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More Than Bars…

Chocolate is incredibly and wonderfully versatile. It adds magic to everything from biscuits to brownies, cakes to cookies, mouses to moles, ice cream to curries, bars to ‘bon-bons’.

In many of these chocolate creations, chocolate is (ab)used as an ingredient; it’s used as a vector for flavour and sensations, and chocolate is UNBEATABLE at this. Cocoa butter has the amazing property of melting in your mouth just through body heat. Chocolate picks up other flavours incredibly well. Sadly, it is also all too often combined with lots of sugar (and other additives) to create confectionery which “once you pop you can’t stop”.

At Cocoa Runners we delight in the amazing variety that cocoa itself offers. We believe that chocolate is all about savouring, and not scoffing. That is one of the main reasons why, until now, we’ve largely focused on craft chocolate bars. We want to showcase the extraordinary tastes, textures and flavours that craft chocolate makers can create from different bean varietals and fermentations. And this is why we don’t sell a bar unless we know both where the beans are from and where the bar has been created. We think that this focus on provenance helps you find bars that taste better and are better for the farmers, makers and the planet.

We also know that many customers enjoy filled chocolates; ‘bon-bons’ and the like. They enjoy the wonderful flavours inside the pralines or ganache, and many a dinner party’s highlight has been the salted caramel at the end.

Beyond the Bar

Today we are delighted to be moving ‘beyond the bar’. We are launching a couple of bars that will delight anyone who enjoys the likes of salted caramel and delights in wonderfully creative innards. These bars are based off bean-to-bar chocolate’ with clear provenance, sound ethics and amazing taste.

Zotter’s Butter Caramel

First up is a bar that went down a storm on Sunday Brunch last week – Zotter’s Butter Caramel (for more on Sunday Brunch, and Tim, Simon and guests’ delight at Dormouse’s Egg on Toast and Bare BonesSea Salt, please see here, and see below for these bars and the box too). You can see the full episode here; we are on about 2 hours in.

The Careless Collection

Then we have a set of bars from The Careless Collection. These four bars are the result of a challenge by The Observer’s Chocolate Correspondent Annalisa Barbieri to David Crichton, an airline pilot who was one of MasterChef’s first finalists (you can read more about his extraordinary career here). To quote Annalisa, “In gloriously self-indulgent fashion, I asked David Crichton to collaborate on bars based on my childhood memories … He said yes and I sent him a list of things that evoked strong reactions in me and left him to do all the hard work. Not surprisingly, nearly all of them were based around my Italian childhood, since I spent a great part of my childhood there, both my parents are Italian and all my cooking references were from there. After much mixing and tasting, we have settled on four bars which encompass these memories. All the bars are coated in Pump Street chocolate so you know it’s ethical and, for me, local”. Please see here and below for more details on the four bars David has created.

Spencer

P.S. We are also excited to announce that we’re appearing in a new TV programme on UK Food with the AMAZING RACHEL KHOO. And Rachel is joining us for a Craft Chocolate in Conversation: We hope you can join us on the 6th May.

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Time to Savour

For the next two weeks we are going to reflect on the importance of TIME in craft chocolate. For consumers it’s about ‘taking your time’ to savour (and we’ll focus here this week). For makers, time is – in the words of Jenny Linford – the “missing ingredient” (and again, we wholeheartedly recommend her book on this, see here and below). And next week we’ll explore how time is a crucial element at every stage of growing, and crafting, chocolate.

And it’s also time for us to go back on Sunday Brunch this weekend! Please see below for the bars from Bare Bones, Dormouse and Zotter we are going to be tasting. We’re on at around 11.20am UK time. And I’ll try to explain some of the ideas below, and a little about the history of celebrating Easter with chocolate.

Humans’ Unique Second Sense of Smell and Flavour

We humans are unique in being able to detect flavour through both our noses and our mouths. Other animals – cats, dogs, etc. – can detect flavour by sniffing, but once they have something in their mouths they can’t detect its flavours. This explains why, for example, dogs wolf down their food but humans (should) savour. Indeed it may well be that this unique human skill of savouring food in our mouths (technically called retronasal olfaction) is what gave rise to cooking and, arguably, civilisation.

Craft chocolate is all about length and depth of flavour. It is designed to be savoured. By contrast, mass produced confectionery is designed to be scoffed. It’s about the sugar hit and ‘bliss point’ (see the blog, or come to a virtual tasting, for more on this).

The Complexity of Flavour

Our ability to detect the flavours of, and savour, craft chocolate is remarkably complex. Indeed, it was only in 1991 that the basic mechanics of our olfactory system were worked out, winning Linda Buck and Richard Axel a Nobel Prize for their pioneering work. Detecting flavour is a skill; the more you practise the better flavour-detective you become and the whole process subsequently becomes more fun as you appreciate the complexity of flavour profiles more and more. And it’s definitely worth savouring, and comparing notes, with other people. Often they will pick out other flavour notes and dimensions that you may not have initially identified, but after they’ve shared their insights you too can start to savour these notes.

This is one of the great advantages of virtual tastings where we encourage everyone, in real time, to share their (anonymous) impressions (see here for an example). And as our recent tastings with Simon Rimmer and Steve Tapril on gin and with Ida and Rebecca of Corney & Barrow on wine show, this approach works well for gin and wine as well as craft chocolate.

The Flavour Wave

It’s also interesting to note the changing sensations, textures and flavours as you savour your craft chocolate. Detecting flavours is not like, for example, looking at a picture or photo and being immediately able to observe lots of different colours, features and dimensions. Even expert wine tasters, coffee graders and perfume ‘noses’ struggle to identify more than 3-5 flavour notes at any one moment (this is called the Laing limit after work done by David Laing in the late 1980s).

However what you can do is detect different flavours (and tastes and textures) over time. So given the amazing differences that evolve as you savour craft chocolate, it really helps to think of a journey or flavour wave (indeed the same is true for wine, coffee and perfume). See here for the Flavour Wave we developed with Professor Barry Smith, James Hoffmann and Rebecca Palmer. And it’s this we use in all our virtual tastings, enjoying the flavours and sensations as they merge across one another and evolve, using the magic of time to savour and enjoy.

Thanks for your support, hope to see you at a Virtual Tasting or Craft Chocolate Conversation soon (see here).

Spencer

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Easter: A ‘moveable feast’ that is almost here

There are lots of important dates and calendar related events this week and weekend:

  • This Sunday, the clocks go forward in the UK,
  • Daytime is now officially longer than night time (we’ve passed the March equinox),
  • Easter is ALMOST here (and Passover starts Saturday night),
  • Lockdown restrictions continue to ease (e.g. the Hampstead ponds for swimming on Monday, and are rumoured to be almost 10 degrees Celsius; balmy!

With the exception of the easing of lockdown restrictions, all these dates are ‘seasonal’ and move around. The clocks (in the UK at least) go forward on the last Sunday of March (introduced in 1916 as a temporary ‘Daylight Savings Act‘ which is still with us). The official March equinox, in the Gregorian calendar, varies year by year, as does Easter which is rather wonderfully defined by Church astronomers as a ‘moveable feast‘. For more on the extraordinary history of Easter as a moveable feast, and in particular the long lasting impact of the Synod of Whitby in 664 (where King Oswiu ruled in favour of Roman haircuts for monks and the Roman calculation of Easter), please see earlier blog posts.

But the good news is that Easter is coming SOON!

So with Easter’s imminent arrival, we’d like to invite you to celebrate this moveable feast with some craft chocolate and to join us for some virtual tastings (and post lockdown, some sorely needed hair cuts which may not follow King Oswiu’s instructions!).

Sunday Brunch Style Tasting with Simon Rimmer, for All of Us

We are very fortunate to be regularly invited to taste various bars on Sunday Brunch (we are back on EASTER SUNDAY; next Sunday; with some scorching new bars). And now we are delighted to be able to invite you to a virtual tasting inspired by this format, with Simon Rimmer of Sunday Brunch, on April 1st.

We’ll be tasting four great bars (including Simon’s favourite ‘Buttered Toast‘) in the Sunday Brunch format; and we’ll be using Menti.com so you can be one of the guests and record your impressions in real time with Simon. In addition, we are tasting an amazing craft gin (and you get a full 50cl bottle) from one of Simon’s favourite gin distillers, Simon Tapril, who made the gin, and will teach us all how to make a ‘perfect serve’ G&T.

And to round out the fun packed evening, Simon is also going to be doing a live demonstration; making a Tiramisu with some Menakao craft chocolate (also included in the tasting gift pack, along with a recipe from Simon). See here and below for more details.

Kids Activities and Tastings

Thanks to the easing of lockdown here in the UK, (most) kids are now back at school. However Easter half-term now beckons. So following the success of our earlier virtual kids tastings and activities, we’ve brought back a raft of new activities and tastings:

  • Make your own chocolate Easter eggs: On Thursday 1st April at 5pm via Zoom. Join us for a chocolate activity workshop as we make Easter eggs together from our Easter egg making kit: Create your own personalised chocolate Easter eggs. See here and below.
  • Virtual tastings on the history, geography and science of craft chocolate on the 6th, 7th and 8th of April from 2.30pm. Join as many of these as you’d like (you can purchase individually or as a bundle of all three). The format of these will be similar to the last sessions. But we’ve a host of new materials and we’ve added a bunch of new bars. See here and below.

Regular Dates and Another Chance to Join Our Wine and Chocolate Tasting

If you can’t make the above, we’ve our regular Wednesday tastings and the second of our Wine and Craft Chocolate with Corney & Barrow. Without wishing to blow our own trumpet, the pairings, and banter, led by Ida and Rebecca of Corney & Barrow, worked brilliantly. And so please do join us for the second tasting on April 8th at 8pm UK time (see here and below for the kit).

Finally, please do remember to order your craft chocolate Easter treats for this ‘moveable feast’ here and below.

Take care, and as ever thank you for your support.

Spencer

P.S. One piece of very sad news this week that we’ve just heard: Tragically Luis Jose Mancini, a true superstar of Peruvian chocolate, succumbed to Covid-19 and passed away last week. We will sorely miss him and would like to ask you to join us in sending condolences to all his family and friends.

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Genius marketing, chocolate and Easter

‘Easter’ and ‘chocolate’ evoke contrasting associations.

  • On the one hand are Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, chicks and other chocolate concoctions.
  • …On the other hand is the idea of giving up, fasting, and abstaining from the likes of chocolate, wine, and other indulgences.

The two are obviously tied together with the idea of ‘breaking your fast’ with the Easter egg, bunny, chicken, etc.

But the idea of giving up chocolate for Lent is in some ways ironic and even anachronistic. From a historical perspective, it was some marketing genius, product placement, and the Catholic Church’s promotion of drinking chocolate on ‘fasting days’ in the 16th and 17th centuries that caused chocolate’s initial popularity in Europe (see below, and in our previous blog post).

Any which way, if you are indeed abstaining from chocolate (or wine or gin etc.), and/or if you’d like some great chocolate inspired gifts, please see here and below. And also we’d LOVE to invite you to join Simon Rimmer, Steve Tapril and Spencer at a Gin and Chocolate Tasting Class on April 1st (see here) or to a Fine Wine and Chocolate Pairing on March (see here and below for details).

Chocolate and Fasting in Catholic Europe

When the conquistadors first brought chocolate back to Europe it was, to put it mildly, NOT a smash hit. Indeed the first record of any Pope trying it, Pius V, had him less than enthused and wondering what all the fuss was about (see below).

However the combination of adding sugar and spices to drinking chocolate, and some inspired marketing by the Jesuits, changed this in the last quarter of the 16th century. The Jesuits’ genius was twofold: Firstly, they marketed drinking chocolate as a nutritious drink that was great for fasting days; and secondly, they secured Papal endorsement of this new habit and product. A great example of 16th-century influencer marketing.

This proved to be inspired. In 16th and 17th-century Europe, Catholics were ‘advised’ (required) to fast for over 100 days per year (and often over three days a week). The rules of fasting were complex and often changed, but animal products (e.g. beef, lamb, chicken, duck, milk, eggs, etc.) were clearly banned on these fast days. This gave rise to the tradition of “fish on Friday” and some more intriguing theological arguments around the likes of dolphin sausages and beaver’s tail stew (you can out more in previous blog posts).

From their work in South America, the Jesuits were well aware of chocolate’s nutritional benefits. So realising that people were literally starving for nutrition on these fasting days, the Jesuits promoted the solution of drinking chocolate to stave off hunger on fasting days.

Although the Dominicans argued against drinking chocolate (citing its propensity to overly excite drinkers, and its pagan history), the Jesuits played a trump card. They argued first that in 1569 Pope Pius V had said “this drink doesn’t break the fast” (neglecting to mention that Pius said this because he thought it tasted awful and that no one would want to drink it). But they found a far more powerful advocate in Pope Gregory XIII, who was a firm fan. And then in 1666 they secured the magic words in an official Papal declaration by Pope Alexander VII that “Liquidum non frangit jejunum” which basically translates as: “It’s fine. It’s only a drink. It doesn’t break the fast”.

The rest, to coin a phrase, is history. Drinking chocolate took off first in churches, then in special drinking houses (which to be fair also served coffee).

Note: if you want to discover how chocolate jumped from being a drink to a bar (or Easter egg), please come to a Virtual Tasting, where we’ll explain the link between Dutch concerns over their beards, Swiss innovations, and the ‘Bliss Point’.

Chocolate, Easter and Lent Today

Today the practice of regular fasting among Catholics (and many other Christians) is largely confined to Lent. It’s no longer an all year round regular occurrence which happens week in, week out. And during Lent many people choose to abstain from the likes of chocolate or alcohol.

If you have been abstaining, we’d like to invite you to celebrate breaking your fast with some great craft chocolate treats below and here. And please come to our Wine and Chocolate second tasting on the 8th April (safely after Lent is over).

And if you aren’t fasting during Lent, please come to our Gin and Chocolate tasting on April 1st (and no this is NOT an April Fool’s!) to join our Sunday Brunch style tasting, in person and at home, of Gin, Chocolate and Tiramisu.

Take care, and as ever, thank you for your support.

Spencer

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Gin & Tiramisu, or Fine Wine? Take Your Pick!

Easter Weekend is now less than three weeks away, and the UK is (hopefully) now starting to emerge from what seems like a VERY long third lockdown.

So we’d like to invite you to join us in celebrating with two great new tastings with firstly WINE and secondly GIN (and tiramisu) (see below for more details).

We are also excited to have a couple of other new Easter ideas to tell you about. Karen and Isabel of Dormouse in Manchester have two intriguing new Easter Bars: Egg on Toast and Pancake (see below and here). We’ve added these to our Easter Gift line up, including other great Easter ideas from Chocolarder, Pump Street and our own “Make your own Easter Egg Kit” with Zoom demonstration. (See here and below for more details).

Virtual win tasting with Corney & Barrow

We are delighted to be running a Fine Wine and Craft Chocolate Tasting with Rebecca Palmer, Wine Buyer at Corney & Barrow one of the world’s oldest Wine Merchants and holder of two Royal Warrants. There are two sessions; one on Thursday 25th March and then another on Thursday 8th April, both at 8.00 pm (UK time). (See here and below).

We are pairing two contrasting South American red wines with three different dark chocolates (a Chilean Cabernet Franc, Licanten, and an Argentinian Malbec, Ruca). We will also match Corney and Barrow’s own-label Bourgogne Blanc from François Carillon with a dark milk chocolate from Standout using Idukki beans from India. You might not have tried white wine with chocolate but trust us; we’ll show you how it can work.

And, as ever, we’ll encourage as much audience participation as possible with quizzes, online tasting notes and more via menti.com as we talk about the science, art and fun to be had whilst pairing fine wines and chocolate.

The tasting kit includes three full size bottles of wine and four craft chocolates; so it should set you up very well for the run up to Easter.

Gin & Tiramisu; With Steve Tapril and Simon Rimmer

We’re also really looking forward to running a craft chocolate and speciality gin tasting on Thursday 1st April, from 7.30pm (GMT), over Zoom, with Steve Tapril of Tappers Gin and Simon Rimmer of Sunday Brunch (that’s them in the picture above). Come hungry and thirsty!

Tappers founder Steve Tapril will explain techniques and flavours for “perfect serve” gin and tonic. He’ll also lead a tasting of Tappers’ limited-edition chocolate EGGCENTRIC gin.

Simon Rimmer will be preparing a tempting tiramisu LIVE with Menakao‘s 63% Craft Cooking Chocolate (you can also prepare this before or after the session, and a recipe card is included in the pack).

I’ll explain and explore four different craft chocolate bars (including Hogarth‘s Toasted Bread and Butter) and inviting you all to share your impressions over menti.com.

During the tasting, Simon, Steve and I will look for parallels in how to taste gins, tonics, tiramisus and chocolates. As ever, we are going to try and have as much audience participation as we can. It won’t quite be as disciplined as Sunday Brunch in terms of comparing tasting impressions, but it should allow everyone to have their say and ask LOTS of questions.

Wishing you all a great weekend (especially all the mothers out there)!

Spencer

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Is our chocolate Fairtrade?

One of the questions we most commonly get asked at the end of our virtual tastings is, “Is our chocolate Fairtrade?” That’s a fantastic question – and it’s a great sign that so many people are thinking about ethical consumption. But for chocolate, Fairtrade is a complex issue, and it’s worth exploring some of the complexities of Fairtrade chocolate in more depth.

So below we’ve tried to explain our position. We’ve also highlighted a bunch of fantastic Fairtrade-certified craft chocolate bars for you to savour.

Bottom line: we think it’s important to go BEYOND Fairtrade and break out of seeing chocolate as another commodity ingredient.  We believe that this is the best way to ensure we can savour chocolate bars that taste better, are better for your health, and are better for the environment and for cocoa farmers.

In Praise of Fairtrade

For an international, globally-recognised charity and certification, Fairtrade has done incredible work in increasing customer awareness and promoting ethical, sustainable relationships in the world’s supply chains. It has given rise to cooperatives and partnerships around the world that have truly changed the lives of farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries. And for sheer scale of brand recognition, its impact is unmatched.

Fairtrade has had many successes with chocolate. We distribute a number of makers who actively promote it, such as Zotter, Belvie, and TCHO. Divine has done a great job with its Ghanaian cooperatives, and it’s great to see Fairtrade labels appearing on many supermarket own-brand chocolates.

… but chocolate needs to go beyond Fairtrade

Fairtrade certification was designed for large-scale crops, like bananas and sugar, that grow on large farms or plantations. And it’s done an amazing job for these crops.

But it wasn’t designed for cocoa growing or chocolate manufacturing.

In the manufacture of mass-produced chocolate, significant costs are incurred whenever production lines have to be stopped or changed over. And as many Fairtrade chocolates are made in the same factories as other, non-Fairtrade chocolates, a system called “Mass Balance” has been developed.  This allows makers who buy a certain amount of Fairtrade cocoa beans to label a volume of bars they make as “Fairtrade”, even though those bars may not contain Fairtrade beans.  This is a HUGELY complicated and emotional issue — for more details, see the blog.  But it certainly raises some consumer eyebrows when they are told that the bars labeled Fairtrade may not contain Fairtrade beans (the same happens with coffee, tea and a few other products).

More importantly, the Fairtrade certification process wasn’t designed for millions of small subsistence farmers selling a commodity crop to only a handful of large buyers. For starters, the cost of Fairtrade certification is just too high (more than the annual income of many cocoa farmers).  Though new initiatives that help groups of farmers and cooperatives band together to achieve certification are starting to address this issue, which is great.

The Real Problem

There is a more fundamental issue at play here, however. The Fairtrade premium is a fantastic initiative, and clearly a step in the right direction. But many of the fundamental problems of chocolate come from the way it is treated and traded as a commodity crop, where it’s all about price.

Treating chocolate as a commodity injects huge price pressures and instability. Prices yoyo up and down with the fluctuating world cocoa price – and appear on a long-term decline. For as long as we treat chocolate as a commodity it’s a race to the bottom on price … and this harms us (see below), the farmers, and the rainforest/planet.  

Moreover while the price premium of Fairtrade is great, it’s unfortunately often nowhere near enough.  The average cocoa farmer’s daily income in West Africa is US $0.78 (source Oxfam, Cocoa Barometer).  Oxfam estimates that a farmer needs $2.50 to $3.00 as a bare minimum to survive.  And unfortunately even with the 5-15% fair trade premium farmers are still often not getting a $1 per day for their work.

A fundamental rethink is required. We need to appreciate the amazing flavours of chocolate and the critical work done on the farm, and be willing to pay farmers more.

This is the approach of Craft Chocolate makers. They establish long-term relationships with farms and co-operatives that offer far higher prices (at least two to three times the “spot” price for cocoa, and often five to ten times more).  And they guarantee multi-year contracts.  Hats off and kudos to the likes of Askinosie, Taza, TCHO, Akesson’s, Dandelion, Uncommon Cacao, Kokoa Kamili and many, many more makers and craft chocolate supporters for their work here.

Scoffing vs. Savouring

But even more importantly, Fairtrade doesn’t seek to address the challenges confectionery and most mass-produced chocolate pose to our eating habits. We need to cut down on scoffing and begin to savour.

Whilst the addictive substance in coffee, caffeine, is a natural ingredient in the coffee plant, and ditto for alcohol in wine and beer, it’s different for chocolate and confectionery.  The addictive element in confectionery is SUGAR.  And unfortunately most mass-produced chocolate bars, and sadly many supermarket Fairtrade bars are about consistency, low prices and these “bliss point” sugar-like plays.

Most mass-produced chocolate bars, Fairtrade or not, are about scoffing. Look at the packaging, for example. Try to reseal most mass-produced bars. You just can’t.  They are based on the principle of “once you pop you can’t stop”.  They are designed to be addictive. The enjoyment is upfront, with no balance, length, intensity or complexity.

Craft Chocolate makers celebrate flavour and provenance. They want you to savour. They seek out the best beans they can find to create bars that you’ll want to linger over and dwell on. And these makers understand the need to pay farmers higher prices.

Spend More Wisely

This doesn’t mean that Craft Chocolate costs an arm and a leg.  Indeed Craft Chocolate is  often far cheaper than many luxury craft chocolates, where all the effort is put into marketing and labelling as opposed to growing great beans and crafting them. You can’t expect a Craft Chocolate bar to cost £1.00 any more than you can expect a great cheese or wine to cost £1.00.  But many craft chocolate bars are below £5, and most are below £7.  Compare that to other great foods and drinks when we finally can get back to the pub.

Speciality coffee, fine wine, craft beer and artisan cheese have all shown that consumers are willing to pay more for flavour and provenance (and some great marketing). And this is what Craft Chocolate seeks to do too.

Clearly it’s better to spend a little more on a Fairtrade chocolate bar (even if it’s Mass Balance Fairtrade) than a non-Fairtrade bar.  But even better would be to “trade up”, stop seeing chocolate as a commodity and savour a bar of CRAFT CHOCOLATE.  It’s WAY better for you, and way way better for the cocoa farmers and for the planet.

See below for some great bars that are Fairtrade-certified but also focus on the savouring the provenance and flavour.

As always, thank you for your support and please stay safe and sane

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James

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I Savour, Therefore I Am – A Unique Human Ability

a baby being spoon fed

Amongst warm-blooded mammals, humans have a number of unique traits, including:

  1. We communicate with extensive vocabularies and a wide range of sound
  2. We run on two legs holding our heads high (birds aren’t mammals and lizards are cold-blooded)
  3. We can detect flavour via both our mouths and our noses (through our sense of smell)

All three of these traits are due to the structure of our mouths. And they all provide compelling reasons to savour craft chocolate. 

Read below for more details.  And also see below for some milk and dark pairings which demonstrate how the bliss point works and the delight of savouring.

Taste, Flavour, and the Structure of our Mouths

We (and other animals) detect taste through a series of receptors, largely in our mouths (but also in our guts).  Different animals have varying amounts and differing types of receptors – for example cats can’t detect sweetness, but are super sensitive to saltiness and water. 

But taste is only a part of the pleasures of eating. There is also chemesthesis (the delight of a spicy meal or a mouth puckering, astringent wine).  But for most of us the real joy is FLAVOUR (and for those who like spicy food, see here for more on chemesthesis and texture, mouthfeel etc — plus the perils of Anosmia and Parosmia in today’s Covid world)

FLAVOUR is different.  And humans are (almost) unique here. Very few animals can detect flavour other than by sniffing through their nose.  Humans are rare (and very fortunate) in that our mouths open up a pathway to our olfactory centre (aka our sense of smell) as we breathe. This is why when you have a cold, or hold your nose, you lose all sense of flavour (come to a tasting to find out more).

Dogs, cats and most animals have a highly developed sense of smell through their noses. In this sense they can detect “flavours”.  But almost all animals, other than humans, have a  “transverse lamina” which stops them being able to detect flavours once an item is in their mouth. Humans lack a transverse lamina.  So that means we can detect flavour through “retronasal olfaction”. (Note: the absence of this lamina, plus the structure of our tongue, explains too why we can talk, and how we can run upright. See here for a more detailed explanation.)

The Great News of Being Human and Savouring Flavours

This is GREAT NEWS.  It may even explain why we like, and discovered, cooking. Indeed many argue that this gave rise to our development and civilization, as cooked food is for the most part far more nutritionally efficient than uncooked, raw foods.

It also gives us one of life’s truly great pleasures – savouring food and drink. As we eat and drink, FLAVOURS are released through chewing, salivating, melting and swirling round our mouths. Flavour is a huge part of the pleasure of living. Eating and drinking should be about more than survival, nutrition and health.

And chocolate is FANTASTIC for savouring.  Like fine wine, chocolate has hundreds of different flavour volatiles and aromas.  And they develop (like a wave!) as you savour the chocolate.

And just to add to the fun, cocoa butter, the primary ingredient in most craft chocolate bars (there is more cocoa butter than cocoa solids in most cocoa beans), gives an amazing mouth texture.  So we also can luxuriate in the melt and mouthfeel as we savour.

So why do we scoff chocolate?

Yet all too often chocolate, in particular chocolate confectionery, is scoffed.  It is like a doughnut.  Or a pringle.  “Once you pop you can’t stop”.

This is because of another peculiarity of food and drink with humans – the so-called “Bliss Point”.  The “bliss point” was discovered (or rather articulated) in the 1970s by a food researcher called Howard Moskowitz, who worked out that if you combine sugar, salt and fat – plus a little texture – human beings just don’t know how to stop eating.  For anyone who has ever seen a Labrador attack food they’ll get the idea.  All too often with many fast foods you just want to keep eating more, more and more.  It’s hard to savour.

No plant, meat or fruit naturally contains a combination of sugar, salt and fat.  But we definitely can’t resist the combination – perhaps because it hearkens back to the first meal for most of us (mother’s milk).

If you check the ingredients of most confectionery, you’ll see the familiar list of “bliss point” ingredients.  And almost always the first ingredient will be sugar.  But check the ingredients of any craft chocolate bar (with only a handful of exceptions) and it should always be CHOCOLATE (or depending on the country, cocoa beans or cocoa butter. Labelling regulations are complex!)

Having said this, there is a good claim to be made that the world’s first milk chocolate bars, launched by Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle back in the 1870s, were the first “bliss point” food.  Certainly their creation catalysed chocolate consumption with the creation of “bliss point” bars.  Unfortunately during the twentieth century chocolate has become more about confectionery, becoming merely another ingredient like sugar, vegetable fat or palm oils to “create” processed snacks and confectionery where the flavour of chocolate is deliberately flattened.

Indeed the BIG difference between a craft milk chocolate bar (and indeed any craft chocolate bar) and confectionery is that you can SAVOUR the Craft Chocolate.  The flavours will develop and emerge.  You can use our unique human ability to detect the evolution of different flavours as a bar melts in your mouth.  This doesn’t happen with confectionery. Confectionery, snacks and fast food are all about the first impression and initial sensation.  And you’ll continue to reach for more and more (just like Doritos, Pringles, doughnuts, etc.). You’ve been gamed.

Coming Up

We’ll explore this more in our Kids’ “Science of Chocolate” Tasting next Wednesday (and we talk about this in our regular Wednesday Virtual Tastings, too)

But if you want to savour and “try this at home”, please do!  See below for some milk chocolate bars that you can savour .. but you’ll also find hard not to have a second piece.  Then compare them to their dark siblings (we’ve picked bars that are made from the same beans – and are offering a small saving on these bundles).  And do download our “flavour wave” to help you articulate these flavours, tastes and textures.

As always, thank you for your support and please stay safe and sane.

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James

Further Reading

In addition, we strongly recommend SMELLOSOPHY by A. S. Barwich

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Half term activities for kids and adults this February

February is always a tricky month. And this February looks as if it will be a tough one.  Christmas is long gone. Lockdown is still with us.  The weather is (most likely to be) grey. 

But on the plus side, we have Valentine’s Day coming up (see here for some gift ideas).  The days are starting to become noticeably lighter for longer.  Some crocuses are already out. Spring is around the corner.  And hopefully we can get back to swimming soon.

In addition, we’re going to roll out a couple of new Virtual Tastings. Firstly we’ve been piloting some “Kids Virtual Tastings” with a couple of schools.  The focus is on “BUILDING SHARED MEMORIES” while having some fun — and keeping the kids busy, and enthused, for at least a few half term afternoons.

Secondly, we’re extending our chocolate Virtual Tastings to pairings with Wine (and hopefully soon other products).  The focus here is reminding us that even though we are in lockdown, we can still find ways to do new stuff, interact with friends old and new, plus have some fun.

Kids’ Virtual Tastings

Until we’d piloted our first few “Kids Tastings” we hadn’t appreciated how important it is for kids to be able to build “SHARED MEMORIES”.  On reflection, this should have been obvious.  Think back to how you made your childhood friends,  It was by doing stuff together that you still reminisce over.   This is really hard for kids in lockdown as many are, like most adults, pretty isolated.

So late last year and earlier this month, we were delighted to be asked by a couple of schools to adapt our Virtual Tastings for kids from 7-13 (give or take a few years at either end once siblings joined in).  In addition to making the Tastings “fun” the teachers stressed that what was really important was to create some SHARED MEMORIES.  Learning about how to taste together.  Finding out what plant chocolate grows on.  Discovering why beards were so important for chocolate bars.  Making your own chocolate creations. Grimacing over some “interesting” flavours, intensities and textures.

The good news is that these Kids Tastings worked. In fact they worked very well (see Google for some reviews). So we now want to roll these out, starting this February, where we hope we’ve coincided with many people’s half terms during the week starting Monday the 15th.

  •  On the Monday, Wednesday and Friday we’ve Virtual Tastings that will run through the History (Monday), Science (Wednesday) and Geography (Friday) of Chocolate with chocolate bars to match each theme. Each session will last for 45-50 minutes, and you can either buy an individual set for one Tasting or a bundle which contains the bars for all three sessions. These sessions are designed for the kids to be able to participate on their own with minimal adult supervision.  For more details, please see here  
  • On the Tuesday and Thursday we’re holding similarly timed sessions with a focus on crafting your own chocolate bars and lollipops.  Again we’ve specially designed Tasting kits with moulds, lollipop sticks, etc.  For these “Crafting” sessions we do advise adults’, or at least older kids’, support.  Again, see here for more details.  

We know too that exams and interviews as a kid are never fun.  Doing it remotely is even harder.  And often there isn’t even the chance to get together with other kids afterwards. So if you are a teacher looking for something different that brings kids together and builds some “shared memories” in a safe setting, with some fun craft chocolate, please do write to us at team@cocoarunners.com.  

Similarly, having a birthday party separate from your friends is even less fun. Birthday parties – or other ‘special days’ — are all about creating a sense of occasion, of that ‘specialness’, bringing people together to celebrate. People coming together for you feels like a gift in itself. Doing that with chocolate in the same room, even if it’s a virtual room, has the potential to be special. So if you are a parent with kids (or adults) who like chocolate, we’d love to try and help.  Please see here 

Craft Chocolate Tastings for Grown Ups — Now with Wine!

For adults, one of the largest challenges of lockdown is avoiding the perils of becoming a couch potato.  With Netflix this is pretty hard.  Unlike going to a movie in a cinema, there is no walk home or drink at the pub.  You just roll from couch to bed.

Dialling into a Zoom event can all too often be like attending a show, museum talk or conference without the fun of the watercooler chat.  You don’t get the chance to articulate your impressions, share your excitement or exchange ideas. It’s all one way.  No feedback. No communal sharing. 

This is why we’ve tried from the outset to make our Zoom Tastings interactive.  We want them to be more like a conversation or a dialogue.  We don’t want them just to be a one way lecture.

So we make extensive use of quizzes and tools like Mentimeter so that everyone can, in real time, share their experiences.  This avoids the problem of cacophonous conversations over your laptop, never ending chat threads or (even worse) every one taking it in turns to comment one by one on the Zoom/Teams/whatever.  It also means that everyone can and should be able to participate.  Unlike tastings where you passively try the chocolate and just listen, with Mentimeter we try to get everyone to reflect, engage and (anonymously) share their impressions.

Indeed, when done right we think that you can actually get more out of a virtual tasting than many in person tastings.  They are less intimidating.  They can encourage more reflection. 

And in doing so, you get to sort of do the tasting equivalent of riding a bike with stabilisers. And you can gain confidence in the process. The anonymity is a brilliant thing too; with Mentimeter, you can put ideas forward without nervousness (for more on this, see this post)

And we’re really keen to try and extend this in other areas – so this February, we’re working with a bunch of partners to pair Craft Chocolate with Fine Wines. These tastings are being organised by our partners, so you do need to register, and purchase with them (but all the details are on our website).  Here is the current line up

  • Wednesday 10th February with Bordeaux Wines – SOLD OUT!
  • Friday, February 12th with the Wine Society – see here
  • Saturday, February 13th on our own — BYOB, and dress pink  — see here
  • Sunday, February 14th with Loki wines  — see here
  • Monday, February 15th with 67 Pall Mall — see here
  • Saturday, February 20th with Hedonism wines – see here

We are DEFINITELY looking forward to all these Pairings.  And also to launching our Kids Tastings and Activities.

As always, thank you for your support and please stay safe and sane


Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James

P.S. videos of Spencer tasting the January subscription box with Mika are available now here

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Veganuary and Chocolate

Many people attempting Veganuary each year ask us: “Can I still eat chocolate?” Well, great news – you absolutely can! In fact, most of the chocolate in our library is vegan.

Dark craft chocolate, so long as it isn’t a flavoured bar with a non-vegan ingredient, is perfectly fine for Veganuary. Be careful buying dark chocolate from the supermarket, though, as lots of it isn’t actually vegan – read on for more.

WHAT IS VEGANUARY?

When we started to research Veganuary we were amazed to find that it has “only” been around since 2014.  And the term veganism is new(ish), being first used by Donald Watson in 1944, although its roots go way, way further back – to Pythagoras and the world of Ancient Greece.

Veganuary was set up by Jane Land and Matthew Glover from their kitchen in York, and launched in January 2014.  It’s very much focused on vegan food, giving veganism “a go”, supported by loads of recipes (see here for some of ours), food suggestions, product guides and starter kits (see here for our chocolate boxes) and is an interesting means to start the year differently.

According to Wikipedia, over 500,000 people have “sign(ed) up for the Veganuary challenge in 2021 and of those people there were 125,000 from the UK (… this is up from 2017 when) … 50,000 participants had signed up as of 4 January”. Veganuary is now also going international with the US, Germany, Sweden and many other countries signing up (intriguingly, Texas claims to have had “the second highest number of US sign ups”). See below for details.

SO IS THE HISTORY OF VEGANISM THAT RECENT?

Veganism as a term dates back to 1944, according to the Vegan Society.  It was defined by Leslie J Cross initially as “[t]he principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man” and later clarified  “to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man”.

But the spirit of veganism and vegetarianism go FAR FAR further back.  The UK Vegetarian Society dates back to Ramsgate in 1847.  And in turn Vegetarians date their history back at least as far as Pythagoras (yes, the same Greek who was a father of geometry was also an early advocate of avoiding animal products).

WHAT ABOUT VEGANUARY AND CHOCOLATE?

Most people think that the way to continue enjoying chocolate during Veganuary is to simply omit milk chocolate from their weekly shop.

But many supermarket “dark” chocolate bars, despite not having “milk” in their description, may not be suitable for vegans. 

For example, many cooking chocolates have “butterfat” to give them a rich mouthfeel – see this well known cooking bar label’s ingredients:

And the same is true of many other (non-cooking) mass-produced “dark chocolate” bars.  In the past, many dark chocolate bars were “filled out” with whey powder and other bulking agents (whey powder is a by-product of making cheese – and now used by bodybuilders and athletes). 

Because of these uses, whey powder is becoming more expensive, and many mass-produced confectionery makers are switching to using more vegetable fats and palm oils.  And at the same time Mars now has gone the full circle, using the same old whey powder to launch “Protein Enhancement” extensions to some old favourite brands

Bottom line: it’s another good reminder always to check the ingredients (and source of beans) of any chocolate bar

You also don’t have to stick solely to dark chocolate in Veganuary; there is such a thing as vegan milk chocolate too!  These chocolates are made with “vegan” milks like coconut milk or oat milk instead of cow, sheep, or goat milk, and are vegan-friendly.

IS THERE AN INCREASE IN THE AMOUNT OF VEGAN BARS AVAILABLE?

Yes – there are a host of great makers; all of our 100+ makers craft bars that are great for vegans. And then the likes of Marou in Vietnam, Raaka in the USA, Forevever Cacao, Solkiki, and Chocolate Tree based over here in the UK – they all do some great coconut milk bars.

So, if you’re struggling to keep those January Blues at bay, and would like to indulge in some sweet treats (without breaking you Veganuary pledge) see our vegan selection of chocolates!

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James

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Advent Calendar and US Presidential election

Next week, as I’m sure you are aware is the US Presidential Election.  And we are also putting on sale our Craft Chocolate Advent Calendar.  These two events are linked.  Read on below for the history of Advent Calendars to explore the link (it’s not that tenuous) and an overview of our Craft Chocolate Advent* Calendar.  

Plus we are excited to confirm a whole host of new Craft Chocolate Conversations – with Barry Smith (Nov 6th) James Hoffmann, Philipp Kauffmann and Vanessa Kimble.  In each of these Conversations we’ll be exploring their careers and philosophies whilst tasting bars that showcase different aspects of their lives.  You don’t need the chocolates to participate.  But it’s really fun to taste alongside them (and everyone else), and a great way to learn about philosophy, the science of taste and flavour, Specialty Coffee, Organic Trade, the WWF, Sourdough bread and more.  Please do join us by registering here

Our Craft Chocolate Advent Calendar

One of our mantras at Cocoa Runners is to always taste a Craft Chocolates in pairs as this really helps you appreciate their distinct flavours and tastes.  For most people flavour and taste are notoriously hard to articulate.  But tasting chocolate bars alongside one another throws their textures, flavours, melts, tastes and way they develop into sharp relief. And it really helps to refine your palate and enjoyment of craft chocolate.

So if you can steel yourself to only eat half of each Advent Chocolate for the first day, you can savour you way through 25 different chocolates eaten in pairs.  And because each bar is at least 5g (and most are over 10g, with some up to 37g) you can do this alongside 1-2 others. 

This year we’ve bars from Raaka, Pump Street, Menakao, Pralus, Chocolate Makers, Taza, Jordi’s and CacaoSuyo that run the gamut from milk to dark.  And they come in a (re-useable) hamper, along with tasting notes, books, pencil and all the kit you need to create a your own calendar (i.e., the envelopes, festive string and clothes pegs)

A History of Advent Calendars

Historians believe that Advent has been celebrated since the fourth century, albeit originally signifying the time when religious converts prepared for baptism.  Today Advent is obviously associated with Christmas and, for the last century or so, it’s also been accompanied with a tradition of Advent Calendars.

Originally these “calendars” took a very different format – German Protestants during the 19th century began to mark off the days to Christmas by burning a candle or marking walls and doors with a chalk line.  In 1908 Gerhard Lang came up with the idea of counting down to Christmas by attaching 24 little sweets to cardboard coloured squares.  Soon after he added little doors and sales sky rocketed. 

And the rest would have been history were it not for World War 2, where the Germans forbade the printing and making of such “frivolities”.  However post war, Richard Sellmar miraculously (considering the paper shortages) obtained a permit from the US officials to begin printing and selling them again, and built a hugely successful international business (the company Sellmar-Verlag has now been selling Advent Calendars for 70+ years.

During he 1950s various companies experimented with filling calendars with chocolates.  And they hit “influencer gold” when President Eisenhower was photographed with his grand children opening a Chocolate Advent Calendar.  A tradition was born and we remain indebted to the US presidency for launching Chocolate Advent Calendars.

Did You Know…

  1. The world’s largest advent calendar was built in 2007 at St. Pancras station in London.  It was over 200 feet high and 75 feet wide
  2. Harrods in 2007 created a Christmas-tree-shaped carved wooden Advent calendar which cost over £30,000.
  3. Since then prices have inflated even further — Porsche have a $1m calendar made from brushed aluminium that includes a Porsche Design P’6910 Indicator watch in rose gold, an individually customisable Porsche Design kitchen and a custom-made motor yacht, also designed by Porsche’s studio in Austria. The added extras also include a pair of 18-carat gold sunglasses, a pair of Porsche designed cufflinks, and a pair of the most expensive trainers money can buy.
  4. According to the Guiness Book of records, Kevin Strahle holds the record for the fastest time to  consume a chocolate advent calendar, taking 1 minute 27.84 seconds. 
  5. In 2012, Lego built the world’s largest LEGO Advent Calendar in Covent Garden, London using over 600,000 LEGO bricks in 30 different colours.  It took them (and a master lego builder) over 7 weeks to build.