Everyone was jealous when I told them I was going to cover the National Chocolate Show at Navy Pier in Chicago
. I too thought it would be like a trip to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (they even had a “Golden Ticket” contest). It turned out to be very different than I expected, with a focus on spice, spirits and natural ingredients, while still offering plenty to learn and taste.
The presenting sponsors of the National Chocolate Show were Dessert Professional, The Chocolate Life and The French Pastry School in Chicago, who put on seminars and demonstrations of chocolate carving.
One of the highlights of the show was the pairings pavilion, which held seminars all day, each day. One of the most popular was the Glunz Craft Beer & Chocolate Experience, where guests learned about pairing various beers with different types of chocolate. During another experience, chocolate expert Clay Gordon from TheChocolateLife.com led attendees through additional chocolate pairings, proving who well it went with everything from wine to tea.
The presentations were about more than just tasting. “Treat Right: The Role of Chocolate in a Healthy Diet” had National Confectioners Association (NCA) Directors of Technical & Regulatory Affairs Laura Shumov and Zara Zhaleeli, present the possible health benefits of cocoa. And, Chocolate historian and instructor Beth Kimmerle demonstrated how to make, mold and paint chocolate candy pops at home.
I did some pair tasting of my own, enjoying the Quadi Winery offerings with chocolate. I especially loved their Elysium Black Muscat, and my mind couldn’t stop thinking of uses for McCormick Distillery’s Double Chocolate Vodka as soon as I tasted it.
The French Pastry School had four chef instructors doing demonstrations throughout each day. I was able to watch Chef Della Gossett, the 2011 National Pastry champion, make chocolate marshmallows, chocolate ice cream and chocolate bouchon, the French version of a brownie. Chef Scott Green, who is also a National Pastry champion, showed off his chocolate sculpture skills.
At the same time as the show for the public, there was also a trade show going on, where chocolate bakers and candy makers could be product and equipment. I walked through that area a bit and found a few more samples from well-known brands such as Toblerone, Sharffen Berger and Lindt.
I concentrated on looking for award-winners, best sellers and most original items presented by each place, though there were many who lingered from booth to booth, filling themselves with sugary treats while I painstakingly tasted to find my favorites. There were certainly a lot of choices.
Quintessential Chocolates had chocolates filled with bourbon, scotch whiskey and my favorite, Anjeo Tequilla. It was the straight stuff and the powerful alcohol was quickly calmed in my throat by the creamy chocolate.
I was impressed with Pistache, a dark chocolate bar with pistachio, cardamom and orange, created by Anne Schaeffer of Sulpice Chocolates. The former pastry chef said she thought about putting together chocolate the way she did making pastry, by combining flavors.
Toffee Break, winner of the 2012 award for the Best Toffee in North America, had their winning Cookies & Cream and traditional flavors, along with a lightly sweetened Raspberry Chocolate Toffee, which was chewy rather than toffee hard.
Some other unusual finds at the chocolate show include the chocolate art tiles created by artist Karen Urnbaneck under the Flying Noir Label; Crio Bru roasted and ground cocoa beans served like coffee, with more antioxidants and less caffeine; Chocolate Discovery, which makes everything from chocolate martinis to truffles and organizes chocolate parties; and the Chocolate for the Spirit (which claims it can “life your spirits”) Golden Tiger Swirl made from dark, milk and white Swiss Chocolate, mixed with peanut butter sea salt and edible gold!
I also really enjoyed the Candy Apple Chocolate from (Fanny May’s Artisan Collection); White Mulberry Brittle (Divine Organic Chocolates); Dark Chocolate Ginger (Next Chocolates); Chocolate Bacon Fudge (Fudge Ladies); Vodka Filled Brownie (Sugarhill Bakery); Pomegranate Salted Caramels- (Desiderio); Apricot Citrus Truffle (Gabriella Chocolates and Truffles); Lavender Dark Chocolate (Les Palmeraies); and
Award Winning Bubbly (Truffles in Paradise).
Two bakeries, Sweet Pea and Oak Mill, had the most spectacular chocolate covered wedding cakes I’ve ever seen. It looks like the cupcake-wedding cake trend may be gone in favor of finer ingredients in custom cakes. N9NE Steakhouse, a Michelin Star winner the last two years, brought some of their delicious chocolate mousse cake with hazelnuts for sampling.
The most unusual thing I saw at the show was definitely the Sushi Dessert. A box (which retails for about $30) contains chopsticks, a sushi mat and chocolates in the shape of fish, rice and other sushi staples. You put together your own dessert sushi and then eat it!
This was the first year this combined show was held in Chicago and it looks like it will be coming back as the spectators and vendors seemed pleased with the selection and the tastings of one of the world’s finest treats. The event also raised money for Share Our Strength, an organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger.