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Friday, February 5, 2016

The Lauras Go to Mexico

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Hola, queridos amigos,

Just got back from a soul-filling writing retreat in Tulum with one of my closest friends, Laura Pritchett... and it was abracadabrant! In addition to sharing my name, Laura also lives in Fort Collin, also is in Old Town Writers' Group, and also gets the winter doldrums in February (and this winter's been tough-- snow on the ground since November, plenty of days in the single digits and teens) .... and we also both had airline vouchers just waiting to be used.... So we spontaneously decided to soak in some sea and sunshine and tropical greenery and warmth together last week to lift our spirits.

 SUCH a good idea!


Laura writes books for *grown-ups* although there's some crossover with older teen audiences.... her most recent novels are Red Lightning and Stars Go Blue, and they're fantastic and you should read them (along with her other 6 books)!  More that we have in common: celestial things like Lightning and Stars in our titles, and colors like Red and Blue/Indigo in our titles... and we both have 8 books out at the moment.... and we like old stuff and Mexico (and I could go on and on).  Suffice to say, she was the perfect retreat companion!



Here's where we spent most afternoons-- reading and writing ("working") on the beach and taking occasional ocean dips and beach walks.





Passion fruit ice cream!  I love this flavor so much-- perfect mix of tart and sweet-- and the crunch of the seeds is deeply satisfying.  Here, we're on the beach chairs of the Alma hotel, but our favorite evening place for food (and magical ambiance and live salsa music) was La Zebra.

 

Before this trip, I'd just finished yet another revision of my futuristic speculative fiction YA novel, which is set on a tropical island (specifically, on a a beach, in a jungle, and in a mysterious lab facility.)  So of course I was noticing all the subtle multi-sensory details of the water so I can describe it better when I do the inevitable *next* revision.




 Seaweed has some significance in the book...


I also jumped back into my new manuscript-on-progress, which is middle-grade (ages 8-12) and involves chocolate and the Amazon rain forest.  I love working on something in a new place-- I always get interesting ideas and think more outside-the-box.  I read that working in expansive places makes your mind think in a more expansive way.... and that was definitely the case sitting with my manuscript in the expanse of sea and sand and sky.

 

So, let's see... we *did* do some things beside write and read and walk and swim.  Laura visited the cool Coba Mayan ruins, where I've already been a few times, and wrote about in another post. I went to a yoga class in this studio on the beach... behold my view from the mat!


One morning, we visited a nearby cenote (a freshwater lake connected to an underground cave system, sacred to the Maya). This one was called Cenote Encantado, and was just down the road by a campground. It was surrounded by mangroves, and supposedly there were some baby crocodiles floating around nearby. We rented out a little boat and did some snorkeling and felt minorly freaked out by the baby crocodiles (which stayed hidden).


We stayed in a simple, sweet ecolodge called Las Palmas Mayas on the side of the road opposite the beach, which was just a one minute walk away.  Woulda been nice to stay right on the beach, but this place was much, much cheaper. And it had a kitchen where we could fix ourselves breakfast and tea and snacks, which made it very budget-friendly.


View from my window:


In the courtyard area:

 

Palmas!


Always fun to check out the folk art.... I got some smaller skeletons for Lil Dude-- a snorkeling skeleton, a dog skeleton, and a guitar-playing skeleton, since that's what he's into these days. :-)


It felt so good to soak in flowers and leaves and COLOR after being in the brown and white landscape of Fort Collins for the past three months.



So grateful to Ian for taking such good care of Lil Dude all week and taking time off work for sled-riding on the snow day.  (Did I mention there was a *blizzard* while we were gone?)  


Thanks for reading!

xo,
Laura



Friday, December 18, 2015

Nuance Chocolate Factory Tour!

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Hello, dear chocolate-lovers!

Last week, I got a fascinating, personal chocolate factory tour, led by Toby Gadd, chocolate-maker extraordinaire and owner of Nuance Chocolate in Fort Collins.  His chocolate factory is located in Old Town, just a few blocks away from his storefront/cafe.  This latest adventure was part of my on-going research for my next middle-grade novel, which has a LOT of chocolate in it. 

 

You might have read about my interview with him a few months ago here (and if you haven't, you should, because it complements this post!)  He kindly offered to give me a follow-up tour of the factory itself.  Technicolor visions of chocolate paradise swam in my head.... 


Alas, there was no chocolate river to fall into, but there was chocolate-tasting....


... and there was no slightly-creepy Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp in a velvet top hat, but there was super-friendly and knowledgeable Toby in his dapper hairnet...


And now, chocolate-loving friends, I'll take you on the tour...

Welcome inside, to the cool 62 degree interior of the factory, which is a collection of small-ish rooms a bit larger than the ground floor of my house (maybe about 1000 sq ft?) We began by de-linting ourselves and putting on hairnets. 

First, Toby brought us ("us" refers to me and a journalism major and cameraman from CSU) to the room of large, orange metal barrels where he stores the beans once they arrive. As you can see, they're labeled with date and country of origin.  Nuance sources their beans from ethical and sustainable growers and cooperatives, most of which are small, and they only use one kind of bean in each chocolate bar.  They can specially tailor the process to bring out the best of each bean, which makes the flavor rich and complex and fascinating, like fine wine.   

At this stage, the beans smell sour and acidic from the fermentation process.  Each cultivar of beans-- trinitario, forestero, and criollo-- has a different smell.  The fermentation process helps to develop over 600 flavor compounds, which is essential to the final taste of the chocolate, although the palette is further modified at every stage... as you shall see!


Can I just take a moment to say how lucky I feel to live just a ten-minute walk from his shop and factory?! Nuance has ***the widest range of single-origin chocolate IN THE WORLD!***

Okay, back to the tour... The cacao beans are harvested and fermented onsite in Latin America and Africa, then shipped here in giant sacs.  Toby and his wife Alix and their few employees then put the beans in the barrels, keeping them carefully separated.  In order to avoid any icky chemicals, they use natural dry ice to prevent any insect infestations during this stage.


They are also continually getting in new shipments of sample beans from potential growers to work with.... they come in wee batches (see above).  Toby and Alix make a small, test batch (1-5 lbs) of chocolate with the beans to see if they're good enough to order in bigger quantities to use in the chocolate they sell.  Only 15-20% of the beans they try out pass this test... the bar is high!

So, next, the cacao beans are roasted at 250 to 350 degrees for 20-40 minutes, which further develops the hundreds of flavor compounds. Toby and Alix spend lots of time experimenting with the best temp and length of roasting for each kind of bean they use.  If they over-roast, the chocolate becomes bitter, for example.

I can't show you pictures of the roasting process, because it involves some *top secret stuff* and I am sworn to secrecy.  (I couldn't help thinking of those spies in Willie Wonka's factory when Toby was swearing us to secrecy. ;-)


Okay, so next, the cooled, now-brittle beans are cracked into nibs and separated from the husks.  Toby is also a self-taught inventor and creative collaborator of sorts-- important skills for small-batch chocolate makers.  With the help of resources online, he came up with a cool, hand-made machine to do the cracking and winnowing.... involving a Champion juicer, a specialty vacuum, and a blade device custom made on his 3-D printer (all approved by the FDA and the CO health dep't!) The core component of this winnower was designed and made by John Nanci (the godfather of small batch chocolate).  Toby's modifications included the additional 3-D printed parts and other parts.

Much of his equipment are cool inventions using re-purposed equipment. And this is necessary because small-batch single-origin chocolate production is such a new and creative endeavor-- a blend of art and science lovingly done by just a handful of small, often family-owned, businesses. I felt so inspired learning how these folks re-envision uses for machines and equipment, to make them fit their own purposes.

Moving right along... so, the husk by-products are then stored in plastic white buckets (see above), which can be used for tea, body scrubs, brewing beer, etc.... Toby and Alix often pass these husks along to breweries or other local small businesses they work with. It's so heartening to see how these small, artisenal and hand-crafting companies work together creatively and promote each other's products. (At Nuance's recent birthday party at a local brewery, I had the most amazing, deep, rich chocolate beer.)


(Time lapse-- I just have to tell you that I took a little break from writing this blog post to make myself a cup of hot chocolate, which I am now enjoying.  *Sigh.* I knew something was missing...)

Okay, moving right along.... So, the cute little nibs go into the grinder next, and come out with the texture and consistency of peanut butter-- this is called chocolate liquor (and has nothing to do with alcohol, incidentally.) The machine Toby uses is the red cube above, whose original purpose was supposed to be a nut grinder, but which Toby uses exclusively for nib-grinding.

Next phase of the journey-- the melanger! This is a French verb meaning "to mix." This machine has a granite stone bottom disc and vertical granite wheels.  Interestingly, it was originally supposed to be an Indian spice grinder. Again, creative re-purposing to the rescue! 

The chocolate liquor and sugar are poured into the melanger (see below) for between 60 and 90 hours, depending on the particular kind of bean.  For days, the particles of cacao and sugar are ground down to between 20-30 microns (itty-bitty), so that the chocolate feels silky-smooth on your tongue. This process also helps release the volatile compounds and aromatics, while aerating and oxygenating the chocolate.  Note the chocolate's temperature here-- just pleasantly warm, a touch above room temp, but not hot.



Toby let us do a taste test here (!!!)-- we tasted chocolate from one melanger that was only done half of its final 90 hour timeline.  We noticed that it tasted kind of fruity and bright-- it still tasted of some compounds that interfered with the intended final, smooth, rich taste. It also still had a slightly gritty texture.

We tasted chocolate from another melanger (there were several in the room), which had completed about 75 hours already.  That was much smoother-- all silk-- and tasted heavenly. Toby said he was going to stop that one soon.... if you mix it for too long-- over 100 hours, for example, then it could taste flat, losing its fruity brightness altogether.  It's a lot of trial and error, art and science. Toby and Alix work hard to figure out the perfect process for each bean to maximize its delicious potential. 

If Toby's making milk chocolate, this melanger stage is where he adds the powdered whole milk, specially ordered from Europe. You can see it's lighter in color than the pure dark chocolate above.


So next, they pour the smooth, sweet, warm chocolate out of the melanger machine, and let it dry and cool into hard chunks.  Since the chocolate is still untempered, it looks mottled white and deep brown and striated. The chunks are stored in carefully labeled plastic bags until the next step.

This is the final step-- tempering, which means the controlled melting and cooling of the chocolate.  Here are the tempering units, with extremely precise temperature controls. The chocolate can stay in here for about an hour, or, can be set on overnight mode.


Check out this one-- the EZ Temper.  It was invented by a research doctor turned chocolate maker who re-purposed incubator equipment for tempering.... very creative, no?


So now that the chocolate has the right gloss, snap, melting point.... and feels like paradise on your tongue... it's ready to be poured into the molds! They make the molds using 3-D printer-- Toby also has a design background-- he created the Nuance logo and other design elements himself. These sweet little stars are used for the tasting flights Nuance offers in their shop. They also make chocolate bars, hot chocolate mix, and truffles (using extra ingredients like spices and fine liquor from other local food-crafters.) They also make some killer hot chocolate that you can sip and savor in their cafe-- perfect on a winter's day.  


Alix and Toby aren't doing wholesale at this time, which means you need to go to their shop to procure and enjoy their chocolate.  This means that they can be as experimental and creative as they want, and continually try out new processes and recipes, like true scientist-artists.

Nuance shop/cafe is located at 214 Pine St, in Old Town Fort Collins, CO. Toby, Alix, and their awesome employees are always happy to talk with you about their chocolate- making process.  It's SO much fun to do the taster flight of chocolate-- it's like wine-tasting, but yummier, and more kid-friendly.  You learn to distinguish among the complex notes and flavors that vary from bean to bean.  This is a super-fun activity to do on a date, with friends, with kids, when family is in town, or by yourself for a treat.

If you haven't read my first chocolate research post, please check it out here so that you can get the FULL chocolate-making experience....


In case you're curious, I've got my chocolate book outline done in delicious detail, and I've written and revised about half of it.  The novel is partly set in a small, family-owned chocolate shop in a small mountain town in Colorado, and partly set in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. I can't wait to finish it and share it with you! Thank you for swinging by....

xo,
Laura  



Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Lightning Queen Book Party Recap!

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Hello everyone!

I had so much fun celebrating the release of The Lightning Queen with friends here in Fort Collins!

 

Lil Dude was the Master of Ceremonies, and did a great job introducing me, doing magic tricks, interviewing me, drawing names for prizes, playing his White Stripes song on his guitar, and generally ad-libbing jokes throughout.... He loves being onstage and has been looking forward to this for a long time.


Beautiful dancers were there doing beautiful dances!

 
(photo from Gloria)

My good friends Gloria Garcia Diaz and Julie Lee performed some gorgeous traditional Mexican dances with their troupe, Quetzalcoatl....



They were fantastic...



Gloria's rainbow dress was a thing of wonder!



And there were all ages in the troupe, which was really cool...





We're so grateful to everyone who showed up to celebrate-- what an amazing bunch of people!



There was a free-for-all dance on stage, too, and all who participated got to choose a bell as a prize.  (The bells had been in a box in our garage for thirteen years, and I figured it was time to let them go ring freely with new owners...)

 

And there was book-signing... (Thanks to Old Firehouse Books for doing such a great job with the book-selling!)


 


 photo from Gloria



Alma (right) was one of the girls who interviewed me *in Spanish* about The Queen of Water for the local Bookends TV show.  She came with her awesome friend Ivan, who's also a fan of The Queen of Water, and her sweet cousin Karen.


My heart still feels full from all the neighbors and friends-- old and new-- who came to celebrate with us!

 Dear writer friends Todd Mitchell and Teresa Funke


Longtime super-creative friend, Julie Lee 


 Fun-spirited artist neighbor Diane Findley and her wonderful husband Tommy 


 
Close friend, Spanish writing partner, talented writer and translator, and dancer 
Gloria Garcia Diaz with her adorable daughter

 My vivacious and big-hearted 6th-grade neighbor, who's the most avid reader I know!


 More awesome neighbors-- Beth and Dan!  (We are SO lucky to live where we do.)


 And Julie with her lovely family

Afterward, there was the clean-up, which Ian did, oh-so-graciously.  ;-) (And my generous writer group friends, Laura Pritchett and Kayre Cattrell were life-savers helping me set up, but somehow they escaped being photographed!)



Thank you to all of you who were there in body and spirit!

Lots of love,
Laura

 photo from Gloria