Chocolate and Cacao Discoveries in Pittsburgh
And Hot Chocolate Explorations in Rochester
by Lindsay Tarnoff
Hot Chocolate (Hot Cocoa?) Traditions
On a cold day, as the snow falls silently, gracefully, or after building a snowman, I love warming up with a cup of hot chocolate. It somehow seems serendipitous that my most recent trip to Pittsburgh has resulted in my most traditional spicy cup of hot chocolate.
My first trip to Pittsburgh was about eight years ago – I started traveling there when my now husband and I started dating. I loved the city right away; in a way, it felt like home. A post-industrial city, with residents passionate about their home and fervently supportive of local sports teams and small businesses. And their food!
Trips to Pittsburgh for me, have always been fun. Of course, as I am prone to do, I found myself drawn to all things chocolate in my travels.
During my first trip to the strip district, with my mother-in-law’s encouragement, I wandered into Mon Aimee Chocolat. It was one of my first forays, or rather, my first deep dive into the craft chocolate world. In the years since I had immersed myself in chocolatier-ing, I hadn’t realized how much the B2B chocolate world had exploded. Small batch, craft chocolate bars were popping up everywhere. I browsed, I shopped, I came back to Laughing Gull Chocolates with lots of chocolate to taste! And with that – soon after, voila, our first chocolate tasting was born!
Chocolate tastings are a blast. Through these events, we have found a unique way to sample new chocolates, push our sensory boundaries and, especially since the pandemic, connect with people across the country and even world. (If you’d like to experience one for yourself, contact us here for a private tasting, or join us for a pre-scheduled tasting, or pairing. We are also doing our first self-guided full bar chocolate tasting)!
Since that first trip to Pittsburgh, I’ve been back numerous times, always enjoying a trip to the chocolate store. A few years later, on a trip around Thanksgiving, my family and I wanted a warm place to explore with our new walker. We discovered the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and imagine my surprise when we meandered into the Tropical exhibit to fine not one but two cacao trees – with fully grown cacao pods! Pittsburgh would forever be a favorite city.
After a brief travel hiatus due to the pandemic, this year’s covid-safe Thanksgiving trip to Pittsburgh included two chocolate encounters! The first was yet another surprise cacao tree at the National Aviary. Gorgeous tropical birds abound, I walked right past the colorful feathered creatures to the rather sad looking lone cacao tree.
Cacao desires company, much like a person consuming a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day. While the tree lacked flowers and pods, that didn’t diminish my sense of wonder for the “Tree of the Gods.”
And serendipity endured on this trip. Once again, a trip to the Strip District brought us to Penzeys, a local spice store. I was introduced to Penzeys by my family on our trips to Pittsburgh, and love their spices, their vibe, just as much as I love their progressive social media and social justice values. They are not afraid to speak up for what they believe in. As I wandered the aisles, breathing in all the spices, I walked right into the shelf with achiote seeds and without thinking, put them in my basket.
Achiote is a slightly sweet, peppery spice often used as a food coloring. Native to Mesoamerica, historically, achiote was used to color Aztec chocolate beverages, specifically those used in sacrifices. This spiced, colored chocolate is said to have represented blood in religious ceremonies.
I was thrilled to bring back this achiote to Rochester just in time for our first hot chocolate class through The Brainery. This class included the ingredients for two cups of hot chocolate – one more traditional with spices and ingredients such as achiote, and the other, a more modern day cup of hot chocolate. Participants prepared and frothed their own mugs of hot chocolate and enjoyed them as we explored the origin and evolution of hot chocolate. Want to learn more about how to use achiote in a hot chocolate, or try it for yourself? Join us for our first public hot chocolate class in early March.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh will continue to be a haven of chocolate for me, as I explore the beauty and nuance of craft chocolate and the city of Steel.
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