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February 9, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Chocolate Dreams and Passions


The origins of the Valentine's Day holiday are lost somewhere in the mists of time.

It is assumed that it has something to do with St. Valentine, but there are several in the Catholic canon, and no one is totally certain which saint is being honored. An educated guess says that the holiday is yet another appropriated from the Pagans and/or the Romans, perhaps one associated with fertility rituals, but again, we don't know.

Nor does anyone know exactly how the day became associated with gifts, be they cards decorated with hearts expressing romantic love and/or desire (or picturing a favorite TV star or cartoon character) or bouquets of flowers. There's a tall tale about an execution eve mash note to the jailer's daughter "from your Valentine," but no evidence to show it's true. How did boxes of candy -- especially chocolates -- come into the picture? Who knows?

Heart-shaped two-layer chocolate cakeWe do know something about the history of chocolate, the tempting substance made from fermented, roasted, ground beans of the cacao tree, a New World plant used for thousands of years by the Aztecs and the Mayans, who considered it the food of the gods. It was "discovered" by Columbus, who brought some back to Ferdinand and Isabella. Chocolate was quite different back then, a bitter cocoa drink called xocoatl, usually spiced with chili pepper -- that's a far cry from the sweet mocha latte I have with my breakfast most mornings, while my wife drinks her double espresso. Not sure if there's a connection with Valentine's Day, but historians believe that the Aztecs associated the drink with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility.

The Europeans took to the bean but changed its use: They countered cocoa's bitterness with milk and sugar, dropped the chili pepper and often added another New World spice, vanilla. It took a few hundred years, but around the end of the 1700s someone figured out how to make solid chocolate, and, in the 1800s, smoother chocolate using fat extracted from the beans (cocoa butter) along with dry cocoa. Various Europeans whose names are now familiar (Nestlé, Lindt and Cadbury, among them) helped refined the process, creating sensual, melt-in-your-mouth chocolates something like those we eat today.

Valentine's Day and chocolate come together for an annual event that has become a local tradition: the Vector Gala Chocolate Party, now in its 23rd year.

It's also a place "where art and chocolate merge together," according to Simon Fisher, executive director of Vector Health Programs, a nonprofit physical and occupational rehabilitation therapy clinic in Eureka, that counts on the party as its major fundraiser.

[Photo above right:
Chocolate cake from Cherry Blossom Pastry Shop:
Winner of the "Best Romantic Theme" prize at a previous Vector Chocolate Gala.]

Fisher explained that there are two main components to the gala. First there's the "tasters" -- an array of "donations made by community members, volunteers and friends of Vector who bake their secret family recipe for cookies, brownies or fudge or you name it -- if it's got chocolate in it someone will make it. We'll have 60 of those, all cut into bite-sized pieces for you to try. We've had everything from extravagant truffles to your basic chocolate chip cookie."

Then there's the competition: The Chocolate Creation Contest. "The entries mostly come from bakers in the local area, professional bakeries," said Fisher, "but also from advanced amateurs. Most are along the line of cakes, which tend to be extravagant in their use of chocolate. They're judged on artistic impression, and also how they fit the theme of the party. Mostly they surround the whole concept of chocolate and Valentine's Day. This year the theme of the party itself is dreaming, so some will incorporate that into their displays."

The creations are not eaten at the party -- instead they're auctioned off, along with the usual fundraiser auction fare: travel packages, art works, donations from local businesses. Another chocolicious attraction: A bubbling chocolate fountain supplied by Avalon, with fruit, biscotti and other assorted items ready to be dipped. "It's really the centerpiece for our event. You see it as you walk in the door," said Fisher.

Now, dipping this and that in chocolate is a long-standing tradition. In fact, most candy bars and boxes of chocolates are examples of one thing or another dipped into a bubbling vat of brown sweetness: nougat or caramels, cherries or nuts, or often one kind of chocolate dipped in another. The combinations are endless.

You'll find a wide range of things dipped in chocolate at most candy stores, and Grandma B's Fudge, on the Arcata Plaza, is no exception. Proprietor/candy maker Mark Owens started the business about two and a half years ago. As the name suggests, he uses recipes learned from his grandmother, confections Owens remembers from Christmas time, like Grandma Barnes' Midwestern-style peanut butter fudge and classic chocolate fudge, which I'd say tastes like something my own grandma might have made.

At Grandma B's you'll find marshmallows dipped in chocolate, marshmallows dipped in caramel then in chocolate, dipped Oreos -- even pretzels (an unlikely medium for chocolate, in my opinion). I was looking for my favorite, dipped candied ginger, but they were out (Owens promised more was coming for Valentine's Day). Instead I tried something new: dipped dried mango. I'm sorry to say it did not really work -- the chocolate overpowered the mango. Perhaps some things are better left un-dipped.

Up the street at the Ramone's outlet in Wildberries, I picked up a chocolate cookie sandwich filled with peppermint and dipped, just half way. Not bad, but not nearly as good as the dipped fresh strawberries, one of their more popular items, along with their excellent truffles, which come with optional fancy wrapping. The staff assured me they were ramping up production of all things chocolaty in advance of the lovers' holiday next Tuesday.

What will my Valentine bring me? That remains to be seen, but she knows how much I like that dipped ginger, and she's usually good for a few elegant truffles. The truth is, all I really want is one passionate chocolate kiss.

The 23rd Annual Vector Chocolate Gala and Chocolate Creation Contest takes place Thursday, Feb. 9, beginning at 5 p.m. at the Adorni Center, 1011 Waterfront Dr. in Eureka. Admission is $30. For more information call 442-3199 ext. 212.


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