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Labun Jordan: Bitter Sweet

Bitter desserts are what gourmets call a “challenging” taste. Challenging like eating unsweetened baker’s chocolate is challenging, or like the early days of kids vitamins, back when they still tasted like medicine and not like gummy bears. I hear they’re much better now.

Bitter desserts aren’t unheard of. Strong black licorice would qualify. And, I avoid strong black licorice except as a gingerbread house trim. Bittersweet chocolate claims to be bitter, but mostly it’s sweet. Same with coffee-flavored desserts. Those used to be all the options I knew, but lately I’ve seen bitter getting assertive as a taste on the dessert menu.

I first noticed the trend at a fancy dinner showing off the chef’s talent with wild crafted ingredients. The final course was birch syrup meringue and juniper ice cream. This would have been a challenge for me to enjoy if I hadn’t already gotten in the mood by munching on fir tips with elk tenderloin and irish moss.

Soon afterwards, I discovered the BeBop Hop bar. It’s a milk chocolate and hop syrup candy bar that Lake Champlain Chocolates created for the Flynn Center. Let me tell you – hops are bitter . And they’re not what you expect inside chocolate.

Now, I don’t usually rise to the challenge of learning to like a new dessert. One could say that my love of desserts is overly liberal. I’ll subsist for days off of just dessert; I’ve avoided croissants since 1994 because back then I wasn’t wild for them and I want it to stay like that. But, the Hops bar had eight squares. I’d recently read that it takes eight tries to discover if you truly dislike a new flavor. It seemed prudent to test the theory.

By the eighth square, I loved the hops. The bitter tasted more mellow, more like the bitterness in my morning coffee... making hops and chocolate the perfect breakfast time dessert, displacing the bacon-chocolate-almond bars that previously held that title.

Acquiring a taste for really extravagant chocolate first thing in the morning may not be everyone’s idea of a victory. I questioned it myself. Then, on the eighth morning, I was at a meeting in a room with a bowl of candies on the table. Looking at those conventional chocolates, they just seemed... boring. Which is not to say I didn’t pocket a few - boring can work for me... and so can challenging. There are a few, dominant, national food brands that have mastered the science of inventing foods with the broadest possible appeal. Here in Vermont, we also value specialty food producers who offer something different from the norm. That’s a great balance. But, if we want the space for specialty food makers to grow, then we’re going to have to give the more creative, sometimes challenging, foods a fair chance. We won’t love each one at first bite. But we might love them by the eighth. And personally, I’d start with chocolate.

Helen Labun has worked in Vermont nonprofits addressing issues in rural economic development. Today, she is Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, connecting chefs to Vermont farmers in support of the local food economy.
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