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Casa Cacao

Even in normal circumstances it’s pretty hard (and fairly expensive) to experience a restaurant that has twice been awarded #1 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. And in a time of travel restrictions, given that this world beating restaurant is in Girona, Spain, this is even harder.

So we are DELIGHTED to be able to offer you the chance to savour fruits from El Celler de Can Roca, two time winner of The World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards, in the format of the bars of Casa Cacao, created as the chocolate brand of the restaurant by Jordi Roca and Damian Allsop.

And once Covid is out of the way, we’d recommend a trip to Casa Cacao. There you can see Jordi, Damian and the team crafting chocolate from bean to bar in situ, try their chocolate in their ‘atelier’ (workshop), and then stay in a unique hotel launched by Jordi, along with Anna Payet (wife of his brother Joan Roca), above their chocolate atelier.

See below for some of their bars, and read on for more details, about Casa Cacao and the inspiring stories behind Jordi, Damian and their craft chocolate (plus some awesome photos).

Girona and El Celler de Can Roca

In 1986 the three Roca brothers; Joan, Josep and Jordi; opened El Celler de Can Roca, next to their family’s main restaurant, Can Roca. Joan (the oldest brother) is the head chef, Josep (the middle brother) is the sommelier and the youngest brother, Jordi, is in charge of desserts (and was awarded the title ‘The World’s Best Pastry Chef’ in 2014). By 2009, El Celler de Can Roca had won three Michelin stars, and was named #1 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurant by Restaurant Magazine in 2013, and won the title again in 2015.

In addition to running the restaurant, and winning stars and prizes galore, the brothers have also appeared on MasterChef, Chef’s Table, and loads more (even teaching at the Science and Cooking Programme at Harvard University).

And yes, trying to get a table there isn’t easy. But we’ve an alternative, thanks to Jordi and Damian’s Casa Cacao. And this alternative is delivered directly to your door: Craft chocolate bars.

Casa Cacao: Jordi, Damian, and Team

Jordi and Damian have been working together for over two decades. Over twenty years ago Damian was the Head of Pastry at El Celler, and Jordi worked alongside him. And each have pursued their own extraordinary paths in the world of chocolate, rejoining to create Casa Cacao.

Jordi, as younger brother and youngest son of the Roca family, worked from an early age at El Celler de Can Roca. In his own words: “I am Jordi Roca, who with my brothers Josep and Joan … have been working for more than 20 years in the restaurant pastry and until 5 years ago I worked with chocolate like any other pastry maker, I understood chocolate as an ingredient and not as the magic result of an agricultural process, harvesting, fermentation, drying and making chocolate as now. That happened when I travelled to Peru in the Amazon region to learn about cacao crops grown by the Awajún native community, then visited Piura, later Ecuador, then Colombia… I understood the world of cacao as my brother Josep (Sommelier) understands the world of natural wines, where wine resembles the person who makes it, as I think it happens with cacao, which ends up looking like the people who grow it”. So Jordi decided not just to use chocolate in his deserts but to CRAFT it all the way from farm to the table in his workshop. As part of his research for the world’s best beans and chocolate, Jordi has written a book (called Casa Cacao), all of whose profits go to an NGO supporting the Awajun community in Peru.

Damian started out as a chef before deciding to specialise in Pastry at 18 years old with Robert Mey at the Hyatt. By 23 he was head pastry chef at Gordon Ramsey’s Aubergine restaurant, rubbing shoulders with fellow budding superstars including Angela Hartnett, Marcus Wareing and Mark Askew. He then moved to Spain and started work at El Celler de Can Roca for Joan and Josep and it was there he brought Jordi into the world of pastry. After a personal tragedy (for 6 months he was in a wheelchair and two years recovery), he returned to London and decided to branch out on his own into chocolate after he created the world’s first water ganache and launching a line he playfully called “Ch2ocolate” (the h2o is not a typo!). 8 years later he returned to El Celler de Can Roca, this time employed by his young apprentice!

Last year, after three years of planning and (unfortunately) just before Covid, Jordi and Damian joined forces, both determined “to make the most beautiful chocolate experience to showcase the most chocolate and beans (to) respect the magical ingredient that is cacoa”. They set up Casa Cacao firstly to craft a line of mazing chocolate bars (and filled chocolates), secondly to offer customers the chance to see chocolate being crafted from bean into finished bars and then thirdly to savour these chocolates in their ‘Bar Cacao’. Bar Cacao, alongside their chocolate bars, also serves a host of other chocolate delicacies including fartonnes, brownies and xuicos (a sweet typical of Girona).

Casa Cacao… More Than Chocolate

Casa Cacao is more than chocolate; again to quote Jordi: “The particularity of Casa Cacao is that just above the factory is the Hotel Casa Cacao run by my sister-in-law Anna”.

And Anna has a complementary vision for the Hotel Casa Cacao in her words: “For many years, El Celler de Can Roca guests have been encouraging us to open a small hotel to extend the hospitality and approach to caring and serving of the restaurant… so we didn’t hesitate when we found the perfect location in a historic listed building in Plaça Catalunya in Girona with a rooftop Terrace offering a spectacular view over the Barri Vell of Girona will also leave guests with a lasting memory. We do not need to give a map to customers, from La Terrassa (the Rooftop) we can show them the most emblematic monuments of the city”.

A couple of other suggestions for anyone lucky enough to stay in the hotel: Enjoy both your breakfast and your bedtime treat; again to quote Anna: “We realized that our breakfast had to be as important an experience as the hotel accommodation. When the client goes up to La Terrassa (the rooftop), the waiter always gives him the explanation and serves him breakfast at the table, it is a gastronomic breakfast. The idea is to reflect, as much as possible, the festival menu of El Celler de Can Roca, but in this case with breakfast. Therefore, this breakfast always takes into account seasonal and local products, giving importance and visibility to small producers in the area, such as farmers, cattle ranchers and artisans”.

And then at the end of the day, as you relax in your room furnished chocolate associated tones and materials, you are in for a chocolate treat: “Every day our customers have in their bedside table a proposal of different chocolate with an explanation of their ingredients, proposals that come to us directly from the chocolate workshop as a surprise factor for the customer”.

So if you want to try some amazing chocolate, see it being crafted and stay in an award winning boutique hotel with amazing views (and breakfasts), look no further.

A Final Reflection on the Chocolate

By their own admission, before setting up Casa Cacao, both Jordi and Damian had “worked with” but never “created” chocolate. And they’ve now gone to extreme lengths to source, and craft, their bars. For example, to quote Damian on a sourcing trip. “It took us three hours on a boat, two hours riding on donkeys and another two hours of walking to the village in Peru”.

Their philosophy complements this spirit of adventure: “We have been lucky to learn first-hand a lot of details about the fermentation and drying process of cacao beans and about people that keep on crafting it with ancestral methods. The intention is to rediscover ..not only the ancient cacoas .. us but also those that are cultivated and treated by the indigenous peoples, such as the Awajun or the Arhuacos, …other origins such as India are new to us, and we are interested in their aromatic complexity”.

Or as Jordi quotes from Mamu Camilo of the Arhuaca community in the prologue to his book (I’ve had to really shorten this section, see the website for the full, and very moving, words which details the extraordinary history of despair and then partial return for the Arhuaca over many centuries):

We have been here since the creation and the beginning of everything. This is our Earth, we don’t come from elsewhere, … at one time we had to move away from it because of the invasion and colonization that has stripped us of our territory. Through struggle and insistence … we have recovered part of our territory and we have continued to grow cacao there. We never had many seeds, but we are taking care of them, fulfilling the obligations at every stage of plant development. .. We advise our younger siblings, bunachu, when they obtain our product, that before tasting it, they should take a moment to appreciate this millennial tradition and the ancestral message that advocates peace and harmony among all that exists, seeking the balance of Mother Nature”.

Strong words. Matched in amazing bars thanks to Jordi, Damian and their team.

Below you’ll find bars sourced with beans from Colombia, and also Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic and India. Casa Cacao is willing to experiment with very different percentages (from 100% on down to 66% in dark bars) and different milks (cow, sheep and goat). And Casa Cacao’s packaging not only showcases these milks and origins, it is also made from the waste materials of cocoa shell (and they make great coasters for cups or drinks after you finish savouring the bar).

It’s been wonderful to re-establish contact with Damian again (many moons ago I met him in London before he headed back to El Celler de Can Roca). And it’s been an honour, and a delight, to make contact with Jordi, Gemma and the Casa Cacao team. We really look forward to visiting them in person, experiencing that amazing rooftop view and (of course) savouring their craft chocolate in situ.

In the meantime, treat yourself to their extraordinary craft bars. Each showcases different flavour notes. All evolve, and delight, with complexity and length as you savour them. And the variety is extraordinary — everything from fudgy milks that slowly open up (e.g., the Arhuaco Milk from Colombia) to dark bars that offer everything from stone fruits (the Chiapas Mexican) to wonderfully wine like sensations (the Hacienda Victoria from Ecuador); see below for more (including an amazingly vibrant but approachable 100% from Kerala in India).

And after all, how often can you experience the work of a chef awarded the title of “World’s Best Pastry Chef” and made under the aegis of a restaurant that has twice been awarded #1 spot by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants? Plus you can do this without leaving your home, and for less than the price of a round at the pub (or tapas bar).

Enjoy!

Spencer

Note: Inspired by requests from customers for chocolate themed activities and visits, and by the opportunity to visit Casa Cacao, we are adding to our map, and blog, more information about makers and growers that you can visit. If you’re interested in this topic, register HERE.

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Why We SHOULD Add (a little) Sugar to Chocolate

spoon full of sugar

Sweetness and sugar are hugely complicated. And they are also hugely controversial.

As far as chocolate is concerned, Epicurus was right. As he advised: “Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance”. The addition of sugar to chocolate IN MODERATION can be wonderful.

But too much sugar (as in most ultra-processed, mainstream chocolate) is really, really bad, and addictive.

There is also a huge amount of nonsense talked about some sugars (and artificial sweeteners) being “better”, causing lower “sugar spikes” etc. that should be debunked (‘hat tip’ to Professor Tim Spector, who covers this in his soon-to-be-released new book; and yes, we will be holding another Craft Chocolate in Conversation with him in the Autumn).

So whilst you read this post (and apologies for the length), please do try some bars sweetened with alternatives to refined cane sugar. And do try some approachable 100% bars too. Savour them from a texture, flavour and taste perspective. Revel in being moderate.

What is sugar?

To quote from Wikipedia: “Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. Table sugar, granulated sugar, or regular sugar, refers to sucrose, a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose”.

So far, so simple.

Historically most of the refined sugar we’ve added to our foods we’ve extracted from sugar cane and, more recently, sugar beet. These two plants contain 14g and 17g of sugar per 100g; not much more than mangoes, for example, which contain 12g, and even oranges with around 8g per 100g. Of course consuming refined sugar is very different from eating fruit; all the fibre, protein, etc. is removed as sugar is extracted from sugar cane/beet. However, until recently, adding refined sugar to our foods and drinks was a luxury and didn’t cause huge problems.

This has dramatically changed in the last few decades with a series of scientific developments, in particular:

  1. Innovations and new techniques for processing sugar from unexpected sources (in particular something called “high fructose corn syrup”), combined with continuing subsidies for refining sugar (not just from sugar beet and sugar cane, but also now corn),
  2. The discovery of new lower-calorie sweeteners from coal tar and chlorine (via accidents involving poor hygiene and scientists not washing their hands before eating!),
  3. The development of ultra-processed foods and the ‘bliss point‘. It’s the bliss point that underpins the explosion of junk food and why we just can’t put down foods that are engineered with additions of fats, salts and SUGARS to make them irresistible.

What’s the difference between sugars and other sweeteners?

This gets a little more complicated. Many things can be sweet (e.g. the amylase in your saliva can make bread taste ‘sweet’ as it breaks down starch into sugars). So for the purpose of simplicity, we’re going to talk about ‘sweetener’ additives, like sugar, that are combined with chocolate, and many (most?) other foods and drinks, to make them sweeter (and also cheaper, last longer, have different textures, etc.).

The NHS suggests a couple of ways to segment “sweeteners”:

One way is to loosely group sweeteners as: sugar or sugar substitutes … One of the most useful ways of grouping sweeteners is to look at those that have nutritive value, i.e. nutritive sweeteners, and those without nutritive value, i.e. non-nutritive or ‘low-calorie’ sweeteners”.

And here is how the NHS further breaks down different types of sugars and sweeteners:

  • Nutritive sweeteners are defined as sweeteners containing carbohydrate and provide calories”. Think of these as sugars.
    • The largest category here is what most people think of as sugars; e.g. glucose, fructose, sucrose (a combination of sucrose and fructose, and basically the sugar we buy in the supermarket), maltose, lactose, honey and maple syrup, etc. (note: this isn’t an exhaustive list), etc.
    • Over the last few decades scientists have also bioengineered new low calorie “sugars” that have fewer carbohydrates, especially a category known as polyols or sugar alcohols. When you read a label and see ingredients like erythritol, isomalt, maltitol (see the sugar-free bar from La Reine Astrid), mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, you are experimenting with these ‘low calorie’ sugars.
  • Then there are ‘non-nutritive’ sweeteners, i.e. sweet tasting additives that have no (or very few low) calories, carbohydrates or much else.
    • The first of these sweeteners, saccharine, was discovered by a university student way back in 1897 who, after experimenting with coal tar, forgot to wash his hands. And when he licked his fingers was amazed by how sweet they tasted, and realised this was from the coal tar (bizarrely cyclamate a.k.a. Sweet’N Low, and aspartame, were also discovered after similar accidents).
    • Most of these no calorie sweeteners are chemically and biologically synthesised from the likes of coal tar, chlorine, etc. But recently scientists have managed to extract a plant based non-nutritive sweetener called stevia from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. So just to add to the confusion there are some “plant based, natural” “non-nutritive” sweeteners too!

Why do we like sugar (and sweetness in general)?

Returning to why we like sweetness; from birth humans are genetically wired to enjoy the sweetness in our mother’s milk, and as we get older we seek out ripe fruit, cooked meat and vegetables (they are sweeter), etc.

Evolutionary biologists suggest that this is because sweetness is a great predictor of calories (a.k.a. energy) in food. And most of human history has been about getting enough calories to survive and reproduce. At the same time most foods with lots of sugar have many other nutrients and benefits (vitamins, fibre, etc.).

Until very recently indulging our sweet tooth hasn’t caused many health problems (although it has caused many socio-economic issues, read elsewhere in our blog for more on the very dark history of sugar and slavery). Indeed even today hunter gatherer tribes like the Hazda in Tanzania obtain 15% plus of their annual calories from honey (far higher than any Western dietician would recommend).

But as we’ve created more and more sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners for lower and lower costs this has caused massive problems. We are now gorging on ultra processed breakfast cereals, confectionery and mass produced chocolate. Our sweet tooth is now helping fuel an obesity epidemic. We are eating more and more calories from natural and artificial sugars added to foods which are designed to make us want to gorge more, more and more.

So, is it bad that we add sugar, and other sweeteners, to craft chocolate?

Having said all this, a little sugar can be a great addition. And we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water in our disdain for sugar while also being very sceptical about ‘miracle’ new sugars.

As with many matters concerning food and cooking, Brillat Savarin, almost 200 years ago, hit the nail on the head:

The centuries last passed have also given the taste important extension; the discovery of sugar, and its different preparations, … have given us flavors hitherto unknown“.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste.

We add sugar to craft chocolate as it helps us appreciate the myriad of flavours in a craft chocolate bar. As anyone who has tried a fresh cocoa seed, or indeed a 100% chocolate bar, can attest there are A LOT of tannins in chocolate. And these tannins are very bitter and very astringent. Adding sugar counters astringency and bitterness. It makes the chocolate more palatable. And it’s like adding salt, or umami, to meat; it brings out the flavour. Without the sweetener, most of us only experience bitterness and astringency. We can miss the amazing variety of flavour brought out by fermentation, roasting, conching, tempering, and of course the beans themselves because we are so overwhelmed by the astringency.

Side note on 100% bars: Most people can learn to appreciate (and even love) craft chocolate which doesn’t have any added sugar (indeed we even have a 100% subscription offering). Coffee provides a great parallel: The first time most people drink an espresso or a black coffee they too are overpowered by the tannins. But you can get used to it. Hence why so many people come to love espresso and black coffee. And as anyone who has been to a virtual tasting can testify, chew on a coffee bean and then trying some 100% completely changes the experience. Astringency is something that the brain can switch on and off. Try some great 100% bars below from Firetree and Karuna. Try them over a few days. Possibly after chewing a coffee bean. They are amazing!

Why sugar added to mass produced chocolate isn’t such a good thing:

Sugar in mass produced confectionery is added for very different reasons.

Firstly, sugar is not added to enhance the flavour of the underlying chocolate in a mass produced chocolate bar (or chocolate confectionery). Sugar is added to make the mass produced candy and ultra-processed chocolate sweet. These are then marketed as a sweet treat and reward that act as a pick me up (sadly also with a sugar crash).

Secondly, sugar is also added as it’s an incredibly cheap ingredient. Given all the health issues too much sugar is now seen as causing, this is ironic as sugar’s cheapness is in part thanks to massive government subsidies coupled with new technologies. Indeed, sugar is far cheaper than the chocolate in any mass processed bar. And far cheaper even than ultra-processed, artificial sweeteners. To quote the R&D Department of Callebaut in North America:

Any [sugar] replacement or change in sweetening…typically will mean a cost increase with the raw materials … polyols such as the low-calorie sugar alcohols erythritol and maltitol are more expensive than cane sugar”.

That’s why when you check the ingredients of many mass produced bars, sugar is the primary ingredient (for example; a snack sized 45g of Dairy Milk contains 25g of sugar).

What are the consequences of adding sugar and sweeteners to mass produced chocolate?

Put our desire for sweetness together with this cheap added sugar and it’s a problem. For the first time in human history many of us have too many calories and not enough fibre, protein and nutrients in our diet.

Ironically ‘calorie counting’ doesn’t help here: It over simplifies how nutrition works at both an individual and general level.

For example, refined sugar has less calories than the chocolate it is added to. Craft chocolate contains lots of carbohydrates, fats, minerals and even fibre (cocoa is after all a fruit). So if you just look at the calorie count, gram per gram, a mass produced chocolate bar will have LESS calories than e.g., a 100% or even 70% craft chocolate bar.

But this is very misleading.

Craft chocolate is about savouring. The fibre, carbohydrates and fat in dark chocolate are all REALLY filling. Especially if you savour SLOWLY. You rarely eat that much craft chocolate in one go; say 4-6 squares, or around 20g. Come to a virtual tasting and you’ll be sated, but you’ll have savoured less than a third of a full bar of chocolate.

By contrast, sugar is what is often described as an ’empty calorie’. In its refined form, sugar packs a lot of calories and is a great source of immediate energy. But refined sugar doesn’t have any nutrients. And sugar isn’t very filling. Its sweetness means that when you add it to cereals, biscuits, or mass chocolate bars, you want to eat more. And more. Indeed, for most people they keep eating more of a sugar filled mass produced chocolate bar until it’s all been scoffed (hence the packaging, which we’ve discussed before).

And sugar can become addictive (again, see the recent blog entry for more on the whys and hows). And this helps sales.

Note: we’ll do a post on calories soon!

Does the type of sweetener (and sugar) make a difference?

So the simple answer here is YES. The type of sugar added will change flavour, mouthfeel and taste. And the source of the sugar also makes a HUGE socio-economic difference (see the blog post on sugar and slavery).

But it’s far more complicated to answer whether any sweeteners are ‘healthier’. Honey has been shown by more and more studies to have various health benefits. And eating sugary fruits (like figs, oranges, apples, etc.) is clearly healthy.

But the suggestion that some refined sugars are healthier than others is, to put it mildly, unproven. In particular claims that certain added sugars (e.g., coconut sugar) cause a lower ‘GI spike’ (sugar rush) have never stood up to scrutiny (the original study was done by the Philippine Coconut Sugar Marketing board on only 11 people, and never been replicated). And different peoples’ blood sugar is impacted dramatically differently by different products. In Tim Spector’s upcoming book he points out that:

  • My blood sugar hardly moved with a bowl of white rice which has a GI of 95/100 and shot up to the diabetic range with ten red grapes which have a GI of only 46/100. I tested my long suffering wife, and she had the opposite result .. studies from … our UK twins are showing that our individuality in the gut microbiome determines how quickly we absorb glucose and the speed of our insulin response. Microbes were much more important than carb content or GI index”.
  • Note: I used a blood sugar monitor to experiment on myself a few months ago and was delighted to discover that chocolate and red wine DON’T cause my blood sugar to spike. But sadly black coffee does cause huge spikes.

And the idea that artificial (or natural) sweeteners are healthier is also under increasing challenge from discoveries about how we taste. Again, Tim’s upcoming book has more on this, but one intriguing insight from Tim’s work is that we have taste receptors not just in our mouth, but also all the way through our gut. So while you can fool the receptors on your tongue with the likes of aspartame and stevia, your gut isn’t as fooled, and so it may well rumble and demand more (if you have some maltodextrin, which is a sugar but doesn’t taste sweet, that will satiate your stomach, but it causes other issues).

How do sugars and sweeteners impact mouthfeel, flavour and taste?

The GREAT attribute about refined sugar is that it has no flavour. It’s just a sweet taste.

This changes when sugar is heated above a certain level; it then caramelises, and develops various flavours (note: this is at high temperatures, above 320 degrees Fahrenheit). So refined sugar’s great asset for the craft chocolate maker is that when properly applied, the sugar is flavourless and allows the complexities of the bean, fermentation, conching and tempering to shine through. ‘Fancy’ sugars (like coconut blossom sugar, lacuna, or honey, maple syrup, etc.) are not just a sweet taste, they also have flavour which, to purists, diminishes the flavour of the bean.

This isn’t to say don’t try some sugars refined from the likes of dates or mango, or with maple syrup (see Raaka’s bar below, or some of Zotter‘s new range). But as you try these chocolates, you may want to go in thinking of them as more like an inclusion bar.

Indeed to expand your horizons, try some bars that are sweetened using lower calorie sugars such as La Reine Astrid’s sugar-free milk bar which uses maltitol; it’s very distinctive.

Then try some chocolate bars which are sweetened with milk. The natural sweetness of the milk, plus it’s texture, gives them an intriguing mouthfeel and temper (see below for bars from Chocolat Madagascar and Zotter).

Finally do try the eminently approachable and intriguing 100% bars from Firetree and Karuna.

Wishing you a day full of sweetness (in moderation)!

Spencer

P.S. We were very sad to hear the tragic news that Sara Jayne Stanes passed away last weekend. Sara was a true pioneer in chocolate (and hospitality) education and chocolate awards. She will be sorely missed. And we send all our condolences and best wishes to her family, and the wider Academy of Chocolate family.

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Celebrate summer with craft chocolate ice cream!

Let’s start with a question with a surprising answer (unless you’ve guessed from the above picture!): Which was the first item, after drinking chocolate, that chocolate was used as a base ingredient and ‘cooked’ with?

  1. Chocolate Ice Cream?
  2. Chocolate Mousse?
  3. Chocolate Digestive biscuits?
  4. Chocolate Brownies?
  5. Chocolate Cakes?

The answer is chocolate ice cream; we’ve a recipe dating back to 1692 for chocolate ice cream (it’s in the same book that has the first recorded recipe for tomato ketchup). Recipes for chocolate cakes appear about a 100 years later, and the likes of brownies and digestives far more recently (1895 and 1926 to be exact). And even chocolate mousse is a nineteenth century discovery (the artist Toulouse Lautrec is claimed to have written the first recipe for what he called a chocolate “mayonnaise”).
This week, on Sunday, we’re tasting some great small batch ice creams made with craft chocolate on Channel 4’s ‘Sunday Brunch’ (you can watch it on ‘catch up’ HERE) and hear why these are so, so great!

And if you want to try any of the three makers (Jack’s Gelato, Happy Endings or Lumar), head over to the website HERE for an interactive map showing where their ice creams are for sale (along with where our makers are, plus where you can purchase bars from wine and coffee stores we supply). And if you want to try the bars that inspired these chocolates, and a few other ice cream related bars (for example; the TCHO bar using astronaut ice cream), see HERE and below.

If you want a crash course in the history of ice cream, and why craft chocolate and artisan ice cream makers are soulmates, read on.

A Quick History of (Chocolate) Ice Cream

We’ve been using ice (and snow) to create ice cold drinks for millennia. We’ve records from Shiraz in modern day Iran of sharbats being made and stored from around 500BC, and they were also very popular in India during the tenth and eleventh centuries. These were (and are) made from fruits and flower petals which are combined with syrups and then served chilled. And the Greeks and Romans were also partial to similar drinks.

Although it’s a neat story, it turns out that Marco Polo did not bring ice cream to Italy on his way back from China. Credit for what we now call sorbet (as opposed to sherbet, ice cold drinks or sharbat) was another Italian, a couple of hundred years later, who found a way to make something colder than ice which could “freeze” stuff into sorbets (and later ice cream). Quite how he discovered this trick isn’t recorded. But somehow Giambattista del Porta, a polymath who lived in Renaissance Italy, worked out how to use saltpeter (used to make gunpowder) and snow to freeze sherbert and sharbats (i.e. cold drinks) into what we’d now call a sorbet (an icy substance). Intriguingly, after making various fruit sorbets, Della Porta tried to make various wine sorbets, but because they contain alcohol all he managed to do was create very popular alcoholic slush puppies.

The next key innovation was to move from fruit sorbets (and wine slush puppies) to making ice-cream by trying the same trick of using salt and water to freeze custard (i.e. eggs and milk, and cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, etc.). Quite who first worked this out is also unclear, but rapidly this innovation took off. The first recorded recipe comes from an unpublished book written by an Englishwoman, Lady Anne Fanshawe, in 1665 (she’d lived in Spain before then, and that may be where she first discovered “icy cream”), but there are multiple written and pictorial records of people enjoying “icy cream” and “ice custard” before then.

Chocolate ice cream soon followed. And as per the quiz question above, chocolate ice cream is arguably the first example of anyone ‘cooking’ with chocolate (i.e. combining it with other ingredients to create a meal, treat, etc.). The first recipe we have is from another Italian, Antonio Latini, who, in 1692, produced a book called “The Modern Steward” (Antonio also has a claim for the first recipe for tomato ketchup in this book). Anyway, the key point is that creating chocolate ice cream happened way earlier than the likes of chocolate cakes, brownies, biscuits and even Mexican chocolate moles. And it helped chocolate gain more followers.

Chocolate ice cream was super popular amongst the aristocracy in 17th and 18th century France, Italy and Spain — and chocolate ice cream is a key part of the movement that saw the expansion of simple fruit based sorbets, sherberts and alcoholic slush puppies towards all the amazing ice creams we enjoy today. And then the creation of the “ice trade” and popularity of ice houses in the 1800s in the US really kick started ice cream’s sales, moving it from being an elite luxury to mainstream treat for everyone.

The Similarities Between Craft Chocolate and Ice Cream

As I chatted with Max, Terri and Jack about what makes a great ice cream, two obvious similarities in crafting were immediately apparent:

  1. You need great ingredients to make great artisan ice cream; not just great craft chocolate, but also fresh and creamy milk and great eggs. And just as we know the origins of all our makers‘ beans, a great ice cream maker takes HUGE pride in where they get their milk, cream and eggs from as well as their chocolate (hence why Max uses Land‘s chocolate, Terri uses Original Beans and Jack uses Pump Street). Provenance is all important, not just for flavour, but also for environmental and ethical reasons. For example, Terri is an avid fan of Original Beans for their commitment to planting a tree for every chocolate bar that they sell, as well as for “the amazing flavour” of OB‘s Femmes De Virunga, and she is similarly passionate about the milk, cream, eggs, sugars and other ingredients she uses.
  2. You need to be really skilled in and passionate about making ice cream. As with bread, ice cream is best when super fresh, so many ice cream makers have pretty early mornings. And just like craft chocolate, there is a huge amount of craft and skill involved. Artisan ice cream is done from scratch. So just as it’s not like buying chicken nuggets and microwaving them to make the meal, it’s not about purchasing ready made blocks of mass produced chocolate and adding flavouring and putting in a pretty box with marketing slogans. It’s a real labour of love to bring out the flavour, tastes and textures.

And there’s one more important similarity. Both craft chocolate and artisan ice cream are an affordable and eminently worthwhile treat. They taste better. They are better for the farmers. They are better for the planet. And neither a bar of craft chocolate, nor a scoop of artisan ice cream costs an arm and a leg. To quote Jack (of Jack’s Gelato): “It’s not like going out for a Michelin starred meal … for a couple of pounds, it’s wonderful for anyone to be able try the world’s greatest ice creams“. And that’s why he resists raising the price of his ice cream even though he is frequently advised to do so…

Indeed you can have any of these artisan ice cream delights for little (if any more) than a mass produced, heavily advertised ice cream from a vending machine or convenience store. And in this it’s similar to craft chocolate, both artisan ice cream and craft chocolate are an affordable luxury where you get a tonne of value from searching. You just have to do a little searching (hopefully now made easier by our interactive map)

Enjoy! Happy ice cream, and craft chocolate, savouring!

Spencer

PS We’ll be writing about sugars next week now, and thanks for all your comments on fast food and mass produced chocolate addiction!
PPS One final suggestion for our international subscribers, check out the interactive map for makers like PLAQ and Chapon who are turning cocoa pulp into ice cream (and we’re please to let you know that Pacha de Cacao pulp drinks are back in stock HERE).

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Is chocolate addictive?

Chocolate is NOT addictive.

Unlike the likes of caffeine, alcohol and other drugs, theobromine (the primary stimulant in chocolate) doesn’t meet any of the standard definitions for addiction.

But various ingredients can be added to your chocolate bar that ARE highly addictive. Top of the list of these additives is sugar, especially if combined with a little salt and fat (e.g. cocoa butter, milk, etc.). And in excess, this added sugar creates highs, and lows, which are much faster-acting than caffeine, nicotine, theobromine, cocaine or alcohol; and addictive.

At the same time, sugar helps make chocolate palatable and reveals the myriad flavours in the cocoa bean. For most of us chocolate is too bitter and astringent to enjoy without some sugar (although come to a virtual tasting to explore how you can learn to handle the astringency of a 100% cocoa chocolate very easily).

To showcase how sugar (and salt) can enhance and reveal the flavours in cocoa, we’ve highlighted a few new bars (including some 100%s) below. In the next blogpost we will review how a range of chocolate bars are effected by different sweeteners, including the likes of dates, maple syrup and a few that don’t use anything other than milk to caramelise the chocolate.

What is addiction?

For a word that is bandied around so much, addiction is hard to pin down. The UK’s NHS offers a simple definition:

Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. …There are lots of reasons why addictions begin. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, these substances affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be enjoyable and create a powerful urge to use the substances again.

The American definition (DSM-5) is more complicated, and more granular, with 11 components. It differentiates “addiction” from “dependency” which can be confusing as (arguably) these two states are two sides of the same coin.

On a practical level, it’s helpful to see how industry experts approach addiction; for example, to quote Michael Szymanczyk, the CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris:

My definition of addiction is a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit”.

Or as his chief lawyer, Steven C. Parrish, says:

“…it’s easier …to quit (my) company’s cigarettes than it is chocolate cookies”. (For more on this, please see Michael Moss’ new book Hooked).

So when you can’t stop eating those chocolate biscuits, and really crave the sugar rush (or sugar, salt and fat “bliss point”) of mass market confectionery, you need to beware of ‘addiction’.

But it’s not chocolate itself that is addictive; it’s what is added to chocolate that is addictive. In particular when sugar becomes a, if not the, primary ingredient.

What is going on with chocolate?

Neither theobromine nor caffeine create an immediate craving for another fix. They don’t make you seek out that second slice of cake.

However, caffeine can create a dependency and addiction. For example, just one cup of coffee (100g of caffeine) taken daily for a few weeks can leave many people with withdrawal symptoms including headaches, irritability etc. without their daily fix. By comparison, scientists have tried to find how much theobromine humans would need to eat to start to develop withdrawal symptoms and estimate this to be over 1 kg (i.e. ten BIG bars) of 70% dark chocolate eaten daily for two weeks before you’d get cravings.

Note: Chocolate does also contain small amounts of caffeine (about a tenth of the amount of theobromine in the bar), and if you take a 70% dark chocolate bar of 70g, even if you ate the whole bar in one go, this would be less than chewing 3 coffee beans.

All chocolate contains some sugar (even 100% bars), and it’s in how much sugar, and how the sugar is being used, that the problems and crucial differences emerge.

Sugar’s Unique Qualities

From birth, humans are attracted to sweetness, and we recoil at the other basic tastes of bitterness and sourness (saltiness is more complex, and astringency, spiciness etc. aren’t ‘tastes’).

Sweetness is a way for humans to identify foods that are full of energy (like ripe fruit, cooked meats, etc). And our brains are hardwired to respond to sugar in foods with an immediate craving for MORE. We are evolved to gorge on these sweet foods until we are full of things like ripe bananas, for example. Our penchant for sweet and sugary foods helped us to find calories and survive.

For most of human history our craving for more sugar and sweetness hasn’t been a problem. There really wasn’t much sugar, let alone added sugar, in our diets until the modern era. In 1700s Britain the average sugar consumption per capita per year was less than 2kg. By 1850 this had doubled to 5kg. It’s now over 75kg!

But today the uses (and abuses) of sugar are becoming more and more problematic. Sugar is very cheap. It’s a great preservative. And it’s hard to resist when ‘gamified’ in ultra-processed foods, drinks and chocolate bars.

And the way sugar is used in modern day foods like breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes and mass market chocolate bars is very different to the way sweetness in fruits etc. encouraged us to seek out these foods. The sugar in ultra-processed junk foods make us eat more and binge. We just want to eat more and more until the bag, bar, bowl is finished (and even then we may well come for more).

We don’t get sated in the same way as we do from eating a piece of fruit (or savouring a craft chocolate bar). We’re being ‘gamed’ via practices like the ‘bliss point’ where sugar is combined with salt and fat to the extent that it really is harming our health.

Sugar’s Highs and Lows

Sugar is remarkable for the the speed at which it gives us a ‘high’ followed by a ‘low’. And these attributes can be (ab)used to encourage scoffing and binge eating. Compare the speed at which sugar gives us a ‘buzz’ or ‘hit’ relative to other stimulants; along with how long it stays in our system to other addictive substances:

  1. Sugar takes between 6/10ths of a second to one second to “register and reward”, and then within another 10-30 minutes it will start to give you a ‘sugar high’ and energised feeling. Thereafter (normally 30-60 minutes later) you’ll get a sugar crash, and a craving for more sugar (note: this is highly dependent on the amount of sugar you consume),
  2. Tobacco (via a cigarette) takes 5-10 seconds to hit, and it has a relatively short half life of 2 hours (i.e. the amount of time the nicotine is still in your system is relatively short you’ll want another fix relatively soon, but not as immediately as sugar),
  3. Coffee (e.g. an espresso) requires 5-10 minutes to perk you up, and has a half life (i.e. half the caffeine is still in your system) of 4-6 hours, so you don’t get the same cravings for another fix as fast,
  4. Alcohol (e.g. a glass of wine) is a bit more complex and depends on lots of factors (what you’ve eaten, your size etc.) as after a drink is swallowed, the alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the blood (20% through the stomach and 80% through the small intestine). And the first effects are felt within 5 to 10 minutes after drinking, with the peak after 30-90 minutes and wearing off after 3-4 hours (again, depending on how much you’ve drunk).

Note: Theobromine (the stimulant in chocolate) is harder to find details for as it’s studied far less. However whereas caffeine peaks in the blood 30–40 minutes after ingestion, and has a half-life of 2.5–5 hours, theobromine attains peak blood concentration 2–3 hours after ingestion, and has an estimated half-life of 7–12 hours (which is why it keeps you feeling full for so long).

Mass Produced Chocolate Bars

The predominant ingredient of mass-produced confectionery chocolate is SUGAR. And it’s this predominance, combined with the bliss point, that creates problems, including addiction.

For example, a snack, pocket-sized Dairy Milk that is 45g contains 25g of sugar and 1g of salt. And it only has 20% cocoa in the bar. The Dairy Milk’s standard 85g bar contains 48g of sugar (12 teaspoons of sugar). And the so called ‘dark’ Dairy Milk 85g bar (which is still only 39% cocoa) contains 42g of sugar (10.5 teaspoons of added sugar).

A standard 100g bar of Bournville Dark Chocolate contains 58g of sugar (16 teaspoons of sugar), so if you compare this to an 85g bar of dark Dairy Milk it actually contains MORE sugar than a dairy milk (49 vs 48g).

And the main pleasure or ‘hit’ from these bars is their sugar rush and familiarity. There really isn’t that much to savour. It’s all about the dopamine ‘fix’ from that hit of sugar. And just as with caffeine (or alcohol or tobacco), you can become habituated to this fix. At the same time the sugar fix encourages binge eating to the point that people know they shouldn’t be consuming so much. And so sadly for some, the sugar in mass market chocolate can become addictive.

Hint: Look at the Packaging (and Check the Ingredients)

If you look at the packaging of mass market chocolate it’s not designed to be resealable. You can’t save the bar for later. The bars are all packaged with the expectation that you’ll eat them in one go. It’s about scoffing and bingeing.

In comparison craft chocolate makers use boxes and packaging that is resealable. They want you to savour their bars over a few sessions. And that’s why we send out resealable pouches with your first subscription kit (and following requests from subscribers, we’re going to include one of these every 3 months from now on, not just with your first box).

Sugar and Craft Chocolate

To be very pedantic, all chocolate bars (including craft ones) will contain some sugar. Even 100% bars. This is because there is a small amount of natural sugars in cocoa beans (depending on the bean, this varies between 0.2-0.7g per 100g of chocolate).

Thanks to the work of Martin Christie and his Seventy% club, most chocolate aficionados argue that dark chocolate bars should contain at least 70% cocoa and then 30% “other stuff” (which is generally refined cane sugar that is responsibly sourced). Milk chocolate bars are more complex; the vast majority of the milk chocolate bars we sell contain over 40% cocoa, and what we call “dark milk” chocolate bars contain more than 50% cocoa. And there are some dark milk chocolates where the main sweetener is the milk, not added sugar (note: milk contains lactose a sugar).

Important side note: These percentage rules are “there to be broken”. As many chocolate makers will tell you; the exact percentage they choose is dependent on the bean, its fermentation, roast, conche, and how the makers want to showcase the flavours of the bean (see below for some great exceptions from Bare Bones and Chocolate Makers).

Putting this into context, the amount of added sugar in an ‘average’ (i.e. 65g bar that is 70% dark) is 21g, or about 4 teaspoonfuls of sugar.

4 teaspoons of sugar is quite a lot. It’s not insignificant given NHS guidelines are to eat less than 30g of sugar per day.

But very few people want to eat a whole bar of craft chocolate in one go. Most people savour the flavour in their craft chocolate bars. And there is a LOT of protein, carbohydrates and fibre in a craft chocolate bar. And this is very filling. So rarely does anyone scoff a full bar in one go.

Most people report being sated with 15-30g of craft chocolate (i.e. 4-8 squares). That’s about 5-10g of sugar, or 1-2 teaspoons of sugar. To put this in context, a low fat vanilla yogurt contains 6-7g of added sugar. Or a small glass of dessert wine contains 6-7g of sugar.

Bottom line: People aren’t savouring craft chocolate for the sugar fix. Hopefully you’ll fall in love with craft chocolate. But you won’t get addicted to it.

Thanks as ever for your support. And looking forward to reviewing more different sugars in further articles.

Spencer

PS As you may have read, the UK is coming out of lockdown on the 19th July. Whether or not you agree with all aspects of this ending, I think we all agree that we owe the doctors, nurses, cleaners and staff of the NHS a HUGE thanks. So we are re-opening ‘Chocs for Docs‘ (see here), and, we will donate 10% of all sales this Sunday to this cause. Thanks.

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La Reine Astrid and Cameroonian Chocolate

map of camerron

One of the wonderful benefits of working in craft chocolate is the serendipitous insights it offers into geography, history, food science and much more. And this week as part of introducing a new French craft chocolate maker, La Reine Astrid, I’ve started to scratch the surface of the complicated, painful and difficult history of Cameroon and chocolate. And the good news is that thanks to Christophe and his team at La Reine Astrid, there are now some grounds for optimism and a path forward.

See below for more on both La Reine Astrid, the Cameroonian co-operative they’ve set up, and on Cameroon overall.

A Very Quick History of Cameroon

Cameroon lies at the junction of West and Central Africa, and takes its name from from “Rio dos Camarões” (which translates as “River of Prawns”); the name given to the Wouri River estuary by Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Archaeological digs have confirmed that humans have inhabited Cameroon for at least 50,000 years and amongst the oldest peoples are the Pygmies (known locally as the Baguielli and Babinga), who live in the Southern forests.

Along with the pygmies, Cameroon’s people claim to belong to over 200 different ethnic groups, bearing witness to a complex history of different kingdoms including the Sao, Kotoko and Fulanic who built advanced cities, trading routes and cultures whilst Medieval Europe was barely getting started. However, from the 16th century the Portuguese, and later British and Dutch, established a presence on the coast (malaria initially prevented them going much further inland) and Cameroon became a tragic part of the African slave trade for the next three centuries.

Armed with antimalarial drugs, the Germans laid claim to what they called “Kamerun” in 1884. Initially they came as traders, but gradually they also set up massive agricultural plantations based on forced labour (a eupehmism for slavery). And it was during this period too that cocoa appears to have been first introduced into northern Cameroon.

As part of the spoils of World War I “Kamerun” was split between the French and British. Both colonial powers set up various corporations and trading companies to export raw materials for factories in their home countries and secure home country industrial development. Neither colonial power paid much attention to local needs and infrastructure, leaving Cameroon as an agrarian economy reliant on exporting basic raw materials, foodstuffs and commodities, a condition that still blights Cameroon’s economy today.

Post World War II Cameroon slowly, and painfully, established independence from both France and Britain. After a bitter civil war France granted independence on January 1st 1960 to its former colony. And then under a UN plebiscite in February 1961, the Northern parts of British Cameroon joined the Federation of Nigeria, and the South joined the former French Cameroun, creating the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

Since then, Cameroon has struggled politically and economically (or as the Encyclopedia Britannica diplomatically writes “the political situation is less than ideal .. corruption is rampant”). Cameroon continues to rely on exporting raw materials, including cocoa. The discovery of exportable petroleum and oil in the 1970s helped the establishment of a few local agribusinesses, along with some petroleum refineries and related businesses. And some money was ploughed into education (literacy in particular improved dramatically). But Cameroon remains very underdeveloped with limited infrastructure and no significant industrial enterprise. Many of its people remain stuck in a poverty trap with over 30% of Cameron’s 25 million people judged to be below the poverty line, and Cameroon ranks 151 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index.

The Role of Cocoa in Cameroon

Cocoa was first introduced by the Germans in the Mount Fako Region of Cameron in 1886, with the express aim of securing cocoa supply for factories back in Germany. The French and British in turn continued to promote the export of cocoa to be turned into chocolate in Europe, and this approach has been followed by all Cameroon’s post independence politicians.

Cocoa now accounts for 5-10% of all Cameroon’s exports (it fluctuates by year depending on not just cocoa but also oil exports). And Cameroon is one of the worlds’ top 5 cocoa growing countries. Cocoa is also critical for the local economy. It’s the primary cash crop for over 75% of Cameroon’s rural population, with over a third of all agricultural land being used for cocoa.

However, the 280,000 tonnes of cocoa Cameron grows lags place it far behind its West African neighbours of Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire (they respectively grow 4 and 10 times more cocoa than Cameroon). Unsurprisingly Cameroon (and various external agencies, including the EU) have made numerous efforts to increase cocoa growth, exports and processing. But these large, top down initiatives haven’t really worked.

Back in the 2010s, Cameroon announced plans to double the amount of cocoa it grows to over 600,000 tonnes. But Cameroon is nowhere near achieving this. A massive problem remains the lack of capital, investment and expertise. Over a quarter of all Cameroon’s cocoa trees are at least over 40 years old (cocoa trees can continue to grow fruit after this age, but rarely as effectively as younger trees). Infrastructure to harvest and transport cocoa is also lacking. There are few modern fermentation centres, and much drying is literally done on what roads there are in the jungle. The government has provided very little money for roads or diggers or trucks or warehouses. The farmers (who rarely have more than 1-5 hectares of farm land) also have no money for fertilisers or pesticides and so various cocoa diseases (mirids, brown and black pod etc.) are rife and can destroy 50% or more of the crop.

Consequently cocoa farming is shunned by most young Cameroonians. Whereas the average age in Cameroon is now 18, the average age of cocoa farmers in Cameroon varies between 63 and 70 (depending on the province).

Instead of cocoa, younger farmers prefer to grow crops like cassava and yams. Unlike cocoa, these crops do not grow well amongst other jungle plants and trees. Consequently, virgin rainforests are being cleared and replaced with monocultures of these crops. By contrast the heirloom trinitario cocoas that mainly grow in Cameroon thrive within, and indeed require, rainforest canopy. And the destruction of these cocoa trees, and rainforests, is disastrous for biodiversity and the environment overall.

Enter La Reine Astrid

And this is where the likes of Christophe, Marina and the Reine Astrid team offer some real hope and evidence of what focused, grass roots initiatives on growing high quality cocoa can do. In many ways what they’ve done is similar to speciality coffee.

In 2017 Christophe, with the support of the local Cameroonian government, established a cocoa co-operative in the village of N’Kog Ekogo. N’Kog Ekogo is a tiny village; it only has 75 families; but they’ve managed to triple the income of this village, and increase their sales (and harvests) of cocoa from 2 tonnes in 2018 to over 40 in 2020. These beans are not just used by La Reine Astrid, but also by local French chefs who, as Christophe proudly explains, are switching away from “industrial chocolate couverture” and instead crafting their own chocolate from these beans and thereby “re-energising local economies in villages that were almost deserted”.

Christophe has achieved this firstly by proving the potential of this cocoa by crafting some GREAT bars. And he’s heavily invested time, capital and resources into the co-op he established. He has helped finance a 150m local warehouse, whilst also investing in a cocoa school and garden. In 2019, Christophe sent out an agricultural engineer from France to set up a 2 hectare model of best practises that showcases, for example, how to plant cocoa amongst other rainforest trees along with shrubs that ward off insects, etc.

Above and beyond this, Christophe recognises the need to help the village “move up the cocoa value chain”. So he also invited a young Cameroonian to train in Paris for 8 months before sending him back to set up an artisanal, craft chocolate factory in N’Kog Ekogo. And they helped finance (along with Miss Cameroon) a project whereby 10 local young Cameroonians rebuilt a disused school (see Facebook for more on this Nyamoro project).

More on La Reine Astrid

If you’d like to see more details on La Reine Astrid, including an explanation of why the company is named after a Swedish/Belgian Queen (hint: She liked chocolate!), then please see their profile on the website. And you can also see more on some of Christophe’s other initiatives, including an inspiring story about the co-operative they work with in Haiti, that again provides a magnificent cause for hope.

But above all, we’d encourage you to try La Reine Astrid’s bars. They really show how grass roots initiatives offer real hope for West African cocoa through transparent trade and farming. It’s one small step. But to paraphrase the Chinese Proverb, and as Åkesson has shown in Madagascar, Kokoa Kamili in Tanzania and ABOFCA in Ghana, “all [cocoa] journeys start with a first step”.

Christophe is raising more funds to expand the factory in N’Kog Ekogo, and so we plan to support this by donating 10% of our sales of his bars in July to this initiative.

As ever, thank you for your support.

Spencer.

p.s. And just to show how Cameroon is becoming more popular amongst craft chocolate makers, we’ve also showcased a bar from Tauerchli made from a different co-operative in Cameroon.

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Salve and Guten Tag to KARUNA

armin and katya founders of karuna chocolate

Here is a quick quiz to introduce this week’s post:

  1. Which is the wealthiest province in Italy?
  2. In which Italian province do the majority of the population speak German as their first language?
  3. To which Italian province did the real-life von Trapp family (made famous in the Sound of Music) flee?
  4. In which Italian province is Karuna, our ‘newest Italian craft chocolate maker, based?

The answer to all the above is SOUTH TYROL. The strategic importance of the Brenner Pass has meant that over the last 1,500 years various bits of South Tyrol have been fought over and ruled by multiple peoples including the Goths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Lombards, Austrians, Bavarian and Italians (in various guises). And since the Treaty of London in 1919, South Tyrol has been part of Italy (albeit with considerable autonomy).

Any which way, once we can start travelling again, South Tyrol is very much back on my top list to (re)visit. The last time I was there was when I graduated from university and somewhat rashly decided to cycle over the Alps! It has incredibly beautiful and had AMAZING food and wines. I now know it also has some even more AMAZING CRAFT CHOCOLATE. So whilst I may not cycle this time all the way to the Brenner Pass once we can travel, I’m really looking forward to visiting Katya and Armin, in Feldthurns, just outside Bolzano.

We first met Katya Waldboth and Armin Untersteiner in 2020 at Chocoa, a year or so after they’d formally launched. We were introduced by Bryan of Kokoa Kamili, and were immediately blown away by their dark bars as well as their vegan white bars. And so we are enormously excited to be finally able to offer their bars. Please see below for a selection of these bars, and more on what makes them as a company and as bars, so special.

The History of Karuna

Katya and Armin have intriguing histories. Armin started his professional life selling and repairing musical instruments, with a sideline as a vegetarian chef in high demand to cater at concerts and festivals. Katya holds a masters degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and, through this, was asked to work in South India. Seeing a free position as a field manager in the same NGO, Armin joined her. And then on a trip to Tamil Nadu, he was entranced by the magnificent oddness of cocoa trees.

In his words: “[these trees and pods] intrigued me and I started researching cocoa and chocolate. By chance I found an article about the American craft chocolate scene and how they were making chocolate with Indian stone mills, a common household appliance in South India. The very next day I got myself a stone mill, some nuts and cocoa beans that I sourced locally ….. The rest is a much longer story … starting off as a hobbyist chocolate maker … getting more and more passionate about it … researching a lot … going through trial and error endlessly and — eventually — open a chocolate business four years later with Katya”.

The Karuna Name

Katya and Armin named their company “Karuna” (the Sanskrit word for compassion) as this was a nickname they’d been given for a food kitchen formally called Prem Prasad they’d established in 2007 for the poor of Northern India. (They still support this initiative and provide 200-300 free meals a day). And as they note “this name Karuna seemed a good match for our business philosophy too (as) we don’t want to exploit people, animals and the planet“.

More of the Karuna Philosophy

This philosophy of “not exploiting people, animals or the planet” is manifest in all aspects of their bars, starting with the first part of their products you see, their packaging. All their packaging is biodegradable (including the glues and inner sleeve). The images on the packaging (and those on the bar moulds) were designed by Armin’s brother Lorenz, and evoke cocoa leaves and fruits.

They also insist on only using transparently traded and organic ingredients. So, for example they source their Fairtrade organic raw cane sugar from Itajá, Brazil. And they only work with directly traceable beans from small farmers and co-operatives such as Kokoa Kamili (Tanzania), GoGround (Kerala, India), Urubamba (Chuncho, Peru) and Belyzium (Belize).

And for their vegan white chocolates, they use directly traded cocoa butter that is pressed from Arriba Nacional beans from farms in both Los Rios and Esmeraldas in Ecuador and then Piura beans from Peru. And instead of animal milk, they use de-oiled almond flour from organically grown almonds which is then flavoured with a variety of exotic (and organic) ingredients including raspberries, blackberries and sea buckthorn (see below for more details).

Armin is also a fan of bright, fruity flavours, and focuses on beans and processes to tease out these aromas. To this end Armin explores multiple roasting profiles and “curves” for each batch of beans to ”intensify the special notes that are naturally found in each cocoa bean” (see the details on each bar’s packaging).

And he goes even further by working with farmers to experiment with different drying processes. For example, he’s sourcing from Belyzium, a Berlin based company who work with the Mopan Maya farmers in Toledo, Southern Belize, on ‘slow drying’ and ‘regular dried’ beans. Thereafter Armin uses the same roasting, conching and tempering profiles; but there are huge differences in flavour, with the ‘regular dried’ bar having bright bursts of orange, and the ‘slow dried’ having more of a chocolate, tobacco and nutty profile.

We hope you enjoy these bars; they are a wonderful example of “compassion” and the flavours that can be achieved through great craft chocolate.

Spencer

p.s. For another intriguing experiment on flavour, please do try Pump Street‘s new Jamaican bar; fermented with a sourdough yeast sent by Chris from his Orford bakery to the Tulloch Estate in Jamaica.

p.p.s. For some true serendipity, following last week’s entry on chillies, we received an email from a subscriber who headed up the team who first discovered the capsaicin receptor (TRPV1) that gives the ‘spicy’ sensation. Small world! And watch this space for more insights from Peter.

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Is this a PEPPER or a CHILLI?

(the answer is neither: it’s a pink pepper)

To any of you who have ever wondered:

  • How did we come to MIX peppers, chilli peppers and peppermint with chocolate (and why these combinations can be such fun)?
  • Why are the names of peppers, chilli peppers and peppermint so easy to MIX UP in almost every language (except Nahuatl)?

… this week’s post hopefully has some answers, and we’ve highlighted some great bars (including a bundle to try them all out at once!).

Read on for a quick history of peppers, chillies and peppermint. You’ll also find out how and why they work so well with chocolate (and why they aren’t a taste or flavour, and why birds LOVE chillies…).  Or just skip below for some great bars from Bertil Åkesson, Georgia Ramon and Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé (and our special themed bundle).

A History of Chilli and Chocolate

As many of us learnt at school, that the discovery of America was an accident. 

Christopher Columbus was not looking for a new continent. Rather he was looking for a simple route to sail to, and trade with, India.  Hence the nomenclature of ‘West Indies’, ‘American Indians’ etc., as Columbus et al. thought they were in India, meeting Indians, etc.

The term “chilli pepper” is the result of a similar accident (and possibly deliberate confusion).

Columbus was searching for a new route to India as he wanted to disrupt the Venetian monopoly of the spice trade, and in particular their control over ‘black gold’; or black pepper.  But he didn’t find any black pepper on any of his voyages.  However, he did come across what the Aztecs called in their language (Nahuatl) chīlli (or xilli or even Chilpoctli, Chiltecpin or Chiltepin), which he initially mistook for cinnamon, another coveted spice.  

Realising that both black pepper and chilli ‘spice up’ food and drink, and given that Columbus was desperate to showcase the commercial potential of the lands he’d reached, he decided to call these spices “chilli peppers”. The result has been ENDLESS confusion. (If you want more on the etymology of chocolate; it’s more complicated; see here.)

The Aztecs clearly adored chilli, mixing it with all their foods and drinks (including drinking chocolate). Indeed, so much did they enjoy chilli that their definition of fasting didn’t mean not to eat or drink, but rather that they’d not add chilli to their food and drinking chocolate!

Chilli’s Origins

Quite where the chilli plant originated (or indeed which of the five different genuses of chilli plant came first) isn’t clear. However robust claims are made by Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico. And archaeologists have found evidence of chilli farming as far back as 8,000 BC, in what is modern day Mexico. Chilli cultivation has also been uncovered in Ecuador as far back as 6,000 BC (so unlike chocolate, where Ecuador appears to be ‘ground zero’ for chocolate cultivation, Mexico is winning the claim for the first country to cultivate chillies).

The reason chilli was able to spread far and wide (and why it’s so hard to pin down its origins) is thanks to its attractiveness to birds. Unlike other animals, birds don’t feel the capsaicin in chilli that gives it its ‘kick’ and ‘spiciness’. This lack, combined with chillies’ bright colours, leads to extensive snacking by birds who, having digested the chilli seeds, then spread these, flying far and wide and defecating as they go. By contrast chocolate had to rely on humans for much of its dissemination, and hence its slower spread.

Whether the Aztecs were the first to combine chilli and chocolate isn’t clear (it may well be that the Olmecs did this too, and possibly even earlier). But the combination is clearly popular. Indeed it’s worth noting that when the chocolate drinks ‘marketed’ by the Jesuits (and endorsed later by the Papacy) took off in late-1600s Europe, the recipes used were very similar to those used by the Aztecs; that is to say, the chocolate was spiced up with chilli and/or vanilla and sugar (sugar was substituted for different indigenous sweeteners like honey). And many of today’s most popular bars follow still these recipes.

The History of Black Pepper

Black pepper (or technically Piper nigrum) flowers on vines (similar to grapes), and is believed to have originated on the Malabar coast of India. Its history as a spice enjoyed by humans goes back to at least 2,000 BC and it was clearly traded in antiquity (peppercorns were found stuffed and preserved in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of Egypt from 1303-1213 BC).

The Romans were fond of pepper, and there are extensive suggestions, recipes, and menus that attest to its use. Its popularity spread even to Rome’s enemies: Alaric, King of the Visigoths, was (initially) persuaded not to sack Rome for a payment that included 3000 pounds of pepper. And despite the various sackings of Rome by his successors, including the Ostrogoths, Vandals and then the Normans, black pepper’s popularity and usage continued in medieval Europe.

Quite when, who, or how chocolate makers and cooks figured out that black pepper combines well with chocolate we’ve not (yet) had much luck in tracking down (please do send in any old recipes or ideas!).

But, clearly, black pepper works really well with chocolate. See below for a great example: Bertil Åkesson’s wild Voatsiperifery black pepper dark chocolate bar from Madagascar.

There are now estimated to be over 2000 different forms of black pepper, including white, green and red variants depending on how and when the black pepper is picked and processed. However, PINK PEPPER, (including the Åkesson one below) is a completely different berry, from the Schinus molle shrub, commonly called the Peruvian Peppertree (but until Bertil, we’re not aware of anyone else combining it with chocolate).

…And Peppermint?

Peppermint can be dated back, again, to the Romans (Pliny wrote a history of it), and possibly even further back to the Egyptians (Mentha piperita and dried leaves have been discovered in several pyramids). But we’re not really sure that what Pliny et al. referred to as ‘peppermint’ is the same herb that we now enjoy, with claims being made that what we now call peppermint is a hybrid of water mint and spearmint (Mentha aquatica and Mentha spicata) crossed in 17th-century England.

The benefits attributed to peppermint are extensive; for example, it’s been widely used in Eastern and Western traditional medicine as an aromatic, antispasmodic and antiseptic to deal with indigestion, nausea, sore throat, colds, toothaches, cramps, cancers, gout and much more! And its palatability enabled it to make the jump into confectionery (it is now the number one flavour for non-chocolate, hard candies in the US) and indeed into chocolate (although this is relatively recent; ‘After 8s’ were invented only in 1962, versus 1932 for the ‘Chocolate Orange’).

Intriguingly there is some evidence that the Aztecs, and their predecessors in Mesoamerica, used another pepper, mecaxóchitl (aka Mexican pepperleaf) in their drinking chocolate. And this mecaxóchit spice is known for its eucalyptus and minty notes; so perhaps the Aztecs also invented ‘peppermint’ chocolate?

So what’s so special about chilli pepper, black pepper, and peppermint?

Chilli, pepper, and peppermint are neither tastes nor flavours. They work by a process called “chemesthesis”; that is to say they stimulate chemical reactions on our skin and mucous membranes. In particular, there are a series of nerves running from your eye down to your mouth called the trigeminal nerve, which reacts to the likes of capsaicin, piperine and menthol. And these spices and herbs stimulate nervous reactions similar to that when you touch something hot (TRPV1 for chilli with capsaicin and peppers with piperine) or when you touch something cool (TRPM8 for mint and menthol).

We know that (most) other animals detect and dislike spiciness, and hence why cats, dogs, etc. won’t (normally) eat chillies. And we also know birds lack these trigeminal reactions and hence why they have no problem consuming and spreading chillies as they migrate. 

What’s more puzzling is why we humans often have such a desire to try super spicy foods. There are lots of theories about why humans enjoy “risk taking”, and if you’d like to put them to the test, we HEARTILY recommend you brave Georgia Ramon’s “Carolina Reaper” which really is a super spicy bar. Alternatively, try one of Bertil’s Pepper bars, or Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé with peppermint.  Or try all with this bundle (and save 15% on the normal retail price).

As ever, thank you for your support (and do write in with comments or suggestions). And in particular, if after reading this email / blog, you’d be interested in joining a “FLAVOUR AND TASTE” focused virtual tasting, please let us know HERE (we are planning to start these in September, along with an “ENVIRONMENTAL”  focused virtual tasting too, and we would love your input).

Spencer

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Paris 1, London 0. Merci PLAQ!

Paris 1 – London 0

No, this is not a forecast for the Euros. Nor is it a reminder of the UK’s Eurovision song contest result.

It’s a (belated) celebration of a wonderful new Paris based craft chocolate maker: PLAQ, created by Sandra and Nicolas.

Not only are Sandra and Nicolas great craft chocolate makers. They also have a facility in the Rue De Nil in Paris’ 2e arrrondisement where you can purchase their chocolate bars and hear, smell and see them sorting, roasting, winnowing, grinding and tempering cocoa beans into bars (they also do some great brownies, cakes, hot chocolate and coffees).

In the world of specialty coffee we take seeing a barista make your coffee, and telling you the story of the beans, for granted. And there are (were?) over 600 specialty coffee stores in Paris for their 2.2m Parisiens. In comparison, London has over 5,500 specialty coffee shops for the 8.7m Londoners.

The ‘barista experience’ is a huge part of how specialty coffee has explained, and differentiated itself, from mass produced coffee. Not only can you try the coffee ‘out of the house’, but you can see, smell and hear what makes it different. The barista is an ambassador, and sales person, for all of specialty coffee.

Craft chocolate (sadly) lacks ambassadors and barista-like sales enthusiasts. It’s far harder for craft chocolate to differentiate, and explain, what makes it taste better and be better for the farmers. All too often all we have is a bar’s packaging on a shelf; and it’s not obvious what differentiates craft chocolate from mass produced chocolate bars (almost all of which are made from couverture, nib roasted and rely on additives for their flavour profile). Very few people look at the ingredients, even fewer check where the beans come from, or the bar is made.

(For more lessons on what craft chocolate can learn from speciality coffee you can see our interviews with James Hofmann (Square Mile) and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood (Colonna Coffee)).

So it’s great news that Paris now has one craft chocolate store where you can both purchase, and experience, craft chocolate being made. And PLAQ really showcases what craft chocolate is all about. Situated in a little cobbled street, opposite a wine bar, just down from a cheese store, and full of amazing chocolate and chocolate stories, Paris now has another reason for us all to visit.

In comparison London has none. Fortunately, Manchester has one: from Dormouse Chocolates. Orford has one, from Pump Street, and both Glasgow and Edinburgh now have them too: from Bare Bones and Chocolate Tree respectively.

Read on for the wonderful “histoire” that is PLAQ. Do try their bars now we’ve finally managed to restock them (we are the only international place you can purchase these bars; and we sell out fast!). And do then go visit them!

The Romance Behind PLAQ

PLAQ is a love story not just to craft chocolate, but also for Sandra and Nicolas.

Prior to PLAQ (and prior to Nicolas), Sandra was working in the fragrance industry (Dior and Kenzo Parfums), and Nicolas was managing the graphic design agency H5 (best known for winning an Oscar in 2009 for the best animated short film Logorama). As Nicolas describes it:

she was the client, he was the supplier. Once, during a long meeting, he shared with her his favorite chocolate bar. And a few months later they decided to share more than chocolate…

They were inspired by the discovery of ‘two ingredient’ craft chocolate makers in Canada and the US (and they generously credit their Cocoa Runners subscription for part of this discovery process). They realised that there were other ways to make great craft chocolate to the traditional French style; and that’s why they decided to set up PLAQ.

They were fortunate to find, and work with, Chloé Doutre-Roussel. To quote Nicolas:

Chloé taught us how to make chocolate in her lab in Caracas and brought us to our first plantation : Chuao!”.

And then, as they opened their operations in September 2019, they secured the support of Celine Lecoeur, the former pastry chef of Rose Bakery and Ottolenghi in London.

Packaging and More

As you’d expect, PLAQ’s packaging is amazing. Not just wonderful, simple, resealable and elegant, but also informative. They list not just the estates, farms and co-operatives they source their beans from (an ever expanding collection, including Kokoa Kamili (Tanzania), Idukki (India), Gran Yapatera/Norandino (Peru) to name just a few). They also explain how they craft each bar, the recipe and process steps.

In addition, they offer customers in their Rue Du Nil store an environmentally friendly option of buying “the bare chocolate” with just a glassine (an envelope made of paper, that is plastic and aluminium-free). And then they’ll also supply a classic, environmentally friendly, white cloth bag explaining their PLAQ logo and philosophy (coveted in our household).

But to get the whole experience, their Rue De Nil operation is a must visit.

And when they aren’t crafting chocolate, Sandra and Nicolas are reading, winning, entertaining, being with their three daughters, and also swimming (Nicolas is a French champion swimmer, but sadly won’t try the Hampstead Ponds as he likes water that is over 25 degrees, and ideally blue and clear).

What’s in a Name?

In French, a “plaque” is the old word used for a chocolate bar (now, the French use the term “tablette”). Sandra and Nicolas hit upon using this old school world to show that they wanted to go “back to basics”, back to ‘bean to bar’, or as you’d say in French “de la fève à la plaque”.

They knocked off the last two letters, and capitalised their name into PLAQ to also express their philosophy and programme – Pure Libre Artisan Qulotté.

And PLAQ also note that in French:

A « plaque » or the verb « plaquer » has various other meanings — including;
A hob or a cooktop (in cooking),
To veneer (wood) or to plate (to cover the surface material of an object with a thin coat of another material),
To leave everything behind, to give up everything (« tout plaquer »)
.

Lessons we can Learn from PLAQ

PLAQ are another great example of the importance of SEEING, HEARING, SMELLING AND WITNESSING the art of craft chocolate making, and of packaging that also tells their story and that of the farmer, beans and crafting.

Specialty coffee has long known the importance of theatre and story telling. Napa Valley wineries have learnt from this too (Napa is California’s second biggest source of tourist dollars after Disney World). Artisan Bakers are the same. In all of these, customers can learn so much more than just buying in a store, it’s more like buying after, or as part of, a virtual tasting.

We’ve a few other pioneers blazing a similar path in craft chocolate, so to tempt you to go to, Manchester, Orford, Cleethorpes, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and perhaps some time in the future to visit Taiwan, Dubai and Austria, we’ve included not just bars from PLAQ below, but also bars from Dormouse, Pump Street, Bare Bones, Chocolate Tree, Fu Wan, Mirzam and Zotter.

Craft Chocolate is all about TASTING (and savouring!) the bars. But as PLAQ, and other makers, and as specialty coffee baristas, Napa Wine growers, etc. show; hearing the stories, experiencing the crafting and seeing the passion are also super-important. So visit your local craft chocolate maker (or farm) and come to a virtual tasting, as well as purchasing the bars.

Enjoy!

Spencer

P.S. We are still digesting the news from the US Supreme Court on child slave labour. We’ve covered this before on the blog (see here, and be warned; it’s deeply unpleasant), and we’ll revisit again soon. But the bottom line is that the best way to ensure the farmers are being properly paid (and to stop child slave labour) is to purchase craft chocolate bars where the farm, co-operative or estate where the bars are from is listed (note: we sell over 1000 bars, and insist on knowing the source of beans for all of these, by comparison less than 5% of bars sold in any supermarket will tell you the detailed source of their beans).

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Introducing Craft Chocolate Truffles!

mixed truffles in a bowl

For something so famous and ubiquitous, the story of chocolate truffles is infuriatingly vague. Their inventor, history, naming and even definition are obscure and complex.

They are nonetheless amazing when properly crafted. And we are delighted to, finally, have some craft chocolate truffles from David Crichton of The Careless Collection, and Mike Longman of Chocolarder, and we hope to be launching more soon!

We’ve also pulled together some other packages for Father’s Day, and to take advantage of the great summer weather (please see below).

And if you want to know more about the history and etymology of ‘chocolate truffles’, read on for more information to impress and bamboozle everyone you treat to these delights (spoiler alert: These truffles don’t contain any mushroom or fungi or Piedmont truffle, they aren’t Belgian, they aren’t to be confused with Pralines; but they do have a connection to the French for “chump” or “idiot”).

History

There are a lot of claims as to who invented the first chocolate truffles, with three French chefs vying to claim the credit for their invention:

  • The earliest claim is by a Paris playwright turned confectioner called Paul Sirauadin, who created a bon bon called a “crème ganache” in 1869, which he named after a popular comedy called Les Ganaches (The Idiots), written by a friend.
  • Next up is French pâtissier Louis Dufour who, running out of ideas (and stock) for treats on Christmas Day 1895 in Chambray, France, made up a batch of ‘ganache’ (i.e. chocolate mixed with cream), shaped this into round balls and then dipped these into melted chocolate. As a side note, one of his relatives (Antoine Dufour), took this idea with him when he came to the UK in 1902 and used it to found Prestat Chocolates.
  • The third, and most often cited, truffle inventor is the famous French Chef, Auguste Escoffier in the 1920s. According to legend, one of Escoffier’s apprentices mistakenly poured some hot cream into a bowl with some chocolate instead of a nearby bowl of beaten eggs and sugar. Escoffier yelled “ganache” (idiot), but then turned this mistake (or bad pun) into truffles by hand rolling the ‘ganache’ into balls and dusting them with cocoa powder (i.e. basically doing what is also claimed of Siraudin and Dufour).

Whichever story is correct, the bottom line is that these ganache truffles are amazing. When crafted properly, the combination of melted cream and chocolate encased in a hard chocolate casing is hard to beat.

What’s in a name?

Similar to the claims to who came up with the original truffle recipe, the person who first named them “truffles” is similarly disputed. But it’s generally accepted that because these hand rolled chocolate delicacies are such a luxury, and on the surface physically look very similar to the legendary fungi truffles of Perigord and Piedmont, that this is the origin of their name.

(Note: the history of fungi based truffles is far, far longer: Their consumption has been traced back to the Sumerians and Babylonians in ~4000 BC).

Divided by a Common Language

Over the last hundred years, chocolate makers in different countries have further confused the world of chocolate truffles by developing their own recipes and definitions, with massive variations. For example:

  • The classic French truffle should only be made with fresh cream and chocolate, and then rolled in cocoa powder (and, sometimes, nut powder). They should also be made by hand. And can only be made with milk or dark chocolate.
  • The Swiss truffle has similar ingredients to the French but is made somewhat differently; melted chocolate is mixed into a boiling mixture of dairy cream and butter, which is then poured into moulds to set before sprinkling with cocoa powder (and given these moulds, they can easily be confused with a Belgian Praline; see below).
  • The Spanish prepare their truffles with dark chocolate, condensed milk, rum (or any preferred liqueur), and chocolate sprinkles.
  • The classic American truffle is more recent, and comprises a half-oval-shaped, chocolate-coated truffle made from a mixture of dark or milk chocolates with butterfat and, in some cases, hardened coconut oil. These American truffles also have a flat bottom (as opposed to being round like mushroom truffles).
  • California (of course) has its own truffle variant that is essentially a super sized, and lumpier, version of the French truffle (developed by Alice Medrich in 1973 in Berkeley California).
  • Further north, the Canadians also have a truffle called the “Harvey Truffle” which shares the same flat bottom as the American truffle but includes fillings such as peanut butter and graham crackers.
  • And then we have what the Belgians call a truffle or praline (see below), which is basically a chocolate shell filled with all sorts of creations, but often involving nuts.

Pralines versus Truffles: Putting the Matter Straight

The Belgians, as well as claiming to invent couverture in the 1920s, also claim that a Belgian, Jean Neuhas, in 1912 invented a form of truffle which they somewhat confusingly also call “pralines”.

Belgium’s claim to have invented the praline is a bit of a stretch (and their claim over truffles even more tenuous). But to give credit where credit is due, the Belgian claim for Oskar Callebault to have invented couverture appears on firmer ground. However, boasting about the invention of mass produced couverture in the world of fine chocolate is a bit like claiming to have invented ready cooked meals in the world of fine cuisine (come to a virtual tasting to find out more).

As with truffles, the French have a strong claim to inventing, and at least first using, the term ‘praline’. In 1636 Clement Lassagne, chef to the French Duke of Praslin, named a confection comprising almonds and sugar after the Duke, a famous French general. Initially he called it a Praslin, but upon retiring from working for the Duke, Clement Lassagne founded La Maison de la Praline (which still exists in the French town of Montargis, and still sells Pralines).

These Pralines also spread internationally, enjoying status of a classic dish in New Orleans and Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries, where it became a source of great pride, and income, for many Creole families.

Confusion then occurred in 1912 when Jean Neuhas in Belgium started to use the word “praline” to describe what he also called a “truffle” for his chocolate invention of a hard outer shell which contained various fillings. And as with couverture in general, many companies specialise in making these praline casings for other chocolate makers to add various creams, concoctions, etc. but don’t actually make the chocolate themselves.

What to Look for in a Truffle

So, first and foremost, neither the American nor the Belgian pralines are really truffles (and the chocolate they use probably wasn’t made in America or Belgium).

Secondly, as with craft chocolate bars:

  • Check the ingredients (to paraphrase Michael Pollan: Make sure your grandmother would recognise them all).
  • Make sure you know the source of the chocolate beans used in the ganache and casing.
  • Identify where, and how, your chocolate is made.

To date, very few truffles are made with craft chocolate, and that’s why we’ve held off launching them until now. But this is changing!

Chocolarder crafts all their chocolate, and inclusions, down in Cornwall, including their incredibly moreish Salted Caramel which we tasted on Sunday Brunch. Mike Longman, founder of Chocolarder, directly sources the beans for this chocolate used for the casing from the Ashaninka people in the Peruvian Andes. And Michael then combines some of this chocolate with Cornish sea salt and fresh Cornish cream to make a ganache that they turn, by hand, into truffles. See the truffles here.

David Crichton (of Master Chef fame), works with Pump Street Chocolate to create firstly his bars, and now his truffles (including the bread and butter one, that was so good that Simon and Tim wouldn’t share it with their guests last week; but you can now try them here).

And even though we aren’t (yet) selling them, do also try the fantastic Scottish truffles crafted by Charlotte Flower using sweet cicely (which really is related to the carrot family): See here.

Enjoy! And as ever, thanks for your support (and please keep the feedback and comments coming! Email us here).

Spencer

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These are Not ultra-processed!

Last week’s post on a drink made out of cocoa pulp led to some GREAT questions; astute readers noted that the likes of Nestlé and Callebaut are developing and marketing “whole fruit chocolate”; bars which are made without added sugar but made with ‘unsweetened cacao pulp’. This is truly inspired marketing.

…But it’s a bit misleading too. Chocolate is more than the sum of its ingredients; it’s about the quality of the cocoa and way the bar is crafted (or, see below, ultra-processed).

And it is a great segue into another topical issue: The difference between ‘ultra-processed’ and ‘processed’ foods.

For a quick definition on what is meant by ultra-processed foods, and why this is so important, please see below. But just to whet your appetite (and encourage you to read on), here are a couple of observations:

  • More than 50% of the calories consumed by people in the UK now come from ultra-processed foods.
  • More than 80% of the ‘foods’ available in some convenience stores are now ultra-processed (including, of course, mass-produced chocolate and confectionery).
  • More and more research links ultra-processing of foods to over-consumption, obesity and all sorts of health issues (see below for some really sobering studies in France, Brazil, the US and Australia).

Identifying ultra-processed foods is not always easy. Terms like “whole fruit chocolate” and “unsweetened cocoa pulp” are intentionally obscure. But these “whole fruit chocolates” are still ultra-processed and mass-produced chocolate sweetened with “unsweetened cocoa pulp” still have LOTS of sugar.

Please read on for a great framework and set of tools to differentiate between “processed” and “ultra-processed” foods (including craft versus mass-produced chocolate).

History and Definitions of Ultra-Processed Foods

The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ is based on more than a decade of work by Dr Carlos Monteiro and his team at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.  After seeing that huge spikes in Brazilian consumption of fast foods, sodas, etc., were accompanied by an explosion of obesity across all ages, he suggested that:

 …”the issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing (in these fast foods and sodas)”, and; “…from the point of view of human health, at present, the most salient division of food and drinks is in terms of their type, degree, and purpose of processing”.

And Dr Monteiro, along with a team of epidemiologists and nutritionists all over the globe, has  developed an elegant four-part classification of foods to describe this trend.  It’s generally referred to as NOVA (as in new star), and it’s a great framework to think about what we purchase and eat.  And it’s also very helpful in separating craft from mainstream chocolate.

See below for more details and links to some great podcasts on NOVA. But here is a quick summary of the four groups they classify:

Group one: Unprocessed and minimally processed foods and drinks:

  1. Examples: fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses and natural animal products such as eggs, fish and milk.
  2. Minimally processed foods may have been dried, crushed, roasted, frozen, boiled or pasteurised, but contain no added ingredients.
  3. Most of this ‘minimal processing’ can be done at home.

 Group two: Processed culinary ingredients:

  1. Examples: olive oil, butter, sugar, salt and vinegar.
  2. These foods are not meant to be eaten alone, but usually with the foods in group one. 
  3. Most kitchens contain these ingredients, and most people’s grandmothers would recognise them!

Group three: Processed foods:

  1. Examples: homemade bread (and biscuits), smoked and cured meats, cheeses, fresh bread, bacon, salted nuts, poached fruit, beer and CRAFT CHOCOLATE.
  2. The main purpose of the processing is to create a more exciting product and/or extend a food’s life. 
  3. Again, most kitchens contain the ‘kit’ (ovens, jars, etc.), foods (from group one) and ingredients (from group two) to make these ‘processed’ foods.

Group four: Ultra-processed foods:

  1. Examples: Industrialised bread (and biscuits, cakes, etc.), pre-packaged meals (ready meals), breakfast cereals (including most granolas), reconstituted meat products (like industrial sausages), soft drinks, confectionery and MASS-PRODUCED CHOCOLATE.
  2. The critical differences are:
    • The way these foods are processed: Various industrial processes such as hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extruding and preprocessing via frying and baking. You can’t do this sort of processing at home (even if you have a sous vide, air fryer or pressure cooker).
    • The number and type of ingredients used and added aren’t ones that many people will have at home (we all have sugar and salt, but very few of us will have the likes of palm oil, trans-fats, hydrogenated fats, invert sugar, maltodextrin, insoluble fibre, PGPR, modified starches, etc.).
    • The focus is on “bliss point” tastes, rather than ‘savouring the flavour’. Once you pop, you can’t stop with ultra-processed foods (and drinks; how else can you consume 10+ teaspoons of sugar other than in a can of soft drink).

So as Dr Monteiro urges, we need to look beyond the simple nutritional components (i.e. how many calories, how much protein, how much salt, sugar etc.) and the cheap prices (cheapness is all too often expensive, both environmentally and socially).

Why does this matter?

There is more and more evidence that diets containing A LOT of ultra-processed foods are really bad for people.   Bottom line: It’s increasingly clear that consuming the same nutrients and calories via ultra-processed foods and drinks leads to weight gain, and a whole set of chronic, non-communicable conditions including diabetes, hypertension, heart diseases and more (see below for some of the studies on these).

Quite why ultra-processed foods have these consequences is still a matter for debate. Fast food companies argue it’s “correlation not causation”, but the studies and evidence is pretty incontrovertible

And there are some intriguing pointers as to the WHY.

  • Ultra-processed foods encourage scoffing and eating faster as they optimise “bliss point” tastes, and they require less chewing than home cooked foods.
  • Ultra-processed foods leave people feeling unsatisfied and wanting more, again because of the “bliss point” combination of sugar, salt and fat, for most of us “once you pop you can’t stop”.
  • Ultra-processed foods play havoc with our gut and microbiome (see any of the research done by Tim Spector and the team at ZOE, or just watch ‘Supersize Me’).

Above and beyond this, more and more foodies and food geeks are looking beyond the nutrients in any food. The USDA and international research databases track about 150 nutritional components out of more than 25,000 biochemicals known to be in food. And ultra-processing food transforms and destroys many of these biochemicals.

Note: I’m not saying “all additives are bad”. Craft Truffles are GREAT, and adding nutrients, vitamins, specific minerals, etc. can be a good thing. And very often these are in ultra-processed foods. But these additives can also be added to home cooked (i.e. processed) meals.

How does this apply to chocolate?

Chocolate provides a classic example of the difference between ‘craft’ processes and ‘mass-produced’ ultra-processed confectionery.

Craft chocolate is a processed food (group 3):  

  1. The ingredients are simple (cocoa beans, cocoa butter and sugar for dark bars, with milk powder for milk bars). 
  2. Almost all the kit you need to make a craft chocolate bar exists in your kitchen (oven to roast, hairdryer to help winnow, table to temper on. And the melangeur to grind and conche is based on the spice/lentil grinder found in many Indian households). We (and definitely I) don’t have the skill to craft chocolate in our kitchens, but this was how the vast majority of makers started; ask Isobel and Karen from Dormouse; look at the early ‘kitchen’ of Omnom in their repurposed gas station; check out Plaq in Paris etc.
  3. It’s all about savouring, it’s all about extracting the flavour from the bean.

Mass-produced chocolate (and most confectionery) is largely ultra-processed (group 4):

  1. The ingredients list is full of stuff few of us can understand (PGPR!?), or have in our kitchen cupboards at home, (palm oil anyone?). And what are all those stabilisers, flavouring agents, E-numbers and the like?
  2. The processes for making mass-produced chocolate are very different to craft chocolate. And mass-produced chocolate involves machinery that definitely doesn’t exist in any normal home kitchen. For example, a craft chocolate maker will sort and roast the whole beans and then winnow (remove the shells). This optimises the flavour. By contrast, mass-produced chocolate production uses huge pressure (via large steamers) to remove the shell of the bean before it is roasted as this is more efficient. This saves money, but it harms flavour.
  3. Mass-produced chocolate adds taste to make up for these ‘efficiencies’ and to create a consistent experience. They do this by leveraging our ‘bliss point’ response to the combination of sugar, salt and fatty tastes. And these bliss point tastes encourage gorging and scoffing. Have you ever tried to wrap up an unfinished mass-produced chocolate bar or confectionery? You can’t! Contrast this with, for example, Pump Street bars that are very moreish, but their packaging enables and encourages you to save some chocolate for the next day.

Mass-produced chocolate companies are also BRILLIANT at marketing. “Whole Fruit Chocolate” anyone? Chocolate made with “unsweetened cocoa pulp” rather than “refined cane sugar”? Low GI coconut blossom sugar (…this one really needs to be put to rest).

As ever, thanks for your support (and please keep the feedback and comments coming! Get in touch here). 

Spencer

P.S. For more detailed information about ultra-processed food and human health, check out the following articles and podcasts:

Articles:

https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/feb/13/how-ultra-processed-food-took-over-your-shopping-basket-brazil-carlos-monteiro
https://theconversation.com/the-rise-of-ultra-processed-foods-and-why-theyre-really-bad-for-our-health-140537
https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-are-ultra-processed-foods-and-are-they-bad-for-our-health-2020010918605
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6389637/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7194406
https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/articles/what_is_ultra-processed_food
https://www.insidescience.org/news/studying-foods-dark-matter-could-help-illuminate-diets-ties-health
https://conscienhealth.org/2020/07/dietary-dark-matter-what-are-we-eating/
http://www.fao.org/3/ca5644en/ca5644en.pdf
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31623843
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31105044

Podcasts:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct1rfn
https://podtail.com/podcast/thinking-nutrition/the-perils-of-highly-processed-foods/