5 Things I Did Not Know About Chocolate

2015-10-26 15.07.34Before the “37 Chocolates” challenge, all I really knew about chocolate was that it was made from cacao beans grown in faraway countries and that making it was a labor-intensive process. That was about it. As the challenge unfolded, I have learned interesting, puzzling, sometimes disturbing facts about cacao and chocolate that I’d like to share with you today.

1) There is “cacao” and then there is “cocoa”. I always knew about “cocoa” but “cacao”? I thought that was the French term for “cacao”! As it turns out, the term “cacao” is usually used to refer to the bean of the fruit of the cacao tree but, once fermented, it is typically referred to as “cocoa”. This is the explanation I found on the Equal Exchange website as well as in the book called Raising the Bar, The Future of Fine Chocolate.

2) Ivory Coast is the #1 producing region of cacao beans in the world.

3) Shockingly, the cacao grown in West African plantations, including those in Ivory Coast, has been associated with child slavery. The topic is well documented – in 2014, CNN even devoted an entire documentary on the issue – and a corporation like Nestle cannot guarantee that the cacao used its chocolate products does not involve child slavery. To me, that meant farewell to most mass-produced chocolate candy bars that are the most likely to contain cacao from West Africa.

As a consumer, feel free to ask a manufacturer about the origin of the cacao used in their chocolate products. To learn more about the issue of child slavery in cacao plantation, check the CNN Freedom Project page.

4) A 70% chocolate is not a 70% chocolate. Let me explain: the 70% chocolate bars you buy at the grocery store are usually made from a blend of cacao beans formulated to taste like what we have come to associate to “chocolate”. If you are mostly used to these bars, your first taste of a quality, single origin chocolate, will send you to a land of both delight and confusion.

I will never forget my first taste of a 70% Madagascar chocolate, whose complete lack of bitterness and bright citrus notes totally threw my taste buds off: that bar did NOT taste like chocolate! As you further explore the world of single origin chocolate, you will discover that an 80% bar is not always darker or more bitter than a 70% chocolate bar from the grocery store and you may find that a 70%, single origin chocolate is too sweet for your taste. In the world of single origin chocolate, the percentage of cacao specified on a wrapper is not an indication of how dark, bitter, or “chocolate-y” your bar will be.

If you are not familiar with the notion of single origin chocolate, check this article on The Kitchn website.

5) A chocolate-maker is not a chocolatier. It took me months before I realized you could not use these terms interchangeably. A chocolate-maker makes chocolate from scratch, starting from cacao beans.  A chocolatier uses already-made chocolate, typically referred to “couverture chocolate”,  to use in his or her chocolate creations (think truffles and bonbons, or even bars.) I like to say that chocolate-makers express their personality by making chocolate and chocolatiers by making chocolate confections.

To learn more about the steps involved in the chocolate-making process, check this article by Ecole Chocolat.

Now, tell me, what are some facts about chocolate you have learned through this post?

 

American Chocolate at the Grocery Store

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Mokaccino, a beautiful, creamy creation by TCHO

When I first committed to sample and review 37 chocolates between June and October of 2015, I knew my first reviews would feature chocolate bars from the grocery store. A few reasons for that: first, it’s so much easier to start a daunting project with what you already know and grocery store chocolate was really all I knew until last spring. Second, I wanted to feature bars my friends (who made up most of my audience back in June) could easily find if they wanted to follow me on my journey: my friend Stephanie did just that in the early days, which was quite neat! Finally, I realized that many people don’t know about all their chocolate options at their local grocery store. While a candy aisle is typically stocked with overly sweet options, you will often be able to find better chocolate natural and organic section of your store. To help you start your own chocolate journey, here is a list of bars I reviewed as part of the challenge that  I think you’ll enjoy.

In the Candy Aisle

Ghirardelli Chocolate “Evening Dream” – 60% Cacao (Review #3)

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You can watch a detailed review of the Evening Dream bar here.

Ghirardelli is a San-Francisco-based chocolate-maker whose chocolate products are widely available in American grocery stores. While I am not a fan of many of their chocolates, most notably the filled version, I do like the balance of flavors of this 60% bar. If you like the texture of Lindt chocolate, I think you will enjoy this bar.

Scharffen-Berger Bittersweet – 70% Cacao (Review #4)

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You can watch a detailed review of this bar here.

When Scharffen-Berger was founded back in 1997, it was the first new American chocolate-making company in 50 years (source.) Although Scharffen-Berger chocolate is known for its quality baking chocolate, I also enjoy some of their eating bars, with a preference for the bittersweet variety. This one has a firm snap, smooth texture, and a bright, long finish. A little will go a long way.

In the Natural & Organic Section of the Grocery Store

Theo Chocolate (Review #1)

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For many years, Theo Chocolate had been my drug of choice to fuel my chocolate addiction: I even used to order 12-bar cases on Amazon! On top of featuring organic and fair trade ingredients, I have always liked the fact their chocolate is easy to find, inexpensive, and fun to eat. In addition, unlike most mass-produced chocolate, Theo Chocolate does not use any soy lecithin in their bars, which is good news if you or someone you know is allergic to soy. I have a soft spot for their inclusion bar: cherry almond, anyone? Although I reviewed the dark chocolate, sea salt, and almond bar as part of my challenge, I actually like the balance of flavor of its milk chocolate counterpart even better. Note that the dark chocolate has a much drier texture than a Ghirardelli or Lindt chocolate.

TCHO (Reviews #7, 15, and 24)

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Watch my review of TCHO 70% Ghana bar here, 53% Milk Chocolate here, and Mokaccino bar here.

A relative newcomer to the world of chocolate, TCHO currently makes some of my favorite grocery store bars. Not only do I like their chocolate, I also happen to love the work the company does to educate customers on chocolate production and flavor. On the front of the packaging, you’ll find some approachable, brief tasting notes. On the back, more detail on the flavors, which should help you decide if the bar is for you. I ended up reviewing three bars as part of the challenge: the 70% Ghana, a traditional, quality dark chocolate, the 53% Milk, which is the creamiest, most satisfying dark milk chocolate I have found in grocery store, and my absolute favorite, the Mokaccino bar, which features the perfect balance of chocolate and coffee.

You’ll actually find TCHO in the natural and organic sections of larger grocery stores, such as Wegman’s on the East Coast, as well as in some natural and organic stores. 

Your turn! What are some of your favorite chocolate bars from the grocery store?

Interview with Mackenzie Rivers, founder of Map Chocolate

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers
This interview was originally published on my French blog, but I think it will feel more at home here. Map Chocolate is one of the three craft chocolate brands I carry on my online shop. Any bars by Map Chocolate would be a wonderful introduction to the world of craft chocolate.
I discovered Map Chocolate while researching craft chocolate-makers on Instagram. At the time, the only chocolate I consumed was mass-produced, mostly because I had a few favorite brands and was not sold on the idea of spending $8-$10 on a small chocolate bar. However, I did want to make the leap to the world of craft chocolate, so I went looking for makers to lead me there. I turned to Instagram to discover the world of small makers. I saw grinders and melangeurs, shiny tempered chocolate and bloomed chocolate that reminded you of moon craters. I discovered LetterPress Chocolate and Dick Taylor, Violet Sky and Acalli.

Right when I started my “37 Chocolates” challenge, I stumbled upon Map Chocolate’s Instagram account. I fell in love with the maker’s sense of aesthetics, the composition of her photos, which was pretty, but not precious. Did I mention the captions? I read them like poetry.

When I went to Map Chocolate’s website, it became obvious that Map Chocolate was chocolate with a soul. Yes, its chocolate is made of organic cacao from small cacao farmers and no, it does not contain any lecithin, but that’s not all. I read the chocolate descriptions like chapters of a novel and, for the first time, I did not feel intimidated when reading about single origin cacao. I did not know a thing about the difference between a cacao from Belize, Madagascar, or Tumbes in Peru, but I suddenly wanted to know more. I knew right then that $8 would get me chocolate and a map I would gladly want to follow.

Please tell us about Map Chocolate. 

It was the beans that drew me in. I walked into the Chocolate Alchemy warehouse and was so shocked–I had no idea that chocolate did not just come from one type of cocoa bean. Or that there were so many types of beans, grown in so many places. The fact that there is not just “one” bean, from one place, is incredible, because it means there is not “one” chocolate. Which meant, why the heck does it all mostly taste the same? Aside from Theo, I had never tried craft chocolate, so I went from seeing the beans to saying “I want to make chocolate.”

To me, this is what craft chocolate offers: chocolate as something real, not the idea of chocolate as one standardized flavor. That was a year and a half ago; I made chocolate for nine months before I made the leap into opening my online shops. I gave a lot away to family and friends to try, my son and his friends ate it every day, I threw out mistakes, and loved every minute. I was at a crossroads in my life and during that nine months I started working for Chocolate Alchemy (the “father” of bean-to-bar craft chocolate) and every day I would ask John a question about beans or roasting, the chemistry behind chocolate, equipment, etc. He is like the Wikipedia of chocolate! I became immersed in the world of small batch chocolate making, and the world of beans. So I have been very fortunate to have people encouraging me and believing in what I am doing, willing to taste my chocolate, and to give me, a new chocolate maker, a try. And that is why my company is called Map Chocolate: map stands for Mackenzie and People. No boundaries, finding open roads, and each of us discovering our path. I am thrilled every time I send out a bar.

And as a side note: when I was looking for molds I wanted square ones. I found my molds and when they arrived from Belgium (possibly the smallest order they’d ever had, I bought a total of 3, and could make 6 bars at a time), the invoice had the name of the mold listed as Scheherazade. She is the narrator storyteller behind the ancient stories A Thousand and One Arabian Nights…that seemed like a good sign.

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers

Could you give us a glimpse into a day at Map Chocolate? Is there such thing as a typical day when you are a chocolate-maker?

Because I work part time at Chocolate Alchemy (John supplies and makes bean to bar equipment, beans + supplies, and information), as well as being the sole proprietor of Map I have to be efficient and try to stick to a schedule. I divide the basic chocolate making over 3 days, then fill in everything else in the mornings and evenings. One day is for roasting, making test batches, and making my sipping chocolates. Roasting is when I often get my inspiration for my bars, because at this point it is truly about the beans; I get the first hints of what chocolate the beans might become, and, for me, it is the area that requires the most skill and intuition. I use a barrel roaster, which also gives me a good way to gauge the roast depending on the aroma, and how it changes and shifts during the roast. The second day I reserve for tempering/molding bars, and nothing else; I still hand-temper, so there’s a lot going on that day. The third day is for wrapping bars and creating my wrappers, and then on day four I try to fill orders, box, and ship. The actual melanging/conching takes place 24/7. I built my website and do all the maintenance/uploading products, and I create my packaging, which I fit in early in the mornings. If I were an animal I would be a mule: stubborn, persistent, not afraid to work, a bit quirky, often with a mind of its own. But “Mule Chocolate” does not have the same ring 🙂

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers

Your sense of aesthetics and product descriptions are one of the things that set Map Chocolate from other chocolate-makers. Which are some of the artists and writers that inspire you?

Always in the back of my head is advice about writing by Ernest Hemingway: say one true thing. I want this to come through in what I am making, as well as what I write. I think his quote is from A Moveable Feast. I try to write and stay true to what the voice in my head is saying, and if it feels difficult or a struggle then I know that is a sign that I am not listening, and it isn’t true to my voice. I hope that what I write will open a window, not necessarily point a route to a certain path. As a chocolate maker I’m just a guide: I choose the bean, decide the %, craft it to what I think tastes good, and choose how it will be presented, but then it leaves my hands. Chocolate might be a small thing, but I think there is something amazing about it beyond taste that not only makes us happy, but carries within it the journey of the bean, and awakens memories. This is the story part of it for me, and what I love is that I might say “notes of lemon and birdsong” but then every person has their own notion of what that bird might sound like. Or maybe they will then ask themselves, what would that taste like?

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers

I love the seasonality of some of your chocolate collections – I have a soft spot for the Squirrel Stash – could you share some of the chocolate creations you are working on for this winter?

I love creating collections! They came about because the truth for me is that big bars of chocolate can be daunting, and not just the price. What if I take a bite and I don’t like it? what if I unwrap it and now I’m faced with this big bar and I don’t want it to go to waste? And when I was first trying craft chocolate, how was I supposed to choose an Ecuador Camino Verde over a Bolivia? What exactly does a Bolivia mean when it comes to chocolate? The packaging out there implies the buyer must already know what an Ecuador tastes like, and the typical tasting notes only help perpetuate and widen this chasm. There is no reference point; for me, when I eat chocolate it takes me somewhere, either back in time or clarifies the present moment. I want to share this with the people who are trying my chocolate. Also, the flip side of that is that I selfishly don’t want to just make (or eat) the same old thing, and I think chocolate is as seasonal as any real food. So, for this year I have a 25 piece collection for the holidays that is inspired by the winter sky (various hues of dark, a few flickers of bright, and alpenglow will all be in there) a small 9-piece collection inspired by Admiral Byrd called Packing List: Antarctica (he had chocolate and coffee on his packing list), and another small set called The Tip of the Iceberg which features nine different salts atop one origin.

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers

Craft chocolate can be expensive. In my experience, many people (I was one of them) feel intimidated by the idea of spending $10 for 2-3 oz of fine chocolate. Some argue their palate is not as refined to appreciate the experience of fine chocolate. As a craft chocolate-maker, what words would you have for someone who is about to dip their toes in the water of craft chocolate?

It all begins with intention. I think that is the gift of anything handcrafted: our intentions shape the world, so if we buy something handcrafted, or from a small farmer who might have actually been the person who lovingly pruned the apple trees, we are then acting out of awareness. It is the goal of mass marketing to get us to choose what we are told we should choose, to act out of habit and blindness.

As a starting point I would say choose based on the packaging, which might seem contrary to “it’s what’s inside that matters,” but if the outer layers are beautiful, thoughtful, have been created with details at the forefront, then that is a good indicator of what is to come inside.This is not to say fancy or expensive, just created with a respect for both the chocolate and the person who might enjoy it. I recently had a bar from a newer, small maker in Australia (Smooth Chocolator) and the packaging was simple albeit stunning. And the experience of opening it was so satisfying, just lovely; as wonderful as opening a new book and seeing the first page, reading the first sentence and having the words drawing you in, instantly. I could feel the maker’s care and love for what they are doing.

The “value” or reason to buy craft chocolate is because it is not just another bar on a long assembly line of sameness, but a glimpse into how the maker sees the world through chocolate. Craft chocolate provides not just the (hopefully wonderful) experience of tasting chocolate, but a real connection…that’s not something a factory does, or is intended to do. Because Map is so small, even in the world of small batch makers, it often feels like it is a tiny bird attempting to migrate and navigate amidst big jetliners and more than a few well-funded Lear jets, plus there is all that headwind from chocolate critics and “experts.” That said, what I believe is that the best stories travel far, and size has nothing to do with it.

You can watch my review of two of Map Chocolate bars here.

Why I Don’t Have a “Top 3” Bars

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Three bars I recently tasted.

After I published the “37 Chocolates” recap last week, several people asked me about “my top 3 bars” or “the best chocolate.” While the questions are legitimate – surely, I do have a few favorites – I do not have a clear cut answer. When I committed to my challenge in June 2015, my goals were the following:

  1. Demonstrate to my French readers that there are a lot of excellent American chocolates.
  2. Discover new bars.
  3. Be comfortable on video.
  4. Dip my toes in the world of craft chocolate.
  5. Understand why some makers charge $10/bar.

But while I was busy pursuing these goals, I made a surprising discovery. As I was preparing my 10th review about Woodblock Chocolate, a craft chocolate maker from Oregon, I clearly recall thinking: “this chocolate-maker takes its craft seriously but does not take itself seriously.” How that thought materialized, I am not sure, but I suddenly understood that, unlike industrial chocolate, craft chocolate carried the soul of its maker. That 10th review marked a turning point in my chocolate journey and I started looking at how a chocolate-maker infused her or his chocolate with her or his personality. In short, my interest shifted from bars to makers.

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Meeting Robert Campbell aka Chocolate Alchemist in Philadelphia was one of the highlights of my “37 Chocolates” challenge.

Well, you may ask, do I have a favorite maker? The answer is yes, I do: Map Chocolate. Map Chocolate converted me to the world of craft chocolate without even trying. If you only watch one of my reviews, I would suggest you check the one I did of two of her bars. Finding the work of Map Chocolate was as close as it got to finding a chocolate soulmate. However, just like my beloved husband cannot possibly be everything to me, Map Chocolate cannot fill all of my chocolate needs either. Besides, there are so many authentic, passionate makers I want to support.

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Le Chocolat Chaud was the subject of my 37th review.

For instance, I’m drawn to the worlds of Dulcinea Chocolate in Pittsburgh (oh, their Tanzania bar) and Chocolate Alchemist from Philadelphia (best hot chocolate EVER), as well as Acalli in New Orleans (their dark milk chocolate was my very first craft chocolate crush) and Violet Sky from Indiana (their inclusion bars are pure poetry). I could go on and on, but I do seem to gravitate toward the work of lesser known, unapologetic makers with a strong passion for their craft. That does not mean these makers are the best (is there even such thing, when a big part of making chocolate is sourcing quality cacao?), it simply means I have been fortunate to have found makers that speak to me.

I started this blog to walk you through what I learned during my challenge, one bar and one maker at a time. I want you to embrace the whole experience, the good, the bad, the puzzling, and the exciting. Just like flat tires are part of a road trip, there’ll be a few bars you won’t like as part of your journey. Making chocolate is both a craft and art and the art part is what appeals to me. That means there is no ranking, no top 3, and I hope you’ll be inspired to go and find the chocolate that will speak to you.