Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Photo Essay: From Bean to Bar at a Chocolate Factory

At some point in the six years that I've lived in LA, the Arts District (kind of our equivalent of the Meatpacking District in NYC) has become a hotbed of artisanal products, with production facilities you can tour.

I'd already hit Greenbar Distillery, The Spirit Guild distillery, and the Blue Bottle Coffee roastery...

...so, being a lover of both factory tours and chocolate bars, my next stop—of course—was the LA home of the Mast Brothers...

...the Brooklyn-based, self-proclaimed makers of "bean to bar" chocolate.

With factories also in Brooklyn and London, MAST is taking a leaf from the "farm to table" book of cutting out the middleman—with no artificial ingredients, chemicals, preservatives, emulsifiers, or other nasty nanoparticles—and making chocolates that are, shockingly, made mostly from what comes out of cocoa beans.

And what does come out of those giant cocoa bean pods—which grow like fruit off the side of the cacao tree trunk—is shocking (and slimy).

Sure, once the mature beans have been dried and roasted (and their husks have been picked and shipped off to use as compost), you can eat the "nibs" straight. Without added sugar, they're nutty and—depending on their country of origin (Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Tanzania, Peru, Venezuela, and so on)—have various flavor profiles that can range from naturally sweet to smoky.

Or you can, as MAST does, brew a non-alcoholic cocoa drink that's more like tea than the "hot chocolate" we're used to drinking.

But the bulk of the bean business here is in bars—and on the LA factory tour, you get to see (and taste) the process every step of the way.

Tempering the chocolate is probably the most essential and time-consuming part of the process...

...with agitators spinning non-stop to incorporate any other ingredients (like milks, sugar, botanicals, or other flavorings like miso or olive oil) and get the right smooth texture.

Tasting the chocolate at this stage—in our case, the LA-exclusive horchata flavor—is akin to drinking a craft beer straight out of the conditioning tank. It's not technically finished, but it's so delicious... and exclusive.

For all of its small batches of craft chocolate made with innovative ingredients, the MAST factory has, of course, the necessary tools for modern bar-making—including some machines, some molds, and so on.

But a vast amount of the work is actually done by hand—right down to the precise, origami-style art of wrapping the completed bars. The process of packaging them is either zen-like or infuriating, depending on your personality.

But the process of indulging in them—and you do get to eat a lot on the factory tour—is sublime.

If you're a milk chocolate person, you can choose between bars made with cow, goat, or sheep milk. Or, you can branch out to the almond butter variety, whose creamy texture is all nut and no dairy.

If you're a dark chocolate person, you can get as high as 76% cacao, with flavors like sea salt and mint.

But it's in the regional special editions where flavors can be particularly daring—like gin in the London collection and (Jewish) rye bread in the Brooklyn collection. Other geographic exclusives are more of a hat tip to the chocolate-friendly flavors of the region, like chilies from Brooklyn Grange and orange zest for those of us in Southern California's former citrus belt.

Why go to MAST just to buy chocolate, when you could really experience it for an hour—and taste something you've never even thought of before?

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Monday, February 20, 2017

A Chance Encounter, This Side of the Rainbow Bridge

I was headed somewhere else. I didn't even know there was a pet cemetery in Desert Hot Springs. It's not even on the map.

But this morning, as I was driving down Dillon Road—that familiar route I used to take when I would spend weeks at a time in Joshua Tree—I came to a screeching halt when I saw the sign.

And, finding myself uncharacteristically ahead of schedule, I made a U-turn to go check it out.

I'd made an unenviable day trip to the Palm Springs area for Modernism Week (photos forthcoming), but the thing that I couldn't get out of my mind upon my return was the story of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.

He's often depicted holding a bird in his hand, but the story goes that flocks of birds would gather around the Roman Catholic friar (and founder of the Franciscan order) as he would preach. Supposedly, a large flock of singing larks descended at the moment of his death in the year 1226.

To Francis, all animals were God's creatures—in fact, our brothers and sisters under God, all members of a single family. And, therefore, we should treat them accordingly.

That is, do unto animals as you would have anyone do unto you.

It was a strange—and memorable—visit to this pet cemetery in Desert Hot Springs, because shortly after I arrived and began to explore the headstones, two barking black labradors came lumbering towards me.

They could easily have been in attack mode—chasing away a trespasser—but oddly, given my childhood fear of dogs, I wasn't afraid.

I was happy to see them and called out "Hi babies!" as I put my hands out for them to sniff (and, ultimately, taste).

Suddenly, this was a very different visit to a pet cemetery—one with live (and boisterous) animals...

...who were prancing on the anachronistically green grass.

According to legend, St. Francis of Assisi once tamed a wild wolf...

...but of course these dogs turned out to be not too ferocious.

And while one of them was called back home, the other took a liking to me.

I stared deeply into her eyes, as I held her face in my hands.

I seemed to understand something about her that I can't articulate. It was as though she had not been sent to me—but that I had been sent to her.

I stroked her forehead and told her everything was OK.

I told her that I loved her...

...and that she was a good girl.

All those things, she seemed to need to hear.

A rooster crowed, but she didn't go home.

A smaller dog came up yapping to fetch her, but she didn't follow him.

Instead, she pressed against my legs and wouldn't leave my side. I kept asking her, "What are you protecting me from?" but she wouldn't answer.

When the time came for me to go, she followed me to my car, sniffing the tires and examining the door handles and the windows. I don't know whether she was looking for a way in, or inspecting it for safety.

I got behind the wheel and turned the car on, at which point she formed a blockade in front of it, and then encircled it, ending up at the passenger side window looking at me with her sad eyes. But then the realization came, and she climbed up on the bank at the cemetery entrance, and saw me off.

“Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. 
We have a higher mission -- to be of service to them wherever they require it.” 
— St. Francis of Assisi

For more on Pet Haven and its celebrity inhabitants, click here.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

The Miracle of Changing Your Mind

In times like these, I wish I knew more about the history of the prophets and the disciples and those earliest martyrs to be canonized as saints.

In times like these, I can understand why people turn to religion.

As bad as these times seem, they most certainly had it worse.

Take, for instance, Saint Norbert, the namesake of St. Norbert Church in Orange, CA (whose Piczek-designed stained glass windows drew me in).

Descended from the Holy Roman Empire and born in an ancient area of what's now Germany...

...this 12th century holy man rejected a path of nobility after a near-death lightning strike at the foot of his horse, which threw him, knocking him unconscious.

He pursued a life of penance and asceticism after that, becoming a roving preacher throughout western Germany and into Belgium and the Netherlands.

Miracles that he performed led to his canonization in 1582, four centuries after his death. But perhaps more remarkable are those who chose to follow him in his path, known as "Norbertines."

These were just regular people who chose a life of faith over power, politics, wealth, or greed.

Principles were more important than the poverty they endured. They chose to believe in something rather than embracing doubt and suspicion.

St. Norbert inspired leagues of people to follow the message he'd received in his heart upon his conversion: "Turn from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it."

He himself had turned away from a spoiled youth—and his subsequent ministry of abstinence and celibacy caused some to cry hypocrisy.

But the thing is, it's never too late to change our minds.

You've never gone too far to reverse the course.

Sure, if you're going through hell, keep going, as they say.

But if you're putting someone else through hell, you can stop.

If you see someone putting someone else through hell, you can stop them.

You don't have to take the path of least (or no) resistance.

You don't have to pick a fight, per se...

...but you don't have to avoid one altogether, either.

Some things are worth fighting for.

Some people need someone to speak up for them; some are so bad off that they need someone to show them the light—any light.

Choosing a better path may not make you a saint...

...but it might make you someone's angel.

And whether or not you believe in celestial beings—the patron saints of whatever, the divine messengers, the cherubim and seraphim—surely you believe in the possibility of being a better human.

We may be "only" human.

But plenty of humans have shown how much our species can accomplish...

...with or without divine intervention.

Of St. Norbert, Catholics have said, "A different world cannot be built by indifferent people."

Of course, the Catholic Church would have you devote fervently, unswervingly, and loyally to the figures, rituals, and icons of its particular brand of wisdom.

But I have a more pragmatic perspective for the God-fearing, the God-questioning, and the godless.

Be interested in the world around you. Listen. Form a well-researched bias. Embrace empathy.

And then, act accordingly.

If everyone did that, it would surely be a miracle.

[Ed: Additional stained glass window by Roger Darricarrere]

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