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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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Deadly Diseases

cocoa pod with frosty pod rot disease

Now that we are (fingers crossed) turning the corner on covid, it seems timely to take a step back and think about the way diseases impact our history and culture.

Most wine aficionados are aware that in the 19th century European wine was almost destroyed by phylloxera. And anyone partial to bananas is aware that disease destroyed our favourite banana of the 1950s and 1960s (the Gran Michel) and the same may well occur with today’s favourite banana; the Cavendish.

But few people are aware that chocolate too has suffered from diseases as disastrous as phylloxera with gruesome names like ‘swollen shoots’, ‘vascular streak dieback’, ‘witches’ broom’ and ‘frosty pod rot’. And as cacao spread around the world it’s also been afflicted by pests like cocoa tree mirids in Africa (Salhbergella singularis and Distantiella theobroma) or cocoa pod borer (Conopomorpha cramerella) in Southeast Asia. Indeed chocolate may well have been the first crop targeted by bioterrorism back in the 1990s.

And Europe’s insatiable desire for drinking chocolate in the 17th and 18th centuries, combined with disease, led to cocoa cultivation shifting from Mexico, Honduras and Belize to Venezuela, Ecuador and the Caribbean. Disease, and the near extermination of the indigenous Mayans, Aztecs and other peoples, also lead to the abuses and horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and use of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean for cacao cultivation.

Ironically the (partial) conquest of other diseases, in particular malaria, also explains how cocoa spread to Africa, and again became entwined with slavery.

Today chocolate still struggles with ongoing issues of labour abuses, including slavery. And chocolate confectionery, via excessive sugar, is leading to a host of disastrous 21st diseases for young and old alike. The obesity epidemic, soaring rates of diabetes, heart diseases and many other ‘modern’ diseases can directly be attributed to chocolate confectionery products that are over 50% sugar.

At the same time, it’s not all a story of doom, gloom and disaster. Chocolate can also show some glimmers of hope. Learning to savour craft chocolate provides one means to avoid sugar related diseases. And the diversity of cocoa varietals treasured by craft chocolate provides one of the best defences to cocoa’s next phylloxera.

Read on for more, and see below for some bars that track the way disease has driven chocolate’s journey around the world.

Disease, Slavery, and the Emergence of Drinking Chocolate in Europe

It took Europeans over a century to realise the delights of drinking chocolate from when Cortez and the conquistadors first witnessed Montezuma’s drinking-chocolate-fuelled exploits with his wives as they ransacked Mexico from 1519 (note: Columbus came across chocolate a decade earlier, but thought it was primarily a unit of currency).

By the time appreciation for chocolate had taken hold (i.e. the mid to late 1600s), many of the locations in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc.) where cocoa had been drunk and cultivated had seen jaw dropping population declines. Smallpox and a host of other European diseases ravaged Mesoamerica; in some cases wiping out 60% plus of the population in the decades following Columbus (Guatemala shrank from over 2 million people to under 500,000 in 30 years, El Salvador from 500,000 to under 70,000 in the same time period).

As a consequence, the descendants of the conquistadors turned to South America, in particular Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, for their cocoa needs. The descendants of the conquistadors needed far more cacao. So they developed a radically different approach, a plantation like system known as the ‘encomienda’, to cultivate cacao in Brazil and Venezuela. And the bedrock to the encomienda system was slavery of not just the few remaining indigenous peoples but also slaves from the Atlantic slave trade.

Ironically, what ended the encomienda system (including its use of slavery) in Venezuela was disease. This time the disease was one that impacted the cacao tree, called at the time ‘alhorra’ and now thought to have been either ‘ceratocystis eilt’ or ‘black pod rot’. Either way the disease was recorded by contemporaries to leave cacao groves “without a single fruit-bearing plant”. And as a consequence, new pastures and lands were sought.

Note: Mexico still produces some amazing chocolates, see Cacao Prieto and Mucho; and amazing cocoa is grown there (see here for some bars from Original Beans, Bonnat, Ritual, Krak and a dozen more makers). And, see below, it has an encouraging diversity of cocoa varieties which provides one means to fight these diseases. As do Brazil and Venezuela, again, see below for more bars from Franchesci, Åkesson’s etc.

Cacao Diseases and the Dissemination of Cocoa to the Caribbean, Asia and Africa

Faced with these cacao blights and diseases in South America and the increasing popularity of drinking chocolate, colonial powers, especially Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands, successfully transplanted cacao trees throughout the Caribbean and Asia, and then Africa.

The Caribbean

Although there are records of cacao being grown in Trinidad as early as the 1525, it wasn’t until the late 1670s that cacao trees, brought over from Venezuela, were cultivated as a commercial crop. As in Venezuela, Trinidad also suffered from various cacao blights and diseases until new cacao varietals were cross bred and cacao farming flourished. In honour of this achievement Trinidad lent its name to a family of these disease resistant beans, ‘Trinitario’. Cacao was also cultivated on other nearby islands, including Tobago, Grenada and Jamaica. And by the 1820s, the Caribbean (and in particular Trinidad and Tobago) was the third largest exporter of cacao; helped ironically by a series of other blights and diseases that damaged cacao cultivation in Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, before Trinidad’s cacao was again devastated in the 1920s.

Asia

At the same time as cacao was introduced to Trinidad, the Spanish also introduced chocolate to the Philippines. And soon after the Dutch, in an effort to wrest control over the cacao trade, also introduced cacao to some of their Indonesian colonies (most notably Java and Sulawesi).

Africa

Cacao cultivation in Africa really took off in the second half of the 19th century. Initially cacao was cultivated on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which by the late 1870s were accounting for over 20% of global cacao crops, and over 50% of Cadbury’s cacao needs. Sadly this cultivation was again based off slavery (for more see here).

What drove cacao to these African countries was again partly the appearance of devastating cacao diseases. Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and the other South American cacao growing powerhouses all suffered from a series of blights and diseases, going by dramatic names including frosty pod and witches’ broom.

Disease, or rather the (partial) conquest of one endemic African disease, also made cacao cultivation possible. Until the late 19th century the white colonial powers had been unable to colonise more than the coast of Africa as their armies and administrators had no resistance to malaria (during the 17th and 18th centuries it is estimated that over 60% of Europeans visiting the hinterlands of Africa died within a year). However, the discovery of quinine made the colonisation of Africa possible and so in the late 19th century various ‘white nations’ conquered Ghana (Great Britain), Cameroon (Germany), Cote D’Ivoire (France), etc.

Bioterrorism in 1990s Brazil

In the 1990s cacao farmers in Brazil were facing a calamity so severe that they were hanging themselves and drinking rat poison to kill themselves. Yet a decade earlier Brazil was the world’s third largest grower of cacao, and it made farmers rich (although the plight of the workers was wretched). But in the early 1990s, Moniliophthora perniciosa (aka witches’ broom) was discovered in Bahia, Brazil.

Witches’ broom isn’t native to Bahia, Brazil. Like cacao itself it originated in the Amazonian rainforest. But in the Amazon, it cannot quickly spread as wild cacao trees are well separated from one another. But when witches’ broom reaches dense plantations of cocoa trees, the impact is disastrous; Trinidad and Venezuela lost 80% plus of their cacao trees in outbreaks from the 1920s to the 1940s (Venezuelan cacao then also was hammered by frosty pod and ceratocystis to add to its problems).

From the first instances of witches’ broom in Bahia in the 1990s, suspicions were raised of a deliberate infestation. The first trees to be impacted in many estates were in the middle, not the outskirts, of plantations; and as an eyewitness reported: “I found two cocoa trees with dry witches’ broom tied onto them in the middle of their trunks” (José Roberto Benjamin, a farm owner in Camacan, quoted in The Knot).

And then in 2006 an even more extraordinary claim was published. Luiz Franco Timoteo claimed that he, and other left wing activists,  in an effort to draw attention to the dire conditions of the cacao workers in Bahia, deliberately introduced witches’ broom, with the help of workers from CEPLAC; the Brazilian equivalent of DEFRA (UK) or the FDA (US), as CEPLAC “could go anywhere” (which explains how the disease spread in such an extraordinary way).

CEPLAC vigorously contests these assertions. And it clearly did make extraordinary efforts to destroy the disease; including fumigating cacao farms with Agent Orange. And other conspiracy theories have also been circulated (including the idea that Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire indulged in agro-warfare).

The origin of witches’ broom in Bahia is still unsolved. But the dangers of bioterrorism, and threats posed by cacao diseases to mass, monoculture agricultural approaches to cacao, is clear.

Why does this matter? Chocolate and Disease: The Present Day

So the good news is that Bahia, Brazil is slowly recovering, and whilst cacao production is nowhere near its earlier levels, it is enabling some farmers and many makers to craft great bars (see here for some from Åkesson’s own operations there).

In part this is because scientists have discovered wild cacao varietals deep in the Amazonian rainforest that can resist witches’ broom (indeed one, called Scavina-6, was identified as early as 1940s in the Peruvian rainforest). And CRISPR is now also being used to try and avoid some frightening new diseases threatening African and Asian cocoa farmers. At the same time these clones have major issues; for more see here on CCN-51.

Without wishing to sound melodramatic, commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate are an existential threat through their reliance on agricultural monocultures, their use of slash and burn agriculture combined with their requirement for loads of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. We need to learn from the disasters foretold by the Gran Michel, and now Cavendish, banana. We need to promote more cacao varietals and delight in chocolate’s myriad of flavours to protect genetic diversity. And we need to protect the rainforest, not destroy it with slash and burn monocrop agricultural commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate where flavour and taste is all added in the factory.

The end product of this commoditised cacao; mass produced chocolate confectionery; is also causing a whole series of other human diseases ranging from early onset type 2 diabetes, heart and liver issues, obesity, cancers, etc. Pretty packaging, smart marketing, evocative slogans (even those claiming to “eradicate child slavery”) should not divert from the fact that most supermarket chocolate bars are over 50% sugar (including Tony’s). As a flavour enhancer sugar is awesome. But it’s also highly addictive and unhealthy.

So if you want to help eradicate the diseases to (and from) cacao and save our planet please savour craft chocolate.

Spencer

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Deadly Diseases

cocoa pod with frosty pod rot disease

Most wine aficionados are aware that in the 19th century European wine was almost destroyed by phylloxera. And anyone partial to bananas is aware that disease destroyed our favourite banana of the 1950s and 1960s (the Gran Michel) and the same may well occur with today’s favourite banana; the Cavendish.

But few people are aware that chocolate too has suffered from diseases as disastrous as phylloxera with gruesome names like ‘swollen shoots’, ‘vascular streak dieback’, ‘witches’ broom’ and ‘frosty pod rot’. And as cacao spread around the world it’s also been afflicted by pests like cocoa tree mirids in Africa (Salhbergella singularis and Distantiella theobroma) or cocoa pod borer (Conopomorpha cramerella) in Southeast Asia. Indeed chocolate may well have been the first crop targeted by bioterrorism back in the 1990s.

And Europe’s insatiable desire for drinking chocolate in the 17th and 18th centuries, combined with disease, led to cocoa cultivation shifting from Mexico, Honduras and Belize to Venezuela, Ecuador and the Caribbean. Disease, and the near extermination of the indigenous Mayans, Aztecs and other peoples, also lead to the abuses and horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and use of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean for cacao cultivation.

Ironically the (partial) conquest of other diseases, in particular malaria, also explains how cocoa spread to Africa, and again became entwined with slavery.

Today chocolate still struggles with ongoing issues of labour abuses, including slavery. And chocolate confectionery, via excessive sugar, is leading to a host of disastrous 21st diseases for young and old alike. The obesity epidemic, soaring rates of diabetes, heart diseases and many other ‘modern’ diseases can directly be attributed to chocolate confectionery products that are over 50% sugar.

At the same time, it’s not all a story of doom, gloom and disaster. Chocolate can also show some glimmers of hope. Learning to savour craft chocolate provides one means to avoid sugar related diseases. And the diversity of cocoa varietals treasured by craft chocolate provides one of the best defences to cocoa’s next phylloxera.

Read on for more, and see below for some bars that track the way disease has driven chocolate’s journey around the world.

Disease, Slavery, and the Emergence of Drinking Chocolate in Europe

It took Europeans over a century to realise the delights of drinking chocolate from when Cortez and the conquistadors first witnessed Montezuma’s drinking-chocolate-fuelled exploits with his wives as they ransacked Mexico from 1519 (note: Columbus came across chocolate a decade earlier, but thought it was primarily a unit of currency).

By the time appreciation for chocolate had taken hold (i.e. the mid to late 1600s), many of the locations in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc.) where cocoa had been drunk and cultivated had seen jaw dropping population declines. Smallpox and a host of other European diseases ravaged Mesoamerica; in some cases wiping out 60% plus of the population in the decades following Columbus (Guatemala shrank from over 2 million people to under 500,000 in 30 years, El Salvador from 500,000 to under 70,000 in the same time period).

As a consequence, the descendants of the conquistadors turned to South America, in particular Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, for their cocoa needs. The descendants of the conquistadors needed far more cacao. So they developed a radically different approach, a plantation like system known as the ‘encomienda’, to cultivate cacao in Brazil and Venezuela. And the bedrock to the encomienda system was slavery of not just the few remaining indigenous peoples but also slaves from the Atlantic slave trade.

Ironically, what ended the encomienda system (including its use of slavery) in Venezuela was disease. This time the disease was one that impacted the cacao tree, called at the time ‘alhorra’ and now thought to have been either ‘ceratocystis eilt’ or ‘black pod rot’. Either way the disease was recorded by contemporaries to leave cacao groves “without a single fruit-bearing plant”. And as a consequence, new pastures and lands were sought.

Note: Mexico still produces some amazing chocolates, see Cacao Prieto and Mucho; and amazing cocoa is grown there (see here for some bars from Original Beans, Bonnat, Ritual, Krak and a dozen more makers). And, see below, it has an encouraging diversity of cocoa varieties which provides one means to fight these diseases. As do Brazil and Venezuela, again, see below for more bars from Franchesci, Åkesson’s etc.

Cacao Diseases and the Dissemination of Cocoa to the Caribbean, Asia and Africa

Faced with these cacao blights and diseases in South America and the increasing popularity of drinking chocolate, colonial powers, especially Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands, successfully transplanted cacao trees throughout the Caribbean and Asia, and then Africa.

The Caribbean

Although there are records of cacao being grown in Trinidad as early as the 1525, it wasn’t until the late 1670s that cacao trees, brought over from Venezuela, were cultivated as a commercial crop. As in Venezuela, Trinidad also suffered from various cacao blights and diseases until new cacao varietals were cross bred and cacao farming flourished. In honour of this achievement Trinidad lent its name to a family of these disease resistant beans, ‘Trinitario’. Cacao was also cultivated on other nearby islands, including Tobago, Grenada and Jamaica. And by the 1820s, the Caribbean (and in particular Trinidad and Tobago) was the third largest exporter of cacao; helped ironically by a series of other blights and diseases that damaged cacao cultivation in Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, before Trinidad’s cacao was again devastated in the 1920s.

Asia

At the same time as cacao was introduced to Trinidad, the Spanish also introduced chocolate to the Philippines. And soon after the Dutch, in an effort to wrest control over the cacao trade, also introduced cacao to some of their Indonesian colonies (most notably Java and Sulawesi).

Africa

Cacao cultivation in Africa really took off in the second half of the 19th century. Initially cacao was cultivated on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which by the late 1870s were accounting for over 20% of global cacao crops, and over 50% of Cadbury’s cacao needs. Sadly this cultivation was again based off slavery (for more see here).

What drove cacao to these African countries was again partly the appearance of devastating cacao diseases. Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and the other South American cacao growing powerhouses all suffered from a series of blights and diseases, going by dramatic names including frosty pod and witches’ broom.

Disease, or rather the (partial) conquest of one endemic African disease, also made cacao cultivation possible. Until the late 19th century the white colonial powers had been unable to colonise more than the coast of Africa as their armies and administrators had no resistance to malaria (during the 17th and 18th centuries it is estimated that over 60% of Europeans visiting the hinterlands of Africa died within a year). However, the discovery of quinine made the colonisation of Africa possible and so in the late 19th century various ‘white nations’ conquered Ghana (Great Britain), Cameroon (Germany), Cote D’Ivoire (France), etc.

Bioterrorism in 1990s Brazil

In the 1990s cacao farmers in Brazil were facing a calamity so severe that they were hanging themselves and drinking rat poison to kill themselves. Yet a decade earlier Brazil was the world’s third largest grower of cacao, and it made farmers rich (although the plight of the workers was wretched). But in the early 1990s, Moniliophthora perniciosa (aka witches’ broom) was discovered in Bahia, Brazil.

Witches’ broom isn’t native to Bahia, Brazil. Like cacao itself it originated in the Amazonian rainforest. But in the Amazon, it cannot quickly spread as wild cacao trees are well separated from one another. But when witches’ broom reaches dense plantations of cocoa trees, the impact is disastrous; Trinidad and Venezuela lost 80% plus of their cacao trees in outbreaks from the 1920s to the 1940s (Venezuelan cacao then also was hammered by frosty pod and ceratocystis to add to its problems).

From the first instances of witches’ broom in Bahia in the 1990s, suspicions were raised of a deliberate infestation. The first trees to be impacted in many estates were in the middle, not the outskirts, of plantations; and as an eyewitness reported: “I found two cocoa trees with dry witches’ broom tied onto them in the middle of their trunks” (José Roberto Benjamin, a farm owner in Camacan, quoted in The Knot).

And then in 2006 an even more extraordinary claim was published. Luiz Franco Timoteo claimed that he, and other left wing activists,  in an effort to draw attention to the dire conditions of the cacao workers in Bahia, deliberately introduced witches’ broom, with the help of workers from CEPLAC; the Brazilian equivalent of DEFRA (UK) or the FDA (US), as CEPLAC “could go anywhere” (which explains how the disease spread in such an extraordinary way).

CEPLAC vigorously contests these assertions. And it clearly did make extraordinary efforts to destroy the disease; including fumigating cacao farms with Agent Orange. And other conspiracy theories have also been circulated (including the idea that Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire indulged in agro-warfare).

The origin of witches’ broom in Bahia is still unsolved. But the dangers of bioterrorism, and threats posed by cacao diseases to mass, monoculture agricultural approaches to cacao, is clear.

Why does this matter? Chocolate and Disease: The Present Day

So the good news is that Bahia, Brazil is slowly recovering, and whilst cacao production is nowhere near its earlier levels, it is enabling some farmers and many makers to craft great bars (see here for some from Åkesson’s own operations there).

In part this is because scientists have discovered wild cacao varietals deep in the Amazonian rainforest that can resist witches’ broom (indeed one, called Scavina-6, was identified as early as 1940s in the Peruvian rainforest). And CRISPR is now also being used to try and avoid some frightening new diseases threatening African and Asian cocoa farmers. At the same time these clones have major issues; for more see here on CCN-51.

Without wishing to sound melodramatic, commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate are an existential threat through their reliance on agricultural monocultures, their use of slash and burn agriculture combined with their requirement for loads of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. We need to learn from the disasters foretold by the Gran Michel, and now Cavendish, banana. We need to promote more cacao varietals and delight in chocolate’s myriad of flavours to protect genetic diversity. And we need to protect the rainforest, not destroy it with slash and burn monocrop agricultural commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate where flavour and taste is all added in the factory.

The end product of this commoditised cacao; mass produced chocolate confectionery; is also causing a whole series of other human diseases ranging from early onset type 2 diabetes, heart and liver issues, obesity, cancers, etc. Pretty packaging, smart marketing, evocative slogans (even those claiming to “eradicate child slavery”) should not divert from the fact that most supermarket chocolate bars are over 50% sugar (including Tony’s). As a flavour enhancer sugar is awesome. But it’s also highly addictive and unhealthy.

So if you want to help eradicate the diseases to (and from) cacao and save our planet please savour craft chocolate.

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Too Good To Be True:

How to read the small print of chocolate and health studies, with Dr Tim Spector

There are a lot of scientific claims about chocolate! So we teamed up with Dr Tim Spector to ‘review’ these claims. 

Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review chocolate-related health claims and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential ‘cognitive bias’.

One of our mantras at Cocoa Runners is that “craft chocolate tastes better, is better for farmers, better for the planet and also better for you”.

This is one reason why we invited Dr Tim Spector to join us for a ‘Craft Chocolate Conversation’, and to discuss his latest book, ‘Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we’ve been told about food is wrong‘. 

Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind the crowdsourced covid-19 app (the one that works!). And his latest book is a passionate paean to the dangers and risks of ‘miracle cures’ and hyped scientific claims for all foods. At the same time, Tim has also spent the last 30+ years researching the microbiome of our gut, and he talks a tonne of sense about how different people respond to different foods (including chocolate).

A Quick History of ‘Scientific’ Claims for Chocolate

Throughout history, chocolate has been the subject of truly miraculous claims. Both the Aztecs and Marquis de Sade were convinced of its properties as an aphrodisiac. Earnest debates were held on its “humorous” properties by alchemists, doctors, barbers and quacks during the 17th and 18th centuries. And two of the first three US presidents (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were keen that chocolate become the preferred drink in the US given it’s “nutritional benefits” (…and that it didn’t come from Great Britain).

Arguably, the modern fad for claiming that chocolate is somehow healthy can be sourced from a series of studies of the Kuna people in the late 20th Century, which highlighted their low rate of heart attacks and coronary problems. These health benefits were attributed to their predilection for a unique drinking chocolate recipe that is very high in flavanols (as well as eating lots of fish).

There may well be something in this. But it’s hard to translate their habits into ‘normal’ chocolate consumption, as the Kuna were drinking gallons (over 5 large cups or almost, 2 litres a day) of this beverage, which is crafted and fermented very differently to any normal chocolate bar.

But the genie was out of the bottle. The power of associating health benefits with chocolate was immediate. Loads more studies were launched all over the world. To journalists, the headlines from these studies are like catnip; after all, chocolate health studies make for great click bait.

‘Greatest hits’ from the “is chocolate good for you”? debate:

It’s fun (and also a little worrying) pulling highlights from the ‘chocolate-as-cure-all’ discourse. For those who want to read more, The Economics of Chocolate (ed. Mara P. Squicciarini and Johan Swinnen 2019), has a whole chapter entitled ‘Nutritional and Health Effects of Chocolate’ which collates various studies. Here are a dozen claims: 

  1. “…an average consumption of 10g/day of chocolate induced positive effects on cognitive performance, with maximum benefit depending on the variety of chocolate consumed (flavonoids-rich type) (Nurk et al 2009)”.
  2. “…a habitual chocolate consumption of 10g of dark chocolate per day (corresponding to 4.2g of cocoa) was associated with lower systolic blood pressure compared to no, or very low, cocoa intake (Buijsse et al 2006)”.
  3.  “…Almoosawi and colleagues (2012) found that 20g per day of dark chocolate improved cardiovascular risk factors in healthy, overweight and obese subjects”.
  4. “Research conducted in the Netherlands on young healthy women explored the relationship between appetites and levels of gastrointestinal hormones … results showed that smelling and eating 30g chocolate induced appetite suppression and were inversely correlated with levels of ghrelin, a hormone which stimulates appetite (Massolt, 2010)”
  5. 21 healthy men aged 25-30, were given dark or white chocolate for 28 days. They were given 25g three times a day (at 4,6 and 8pm). And those who were given dark chocolate saw a “decrease in blood sugar” (Rusconi, 2012).
  6. 15 women, aged 20-40 years, were given 100g of 70% dark chocolate (Di Renzo) in two 50g portions in morning and evening. “After chocolate consumption, a significant increase in HDL cholesterol level and a significant decrease of total cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio were observed”. And in addition “a reduction in abdomen circumference” was noted.
  7. Hermann and colleagues (2006) suggest that “70% dark chocolate improves vasodilation by 80% in young healthy smokers starting from two hours after chocolate ingestion and lasting for up to 8 hours”.
  8. “…people with an average age of 57 years who’d been eating chocolate five times a week for the last few years, and run 3-4 times a week, have a lower BMI that those who eat chocolate less often (Golomb and colleagues)”.
  9. In a study by Parker and Crawford in 2007, of 3000 people who described themselves as being depressed, 45% craved chocolate. “Chocolate is high in branch-train amino acids, and especially in tryptophan, which increases the blood level of serotonin, the neurotransmitter producing calming and pleasurable feelings”.
  10. “Chocolate was found to coat the teeth, thereby preventing tooth decay … Tannins in cocoa were found to promote healthy teeth as they inhibited the formation of dental plaque (Matsumoto, 2004)”.
  11.  “A double blind study of 30 healthy subjects divided into two groups one consuming a 20g per day of high flavanol level chocolate and one consuming a conventional dark chocolate … confirmed that a regular consumption of rich-in-polyphenols chocolate confers significant photoprotection and can be effective at protecting human skin from harmful UV effects (Williams et al 2009)”.
  12. “Chocolate is rich in theobromine (an alkaloid stimulant that acts on the body in ways similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to the cannabinoids, that act on the central nervous system, producing euphoric, aphrodisiac and stimulating effect (Di Tomaso et al 1996). It also contains phenylethylamine, a molecule  released during intimacy, when people are infatuated or fall in love, and it further promotes the release of serotonin … producing some aphrodisiac and mood lifting effects”. (No study quoted for this one, and to be fair, the authors say more work is needed on this).

It looks like if you smoke or are healthy, if you are male or female, looking to lower blood sugar, reduce the size of your “abdomen circumference”, end your cravings, cure your depression, think better or want to fall in love someone has done a study where the solution is “EAT MORE CHOCOLATE”!

Some scientific studies really are too good to be true.

So, to help you separate fact from (fantasy) fiction, here are some of Tim’s tips on seeing through the jargon:

  1. Just as we encourage you to check the ingredients in your bar of chocolate, check how many people the study has involved. In the above, I could rarely find the number of people ‘studied’.  
  2. Similarly, just as you want to know the farm/estate/co-operative where the beans in your bar are from, when checking a study it’s worth trying to find out who has paid for the research. Vox did some research in 2017 of 100+ studies carried out on chocolate by Mars and found “they overwhelmingly drew glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate … promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease”. Similarly, when we dug into the health benefit claims for coconut sugar we discovered that the “proof” that Coconut sugar generates lower GI spikes was based on a study of 11 people financed by The Philippine Coconut Marketing Agency… Hmmm…
  3. Beware of what is variously described as ‘cognitive bias’, ‘motivated reasoning’ or ‘wishful thinking’. Psychologists warn us to beware that we all are more likely to notice what we want to notice. And this is very true when we see ‘justifications’ for savouring our favourite craft chocolate bars.
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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.