buttery texture, with a long clean, never cloying, finish.

These may be just little mints, but they are worth trying – a small, subtle but very enjoyable bit of flavor to enjoy when you’ve just finished up a good meal, or just when you want a nice flavor that will linger on your tongue for a while.

Fralinger’s Creamy Mint Sticks are available on the counter at the Roadhouse for 25 cents each. You can also buy a one-pound boxful for $7.99.

Housemade Doughnuts

by Ari Weinzweig

donutPretty much everyone seems to love doughnuts. And having just had the Roadhouse doughnuts rated in Saveur magazine and in John T. Edge’s Donut book as one of the best in the country, they’re more popular around these parts than ever.

In doing homework on doughnuts, I came across this quote from the Simpsons: “Doughnuts. Is there anything they can’t do?”

At first I paid little attention to it. But the more I talk to folks about doughnuts, the more I’m starting to think that the Simpsons were really on to something. People *@#* love doughnuts!!! Honestly I don’t think I’ve ever seen more people’s eyes get so wide over a single food than when I’ve told them over the last month or two that we’re making doughnuts at the Roadhouse. I mean caviar and smoked salmon and all that great stuff gets people thinking, but the response to doughnuts seems to be sort of intensely visceral, an almost instinctive, intuitive, uncontrollable response. Like they don’t even have to think about it- I say “doughnuts,” and they just start smiling.

Doughnuts are an American tradition that dates back to the arrival of the Dutch. It seems that the original idea of the American doughnut may actually be tied to a New Year’s Eve tradition in the Netherlands. The “oliebol” (the name means, literally, “oil ball”) is a yeasted batter with raisins that’s fried in hot oil and could be light and fluffy or denser with powdered sugar. One Dutchman I talked to said with a broad smile, “We eat piles of them for New Year’s Eve in Holland.” The American name? Of course no one really knows but it could well be that early recipes suggested that the cook make up little “nuts” of dough to fry.

Here in the States, doughnuts were a home-cooked food up until the early years of the 20th century. Large-scale commercial production probably started in the 1920’s, at which time they were most popular for taking to movie theaters. At about that time, to satisfy the growing demand for doughnuts, one inventive Russian Jewish immigrant named Adolph Levitt created the first doughnut machine. By 1934, the same year that the World’s Fair in Chicago declared the doughnut “the food hit of the Century of Progress,” Levitt was pulling down twenty-five million dollars annually on sales of his doughnut machines to bakeries. His daughter Sally Levitt Steinberg put together The Donut Book to tell his story and that of doughnuts in general. (The book is highly recommended-great visuals as well as being really informative.)

Here in 2006, the big thing with doughnuts in our world is that we’re making them from scratch at the Roadhouse and that they’re really good.

Last year the doughnuts were written up in the Ann Arbor Observer about the new All-American brunch at the Roadhouse. “… The real showstoppers are the house-made doughnuts, adapted by Roadhouse chef Alex Young from a traditional Dutch-American recipe. World’s apart from the standard sugar-flour-grease bombs of chain fame, Roadhouse doughnuts are full flavored, with hints of molasses, lemon zest and nutmeg in a rich buttermilk batter, deep fried but not greasy, and dusted with a dark brown muscovado sugar. Everyone at our table (which included some hard-to-impress New Yorkers) was utterly bowled over.”