Meeting John Scharffenberger
I met John Scharffenberger last Thursday.
Yes, one of the founders of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker.
I passed by my local chocolate cafe, The Chocolate Room, that afternoon, only to notice a sign in the window saying that John Scharffenberger would be there that evening to give a talk and sign copies of his new book, Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg. I’ve been looking forward to the book, but I thought it wasn’t even out yet. Not to mention I had other plans that evening. But I came back anyway, eager to buy a copy of the new book and listen to the man give his talk.
Because of the complete lack of publicity, I was almost the only person in the cafe. I was certainly the only person there who had come to see Scharffenberger, aside from the people he had brought with him. There weren’t enough people for him to bother giving a talk, at least before I had to leave. So what? All that means is that I got a chance to just chat with him myself.
We spoke a bit about cocoa nibs, which are pieces of the beans from which chocolate is made. I am deeply in love with cocoa nibs, though they were hard to find up until a few years ago. Nowadays you can find them in gourmet stores, produced by Scharffen Berger and Sweet Riot. I ordered a few pounds of single-origin cocoa nibs from Chocolate Alchemy a while back, but I would not bother doing so again. The flavors were strange and wonderful, but the nibs come packaged with a lot of twigs and bits of hull, and need to be carefully sorted before you can even roast them. Scharffen Berger cocoa nibs come pre-hulled and pre-roasted, and although they don’t have the wide range of flavors that single-origin nibs have, they are very good indeed.
Mr. Scharffenberger told me that if I give them a call, they can sell me single-origin nibs directly. It would have to be a large enough order to make it worth their while, though.
Oh, said I. I do the occasional catering gig, but I’m mostly just a home cook. How big would an order have to be?
Five or six pounds at least, said he.
I can do that.
We also spoke about how to make chocolate. I always thought that I would have to get some serious, expensive equipment to make chocolate at home. But John Scharffenberger told me that all I really need is an Indian spice grinder. That’s what he uses when tasting and developing blends, after all, and when teaching kids about chocolate-making. This may finally be my excuse to buy the Sumeet Multi-Grind I’ve been wanting.
What John Scharffenberger was really there to talk about was the history of chocolate. He wants to tell people where cocoa beans come from, their history, and how they can be used. The book is full of stories about the farmers, about the beans, about the history of the company and chocolate itself. It is full of gorgeous photos of cocoa pods still on trees, and tales of how the guys at Scharffen Berger worked with the farmers in third world countries to teach them how to properly ferment their beans so that the buyers could make the best use of them (and thus want to buy more of them).
In the middle of our conversation, he excitedly grabbed my copy of the book out of my hands and flipped to one of his favorite photos of a cocoa pod cracked open, still fresh, with white gunk all around the beans.
“The white stuff is sweet!” he explained.
There are recipes in the book, too, and I am really looking forward to trying out a lot of them.
John Scharffenger said that he particularly likes the quick fix of smearing goat cheese and cocoa nibs on a slice of bread, himself.
Note: I just started blogging over at The Cook’s Kitchen, which is part of the Well Fed Network. This post will appear there as well, as will some posts from time to time that don’t get published here. If you go there now, you can find the tale of the Evolution of My Knife Collection.