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How much sugar is in your chocolate?

Sugar is a sticky topic. There’s a large swathe of people who lump all chocolate into the catch-all; “if it has sugar, it has to be bad”. We beg to differ!

Let’s start with a couple of questions: Which has less sugar; a typical breakfast cereal or a dark craft chocolate bar? A low fat yogurt or a dark craft chocolate bar? Most people will be aware that breakfast cereals contain more sugar than dark craft chocolate bars (and this is true even of most ‘no sugar-added granolas’). But what not everyone realises is that a single serving size of low fat vanilla yogurt can have over five teaspoons of sugar (the sugar is used to replace the fat and so stabilise, preserve and give mouthfeel). By contrast an average craft dark chocolate bar (65g at 70%) has less than four teaspoons of sugar.

Let’s add a bit more context: A 330ml can of Coca Cola has just over eight teaspoons of sugar in it. A bottle of red wine (750CL) has around six teaspoons. A craft chocolate bar (65g, 70% bar) contains about three/four teaspoons of sugar. Most people drink the full can of coke in one sitting. Most people share the bottle of red wine. And most craft chocolate consumers share and savour the bar of chocolate over a few evenings.

So the more useful question is “how many teaspoons per serving?”.

And not all chocolate is created equal. If you examine the ingredients of a mass produced milk (or dark) chocolate bar you’ll notice it will have a far higher sugar content (over 60% in many cases). Even the lead ingredient on the new Cadbury’s Dark Dairy Milk is sugar. This is partly because sugar is a much cheaper ingredient than mass-produced cacao. And it’s also because sugar is addictive and, when combined with fat, flavourings and salt, becomes irresistible (the so called ‘bliss point‘). Even a 45g supermarket checkout bar can contain six teaspoons of sugar. And you are very likely to eat this whole snack bar in one go (hence why the packaging of mass-produced bars isn’t resealable).

By contrast, if you savour a craft chocolate bar with just three to five squares per session, you’ll be consuming less than a teaspoon of sugar per serving. Your taste buds will be stimulated. You’ll feel delighted. No games with the bliss point. Just the magic of the cocoa bean. Brilliant!

So firstly, savour. Indulge. No need to scoff.

And secondly, don’t worry too much about the percentages on a craft chocolate bar. Bean type and mouthfeel make a massive difference to how sweet a craft bar tastes. Below we’ve assembled a bunch of ‘high percentage’ bars that will leave you guessing (and delighted). Try a couple blind and see if you can work out which has the higher percentage (including the 100% from Fossa).

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Dark Milk Chocolate: A Low-Sugar Alternative

milk chocolate tasting

“Everything in moderation”. Epicurus had it right. A little sugar in chocolate is to be welcomed.  And a little milk can add creaminess and the impression of sweetness too.

In craft chocolate, sugar is added to bring out the flavour of the bean. In the words of the esteemed Mrs Beeton (she of Victorian cooking book fame), adding a little sugar to chocolate is what “salt is to meat and vegetables”.

Pure granulated sugar is just a taste (sweet). It doesn’t have any odour or flavour. Try the ‘holding your nose’ experiment; firstly with sugar, and then separately with chocolate, to see what we mean; both are sweet-tasting but only the chocolate develops flavour and aromas when you release your nose. Sugar offsets and balances the cocoa beans’ natural astringency and bitterness. By adding small amounts of sugar, the chocolate maker can transform cocoa beans into fine craft chocolate bars with mind-bending flavours, textures and tastes. But you don’t need a lot of sugar. Everything in moderation.

By contrast, mass-produced bars are all about sugar and added flavourings, fats and preservatives. Sugar is added because it creates a ‘sugar-hit’ (and it can be addictive). And because it is inexpensive. It isn’t used to develop the flavour of the cocoa bean. Rather, sugar, along with additives and flavouring, conceals the flavour and taste of what little cocoa there is in a mass-produced bar.

In the UK, at least two ‘big chocolate’ brands have launched advertising campaigns for their mass-produced ‘dark milk chocolate’. Arguably this mass market dark milk chocolate confuses the links between sugar, health, creaminess, mouthfeel and sweetness.

Mass-produced ‘dark milks’ still list their first (i.e. largest) ingredient as sugar. For example, the first ingredient on Cadbury’s new Dark Dairy Milk is sugar. And the bar only contains 40% cocoa. This is less than almost all our classic milk chocolates, and far less than dark milk craft chocolate bars.

In the world of craft chocolate, we believe that dark milks should contain at least 50% cocoa (and the International Chocolate Awards have a category of awards to showcase them). And more and more makers, led by Duffy, Friis Holm, Dormouse, Fjåk, Sirene, Zotter and more, are leading the craft dark milk charge.

Dark milk craft chocolate is a wonderful way to explore how milk can sweeten chocolate. Indeed Zotter crafts a dark milk 70% bar that has no added sugar; it relies on the caramelization of the milk and a wonderfully creamy mouthfeel to sweeten the bar. You can try it for yourself here.

It’s the creamy, smooth mouthfeel of dark milks that explains why the likes of Friis Holm’s and Sirene’s dark milks taste so sweet.

Here’s why: Let’s start with two questions: Which tastes sweeter; milk or cream? Which contains more sugar; milk or cream? Many people will answer cream to both questions. But cream actually has less sugar in it than milk per fluid ounce. As Professor Barry Smith notes: “Creaminess as a mouthfeel creates a sensation we perceive as sweet“. Hence the ‘creamy magic’ that craft makers can achieve in their dark milks.

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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. And TIME (which is partly a proxy for care) impacts each stage of cocoa on the farm and chocolate as it’s crafted.

Below we have recommended some bars to illustrate these differences.

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, smoky teas or even smoky 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. But 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.

Please do try some of the bars below. In addition, please spend some time with us at a craft chocolate tasting and learn more about everything we’ve discussed here.

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I Savour, Therefore I Am: A Unique Human Ability

a baby being spoon fed

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

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

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

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

Taste, Flavour, and the Structure of our Mouths

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

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

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

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

The Great News about Being Human and Savouring Flavours

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

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

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

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

So why do we scoff chocolate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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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 there is an exemption allowed and beans are “balanced out”.

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 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):

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Time to Savour

Time is an important factor in craft chocolate. For consumers it’s about ‘taking your time’ to savour. For makers, time is; in the words of Jenny Linford; the “missing ingredient” (and again, we wholeheartedly recommend her book on this, see here and below).

Humans’ Unique Second Sense of Smell and Flavour

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

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

The Complexity of Flavour

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

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

The Flavour Wave

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

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

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The Case for Fruit and Nuts in Craft Chocolate

mia inclusions

In the world of craft chocolate, the subject of adding nuts and other ‘inclusions‘ to the cocoa bean is heated and vexed. Purists insist on minimal ingredients. They sniff at the idea of flavour combinations, “additions” and the likes of “fruit and nuts”. At the same time, most craft chocolate aficionados have their ‘guilty secrets’ and appreciate the amazing pairings craft chocolate with inclusions can achieve. 

We think that there is room for both types of craft chocolate lovers. But we think that this debate opens up a more important issue:

Is the bar about “using but obscuring” the cocoa bean? (i.e. mass-produced chocolate)…

Or is it about “revealing and celebrating” the cocoa bean? (i.e. craft chocolate)…

To phrase the question in another way:

Is the aim to use chocolate as a vector for flavouring, or is it about showcasing how chocolate offers an unparalleled variety of flavours, textures, tastes, mouthfeel, and offers awesome pairings?

Mass-Produced Chocolate…

Mass-produced chocolate is all about cost, consistency and immediate satisfaction. To that end, it’s all about achieving the same flavour, melt, mouthfeel and texture bar after bar, year after year, for the lowest possible price. Hence the uproar whenever there is a rumour of a change to the formula or format of any mass-produced bar, egg, or whatever.

And one way to achieve consistency and low cost is through additives and flavourings. These additives and flavourings also create ‘moreishness‘ (hence why mass produced chocolate bar packaging isn’t designed to be resealed; they expect the whole bar to be eaten in one go, and hence why they have so much sugar, additives, etc.).

…versus Craft Chocolate 

By contrast craft chocolate is all about showcasing the myriad variety of flavours, tastes and textures that can be coaxed from fine flavour cocoa beans. Different fermentations, vintages, roasts, batches and the like are celebrated for their distinctiveness. And when you savour craft chocolate bars, there is a wave of aromas and flavours that develop from the cocoa bean. To adapt a famous UK adline “I can’t believe it’s not FLAVOURED”; great craft chocolate bars have so much flavour that one thinks that something other than cocoa beans has been added. Please see the following bars where you will look twice at the label as they really do exhibit more flavours than you’d expect from “merely” a cocoa bean:

Look for aniseed and liquourice notes in the Utopick bar, strawberries and raspberries in the Qantu bar, and lemon and lime in the Fruition bar.

1+1 = >2

We love these single-estate craft chocolate bars. Indeed they are what our monthly subscription is all about. But there is more.

To be pedantic, even in a two-ingredient craft bar, there is an inclusion (sugar). The addition of a “touch of sugar” to a craft chocolate bar helps bring out the flavour, develop the mouthfeel and remove astringency and bitterness.

And even purists will accept the addition of some cocoa nibs (technically a fruit) to add texture, crunch and astringency (see the following great examples from Taucherli, Menakao, Askinosie, and Feitoria do Cacao). Plus for over 100 years, thanks to the pioneering work of Swiss chocolate enthusiast Daniel Peter, we’ve been enjoying milk chocolate bars because he worked out how to add milk to a bar, and use milk’s creaminess to sweeten and add roundness to a bar’s mouthfeel.

Above and beyond this there are a number of pairings and inclusions which showcase the genius and heritage of many craft chocolate makers. Here are a few favourites (this is just the tip of the iceberg of amazing inclusion bars):

Fossa’s honey orchid dancong hongcha bar showcases Singapore’s culinary heritage. Have this bar instead of desert (or in addition!).

Pump Street’s signature sour dough and sea salt pays tribute to their baking heritage and seaside location.

The pepper in Åkesson’s black pepper bar is grown alongside the cocoa to offer it shade and prevent it from becoming “sunburnt”. It also makes this bar an awesome pairing for red wine.

And finally, it’s hard to get more Norwegian than reindeer moss; see Fjåk’s Lingonberry and Reindeer moss.

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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 we think it’s worth doing a deep dive into vanilla (which might take more than one article to achieve!). 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).

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.

And for something really interesting, you can read about how vanilla might also have curious psychological effects on us too.

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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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)?

… well we have 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 genera 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).

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Breaking the (Chocolate) Mould

At Cocoa Runners, we champion makers that value quality and provenance, they are committed to their craft and, above all, love what they do. We often emphasise how intricate and time-consuming the chocolate making process is; “bean to bar” simplifies years of hard work. It is no surprise then that our makers put the same level of attention into one of the final stages in creating a bar: choosing its mould.

How Moulds Enhance the Chocolate Tasting Experience

Choosing a mould is also choosing how the chocolate is going to be experienced. Just like how a wine glass rim’s thickness will affect how the wine is enjoyed (see companies like Riedel who design glasses to enhance specific grape varieties), a chocolate mould has the same status. Opting for a thinner bar, for example Franceschi’s Venezuela 70% shareable pieces, will mean that the melt is quicker and the flavour profile presents itself immediately. On the other hand, chunkier bars, for example Pump Street’s signature thick rectangles, will offer a slower melt, various notes revealing themselves more gradually.

Moulds can implicitly influence the eater to share their chocolate or (understandably) be a little more selfish. Bare Bones’ chocolates, with their neat, dividable squares, invite customers to enjoy the bars’ wonderfully clean snap and share with friends and family. Chocolate MakersTres Hombres mini bar inspires the same generosity on a smaller scale, with their tiny 12g bar being divided into 24 even tinier pieces. Whereas Zotter’s butter caramel bar, a uniform slab of almond praline and luscious caramel wrapped in milk chocolate, feels slightly harder to share.

Sensory science can also be considered when selecting a mould. Various visual features, like shapes and patterns, can evoke olfactory or gustatory responses. For instance, a bar with intense citrus notes or a bright, vibrant profile can be echoed through a sharp, perpendicular design. Whereas a profile with more rounded flavours (think whole milk or potato), could be circular with fluid edges. This reminds us of the cross-modal Bouba/Kiki effect, where people generally describe a shape with rounded edges as “Bouba” and one with spiky edges as “Kiki”, see our article on how this works for vanilla for more. Of course, makers can also twist the rules and design a mould that ‘contradicts’ the bar’s tasting notes; a reminder of the creative freedom moulds give.

Another thing to note is that even pouring the chocolate into the mould is a meticulous process. Smudges or water (melted chocolate’s sworn enemy) on the mould can spoil the chocolate at the last hurdle. Since many of our makers hand pour their bars, the mould’s material is another consideration

How Moulds Tell a Story

Craft chocolate makers have fascinating stories to tell. It is impossible to communicate a brand’s story completely: From the initial idea to the bean selection to the chocolate making process. The bar itself is a great tool to begin this conversation. Nods to a makers’ origin story can be engraved upon the finished product, making the bar not only more unique, but also more meaningful. Dick Taylor’s exquisite bar design (see below) references the fact they are, in their own words, “deeply rooted in a background of woodworking and boat building”. Alternatively, Friis Holm’s precise rectangular bars, with their perfectly uniform squares, feels to us like a salute to Danish minimalism.

There is also something satisfying about a mould that proudly references the maker’s name (many of our makers adopt this approach, including Bonnat, Åkesson’s, Ritual, and Duffy’s to name a few). We think stamping a brand’s name, and therefore identity, into the bar, makes it even more personal.

How Two Makers Chose Their Moulds

We had the pleasure of speaking to New Zealand chocolate maker Karl Hogarth about his wonderful mould design, which he wanted to “show commitment”, “make a statement”, and be “instantly recognisable”; an aim he has, without a doubt, achieved. He told us that he had to make a choice between an easily divisible bar or something more unconventional. In his own words, he decided “to take the risk and do something special and unique”.

At first, they planned on inscribing the initial design (see below) onto the bar, to give a shallower engraved effect. However, one of their designers, Danny, envisioned it as a 3D model, with the waves overlapping each other. After creating a CAD (computer aided design) file and sending this to the Chocolate World in Belgium, the mould came to life.

These 3D waves are not only beautiful, but are also personal to Karl, representing his background as a fisherman, sailor, and surfer. It’s also a nod to cacao’s maritime journey to reach Hogarth’s factory in New Zealand (which is coincidentally 60 metres away from the sea itself). Others have commented that the design resembles artwork associated with the Tangata Whenua (Tarn-a-ta Fen-u-a) or Maori people, another link to Hogarth’s proud heritage.

This design is the perfect example of how deep meaning can be quite literally poured into each bar. We particularly love the bar’s thick border: a fitting frame for a work of art.  

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating one of Karuna’s award-winning chocolates, you will have been struck by their intricate bar design. We spoke to co-founder Armin about the decisions behind this mould, designed by his younger brother Lorenz. Armin wished to acknowledge cacao’s origin as well as Karuna’s Indian connection.

The result is a bar with stylised fruits and leaves to reference that cocoa pods come from trees, as well as a traditional Indian paisley motif. Armin commented: “we really loved that it linked to our origin. In the sense where it all begun. In India.” We think there is something apt about referencing the very first inspiration for a business within its final product, condensing years of hard work into something physical. Incorporating the cocoa pod’s origin also reflects another long history of hard work, centuries of growing this extraordinary fruit concentrated into a single pattern. Chocolarder adopt a similar approach, engraving a larger cocoa pod on each of their bars to honour the raw material and their commitment to single origin. 

Final Thoughts

Chocolate is the perfect material to mould. With its just-below-body-temperature melting point, it is easily manipulated, taking just about any shape (see here for some stranger examples!). Moulding, as opposed to enrobing where the chocolate is simply draped over a product, gives the maker great artistic freedom. We hope you can now appreciate how our makers have taken advantage of this freedom, crafting not only delicious tasting bars, but works of art. 

We have also put together an inexhaustive list highlighting some wonderful bars that use moulds to enhance the tasting experience, whether that be visually or gastronomically. We’ve missed out many fantastic bars and their moulds from this list and will have regular updates on this fascinating subject. Since we’re going to be making this a series (including more discussion on decoration and packaging too), it would also be wonderful to hear about your favourite moulds.