Monday, September 8, 2008
Lotte Mexican Chocolate
A few years or so ago, the dark chocolate boom hit Japan. One could find bars which were so bitter that the only way they could be endured was with a sweet drink on the side. In fact, the instructions on some boxes explicitly said that was how the bars should be consumed. The highest concentration dark chocolate bar was 99% and you were eating baking chocolate for all intents and purposes. The benefits of polyphenols in dark dark chocolate set the boom in motion about a half year or so behind the popularity of dark chocolate in the U.S.
Lotte makes a great many of Japan's chocolate bars, both the staple finds and flash-in-the-pan types. At the moment, they have a range of fruit-based bars which I actively avoid since most such things are flavored white chocolate. They also make my favorite all-purpose (read: cheap) milk chocolate bar in Japan, Ghana. Ghana is available for 88 yen in a local market and can be seen as the equivalent of a Hershey bar, albeit with a much higher fat, glossier, and less sour chocolate. That's not an indictment of Hershey's chocolate, mind you. I like the chalkier texture and yogurt-like undertones of Hershey's chocolate, but U.S. chocolate is very different from that in Japan.
I've read good things about Mexican chocolate so I decided to give this bar a try when I saw it in one of the tonier markets in our area. It wasn't cheap at 238 yen ($2.20 USD) for 70 grams (2.46 oz.), but I guess that the good growers of cocoa in Mexico need to be paid a fair wage. Both the front and the back of the box mention that the bar is made with 100% Mexican cocoa beans. The back also tells a little story about how a Mexican man (his face is pictured on the box so you can feel closer to him) named "Barutro-san" (El-Barto?) grows cocoa in the Tabasco region of Mexico. The box doesn't say this, but apparently Tabasco grows 80% of the cocoa beans produced by Mexico.
I find it quaint and very Japanese when I see the portraits of nondescript growers on food packaging. They do this for Japanese farmers as well. Many a time, my tomato packages have been graced by the faces of the men who have no doubt been in charge of the men who worked the fields for those tomatoes.
When I turned the box over and saw the calorie count of 395 calories for this one bar, I was a little shocked as it seemed on the high side. To put that in perspective, I'll tell you that a Hershey bar is 4.8 calories per gram and this bar is 5.6 calories per gram. When I realized that this was a dark chocolate bar, I understood the situation a bit better as tons of sugar is added to off-set the bitterness and more cocoa butter is added to make it smooth. There is also probably more cocoa butter in Japanese chocolate in general, though I can't verify this for a fact. The ingredients list is: Mexican cocoa, sugar, cocoa butter, full-fat powdered milk, milk solids (not sure about this one), flavoring.
The information regarding how dark the chocolate is is given in quite small print and written only on the back. It says that it's 62% cocoa. In almost equally small print (but highlighted in yellow), it also says that there are 1280 mg of polyphenols in the entire bar, but you'd never be able to eat it all in one sitting! Well, I couldn't eat it all at once.
One other interesting thing about the box information is that there is an explanation of "fat bloom" on it. If you don't know what that is, it's when you get a grey or white substance on chocolate from temperature changes. It's perfectly safe, but does tend to make chocolate look less appetizing. I'm guessing that, given the high fat content of the bar and the hot summer, they want consumers not to complain or return the chocolate if bloom is on it. There is a specific recommendation not to store it at temperatures higher than 28 degrees C. (82.4 degrees F.) to help avoid this unpleasant situation.
The first thing I always do with new food is give it a sniff and this chocolate smells exactly like a Ghana bar, perhaps with a somewhat stronger chocolate hint. Despite being a dark bar, it's not like opening a box of cocoa scent-wise. You have to inhale pretty deeply to get any scent at all. Unlike some Western chocolates which you can smell the minute they leave the wrapper, most Japanese chocolates don't have much of a chocolate aura wafting off of them.
The bar has 8 individual blocks and is glossy. I think the smell I associate with Ghana is whatever Lotte does to their bars to make them all similarly shiny and smooth. When you bite into it, the bar has a lot of snap and breaks off very cleanly. It becomes soft on your tongue if you let it rest a short while in your mouth and you can really sense all of the fat in it. It's only a little bitter, though it does leave a bitter aftertaste. Oddly, it seems to hit you in three stages - bitter, sweet, bitter again. The balance of sweetness to intense chocolate/bitterness is actually very good. I'm not a fan of dark chocolate, so I can't say I love this bar. However, I can say that I don't hate it and I often cannot say that of other types of dark chocolate.
I'd say this is a good "gateway" bar for a milk chocolate lover who wants to wean themselves off of the bad stuff and transition to darker chocolate. It's pretty easy to eat dark chocolate and enjoyable, though it's also easy to control yourself and not eat too much at once. If it weren't so expensive, hard to find and very likely short-lived as all Japanese specialty chocolates are, I'd recommend it as a good bar to have around just to have a square or two a day for the health benefits of eating dark chocolate.