February 22, 2018
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California ice cream gets blind taste test in Maine

By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

A couple of weeks ago, an old college friend asked if I’d like him to send me some free ice cream made by his new company. Is this a trick question? A few days later, eight pints of premium chocolate and vanilla ice cream arrived from California in a FedEx box filled with dry ice. I don’t know about you, but in my lifetime this was a first. To commemorate my good fortune, I decided to turn this ice cream bonanza into an event. That is how 15 Mainers happened to take part in a blind taste test ice cream party.

Here’s a tip for future reference: If you want 100 percent acceptance rate to a random Tuesday night event, tell people they’ll be taste-testing ice cream. Granted, one of our invitees was suspicious — “Is there some kind of a catch? Are you sure someone isn’t going to try and sell us a timeshare?” Nope. While it is true that the Choctal company is hoping for investors, my friend — owner Mike Leb — sent the ice cream with no strings attached. Though the ice cream is available for order online, he has no illusions about people from Maine paying the shipping costs to get Choctal from California (but he can always hope!). Mostly, he is just excited for people to taste his product and spread the story.

The story has several layers. First is the rich variety of flavors from different cacao and vanilla beans.

“I’m trying to eliminate the words ‘plain vanilla’ from our lexicon,” Mike told me. Each Choctal ice cream is produced from a single origin around the world — Madagascar vanilla, Costa Rican chocolate — and the difference in their flavors is quite stunning. Second is the idea of “gastronomic tourism.” Consumers of his ice cream experience the flavors of countries around the globe by tasting products made only from their beans.

Add to that the efforts of the company to get certified as a B Corporation — a business with high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency — and you have an impressive story. Not only does Choctal donate a great deal of their time and their product to homeless shelters in the Los Angeles area, they are also working to forge responsible partnerships with people in the countries where their vanilla and cacao beans come from.

“We have a triple bottom line approach to business,” said Mike. “People, planet and profits. All three are equally important.”

So that’s a tiny introduction to the story of Choctal. For my part, I just decided to have some fun eating ice cream with a bunch of Maine friends. So my husband and I wrapped the four Choctal vanillas and four chocolates in newspaper, then added one chocolate and vanilla from a local creamery in Monroe Maine (Stone Fox Farm), to make it interesting. We found an ice cream tasting guide online and gave our guests a tutorial before we began.

There were instructions about clearing the palate, proper ice cream temperatures, judging appearance, smell and texture — the “body and chew.” You are supposed to take a small sample of ice cream on the spoon, then “invert spoon to your tongue. Cover your tongue with ice cream, roll it around your mouth and smack your lips.”

I didn’t hear a lot of lip-smacking, except maybe from our 4-year-old neighbor, who was a highly appreciative, if not discerning, ice cream eater. We did discover the formerly underappreciated taste talents in several of our friends, who detected “cherry overtones” and “grainy textures” (note: avoid permanent markers when labeling for a taste test, or everything has overtones of chemical solvent). We also had the universally appreciative, “I don’t know. I just love anything chocolate.”

In case you are curious, Choctal’s Ghana chocolate and the Papua New Guinea vanilla won their respective categories. Stone Fox Farm’s vanilla won an impressive second place in the vanilla lineup, but in chocolate, Choctal prevailed.

Memorial Day weekend is coming up, which is the beginning of serious ice cream season. If you have a hankering to eat ice cream with friends, maybe a little tasting party is a good excuse to fill your freezer. Promise them ice cream, and they will come.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.


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