IT’S A WRAP: FATHOM’S IMPACT ON THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

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Fathom Impact Travel’s mission is: “Unleash ‘Eudaemonia’ (Greek for ‘human flourishing’) through empathy-driven social impact and ‘alongsideness’.”  In addition, their mission is to “transform the lives of travelers, families, and communities for generations to come in meaningful and sustainable ways.”

Some of my research on Fathom Impact Travel activities in the Dominican Republic prior to our cruise uncovered speculation and doubt as to whether the impact was significant.  Was Fathom accomplishing its mission?

Check out the numbers our cohort leader, Colin, shared with our group during the wrap-up session aboard Adonia:

At Chocal, the goal was to contribute toward greater productivity by sorting beans and nibs, enabling the women to focus their time and resources on the more intricate chocolate-making process.  Bruce and I feel the three groups we worked with put a significant dent in the bags of dried cacao beans we sorted!  During our week at Chocal, 265 travelers cleaned 179 pounds of nibs, which equates to 5,295 finished chocolate bars!  We also packaged 5,128 chocolate products and prepared them for sale.

This was accomplished during the 18th voyage of Adonia.  The total impact of all eighteen voyages to date amounted to 4,518 lbs. of nibs cleaned, which produced 133,288 finished chocolate bars.  In all, 81,042 products were packaged and prepared for sale.  That’s a lot of chocolate!

Over at the nursery, Fathom didn’t start sending volunteers until the 7th voyage.  Since then, 19,202 cacao seeds were planted by Fathom volunteers.

Meanwhile, while we were productive at Chocal, other volunteers were participating in other projects.  Here are those numbers:

RePapel (where we volunteered on our last day in the DR)- 221 people produced 1, 185 sheets of paper during our cruise.  To date, 14,719 sheets of paper have been produced for stationary and notecards.

Reforestation- 170 people planted 1,978 seedlings in the nurseries, and 1,150 seedlings were planted from the nurseries into Dominican soil.

Concrete Floors- 140 people made concrete floors for seven homes where 23 people live.  To date, the total is 60 homes (for 246 people).  In addition, a concrete multi-use outside court was made at a school of 168 students.

Water filters- 53 people made 67 clay filters for 335 people.  To date, 1,041 filters were made benefitting 5,205 people.

These numbers don’t include the amount of hours volunteers spent teaching English to Dominican adults and children.

Do these numbers seem insignificant to you?  They sure don’t to us, nor did they to the others in our cohort group.

During our wrap-up session, we were encouraged to take this experience home with us to our own communities, and continue the mission of making the world a better place for all of us.

Personally, Bruce and I aren’t sure whether we made a greater impact on the women of Chocal and RePapel or whether we were more impacted by the experience.  What we do know is that we want to go back!  As soon as we returned home and walked in the door, we made some phone calls and got booked on another Fathom Impact Travel Cruise.  Although it didn’t work out to return for a full week in the DR, we did get booked on a voyage that will include both the DR and Cuba.  We will volunteer at Chocal twice and teach community English once while in the DR; and, the ship will call on Santiago de Cuba for a people-to-people experience.

I’m sure I will have plenty to write about after our next adventure, so stay tuned!

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Colin, our cohort leader after our wrap-up session.

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Bruce and I brought back Colin’s favorite Chocal chocolate bar to give him as our parting gift.  Unfortunately, he’ll be on leave when we return for our next cruise.

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Our new friends, Jessica, and her dad Len.  Jessica is sporting a temporary tattoo of Fathom’s logo.  This was the “prize” I won during a shipboard activity during the sailaway.

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Rayna, and her dad, Carl, came aboard with Mom and Sis.  Like Jessica and Len, they were table mates during the cruise.

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Our last sunset in the DR

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Arriving in Miami

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Quite another perspective from our cabin window!

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHOCAL: FROM BEAN TO BAR

In my previous post, I described the first steps in making chocolate, and mentioned how I talked my way into a factory tour for the following day.

Orlando made good on his promise to arrange a factory tour during our second day at Chocal.  After Bruce and I worked for awhile at separating cocoa beans, Orlando escorted us to the machines off the back patio where we met up with one of the ladies.  As she explained (in Spanish) the chocolate-making process and showed us the machines, Orlando translated as I attempted to record the information on my digital recorder.  As I sit here trying to listen to Orlando’s translation, the background noise of the loud machinery is making it very difficult to hear him!  Note to self:  Purchase ear plugs for the workers, because they aren’t using any, and they are going to lose their hearing!

Picking up where we left off previously, the next step in the chocolate-making process is for those cocoa nibs to be ground up in a grinding machine to liquefy the cocoa butter and produce what is now called chocolate liquor or chocolate liquid.

Next, the chocolate liquor goes through a second refining process to further reduce the particle size of the cocoa mass.  Cocoa nibs contain approximately 53 percent cocoa butter (depending on the cacao species); so, it is during this second refining process that the percentage is either increased or decreased, depending on the desired finished product.  For chocolate bars, cocoa butter needs to be added, so the chocolate liquor is transferred to another machine where it will be combined with additional cocoa butter and other ingredients.  This process is described below.  For cocoa powder, the cocoa butter content must be reduced.  At Chocal, they use a syringe to remove as much as possible.  Next, the chocolate liquor is pressed to remove more of the cocoa butter.  Baking soda is added to the remaining cocoa and the “press cake” is cooled, pulverized, and sifted to form cocoa powder.

“Press cake” is also used to form cocoa balls for hot cocoa drinks.  This is what the ladies are making in the photo later in this post (and in the photos in my last post).

To produce eating chocolate,  extra cocoa butter is added to the chocolate liquor in a mixing machine, along with sugar and other ingredients, depending on the type of chocolate being made at the time.  In all, cocoa butter accounts for about 25 percent of the weight of most chocolate bars.

For milk chocolate, milk powder is used at Chocal, whereas fresh milk is used at Cadbury.  (If you have seen a Cadbury Milk Chocolate label, you will notice the logo showing that a “glass-and-a-half” of milk goes into each block.

After the chocolate is mixed, it is transferred to another machine to refine it.  Next the chocolate goes into a conching machine.  Conching is a kneading process that develops the flavor of the chocolate, releases some of the bitterness, and gives the resulting chocolate a smooth texture.  In general, the longer chocolate is conched, the smoother the texture will be.  It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  Chocal conches their chocolate for just a few hours; however, the entire mixing process takes a full day between the three machines.

After the chocolate is conched, it must be tempered before it gets poured into chocolate bar molds.  Friction during the conching process naturally heats up the chocolate.  That liquid is then brought down to temperature using a marble table that remains cold due to the air conditioning in the room.  The women spread the chocolate on the table using metal spatulas, mix the chocolate around, and fold it inwards to cool the chocolate quickly.

Tempering is a stabilizing process that helps keep the chocolate crystals from clumping together, which would give the chocolate a grainy texture.  It also gives the chocolate a smooth, glossy appearance and prevents the cocoa butter from separating out.  If done correctly, the chocolate bar will shine on the outside and make a snapping sound when broken in half.

Once the chocolate is tempered, it is poured into molds.  The women at Chocal do this by hand and tap the molds to remove any remaining air bubbles.

Finally, the chocolate is cooled and then removed from the molds for packing.

It was fantastic getting to see how the entire chocolate-making process is done, from bean to bar.  The machines were so much smaller and different than the ones I had seen in the large, modern factories; so, at times, it was a bit confusing trying to figure out which machine was doing what.  Some of it got lost in translation, and much of it just got lost due to not being able to hear!  I’m still not exactly clear on which of these machines do which job, but I figured it out for the most part:

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I believe this is where the cacao beans are roasted.

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After the beans are roasted, they go through a winnower to separate the cocoa nibs from the shells.  I think that is the job of these machines.

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Once all shells are removed from the cocoa nibs, the nibs are gound in this machine.

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This is the pressing machine where the nibs are pressed to make chocolate liquor for chocolate bars.  The remaining “press cake” that is separated from the liquor is used to make cocoa balls for hot chocolate and cocoa powder for baking.  Here, a syringe is used to remove the cocoa butter from the press cake, so the remaining cocoa can be used for cocoa balls and cocoa powder.

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I’m not sure about the purpose of this machine, but it may have been to further process the “press cake” for powder.

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This worker was using the smaller machine to produce fine cocoa powder.

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In this machine, sugar, milk powder, and additional cocoa butter is added to the cocoa liquor and mixed.

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Here, the mixture from the first machine is further mixed and refined.

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This where the magic happens!  The refined mixture is placed in this conching machine to grind it to a homogeneous consistency.  The full mixing and conching process takes one day.

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This is the marble table where the chocolate is tempered.

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Finally, the chocolate is poured into molds for chocolate bars and cooled.

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Nidia, our tour guide

At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to our group to assist with packaging the chocolate.  After we finished, the others made their chocolate purchases while Bruce and I went to see what the ladies were up to on the patio.  This time, when we said, “Hasta manana!” they believed us and flashed us big smiles.  We would be returning the next day for one last time.

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Milagros, the factory manager

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When we arrived for our final day at Chocal, the woman in the photo above (with the green blouse) ran up to me and gave me a big hug!  Our tour guide, Nidia, did as well.  We were pleased they were happy to see us once again.

After we completed our work inside, Bruce and I joined the ladies while our group hit the gift shop.  Instead of making cocoa balls, the ladies were sorting beans, so I joined in.  My new friend opened up a fresh cacao pod and shared the beans with me.  Although the beans are very bitter, the pulp is sweet and delicious!  The idea is to suck on the beans, and then spit it out without biting into the bean itself.  Yum!

 

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These beans sell for $2/lb.

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While we were working, some local farmers stopped by to sell their beautiful vegetables.  Nidia ran back to call out to the others, and some of the ladies ran up to make a purchase.

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The time came to say “Adios!” and “No, no manana” to the women, give them hugs, and make our way to the bus for our final ride back down the mountain from Altamira.  As I gazed out the bus window during the bus ride, I knew I wanted to return.  Bruce did, too, and the wheels in our minds started turning…  (More details will follow in a future post.)

In my next post, I’ll show you around RePapel, a women’s co-op that recycles paper and makes beautiful stationary and jewelry for sale.

Meanwhile, here are additional photos shot at and around Chocal:

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A local farmer spread his cacao beans out in the sun to dry.

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CHOCAL: MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK

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My last post about Chocal focused on the cacao plantation before the beans get transferred to the factory.  Those little seedlings we planted will take approximately 3-1/2 years to grow before the cacao pods are ready to be harvested for production.  May to July is the biggest harvest period each year, and a smaller harvest is done each November.

Each cacao pod yields 50-80 beans.  Four pods will yield 1-2 pounds of beans, which in turn yields one pound of chocolate.

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Marcia translates for Naomi, the vice president of Chocal Women’s Co-op, while she explains the chocolate-making process.

Once the beans are dried over at the nursery, they are ready to be sorted at the factory.  That was a job I nailed!  We were shown what “bad” beans look like, and which ones should be tossed aside onto a plate.  The good ones were to be thrown into the bucket.  While others got caught up contemplating whether each bean they had picked up was “good” or “bad,” I decided to look for the best beans and pick them up simultaneously with both hands.  Once I got two handfuls of beans, I tossed them into the bucket.  For me, this was so much easier and quicker, because a majority of the beans were “good.”

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On Day 2, Bruce worked on filling a new bucket, sorting good beans from bad.

The buckets of good beans went on to the next step in the chocolate-making process:  roasting.  This is done for 20 minutes, and during this process, the shell of the cocoa bean separates from the bean kernel, and is removed.  The cracked beans—now called cocoa nibs– are then transferred to the winnower where 85% of the shells get separated from the cocoa nibs.  Next, the nibs are spread out on pans to be manually examined for any remaining shell fragments.

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Steven explains how to remove the shell fragments from the cocoa nibs as Erin (right) looks on.

While some of our group worked on sorting the beans, others picked out shell fragments from the cocoa nibs.  After a while, the groups switched stations.

As good as I was at sorting beans, I was awful at picking out the shell fragments from the nibs.  My below-average dexterity, and my even worse patience with this task left me frustrated and hopping back over to “crash” the group at the sorting table.  I was there to work, not waste time getting frustrated over shell fragments!

While the co-op workers (including the sons of a few of the women) took our sorted beans and nibs to be processed (more on that in my next post), we were ushered into a room to learn how to mold chocolate.  Molding chocolate effectively requires expertise, so we didn’t actually mold the chocolate to be sold.  Instead, the process was demonstrated by one of the co-op women, and we were given an opportunity to make chocolates for our own consumption during the bus ride back to the ship.  The best part, though, was getting to sample the warm chocolate after we were finished.  Chocolate was spooned into our gloved hands for some good ol’ finger-lickin’ fun!

Finally, we finished our work in the packaging room.  During our three days, Bruce and I attached bar code stickers to the cocoa ball packages and stamped expiration dates on the chocolate bar labels, while others in our group packaged the bars for sale.

While we were in the packaging room, we could see the various chocolate processing machines and tables of molded chocolate bars through the glass windows.  I also had poked my head into the room off the back patio to see what the workers were doing with the machines there.  I was this close to the inner workings of a third-world chocolate factory—nothing like the modern Cadbury factories I had toured in Tasmania, Australia or Dunedin, New Zealand!

It was at that moment the idea was hatched to request a tour and explanation of the factory processes.

I explained to Orlando, one of the IDDI facilitators, that I am so passionate about chocolate and Chocal, that I would be returning with Bruce two more days to volunteer.  Could he possibly arrange for a tour of the factory for the following day during our visit?  We would be willing to skip out on the molding demonstration if we could just have a quick tour and interview with one of the women.  Oh, and could he translate, too?

Orlando promised he would arrange it for us, and he made good on that promise when we returned the following day.

Meanwhile, after we were dismissed from the packaging room, I made a beeline for the gift shop to make a quick purchase before the remainder of the group followed.  I was anxious to get back out on the patio and spend some time watching the women make cocoa balls, before it was time to return to the ship.

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Preparing the pressed cocoa, so it can be shaped into balls to be used for hot cocoa

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It was at this point I felt most frustrated at not having learned Spanish beyond a few basics.  I had so many questions I wanted to ask the women about their life in the DR, their families, and work at Chocal.  Instead, I made do with plenty of smiles and my extremely limited Spanish vocabulary.

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When it was time to leave, Bruce and I said, “Hasta manana!” and smiled at the women.  They responded with a confused look on their face, and “Adios!”  “See you tomorrow?  Really?  I don’t think so!” was what I’m sure they were all thinking—and saying to each other after we left.

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Milagros (left), and the women of Chocal make cocoa balls.

As Bruce and I happily savored our chocolates during the bus ride back, we expressed to each other how we were already looking forward to our return.

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~ MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK ~

CHOCAL: MAKING A DIFFERENCE AT THE CACAO NURSERY

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61As Adonia cruised into Amber Cove, Bruce and I admired the gorgeous tropical scenery of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic (aka “the DR”).  We were eager to start the day, so we were among the first to disembark after our arrival.  It was too early to board the bus for Chocal; so, we explored Amber Cove, the $90 million-dollar port completed a year ago by Carnival Cruise Lines.  I took several photos of the attractive complex; however, I am eager to write about Chocal.  Amber Cove will have to wait…

In my first post about Fathom Impact Travel, I mentioned we would be helping Chocal with their cacao and chocolate production.  It is a women’s cooperative currently employing thirty women (as well as some of their adult children); however, their goal is to grow the cooperative and thrive.  Helping them to succeed will enable Chocal to hire more local women, and bring more income into their community.

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During the bus ride to Chocal, Leurys, a representative of IDDI (Dominican Institute for Integral Development), prepared us for our upcoming morning at the cacao plantation and chocolate factory.  In addition to learning about Chocal’s creation in 2008 (detailed in the photo above), the entire chocolate-making process was explained, from cacao seedling to chocolate bar.  We would be contributing to many of those processes to help increase production.

I was curious how these women learned the business of producing chocolate.  We were told a consultant from Switzerland was hired to teach them the entire process, and educate them on the special equipment needed to process the cacao.  After the co-op obtained a loan from the U.S.A., the machines were built to specification and delivered to the factory.

Chocal is located high up in the mountains in the town of Altamira (Spanish for “high view”) where cacao grows naturally and abundantly, along with mango and other tropical fruits.  Many local farmers belong to a farming cooperative and make their living by harvesting their cacao and selling the cacao beans.

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Having Chocal in their community provides another buying source for their cacao beans.  When Chocal is in need of more cacao than their own trees produce, they buy from the farmers in their community.  In turn, when those farmers need additional cacao trees for their land, they can purchase young trees from Chocal at cost.  The farmers provide compost for the seedlings, and pay the equivalent of ten cents for each two-foot tall tree they purchase.  This covers the cost of the bag, and the (free) labor is provided by us volunteers.  IDDI representatives work with Fathom and Chocal to facilitate the volunteer process.

It was in the nursery where we ended each of our three volunteer days at Chocal; however, it is where I will begin our tour here, since this is the origin of chocolate.  It all begins with cacao.

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Once the teams were in place at the bag filling station, bag brigade, and seedling planting station; we rocked!  I never noted how much time we spent in production mode (perhaps one hour); but, whatever the time period, we produced.  Our bus load of +/- thirty volunteers filled bags and planted 504 seedlings our first day, and 584 the second day. Our group had less time to work on the third day; however, we still managed to complete 403 bags.  That’s teamwork!

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We met Jessica, age 9, and her dad, Len, during the first night aboard ship.  They were wonderful table mates, and became fast friends.  Erin and Erin were college friends who we met during the bus ride.

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Leurys explained how the bags should be filled to the top and compacted.  Next, a hole is inserted in the soil and a cacao seedling is planted.

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Carola (right), helps plant the seedlings.  She was our table mate on another night aboard ship.

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Gumarcindo lines up the seedlings on our first day.  Our group planted 504!

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By Day 3, Gumarcindo was trying to figure out where to put them all!

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These little cacao trees will be sold to area farmers at cost– about ten cents per tree.

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My new amigo, Gumarcindo.

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After our work was completed, Gumarcindo, the nursery manager, showed us how the beans are processed at the nursery, before they are taken next door to the factory.

First, the cacao pods are carefully removed from the trees, and then manually cut open within 7-10 days of harvest.  The beans and pulp are scooped out from the pod and placed into the top level of boxes in the fermenting room.  After two days at the top level, they are dumped down into the middle level for another two days of fermenting.  Finally, they are transferred into the bottom level where they ferment for an additional two days before being spread out in the sun to dry.

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Although many cacao growers skip the fermenting step before drying their beans, the Swiss consultant explained to the co-op members that fermented beans would make for better-tasting chocolate.

After the fermentation process is complete, the beans are left in the sun to dry to reduce the moisture content from about 60% to 7.5%.  If it looks like it’s going to rain, the roofs are pulled over the bean tables to keep the beans dry.

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The drying process is done carefully and slowly to ensure that off-flavors are not developed.  If the beans are dried too quickly, some of the chemical reactions started in the fermentation process are not allowed to complete their work.  This causes the beans to become acidic and taste bitter.  If the drying is done too slowly, however, mold can develop.

To ensure an even drying process, the beans are spread out in the sun and raked or turned periodically.  In all, the drying process takes about six days.

Once dried, the beans are packed in large sacks and stored in Chocal’s warehouse that is kept cool and dry.  Under these conditions, the cacao beans can be stored for years.

My next post will be about those cacao beans that are processed to become delicious chocolate!

Meanwhile, as our tour came to an end, we said “Hasta manana!” (See you tomorrow!”) to Gumarcindo and the IDDI facilitators helping out at the nursery.  All of them gave us a funny look, because nobody comes back tomorrow if they are on a Fathom cruise.  As a matter of fact, the Fathom website doesn’t allow for registering for multiple Impact activities at the same location.  Besides, most people opt for a variety of volunteer opportunities rather than just one.  Not me.  Between my passion for all things chocolate and my strong belief in the women’s co-op; I was determined to spend as much time as possible at Chocal. Bruce was fine with it, so I called Fathom’s headquarters as soon as we signed up for the cruise and pleaded my case.  Happily, the gal I spoke with empathized and did a manual override of their computer system to sign us up for to volunteer at Chocal all three full days in the DR.

When Bruce and I returned the following day, we found Gumarcindo and greeted him with, “Hola, Gumarcindo!  Que lo que?”  (“Hello, Gumarcindo!  What’s up?”)  (“Que lo Que” is a special DR greeting that is very much appreciated by the locals, so we enjoyed using that greeting often!)

A big grin and a fist bump greeted us back!

On the third day, I was sad to have to tell Gumarcindo, “No hasta manana.”  I didn’t know if or when we would ever be back…

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Next up:

CHOCAL:  MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK

Impact Travel: A New Adventure

After a few dozen big ship cruises as a guest lecturer (mostly travel photography) and crafts instructor, I was ready for a different cruising experience.  Back in 2002, my mom had wanted to take a river cruise on the waterways of Belgium and Holland, so we paired up for a non-working cruise and headed to Europe.  One time on an intimate riverboat was all it took; I was hooked and never thought I would return to the big ships again.

That all changed when some friends bounced an idea off us that was different than the typical big ship cruising experience:  impact travel.  I had never heard of the concept in cruising, but Fathom, a one-ship cruise line launched by Carnival Cruises last April, had done just that.

Fathom’s 704-passenger former Renaissance ship, Adonia, made headlines by being the first cruise ship to take American passengers to Cuba; but, what I didn’t know was that the ship sails to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic for one-week impact travel cruises on alternate weeks.

Puerto Plata wasn’t on the top of my bucket list for destinations—I had been there before as a teenager on a family cruise—but this opportunity intrigued me.  After hearing David and Melody’s excitement about the concept and their idea of having us experience it together, I did some further research.  Bruce and I both loved what we discovered, so we signed on.  After visiting them in Vero Beach, we’ll drive down to Miami and hop aboard Adonia together.

Now, before I explain further and (possibly) get you excited about the concept of impact travel, I recently learned from two different USA Today articles that Fathom will cease operations in spring of this year.  The ship has been sailing far under capacity, and the cruise line is losing money.  Unless you book your cruise and travel soon, you will be out of luck.

We got an affordable deal– $850 for BOTH of us, including port fees and taxes, for a one-week cruise.  Even at this great price, it is doubtful the ship will sail anywhere near capacity.

On our day of departure, we will set sail from Miami to Puerto Plata.  During our transit, we will participate in workshops to learn about the culture and prepare us for our chosen volunteer activities.  While the ship stays docked at Amber Cove in Puerto Plata, passengers will have the option of being tourists, volunteering, or both.  Those of us who will be volunteers will spend three days immersing ourselves in the local culture and collaborating with local volunteers on community projects that will have an impact on education, environment, economy, and more.

The need in Dominican Republic is tremendous.  The poorest half of their population receives less than one-fifth of the country’s annual GDP, and most of them live below the poverty line.  Job prospects for women are especially scarce.

While looking over the various choices of how we could help make an impact, one option stood out above and beyond the rest:  Chocal, a women’s cooperative that cultivates organic cacao plants and produces chocolate from bean to bar.

Under the guidance of Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI), Chocal has been successful in creating jobs, providing local cacao growers with an outlet to sell their plants, and generating income from the sales of their organic chocolate.  Along the way, the women have learned new skills and have been afforded the opportunity to continue their education.  Flexible work hours have allowed the women to do all this while still caring for their families.

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As volunteers, we will participate in the complete cacao production cycle:  from planting and cultivating the organic cacao trees, to sorting cacao beans, to molding chocolate, and packaging the final product for sale in their gift shop and aboard Adonia.

According to Fathom’s website, by helping to improve production and increase sales, we will be helping Chocal to thrive, so it can hire more local women and provide more income to the region.

This is a win-win!  Visiting a full-production cacao plantation was on my bucket list; however, trying to incorporate it as part of a vacation with my husband was proving to be difficult.  Bruce is totally on board with this and has even enthusiastically agreed with my idea of volunteering all three available days at Chocal rather than choosing two other activities.  Our friends will also be joining us on one of the days at Chocal, and then spending another day making clay water filters.  I’m sure we’ll have a lot of stories to share that evening over dinner back onboard ship!

Stay tuned for more on this upcoming adventure!*

*Unfortunately, thieves have gotten smarter and figured out how to prey on travel bloggers, so for security reasons (even though we live in a guarded community and have a house sitter), our travel dates will not be noted, and future posts will not be published until after we return. 

CLAUDE’S CHOCOLATES: A DELICIOUS DISCOVERY!

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When one thinks of the best chocolates in the world, French, Belgian, and Swiss chocolates are usually what come to mind. And, in the U.S.A.? New York City would be a safe bet for finding the best American chocolates. St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra, Florida, are probably not even on the radar.

One taste of Claude’s Chocolates ( http://www.claudeschocolate.com ), in St. Augustine, had me asking, “How does an amazing chocolate like this end up here?”

I contacted Nicole Franques, Claude’s wife, to inquire about touring their Ponte Vedra location, where Claude makes his exquisite creations. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, although they do not give formal tours, she would be happy to show us around the kitchen of their chocolate shop.

On our way back home to Georgia, from our St. Augustine vacation, we stopped in to meet Claude & Nicole Franques, and their assistant, Suzy.

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One step inside through the front door (and a very deep breath to take in the euphoric smell of chocolate), and I felt like I was back in Europe, visiting a French chocolate shop. The chocolates were beautiful, as were the displays; it was a feast for the eyes.

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Nicole welcomed us warmly and ushered us back into the kitchen, behind the large glass window, where we met Claude and Suzy, preparing for the days’ production.

Claude was as warm and welcoming as his wife; very open to showing us the equipment he uses to assist in his production of fine French chocolates. Between Claude and Nicole, each step of the chocolate production was explained in such an interesting and engaging way that I suggested they add chocolate tours and tastings to their business. They answered every question so graciously, even the one question most chocolate makers are too secretive to reveal: “What brand of chocolate do you use for your ganache base and coatings?” (That would be Belcolade, from Belgium: http://www.belcolade.be )

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But, the most burning question I just had to ask was how a French chef like Claude ended up in Ponte Vedra, Florida?

In 1973, Claude came to the U.S.A., from Toulouse, France, to work as a French chef. He was sponsored by Nicole’s father to work in his restaurant, in Manhattan, New York. And, that is how Claude and Nicole first met- and, where they fell in love.

Ultimately, the two continued the legacy of Rene Pujol Restaurant for 20 years, before Claude and Nicole decided it was time to retire to their chosen locale, St. Augustine.

Claude wasn’t the type to retire to a rocking chair, however; he wanted to pursue his dream of making fine French chocolates, following in the footsteps of his close friend, Jacques Torres, a well known French pastry chef, who has become a successful chocolatier, in New York City.

The two met in 1989, working as French chefs in New York City. In 2000, Jacques pursued his dream and opened his first chocolate shop. When Claude decided it was also the path he wanted to follow, Jacque invited him to work at his shop and learn the process of making fine French chocolates. So, for six months, Claude trained under Jacques, back in the kitchen, while Nicole worked in the front of the store, learning about packaging and selling chocolates.

In 2005, they opened their first chocolate shop in their original downtown St. Augustine location. Recently, they moved their main shop and production kitchen to Ponte Vedra, as well as a smaller shop at their Granada Street location, near Flagler College.

Although any of Claude’s chocolate creations can be purchased at their St. Augustine location (6 Granada Street), one visit to their Ponte Vedra location (see below for details) and a taste of one of Claude’s exquisite chocolates will convince you that Claude and Nicole learned the fine points of the entire chocolate business very well. From the Chewy Caramel with Sea Salt to the Mayan Spicy, Claude’s bonbons and truffles are decadent, delicious treats!

Visit Claude’s Chocolate at:
The Shoppes at St. Johns Oaks
145 Hilden Road
Ponte Vedra, FL 32081
Tel: (904) 829-5790

Hours:
Mon – Sat 10 AM – 6 PM
Closed Sunday

ST. AUGUSTINE CITY WALKS: TOUR DE CHOCOLATE

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The time had arrived; Saturday at 2:00 PM: CHOCOLATE TIME!

After first reading about this tour in the St. Augustine/ Ponte Vedra, Florida’s Historic Coast 2013 Travel Planner, I immediately ran to the computer to look up the tour on Trip Advisor. Good news; the reviews were positive, so I was ready to book our tour( http://www.staugustinecitywalks.com )!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was very happy that Isabelle added a tour to their calendar, just for us. As it turned out, we were the only two on Ed’s tour, yesterday afternoon. Lucky us!

The reviews had all emphasized the quantity (and quality) of chocolates, chocolate desserts, and chocolate drinks that would be served during the tour. So, a strategy was hatched: Bring a thermal bag with a sheet of re-freezable ice and take my servings (except drinks) to go. We would then share Bruce’s servings.

As it turned out, it worked out to be a perfect strategy. At the end of the tour, we weren’t stuffed or sick. And, I am now enjoying another amazing serving of chocolate covered cannelloni, as I peck this out on my netbook…

Before I continue, I must pause here to thank my very willing and enthusiastic sherpa: Bruce. Without Bruce, I would have had a very sore neck from carrying and increasingly heavier bag, due to the full-sized desserts we were given on the tour, along with our packages of chocolates and bottled water.

Our guide for the tour, Ed, was a very upbeat and enthusiastic guy, who also happened to be a speech professor at Flagler College. Speech is the appropriate topic for him to teach, because, man, that guy could talk! But, he was very knowledgeable about the history of St. Augustine, so we received a good history lesson, in between our chocolate indulgences.

We didn’t have to walk far on this City Walks tour for our first chocolate stop; we went right next door from the Tours Saint Augustine/ St. Augustine City Walks office to meet Mark, owner of The Market on Granada; a specialty gourmet shop that sells a chocolate infused red wine ( http://www.themarketongranada.com ). We were poured a glass of Chocolate Rouge wine (Modesto, California) to pair with creamy Havarti cheese and Le Gruyere cheese. Wow; what a great pairing!

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Ed asked us to save half of our wine serving for our next pairing: Claude’s Chocolates (http://www.claudeschocolate.com/ ) . Located in the back of the same shop, Claude’s is a small chocolatier, selling high-end, high-quality European style chocolates. Claude’s best friend and mentor is Jacque Torres; a world renowned chocolatier and pastry chef. The two grew up together and Jacque taught and trained Claude in the fine art of making premium chocolates.

Claude learned well. His chocolates were as exquisite as what I had remembered enjoying from the best chocolatiers I visited and bought chocolates from in Belgium. We tasted three different dark chocolates and paired them with our chocolate infused wine. HEAVEN.

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We then got to select four chocolates each, as well as our preferred variety of chocolate bark to take in boxes to go. Bruce let me select his four for him. I married a great guy, didn’t I? Although, I’m sure any of Claude’s chocolates are amazing!

Next stop: Right next door (again!) to Hot Shots Bakery & Café (http://www.hotshotbakery.com/ ) . Hey, I thought this was supposed to be a walking tour! How are we supposed to walk off all that chocolate if we keep going door-to-door? We got a good laugh out of that, but it was very convenient!

Hot Shots served us a “Chocolate Cloud”; chocolate cake topped with chocolate mousse and covered with dark chocolate. Decadent! I was very happy they packed one to go, because it was quite rich and filling!

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We continued on our walking tour to Vino Del Grotto, a “Galleria Lounge” where wine tastings are offered, desserts and coffees served, wine and gourmet goodies are sold, and gorgeous art hangs on the walls (http://vinodelgrotto.com/ ).

We tasted everything pictured below; some mixed together in a decadent chocolate cocktail. I enjoyed it all, but we went crazy over the chocolate balsamic. We returned later, after the tour, to buy a bottle. (Shhhh! Don’t tell them this, but we would have bought a bottle, anyway, even if we hadn’t each been given a $2 off coupon!)

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In between stops, Ed filled us in on St. Augustine’s history; much of what we had already heard on the previous nights’ City Walks tour with Maggie. But, we didn’t mind; the history of St. Augustine is full of interesting tales, well worth telling and hearing again.

All of our stops were within the Old Town and Spanish Quarter of St. Augustine; the most historic and picturesque part of the city. And, we were fortunate to have a beautiful day to enjoy.

Our next stop brought us to Chianti Room (http://www.pizzalleyschiantiroom.com/ ); an Italian restaurant that gets very good reviews on Trip Advisor. If their chocolate covered cannoli is any indication of how good their other food is, I would highly recommend this restaurant when you visit St. Augustine. If you don’t go there for dinner, at least go for dessert; specifically THIS dessert. I have never been particularly crazy for cannoli; I can take it or leave it. But, one bite of this chocolate cannoli and I was smitten. No, I was HOOKED. Seriously. If I lived in St. Augustine, I would get into BIG trouble (both in the wallet and waistline) with that stuff!

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Needless to say, when Bruce passed on sharing the remainder of the second serving, tonight, and let me polish it off on my own, I was seriously smitten with HIM!

At this point, we waddled out of Chianti Room, staggering in a chocolate stupor to our next chocolate stop: Crucial Coffee (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g34599-d2390703-Reviews-Crucial_Coffee_Cafe-Saint_Augustine_Florida.html ) .

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Thank goodness for our thermal bag. By this point, we really needed it. (Note to Isabelle at St. Augustine City Walks: Suggest to your boss he has some thermal bags made with “St. Augustine City Walks Tour de chocolate” printed on it. You could sell them to your tour customers, specifically for this tour! And, you can pay my commission for the idea in Claude’s chocolate or Chianti Room chocolate cannoli!)

At Crucial Coffee, we were killed with chocolate (and wine) kindness. We were first poured a glass of pinot noir, to enjoy in their lovely outdoor café, while admiring the quaintness of the little hut where they operate. It dates back to the late 1700’s where a blacksmith used to work.

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Our glass of wine was followed by a frozen mint hot chocolate drink that was refreshing and delicious. We thought that would be it, which would have been just fine with us. But, it was followed by a dessert trio of homemade dark chocolate peanut butter cups, a chocolate covered strawberry, and vanilla ice cream topped with a dark chocolate garnish. Awesome!

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Now, we were on a serious chocolate high, as we buzzed up the steps to Fudge Buckets (http://fudgebuckets.com/ ), to taste various flavors of fudge. I had previously purchased four “buckets” (and got a fifth bucket free), on the recommendation of other Trip Advisor reviewers, so I am now well stocked for a fudge tasting encore, upon our return.

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Mercifully, this concluded our Tour de Chocolate. Ahhh, but I was one happy camper! My taste buds were smiling.

We had great fun on our tour and enjoyed our time with Ed. The only thing missing was not hearing more about chocolate history and facts; something I would include if I ran a similar tour. But, I did learn one thing about St. Augustine’s chocolate history: Chocolate made its way to St. Augustine’s shores in 1671; long before Milton Hershey came on to the seen!

ANOTHER GETAWAY: ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA

 

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You’re probably wondering why a “retired” couple living in a resort-style community would want to get away. Well, we really don’t need to get away; we are extremely fortunate to have a happy life, just the way it is. But, when the travel bug bit me in my youth (thanks to my mom and dad), it bit hard. And, thankfully, I am married to a great guy who enjoys the adventures, too!

So, here we are in St. Augustine; another road trip getaway to a place we were curious to see, being East Coast newbies.

Did you know that St. Augustine is the oldest city in the U.S.A. and is celebrating its 450th birthday? Well, I sure as heck never knew that, even with my college education. Either I missed that little nugget of knowledge while out sick one day or none of my history teachers never shared that interesting fact. Same goes for Bruce; he didn’t know it either.

So, now, as adults, that little factoid interested us enough to see what this 450 year old city is all about.

We arrived on Sunday, at our cozy 1930’s era rented Vilano Beach cottage (www.homeaway.com ), located maybe 100 yards from the beach. It’s just over the bridge from the historic downtown area and a perfect location for us. A terrific boat ramp is just three minutes down the road; perfect for launching our kayaks into the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway), for a short paddle over to Poncho Creek.

In our area of Vilano Beach, we are away from the hotels and tourists in a quiet residential area. Just like in Sanibel, beach houses- 3 stories at most- line the beach, rather than high rises; our preference over tourist beaches, such as Miami and several other Florida beaches.

It was so nice on Sunday, during the late afternoon, walking along the beach and seeing very few people. The tourists are drawn more to St. Augustine Beach, according to the reviews on Trip Advisor. Fine. The tourists can have St. Augustine Beach!

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On Monday, our day started out very much like one of our typical Sanibel days: Go kayak fishing first thing in the morning (although our “first thing” was too late; the fish had already eaten their breakfast), followed by a trip to the local pool for a swim workout.

The results were the same: No fish- yet. We set the alarm for an early rise, today, in hopes of some redfish having what was on the end of Bruce’s fishing line for breakfast. Again- nothing. But, I got to observe these roseate spoonbills eating plenty of munchies for breakfast.

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As for the community pool, it is nowhere near as nice as the one at the Sanibel Recreation Center, but it will do. I had to share a lane, on Monday, but had one all to myself, when I returned yesterday for a swim. I finished just in time before hundreds of kiddie day campers took over the lanes surrounding me. Some of them were even sitting on the edge of the pool on each end of the swim lane I occupied, with their little toes dangling into the water; a bit of a surprise, when I did a backstroke turn, pushed off, and saw their little faces staring wide-eyed at me!

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Our afternoon on Monday was pretty quiet, after a morning of kayaking and swimming. We stopped by Kyle’s Seafood Market to pick up fish for dinner, since the redfish seemed unwilling to sacrifice themselves for our meal.

Have you ever tried cobia? I had it for the first time on the Mississippi river cruise and fell in love with it at first bite. Delicious! It was locally caught and very fresh at the market, so that was our selection. Mmmmm!

Our other little excursion was to find the “castle” in Ponte Vedra. I had heard about this from Laurel, the gal who cuts my hair, and assumed she was being a bit dramatic in her description. But, she was right. Check it out here: http://www.castleotttis.com . What a trip…

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We skipped kayak fishing, yesterday, and opted to head straight to the pool, instead. The afternoon was spent at Whetstone’s Chocolates ( http://www.whetstoneschocolates.com ), for a chocolate factory tour and tasting, followed by San Sebastian Winery ( http://www.sansebastianwinery.com ), for a winery tour and tasting. Wine and chocolate; life is good! Just for the occasion, I wore my t-shirt with a graphic of a glass of red wine and dark chocolate, with a hand holding a prescription that reads: “Red wine and dark chocolate. Doctor’s orders.” It will get another wearing on Saturday afternoon, when we go for the Tour de Chocolate, a chocolate walking tour being conducted by St. Augustine City Walks ( http://www.staugustinecitywalks.com/?page_id=67 ).

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So, back to Whetsone’s, we enjoyed the chocolates and bought some of our favorites to enjoy later. Our favorite was the De Leon Blend Dark Chocolate (at 47%, it is technically a semisweet chocolate), and I also liked the Menendez Blend Dark Chocolate (72%); a European style bittersweet chocolate.

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Whetstone’s buys their beans from South Africa, a question our tour guide was able to answer. But, when I asked her if they make any single origin chocolates, she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Neither did one of the sales staff behind the chocolate counter. So, the answer to that question would be, “No.”

We enjoyed the tour and our chocolate tasting, before making our way down the street to the winery. San Sebastian was quite generous; the tour was free (Whetstone’s was $8 per person) and the tastings were plentiful. Unfortunately, the wine wasn’t our style; there was only one dry white and one dry red. The rest of the wines were quite sweet to me. Our guide even recommended one of them be used to make “winesicles”, combining the wine with blueberries and peaches in popsicle molds for a refreshing summer treat. I’ll pass, but we enjoyed the winery experience and our guide’s sense of humor!

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After a late afternoon walk on the beach, we enjoyed another Cooked Creation by Bruce Cook: Fresh shrimp from Kyle’s ($9/lb. for 30 VERY fresh shrimp), sautéed in garlic, olive oil, and red pepper flake. The shrimp was served over pasta with steamed broccoli and tomatoes with a little pesto sauce stirred in; perfect with my glass of bubbly. Ahhhhhh…

REVIVAL CONFECTIONS SPICY PEANUT BRITTLE

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This was a blissful chocolate moment that was one of the highlights of my sister’s visit to our home, in Georgia. Gail, creator of Revival Confections, had brought me and Bruce a package of her new Spicy Peanut Brittle. After photographing the package, it was time to break it open and sample this much-anticipated addition to her line of gourmet confections. Now, honestly, I was skeptical, as a person who has a take it or leave it attitude towards peanut brittle. It just doesn’t (usually) rock my boat the way chocolate does. BUT, my opinion has changed! The spice was just right and I was bowled over by this fabulous brittle! Being the chocoholic that I am, however, I couldn’t just leave it be, wondering what it would taste like dipped in chocolate. So, here it was, late in the evening, and I make a half-joking suggestion that we heat up some chocolate and give it a dip. Gail replied, “OK!”  So, I scavenged through my stash of chocolate and uncovered a 62% cacao bar of Scharffenberger to do the job. YUM! It tasted fabulous with the Spicy Peanut Brittle. But, being the chocolate/cayenne, chocolate/cinnamon, and chocolate/cayenne/cinnamon combinations lover that I am, I had to take it a step further. Hot Tip: Costco has THE BEST cinnamon I have ever tasted- and it is quite inexpensive! After stirring in a healthy shake (or two… or three…), we gave the brittle another dip. PERFECT! After that, I think I have earned my place as Revival Confection’s R&D advisor, don’t you think?

CHOCOLATE HAUL: THE FINAL TALLY

So, now for the honest (yummy!) truth:  I have tallied up my chocolate haul from Europe and broken it all down for you.  I confess; I lived up to the last half of my nickname (think “maniac”, instead of “-iaK”) in my quest for chocolate.  A huge thanks goes to my mom for following me all over the place as I stepped into every chocolatier and grocery store we encountered along the way.  She was my true partner in the quest for new chocolates!

BY THE NUMBERS: 

New brands collected:  47 in five countries

Pounds of chocolate brought home: Belgium 7.81, Netherlands  1.50, France 0.44, Germany 4.33, Switzerland 9.9.  Total:  23.98 pounds

Chocolate purchased and consumed before returning home:  7 oz.

Chocolate consumed last night and not pictured:  3 oz.

Calories that will be consumed?  Too many!  But, who’s counting???

LABELS ADDED TO MY CHOCOLATE LABEL AND WRAPPER COLLECTION:

Belgium:  Davinia, Delhaize, New Tree, Cachet, KC Chocolatier, Lucrotsaert, Union Edel Chocolade, The Chocolate Line, Jacques, Chocoholic Chocolatier, Stefs Chocolatier, Kathy Belgian Chocolates, Noble Chocolatier, Chocolates Keerman, Chocolaterie De Burg

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Netherlands: DeHeer, Price

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France:  Monopix Bio!, Grand Jury.  (I would have liked to have found more, however, the chocolatier I found in Strasbourg was ridiculously expensive!

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Luxembourg:  Sadly, none; it was Sunday and all of the chocolatiers and grocery stores were closed!

Germany:  Schwermer, Sarotti, Peters, Rausch, Café Hansen Confiserie Bernkastel, Fin Carre, Eszet Schnitten, Ja!, Coppeneur, Rudesheimer Confiserie Laden, Hussel, Omira, Trumpe, Choceur

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Switzerland:  Sprungli, Alter Eco, M Classic (Migros Supermarket), Denner (Supermarket), Bachman, Max Chocolatier, OK, Minor, Choco CH, Chocolates Halba, Camille Bloch, CoOp (Supermarket), Swiss Lion Takova, Le Chocolatier Suisse

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Thinking back on my purchases and examining the bounty before me, I realize I was more drawn to milk chocolate, this time around.  It was quite the opposite when I brought home a carry-on full of Belgian chocolate, after my Belgium & Holland river cruise, in 2002.  But, my preference for savoring bittersweet chocolate is to pair it with a jammy zinfandel, vintage port, or tawny port.  And, I have cut back on my alcohol consumption, since returning to competitive swimming.  This year, until Nationals ended in early August, I probably consumed no more than a total of 5-10 glasses of wine!

Milk chocolate, on the other hand, is my comfort food, and I enjoy it all by itself.

Next up on Elaine-iaK’s Travels:  While I was in Europe, I took a lot of photos of chocolate displays; something I really enjoy doing.  Check back soon for a tour through the chocolatiers of Europe!