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I don’t feel like I would be doing this feature any justice without talking about cacao as an ingredient first. Seriously guys, I’m not trying to bore anyone with a lecture here, but after visiting the Kakawa Chocolate House in Salem Massachusetts, the way I think about chocolate has changed completely. Chocolate is such an amazing, rich and flavorful ingredient, that it deserves some serious shine.
Would you have ever thought that bar of chocolate that you were hiding in your desk drawer at work, or that slice of chocolate cake that you devoured last night after your kids went to bed actually had a long history, and some amazing health benefits? Now hold on, let’s not get too excited. I was just being catchy with that line. Chocolate isn’t exactly healthy after it’s been highly processed and sweetened, but there are some benefits that come from eating cacao that hasn’t been altered too much from its natural state.
Rather than provide you with a full history lesson on chocolate (you can get that here) I’m just going to list a few facts and health benefits of raw cacao that I bet you didn’t know:
- Raw cacao is derived from the cacao plant and is made by cold-pressing raw cacao beans. Kakawa’s chocolate is a blend of cacao, spices, herbs and other high-quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients
- Raw cacao is rich in nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
- Raw cacao is high in antioxidants and is said to boost your mood, protect your nervous system and lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
- Cacao is said to have lower amounts of caffeine than coffee, but also contains a natural stimulant theobromine which can give you a boost of energy without the infamous crash of caffeine, or the jitters that some of us get after drinking coffee.
Disclaimer: I am by no means a scientist or nutrition expert and the items above are claims, so please be sure to consult with your doctor or nutritionist before modifying your diet. Also, additional processing and the addition of sweeteners to chocolate products reduces the nutritional value. A final thing to note is that although cacao contains nutrients, chocolate still contains sugar and fats so be sure to consume in moderation.
What I was most impressed with about Kakawa is how they let the chocolate speak for itself. They don’t try to act like they invented it or try to hog all the credit for their treats being so damn good (although their chocolatiers do make some amazing creations!) They pay full homage to the cacao plant and they give the chocolate ALL the shine! You can’t come here and not get excited about chocolate, and if you don’t, “you can’t sit with us”! Jokes and Mean Girls references aside though, who doesn’t get excited about chocolate?!
The minute I walked into the door of Kakawa I was sold. Because I’m a sucker for great design, I want to start off by acknowledging how beautiful the décor of this place is.
Southwest-inspired details like mosaic tile and tribal accents are mixed with industrial elements like exposed brick, reclaimed wood, and factory-inspired light fixtures that are characteristic of mills that were built throughout New England.
There’s plenty of seating from elevated counters with metal barstools, reclaimed wood benches decorated with patterned throw pillows, and other wood tables and metal chairs placed throughout the space.
You can even watch the chocolatiers at work behind a clear glass window towards the back of the chocolate house. My eyes glazed over the framed art on the walls and stopped at the article below from the Boston Globe.
The article is a glowing feature and announces the 2018 opening of the Salem location and traces the origins of Kakawa back to New Mexico, where the original location still resides and operates. So how the heck did this lovely gem of a place and I end up in the same city at the same time? It’s like we were truly meant to cross paths. The only slight difference between me being in Salem was that I was on a self-initiated day-trip from Providence, and Kakawa on the other hand was formally approached by a board member of the Peabody Essex Museum to open a location in the museum-owned Essex Street property. Nevertheless, here we both are, all that matter is that it was love at first sight.
Next I’d like to touch on the expansive menu that features 8 signature chocolate drinking elixirs. Think of the Chocolate Elixir as the main attraction at Kakawa. Not to say that any other item on the menu is anything less than outstanding, but even Kakawa’s website clearly states that their passion is the chocolate drinking elixir. If I had to define in my own words what the chocolate drinking elixir is, I would call it hot chocolate’s equivalent of what espresso is to coffee. It’s a concentrated drink with incredibly intense flavors that you don’t need more than a few ounces of to be fully satisfied. I can’t think of a better comparison.
The elixirs are divided into categories: Meso American and European & Contemporary. They come in two sizes- 3 oz. and 6 oz. Organic house-made whipped cream can be added as a topping for a small extra charge. There’s also a flight of elixirs that you can order if you want to try different flavors. There are other drinks offered on the chalkboard menu like coffee, horchata, chocolate soda, and hot and iced tea.
To the right of the chalkboard is an ice cream menu that lists about 10 flavors which can be served by the scoop, or as part of a milk-shake or sundae.
Brownies and cookies top the display case of chocolates, caramels, turtles, truffles and chocolate-dipped fruits and clusters. Finally, retail items like bagged elixir, ornaments, t-shirts, hand-carved molinillos (wooden whisks), mugs, and tote bags are sold on shelves at the front of the shop, and at the register.
The first thing I ordered was the 3 oz. Kakawa’s American Chocolate Elixir, which is composed of 70% chocolate, organic almond milk and vanilla. It’s bold in flavor and not overly-sweet. It has an intense, smooth taste and the slight bitterness of dark chocolate is complimented by a sweet, frothy, organic, house-made whipped cream. My elixir was served hot and presented in a tiny blue and white patterned ceramic mug that sat on a matching saucer.
I paired the elixir with a D’Arbol Dipped Chile, a chile pepper dipped in caramel and chocolate and topped with a hardened chocolate drizzle. I’ll admit I was scared to take the first bite as I wasn’t sure how spicy the chile would be, so I bit into the end that was completely covered by caramel and chocolate. When I took the first bite, I immediately noticed was how soft and sweet the caramel was. It wasn’t until I got to the seeds of the chile that I tasted any spice at all. As I reached the part of the chile that wasn’t completely covered in chocolate, I really started to enjoy this treat because I could start to taste the spiciness and crunchy texture of the chile. I thoroughly appreciated how delicious the chile was and that it didn’t kick my ass in terms of spiciness!
My bill came to about $8, including tax but not including tip and covered the 3 oz. elixir and D’Arbol Dipped Chile. This is what I expected to spend. Confections are usually priced around $3-$4 a pop in most chocolate shops. While $3.75 for a 3 oz beverage does seem a little steep, if you account for the fact that Kakawa incorporates fresh, seasonal and organic ingredients into their business model, supports sustainability, local farming and fair trade, I think it’s fairly-priced.
The first thing I thought about when deciding to feature this shop was whether any consideration and support is given to the indigenous communities whose cultures and traditions inspired the décor and so many of the menu items. I was relieved to read on their site that Kakawa supports and promote fair-trade. I’d love to learn more about the ways that this business supports indigenous Southwestern communities and whether people from those communities are represented within the company.
Kakawa delivers a truly unique experience. It seems to have adjusted well to its second home in Salem and it looks like locals have really embraced this shop. I was most impressed with the quality of the chocolate but also blown away by the décor, overall atmosphere and history. I have family that is local to the Salem area and I spent many of my childhood years living in Boston’s North Shore, so I am definitely excited about returning. Next time I’ll make it a point to sample the elixir flight, a glass of horchata and a couple more confections.
Until next time,