For a chocolate-lover, walking into The Meadow in Manhattan's West Village is a bit like walking into a cathedral—one that also functions as a methadone clinic. Bars and bars of gorgeous, painstakingly crafted chocolate line the shelves, quietly demanding both reverence and the total abandonment of reason and self-restraint.
The intoxicating hybrid is the work of Mark Bitterman and Jennifer Turner Bitterman (pictured), who opened their first location of The Meadow in Portland, Oregon, in 2006. Four years later, they launched a second store in New York City. Their shops feature over 300 varieties of chocolate bars from around the world, with a particular emphasis on dark chocolate. The selection reads like a who's-who of the small-batch, bean-to-bar world: Dick Taylor, Rogue, Cacao Atlanta, and Olive and Sinclair, plus established European makers like Amedei, Valrhona, Bonnat, and Michel Cluizel.
The Meadow also has a superb collection of salt, bitters, and flowers, but in honor of Valentine's Day's, Mark Bitterman took some time to talk with CHOW.com about the sweeter side of the business.
How do you find the chocolates you stock? Do producers approach you?
They don't approach us very much. What you see in the store is rarely the stuff that approaches us. My desk is just piled with samples of chocolate, but usually they're things that aren't appropriate for our store—we usually end up feeding them to staff and children. That's one of my real passions and a big part of what I do in my life: I love to research and dig up new products. There's a lot of word of mouth; I talk to chocolate makers and hear what they know. And half of all of our recommendations comes from customers—there's a fantastic community of chocophiles.
It seems like Americans are so much better educated about chocolate than they were a decade ago.
Chocolate is the new wine. It's every bit as sophisticated and complex and delicious. It's more difficult to make in terms of cost benefit. You can buy a $10 or $8 chocolate bar that's equal to a $100 Bordeaux.
Yet a lot of people see a $10 chocolate bar and freak out.
People are very confused about pricing. The thing is that a good chocolate bar is not candy at all. It's extraordinarily and carefully handcrafted using the finest agricultural products in the world, culled from the best of the best. To say it costs a lot of money is completely absurd.
Also, it's not like you're buying it to eat everyday.
That's very moderate and smart-sounding, but to flip it on the other side, why the heck shouldn't you eat it every day? Truthfully, high-quality chocolate is one of the most beneficial substances known to man. We think it's being kind of coy to say that eating chocolate is good for you because [people] are thinking of candy, but chocolate is as natural and wholesome as kale, but a billion times more rare and precious and special. So you don't have to eat it every day, but you can also say many people spend three to five bucks a day on coffee. A buck a day on a really nice square of dark chocolate is a hell of a lot more satisfying than a cup of coffee.
So how much chocolate do you eat every day?
[Laughs] I eat all that I can. I am serious. I basically keep it around the house and have it on my desk; I have sweet chocolate for dessert after dinner, and dark during the day. I eat half a bar a day on average, sometimes a bar.
What are some of the products you're excited by right now?
Bigger companies have been taking a page from the small-batch manufacturers and jumping onto the single-origin and varietal-bean bandwagon. What do you think about that?
That kind of cynicism about corporate America, I certainly have it in spades, but I've also worked with some of these guys and they're passionate chocolate makers. They love the craft. They don't necessarily have the same controls or creativity, but people making chocolate for big companies are pretty fascinated with chocolate.
Would you carry their products?
I will never carry a large-scale manufacturer. The reason is twofold: One, it's not our mission to help people with things they can buy everywhere, and two is this issue of how to make the finest-quality things. You cannot buy chocolate in vast quantities of the highest quality. The agriculture is still too new. So if you want to eat the best chocolate you can't go to the biggest guys.
What are some of the bigger trends you've observed since you opened your first store in 2006?
The major trend is that the world is going bean-to-bar. That's the most dramatic thing and probably the most important thing that could happen—it creates a competitive environment, which means farmers get paid more and standards of productions go up, and that's very fun. Another one is this new American flavor profile, a new vision of flavor. I think it's directly born out of what happened with coffee, the idea of roasting to profile. It's very, very important and very different, and really in a certain sense anti-European in attitude. The European attitude is perfection of a whole, "This is what a beautiful chocolate bar should look like." Amedei's chocolate bar is the quintessential example, like, "Jesus Christ, that's the bar I always dreamed about." But then you taste a Rogue or Patric or Taylor bar, and see a very different attitude, where I'm trying to listen to what the chocolate has to say to me.
Do you think people will grow weary of sweet-salty flavors like bacon?
I would say both won't go away anytime soon. I don't know that they need to go away. Putting bacon in chocolate brings good chocolate back into the realm of candy. It makes it serious candy, and we all like candy. So you put bacon in chocolate, goose it with a little bit of sweetness, and you've got something fairly serious and beautiful. Xocolatl de David is a good example, and Vosges was commercially successful doing that, but didn't invent it. On the flip side, the real rage would be a fleur de sel chocolate bar. It's balanced and the salt adds more flavor and complexity, and keeps your palate from gobbling it down. You kind of savor it and evaluate it as you eat.
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Image source: The Meadow