A Box of Chocolates

Shop for sweet gifts at the new Noka chocolate boutique

Science and technology have allowed culinary connoisseurship to thrive over

the past few decades, with purveryors of fine wines, meats and produce able to quantify and optimize the conditions necessary for peak flavor.

Yet, for chocolate, it was necessary for Noah Houghton and Katrina Merrem to look backward for a return to purity. The couple spent a long time in search of the sublime product of the cacao plant.

“We both had a passion for travel, and wherever we went, we were always trying to find the best chocolate, to see where we could find the purest chocolate in an unadulterated state,” Houghton says.

For a while, that was enough. Then, a trip to Switzerland changed their lives.

“It was a beautiful day,” Houghton says. “We were looking up at the Matterhorn, and Katrina looked at me and said, ‘There’s got to be something more in life than what we’re doing.’ ”

Both were CPAs, and after a period of soul-searching, Houghton says, “We kept coming back to chocolate.”

Noka was born with the notion of introducing the purest chocolate possible, with a minimum 75 percent cacao to capture the essence of its origin. The chocolate contains no vanilla, soy lecithin or other additives, for the 99.9 percent of people he says have never tasted pure chocolate. Houghton says many of the extra ingredients are fillers that detract from the flavor and mouth feel of chocolate. Soy lecithin, for instance, is a preservative that gives chocolate an unpleasant waxy texture.

Some companies also reserve valuable cocoa butter for resale to the cosmetic industry instead of using it in their chocolates. The result is, “You’re left with chocolate that is dry and chalky,” Houghton says.

The pair tasted about 50 different chocolates from around the globe to determine which single-estate cacao would best exemplify the range of the tasting experience, equivalent to wine tasting. Four made the cut, from northern Venezuela, Ecuador, the Caribbean island of Trinidad and the Ivory Coast.

“We were astounded by the pure flavor that came through without adding artificial flavors and wanted to develop an optimal way to taste chocolate,” Houghton says. “We never had a person unable to distinguish the different flavors. They’re all distinct. The Venezuela has a fruity, lively flavor, where the Ecuador is intense, with dark berry notes.

“The first step is to be present,” Houghton explains. “We wanted people to slow down, take a deep breath and taste, instead of gobbling it down.”

In keeping with this rarified spirit, Noka chocolates are beautifully packaged in hinged boxes, ready for gift-giving, whether you are treating someone else or yourself to an indulgent experience. Gift boxes range from $17 to $110.

Noka introduced its first chocolates in 2004 and entered Neiman Marcus stores in 2005. Recently, it has opened retail operations in Dallas and Tokyo, and a Honolulu store opened this year at the Royal Hawaiian Center.

One treat you will find at the Noka Waikiki boutique is the company’s Grand Cru Truffles, which it maintains strict control over because of their perishable nature.

“It takes two days to make a Noka truffle,” Houghton says. Where many houses start with a hard, pre-fabricated shell that has the effect of being a barrier to the ganache contained within, the Noka truffle is made the traditional way, the ganache allowed to age and build up flavor intensity before being hand-enrobed with a paper-thin chocolate shell and its delicate crunch that reminds you to savor, not swallow.

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