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Easter Around the World

easter traditions around the world activity kit

Craft chocolate today enjoys a truly global presence. We’ve makers from Copenhagen to Cleethorpes, Saigon to San Francisco, Warsaw to Woodstock. And beans from Choco (Colombia; yes really!) to Chuncho (Peru), Arhuaco (Colombia again) to ABOCFA (Ghana), Maleku (Costa Rica) to Maya Mountain (Belize), and Kerala (India) to Kokoa Kamili (Tanzania). 

This Easter, get to know different makers and growers all over the world with our brand new Easter activity set, where you can explore the festivals, traditions, and histories of eight different countries via bars. To make the activity set more affordable, we’ve used a lot of taster bars, and so you can try dark, white, and milk bars from Fresco, Zotter, Friis Holm, Pump Street, Original Beans and Latitude. There is also a world map and set of quiz sheets that come with the box. So if you want to know who invented “Easter egg headbanging”, “Easter Egg rolling” and “1000 egg omelettes”, look no further; this gift set is for you!

To put all these different activities in context, we’ve also pulled together a quick history of why we celebrate Easter with bunnies (hint: It was really hares …not ‘bunnies’) and eggs.

Easter Bunnies (and Hares)

Tracing the origins of ‘The Easter Bunny’ involves going down a rabbit warren of different traditions, culminating in 17th century Germany with the first ‘Easter hare’. In an unlikely but successful pairing, the ‘hare’ was then combined with chocolate eggs in the late 19th century.

  • The link between rabbits, spring, fertility, and the ‘rebirth’ of Easter is relatively obvious given the way that rabbits are well known for breeding like, well, rabbits. And these ‘kittens’ are often born around Easter time (note: When baby rabbits are first born, they are technically called kittens, not bunnies).
  • The link between hares and Easter is less obvious. Hares have long been associated with the Virgin Mary. In Roman times, it was (mistakenly) believed that hares were hermaphrodites and so could reproduce without sex. In Medieval church paintings and manuscripts, hares were often used to symbolise the idea of the Virgin birth.
  • The first record we have of an Easter Bunny (or to be precise, an Easter Hare) gifting eggs dates back to 1682 where Georg Franck Von Frackenau, a German physician and botanist, describes a German Lutheran folktale of an Easter hare bringing eggs for well-behaved children. German immigrants to the US brought this tradition with them in the 1700s. There are mentions in Pennsylvania diaries from this time of an egg-laying hare (called the ‘Osterhase’) and children making nests for this hare to lay their anticipated Easter eggs.

And the link to eggs?

The next puzzle is why the Easter bunny/hare laid and gifted eggs. Here too, the history is convoluted and requires a lot of disentangling:

  • Eggs, like rabbits, have been used as fertility symbols since antiquity. As early as the 1st century AD, eggs were associated by the Christian church with rebirth.
  • In medieval times, eggs became one of the many foods that were prohibited during lent, in the run-up to Easter. Before the start of Lent, parents would hand out eggs as special treats to children, and, rather like the origins of Boxing Day, children would go door to door asking for eggs before they started their Lenten fasts.
  • These traditions were then combined with the ancient custom of decorating eggs (the earliest decorated eggs date back more than 60,000 years to Howieson Poort Shelter, a cave in South Africa). Over the centuries, different ways were found to colour eggs and use them as gifts; for example, court records detail how Edward I of England dyed over 450 eggs with onion skins to give to his court for Easter in 1290.
  • During the 18th century, chocolate was added to the mix. Louis XIV used to give decorated ostrich eggs to his court favourites, and one of his pastry chefs had the bright idea of replacing these ostrich eggs with chocolate moulded to look like ostrich eggs. In 1725, a Mme. Giambone in Turin started filling empty chicken egg shells with molten chocolate.
  • It took the UK some time to catch up. The Victorians started to give out chocolate for Easter, but it wasn’t until 1873 that J.S. Fry & Sons claim to have launched the first British chocolate Easter egg in 1873, closely followed by Cadbury in 1875.
  • These Easter Eggs were unfortunately fragile and hard to transport. So, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the literal light bulb moment of inspiration of a packaging designer helped to protect, showcase and mass-market Easter eggs.

Today, eggs, chocolate, bunnies and hares have all been conflated and combined to create an extravagant movable feast of chocolate Easter bunnies, Easter eggs… and much else. While the exact numbers are unclear, it is estimated that over 80 million eggs are gifted every year in the UK alone, and this doesn’t include ‘Creme Eggs’ (Cadbury annually sells over 500 million of these, two-thirds of which are enjoyed in the UK).

Please do check out our range of Easter treats. We have Easter eggs, Easter-themed bars, Easter-themed gift boxes and ‘make your own’ Easter egg sets.

And don’t miss out on getting to know more Easter traditions and different bars with our Easter activity set.

Thanks again for your support.

Keep savouring!


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A light bulb moment for Easter eggs and craft chocolate

a.i. generated image of chocolate eggs and an easter egg lightbulb

The power of packaging to drive sales is well known. Ask any marketer (or consumer) and they’ll tell you that it’s the packaging they see on the shelf that drives our decision to pick an old favourite or to experiment with a new treat. And craft chocolate makers are no slouches in this regard, as they passionately experiment with packaging formats and aesthetics; different shapes, colours, logos, images and more.

But it does not stop there. Innovations in packaging do more than drive sales. They can also literally birth new product categories. For example, the ubiquitous bars of soap we all use in our homes today are thanks in no small part to William Lever launching a branded, carefully weighed and cut, bar of soap called ‘Sunlight’ in 1894 (while people had been using soap as far back as 2800 BCE, it was usually made at home or cut out of big blocks in general stores).

In the lead-up to Easter, this week’s blog post is all about the marvellous bit of lateral thinking that adapted light bulb packaging to popularise the wonderful tradition of chocolate Easter eggs.

We’re also delighted to be launching a bunch of other products whose packaging innovations, we hope, will make it even easier for you to bring craft chocolate from Marou, Choco Del Sol, and Ruket to your dinner parties.

If you’re short on time, you can watch my video summary instead:

Who invented the first chocolate Easter egg?

There are several claims about the invention of the chocolate Easter egg. One school of thought credits its origin to Louis XIV’s fascination with ostrich eggs, and a pastry chef who filled some empty ostrich egg shells with chocolate one Easter. Over at the Alps, the Italians counterclaim that in 1725, a shopkeeper on the Via Roma in Turin known as “the widow Giambone” had the idea of filling empty eggshells with melted chocolate and selling them in her shop.

However, the effort involved in hand crafting these eggs, pouring them into hollowed out egg shells, etc. was too great for these initiatives to be anything more than an occasional court treat.

It took another century for makers, starting with Joseph Fry, to work out how to make chocolate Easter eggs at scale. Back in 1847, Fry’s had already worked out how to make the world’s first commercial chocolate bars by ‘folding back’ the cocoa butter produced by the Van Houten cocoa press into their cocoa grinders and making stable, solid bars. They used this insight to mould chocolate Easter eggs, launching them in 1873 (Cadbury followed a couple of years later). 

These eggs were filled with all sorts of other confectionery and they sold reasonably well as a special gift. However, they still suffered from the perennial problem of eggs: They were fragile. They broke all too easily, all too often before they made it home and before they could be gifted.

The ‘light bulb moment’ behind the chocolate Easter egg revolution

Ultimately, what made chocolate Easter eggs ‘take flight’ was some inspired packaging innovation. But unlike the story of ‘standard’ egg boxes, the story of Easter egg packaging is far less well-known.

Until the early twentieth century, chicken (and other non-chocolate) eggs were wrapped in straw and transported by baskets, boxes, etc. This worked fine for very local purchases. But with growing urbanisation and industrialisation, more and more eggs were broken. In 1911, Joseph Coyle, a Canadian newspaper editor, designed a cardboard carton insert to stop eggs cracking in transit. (Note: Liverpudlians sometimes argue that one of their own, Thomas Peter Bethell, had invented something similar in 1906, but this design was more a series of dividers, so Coyle is generally credited as the father of the modern egg box, as it was his design that was mass marketed in the post-World War 1 period).

Unfortunately, Coyle’s design couldn’t be stretched to work for the larger chocolate Easter eggs. So, chocolate egg sales continued to languish. However, in the early 1950s, William T. Horry, a packaging designer working for Cadbury, realised that he could adapt a carton box he was using to transport electric light bulbs to package Easter eggs. Cadbury seized upon this idea, using it first on their Roses Easter eggs to show consumers the egg inside the box, and protect it from knocks.

The rest is history. And if you look here at modern craft chocolate eggs like Bare Bones‘, or Pump Street’s ‘chick and egg’ sets, their debt to light bulb packaging is clear:

Over the years, packaging has gotten more and more creative. Hats off to Chocolarder for their wonderfully creative, and environmentally friendly, sleeves (we use a similar approach now for our large bar orders):

Craft Chocolate and Dinner Parties

We’re hopeful that another ‘eureka moment’ is in the making, thanks to some smart new packaging for craft chocolate, at dinner parties. Hopefully you’ll agree that this is another light bulb moment!

We know that many of you delight in craft chocolate in the evening, post your supper, high tea, dinner, etc. And we also know that some of you love to bring craft chocolate bars to share after a dinner party (and that’s why we launched our craft chocolate boards, with their breaking bar).

For those of you who are more used to bringing chocolate boxes of, for example, truffles to dinner parties, we’re thrilled to have such delights from the likes of Friis Holm, Willie’s and Chocolarder.

If you’re interested in chocolate-covered fruits, we’re also delighted to be launching Choco Del Sol‘s range, including such treats as salted pecans, raspberries, almonds, and cocoa beans.

We’re also delighted that Marou has also now applied their design magic to producing small Neapolitans (i.e. 5g squares) of their extraordinary Vietnamese single terroir chocolates. It’s the same great chocolate; but an even easier package to share after any meal, and in boxes that are designed to pair together.

Don’t Miss Out!

Get a head start and make sure you’re not disappointed this Easter!

And here’s your chance to enthral friends and family at dinner parties with the creative packaging options from Marou and Choco Del Sol.

Thanks again for your support.

Keep savouring!


p.s. Two final requests:

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please do share it with people!

We strongly believe that “Craft Chocolate Matters” and your feedback would really help our cause. You can share your feedback or suggestions by commenting below, or on any other post.

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Celebrating Women in Chocolate

happy international women's day chocolate banner

Craft chocolate is brilliant at spotlighting important social issues. As we approach International Women’s Day (coming up on 8th March), we want to highlight the extraordinary contributions women have made to craft chocolate.

  • Over 50% of the founding team of our 150+ craft chocolate makers are women.
  • Many of the key bean-sourcing and logistics companies are also founded by and run by women.
  • Women also play a huge role in the education, research, writing, judging, and overall advocacy of craft chocolate.

… and these achievements gain added significance when compared to women’s very different position in ‘big chocolate’ and the desperate situation of literally millions of women cocoa farmers and their children. 

So please celebrate International Women’s Day, any birthdays, celebrations, and perhaps Mother’s Day, with these boxes and stories inspired by women:

If you’re short on time, you can watch my video summary instead:

Women in ‘Big Chocolate’ and Commodity Cocoa

The position of women in ‘big chocolate’ is not encouraging. And the position of female cocoa farmers and workers in this industry is even more dire and desperate.

In Western chocolate-consuming countries, the last decade has seen a few notable breakthroughs for women at the very top of big chocolate. For example, in 2017 Hershey’s appointed Michele Buck as its first female CEO in its 125-year-old history – but that’s notable for it’s novelty.

And it’s hard to obtain solid statistics for most countries and companies. The UK is an exception because it forces companies to benchmark remuneration. Using HMRC’s Gender Pay Gap Report, it is possible to see that in 2021/22, women made up 12.2% of Cadbury’s highest-paid workers, up from 7.7% a year earlier but down from 8.3% in 2019/20. So, we might reach parity in another 10 years …maybe?

Overall, the state of women in big chocolate is – at best – opaque. There are lots of ‘working groups’, ‘plans’ and standard ‘pledges’ from big chocolate companies like Mars, Olam, Callebaut, Nestle, etc., who have goals for ‘gender equality’. For example, Callebaut (the primary supplier to Tony’s Chocolonely) has made pledges to make “more progress in gender balance at senior level … 40% women at director level … 30% women at director level in sales”. Let’s hope that these are met faster than big chocolate’s pledges on sugar, deforestation, child labour, etc. which are case studies in kicking the can down the road!

And on the farm, it’s even worse. The scandalously low wages paid to commodity cocoa farmers is well known; over 90% of West African cocoa farmers are paid less than the minimum income level of $2 per day recommended by the World Bank, making less than 80¢ per day. For women cocoa farmers, it’s even worse; below 30¢.

Fixing this inequity is also the key to fixing everything from deforestation to child slave labour. This effectively means paying more for cocoa, and paying more for cocoa means seeing it as more than just a ‘commodity’.

Craft chocolate is at the vanguard here; to make great craft chocolate you need great beans. And to secure great beans, you have to pay the farmers fairly with long-term contracts and commitment. Craft chocolate pays farmers a premium of 3-10 times more than commodity cocoa prices and offers them the security of long-term contracts.

Big chocolate sees cocoa as just another commodity and therefore, is stuck with sourcing chocolate as cheaply as it can. Trying to clean up supply chains by ‘inspecting’ them, checking that kids are in school, “highlighting the issues” etc. may make you feel better (and makes for great ad copy, as Tony’s shows). But to fix the problem, we need to stop treating cocoa as ‘just another commodity’. We need to pay farmers (men and women) fairly for growing great beans.

Bottom line: If you want to celebrate women on International Women’s Day, please support craft chocolate. At every stage; from making to growing, researching to marketing; craft chocolate is at the vanguard of advancing the position of women.

A Celebration of Women in Craft Chocolate

Making and Crafting

At Cocoa Runners, we are honoured to be working with over 150 different craft chocolate makers. Pre-covid, we tried to meet in person with each of these makers; either visiting them in person or meeting at fairs. Now that we can travel again, we are looking forward to travelling and getting to know our new makers, such as Ebru from ‘Butterfly‘ in Turkey, Peggy from ‘Choco Del Sol‘ in Germany, Julia (aka Mike) from ‘Mike and Becky‘ in Belgium, and Becca from ‘Lumineux’ in the US. We also build a ‘makers profile’ for all our makers; telling their story and that of their bars; so we have a good understanding of their operations and staffing.

logo of butterfly chocolate
logo of choco del sol chocolate
logo of mike and becky chocolate

We’re proud to say that over 50% of the craft chocolate makers we work with have had women founders (some are all-women teams). What’s more, women are involved in the actual chocolate crafting at similar levels.

Unsurprisingly, there are some geographic differences; in the UK, almost 80% of the founding teams were all women or a mix of women and men, and in the US, it’s almost two-thirds. It’s lower in mainland Europe (just below 50%), and around 40% in Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But overall, it’s moving in the right direction.

And it’s not just a token numbers game. Just sticking with the women-only founding and making teams, we are spoiled with an amazing choice of bars. Lisi, founder and chief chocolate maker of ‘Shatell‘, was made ‘Chocolate Maker of the Year’ in 2017. In the Americas, Jenny from ‘Conexión‘, Luisa Abram (‘Luisa Abram‘), Jael of ‘French Broad‘, Anna of ‘Ritual‘, Amy of ‘Fresco‘, DeAnn of ‘Solstice‘, and Ana of ‘Mucho‘ all craft award-winning bars. In Europe, Agur and Siv of ‘Fjåk‘ won “rising new star”. Tomoko-san and Sue of ‘Feitoria do Cacao‘ have also won medals galore. France and Spain have a raft of great new makers, very often led by women. Here in the UK, Isobel of ‘Dormouse‘, Ama of ‘Lucocoa‘, Lara from ‘Bare Bones‘, Iris from ‘Solkiki‘ and Deana from ‘Tosier‘ continue to win awards galore.

If you’re curious about these women’s creations, here are some bars and boxes:

Women on the Farm

Women cocoa farmer cooperatives are at the vanguard of addressing the inequities faced by women on cocoa farms. For example: 

  • ‘Femme Du Virunga‘: Founded in 2014 in the Virunga National Park (DRC) and has now grown to over 2000 women farmers; a much-needed initiative given the deadly trifecta of wars, destitution, and violence against women that has devastated Eastern Congo.
  • ‘PISA’: Founded in 2006 in the Grand’Anse region of Haiti, and now has over 1500 farmers, the majority of whom are women.
  • Fortaleza del Valle‘: Founded in 2004 in Ecuador, and now has around 500 small-scale farmers, most of whom are women. As well as investing in its own quality control facilities, Fortaleza del Valle has also implemented a range of programmes to train up women farmers in leadership and financial management.
  • ‘ASOMUPRO’: Founded in 2004 in the Huila region of Colombia, and now has around 100 women cocoa farmers in what used to be a male-dominated industry, made even more perilous by Colombia’s long-standing civil war.


In addition to crafting bars with these beans, women are also playing a key role in sourcing and distributing these beans to makers in Europe, Asia, and the US. Kate and Justine are spearheading this at ‘Cacao Latitudes‘. As is Emily from ‘Uncommon Cacao‘ in the US. Katrin, Alix and Jeannette, are doing the same with ‘Silva‘ here in Europe.

Scientific Pioneers

Much of the delight from chocolate is all about the wonderful complexities, length, and varieties of flavour that we can enjoy in craft chocolate. Much of our understanding of flavour can be traced back to the Nobel Prize-winning work of Linda Buck on the mechanics of our olfactory system and receptors. We have much yet to uncover in this space, and chocolate is a great tool for flavour experiments. If you want to read more about this, please try Ann-Sophie Barwich’s ‘Smellosophy’. And do come to one of our masterclasses to find out more!


Women are leading much of the research into what is happening ‘on the ground’. Kristy Leissle continues to do great research here; our thanks for all her work on the Fine Chocolate Glossary (she helped us write the definition on “craft chocolate”). Similarly, Amanda Berlan does amazing work to pick apart big chocolate’s claims about its initiatives. We’re delighted that Kathryn Sampek is now back in the UK for her next research. And we look forward to welcoming Romi Burke back to the UK soon with more of her students. Finally, a huge shout out to Ayn Riggs for spearheading ‘Slave Free Chocolate‘, and huge kudos to her for taking a stand against Tony’s without fear of the blowback.

Authors and Books

Many of these researchers have produced insightful books. If you want to read just one recently published book, please try Kristy Leissle’s ‘Cocoa’. If you want a deep dive into the horrors that Ayn Riggs is fighting against in ‘Slave Free Chocolate’, please try Orla Ryan’s ‘Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa’. If you want the definitive history, try Sophie Coe’s unbeatable ‘The True History of Chocolate’.

A number of other female authors use chocolate to describe other aspects of their interest in food and cooking; see Jenny Linford and Vanessa Kimble.

Another hat tip to two women, Kathryn Laverack and Cat Black, for their work in pairing craft chocolate to book clubs.

Bloggers and Journalists

Outside of formal tomes on chocolate, there are a number of journalists and bloggers writing about chocolate. Here are a few (by no means an exhaustive list, and apologies for anyone I’ve overlooked): 

Education and Courses

Justine and Kate from Cacao Latitudes have launched some great new craft chocolate educational initiatives aimed at makers. They are also planning a range of workshops and courses for the general public too, modelled on the very successful SCA (coffee) and WSET (wine) courses. If you’d like to know more about these once they are formally launched, you can sign up early.

Jennifer Earl also runs many educational walking tours. Pam Williams of Ecole Chocolat continues with her international chocolate-making courses. Hazel Lee is famed for her ‘taste with colour’ speeches and materials.

A huge thanks to all the women leading the different faces of the craft chocolate revolution, from researching and understanding chocolate, to growing, crafting, making, writing about, judging, and promoting craft chocolate.

Also, a massive thanks to our warehouse and customer support team which is run by the wonderful team of Sarah, Becky, Lucie, Chloe, and Nicky.

In addition to tasting better and being better for you, the farmers, and the planet, here’s another important reason to delight in craft chocolate; it is embracing equity and equality RIGHT NOW, unlike big chocolate’s distant promises and pledges.

Thanks again for your support.

Keep savouring!


p.s. We’re still very keen on hearing more about your cocoa pulp adventures!

Make sure to order one, or more, of these Ecuadorian cocoa pulp pouches, and experiment with bakes, ice creams, drinks, and more.

Our favourite recipe ideas will get listed on our site, and the senders will get a prize!

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Making Cocoa Pulp One of Your Five a Day

cocoa pulp infographic

As a fruit, cocoa is more than just cocoa beans. A cocoa pod also contains cocoa pulp. This week, we are celebrating the joys of cocoa pulp and invite you to make it “one of your five a day” (along with, of course, craft chocolate).

Cocoa pulp has bedazzled civilizations for centuries now. What made it so magical? Let’s explore the history of cocoa pulp, and debunk some of the crazier claims around it.

If you can’t wait to read the whole blog post, you can check out my video summary instead:

The Magic of Cocoa Pulp …In Fermentation

As anyone lucky enough to have experienced cracking open a cocoa pod at a cocoa farm knows, cocoa seeds are incredibly bitter and astringent. Fortunately, these bitter and astringent seeds are surrounded by a delicious fleshy fruit, aka cocoa pulp. And via the magic of fermentation, this cocoa pulp transforms the astringent cocoa seeds into flavourful cocoa beans.

Technically, this is what happens: Once a pod is opened, and the pulp and seeds placed in a heap or box, a wide-ranging series of biochemical reactions known as fermentation kick-off. Cocoa pulp provides the critical moisture needed for this fermentation, and cocoa pulp is also the source of numerous yeasts and bacteria (both lactic and acetic) that carry out this fermentation, transforming cacao seeds into cocoa beans. And it’s this fermentation that engenders all the amazing flavours in chocolate; those floral, nutty, green, vegetal, caramelly notes and a plethora of aromas that we treasure in chocolate.

That is to say, fermentation is the bedrock to the flavour profile of any great craft chocolate bar. Different yeasts, different ‘turns’, different approaches (box versus heap), different fermentation lengths, all create radically different flavour profiles. Craft chocolate makers don’t ‘create’ these flavours, they unpack and then combine the flavours into wonderful concoctions with balance, length, intensity, and complexity to savour. They work with the flavours created by a fermentation made possible by cocoa pulp.

This is a radically different approach to that of mass-produced chocolate and confectionery where sugars, salts, fats and artificial flavourings are all added in the factory. Commodity cocoa is (normally) fermented, but as often or not beans are over or under fermented, and if they aren’t well-dried, they can also go mouldy. But as the tastes, textures and flavours of mass-produced chocolate are all ‘engineered’ via additives and preservatives in the factory, these faults are unimportant and the sheer magic of fermentation is under-appreciated.

cocao beans and pulp fermenting

…And in Chocolate

Today, the craft chocolate world is fortunate to have experts like Zoi Papalexandratou and Daniel O’Docherty travelling all around the world teaching cocoa growers and co-operatives how to improve their fermentation processes. And this enables cocoa farmers from Hawaii to Haiti, Costa Rica to the Congo, from the Solomon Isles to Sierra Leone,  to sell their well-fermented beans at far higher prices to craft chocolate makers. 

But five thousand years ago (when we have the earliest archaeological evidence of people fermenting cacao) there weren’t any fermentation experts flying around the world.

And fermenting cocoa wasn’t obvious or inevitable. Once he learned how to make a fire, cooking was a natural progression for Neolithic man. Turning bitter, astringent cocoa seeds into flavourful cocoa beans via fermentation is a different learning curve altogether.

Anthropologists, botanists, archaeologists and historians have long pondered how Mesoamericans who lived 5000-plus years ago discovered fermentation and turned bitter cocoa seeds into delicious and nutritious cocoa beans.

Over the last few decades, an intriguing new idea has emerged to solve this puzzle. Back in the 1950s, the botanist Jack Sauer suggested that “beer, not bread, gave rise to civilisation”, arguing that early farmers needed more incentive than just bread to start farming crops given “the pitiful small return of grain“. He believed that the discovery that “a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage… acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread-making“.

Edward Slingerland has recently put it even more succinctly, and graphically: “The desire to get drunk, along with the individual and social benefits provided by drunkenness, played a crucial role in sparking the rise of the first large-scale societies. We could not have civilization without intoxication“.

And the key to intoxication? …Fermentation!

We know that the Mesoamericans made (and indeed sometimes still make) a drink they called chicha by allowing cocoa pulp to ferment. To make a chicha out of cocoa pulp, you can just pile together lots of pulp (and cocoa seeds) and then filter off the light alcohol a few days later. And in so doing, they may also have accidentally, as a by-product, discovered how to ferment cocoa seeds into cocoa beans. 

John Henderson and Rosemary Joyce have even found archaeological evidence from Puerto Escondido, in northern Honduras, to show this progression from drinking ‘cocoa pulp beer’ to ‘cocoa bean drinks’. They analysed pottery fragments found over the period 1500 to 500 BC. They found that more recent pottery fragments contain not just theobromine but also chilli, sweeteners, and spice that we know the Mayans and Aztecs added to their chocolate drinks. And the shape of these more recent pots also suggests that they could be poured in such a way as to create the chocolate froth that the Aztecs and Mayans highly valued. By contrast, the older pottery fragments, dating back 500-800 years, just contain theobromine and have a pot design unsuitable for ‘frothing’ but great for ‘swigging’, which suggests they were used to store chicha (cocoa beer).

It may well be that we have to thank cocoa pulp, and chicha, for helping our ancestors discover how to ferment astringent cocoa seeds into flavourful and nutritious cocoa beans.

Cocoa Pulp Today

 Today, most cocoa pulp is used up in the process of fermentation. Very little chicha/cocoa pulp beer is made.

In the 1970s however, Ecuadorian scientists developed some new cocoa varietals, like CCN51, in an attempt to improve yield and reduce diseases of cocoa plants. Sadly, CCN51 isn’t higher-yielding or disease resistant. Worse still, its flavour profile is awful; Ed Seguine memorably described it as having the flavour of “acidic dirt“. Most disastrously, CCN51 is also responsible for extensive deforestation following a policy of planting sapling CCN51 clones in cleared jungle land (‘clearing’ is a euphemism for destroying the rainforest).

There may be a glimmer of a silver lining now. CCN51 has a LOT of pulp; way more than is needed to ferment the cocoa seeds. Indeed, the time involved in fermenting and evaporating off this excess pulp is blamed for CCN51’s less than enthralling flavour profile.

A number of interesting experiments are now underway with CCN51 farmers to remove some of the excess pulp ‘pre-fermentation’. Not only does this reduce waste (the excess pulp evaporates or drains away), but it also creates an interesting new revenue stream for cocoa farmers. And this is the source of the cocoa pulp we are selling, from Palo Santo in Ecuador, from a family farm of three generations.

At the same time, there are fears that encouraging farmers who aren’t growing CCN51 to switch from selling cocoa beans to cocoa pulp may create longer-term problems. There is no guarantee that this cocoa pulp boom will be a massive and/or enduring success. Farmers are literally throwing away the baby (cocoa beans) in the hope that the bathwater (the pulp) is going to be worth more. Most importantly, they are not investing enough in learning how best to ferment their beans.

Health Claims

Cocoa pulp is only just starting to appear in the market. But already ‘big chocolate’ is promoting cocoa pulp with all sorts of amazing health claims. Let’s not forget how big chocolate hit upon this tactic of suggesting that chocolate is full of amazing ‘nutraceuticals’ that can solve everything from tooth decay to heart palpitations!

Back in the 1990s, Mars funded various research on the Yuna tribe in Panama arguing that the Yuna’s consumption of “high flavonoid chocolate” explained their enviable heart health. Even though this ‘research’ has been thoroughly debunked, big chocolate continues to make all sorts of health and ‘superfood’ claims for chocolate. And now, they have moved to cocoa pulp; Callebaut for instance is applying to the EU for ‘nutraceutical status’ for its pulp-based drink.

Fortunately, there is some newly published research from the FDA that provides clear data that puts these claims into context. Cocoa pulp clearly is a great source of magnesium, manganese, and potassium, and it’s also full of fibre.

But this is very different from the assertion that, for example, cocoa’s flavanols promote circulatory health via cocoa pulp drinks. Even if/when Callebaut manages to obtain ‘nutraceutical status’ for its cocoa pulp drink, it is not a silver bullet to effortless health. Cocoa pulp is NOT a superfood (or ‘super drink’).

In fact, there is no such thing as a ‘superfood’ (except in marketer-speak).

But you can eat healthily, and deliciously, with a sensible diet. And step 1 in a sensible diet is to ignore the silver bullet-like claims for nutraceuticals. Step 2 is savouring real food; to quote Michael Pollan; “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants“. Step 3 is cutting down on scoffing junk, processed food-like substances. To avoid these ‘food-like substances’, read the label on any packaged food and, if you don’t recognise the ingredients listed and/or you don’t have them in your kitchen at home, leave that packaged, ultra-processed food-like stuff on the shelf! Soon, this will inevitably include a number of ultra-processed foods where some cocoa pulp is added for marketing purposes.

Pasteurised cocoa pull can add variety to your cooking as an intriguing, delicious ingredient. You can bake with it.  You can cook with it. You can make great ice cream and sorbets. It also makes a refreshing drink. But please make sure it’s not packed with loads of additives, preservatives, etc. …Read the ingredients! And please don’t call it a superfood (or a nutraceutical).

How To Use Cocoa Pulp

Getting Ahead of the Curve

Until recently, it’s been hard to obtain cocoa pulp unless you were ‘at origin’ (i.e. one a cocoa farm). A few chefs managed to obtain some pulp and produce wonderful dishes (for example, Jordi Roca). But cocoa pulp has not been a readily available ingredient. As a result, there are very few recipes for cocoa pulp.

We’d like to ask for your help to fix this deficiency. This week, it’s time for you to experiment with cocoa pulp. Until the end of March we’re offering a 3-for-2 offer (see below) on both our small and larger pulp sachets. So, pick up your pulp sachets, and send us your recipes and ideas for how to use this intriguing new ingredient. And for everyone who sends us a recipe or idea that we publish, we’ll send you a free 90g pouch with your next order.

Here’s something to get you started: These are a few ways we’ve discovered to drink, bake, cook, freeze, and enjoy cocoa pulp:


“Just add water” (one part cocoa pulp, two parts water). It works well with both sparkling and still water.

You can also make your own cocktails. Try our brand new cocoa pulp cocktail kits:

If you’ve more cocktail, or mocktail, ideas and recipes, send them in!

And for what it’s worth, scientists have also carried out some intriguing experiments to make cocoa pulp based kefir grains, and to use cocoa pulp in beer fermentation and brewing.

Home Baking

Cocoa pulp can be used as an intriguing alternative to other sweeteners when baking and cooking. Try it in your next brownie. Or if you like tempering your own chocolate truffles and bars, please do experiment with it; although it is hard to get a good snap, it has an intriguing texture.

And if you want an AWESOME example of a cocoa pulp truffle, check out Cocoa Retreat‘s latest “amaze ball”.

Sorbet and Ice Cream

The oldest description we have for anyone using chocolate as an ingredient in Europe is from a 1692 work which talks about chocolate sorbet. And today, only vanilla is more popular as a flavour than chocolate in ice cream.

We’d love to try and include cocoa pulp as a new ingredient in sorbets and ice creams. Jordi Roca and Plaq have shown us how wonderful the results can be. So please do experiment and let us know!

Savoury Dishes

Many great chefs use chocolate when cooking the likes of venison, stews, chilis and, of course, moles. We really hope that you’ll discover, and share, some great recipes to use cocoa pulp in your savoury dishes.

Use coupon code CRPULP3F2 for a limited time to try out cocoa pulp at home!

Conclusion: Craft chocolate and cocoa pulp as one of your five-a-day

More than a quarter of the UK population eat chocolate every day, and nearly 75% eat chocolate at least once a week.

Although chocolate is a fruit, most of us don’t count it towards one of our “five a day”(or “thirty a week”). Craft chocolate, especially dark craft chocolate, contains very little sugar; less than half the sugar in low-fat vanilla yogurt; and indeed less than many fruits. It may raise some eyebrows, but so what; it can be one of your five a day!

And we now have a new way to use the fruit of the cocoa tree in our five a day. The gamechanger: Cocoa pulp.

Please use the code CRPULP3F2 to get three for the price of two with both 90g and 500g cocoa pulp sachets. You only need to store them in the fridge after you’ve opened them (and once opened, do use them in 2-3 days).

And please do send us your recipes and suggestions for cocoa pulp.

Thanks again for your support.

Keep savouring!



After I had the pleasure of meeting George Takei as a fellow guest on ‘Sunday Brunch’ a few weeks ago, I was invited to go see his new show ‘Allegiance’ at Charing Cross Theatre. It’s an amazing and moving play. I strongly suggest you consider going along!

Resources and Further Reading

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Colour Teaches Us About Flavour

a.i. generated image of people savouring chocolate behind a peacock feather

Most of us take it for granted that we can look at a picture and explain it via objects, shapes, and colours to another person. We also assume that when the other person sees the picture they will (generally) see the same objects, shapes and colours as we do.

This is very different to when we savour foods and drinks like chocolate. We can generally describe the texture of a drink (e.g. frothy, fizzy, or still), the temperature (if it’s hot, lukewarm, or cold) and its basic tastes (if it’s sweet, sour, salty, or bitter). But it is very different when it comes to describing, and even agreeing, on ‘flavours’ (like “fruity”, “caramelly”, “metallic”, “earthy”, etc.).

Craft chocolate can learn a lot from the history and science, of colour studies. And it can be made even more fun by savouring some craft chocolate while exploring “colourful lessons” like:

  1. How do designers, painters, etc. ‘agree’ on colours?
  2. Is it true that some cultures/languages don’t have words to describe specific colours?
  3. What can peacocks teach us about colour (and craft chocolate)?
  4. How do I know if I’m synaesthetic (and what does synaesthesia actually mean)?

If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, check out my videos for some bitesize explanations:

Standardisation of Colour Definitions

Just over sixty years ago, Lawrence Herbert took over a company that printed colour cards for cosmetics companies. He had spotted a far bigger opportunity than merely printing colour cards. He renamed the company Pantone and positioned the cards as a colour-matching system that would enable anyone in the fields of graphic design, film, printing, etc., to compare and agree on colours at any stage of their production processes.

pantone colour cards

Lawrence Herbert wasn’t the first to develop such a system. Darwin took a precursor of this system (Patrick Syme’s ‘Werner’s Nomenclature of Colors’) with him on The Beagle and often referred to it in his diary and notebooks. Newton’s experiments with prisms provide an even earlier blueprint and scientific grounding. However, Herbet launched the Pantone cards and system at a time of increasing globalisation, when there was a massive need to agree on colours across continents with minimal delays. 

It’s become so successful that fashion companies now use the Pantone system to publish their predicted “colours of the year”. This year’s colour is ‘Viva Magenta’; described as being “brave and fearless, and a pulsating colour whose exuberance promotes a joyous and optimistic celebration, writing a new narrative“.

And for those in the know, the Pantone system even gave the LGBTQ community a means to wear their logo and flag on hats, armbands, and t-shirts, despite being banned at the Qatar World Cup.

lgbt flag pantone numbers

Some Lessons for Chocolate

The coffee and wine industries have established protocols to agree on and define desirable and undesirable tastes, and seek to standardise these tastes similar to how the Pantone system compares colours. This is crucial for coffee roasters, baristas, winemakers, and retailers to avoid accidentally selling a cup of coffee or bottle of wine with faulty beans or grapes. One mouldy bean really will undo all the hard work of your coffee barista and roaster.

Unfortunately, there are no such standards in craft chocolate. Even the most stringent of the International Cocoa Organization’s (ICCO’s) current cocoa protocols permit up to 3% of mouldy beans to be included in a sack of dried beans. As a side note, the same applies to insect infestation; that is to say, up to 3% of a bag of commodity cocoa can consist of insects. Hence why craft chocolate makers spend so much effort hand sorting all the beans that they receive.

Martin Christy is leading an initiative through the IICCT to address this issue and implement more stringent quality standards. In parallel, Kate Cavallin is offering a course to help farmers, makers, and even consumers learn to taste and identify different defects in cacao (write to us for more information, the course also has lots about cocoa history, sourcing, etc.). For farmers who may have never even tasted chocolate, let alone craft chocolate, these courses are crucial. Without the ability to identify what is meant by terms like ‘under-fermented’ or ‘mouldy’, they cannot sell their beans as ‘speciality’ and achieve higher sales prices.

Towards a Common Language

The Pantone system provides descriptions and words to distinguish thousands of colours. However, most of us only use a small subset of these colours. In English, eleven colours form the basis of how colour is described: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple, and grey.

There are a few cultures and languages where blue and green are far more nuanced. These are often known as the “grue” countries, including for example Japan where the word AOI (青) is used for everything from the go colour of a traffic light (i.e. what we call green, coming after red and amber) through to “sky blue” and “earth green”.

Even more intriguingly, some languages and cultures only have words for a few colours. For example, a Bolivian Amazonian language only has words to describe black, white and red. Back in the 1960s the linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay suggested that languages and cultures “progress” in what colours are articulated; suggesting that:

In the history of a given language, encoding of perceptual categories into basic colour terms follows a fixed partial order. The two possible temporal orders are;

  • black and white; then red followed by green, yellow, blue and brown, and then purple, pink, orange and grey, or;
  • black and white; then red followed by yellow, green, blue and brown, and then purple, pink, orange and grey”.

Although linguists and anthropologists continue to discuss certain aspects of Berlin and Kay’s hypothesis, it is widely accepted. Nevertheless, the reasons why certain colours appear in a language before others are still debated. And similarly, scientists remain puzzled as to why people tend to agree on classifying some colours, like red and yellow, but struggle with others, such as blue and green. Some scientists argue this is because of the way our brain is wired. Others argue it is a matter of practice and depends on what we are used to seeing regularly.

Some Lessons for Craft Chocolate

The insights into how we perceive and describe colour can easily, and fruitfully, be applied to the world of craft chocolate, debunking myths and encouraging us to savour and enjoy.

One of my pet peeves at a tasting is being told by a presenter (or even fellow taster) what flavours, tastes and textures one should be able to identify. The delight of savouring is way, way more nuanced and personalised than this. And the mechanics are very different. For example:

  • While it’s possible to see and identify multiple colours at once when you look at a painting, the experience of detecting flavours and aromas is quite different. Our olfactory sense can only identify two to three smells at a time (known as the ‘Laing limit’). Therefore, it’s crucial to savour the tasting experience, relax and let the different notes develop (“follow the flavour wave“).
  • The flavours and aromas of chocolate are released in your mouth by multiple factors. Initially, the heat of your mouth releases the aromas and flavours. And after this, the saliva in your mouth will release other flavours. And because we all have different saliva, and different bacteria, in our mouths, we often will release and detect very different flavours (one great example of this is with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, where those blessed with the bacterium Oenococcus oeni will often detect “gooseberry aromas”.

In summary, simply savour your craft chocolate and don’t worry about what anyone else may insist that they can taste. These pontifications may help you identify any flavours that are on the top of your tongue. But you shouldn’t treat anyone else’s tastes as a Pantone-like oracle for a chocolate bar’s flavour. Compare and contrast them to our craft chocolate tasting wave to help you work out what flavours and aromas you are getting.

While you are describing what you savour, another challenge is whether you have the vocab to describe the flavours. For example, cocoa pulp is regularly described as having flavour notes like guava and lychee. This is great for those who’ve enjoyed guava or lychee, but many people live in places where it’s hard to try these fruits. So if you’ve not tried guava and lychee, or if you have tried them and like them, why not try some cocoa pulp for yourself?

What can peacocks teach us about colour …and savouring?

The Pantone system, along with most other colour systems, relies on colour pigments that are printed on cards. These pigments are composed of molecules that absorb all wavelengths of light except for those corresponding to the colour that the human eye perceives.

This isn’t the only way we perceive colours. Scientists, and artists, have long marvelled at the way that, for example, peacock feathers seem to shimmer. In the 1930s, with the invention of the electron microscope, they finally worked out the principles of what is now called ‘structural colour’ and that peacock feathers had a structure that REFLECTS, rather than ABSORBS light rays. Technically peacock feathers contain optical structures called ‘photonic crystals’ that cause an iridescent blue colour to be seen even though technically the pigment in a peacock feather is brown. Many insects and sea creatures have similar optical structures and recreating photonic crystals for commercial purposes is, unsurprisingly, the subject of extensive research.

Lessons: How to ensure that your craft chocolate shimmers and shines

Just as colour is more than just pigments, flavour is also multifaceted, and this is essential in the world of craft chocolate. Mass-produced chocolate prioritises the taste buds by combining sugar, salt, and fat to reach the ‘bliss point‘ and get you to scoff.

Craft chocolate is about savouring the complex favour of amazing beans which are enhanced, and revealed, by sugar, salt and (sometimes) inclusions. Just as a great painting is more than a collection of Pantone colours, so a great chocolate bar should be more than simply assembling a bunch of additives, sugar, salt, fat and some commodity chocolate to create a scoffable, bliss point snack.

Food and flavour scientists have made it relatively easy to make anything have a single flavour; that’s what food additives are for. You can easily make a chocolate milkshake with strawberry notes by combining a variety of commodity ingredients. But it will taste artificial and lack depth. Achieving balance, intensity, length, and complexity, that evolve and linger, is far more challenging. Just as scientists are still struggling to recreate the photonic crystals that make a peacock’s feathers shimmer, they cannot match the magic that nature has created with the cocoa bean. 

Having said this, there are still some intriguing lessons that craft chocolate makers have learnt from ‘big chocolate’, and they (and you) can use these to make craft chocolate bars even more delightful.

For example, the addition of salt to a chocolate bar can suppress the sensation of bitterness (salt overrides some of your bitter taste receptors). Try sprinkling the merest hint of salt on some dark chocolate and see what happens. Or try these bars which already include it:

And other additions can work across the different senses. Professor Barry Smith uses the term “cross modal” to explain this, showing how “stimulation of one sense boosts activity in another“. He cites the example of vanilla, which is technically a flavour and aroma. Yet for many of us in the UK, adding vanilla to anything from cakes to chocolate or even plain water makes everything taste sweeter because we’ve come to associate vanilla with sweet things. Try these two bars from Menakao that use their native Madagascan vanilla:

However, for people in Asia, the addition of vanilla flavouring brings out very different reactions. Across Asia, vanilla is cross-modally often not sweet but savoury, even added to curries. Indeed Fossa (a Singaporean chocolate maker) add vanillin to their salted egg cereal blond chocolate bar, which is inspired by their favourite spicy  (not sweet) breakfast bowl of tze-char.


For some people, there are words, numbers, sounds or tastes that immediately conjure up specific colours. This is now known as synesthesia, and it’s a subject attracting extensive research and has many complicated technical definitions. And it’s probably easier to cite Richard Feynman, a famed and noble prize-winning physicist:

When I see equations, I see the letters in colours – I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students“.

Even though very few people are ‘synesthetic’, using colours as a prompt to remind us of specific fruits, vegetables and foods can be very helpful in trying to figure out the flavours of a craft chocolate bar. For example, asking someone if it tastes like a “yellow lemon” or “green lime” often helps people far more than asking if it tastes “citrusy”. Similarly, asking if you are reminded of a red raspberry or a purple blueberry can help people remember the flavours they associate with these fruits. And given that most of us really struggle to articulate flavours, adding in these descriptors can be a huge help, as Hazel Lee’s colour map shows:


One final comment about colour: Don’t assume that the colour of a bar will tell you what type of bar you are purchasing. Here are two bars; one is a 45% milk and the other an 80% dark. Colour-wise, the Betulia 80% from Taucherli, is made up of a rare bean that is incredibly light, so it’s even lighter than the Menakao milk:

With chocolate, and savouring, it really does pay to think deeply about colour!

Thanks as ever for your support.

Keep savouring!


Resources and further reading:

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Working up to a Frothy Valentine’s

a.i. generated image of mesoamericans sharing chocolate

As Valentine’s Day nears, it seems apposite to recall one of the earliest, and most famous descriptions, of chocolate consumption, from Cortés’s companion Bartolemeo Diaz:

[The men of Montezuma’s guard] brought him, in cups of pure gold, a drink made from the cocoa-plant, which they said he took before visiting his wives …I saw them bring in a good fifty large jugs of chocolate, all frothed up, of which he would drink a little“.

And ever since, chocolate, stamina, and Valentine’s Day have been inexorably linked in our imagination.

But it also begs the question: Why froth up the chocolate and only “drink a little”? After all, we don’t order Guinness just to have the head of the beer. We don’t toast with champagne and just drink its mousse or froth.

There aren’t any obvious, definitive answers to this frothy question.

But the Aztec (and Olmec) fascination with ‘frothing’ can give us great insights into why Valentine’s Day is the perfect occasion to celebrate and savour craft chocolate.

For a quick summary, check out my video here:

Or, read on for more details.

Why Froth?

Hypothesis 1: To improve the taste and mouthfeel

We’re not really sure what was in Montezuma’s “cups of gold”. A high proportion of ground cocoa beans, however, could have made the drink very bitter and astringent, even after fermentation. So he may well have preferred to sip just the froth.

In addition to this bitterness and astringency, texture and mouthfeel may also explain Montezuma’s preference for froth. Cocoa beans also contain a lot of fat. Even when ground into some form of cocoa liquor, they are pretty overpowering. So, it may have been more pleasant to focus purely on the froth.

Both of these claims sort of make sense …but they can be easily challenged.

We know the Aztecs (and Mayans) used chillies, vanilla and other sweeteners (e.g. honey, custard apples, etc.) to create delicious and sought-after hot and cold cocoa drinks (despite what some historians like to claim; sweet and/or spicy drinking chocolate was NOT a European invention). Similarly, just as ‘thickeners’ were added to deal with the grainy and fatty problems of drinking in Early Modern Europe, the Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs and Incas all mixed teosinte (and later corn) with their chocolate.

Having said this, there is no doubt that aerating cocoa does bring out its flavour as well as improve texture and mouthfeel. Think of how a well-made chocolate mousse brings out, for instance, the fruity flavours of Menakao’s chocolate.  So focusing on the froth certainly makes sense.

But this, in and of itself, doesn’t seem like a complete answer.

See for yourself: Make a chocolate mouse from Menakao chocolate using our simple recipe:

chocolate mousse

Or try our diverse range of Valentine’s Day bars to experience the range of mouthfeel, texture, and flavour possible with craft chocolate:

Why Froth?

Hypothesis 2: To show you’re worth it

Frothing requires a LOT of work. Drinking, and serving, cocoa was a strong sign of power; served at business meetings, weddings, feasts. It was a way to communicate power, prestige, and to honour people. Indeed, the froth of cocoa is still used this way; Howard Shapiro, former Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars (now retired), has fantastic descriptions of how he was treated to special froths from carefully prepared cocoa beans that were soaked and buried for 6 months, during his trips to Mexico.

On top of the effort required (and respect conveyed), Mesoamerican cultures also strongly valued breath, air, and wind, believing that they conveyed and generated life. Froth, or foam, contains breath and air, and products that could generate froth were seen as very prestigious (and rare).

Cocoa also had medicinal value for the Aztecs, Mayans, and Olmecs. It was consumed with incantations, which often mention the “froth of chocolate” (see the 16th century Yucatec Maya medical texts Chilam Balam of Chumayel and Tuz Ik). And it appears that consuming cocoa froth was seen as an important means for medicinal incantations to find purchase and to take effect.

(Thanks to Kathryn Sampec, Kristy Leissle, and Howard Shapiro for their insights on this topic).

This Valentine’s Day, take your time in selecting, and explaining, your selection of craft chocolate to people you care about. Honour them with one of these bars that we think you’d like:

Prepare a great, steaming cup of hot chocolate, and use a whisk to create some froth to show your partner that they are worth it:

mug of drinking chocolate

Why Froth?

Hypothesis 3: To savour (and not get too hammered!)

Last week, I explained how drinking chocolate (and the magic of fermenting bitter cacao seeds into delicious cocoa beans) is now believed to be a serendipitous by-product of ‘cocoa chicha’; a beer that the Olmecs made by fermenting cocoa pulp.

We also know that the Aztecs (and Incas, Mayans, etc.) were very wary of excessive drinking. Indeed, they controlled it to the extent of only drinking alcohol at specific ceremonies (especially one called the 2nd Rabbit day) and restricting its use at court to high-ranking nobles and favoured performers. If you weren’t a noble, you could only “drink freely” when you hit 70 years of age.

Thus, we return to the question: what was in the liquid served in Montezuma’s golden cups?

Before the Swiss developed conching, and the Dutch invented the cocoa press, even fermented ground cocoa beans would have been pretty overpowering and hard going. And to be able to generate some froth and aerate this sufficiently, you’d need to add some liquid. This might have been water. It might also have been teosinte (corn/maize) as a thickener. Or it might have been fermented cocoa pulp; chicha (aka cocoa beer).

(Huge thanks to Martyn O’Dare for explaining the science here).

If the liquid in the golden cups was fermented cocoa pulp (or fermented corn mulch, aka beer), Montezuma may well have focused on the froth as he didn’t want to give the impression of drinking too much alcohol.

Interestingly, Cortés’ chronicler, Bartolemeo Diaz, goes on to describe how the court, after Montezuma had retired for the night, would consume the leftover plates from the feast AND the cocoa.

Returning to the argument that beer, not bread, created the move from hunter-gathering to farming, towns and civilizations, this makes some sense. We know that Aztec culture was HIGHLY politicised and divided. Alcohol, applied sparingly, could have helped ease tensions here.

To quote Edward Singerland:

…intoxication [through alcohol] helps solve a number of distinctively human challenges: Enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers. Our desire to get drunk, along with the individual and social benefits provided by drunkenness, played a crucial role in sparking the rise of the first large-scale societies. We would not have civilization without intoxication“.

While Montezuma may only have partaken sparingly, drinking chocolate may have played a key ‘civilising’ role in his court politics. Again, remember Slingerland’s arguments that “reasonable” levels of drinking promote bonding, honesty, and lateral thinking. The vicious civil wars which followed Cortés’ assassination of Montezuma, and consequent destruction of his court, hints at the key role Montezuma’s feasts and court played in holding everyone together.

Consider gifting a loved one our cocoa pulp, drinking chocolate, and cocktail sets. And perhaps explain the “Balmer Peak”; the argument by the ex-CEO of Microsoft that a blood alcohol level of between 0.129 and 0.138 puts adults at their most creative, that a little alcohol relaxes, encourages spontaneity, creativity, and lets the truth flow!

Valentine’s is now less than 48 hours away. So if you are in the UK, please do order ASAP, and choose RMT24 as delivery option, or even better, DPD, before 9am to have the best shot at ensuring your present arrives in time for Valentine’s Say (note: our warehouse will do their best here, but technically we’re past the Royal Mail safe cut-off date. Alternatively, you can also think about a digital tasting or subscription gift certificate).

Thanks, as ever, for your support. Wishing you a great head of beer, fine mousse of champagne, and froth on your Valentine’s hot chocolate!


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Why treating, sharing and savouring is the key to Valentine’s Day

a.i. generated image of mesoamericans sharing chocolate

Over two-thirds of Americans plan to enjoy chocolate this Valentine’s Day.  Almost 50% of Brits plan to give chocolate. And Japan has taken it further by adding a second chocolate celebration; not only do they have Valentine’s Day on the 14th of February, but they also have ‘White Day’ a month later in March for more chocolate gifting!

This celebration of chocolate for Valentine’s Day is relatively recent, and down to some smart marketing: In 1868 Richard Cadbury inspired Victorians to start giving one another “fancy boxes full of chocolate” and we’ve not stopped. In some ways, this upgrade to chocolate isn’t that surprising when you consider some of the earlier Valentine’s customs such as whipping and pouring buckets of cold water over one’s betrothed.

But even before then, chocolate has had a ‘reputation’ and ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ connotations; with a hard-to-dispel belief that chocolate can act as an aphrodisiac.

But much as it’s a beguiling, long-standing and attractive story, there is no scientific evidence that chocolate acts as a PHYSICAL aphrodisiac. However PSYCHOLOGICALLY, gifting and sharing chocolate (especially craft chocolate) is worthy of celebration, and definitely romantic!

The association of chocolate and sex through the ages

Since Cortes first witnessed the Aztec Emperor Montezuma consuming chocolate, the conquistadors swooned about the power of chocolate. To quote Cortes’ chronicler Bernal Diaz; Montezuma would regularly be served “50 great jars of prepared cacao and foam …which they said was for success with women“.

As drinking chocolate took ‘the old world’ by storm, more and more outrageous claims for the benefits (and dangers) of consuming chocolate were noted. Records of the inquisition are rife with stories of how witches used the opportunity of grinding, brewing, and serving up chocolate to “bewitch”, “transfix” and “control” their partners by adding all sorts of other ingredients and incantations and to the rituals!

And even though there is no evidence of any ‘fire’ to the ‘smoke’ in the archival records, the link between chocolate, fertility, sex, and sexual prowess continued. For Casanova chocolate was the “very elixir of love” and the notorious Marquis de Sade celebrated its potency, begging for it to be brought to his boudoir.

In Britain, Henry Stubbe, a 17th century physician, was a passionate supporter, writing in ‘The Natural History of Chocolate’ (1662) of the “great use of chocolate in Venery [sexual indulgence], and for supplying the Testicles with a Balsam, or a Sap“. And Stubbe converted Charles II to his way of thinking, with Charles II spending a staggering £229 10s 8d on the stuff in 1669 alone; considerably more even than he paid as a stipend to his various mistresses!

cocao nibs heart

Modern Science

Modern science continues to reveal fascinating insights on the chemistry, and biochemistry of chocolate; identifying literally hundreds of different compounds. Some of these compounds have lent themselves to somewhat inflated claims, in particular the below: 

  • Theobromine: Theobromine is to chocolate what caffeine is to coffee; that is to say, the main stimulant. But whilst theobromine INCREASES the heart rate, it DECREASES blood pressure. A stimulant that relaxes too. So it’s frequently used to argue that chocolate is a gentle way to delight and arouse your partner.
    • Side Note: If you’ve a dog, please don’t let them join in the chocolate festivities. Theobromine causes dogs to be violently, and potentially fatally sick. Whereas humans can metabolise the theobromine in chocolate within a few hours, in dogs it can take 20 hours or more, and as the chocolate is metabolised, they will frequently vomit.
  • Phenethylamine (PEA): Phenethylamine works by stimulating the release of endorphins and dopamine. It works the same way as exercise makes you feel good (and sometimes ‘high’). Along with oxytocin, PEA is also produced in the first flush of love.
  • Trytophan: Trytophan is a chemical that the brain uses to make serotonin, which, in high levels, can produce feelings of elation, even ecstasy. And it wards off depression. But again, there are some important caveats.
    Quercetin: Quercetin is a flavonoid that has anti-inflammatory properties and is claimed to work similarly to Viagra by relaxing blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the genitalia.

These are some of our newest bars. Why not experiment with someone you love this Valentine’s, exploring and sharing new and exciting flavours?

The Bad News

Unfortunately, the biochemical claims for any of these chemicals as a biochemical/physical aphrodisiac seem stretched. 

  • Even though chocolate does contain PEA, the human digestive system breaks down this PEA very quickly and it doesn’t pass the blood-brain barrier. So no matter how much (or how fast) you, or your partner, eat chocolate, the PEA in chocolate won’t pass through to your brain to recreate those tingly sensations from the first flushes of infatuation.
  • Quercetin appears only to work with people with really poor circulation, and there is a dearth of studies showing it working on human genitalia. At best, a case can be made that theobromine and tryptophan may make your heart beat faster and make you “happier”.

And it could be even worse. The speed at which some people break down phenethylamine, may (and I stress MAY) explain why they get headaches or even migraines. Early results from some studies recorded in the BMJ show that those who have a phenylethylamine-oxidizing defect could get migraines from the PEA in chocolate (see the blog for sources explaining this).

The Good News

However, PSYCHOLOGICALLY and PSYCHOLOGICALLY chocolate, especially ‘craft chocolate’, is GREAT for celebrating and gifting at Valentine’s Day, at all sorts of levels.

  • Gifting chocolate, and the thought of savouring chocolate, creates ANTICIPATION and EXCITEMENT. Gifting is also a great SIGNAL. For example, it can show you’ve been thoughtful, appreciate your partner’s likes (and dislikes) etc. So it’s definitely worth explaining what, and why, you’ve selected your gifts.
  • The aromas, tastes, and textures of chocolate are EVOCATIVE and STIMULATING; they remind of past pleasures and can set up great new ones. So plan your gifting and plan your savouring.
  • SAVOURING craft chocolate is also a wonderfully sensual and sensory pleasure. It’s MOOD ENHANCING; it’s very different to a one off, scoffing-like transaction.

If you want to put all this into practice, then make sure you get hold of some beautiful Valentine’s Day gifts. We’ve brought together selections of bars which capture the spirit of the day; perfect for sharing with the one you love:


In the animal world, we know that pheromones like androstenone, androstenol, and quinoline work wonders in stimulating the sex drives of various animals. Scientists have shown that humans can detect, and do secrete, pheromones. But to date, no scientist has found any food (including chocolate) that automatically physically switches on our sex drives. Despite the hopes of Casanova, the inquisition, and modern-day advertisers, there is no Lynx-like product shortcut for Valentine’s Day.

Nonetheless, psychologically craft chocolate is a great treat for your Valentine. It shows you care. It shows you want to share. It shows you want to savour and not (just) scoff.

So please hurry up and order! If you are ordering internationally, Royal Mail is again delivering, but please order as soon as possible. And if you are in the UK, please order by 1pm on Friday the 9th.

Thanks as ever for your support.


p.s. Over the weekend, I held a tasting at the travel show, Destinations at Olympia (see here). As part of this, I’m doing a host of radio and podcast interviews, including one with Lincoln’s multi-talented Alex Lewczuk here (I’m on about 70 minutes in, and compete to praise Duffy’s chocolate!).

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How fermenting beer lead our ancestors to discover chocolate

a.i. generated image of beer and cocoa

How did beer, teosinte, and chicha, lead to bread, corn, and chocolate? I’ll try and answer that, and also explain why a treat, possibly paired with alcohol, may be perfect for Valentine’s Day.

One of the great unexplained mysteries of chocolate is how humans worked out just how to make nutritious and delicious drinking chocolate out of unappetising, astringent, and bitter cacao seeds.

Over the past few decades archaeologists, paleobotanists, and anthropologists have posited an intriguing theory. They suggest that drinking chocolate was discovered as a by-product, or accidental follow-up, to our delight in drinking cocoa pulp, and in particular, our fascination for fermented cocoa pulp; ‘cocoa chicha’, a light beer that is still drunk all over South and Central America.

And this fits well with a broader suggestion that fermented alcohol, made from grapes and grains, gave rise to the first agricultural revolutions all over the world, thereby putting us on the path to civilization.

So this week I’d like to suggest that you check out our modern-day alcoholic celebrations of both drinking chocolate and cocoa pulp as you ponder how fermenting cocoa pulp may have helped give rise to human civilization!

Fermentation of Fruits and Grains as the Basis of Civilization?

Once upon a time, historians believed that ‘civilization’ started when humans upgraded from living as nomadic hunter-gatherers to becoming sedentary farmers who learned to grow plants, farm grains, domesticate animals, make bread, build towns, etc. …who then went on to discover the delights of beer, wine, chicha and other alcoholic beverages.

Over the last few decades this view has been challenged. For example, a number of archaeologists have suggested that Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (described by UNESCO as one of the first manifestations of human-made monumental architecture” and dating back to around 9000 BC) was a temple where nomadic peoples would gather to celebrate with beer and various alcoholic porridges. They then further suggest that as a by-product of figuring out how to brew this beer, palaeolithic hunter-gatherers started farming and baking bread. Or as Edward Slingerland neatly summarises it “beer [came] before bread …[and] Neolithic, alcohol-fueled raves gave rise to civilization“!

A similar set of hypotheses are now being advanced for how Mesoamerican civilizations figured out how to cultivate maize (aka corn) from teosinte. Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilisations all enjoyed various alcoholic drinks, including a beer brewed from teosinte. For a long period, scientists thought that teosinte was a separate plant to maize, but this view has now been corrected. In parallel, scientists have also shown not just how Mayan civilization worked out how to make beer from teosinte but that in their efforts to improve crop yields, they selectively bred bigger-eared teosinte, which evolved into maize; accidentally creating the bedrock of the modern diet: Corn.

Cocoa Pulp, Chicha/Beer, and Chocolate

The same trajectory from ‘delighting in booze’ may explain the discovery of drinking chocolate.

It may well be that the drinking chocolate celebrated by the Aztecs and Olmecs, and then brought back to Europe in the late 16th Century, also emerged as a by-product of (alcoholic) fermented cocoa pulp (‘cocoa chicha’). That is to say, the palaeolithic inhabitants of Mesoamerica first made chicha from cocoa pulp when they worked out that it easily fermented into a light alcoholic beverage. And then, as a by-product of this fermentation, the Olmecs (and maybe their predecessors) discovered that this fermentation also turned the incredibly bitter and astringent cacao seeds into nutritious and flavourful cocoa beans.

One intriguing argument for this run of events is from an analysis of pottery fragments from Puerto Escondido, in the lower Ulúa Valley in northern Honduras, which date back to 500-1100 BC. When John Henderson and Rosemary Joyce analysed these pottery shards in the early 2000s they discovered that many contained residue of theobromine; the telltale sign of cocoa fermentation. The earliest pots, which date back to 1100 BC, have necks that would have made pouring any liquid to generate the desired ‘cocoa froth’ exceedingly difficult (the Aztecs treasured above all the froth from drinking chocolate; Montezuma consumed the FROTH of fifty cups of chocolate; he didn’t drink them). However, the later pots, dating from 900 BC, have longer necks that could have easily created cocoa foam and they also contain traces of spices and peppers which we know were used by the Mayans and Aztecs to add flavour to their cocoa drinks (the earlier pottery shards just contain theobromine). In other words, drinking chocolate came AFTER fermented cocoa pulp.

Earlier long-necked pots would have been used for beer/chicha making from 1100 BC.
Pots with shorter, wider necks were used for making the frothed chocolate drink after 900 BC.

📷: PNAS/National Academy of Sciences.

Since this work was published in the early 2000s, archaeologists and paleobotanists have discovered even earlier examples of pottery with traces of theobromine that date back to 3500 BC in Santa Ana La Florida in Ecuador. However, it’s not yet clear whether the people living there, named as the Chinchipe Maya, were brewing cocoa pulp ‘chicha beer’ or crafting ‘drinking chocolate’ (or both). So we can’t definitively assert that the earliest known consumers of fermented cocoa pods, the Chinchipe Maya, started off by first drinking fermented cocoa pulp. But it certainly provides a credible explanation for how Mesoamericans worked out that fermentation, followed by drying, winnowing, grinding, and the addition of spices, vanilla, and some water, could make a nutritious filling drink from incredibly bitter, astringent cacao seeds.

You can try cacao pulp yourself! Straight out of a cocoa pod, the sweet, nutritious, and flavoursome pulp can be used to make all sorts of curious drinkable concoctions!

Other Arguments for Alcohols’ Roles in ‘Civilizing’ Mankind

Although many of us delight in beer, wine, and other alcohols, the dangers of alcohol are also well documented. This has led scientists to try and understand the evolutionary benefits of fermenting grains and fruits into alcohol.

The ‘standard’ argument that beer is safer to drink than unpurified water is now looked at with some scepticism as it’s generally easier to boil water than ferment beer, chicha etc. Although when travelling to certain parts of the world, bottles of beer may well be a better option than water (and ice) that are new to you and your digestive system.

Back in the early 2000s, Robert Dudley posited an alternative theory for our love affair with alcohol under the arresting title of “The Drunken Monkey”. Dudley suggests that both humans and monkeys use the smell of ethanol (i.e. alcohol) to find ripe and fermenting fruit, which was otherwise often hard to find (possibly including cocoa). And once they’d found this valuable fruit, our sour taste receptors help us distinguish between ‘good fermentation’ and ‘bad bacterial rotting’ to pick out the alcoholic fermented fruits. Dudley also notes; “ethanol consumed during the course of frugivory may act as an appetite stimulant“, that is to say, we want to eat more after consuming alcohol, and getting ‘the munchies’ around fruit can clearly be a good thing.

cocao beans and pulp fermenting

Researcher Edward Slingerland, mentioned above, also adds this:

“…intoxication [through alcohol] helps solve a number of distinctively human challenges: Enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers. Our desire to get drunk, along with the individual and social benefits provided by drunkenness, played a crucial role in sparking the rise of the first large-scale societies. We would not have civilization without intoxication“.

Slingerland’s basic argument is that alcohol, at low levels, helps humans overcome some of the disadvantages of our prefrontal cortex; that bit of our brain responsible for “grown up, pragmatic, rational thinking“. The prefrontal cortex is the slowest part of humans to develop (taking around 20 years from birth). And while the prefrontal cortex clearly helps us step back, pause, ponder, and reflect in an adult-like way, the prefrontal cortex also makes us more inhibited and cautious. This ‘stepping back’ can discourage cooperation and challenge creativity; indeed, many societies, and even companies, use alcohol to get around these problems. For example, Microsoft, in the early 2000s, coined the so-called “Ballmer Peak”, named after the ex-CEO of Microsoft, who discovered that coders are at their most “creative” when their “blood alcohol level is at between  0.129% and 0.138%. And according to Slingerland, Google also has special Scotch whisky bars for coders who are stuck and need something more than caffeine to solve a problem.

Alcohol also encourages bonding and severely inhibits lying (the latter requires too much concentration for most people when inebriated). Hence its powerful role in building bonds and trust.

So if you want to encourage creativity, bonding, happiness, lateral thinking, goodwill, and honesty this Valentine’s Day, do consider some alcoholic libations!

For date night this year, make it special with some elegant pairings of craft chocolate and fine wines. Share some sensory delights by exploring the flavours of the best chocolate and wines, expertly paired:


Slingerland, and almost every other scientist in this area, goes to great lengths to stress that these benefits come from drinking alcohol in moderation, and with other people. They note that the beers and chichas of Göbekli Tepe and Puerto Escondido were very low by today’s standards. And they are careful to warn of the dangers of alcoholism and excessive inebriation, especially from strong spirits, and from drinking alone. 

We really hope you can either join us for a virtual, or in person, craft chocolate tasting to celebrate this Valentine’s Day …possibly with a glass of fermented grapes or hops or even cocoa pulp!


Resources and further reading:

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Valentine’s Day is Here Again!

deluxe valentines day box 2023

So we’re now over halfway through January. And having been unseasonably warm, it’s now unseasonably cold! So it seems like a GREAT time to plan for Valentine’s Day which is less than three weeks away.

We’ve a cornucopia of great pairings and presents!

And no shortage of tasting events: We’ve a tasting in our London office, a virtual wine and chocolate tasting with The Wine Society, and in-person tastings with Hedonism Wines in London, and Vagabond Wines in Birmingham.

To kick things off, and help you limber up for the festivities, below is a quick history of chocolate, love, and St Valentine.

In a later email we’ll explore some of the facts and myths of chocolate as an aphrodisiac.

Chocolate and Sex

From the first time the conquistadors witnessed Aztecs drinking chocolate they wrote about its powers as an aphrodisiac. Bernal Díaz Castillo, who chronicled Hernan Cortéz´s conquest of Mexico, wrote of Montezuma drinking “50 great jars of prepared cacao and foam …which they said was for success with women“.

And after chocolate took off in Europe as a drink allowed by the papacy on fasting days (of which there were over 100 a year) chocolate again rapidly acquired a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Charles II was a particular fan, spending more on chocolate than his mistress. Samuel Pepys was intrigued. And both Casanova and the Marquis De Sade were devotees.

But what really made chocolate takeoff was the move from drinking chocolate to eating chocolate bars in the 19th century.

And then in 1868 Richard Cadbury created a love heart shaped “Fancy Box” full of bonbons, chocolate-flavoured ganaches, and chocolate-enrobed fruits that was for gifting on St Valentine’s Day.

…But this doesn’t explain why we associate St Valentine’s Day with romance in the first place!

This Valentine’s Day, the perfect gift for someone you care about is a collection of craft chocolate! We’ve put together some gift boxes for you. They look great, and more importantly; taste amazing.

And if you’d really like to customise your craft chocolate gifting, you can build your own box with your preferred chocolates:

valentine's day custom gift box banner

The Origins of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day’s origin is murky. Many academics cite its most likely origin as the Roman Festival of Lupercalia, where young Roman men would strip off, grab a whip, and run after their (potential) partners to try to both impress them and in the belief that ‘spanking’ would increase their fertility.

Lots of alcohol and Bacchanalia were involved, and this festival continued through the decline of the Roman Empire. Indeed, a variant of this tradition lives on in the Czech Republic and Hungary where on Easter Sunday (again a fertility festival), young men arm themselves with a whip (called a pomlázka) and go from door to door, spanking women on the bottom. The women then soak the men with a bucket of cold water.

For date night this year, make it special with some elegant pairings of craft chocolate and fine wines. Share some sensory delights by exploring the flavours of the best chocolate and wines, expertly paired:

St Valentine

The Catholic Church recognises a number of different saints called ‘Valentine’; many of whose martyrdoms and miracles are lost to history.

The mechanics by which one (or more) of these saints became associated with romance and Valentine’s Day is also murky. Most stories revolve around a Roman priest, called Valentine, who was put to death by Emperor Claudius in 269 for refusing to renounce his faith. Pope Gelasius added St Valentine to the calendar of saints in 496 with his honouring on the 14th of February (i.e. the day before Lupercalia).

Over time, various legends have been associated with St Valentine, including:

  • When Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men on the basis that single men make better soldiers, St Valentine defied this rule by continuing to marry young lovers. When Claudius discovered these clandestine marriages, he had St Valentine put to death.
  • Before being put to death St Valentine is said to have sent the first ever Valentine’s Day card. After falling in love with his jailor’s daughter, he wrote her a letter signed ‘from your Valentine’.
  • Another variation claims St Valentine “cut hearts from parchment …to remind me of their vows to God’s love” and give these to soldiers and persecuted Christians, giving rise to the widespread use of ‘hearts’ on St Valentine’s Day.

Despite the charming nature of these stories, their historical accuracy is dubious. For example, Claudius II is recorded to have encouraged his soldiers to “take two or three women as wives” after his successful wars against the Goths.

However, it did give The Church a celebration to counter the pagan licentiousness of Lupercalia, and over time Lupercalia was transformed into the feast of St Valentine.

cocoa powder heart

From Chaucer to Cadbury

The first direct record we have of Valentine’s Day as a romantic occasion in England is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1375 poem ‘The Parliament of Foules’ where he wrote “For this was Seynt Valentyne’s day / When every foul cometh there to choose his mate“.

William Shakespeare, John Donne, Edmund Spenser, and indeed most poets and authors then continued this tradition of linking romance, love and St Valentine, and provided great fodder for various card makers. Indeed in the 18th and 19th centuries, publishers produced various books with verses, rhymes, and doggerels for young lovers to copy and send to ‘their Valentines’.

Despite Cassanova, Charles II, Montezuma, and the Marquis de Sade all being convinced that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that chocolate became associated with Valentine’s Day (I’ll write more about chocolate as an aphrodisiac in next week’s email).

Chocolate and Valentine’s Day

During the 19th century, chocolate moved from being a liquid drink to a solid bar (and bonbons, truffles, etc.) that is eaten.

This transition to bars and bonbons inspired Richard Cadbury to seize on another trend; the Victorian fascination with Valentine’s Day, and their development of gifting cupid-themed cards, boxes and gifts.

Cadbury’s marketing genius idea was to bring his chocolate and Valentines together by creating a love heart-shaped “Fancy Box” full of chocolate bonbons and chocolate-covered fruits. Cadbury launched these boxes in 1868 and the rest is history. Chocolate and Valentine’s Day have been intimately linked, with the US alone gifting and sharing more than 40 million boxes of chocolates on Valentine’s Day.

We’ve brought together all the bars we think would make a wonderful addition to Valentine’s Day. Whoever you’re spending the day with, or even if you’re looking to treat yourself, we have something for everyone:


Craft chocolate is all about sharing and giving. It’s also about savouring not scoffing. And we firmly believe that you should savour, not scoff, being in the company of your partner on Valentine’s Day.

So please do consider savouring some craft chocolate with your Valentine this year!

We’d love to see at least some of you in person, or online, at any of the tastings we’ve planned!

14th february valentine's in person tasting banner

Thanks, as always, for your support.


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Heavy Metal Chocolate

a.i. generated image of chocolate bar lifting metal bars

Good news! You’ve another reason to savour craft chocolate: It’s not just healthier, fairer, and better for the planet than ‘big chocolate’, but it’s also SAFER.

Craft chocolate’s focus on flavour, transparency, and fairness means that the risks of cadmium and/or lead in your chocolate can be controlled far more effectively than big chocolate’s prioritisation of cost minimisation and efficiency.

For those of you wondering about the above reference to lead and cadmium, a bit of background: Just before Christmas, Consumer Reports, in the US, published an analysis of twenty eight dark chocolate bars which revealed that the vast majority exceeded California’s “maximum allowable dose limits” for cadmium and/or lead in chocolate (European regulations on cadmium and lead are different, and mandatory, whereas in the US each state has different requirements, with California being the toughest, but even these aren’t mandatory). 

Even though the number of bars that were analysed is small given the MILLIONS of bars consumed every day, this sort of spotlight is very welcome. The original article by Consumer Reports is well written and researched.

The dangers of cadmium, and even more so lead, in chocolate (and other products), have been known for some time. So this isn’t new news, but it’s worth reflecting on what these problems reveal about the differences between ‘craft’ and ‘mass-produced’ chocolate’s respective approaches to sourcing, bean quality, and flavour.

Bottom line: The good news is that cadmium and lead should not, and need not be in, (craft) chocolate. The bad news is that the reaction from big chocolate is, yet again, a deafening silence and an attempt to ignore, and wish the problems away.

A brief background on lead toxicity

Consuming lead (or using it to whiten your skin) is NOT a good idea. The Romans used it for pipes and to sweeten their wines, and Elizabeth I whitened her cheeks with powder containing it, and it DEFINITELY did them no good!

Lead is highly toxic, and we’ve known this since Roman times. If you want nightmares about lead poisoning, just read the WHO (World Health Organisation) report on the topic! But the good news, to quote the WHO is that “Lead exposure is preventable“.

The bad news is that “There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects” and it’s still far, far too prevalent. It’s sobering to realise that it was only in 1978 that lead paint was banned in the US, and despite recent disasters like Flint, many US household pipes still contain lead. And as Consumer Reports showed, it’s still in many mass-produced chocolate bars.

A brief background on cadmium toxicity

Cadmium is also toxic and a poison. It destroys our kidneys, bones, and lungs. But unlike lead, cadmium poisoning is more of an ‘industrial’ and recent disease.

In the 1840s artists discovered how cadmium could create extraordinary reds and yellows (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Haystacks). Unfortunately, cadmium is also highly toxic, so the amount allowed in paints is carefully controlled (indeed every now and again different countries, and the EU, have tried to ban cadmium pigments in paints). And cadmium was also used extensively in the industrial revolution in zinc smelting, galvanising steel, etc.

variations of cadmium paints

Today, the people most at risk from cadmium poisoning are workers where cadmium is used and can be inhaled (like smelting and welding, and zinc mining and extraction) and smokers (and passive smokers).

At the same time, cadmium is naturally present in soils all over the world and it can be a contaminant in phosphate fertilizers. So as part of wider efforts to stop heavy metal poisoning, governments in the US and EU have set maximum cadmium levels for different foods. Interestingly, although chocolate has been hugely impacted by these regulations, it doesn’t appear to be one of the worst offenders. For example, when the EU introduced standards for cadmium levels in chocolate a decade ago, the report noted:

“Foodstuffs are the main source of cadmium exposure for the non-smoking general population. …The food groups that contribute most of the dietary cadmium exposure are cereals and cereal products, vegetables, nuts and pulses, starchy roots or potatoes, and meat and meat products”.

And yes, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories about political machinations as to whether this is a super Machiavellian campaign to favour cocoa from West Africa against South America, given that the volcanic soil of South America does sometimes have higher levels of cadmium; but see below; it’s a LOT more complex than simply how much cadmium is in the soil.

The US FDA’s most recent analysis of American diets discovered cadmium in some surprising places:

“The foods with the highest mean cadmium concentrations are sunflower seeds and spinach, …likely due to cadmium in the soil where growing occurs, the nature of the foods, as well as cultivating practices …The next highest mean cadmium concentration was found in potato chips”.

It only analysed one sample of cocoa powder, but this did contain “worrying” levels of cadmium (though not as much as potato chips).

Toxic Heavy Metals in Chocolate: Cadmium

As a cocoa tree grows, some cadmium (as well as zinc, iron, magnesium, and more) is absorbed from the soil and seeps through into the seeds within the cocoa pods.

The amount of cadmium absorbed is hugely impacted by the acidity of the soil (i.e. its pH balance); to quote some recently published studies that examined cadmium levels all over the world’s cocoa belt;

the total amount of soil cadmium and pH that explained the amount of cadmium that ends up in the bean …When you get into more acidic pH values, cadmium is more soluble and more available to the plant“.

Please see the links below to Margenot and Wade’s work on this topic.

stand of cocoa trees on a farm

Cadmium, and soil pH levels, are both very, very localised. So blanket assumptions that “this country is fine, this country is a problem” are way too simplistic; one corner of a single field can be a massive problem, another corner be absolutely fine.

The age of the tree also determines how much cadmium is passed through to the cocoa seeds; with older trees generally passing on higher traces of cadmium.

There are also some suggestions that different cocoa varietals may differ in how they absorb cadmium. And to quote one expert here;

One could silence uptake pathways with CRISPR (gene editing) and stop the heavy metals migration into the tree, cacao pods and seeds [but] that’s a 3-5 year project with trees in the ground after that …10-15 years to scale“.

So short term, we are back to avoiding obvious ‘no-nos’ like drying beans on the side of busy roads. And we’re testing batches of beans, and controlling the pH of fields.

Indeed, craft chocolate has launched a number of initiatives not just to monitor for cadmium, but also to address, and reverse, any problems. For example, Original Beans has managed to reduce the amount of cadmium in the beans from Piura (Peru) by up to 75% through initiatives like adding lime to the soil to reduce soil pH levels.

And the governments of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia have numerous monitoring initiatives.

Cadmium levels in chocolate are also a result of how the cocoa is processed. Cocoa powder is higher in cadmium because it has less cocoa butter, and so the cocoa mass (i.e. the dark stuff that contains the cadmium) is a higher percentage, and also because the processing can also sometimes impart cadmium when, for example, the cocoa presses use galvanised steel parts, pipes, etc. This makes cocoa powders a particular problem. And it also means that certain manufacturing approaches are inadvisable. In particular, when big chocolate ‘bulks out’ its cocoa percentage by using (cheaper) cocoa mass rather than the full bean, this can create risks and potential problems.

The bottom line is that we know how cadmium is getting into chocolate. And we know how to stop this. The key issue is transparency: We have to know where the cocoa is coming from, and to ensure that the farmers, cooperatives, and agents are aware of the problem. And when possible, steps need to be taken to resolve the problem by, for example, adding lime to the soil.

At a minimum, you need transparency at a FARM AND CO-OPERATIVE level to remove sources of cadmium infused beans. This is where the transparency in craft chocolate is so important (as well as paying farmers far more, focusing on flavour, etc.). But contrast big chocolate, where in many cases they can’t trace where over two thirds of the cocoa they process is coming from, and have no easy ability to identify supply chain issues like cadmium (and lead).

The opaqueness of big chocolate’s supply chain here, along with their focus on costs and treating chocolate as “just another commodity ingredient” is also why big chocolate keeps being caught processing beans involving deforestation, child labour abuses, etc. (see the most recent Cocoa Barometer report for more on this).

Toxic Heavy Metals in Chocolate: Lead

The issue of lead in chocolate is simpler. Lead does not appear to get into chocolate from being sucked up by the cocoa tree from the soil. Lead gets into chocolate the same way most lead gets into us, via airborne particles that come from pollution, in particular car exhaust, smoking, industrial processes and the like (some lead does still bleed into us via lead pipes, lead paints, etc.).

Unfortunately in many parts of the world, roads are often used to store and dry cocoa beans. And this appears to be where the lead is getting into chocolate, from lorry exhausts and industrial pollution.

Again, the lesson here is that the issue of lead in chocolate can easily be avoided, but only if you have transparency and traceability. And only if you pay farmers enough so that they don’t have to leave the beans out to dry on polluted roads.

Other Considerations (and an argument against snacking)

Our absorption of cadmium and/or lead into our bodies via foods and drinks is also driven by a number of other key factors. In particular;

  • Both cadmium and lead are absorbed far more on an empty stomach.
  • Children are at far greater risk; they can absorb 30-50% more than an adult (hence why both the EU and California have different recommendations for kids).

So rather than ‘snacking and scoffing’ on an empty stomach, savour your chocolate at the end of a meal (and you’ll also delight your second stomach here). And this is particularly true, and important, with young kids.

Avoiding Cadmium and Lead in Your Chocolate: The Smart Approach

For consumers, the simplest means to avoid lead and cadmium in your chocolate is simple: Check where and how the bar is being made (avoid ‘reconstituted’ bars using cocoa powder), and above all make sure you know the name of the farm and/or co-operative.

Upgrade to craft chocolate: Join the revolution! Come to a virtual tasting to discover more!

Consumer Reports’ analysis included two bars with craft chocolate beans sourced directly, transparently and traceable from named co-operatives and farms by; 

And of the twenty eight bars analysed, only five bars were lower than the mandated levels for both cadmium and lead. And yes, two of those bars were those from Taza and Mast (the other three were from Ghiradelli and Valhrona).

Avoiding Cadmium and Lead in Your Chocolate: The Bizarre Approach!

There have also been some other pretty bizarre suggestions by various experts following on from the publication of the Consumer Reports study.

One of the most bizarre is the suggestion that consumers switch to milk or white chocolate and/or choose a low percentage dark chocolate bar. Without wishing to discourage people from consuming craft milk or white chocolate, in most cases they contain more sugar than dark bars. And in the case of most mass-produced chocolate, sugar comprises more than 50% of the ingredients of their milk and white bars (and many dark bars).

Eating too much sugar is a key cause of our current obesity epidemic, and also child and adult diabetes. So trying to protect people’s livers and kidneys from cadmium by switching to higher sugar alternatives is akin to asking a kid to stop playing with matches and instead play with loaded guns!

Conclusions, Thanks, and some Reflections

Kudos, and thanks, to Consumer Reports for this article and their testing. And we hope that someone will do something similar here in the UK/Europe (we are exploring the costs and feasibility of doing this for some of our bars; we will keep you posted).

In the meantime, we’ve collected a tonne of studies by co-operatives, farms, makers, and craft chocolate distributors showing that their beans are not contaminated by lead or cadmium (thanks to Kokoa Kamili, Conexión, Tibitó, Original Beans, and many more).

Having said this, I wish that the article, and most of the other journalistic follow-up, had stepped back and tried to learn a few deeper lessons, in particular;

  1. The positive angle here is that this discovery provides another great reason why you should only buy chocolate if you know where the beans come from and how the chocolate’s been made. Chocolate that is traceable and transparently traded is safer, as well as being far more flavoursome, ethical and environmentally friendly. So please tell your friends to upgrade to craft chocolate.
  2. The ‘elephant in the room’ question is; why has so little attention been paid to Consumer Reports’ work. Big chocolate’s silence has been deafening. Even the threat of legal cases hasn’t generated much of a response. Depending on where you live, 15-25% of people eat chocolate daily. And over two thirds of the people in most Western countries will have eaten chocolate in some form over the last week. There is no reason for us to run a risk of consuming chocolate with excessive amounts of cadmium and/or lead. Big chocolate knows full well what gives rise to cadmium and lead in chocolate, and in how to avoid this. But yet again rather than address this issue, and reflect on the inequities of many of their sourcing practices, big chocolate is hoping that if it says nothing, this issue will blow over. Sadly, big chocolate has learnt that silence can sometimes work (see how they stonewalled the criticism of all the ‘healthy heart studies’ sponsored by Mars in the 2000s).
  3. On a related note, why are we willing to have so much junk in our chocolate? Cadbury built its brand, in the 19th century, on selling the “purest cocoa powder”. Take a look at any supermarket chocolate bar and see how many ingredients you have in your kitchen cupboard. Granted these are ‘permitted’ ingredients. But why are we consuming them given that we don’t need these additives, vegetable fats, emulsifiers, palm oils etc. to make chocolate that really is worth savouring? How do we (re)create consumer appetite for “less is more” and “purity” of ingredients similar to the way Cadbury’s did this in the 19th century?

So please, please look at the label. Check where the bar is made (not where it’s ‘assembled’ or ‘reconstituted’). Check where the beans come from. Trust the likes of Simran and Bryan from Kokoa Kamili, and Alex Whitmore of Taza.

Craft chocolate bars taste better. They are better for the environment. They are better for the farmers. And they are better, and safer, for you and your families. Less really is more. Less lead and cadmium. More transparency.

As ever, thanks for your support!


Resources and further reading: