Vegan Valentine's Day
Saying I Love You But Not in a Milk Chocolate Kind of Way
I am not a vegan. But I am vege-tarian with a pair of lactose-intolerant twins at home and a wife who abhors eggs. So, we tend to eat vegan by default. And this year, for Valentine's Day, I decided to get some vegan candy for my loved ones. The plan: head down to Rheb's Candy on Wilkens Avenue and put together a nice V-Day box. No meat. No milk. No honey. Just candy. Easy, right?
Crowded into the little store with other customers like truffles in a box, I took a number and window-browsed the glass cabinets full of chocolates filled with all varieties of fruit, cream, and nut. I've done my vegan homework, so I know that I've got to purchase sweet chocolate in the style it first hit the market in 1847--dark and milkless.
I had to pass on several of my favorite varieties of candy hearts and gummy sweets because they were made with gelatin. Baltimore's Vegetarian Resource Group (www.vrg.org) lists the ingredients of gelatin as: "bones, skins, hoofs, and tendons of cows, pigs, fish and other animals." Thanks, reality; now you've gone and ruined Jell-O.
Instead, I ordered homemade sea salt-sprinkled dark chocolate caramels and high-octane truffles. The caramels were complex and gooey--a challenge for the jaw--with the lingering flavor of chocolate-dipped pretzels. The fan-shaped dark espresso truffles broke in two, revealing a creamy lasciviousness inside.
Arriving home, I checked the VRG web site to find that my first foray into vegan candy buying didn't go so well. Rheb's chocolates are held together with cocoa butter and soy lecithin--both allowable ingredients--but vegans also have to watch out for the egg whites and yolks used to produce some of the gooey innards.
The biggest problem, however, is the sugar. The VRG warns that many sugar companies process their product through bone char--the burned-up bones of cows--which acts as a whitening agent.
Rheb's chocolate is made with finely granulated Domino Sugar. According to PETA, Domino uses bone char. In my first attempt at buying vegan candy, I managed to purchase sweets with sugar refined through crushed cow pelvises. Happy Valentine's Day, indeed.
Exhausted, I sat down with a glass of wine. Good meatless, lactose-free, completely innocuous Chianti. Innocuous except for the clarifiers used to process the wine. As the damn web site tells me: "Some clarifiers are animal-based products. . . . Common animal-based agents include egg whites, milk, casein, gelatin, and isinglass. . . . Isinglass is prepared from the bladder of the sturgeon fish."
Thanks, VRG. You have effectively ruined my life. Now I can't even drown my sorrows without hurting an animal. But I wasn't about to give up, so I headed over to my local health food store, Roots Market in Clarksville, and sure enough, it had a display of specialty vegan chocolates and organic Valentine's boxes.
The first candy I tasted was a solid dark chocolate from Sjaak's organic vegan assortment. For all the healthy stuff in it--from USDA-approved organic sugar to non-GMO organic soy lecithin--this bite-sized dollop was quite bland. I gave Sjaak's a second chance, biting into an inedible tomblike English toffee. This didn't bode well for the organics. Next up was a dry and chalky Terra Nostra Intense Dark--there was nothing intense about it besides the aftertaste.
Just when I was about to call it a day on vegan chocolate, I happened upon a Tropical Source Rich Dark chocolate bar. It's not a particularly romantic-looking bar, but sweet Jesus, what a taste. I kept checking and rechecking the ingredients; I couldn't believe I wasn't eating milk chocolate. This was silky and decadent--as well as dairy and gluten free.
The complex organic dark chocolate ginger bar from British company Green and Black's featured crystallized morsels of organic stem ginger covered in dark chocolate. This was a chocolate to be savored slowly with a hearty glass of Cab. But even this could not prepare me for the gloriously seductive Nirvana Belgian organic dark chocolate with pomegranate bar. This was a true European artisan candy composed of organic unsweetened chocolate, organic cane sugar, and orgiastic organic cocoa butter, pomegranate, and vanilla. Amazing. And available in Clarksville. (For city dwellers, OK Natural in Mount Vernon as well as organic-heavy chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's also sell some of these brands and a few I haven't yet tried.)
While vegan sweets I sampled couldn't beat the comfort and quality of Rheb's, there were definitely some animal-friendly offerings worth tasting. So, go ahead: lose the honey and the beeswax, skip the gelatin, forget refining the sugar, because good candy can be made without sticking a prod, knife, or steel bolt into any animal.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201