Thursday, April 22, 2010

99% Cacao

The other day, I was wandering through the Delhaize grocery store here in Izegem searching for a delectable post-dinner treat. Chocolate is one of my favorite substances on earth, so naturally I came to a halt in the extensive aisle of cocoa delight. Of course, I would prefer chocolate from a classic chocoloterie, but being Belgium, all the local chocolate shops had closed long before dinner ended. So I found myself staring at a wall of dark chocolates, milk chocolates, chocolates with pralines, hazelnuts, almonds, orange zest, strawberries, but what caught my eye was a black and white package with gold lettering labeled "Noir Absolu". 99% Cacao. Darkest of dark chocolates. Chocolate in its most pure edible form. I didn't have to think twice about the purchase.
I knew to expect overwhelmingly bitter chocolate. I remember my mom using some extremely dark chocolate (probably 85% cacao) while cooking chili and even that was almost too bitter to eat plain. This bar, however, was meant to be eaten without accompaniment. I bit into the bar and the chocolate was uncomfortably dry and bitter; disappointment set in as I realized that this 1.89 euro dessert was inedible.
But as with art, wine, and baseball, pure dark chocolate takes a certain level of enlightenment to fully enjoy. In this case, I can thank Iggy Silva who unlocked the secret of 99% Cacao; chewing the chocolate doesn't allow the cacao flavor to settle, so to enjoy "Noir Absolu", one must let it melt in one's mouth. And it is true, when consumed correctly 99% cacao takes taste buds on an expedition of many sensations. There's even a graph on the wrapper of different tastes over time.

How cool is it that something so initially vile and bitter can become delicious and joyful with just one small piece of advice? How many more things in my daily life are out there like the 99% cacao? I felt so powerful knowing that perhaps I was overlooking a small detail that would make doing the dishes or eating fish far more enjoyable.
However, of all of life's secrets that I will surely seek out, figuring out how to win a Belgian kermesse may be my top priority. Kermesses aren't like UCI road races and forget about drawing comparisons to local NorCal races. Let me try to describe them to you: kermesses are held every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday with the occasional race on the remaining days of the week. Usually, the race is a 5-15km loop done enough times to make a roughly 120km race. There is a population of bike racers in Belgium who make their living off of kermesses. How? Not really sure, but prize money is part of it along with the Belgian kermesse mafia. Now, it's not really the mafia but it sounds like it: there are different "families" if you will and these professional kermesse riders usually belong to one of these "families". The members of each "family" will work together during the race, much like a cycling team would, so that their rider of choice wins. Meanwhile, all the old belgians sit in a cafe drinking beers and placing bets on the rider who was pre-determined by the "family" to win. Thus, in effect, the races are rigged and us poor Americans are just getting in the way. Before the kermesse I raced last Wednesday, Daniel, team USA's kermesse expert, predicted number 104 would win. You can probably guess who won. Then there is the race itself; Belgian racers will attack until they're teeth have been ground to stubs which makes for incredibly fast, aggressive, and tactical racing. In order for an American development rider to win, I would need to know in advance who was supposed to win (and I imagine it has the ability to change over the first part of the race depending on what happens), have the legs to get in to the breakaway they end up in (kermesses always have breakaways), have the numbers so that the belgians can't gang up on me, and then have the legs to win in the finale. I have heard of Americans placing top ten and occasionally top 5, but a win is extremely rare.
But eating 99% cacao chocolate seemed impossible at first, and now look at me: I find anything less than 85% cacao diluted milky crap. Maybe after another month racing around these parts I'll figure out the secret of the kermesse. Stay tuned.

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