The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel, Master of the Ephemeral Chocolate Truffle

by Kristy Leissle

October 2013    

On every visit to Intrigue Chocolates in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, I am greeted with a bit of truffle on a toothpick. It might be one of the house flavors—Jamaican Hot Chocolate (dark rum, honey, vanilla, nutmeg, habanero chili) or Mocha, made with direct trade coffee beans. Or perhaps a seasonal offering that founder Aaron Barthel has dreamed up—Hot Toddy (whiskey, honey, lemon zest, cloves) or the simpler but unexpected Carrot. When I finish the first, I’m invited to sample the rest of the day’s lineup, usually eight or nine flavors out of a possible one hundred fifty, and counting.

And I want to taste them all. After eating a lifetime’s worth of chocolate in every form, even earning my PhD by studying it, I have yet to find Aaron Barthel’s equal as a master of flavor. His truffles are intoxicating; locked in a room with a limitless supply, I would never stop eating them.

Though the company name suggests otherwise, there is little mystery in a visit to Intrigue. Aaron himself—a shyly smiling, Santa-like man—offers samples from behind the stainless steel worktable where he conceives, makes, and sells his confections. Jars of ingredients are on full display: peeled pods of cardamom, fluffy flower heads of chamomile, strips of dried porcini. And unlike the jeweled confections locked beneath glass cases at many chocolate boutiques, Aaron’s truffles are not bedecked with transfer art or luster dust, or molded into fantastic shapes.

Instead, Intrigue truffles are identical, pleasingly thick rectangles dusted with dark cocoa powder, each one wrapped in elegant brown paper with its name typed in simple font: Rosemary & Sea Salt, Jalapeño & Lavender, Cassis, Toasted Coconut. Their modest form belies the complexity of both the maker and his purpose, which is, at its heart, to unveil all the nuance and spectacle of flavor.

Intrigue’s ethos calls attention to the fact that each truffle ingredient came from the earth, and was once alive and growing. Moreover, the earth that produced the herb, spice, or fruit might not be any I will ever tread upon. And that is OK, because the truffles themselves will take me there. Eating his creations, Aaron believes, is a way to experience the many destinations, exotic or mundane, that his customers may never visit. “We can so easily forget there is a world outside our path between work and home, outside our city, our lives,” he told me. “Intrigue’s flavors are a way to remember there’s a wide world beyond what we see in our everyday.”

He recalled a conversation with a friend who, upon trying his early truffles, told Aaron that his flavors were intriguing. “At first, I thought, ‘That’s awesome, intriguing flavors!’ And then I realized, ‘Oh—intrigue.’ Like Murder on the Orient Express. Like steamer ships—people leaving England and sailing around the world, trying new things. My truffles are a way for people to experience that without having to travel anywhere.”

A new spice had just arrived, one of the rarest in the world. “The Romans used this pepper,” Aaron told me, handing me a jar to sniff. “It was their king of spices. You can’t grow it on a commercial plantation.” I smelled musk and woods. Aaron went on a different journey.

"It smells like the colors of an old-growth forest, with angled sunlight peaking through the branches. It doesn’t make me want to go camping in that forest,” he smiled, “but it does makes me want to read a story about going camping there. It’s very idyllic.”

The irony is that while their flavors evoke far-flung locales, Aaron’s truffles do not travel easily and their existence is, by necessity, fleeting. Aaron works exclusively with ganache, which he makes by infusing hot cream with flavorful ingredients and blending this with chocolate. Early on, he made the unusual decision to craft French-style truffles from this ganache, hand-dipping the rectangle shapes into cocoa powder. Most confectioners enrobe or mold ganache within a tempered chocolate shell, which allows the confection to keep for longer. I asked if there was anyone else whose sole product was a cocoa-dusted truffle.

“Nobody I know of,” he replied. “Usually just chefs in restaurants make them.”

Because they are not encased in sturdier chocolate, Intrigue confections must stay refrigerated and have a shelf life of about three weeks. While Aaron does sell his truffles online, no nationwide chain can stock them. Each mouthful flares briefly into flavorful life, and then disappears.

Aaron grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota and never had formal culinary training, learning mostly from cookbooks. Even now, his method is to repurpose techniques he already knows—like making tea. When a new ingredient arrives, Aaron first steeps it in hot water, and from there works out proportions for infusing it into ganache. While he trusts the method now, and generally crafts recipes to his satisfaction on the first or second try, his lack of formal training made him nervous to bring his truffles out in public.

“The first chocolate event I went to was the Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon, and I was terrified,” he remembered. “I was afraid people were going to taste my truffles—or even just look at them—and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing! Why did you do this? We never do this!’ Well, by the end of that festival, I’d taken away a couple of awards. That was very validating, and allowed me to relax.”

Unlike many of his artisanal peers in the bean-to-bar business, Aaron considers chocolate a medium, not a flavor goal in itself. “I sometimes refer to chocolate as a matrix for delivering flavor,” he explained. “When chocolate sets, the cocoa butter crystallizes and traps the volatile flavor compounds, but it traps them in an easily melting matrix. When you put a truffle in your mouth, you get this burst of intense flavor.” Because there is no hard chocolate shell to bite through, Aaron’s soft, cocoa-dusted ganache delivers the flavor experience immediately.

And that flavor can be anything from black lemon or basmati rice to rosé wine. Intrigue’s diverse truffle line is born of Aaron’s addiction to novel flavors and his careful study of their origins. He can tell me something interesting about every ingredient. When I tasted Heather & Honey, he remarked, “Heather was the bittering agent in beer before they had hops. It’s a preservative, keeping things from becoming moldy and weird.”

Or one that made him grin: Fakin’. Though he will try virtually any other ingredient, Aaron doesn’t believe that meat should be combined with confectionary—but he could not resist creating a faux bacon truffle in homage to his second favorite food. I tasted barbeque and wood smoke, with a hint of salt. Aaron explained that he derived the flavor from black cardamom, handing me a jar of seeds that smelled of molasses and pork sausage.

“It doesn’t exactly taste like bacon,” he said, “just evokes it.”

Aaron’s genius for making ganache lies with his synesthetic approach to taste, whereby his sensory perceptions become imbricate and intertwined. When he eats, he tastes colors, sounds, textures. Flavors often evoke a sense memory or an imaginary scene.

“Every flavor tells a story,” he explained. “If you allow yourself to be synesthetic, you get the colors, the shapes.”

A large part of Intrigue’s business revolves around pairings, which brings the truffles into an even more complex synesthetic realm. Weekends often find Aaron explaining to fascinated groups how to pair his confections with beer, tea, wine, sake, coffee, champagne (tricky, he says), or even music. Though his truffles cannot travel easily, Aaron’s reputation as a pairing maestro has, and he receives many requests to match his chocolates with various things, some of them not even foods. An artist asked him to pair Intrigue truffles with her paintings. A “convention for creatives” in Chicago approached Aaron about pairing confections with the five themed sections of their artistic program.

I had been working my way through the day’s samples, which included Pink Peppercorn and Lemon—made from zest, not juice, which added tiny bitter notes of citrus rind at the finish. I had enjoyed both separately, but Aaron had an inspiration: let’s pair them. I put the two bits of truffle in my mouth. The peppercorn prickled my tongue while a bouquet of lemon zest bloomed above. Together they made a new flavor, unnamed and untasted until that moment: bold, bright, fruity.

“That,” Aaron said, “is the flavor of hot pink.”

Even when a confection involves an ingredient I have eaten many times, tasting it in Intrigue truffles feels like a moment of first greeting. An educator at heart, this is for Aaron the most gratifying part of his work. To illustrate: Intrigue’s best selling truffle, Basil.

“People see that I make a basil truffle and they’ll say, ‘Oh, awesome, savory chocolate!’ And I always want to say, ‘Listen, basil is not savory at all. Thyme is savory, basil is sweet.’” Ninety percent of people, he laments, “have never tasted a thing in their lives, no matter how much they’ve eaten.”

But Aaron does not need to lecture about flavor, because his pedagogy lies in the eating. When I tried the Basil truffle, I felt I had never before tasted either chocolate or basil properly. The flavors were exquisitely contrasting, each the perfect foil: the basil tasted green and sunny, the chocolate foundation dark and earthy; I could see pointed emerald leaves pushing forth from loamy soil. As the sweet basil lingered, I understood why this herb is often found in savory dishes: it’s a contrast element for Italian meatballs, tangy tomatoes, or salty mozzarella cheese.

Aaron speared some Basil truffle on a toothpick and closed his eyes. “Basil’s a string quartet,” he said, “nuanced and smooth. It’s big, it’s lush, it’s green. I feel like I’m sitting on an overgrown lawn under a big old tree on a hot summer day, enjoying the breeze.”

Trying for some of Aaron’s synesthesia, I sampled Wintergreen—fresh, barely there mint—and saw the sparkle of stars in a Christmas sky. South African Honeybush was a dusty riverbank, the scent of honeysuckle on a dry breeze.

Customers ambled into the workshop and inevitably lingered. Many were obviously regulars. A young suited businessman wanted to discuss the flavors he had purchased on a previous visit. A lanky blonde woman in tight black pants arrived trailing a couple of friends, to whom she announced, “This is my favorite place in Seattle.” Nearly everyone who came in went away with a full box.

Watching Aaron sample out his confections reminded me of a party I’d been to, where a mixologist created individualized cocktails based on guests’ personalities. I asked Aaron if he could do the same with a truffle. His face lit up.

“Absolutely!” he said. “I’ve never done it for a person before . . .” I could tell that he wanted to. His assistant, Walter, went first. After a brief consideration of Walter’s likes and dislikes, Aaron pronounced his special truffle: blackcurrant, raspberry, and black pepper.

“I like your style, sir,” smiled Walter. Then it was my turn. Aaron asked what foods I enjoyed, besides chocolate. I told him cheese, chicken, and medium-rare steak. He contemplated these, and then said, “For you—a cumin, lime, and sea salt truffle.”

Wow. I never would have thought of combining those flavors with chocolate. But as I imagined its taste, I knew I would love that truffle. Walter and I decided that when Aaron created a personalized truffle, it would be akin to a painter capturing their model’s inner light.

“But Aaron,” said Walter, “would capture their flavor light.”

  Kristy Leissle , sometimes called Dr. Chocolate, is an interdisciplinary scholar and writer who studies chocolate. Kristy is faculty at the University of Washington Bothell and Education Director of the NW Chocolate Festival, the world’s largest gathering of bean-to-bar chocolate makers and confectioners. Her writing on chocolate has appeared or is forthcoming in Gastronomica, Bittersweet: The Chocolate Show, yes! magazine, and the Journal of African Cultural Studies.