By John Harris

At the Cheese Board on Saturday night, the bar for both chocolate and cheese was raised to new heights. Pairings of high-end dark chocolate with carefully selected foreign and domestic cheeses had local taste buds all atwitter.

The unusual tasting was the brainchild of Leonard Pitt, founder and president of the exclusive Berkeley Chocolate Club (BCC), and Laura McNall, a veteran Cheese Boarder and recent inductee into the BCC. Pitt is well known in the Bay Area for his work as a mime (trained in Paris in the 1960s by the teacher of Marcel Marceau), and his books, including Walks Through Lost Paris (Shoemaker & Hoard), about Parisian architectural history. His latest venture into chocolate is just another of his many autodidact passions.

For April’s BCC meeting, McNall wowed members with a carefully designed cheese and chocolate tasting. The idea was then hatched for a public tasting of her revelatory combinations in conjunction with the Gourmet Ghetto’s annual Chocolate & Chalk Art Festival.

Leonard Pitt: founder and president of the exclusive Berkeley Chocolate Club

Of course, the pairing of chocolate and cheese is nothing new. Think chocolate cheesecake and the somewhat hideous, yet popular, chocolate-stuffed French brie en croute. You can go online and find all kinds of cheese and chocolate concoctions, but most are made with generic semisweet chocolate, like the chocolate chips in Giada De Laurentiis’ Chocolate and Cheese Danish recipe from her Food Network show “Giada at Home.”  Chocolate, whether high end or low, dark or sweet, combined with cheese (or bacon, or salt, or what have you) is always hot.

Yet Pitt and his chocoholic cronies reject the notion that their mania for dark chocolate, and the club’s current preoccupation with cheese, is a bi-product of a national commodity gratification fetish —or, as it’s more commonly described,  foodie elitism.

“I’m not at all a foodie, as foodies go,” says Pitt, and adds, “I just love great chocolate.” If you ask Pitt what great chocolate is, his answer, which he loves to repeat, is refreshingly free of code words like organic, sustainable and fair-trade: “Great chocolate is chocolate you love.”

At the cheese and chocolate tasting Saturday night, five cheeses and three chocolates were paired.  More than 40 tasters paid the $10 entrance fee that went to benefit Raise the Bar Hershey!, an organization fighting for ethical business practices in cocoa producing countries. Among the attendees was Nicole G. who had never even considered the idea of chocolate and cheese together. “You need parental guidance for something like this, ” she said as she slid a clump of Colston Bassett Stilton piled on a chunk of French Valrhona chocolate into her mouth.

Another Nicole, a video game designer, was impressed by how the Spanish Romao, a firm cheese made from sheep’s milk and rubbed with rosemary, brought out the sweetness in the smoky bitter Claudio Corallo chocolate sold by Allegio Chocolate, a shop across the street from the Cheese Board.

A pairing of chocolate and cheese at the Cheese Board Collective

A lone contrarian opinion came from Sharon R., a long time resident of the Ghetto, who confided that she’s not a huge chocolate fan and that if she wanted to combine dairy with chocolate, she’d prefer a  brownie and a glass of milk. I wonder why she was at the tasting?

Mention milk at a Berkeley Chocolate Club event at your own peril! Pitt’s lone bugaboo about chocolate is his complete distain — shared with fellow BCC members — for milk chocolate, the ubiquitous chocolate confection (usually in bar form) laced with milk solids and too much sugar, that makes up the majority of chocolate consumption in the USA.

One of Pitt’s oft-repeated quips is “Milk chocolate need not apply,” the only criteria for membership in the Berkeley Chocolate Club that Pitt seems willing to divulge. But isn’t the pairing of chocolate and cheese, ironically, a bit like making milk chocolate right on one’s own palate? When I expressed this perspective to the Cheese Board’s Laura McNall, she shot back, “No, not at all. Cheese is not milk.’’ She ought to know.

But if cheese is not milk, strictly speaking, it is certainly a product derived from milk’s proteins and fat. Well, let’s not quibble over spilt milk. The truth is, as we experienced on Saturday night, the knowledgeable pairing of chocolate and cheese produces fascinating flavors and textures buckets ahead of any milk chocolate product you have ever had, or even imagined.

If you want to explore the world of dark chocolate further, with or without cheese, you can get in touch with the Berkeley Chocolate Club through its website. You may not be able to actually join the club because, as one veteran BCC member told me Saturday night off the record, you have to already be a member of the club to join it. She was kidding. I think.

L. John Harris is a journalist, artist, filmmaker and author of the recently published graphic memoir, Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History. He is a regular contributor to the online food journal, Zester Daily.

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