Saturday, August 4, 2012

Viva La Fiesta! Viva La Chocolate!

I am in Santa Barbara for a 2-week summer institute with the Franciscan School of Theology.  We are blessed in being able to stay at the beautiful historic Old Mission, but we are doubly blessed in having the 88th celebration of Old Spanish Days occur while we are here. 

On Wednesday, August 1st, we were given VIP seats to the "La Fiesta Pequeña", which officially opens the festivities and is held on the steps of the mission. This event featured traditional songs and dances of Fiesta, with tunes of the Californios, Flamenco, Spanish classical, and Mexican folklórico dances. It was a great celebration with a near full moon lighting up the sky and "Viva la fiesta!" echoing through the crowd.

With a day off from our studies today, I decided to visit the activities occurring downtown and to hunt for some chocolate.  I was successful and very satisfied in my search, as I discovered a new drinking chocolate and an "almost famous" vegan chocolate cupcake.

One of the highlights of the Fiesta is the Mercado de la Guerrero, which features merchant stalls full of Mexican arts and crafts (along with the Marines, Red Cross, and DirectTV).  In the food court area, there was music and dancing on the stage, with people elbow to elbow enjoying Mexican-themed foods sold by local charities and businesses. 

I however was on a Mexican drinking chocolate hunt, and found only one booth that had anything similar.  La Bella Rosa Bakery Cafe had food, but it also served champurrado, which was noted as "a chocolate-flavored hot drink".  While I thought I knew Mexican drinking chocolate, I've never heard of champurrado before, and asked the server what differentiated it from a regular Mexican hot chocolate.  Very simply, champurrado is thickened with masa and often uses different spices.  It is very filling and hearty, she said.  With a love of thick Italian drinking chocolate, I knew this would be my kind of drink, and so for $2.00 I purchased a large 12 ounce cup. 

Though it came in a styrofoam cup, I was very impressed by this traditional Mexican chocolate drink which is typically served in the morning and evening, and is very popular during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and at Las Posadas (the Christmas Season). This drink came warm, and had a seductively spicey (though not very chocolatey) smell, with a creamy froth.

While I cannot fully identify the spices in this chapurrado, it sang of chai tea with a tinge more cinnamon and chocolate undertones. It was very good -- not very sweet, with a nice balance of spice to create a complex, but homey-feel on the palate.  Though I was drinking this on a hot Santa Barbara summer day, there was a warming comfort to the drink, which I could imagine sipping at home on a cold evening.

After a few sips, I could feel myself getting full from the masa in the drink, and decided to keep sipping, while enjoying the music and hunting for a chocolate dessert to go with this drink.

I found the perfect compliment a few blocks away at Crushcakes, which featured a vegan chocolate cupcake as part of their daily vegan cupcake offerings.  I had seen Crush Cupcakes compete on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars, and also saw their bumper sticker while driving to Santa Barbara.  With a motto like "Make cupcakes not war", you know you gotta visit.  And I'm glad I did!

Their vegan chocolate cupcake was beautifully moist and light, chocolatey, and not very sweet.  It was almost salty, which was good, as it paired well with the very sweet frosting that had a vanilla marshmallowey flavor and fluffy texture.  I found that after taking a bite of the cupcake and then sipping the champurrado, the spiceyness of the drink drew out the chocolate of the cupcake and mellowed out the frosting to create a well-balanced afternoon of chocolate goodness.  It was nice.

On their own, the champurrado and the cupcake were good.  But together, it was magic - a nice pairing of chocolate desserts, and a wonderful to celebrate Santa Barbara.  Viva la fiesta!  Viva la chocolate!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hawaiian veggie-style

Since going vegan, one thing that I've missed is Hawaiian food.  During the late 90's and early 00's, I was a frequent guest at Punahele Island Grill in San Francisco until they closed.  After that, I would settle for L&L for my Hawaiian fix, though L&L never really had the same variety and home-style food and atmosphere as Punahele. 

When I went vegetarian then vegan, I gave up kahlua pork, Island Chicken, lomi lomi salmon, poke, and loco moco.  There was some sadness.  Yet, having already committed myself to healthy eating and serious weight loss by the time I went veg, I had already cut down on my Hawaiian food fix, including mac salad w/real Best Food mayo, which I loved.

Fast forward to this week, my girlfriend and I were looking for a place to eat in downtown Santa Cruz, and we happened upon Pono Hawaiian Grill, a new restaurant a block off the main drag of Pacific Ave.  Typically, menu-surfing at Hawaiian restaurants leaves me frustrated as the dishes are often very meat-heavy.  However, I was surprised to see great big V's up and down the outside menu indicating a good selection of vegetarian options and healthy alternatives.  I was so impressed to see more than just a Garden Burger!

Along with the standard Garden Burger, there were 3 veggie appetizers, 3 salads, 2 veggie options (in their own category - thank you very much), 2 desserts, and - drum roll please - vegetarian poke!  Yes, veggie poke.  I had to do a double take because Pono doesn't have just one vegetarian poke option.  They have two -- one made with tofu, one with avocado. 

I was impressed that I had a selection of home-style, mouth-watering options as a vegan in a Hawaiian restaurant.  Not only did the healthy, vegan menu draw me in, but the restaurant itself had inviting island decor, lively music, and an warm aloha spirit.  It wasn't my old Punahele, but it definitely wasn't the corporate L&L. 

We ordered at the front counter.  As an appetizer, I chose the Japanese-style Seaweed Salad ($4.75); for an entree, Steamed Teriyaki Veggies ($6.95) with brown rice (for an extra .75) and garden salad instead of mac salad (for an additional .75); and a side of their Tofu Island Style Poke (5.95), which was the recommendation of the cashier, who was also the only wait-staff.  She would take orders from the people standing in line, and upon hearing the "ding", she would tell the ordering customers to wait while she brought the food to the tables.  "Gotta serve the food hot," she would say.  She was busy and there were times the line got long.  It was a busy place for a Monday night.

Though there is a large outdoor eating area with a bar, we found a table inside and enjoyed the murals on the wall, the paintings of Hawaiian faces and places, the large swordfish hanging from the ceiling, the signed surfboards, the little kitchen hut from which the food was prepped and served.  We turned our back to the huge projection TV showing the Olympic Track trials, and instead watched the beautiful Santa Cruz sky change outside as the sun faded and a cool breeze set in.

In spite a little wait, our main courses came; the the salad and poke side however did not.  I needed to remind the server about them.  I was impressed with the size of the portions for the price.  They were not huge but plentiful; they were beautiful arranged, but most important, they were tasty. 

My teriyaki veggies included broccoli, carrots, sweet onion, edamame, mushrooms, and a pineapple slice covered with a teriyaki glaze & sesame seeds sprinkled on top.  The veggies were cooked well, just soft, and fresh.  The teriyaki sauce was not overly sweet and had a nice gingery undertone which highlighted the nutty bite of the sesame seeds.

The green salad had a beautiful House Sesame Vinagrette.  It was not overly doused, and went well with the mandarin oranges, carrots, onions, and mixed greens.  The purple cabbage however had a bitter taste.

I've always loved Japanese Seaweed Salad.  And though this one was a little heavyhanded in being drenched with the dressing (more seaweed would have been nice), it was a good balance of flavor of the soy, sugar, sesame, and ginger.

In terms of the tofu poke, I have to admit I had higher expectations.  I used to love eating ahi tuna poke and had hopes that it would be similar, but no.  The texture of tofu does not even come close to tuna.  And though the flavoring of soy, garlic, garlic, tomato, onion, and green onion was wonderfully balanced, light and refreshing, it wasn't the same as the poke I remembered when I was a meat-eater.  However, this tofu marinated in a poke-flavored sauce is nice to have as a veggie option.  It's delicious; it's just not "poke".

Though the taste of all our dishes were spot on, for me, the highlight is always the dessert.  In this case, it had nothing to do with Hawaiian food but was yum - vegan yum.  I thoroughly enjoyed the Mexican Mocha cookie ($2.25) by Kerri's Kreations, a local bakery, which provides wonderful organic vegan cookies to Pono.  The cookie was good size, and had a wonderful hit of cinnamon and spices giving the chocolate chips that Mexican hot chocolate flavor.  The espresso side of the cookie was not very pronounced, but I loved the moist chewy softness of the cookie which included whole grains for added texture.  It was not overly oily (which is always nice), and irregardless of the fact it was vegan and organic, it was still 5 star excellent.

Unfortunately they were out of the Chocolate Mac Nut Brownies this visit.  Thus, this non-vegan dessert for cacao-me will need to wait for the next trip when I sample as a starter, either the Hawaiian Style Fresh Spring Rolls or  B.T.'s "Da Mana Salad."  The Baked Tofu Stir Fry will be the entree, and of course, there is the other veggie poke to try - Mauka & Makal Poke - made of avocado.  We'll see if it is better than the tofu.

Overall assessment: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Though the service was a little too laid back, overall, it was a wonderful veggie Hawaiian experience at Pono Hawaiian Grill.  There may not have been veggie options for kahlua pork or loco moco (at least not yet), but I'm glad that there is a place where you can embrace the island spirit, enjoy some beautiful Hawaiian flavors, and still uphold a commitment to healthy and compassionate eating as a vegan.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Chocolate: The Vegan Exception of Choice

A VEGAN restaurant that serves a NON-vegan chocolate cake. Who would have thought that such a place exists. Yet that is what Manzanita Restaurant in Emeryville offers, allowing vegan-me and cacao-me to unite. I could literally eat everything on the chalkboard menu and then some. And in this case, the "then some" was a piece of chocolate cake to go.

With a Saturday and Sunday lunch buffet, this organic macrobiotic vegan restaurant provides an all you can eat spread that is tasty, good for you, and good for the environment. It is such a relief for vegan-me to be able go to a restaurant and eat anything I want off the menu. No need to prepare beforehand, think about what's in a dish, ask questions about its preparation with the server, or compromise my vegan values. Instead, I can simply select, eat, and enjoy, allowing the beauty and flavors of the foods to nourish my body and spirit.

Did I mention it was an all you can eat buffet? I've begun to make it a Saturday destination, arriving at 11:30 when they open, leaving by 3:00 when they close, eating, studying, reading, and enjoying the food selections all the while. The turnip-carrot-miso soup, burdock-mushroom-carrot saute, leek-beet sauce, and apple corn cake during this last trip were absolutely excellent. I lost count but I think I filled 6, may be 5 plates, 4 soup bowls, and enjoyed 3 servings of dessert. (I did run 8.39 miles before starting my grub fest!)

When preparing to pay my $15.50 at the front counter, I noticed that there was a serving platter with 2 pieces of chocolate cake. There was a sign on top clearly stating that these $3.95 cake slices were NOT VEGAN.

A VEGAN restaurant that serves a NON-vegan chocolate cake = I had found a common ally in my vegan exception. I was no longer alone!
Without hesitation, I asked for a slice to go.

When trying to place the first piece in the to-go box, the server accidentally dropped a chunk of the cake on the counter. I gasped in horror. She apologized, put the rest of the cake in the box, and then proceeded to place the second slice in a box for me to take. Though full from my luncheon feast, I was anxious to give this piece of cake a try. (There is always room for a sampling of chocolate cake!) And having no shame when it comes to chocolate, I asked if I could try the chunk that had fallen on the counter. It was about an inch in length, off the tip of the fallen cake, and simply called to me. The server said go ahead and try it, so I did.

It was not a bad bite, but I knew I would need time to analyze it, review it, and savor it more thoroughly at home. I was just so delighted that I could be in a vegan restaurant, enjoy a vegan lunch, have a NON-vegan chocolate cake, and eat it too! It was a divine moment. I was no longer alone in choosing chocolate as a vegan exception.

Based on appearance, it is clear that Manzanita's Chocolate Cake is homemade for it lacks that refined quality, that finished look, which one often finds in a restaurant cake made by a professionally trained pastry chef. The cake itself was crumbly and the frosting was uneven and a bit runny. But when it comes to chocolate cake, it's not about the look but the taste. I've sampled my share of cakes that were lovely to behold but lousy on the palate. This cake may have looked home baked, but from my counter-top taste test, I knew it was pretty good, even though it was not a slice of dark chocolate cake
, my preference.

While the center of this semisweet cake was soft and moist, the edges however were a bit dry and hard, reflecting uneven cooking. The smooth light brown colored frosting did help soften the edges, and
with its kahluha and cognac infusions, it also highlighted the subtle chocolate flavor of the cake. The alcohol in the frosting along with the sprinkling of cocoa on top added a nice depth of character to a fairly ordinary chocolate cake.

Overall assessment: 3 cacao beans (out of 5) for the cake.
5 out of 5 for the restaurant as it is the perfect place for vegan-me and cacao-me to unite. And besides, they have an excellent weekend buffet. Though the cake was average, the frosting did bump up its overall taste quality creating a nice non-vegan cake at this vegan restaurant. Though I would love Manzanita to eventually serve a vegan chocolate cake, until they do, I am glad that they like me have made chocolate their vegan exception.

(review date: 2009_11-21)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Chocolate World: Love Served at Philz

Who would have thought there could be bad drinking chocolate? But after a few weeks of very disappointing experiences, I have discovered what I enjoy in a cup, and have come to appreciate the subtleties that make a fine brew. And it's not just about the chocolate!

With a friend in town last weekend, we went on the San Francisco Gourmet Chocolate Tour where we sampled chocolate in the downtown area. While the truffles and bars were excellent, the drinking chocolate at one of the stops was not up to my standards. BLECK!

To redeem the experience, I decided to order a spicy drinking chocolate for the road at our final tour stop. Made with milk and spiced with cayenne, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, it had a smooth slightly creamy texture and a nice kick that needed to be slowly sipped. Not bad after a string of bad drinking chocolate experiences over the past few weeks. It was especially enjoyable at the end of our tour as the sun was going down and it was getting cold. But while good, the best was still to come.

My friend wanted some excellent coffee, and with my car in the Mission district, Philz Coffee is the only place to go. With beans of your choice, each cup is freshly ground, brewed fresh to order, and handcrafted with love.

When I asked our barista Jacob (pictured above) about their drinking chocolate, I discovered that they work a similar magic. Though they do not grind their own cacao beans for each cup, they have a special blend which they make with hot water, rather than milk, thus making their hot chocolate vegan! I was already loving this.

After having 2 cups of drinking chocolate already that day I didn't need a third, but Jacob insisted and brewed one up "on the house." And it wasn't just a sample sip. It was literally a full cup, which was larger than each of the other brews sampled earlier that day.

Though not thick and creamy in texture, it was a balanced bittersweet brew which trumped the others. The third was the charm! The fresh sprig of crushed mint added a wonderful depth to the already rich dark chocolate flavor, but what made this cup one of the best cups I've had in a while is the "love" that went into its preparation.

Going above and beyond his job, Jacob is not a "barista" as much as he is one who share his love for life by creating "cups of love," as me and my friend have come to call it. "Cups of love" simply brighten a day as someone pours their heart and passion into what they do and then shares that gift with others. Jacob does it with coffee and chocolate. My friend who is a doctor does it with an encouraging word to each patient in her clinic. I try to do it with a smile and good attitude at school.

It is so easy to simply go through the motions at work, in class, at home. Jacob reminded me that it's all about enjoying what you do, living out your passion, serving others, always giving it your best, bringing to the counter a "cup of love."

As Gandhi has said, "Be the change that you want to see in the world." You can change the world with a smile, a kind word, a cup of chocolate. The smallest things make the biggest difference.

In addition to a free cup of chocolate, Jacob also gave us baklava and then refused to take an extra tip which my friend tried to put in the jar. "You are all the tip that I need," he said. "Just make sure you tell 10 people about us." With this blog (and my facebook chocolate reviews), I am doing just that!

With Philz opening a new cafe in Berkeley which will be just down the street from school on my way to BART, I soon will be able to get my chocolate fix, get some studying done, and with each cup, remember that it's all about the love.

And to think, I learned all that from a cup of chocolate.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Chocolate World: Bittersweet Drinking Chocolate

"Whoa! Now that's bittersweet." A rather appropriate first reaction to my first sip of bittersweet drinking chocolate during my first trip to Bittersweet Cafe in Oakland.

I had heard about Bittersweet Cafe and their drinking chocolate when I returned from Italy this summer, and was looking forward to my first visit to this chocolate destination. Though my first Bittersweet sampling was different than what I had previously enjoyed in LaVerna and at Ghirardelli, I was not disappointed.

My experience with drinking chocolate up to that moment had been in the "classical" tradition, which is sweet and creamy and made with milk. Bittersweet drinking chocolate is made in the French and Belgian tradition, with the darkest chocolates, and finished with water, rather than dairy making it vegan! Thus, the liquidity of this European-style chocolate drink is similar to coffee - not as smooth and creamy as the classical style - and while more watery in texture, it is far from watery in taste.

Though this warmed chocolate delight was served without a spoon, I asked for one so to slowly savor each sip. As I gently joined the light brown froth, which filled the cup to the brim, with its rich dark contents below, the intense smell of fresh ground chocolate filled the air. When the chocolate brew first enlightened my palate, the initial bittersweet bite was unexpectedly expected. I knew that this would not be a sweetened chocolate drink, but I was surprised by the deep earthy flavor, which I had previously enjoyed only in a good chocolate bar.

I asked the chocolate baristas the percentage of cacao in their Bittersweet drinking chocolate. They did not know but guessed it was about 72%, with four types of dark chocolate used. The classical drinking chocolates I was familiar with had only 53-58% cacao.

Cacao percentages refer to the total cacao content in a chocolate, which is everything derived from the cocoa bean. The three cocoa components are: (1) chocolate liquor = the unsweetened chocolate, which contains no alcohol and is a smooth liquid made of the ground up center (nib) of the cocoa bean; (2) cocoa butter = the fat of the cocoa bean which is not a dairy product, making all dark chocolate vegan; and (3) cocoa powder - the cocoa solids resulting from pressing cocoa butter out of chocolate liquor.

72% cacao in Bittersweet drinking chocolate means that the remaining 28% is made up of sugar, vanilla, and other ingredients. Since higher cacao content indicates that the chocolate is less sweet with a more intense chocolate flavor, knowing the cacao percentage helps the chocolate connoisseur select a chocolate to satisfy their cravings - milk, sweet, semi-sweet, bittersweet. Though research on the health benefits of chocolate and higher cacao content continues, it is still best, I believe, to consume chocolate, like everything else, in moderation.

After gracefully sipping my first spoonful of Bittersweet drinking chocolate, I wanted to slurp the rest of it down. It was so good, so addicting. I decided however to slow it down, enjoy the experience, and savor each spoonful as I sat by the cafe window, read for my thesis, and relished the intense chocolate flavor of my afternoon treat. It took me an hour to get to the bottom, and because I believe it is a crime to waste good chocolate, I licked the bottom of the cup clean! (I have no shame when chocolate is at stake.)

While the Oakland location on College Ave near the Rockridge BART station is not too far from school, I plan to check out the San Francisco and Danville locations and to try their other drinks, which include Spicy drinking chocolate, which comes with a kick of pepper and a hint of cinnamon and rose, as well as "The Classic." Bars, pastries, and t-shirts are also featured in the store as well as online.

With an ambiance conducive for studying and quiet conversation, Bittersweet Cafe is a great place to spend an afternoon. At $3.95 plus tax for an excellent cup of an intense chocolate delight, the price is also reasonable.

In some ways my looming unemployment is a blessing. It will definitely limit my drinking chocolate consumption this semester for everything is best in moderation, including chocolate.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Chocolate World: Ghirardelli Drinking Chocolate

Friends who've known me for years find it odd that I now have such a chocolate obsession. The reality is I never liked chocolate until I began losing weight about 5 years ago. One day the chocolate lust hit and it hasn’t yet gone away.

Thus, I traveled half way around the world to experience my first cup of drinking chocolate only to find that a luscious cup was always available in my own backyard of San Francisco. I just never knew it.

A few weeks back our summer staff at camp wanted me to take them on a San Francisco tourist outing. Cable cars, Chinatown, Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, and of course, Ghirardelli Square were on the agenda.

Ghirardelli Square is known the world over as THE San Francisco chocolate destination and is the company's flagship retail location. Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is the second-oldest chocolate company in the US, founded in 1852 by Italian chocolatier, Domingo Ghirardelli. [1] In 1893, the company was expanding and relocated its operation to what is now Ghirardelli Square. San Francisco declared the site an official city landmark in 1965. In 1967, the company moved its production facilities to San Leandro, and turned the buildings and original chocolate making equipment into a popular tourist destination.

Because Ghirardelli's ice cream is exclusively made from cow's milk, I wasn't sure what I would have during our tourist visit. I was thinking a brownie (as chocolate baked goods are my vegan exception), but when I saw "Decadent Drinking Chocolate" on the menu, I immediately knew what I wanted. And after a cold windy day along the bay, I knew a cup of warm chocolate would definitely hit the spot. And it did.

Though I was the first to order, my afternoon dessert was the last to arrive but I knew the wait would be worth it.

I was surprised that I could taste the difference between the LaVerna drinking chocolate and the one from Ghirardelli. Though LaVerna's drink was darker in color and had a rich textured consistency, it was slightly sweeter than the cup I enjoyed at Ghirardelli, which was more milky with a subtle bitter bite. The different amount of cacao percentage is the reason for this taste difference. LaVerna's dark chocolate has 53% cacaoa as opposed to Ghirardelli's 58%.

Both of these drinking chocolates are made in the classic way, with a semi-sweet chocolate and blended with milk, as opposed to the traditional French and Belgian style which uses a 60% bittersweet or 70% extra bittersweet cacao and is finished with water. This more traditional European way is thus, non-dairy, and better corresponds to my vegan values, making my vegan-life much happier. I plan to share my bittersweet chocolate drinking experience in an upcoming blog.

Though the LaVerna drinking chocolate was sweeter, I preferred the dark rich dense texture, over the lighter more liquidy version at Ghirardelli. There was a depth in the overall flavor and experience to the cup at LaVerna that I truly enjoyed and savored. While I did appreciate the bitter chocolate edge at Ghirardelli, it was however more milky, smooth, and monotone in flavor. Even though I took my time sipping it, the brew was gone way too fast, and without swishing it around in my mouth, hard to fully enjoy. LaVerna's drinking chocolate, however, served with a small spoon, lasted for a while, and was definitely more dessert than drink. Ghirardelli's on the other hand was more drink than dessert.

Overall I did enjoy my cup of drinking chocolate at Ghirardelli, and it did live up to its menu description providing an "intense chocolate flavor in every rich velvety sip." At $4.95, it may be more expensive than my 2 euro cup at LaVerna, but at least I don't have to fly to Italy to indulge.

[1] Baker's Chocolate is the oldest chocolate company in America, founded in 1780.

Also note, the 14th annual Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival will be held on September 12-13, 2009. I'm planning to take in the experience on Saturday the 12th. Email me if you are interested. $20 gets you 15 tastings. A real deal, if you ask me!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Chocolate World: LaVerna Drinking Chocolate

A packet of powder and hot water. That was my long held mental model of hot chocolate. But all that changed this summer at La Verna, a mountain hermitage in Tuscany, as my first experience with drinking chocolate was simply, "pure heaven."

Since 1213, La Verna has been associated with Franciscan spirituality. It is recognized as the place where St. Francis had a life-changing encounter with Christ and received the stigmata. It is the place where St. Bonaventure composed the Itinerarium, and for centuries, it has been a spiritual destination and sanctuary for Franciscan pilgrims.

Because of its natural beauty and history of spiritual revelation, Mount La Verna was one place I had been looking forward to visiting during my Franciscan pilgrimage this summer. Yet in all my studies this year at the Franciscan School of Theology, no one had ever mentioned La Verna's association with chocolate.

After one sip of "Convento Della Verna" drinking chocolate, however, this religious sanctuary will now forever be spiritually associated with my chocolate revelation. My revelation = I really enjoy drinking chocolate.

We visited La Verna a few days into our trip. During our long bus ride from Assisi to the mountain, Brother Joe, one of our pilgrimage leaders, mentioned that upon our arrival we would break and he suggested we try their chocolate. I had never tried drinking chocolate before so it sounded intriguing, and having not located good chocolate cake in Assisi, I was longing for a chocolate fix. Thus, when the bus stopped, I was the first one at the counter, ready to order, with Brother Joe's Italian translation ready to assist.

For 2 euros, I was given an espresso cup filled with thick, warmed chocolate. It was served with a small spoon (see picture above). I gratefully lifted my drink, and took a seat as all eyes were upon me. I was the group guinea pig.

I gently stirred the cocoa brown potion, and smelled it. It had a rich, inviting chocolate factory aroma. As I lifted the spoon and slowly sipped, my eyes widened. I immediately knew I had discovered another exception in my vegan diet! After one taste, I was hooked. My chocolate palate was pleased; and with a two thumbs up review, the line at the counter formed.

Though this cup of drinking chocolate did not have the dark bitter bite (or color) that I appreciate in a chocolate cake, it had a deep, semi-sweet flavor that was very smooth, in spite its thick liquid consistency. Very simply, the warmth of the chocolate and its luscious taste were intoxicating. As I slowly enjoyed each spoonful, I was caught up in a third heaven, and I licked the sides of the cup so as to not waste one drop of this "food of the gods," as chocolate is called.

The gift shop featured Convento Della Verna chocolate bars. Watching Sister Joanne, our other trip leader, purchase four large bars to bring back home as gifts, I knew I needed to buy one. Locally made chocolate appears to be La Verna's hidden secret. As I continue to slowly enjoy my chocolate treasure back home one square at a time, I am brought back to my La Verna experience. The 53% cacao bar tastes very much like the drink I savored on the mountain back in early June.

Since returning from this chocolate retreat, I have learned a lot about drinking chocolate. In the coming blogs, I will explain how drinking chocolate is made and I will describe the differences between "drinking chocolate," "hot chocolate," "hot cocoa," and the "instant stuff." I'll also share other drinking chocolate experiences I've had since my La Verna chocolate revelation.

While Francis was transformed by a seraph at La Verna, I was transformed by a cup of chocolate. Chocolate can be a spiritual experience, and for me, there was no place more appropriate for a chocolate spiritual high than the beautiful Tuscan mountain retreat of Santuario della Verna.