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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/

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Drink of the gods: Cocoa Pulp?

Despite it almost being the start of June, and the summer equinox less than a month away, summer sunshine has still yet to arrive here in the UK. In fact the water temperature in the ponds has been dropping over the last few weeks from a high of over 15 degrees Celsius to below 12.5 (from 60 Fahrenheit to low 50s).

But fear not; we’ve a ray of summer to bring to you. Thanks to Marika van Santvoort, we are delighted to be launching ‘Pacha de Cacao‘, a delicious fruit juice made from the pulp inside a cocoa pod.

To find out more about Marika and her new drink, read on below. Or just click here to be one of the first in the UK to try this delicious, nutritious, healthy and environmentally sensitive drink.

Pacha de Cacao is sold in recyclable glass bottles of 250ml, and we are currently selling it in cases of six, shipping it via DPD. Going forward we hope to find some other ways to ship it, but for now this is the only economic route we’ve found. So we’ve also added some other new bar suggestions below to make the most of the relatively expensive DPD shipping (which we normally use for wine!).

Cacao Juice and Pulp

The transformation of astringent cacao seeds first into cocoa beans and then chocolate bars is pretty miraculous. A large part of the magic is down to fermentation, when the sweet pulp surrounding the cocoa seeds reacts with different bacteria and yeasts in the local environment to transform the bitter, astringent cacao seeds into cocoa beans which have some distinctly chocolate-like nutty, caramel, earthy, citrusy and woody flavours.

And if you ever have the chance to open, and taste, a fresh cocoa pod, you will know that the pulp is delicious. Depending on where you are and what cocoa pod you try, the pulp can have flavours that range from mango, lychee, citrus, peach, whey-like or even minerality. Indeed in South America many delicious deserts and drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are often made from cocoa pulp.

However, most cocoa pulp is wasted. Some of the pulp is literally left on the jungle floor, and much of it evaporates and drains away during fermentation.

And this is a shame, given how delicious it is and given that cocoa pulp is approximately 30% of the weight of a cocoa pod. Cacao seeds (which become beans) account for another 20%, and the husk and outer shell of the pod is about 50%. The husk, or pod skin, can be transformed into fuel, fertilizers or even paper. But the pulp is generally ignored and effectively wasted.

And this is a shame, not just environmentally but also nutritionally. Cocoa pulp is also full of ‘healthy stuff’, everything from magnesium, potassium, manganese and vitamin B1.

With Pacha de Cacao, Marika has worked out a way to bottle the pulp for our benefit, and also to turn what was a waste product into another source of income for cocoa farmers.

Marika van Santvoort

Marika has a rich, and varied, career. Born in the Netherlands, Marika studied human rights and then moved to Africa to work for various NGOs, including Amnesty International, before spending two years in Cameroon where she worked to support local prisoners. Whilst in Cameroon, Marika fell into the world of cocoa, initially working on various cocoa sustainability projects before returning to the Netherlands. And since being back in the Netherlands, Marika has doubled down on cocoa and chocolate, helping to run Chocoa (the annual Dutch chocolate festival set up by Caroline Lubbers and Jack Steijn), setting up her a cocoa bean trading company that works directly with farmers (Gaia Cacao), and setting up Pacha de Cacao.

She describes Pacha de Cacao’s “eureka” moment as when she was talking to a farmer in Ecuador who she saw “eating the pulp and spit out the beans“. He explained that savouring “cocoa pulp” gave him “good energy”. Having seen similar behaviour in Cameroon, she realised that cocoa pulp need not be a “waste product” but could become an intriguing new product and an additional source of income for farmers.

Fortunately for Marika (and us), cocoa pulp is being developed by many of the ‘big chocolate’ companies like Nestle and Callebaut as a source of fructose (i.e. sweetener) and to make various claims about “no added sugar” (see elsewhere on our blog for more on this); so they’ve tested, and ensured, that cocoa pulp is certified as a foodstuff both in the EU and US.

But there is remarkably little (published) research on cocoa pulp. There is some work on making alcoholic drinks out of cocoa pulp in South America. But very little has been done to make cocoa pulp into the next coconut water (one US company did try a decade ago to make smoothies with other fruits and cocoa pulp but sadly folded).

Marika has therefore spent the last few years developing her own processes and procedures from scratch. She currently works with two farms in Ecuador who remove a significant amount of the pulp before they ferment the cacao. And Marika works with a local Ecuadorean factory to pasteurise, remove fibres from the pulp and then freezing this before shipping it to Amsterdam where the pulp is then further purified and bottled.

CCN51

For those interested in cocoa varietals and fermentation, one intriguing side-note is that Marika may have finally found a good use of CCN51, a high yielding cocoa clone ‘invented’ in Ecuador back in the 1970s. This mass produced clone has memorably been described by Ed Seguine as having the flavour of “acidic dirt”, but may be improved by Marika’s processes.

CCN51 was developed to be high yielding, disease resistant and low cost, not for ‘fine flavour’. And it is blamed for much of the deforestation of cocoa in the jungles of Ecuador. CCN51 it can be grown most efficiently by planting sapling CCN51 clones in cleared jungle land, and indeed following the hurricanes of 1997/8 where much of the Ariba Nacional Cocoa Crop was wiped out, farmers did plant CCN51.

CCN51 has a lot of pulp, indeed arguably more than needed to ferment the seeds (this is often cited as one reason for its less than enthralling flavour profile). So Marika, by working with CCN51 and removing pulp ‘pre-fermentation’, is not only crafting an intriguing drink, but possibly improving the flavour of CCN51 beans (although it’s hard to see CCN51 every generating the complexity and depth of Ariba Nacional, Maranon, Gran Blanco and other ‘heirloom’ cocoa varietals).

Pacha de Cacao (the name)

Marika and her team thought long and hard on how to describe and name their drink; eventually they hit upon Pacha de Cacao. In her words: “Pacha comes from the Quechua word for ‘soil’ and ‘earth’ and de cacao is Spanish for ‘of cacao’. Together they stand for ‘world of cacao’. We wanted to create a strong link to Pachamama, the female goddess, Mother Earth, who is an important concept in most of the Latin American cultures. We believe in giving back to Earth, and we do so by using the cacao pulp and preventing from it being wasted“.

As Marika said, tastes great, great history, and a great new use of what would otherwise be a waste product.

We really hope you enjoy trying this drink as much as we have! And do also try some great new bars, including Omnom‘s latest Cookies and Cream bar and Qantu‘s “Golden Bean” award winners to supplement your order.

Spencer

P.S. We are DELIGHTED to announce a repeat ‘cook along’ with Simon Rimmer and Tappers Gin on the 17th of June. Back by popular demand; please see below and here to join in the Sunday Brunch like fun!

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Anything But Plain: Vanilla

If ever an adjective was unfairly associated with a spice, it’s the word “plain” becoming synonymous with “vanilla”. In fact, vanilla’s history is anything but plain. What it contributes to many foods is, again, anything but plain (think milk chocolate, ice cream, cakes, and even curries). And the differences between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ vanilla flavour is not at all “plain and simple”.

So for the next couple of weeks on the blog, we’re doing a deep dive into vanilla. We will try to answer if it is a good or bad sign when you see the likes of vanilla, vanilla extract, natural vanilla flavouring, artificial vanillin, etc. on the ingredients list of your chocolate bar. Spoiler alert: it’s complicated. 

And if you want to know the links between pre-Aztec princesses, piracy, rare bees, drug smuggling, synthetic biology, coal, plastics, and orchids, look no further than vanilla! Or just skip below for some amazing craft chocolate bars spiced with vanilla.

The Origins of Vanilla

Vanilla is the fruit of the orchid Vanilla planifolia, which grows on vines hundreds of feet tall and has relied for most of its history on special bees (or occasionally hummingbirds) to cross-pollinate its vanilla pods. And it’s arguably unique among the 25,000 other varieties of orchid in not just being beautiful to look at (see picture above) but agriculturally useful as an ingredient and flavouring agent.

Its first recorded use was with the Aztecs, who in the 15th century conquered the neighbouring kingdom of Totonicapan and demanded tribute in the form of vanilla pods. The Aztecs combined this vanilla with cocoa to make a drink they called ‘chocolatl’ or ‘chicolatl’ (there are lots of scholarly debates on the origin of this term; for more, see previous posts in the blog).

It may well be true that vanilla was appreciated before the Aztecs used it for their drinking chocolate, as an incense or perfume, perhaps. However, unlike cocoa (which leaves traces of theobromine), there are no chemical fingerprints that enable us to work out how vanilla may have been used before then.

Nonetheless, there are some wonderful legends for the origin of vanilla, especially among the Totonac (Jaguar) people of Mexico. They have a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story of a Prince and Princess falling in love against the wishes of their family and high priests, being sacrificed as punishment, then being turned into the vanilla vine by the gods.

The Post-Columbus History of Vanilla

Vanilla really took off when it was introduced to Europe. Initially it was consumed “Spanish style” (or rather “Aztec style”) in drinking chocolate, and proved hugely popular.

Vanilla’s popularity was then turbocharged by Hugh Morgan, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s apothecaries (think pharmacist with a few other side interests). Morgan started to experiment with vanilla, mixing it with a variety of other consumables: in particular tobacco, pastries, perfumes and (of course) alcohol. On the other side of the pond, Thomas Jefferson added it to ice cream in the US (one of his recipes is stored in the Library of Congress). 

With the development of these uses of vanilla, demand boomed. Supply struggled to keep up. Even though the vanilla orchid could be grown outside Latin America, it pollinated in only a few places outside of Mexico (so no vanilla pods emerged). 

Eventually in 1838, horticulturalist Charles Morren identified the problem: you need either special bees (Melipona or Euglossine) or hummingbirds to cross-pollinate (and therefore grow) vanilla pods.

It then took another five years, and the smarts of a 12-year-old enslaved boy called Edmond Albius living on Reunion (a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean), to work out a means of ‘hand pollinating’ vanilla pods. Even though this process is painstakingly slow and difficult, it rapidly became (and remains) the predominant way to grow vanilla. And since then, Reunion and Madagascar have become leading exporters of grown vanilla.

Vanilla in Chocolate

As explored above, the use of cocoa and vanilla in collaboration first appears to have emerged in ancient Aztec hot-chocolate-like concoctions. In a more modern context, vanilla found its way into chocolate as a strategy to counteract the bitterness of the often low-quality beans which were being used in the production of early 20th-century chocolate. 

This use of vanilla as a means of masking poor quality chocolate is not exclusively a thing of the past. Many mass producers of chocolate continue to use vanilla, along with a generous spoonful of sugar, as a means of disguising their low-quality chocolate. 

Consequently, in the case of bean-to-bar craft chocolate, the use of vanilla can be frowned upon. After all, good quality chocolate should be appreciated alone, unadulterated and in authentic form. 

However, in some cases, the best quality chocolate can benefit from the addition of vanilla. Essentially, adding vanilla enhances creaminess, balances sweetness and counteracts bitterness and acidity. Although not strictly necessary with craft chocolate – in cases where craft chocolate is accompanied by a range of flavours, known as inclusions, vanilla can be a welcome addition. Such is the case for Forever Cacao’s Lacuma and Vanilla bar.

To explore further the use of vanilla in chocolate, check out our article on the cross-modal perception of vanilla.

And in the interim, why not explore some great milk and white chocolate bars (including one with matcha) crafted with real vanilla?

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Mexico as the cradle of the word for chocolate?

This week we are DELIGHTED to introduce you to a new Mexican craft chocolate maker, Cuna de Piedra (which translates as “cradle of the stone”; a play on Mexico’s description of itself as “Cuna de Cacao”; cradle of cacao).

We are also going to use this occasion to celebrate and explore Mexico’s contribution to the world of cocoa and chocolate (as well as do a little debunking and etymological sleuthing on the origin of the word “chocolate”).

Cuna de Piedra

We first met with Cuna de Piedra just before lockdown at the San Francisco Craft Chocolate Show in March 2020, where we were fortunate to be on a nearby stand. And it was fantastic to see it wasn’t just us who fell in love with their bars – it was great to see consumers being wowed by their single estate and flavoured bars.

Enrique Perez and Vicky Gonzales started their dream of Cuna de Piedra after a phone call in March 2019. Both loved chocolate, and both were looking for a product that would raise Mexico’s standing as a country with fine food (Enrique is a food consultant) and high-quality design and workmanship (Vicky is a designer and brand strategist).

Within six months in November 2019 they were able to launch their company and first bars. They work with a sister company, Revival Cacao, to source their beans. The two companies work together with farms and co-operatives in both Comalcalco, Tabasco and Soconusco, Chiapas. And it’s fantastic to see the quality of bars and beans they are achieving as they help the farmers upgrade their harvesting, fermentation and drying approaches.

As is to be expected, given Vicky’s background as a designer, their packaging does a fantastic job of explaining Cuna’s purpose and ambitions (indeed, barely a week goes by without a new design magazine featuring their bars). In particular as you unwrap the bars, look out for their motto that is playfully spelled out across the letters of the bars (see above picture too) that translates as:

Mexico, Cradle of Cacao, from Bean to Bar

A rebirth for chocolate in Mexico?

Cuna de Piedra and their sister company, Revival Cacao, are part of a renaissance of chocolate, and in particular, heirloom cacao and Craft Chocolate, in Mexico.

And it’s not a moment too soon. Despite Mexico’s long history with chocolate and cocoa, the last few decades have been hard for cocoa farmers and chocolate in Mexico. At the turn of the 21st century, Mexico was growing over 50k tonnes of cocoa a year. This halved by the early 2010s, meaning that Mexico was a net importer of cocoa and chocolate. In part this was the result of Mexico being devastated by various cocoa blights; in particular frosty pod. But it also reflects Mexico’s move to commodity crops such as palm oil and maize, with attendant deforestation and destruction of cocoa trees.

Despite these challenges, various craft chocolate makers – Bonnat, Ritual, Krak, Goodnow and Original Beans to name but a few – have discovered the potential of the amazing beans available in Mexico (see below for some examples).

And at the same time, craft chocolate making is now starting to take off itself in Mexico. Ana Rita Garcia Lascurrain helped kickstart this by setting up her chocolate museum and then crafting her own bars (Mucho). And it’s great to see Cuna de Piedra joining these ranks.

Mexico and the History of Chocolate

Read any history book written before the 1990s and Mexico will appear as the “cradle of chocolate”, crediting the Olmecs with being the first people to cultivate and consume cocoa and chocolate over 3,000 years ago.

Recent archaeological work has now pushed cocoa’s fermentation and consumption (as a drink) back a few thousand years earlier to modern day Ecuador and Peru, where the Theobroma Cacao tree can first be traced (see more in our blog). So Mexico has lost its claim to be the first place cultivating and drinking chocolate.

Any which way, the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs were HUGE fans of chocolate. At certain periods cocoa was reserved for royalty, warriors and high priests. And one of the first descriptions of Montezuma, the last Aztec Emperor, made by the Spaniards, was their awe of his consuming “the froth of fifty cups of drinking chocolate every night” before he would visit his wives (thereby kickstarting many of the myths of chocolate as an aphrodisiac).

So important was cocoa that the cocoa bean was used as a unit of currency. And indeed this tradition continued in El Salvador up until the mid-19th century, and the Spanish, following Columbus’ lead, would use cocoa beans, instead of metal coins, for small purchases for much of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Etymological Claims from Mexico for Chocolate

Mexico also lays claim, via the Nahuatl language, to have given us the word “chocolate” from their word “chocolatl” (with atl being the Nahuatl word for water). However, this is now challenged by various historians on the grounds that the word “chocolatl” does not appear in Nahuatl until the mid-18th century, and may well have been “borrowed back” from the Spanish who at this point started to write and refer to chocolate in letters and recipes.

Instead some historians argue that “chocolate” as a word derives from “chicolatl”, with the “chicol” referring to the special wooden stick used to beat and prepare chocolate. Other historians propose that the Mayan word “chocol” (which means hot), combined with “atl” (water) is the basis for our word chocolate.

Any which way, we owe Mexico a massive debt for their contribution to the world of chocolate. And it’s fantastic to be able to welcome Cuna De Piedra to our chocolate library.

Wishing you all a great weekend! Hopefully made even more enjoyable with some Mexican beans and chocolate!

Spencer

P.S. Huge congratulations to Qantu for winning ANOTHER Golden Bean for their Chaska bar (see here) and also to Neary Nogs (winners of the Mott Green award), Bare Bones (winner of a Rising Star award) and to Fjak, Auro and Chocolat Madagascar, who won Shining Bright awards from the Academy of Chocolate (AoC). And a huge thanks to the AoC for all their work in such difficult circumstances.

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Savouring, Slurping, Spitting and Saliva

Next week we are getting together TWICE with Rachel Khoo; foodie and chef extraordinaire, to discuss (and savour) craft chocolate.

First of all, we are part of her TV programme, now airing every Monday night on the Food Network here in the UK, and on Discovery Plus, so do tune in on Mondays at 7.30pm (see here).

Then Rachel is joining us for a Craft Chocolate in Conversation this Thursday, 6th May at 7.30pm (UK time) on Zoom.

We’ll be trying six different chocolates together with you and using these to illustrate everything from her Parisian adventures to her latest TV programme (see here and below for more details). Whilst savouring these bars with Rachel, we will explore how you can savour craft chocolate in some slightly odd ways, including spitting out some craft chocolate after you’ve allowed it to melt and chewed it a bit.

Even if you can’t join either of these events with Rachel, we’d still invite you to chew, and then spit out a small part of your next craft chocolate bar. Please read on below for the logic and science behind this.

Snap, Sniff, Swirl, Savour

As we’ve learnt through our virtual tastings with wine and coffee experts, the first step to savour a wine or coffee is to ‘sniff’ and then to ‘slurp’.  A HUGE variety of aromas and flavours immediately emerge as you sniff (otherwise known as orthonasal olfaction). Then, when you slurp, a whole load of new flavours, tastes and sensations are revealed. And yes it is definitely worth slurping air over the coffee and wine (for a FANTASTIC example of how to do this, please see the Japanese movie Tampopo which demonstrates this for both wine and ramen, see the picture above and video below).

Whilst in your mouth, the flavours here are detected by what is called retronasal olfaction (i.e. the flavours and aromas are detected by your olfactory bulb via the back of your mouth).  At the same time, tastes are detected by receptors all over your tongue and mouth (and down to your gut, and possibly even further). Plus various sensations are felt by other nerves via chemical reactions in your mouth (for example, we immediately detect texture or bubbles, and then tannins in wine, coffee and chocolate dry out your mouth (astringency) via chemesthesis).

Chocolate savouring is a bit different. We recommend first looking at the chocolate, then ‘snapping’ it, then you can try to sniff. But, unless the chocolate has melted a bit, it’s hard to get much smell (orthonasal olfaction). If you heat the chocolate by scratching a bit off and rubbing it between your fingers, some flavour aromas and smells (volatiles) can be released. The real delight with chocolate happens once you put it in your mouth and the chocolate starts to melt. Wait for a few moments, and then the world starts to pop as flavours emerge from the melting, masticated chocolate. Note: this assumes that the chocolate has a good snap – ie it’s properly ‘tempered’ so it will melt. If you’ve stored your chocolate in the fridge, or left it out in the sun etc., it may well have ‘badly tempered’ to crystal structure 6 which won’t melt in your mouth (but it’s fine for cooking with…). Read about this elsewhere on our blog.

What causes these different flavours?

If you’ve ever had the (mis)fortune to try a cacao seed straight from a cocoa pod you’ll know the sensation is a million miles away from chocolate. A fresh cacao seed is incredibly bitter tasting and astringent. It has none of the flavours, or mouthfeel, of chocolate. It’s not pleasant. Indeed, it’s amazing to think that chocolate bars come from these bitter, astringent seeds.

But through the magic of fermentation, drying, roasting, grinding, conching and then tempering, these seeds are transformed into chocolate. Each of these steps breaks down and transforms the cocoa into its constituent amino acids, sugars and pyrazines. And the end result is CHOCOLATE, with myriads of flavours, tastes, textures and pleasures.   

Please see Harold McGee’s “Nose Dive” for a fantastic description of the complexities.

And here is a detailed overview of how each step from bean to bar impacts flavour:

Cocoa Bean Varieties

  • Different cocoa varietals have different pyrazines, amino acids (including in particular methylbutanal, with its chocolatey smell) and sugars. Just as different grape varieties can yield distinctive flavours and tastes, the same is true for different cocoa varietals.

Fermentation

  • Once the cocoa pod is opened, the pulp starts to ferment as it reacts with different yeasts and bacteria, creating ascetic acids (technically microbial enzymes break down the sugar in the cocoa pulp into alcohol and thence acetic acid). These acids in turn break down the seeds into different amino acids, sugars and pyrazines. And then it becomes even more complex; the various pyrazines in different cocoa varieties react in various ways to the myriad of yeasts and bacteria in each growing ‘terroir’, creating even more flavour potential.

Drying

  • Most beans are ‘sun dried’, but in very rainy cocoa growing areas (Papua New Guinea and Indonesia for example) fires are needed to dry the beans and the smoke from these can permeate the beans. Drying needs to be done really carefully; failing to dry fermented beans will cause them to go mouldy and over-drying them destroys many aromas and flavour volatiles.

Roasting

  • Roasting the beans creates a series of Maillard reactions that further develop the pyrazines in the cocoa (roasting also changes the colour of the chocolate). Mass produced chocolate generally roasts the nibs (i.e. the beans separated from its shell) as this is more efficient, however it drastically diminishes flavour development potential.

Grinding and Conching

  • Grinding turns the beans into a paste where other ingredients (for example sugar and other flavourings) can be added.  In addition, the heat generated can create a Maillard reaction. Most ground chocolate is then ‘conched’, where a surface scraping mixer and agitator (called a conche) distributes the cocoa butter within the chocolate whilst also ‘polishing’ the chocolate so it moves from being grainy (as in stone ground chocolate) to being smooth and polished. Conching also promotes more flavour development, releasing more flavour volatiles, acids and oxidation. To make some sweeping generalisations about conching:
    • Air flowing through the conche removes some unwanted acetic, propionica and butyric acids from the chocolate and reduces moisture.
    • Cocoa butter is generally used to clean the machines (instead of water) to increase the mouthfeel and viscosity of the chocolate.
    • Oxidation also occurs, with the heat in the conche often ‘mellowing’ various flavours.

Tempering

  • Tempering is a term used in chocolate (and metallurgy) that describes the process of  heating and cooling chocolate like steel, to achieve a desirable crystal structure. For chocolate, this is to melt in your mouth (and the chocolate needs to be at crystal structure 5). For steel it’s about creating properties such as consistency, durability or hardness. Chocolate’s physical structure is largely down to cocoa butter (which itself comprises mainly of oleic, palmitic and stearic fatty acids). Cocoa butter is a six-phase polymorphic crystal, and it’s the application of heat (tempering) which enables the cocoa butter to form crystal structure 5, which literally melts in your mouth, and releases all the flavour volatiles and aromas.

Note: this list is an overview only; it leaves out the impact of adding milk, ageing bars, and much more.

And what’s all this got to do with salivation?

When you put chocolate in your mouth, its flavours are revealed in two very different ways:

  • Firstly the heat from your mouth and tongue releases many of the flavours and volatiles in the chocolate.
  • Secondly the enzymes in your saliva react with the chocolate to release even more of what are called ‘bonded flavours’.

Chocolate: The Unique Solid which Melts in Your Mouth

To illustrate the way heat reveals chocolate’s flavours just try holding your nose and popping a morsel of chocolate in your mouth. Wait for 10 seconds and then release your nose, and breath in through your mouth.

As you release your nose, you allow your olfactory system (sense of smell) to start working again, and because the chocolate has now melted, a wave of flavours should bombard you.

As anyone who has been to a virtual craft chocolate tasting will attest, this is quite easy to do (you will NOT suffocate!), and it’s fun to watch people’s jaws drop as the flavours hit them.

Saliva and Spitting

The saliva in your mouth has a set of magic to perform on chocolate (and other foods and wines). 

For the last couple of decades, more and more work has been done to understand the process by which when we cook foods we ‘bind in’ flavours and aromas that we can later release through microbes in our saliva. Arguably the first industry to really work this out was the wine industry, where back in the 1980s, the wine chemist Emile Peynaud noted how wines “smell more of the flavour of the fruit than the grapes themselves”. He went on to describe how saliva amplifies and catalyses flavours: “saliva reacts with and releases the (herbaceous .. bruised leaves) in Sauvignon which is present in the grapes in a relatively odorless form”. 

And this is what happens when we savour chocolate. As anyone who has ever savoured craft chocolate can attest, the flavours just keep evolving. This is more than simply melting the chocolate to release flavour volatiles, it’s because you need to allow more time for your saliva to break down these ‘bound volatiles’ (created by fermenting, roasting and grinding the cocoa), and ‘liberate’ them for your olfactory bulb. 

There is a simple trick to illustrate the power of saliva’s microbes: Chew some chocolate in your mouth for ten to twenty seconds. Then spit it all out. Wait for another ten to twenty seconds and you should be able to detect a whole load of new flavours. Even though you’ve spat out the chocolate, the microbes in your mouth will continue to release aromas and flavour volatiles from the chocolate you’ve spat out. Note: you can do the same by swallowing the chocolate, but it’s not quite so graphic an example of ‘saliva in action’.

The Flavour Wave

As anyone who has been to a virtual tasting will know, the first thing we do at a craft chocolate tasting is have you hold your nose when trying a piece of chocolate. This is a pretty fast way to explain the difference between taste and flavour, and how melting releases some of the flavours in chocolate.

Then we present a “Flavour Wave” which we developed along with Professor Barry Smith (philosopher and more), James Hoffman (coffee expert) and Rebecca Palmer (wine expert). The wave helps in a number of ways, including the impact of saliva.

  1. It provides a useful crib sheet of descriptions for what you are sensing. This solves the challenge many of us have in not being well-versed in articulating flavours or tastes. Unlike, for example, colours, there aren’t clear definitions and we lack vocabulary and practice, so very often the words are “on the tip of your tongue”, and a gentle nudge can then work.
  2. It provides an interesting foil to the Laing Limit – the limitation we all have in identifying more than 3-4 flavour notes at any one time.
    • Having you repeatedly search for different flavours and tastes as they evolve so you can detect more.
    • Seeing what other people are sensing also helps you identify some of these flavours, tastes and sensations as they bring them to your attention.
  3. It slows you down, and allows your saliva to do its work, liberating all the bound flavour volatiles.

Please see here for a downloadable PDF of the wave.

Mayday Suggestions

One final thought. As lockdown continues to ease, and the weather continues to improve, and as we look forward to Mayday bank holiday here in the UK, more and more people are enjoying barbecues, picnics, beer gardens and the like. Please do consider bringing along a couple of craft chocolate bars to these festivities. Bars are very portable and great for sharing! And you can show off your credentials as you snap, savour and (sometimes) spit. 

Please see below for a few more pairs of bars that we’ve selected to go with a smokey barbecue (smokey bars from New Zealand), picnics (some all time favourites) and some ones for the beer garden (a couple of fruity numbers).

Hope to see you at the upcoming tasting with Rachel Khoo (or the regular Wednesday tastings).

Spencer

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Time to Savour the Craft (and Read the Small Print)

magnifying glass over small print

Anyone who has been to one of our virtual tastings will have been subjected to an explanation of the difference between roast chicken and chicken nuggets.

We use the comparison to try and highlight the difference between mass produced chocolate and craft chocolate. It’s all about time. And ‘who’ does ‘what’ and ‘when’. And ‘what’ is added (and taken away).

Roasting a chicken takes time. You are the cook. And the end result is a reflection of the quality of ingredients combined with the care, and time, taken.

Making chicken nuggets requires the end user to use a microwave or oven for a short time. But on the other hand, to make a chicken nugget requires a LOT of processing, and capital equipment, at the factory. An awful lot is added. And much is taken away. It’s an efficiency game which is all about consistency, cost and getting people hooked.

Time and Craft Chocolate

To craft chocolate, time and care are key. You first have to sort the beans; think a few hours per 50kg sack. Then you have to roast (and sometimes pre-roast); think 20-30 mins in most cases, but realise that the time at different heats is key here to account for different bean sizes and types. Then the roasted beans have to be cracked and winnowed (removing the shells from the roasted beans); think 1-2 hours per batch, and depending on the winnower (which could even be a hair dryer…) lots of broken nails. Then grinding and conching; which can be anywhere from 10 to 200 hours. Then, many chocolate makers will let their chocolate ‘rest’ before tempering and moulding into bars (some will rest for weeks if not months). Time is required. It’s all about coaxing flavour from the beans. And that takes time.

Efficiency and Mass Produced Chocolate

By contrast, mass produced chocolate can see a bean turned into a bar in a few hours. It uses a completely different approach. Time is (literally) money: The faster, and more efficient, the better. Flavour, taste and texture can all be added later. The machines have to be kept running and utilised. Hence the problem with “mass balance fair trade” bars, where the beans in these fair trade bars may not be themselves “fair trade” as this would require the machines to be stopped, cleaned, changed over, etc. So their is an exemption allowed and beans are “balanced out” (for more on this see the blog).

Indeed, the very roasting approach of mass produced bars is completely different to craft makers’ roasting. Instead of first roasting the beans, and then removing the shells, most mass produced chocolate bars reverse the process. Beans are steamed, shells removed and the nibs are roasted. This is more efficient (yields go up by 3-5%). But it doesn’t optimise flavour. Think freeze dried coffee versus freshly roasted, and then ground, coffee beans. Faster and more efficient. But not the same flavour.

Next, mass produced chocolate uses high pressures and massive grinders to turn the roasted nibs into chocolate liquor. And then they temper and mould. It’s fast. It’s efficient. It’s MASSIVE. Craft chocolate is in batches of between 10-500kgs. Mass produced chocolate starts with batches of 2,500kgs and goes to hundreds of thousand kilos / tonnes per batch. However, to put it mildly, this is not great for flavour. But that’s what additives are for!

Also, very often mass produced chocolate will remove the cocoa butter and replace with other ingredients. Why? These other ingredients are far cheaper. Palm oil, vegetable fat and PGPR (don’t ask) are a lot cheaper than cocoa butter. And sugar is far, far cheaper than even cocoa powder (what’s left over when the cocoa butter is extracted). And sugar is VERY addictive.

Read the Label

It’s so important to turn the bar over and look at the ingredients. Sugar should NEVER be the first ingredient. And follow Michael Pollan’s advice: Only eat ingredients your grandmother would recognise.

But it’s not always that easy. Labels can be confusing. Different countries have different requirements (e.g. in the UK and US you can list cocoa beans as an ingredient, but in Germany you have to say cocoa liquor). And we can debate the merits of vanilla as an ingredient for a long time (quick answer: vanilla is great for milk chocolate; whereas in dark chocolate it’s generally not a great sign of bean quality. And vanillin should always be a flashing red warning light).

And there is an interesting additional ‘tell’. Mass produced chocolate will hardly ever detail where the chocolate is made (or where the beans are grown). Indeed ‘big chocolate’ has even secured an exemption from normal EU regulations here as they argue that they can’t answer this question as their chocolate is most often made in, and sourced from, many places. The roasting and initial grinding can be done in one place and sold as semi finished chocolate (couverture) that can be tempered and moulded by the ‘chocolate maker’ somewhere else (on a different continent even).

Couverture shows how complex (and ironic) terms like Belgian can be. One of the reasons we associate Belgium with chocolate is that in the 1920s Oskar Callebaut created couverture in his Belgian factory, thereby alleviating the need for other chocolate makers to make their own chocolate. And then a generation later (in the 1960s) Callebault started to export this couverture, putting Belgium firmly on the chocolate map.

However today much of this ‘Belgian’ couverture is no longer processed in Belgium., nor is it even processed by a company that is technically Belgian. In 1996 Callebaut merged with a French company, Cocoa Barry, and then listed its shares in Switzerland. But under EU (and UK) regulations, this couverture can still be labelled “Belgian” as the term is not protected.

Bottom line: read the back of a bar carefully. Check the ingredients. Check where the beans are from. And check where, how, and by whom the bar has been crafted (as opposed to ‘processed’).

Some Bars to Savour

To appreciate the ways different applications of times and approaches can enhance the complexities of flavour in craft chocolate, see the series of pairings we’ve assembled for you (with a small saving on each).

Stay safe, sane and enjoy!

Spencer

P.S. As with last week’s blog post, I asked a number of people for their help and expertise to write this. But I didn’t ask their permission to acknowledge them. However, I’d still like to ‘hat tip’ and thank them. So here are their initials: MOD, KC, CC, MFH, JB, RP.

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Time for Chocolate and Cocoa

chocolate clock

At our craft chocolate and wine tastings, our wine partners put forward an enviably neat explanation of how a wine develops flavour, texture and taste on its journey from vine to bottle and through its time in bottle:

  1. What happens on the vineyard: the grapes, terroir, etc. create the ‘fruity’ flavours in both red and white wine, like citrus, berry, jammy etc.
  2. What happens as the wine is made: pressing, barrels, etc. generate flavours like toasty, creamy, smoke, etc.
  3. What happens as the wine ages and oxidizes: results in flavours and sensations like leather, caramel, roundedness, etc.

(For more on this, come to a wine & craft chocolate tasting; see here).

Chocolate, sadly, isn’t quite as simple. Or if it is, we haven’t found as concise a segmentation.

Chocolate has the same complexities of flavour, taste, texture and mouthfeel as wine, but these complexities are interwoven. Each stage of growing, crafting and even ageing a craft chocolate bar (yes you can get vintage chocolate; we sometimes have some!) can yield similar results. For example the ‘citrus’ or ‘berry’ flavours in a bar can be the result of bean variety, fermentation, roasting and conching.

The common theme that really drives flavour and quality in chocolate is the TIME taken at each stage. So for the next two weeks, below and on the blog, we’re going to try and give a high level summary of how TIME (which is partly a proxy for care) impacts each stage of cocoa on the farm and chocolate as it’s crafted.

Please also see our recent blog post for more on how time and savouring are important when enjoying chocolate with the Flavour Wave.

Below we have recommended some bars to illustrate these differences. Please do try them! And we’d hope that even though our time in lockdown is starting to end (yippee!), you will still find the time to join us at some of the great new virtual tastings we have lined up with Rachel Khoo, Simon Rimmer of Sunday Brunch, and a few more wine and chocolate pairings, to delight in these complexities (see here).

The Tree, Pod and Cocoa Varietal

As with apples, wine and almost every fruit, different cocoa varietals have very different flavour profiles. A great way to experience this is to compare how different makers can produce radically different sensations with the same machinery from very different beans (see below for examples from Tosier).

To grow the cocoa trees that yield these pods and beans takes time and effort; once a seed or seedling is planted it takes at least 3-5 years before its first harvest (and they will continue to produce fruit for decades to come, contributing to biodiversity in the rainforest). And you have to be able to recognise the best time to pick the fruit; as with wine, ripeness is incredibly important. Many farmers know their trees and their pods; they know when the colour change and texture of the pod is just right and can identify when it ‘sounds’ right upon being knocked. To compare how amazingly distinctive flavours can be from different varieties, see the pair of taster bars below from Mikkel Friss-Holm.

By contrast, most mass produced chocolate uses only a few varieties with limited diversity, with the emphasis on rigorous productivity. But all too often these clones are planted at the expense of the rainforest; as with other commodity crops, rainforests are destroyed and mono-cultures are planted. Mass produced cocoa is harvested when it’s convenient to harvest with no account for ripeness. To quote an industry expert “Ripeness in mass-produced cocoa is more about picking the time when you can get the most volume“. And these clones don’t have fine flavour (that’s why most mass-produced dark chocolate bars have tonnes of additives and flavourings).

Harvesting and Fermentation

Depending on where the cocoa is growing, trees can be harvested a few times a year (normally twice, but sometimes more and occasionally only once). When cocoa is in harvest, it’s in season for a few months, but farmers harvest traditionally every two weeks to allow only ripe pods to be harvested, this is why central fermentation among smallholders is important, aggregating these small volumes enable better fermentation for ripe cocoa. And specialty sources of craft cocoa do their utmost to ensure only ripe pods make it into the next step.

And then the magic of fermentation occurs. This is where the flavour of the cocoa really starts. Before fermentation a cocoa seed is incredibly bitter and astringent, but surrounded by a delicious pulp. Once opened, the pulp reacts with local bacteria and yeasts to kick off a fermentation that turns the bitter, and astringent, cocoa seed into a cocoa bean that is recognisably ‘chocoalatey’.

Again, a magic ingredient in fermentation is TIME. The differences between, for example, a 5 day and 6 day fermentation are staggering; see Krak bars below. And for the differences that small changes in fermentation make, also see these double versus triple churned bars from Mikkel Friis-Holm.

By contrast mass-produced cocoa is often not properly fermented. Sometimes the beans are immediately dried leading to high levels of bitterness and astringency, they are then pressed for the cocoa butter (used for cosmetics etc. and far higher priced than the remaining cocoa mass). Indeed sometimes the beans are immediately pressed for the cocoa butter. The residual compressed cocoa mass is then turned into cocoa powder and used to make ‘chocolate’ ice cream, biscuits, cakes, etc. And even when the beans are fermented this is often lackadaisical, with beans piled into a heap for an indeterminate period with random raking. It’s a world of difference to the way farmers and makers ferment in wooden boxes for set times with specific turns at specific times.

Drying

The final stage on the farm is drying, and again time and care needs to be taken to dry the beans so that they neither go mouldy nor dry out. The way craft chocolate is dried plays a huge role in generating flavour. Most cocoa is sun dried to allow slow transition from fermentation and rich flavours continue to evolve. And huge care needs to be taken; too much time and the drying beans can bake; too little time and they will go mouldy.

One more twist at drying: in places such as Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Fiji it can be too rainy to rely on the sun to dry the fermented cocoa. Instead nearby fires are used to dry the beans. And the smoke from these beans can permeate the beans. This can generate intriguing flavours for those who are fans of Islay Whisky, Smokey Teas or even smokey bacon crisps. Try the Firetree and Solomon’s Gold bars below (note: the Firetree beans are fully sun dried but the finished chocolate still display the hidden deep forest, woody, earthy, truffle aroma characteristic of this environment and terroir).

Provenance

One of the easiest ways to tell craft chocolate apart from mass-produced chocolate is by making sure you know where the beans are grown, harvested, fermented and dried. And by this we don’t mean the continent or country. “From Peru” works for Paddington Bear, but it doesn’t work for chocolate any more than it works for fine wine or speciality coffee or artisan cheese. You need to know as much as possible about the farm, co-operative and plantation as with other artisanal products.

What’s Next

Once the beans are dried they are sent to be ‘crafted’ or ‘processed’. And again, there are HUGELY different approaches between mass-produced confectionery and craft chocolate which explain their radically different flavours, textures and tastes. And again, TIME is a critical element. For the sake of brevity, we’ll cover this next week! And returning to provenance, we will also explain why mass-produced chocolate bars not only don’t detail where they source their beans but they also don’t (and arguably can’t) specify where their bars are made and processed.

In the interim, please do try some of the bars below. In addition, please spend some time with us at a craft chocolate tasting and join our upcoming conversation with Rachel Khoo, plus the various wine and gin tastings we’ve scheduled (see here and below).

Spencer

P.S. I asked a number of people for their help and expertise to write this post. But I didn’t ask their permission to acknowledge them. However I’d still like to ‘hat tip’ and thank them. So here are their initials: MOD, KC, CC, MFH, JB, RP.

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More Than Bars…

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Bar

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

Zotter’s Butter Caramel

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

The Careless Collection

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

Spencer

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