Interview with Chris Thompson, Owner, Philter Coffee, Kennett Square, PA

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Photo credit: Chris Thompson, Philter Coffee

With its modern decor, studious atmosphere, and inspired coffee menu (you should try the gran-all-in-one), Philter Coffee is the type of coffee shop you’d expect to find in a big US city. Lucky me, the shop is actually located an hour away from Philadelphia, in a small town called Kennett Square, right here, in Pennsylvania.

Climb the single step, push the heavy door, and you’ll be welcomed by the sound of a little bell, the smell of espresso, and the smile of a soft-spoken barista. On weekdays, I order a latte, sometimes a cappuccino, and settle at one of the thick but smooth wooden tables. From my favorite table, you can hear the orders (“it’s my first time here!”), spot the regulars, and peek at the craft chocolate selection.

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Photo credit: Chris Thompson, Philter Coffee

As previously mentioned, Philter Coffee was where the “37 Chocolates” challenge truly started. My first bite of Twenty-Four Blackbirds Madagascar chocolate sparked my curiosity for craft chocolate, so I started working my way through Philter Coffee’s bean-to-bar chocolate selection.

Very early, Chris Thompson, owner at Philter Coffee, took an interest in my challenge. As my passion for chocolate grew, I started sharing my stash with him. Because he really appreciates chocolate, I have enjoyed sharing tasting notes with him and geeking out about specific bars or makers (“you should try their Belize!”, “there’s too much cocoa butter in this one”). While I already I have such conversations on Instagram, there’s nothing like having them face-to-face with another chocolate-lover! But since many of you cannot travel to Kennett Square, I have asked Chris to tell us all more about his taste in chocolate.

1 – Tell us a bit about Philter Coffee.

Philter opened in Kennett Square, PA. in December, 2013. We are a hospitality-driven, specialty coffee cafe that takes a craft approach to brewing filter and espresso coffees. In addition, we offer a small menu of sandwiches and salads that are prepared with the same level of care.

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Photo credit: Chris Thompson, Philter Coffee

2 – Your shop carries a small selection of craft, bean-to-bar chocolate. What drew you to the world of craft chocolate?

I read an article about craft chocolate back in 2006. I’ve always loved food and searched for foods/ingredients that were prepared with intention. Back then, it was difficult to find true bean-to bar makers, so it was always a treat when I could get my hands on a great bar. Luckily for all of us there are many more makers to try now.

3 – What are some of the bars Philter currently offers to its customers?

I usually have four origin bars from Dick Taylor, three from Woodblock, three from Parliament, and two from Twenty Four Blackbirds. I personally don’t usually care for inclusions in a chocolate bar, but do get excited when I find one I like, and am happy to offer those. I find that people who aren’t familiar with properly crafted chocolate, may find the inclusion bars easier to approach. Then they’re hooked!

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Photo credit: Chris Thompson, Philter Coffee

4 – What are you looking for when choosing chocolate? 

I have to say that I have never made chocolate before and I know that not everyone will agree with what I say below. These are just my thoughts on what makes a good bar and what has guided me in my selection offered at Philter.

I wanted to only feature true bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Additionally, I prefer a lighter roast profile that, in my opinion, highlights the natural sweetness of the cacao without getting to the roasty/ashy/dry flavors that I find off putting.

I find that I also prefer that there be no additives other than cane sugar. This includes additional cocoa butter. I understand that adding cocoa butter makes the chocolate easier to work with, but I find that it also changes the texture to be waxy and also blocks or mutes some of the more subtle nuances in a bars flavor.

I do make exceptions when I find an inclusion bar that highlights the flavor of the chocolate and not mask it. Some notable examples are: Dick Taylor’s black fig, Woodblock’s dark milk, and although I haven’t brought it in yet, Nathan Miller‘s buttermilk 55% buttermilk & Oko Caribe with Himalayan sea salt is fantastic!

There are other makers who I’d like to eventually work in. It’s mostly a spacial thing and it’s also hard to move someone out when they do such an amazing job.

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Photo credit: Chris Thomspon, Philter Coffee

5 – Craft chocolate is typically a lot more expensive than its industrial counterpart. How do you address the questions your customers may have about the price of your bars?

I usually will tell the story of a small company of as little as one or two people who carefully source cacao from smaller farms based on specific flavor characteristics of the region and quality farming practices. If they seem interested still, I go into how the makers then take the cocoa from it’s “raw” form and take it through the multiple stages of processing until the have the finished chocolate. If I still have their interest, I’ll explain how each chocolate has a unique flavor that can only be brought out by careful roasting, and that comes from experience and a lot of trial and error.

6 – What are some of the chocolates you like to pair with coffee?

Sometimes we’ll have a bar and a coffee from the same origin, that’s always fun. But I encourage people to play with pairings and see what they like.

My French Book, v2.0

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Look, I wrote a book!!

It’s been a little quiet here but for good reason: I launched the second edition of my French book! To say I am ecstatic is a huge understatement: from the content, updated after the “37 Chocolates” challenge, to the new cover, designed by Dan McShane, I am THRILLED at the improvements I have been able to bring to this edition. The book is a “food survival guide” for French expats in the US. It is written in French but printed in the US and, at the moment, exclusively sold online through a platform called Gumroad. It will make a great gift for the francophile in your life 🙂

A bit of background on the book. When I moved from France to the US in 2002, nothing had prepared me for the cultural shock I experienced at the grocery store. Milk was sold in the refrigerated section, there was no crème fraîche but a product called “sour cream”, flour was “all-purpose”, yeast dehydrated, and baking powder sold in ginormous containers. The first time I went to a grocery store on my own, I spent 2 hours reading labels.

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Parliament Chocolate, a California-based bean-to-bar maker

The idea for my food survival guide was born 10 years ago, after I shared the result of my research on American dairy and baking products on my French blog. These posts inspired an actual book, which I first released in 2015.  In my book, I walk expats through two of the most daunting aisles of an American grocery store, namely, the dairy and baking aisles, then help them pick meat, eggs, potatoes (nope, there’s no Russett overseas), organic food, and, of course, chocolate. My goal is to give expats the keys to understand their new food environment so they can spend less time at the grocery store and more time enjoying their new American life.

The “37 chocolates” challenge had started as an offshoot of the book: if you remember, on the first video, I mention stumbling upon a grumpy expat’s comment online, who was complaining that American chocolate was bad. “I’ll show you”, I thought, and, at the last minute, made US-made bean-to-bar chocolate the focus of my challenge.

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Dick Taylor is a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker I recommend in my book

Today, I am particularly proud of the chocolate section of the book, which I believe provides a blueprint for a casual chocolate eater to expand their horizon and start dipping their toes into the world of handcrafted, single origin chocolate.If you already like Lindt and Endangered Species, why not look for Theo, then move on to TCHO? You could then give Olive and Sinclair a try,  move on to Dick Taylor, before sailing off to your next chocolate adventure.

The last three makers are the newest additions to the chocolate section. I selected them for their chocolate-making style, which I believe will please French palates, as much as for the American touch they bring to their bars.  I love that TCHO calls its chocolate “new American chocolate” or that Olive and Sinclair uses brown sugar to sweeten their bars. This is my favorite kind of food, food that embraces its roots, does not pretend to be what it’s not, and  I hope my readers will give these bars a try.

What I really wish, though? Find the grumpy expat to make him sit through my 37 reviews.

What is Bean-to-Bar Chocolate? (1/2)

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Ideas are a funny thing. I had planned on writing this post last week until I accepted that I could not finalize the second edition of my book, write a blog post in French, working on this article in English, and enjoying spring break with my oldest daughter. Nope. So I updated the book and had fun with my girl, while I witnessed two articles being published on the very topic I was planning to tackle here, namely: what exactly is bean-to-bar chocolate?

Bean-to-bar is a term I used in many, if not all, of my videos, but its use is currently not regulated in the US. As I understand it, a bean-to-bar manufacturer oversees the chocolate production chain, from sourcing the beans to making the actual bars. Some may argue that a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker has to produce chocolate in small batches but there is no reason, in my mind, why the term should be associated with a specific production scale.

A bean-to-bar chocolate-maker will therefore be responsible for sourcing the beans before processing them through each of the following steps:

  • Sorting
  • Roasting
  • Cracking
  • Winnowing
  • Grinding
  • Conching
  • Tempering
  • Molding

If that sounds like a lot of work, it is because it is. The whole process takes days and when people ask me if I ever feel like making chocolate, all I have to do is referring them through each of these steps to help them understand that my answer is a big “no”.

The next question would be: how do you recognize a bean-to-bar chocolate? My answer: by checking the list of ingredients. A bean-to-bar chocolate bar will most likely list “cacao”, “cocoa”, or “cocoa beans” as its main ingredient. I took a picture of two ingredient lists on two different bean-to-bar chocolate labels so you could see yourself.

This is what you’ll find on the side of a piece of Woodblock Chocolate.

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And here is the list of ingredients on a bar made my Map Chocolate:

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OK, but isn’t all chocolate made from cacao beans? Technically, yes, but, it is not always made by the company whose name appears on the bar. As I mentioned in a previous post, a chocolatier uses already-made chocolate, typically referred to “couverture chocolate”, to use in his or her chocolate creations. I like to say that chocolate-makers express their personality by making chocolate and chocolatiers by making chocolate confections.

To spot a bar made my chocolatier, look for information on the wrapper. For example, CHUAO decided to claim its chocolatier status by indicating it on its wrappers.

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Other times, you’ll have to do a little more work to determine whether the bar is made by a chocolatier or not. If the company uses couverture chocolate in its bars, it will likely NOT list “cacao” or “cocoa” in its list of ingredients but “dark chocolate” or “milk chocolate” as a first ingredient.

Now comes the trickier part. Some makers actually make chocolate from a product called “cocoa mass” or “cocoa liquor”, which is what you call cocoa after it has been ground and melted.

The whole idea of using cacao liquor to make chocolate is very puzzling to me. How do you become a liquor processor? Where do you find these companies? How do you ship that liquid product to a maker? If you have an answer, please feel free to chime in.

Identifying a maker that uses cocoa liquor can be easy, as you will see on this ingredient label.

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Other times, you will have to study the label a little more closely. Check this label of Moonstruck Chocolate, for example. The first ingredient on the bar is “dark chocolate”, which is described to us as a mixture of “unsweetened chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, and soy lecithin”. My interpretation of the label is that the chocolate is made in-house from cocoa liquor that has been melted and molded, mixed with the additional ingredients. In other words, the company probably has not sourced, roasted, cracked, sorted, winnowed, and ground the cacao itself.

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Phew. Who knew interpreting a label could be that hard?

I hope this post helped you understand how to identify a bean-to-bar chocolate. Let me know of your questions or comments – I’d love to hear from you.

You can read the second part of the article here.

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Interview with Laurie Rice, Founder of Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

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70% Guatemala bar by Dulcinea Craft Chocolate. That bit of acidity will awaken your taste buds.

When I committed to review 37 US-made chocolates by my 37th birthday last year, a lot of people asked me if it was even possible to find that many to review. The answer? You bet! Just look for #beantobar #craftchocolate  on Instagram and you’ll soon appreciate the diversity of the chocolate-making scene in this country. One thing you’ll even notice is the concentration of chocolate-making companies in California. Dick Taylor, Dandelion Chocolate, and LetterPress Chocolate, to name a few, are all based on the West Coast. Living in Pennsylvania, I was actually hoping to discover more makers in my state, which I did last fall.

After tasting Robert Campbell’s creations for Chocolate Alchemist in October, I stumbled upon Dulcinea Craft Chocolate’s Instagram account. I quickly fell in love with the sense of aesthetics of the maker (I was mesmerized by this picture) and put Dulcinea Craft Chocolate‘s bars on my “to-try” list. Laurie actually sent me three bars for me to sample in late 2015 and two words come to mind  to describe her work: Love and Respect. Watch my review of her Guatemala bar to learn more.

Because I wanted to hear more about Laurie’s chocolate story, I asked her to answer a few questions for the blog. I think you’ll really enjoy meeting her.

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Photo credit: Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

What prompted you to start making chocolate?

I’ve always been a maker – even as a child. And coming from a large Italian family, I understood at an early age that food equals love. It’s hard to say for certain what put me on this path – it really was more like a calling I just couldn’t get out of my head.

In the 90’s I saw a documentary about cacao farmers. Until then, I’m ashamed to say, I never thought about where chocolate came from – or at whose expense. Then in 2008 I discovered Askinosie. I fell in love with their bars and the company’s ethos. It was my first introduction to craft chocolate. Taza was another company I admired – making a rustic and wonderful chocolate while positively impacting the lives of cacao farmers. Then a few years later the Mast Brothers were featured on a program called Food Crafters. I know there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding them lately, but at the end of their segment they asked a question that struck a cord with me, “Why can’t every town have their own chocolate maker?” Those words really resonated with me.

Then, on Christmas morning, 2011, my daughter and I took off for Paris on a whim. We had two buddy passes, our passports, two carry-ons, and a translation app. It was the craziest, most impulsive thing I’d ever done in my life -and it changed everything.

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Photo credit: Laurie Rice

Sometimes we spend so much of our time doing what is expected – Paris was completely unexpected. We wandered the city in amazement of the sights, the streets, the patisseries, the art! We laughed. We ate. We sipped chocolat chaud. And on our last morning, our concierge treated us to warm pain au chocolat fresh off the delivery truck. Paris awakened my courage. It reminded me of who I was – what I was capable of. And now, it was sending me off with chocolate. This was my sign. It was as if that flaky little pastry whispered, Life is short. What are you waiting for? I did three things when I came home. First, I enrolled at Ecole Chocolat. Next, I stopped coloring my hair. Finally, when the school year ended, I submitted my letter of resignation. And I’ve never looked back.

The name of your company was inspired by Don Quixote. Can you tell us more about it?

My husband is an historic preservationist. A few years ago he was trying to save a landmark home from the wrecking ball. His effort became a quest of sorts so a friend jokingly called him Don Quixote of Beaver. This was right around the time I was looking for a name for the company. Dulcinea is Don Quixote’s love. She becomes the inspiration behind his quest for justice and honor. My husband and I have a great deal of love and respect for cacao farmers, and also for each other, so the name seemed to fit perfectly.

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Maybe my favorite bar by Dulcinea Craft Chocolate. It draws a subtle smile on my face.

You used to work as an assistant librarian. How has that career influenced your approach to chocolate making?

For starters, it certainly helped in doing my research.

But every time we work with our hands, we tell a story – we share a piece of ourselves. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Our individual life experiences influence everything we do. If you think about it, millions of books are written each year using only twenty-six letters of the alphabet and the writer’s perspective. Instead of the alphabet, chocolate makers have cacao. We may work with the same beans, but like a novel, the end product will never be the same. Stories reflect the writer’s voice – their particular point of view. Craft chocolate does that too.

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Photo credit: Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

Your sense of aesthetics – minimalist, yet timeless and romantic – really stands out in the world of craft chocolate. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

That’s a lovely compliment.

Well… my home is filled with books and photographs, broken clocks and old typewriters, copper pots and a few antiques, snippets of fabric, and lots and lots of art supplies. These are some of the things I love so I guess you can say they also inspire me.

While craft beer has gone mainstream in our part of the country, this has not been the case for craft chocolate – I know a lot of people who still see chocolate as candy. What are some of your customers’ reactions when they sample you chocolate for the first time?

There is definitely a sense of surprise and delight when someone tastes craft chocolate for the first time. People are amazed by the flavors they discover. I love explaining how cacao, like wine grapes and coffee beans, picks up flavors from the environment in which it’s grown.

But it’s even more exciting to see kids taste, and like, our chocolate. Helping people, especially children, connect with their food is an amazing thing. It’s one of the perks of being a chocolate maker.

Thank you, Laurie, for taking time away from the beans to answer my questions. 

Dulcinea Craft Chocolate is located in Beaver, Pennsylvania, right outside of Pittsburgh. Click here for a list of retailers.

Interview with John Nanci, Founder of Chocolate Alchemy

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John Nanci. Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy.

Considering how popular chocolate is in the Western world, it has remained surprisingly mysterious. Think about it. How many of us actually know how chocolate is made? Or what role each ingredient plays in a bar? And do you know why some bars include soy lecithin and others don’t? Up until last year, I really did not have an answer to any  of these questions and, as I started exploring the world of craft chocolate, my list of questions only grew longer. Thankfully, it did not take long before the name of John Nanci was brought up to me by several craft chocolate-makers.

Referred by the New York Times as “the godfather of kitchen-counter chocolatiering“, John Nanci is the founder of Chocolate Alchemy, a company  credited for helping launch the careers of many chocolate-makers. Because “knowledgeable” and “generous” are the two words most commonly used to refer to John, I have asked him a few questions to help us all understand the very basics of chocolate.

Please tell us a little about Chocolate Alchemy: what is your company’s mission?

My company mission?  The over reaching mission is to make chocolate making approachable and accessible to everyone.  Both for DIY types, people who love to make things from scratch and those that want to take it to the next level.  How I do that is through making ALL of my information free and available.  Knowledge should be shared.  There are no trade secrets here and I encourage others to share what they know also.  We all benefit from paying it forward.  After that I have made it my goal to have all the equipment and selection of beans so that people can get everything they need, regards of size, to go from bean to bar chocolate.

How did you develop a passion for making chocolate? 

This is one of my open secrets.  I actually don’t have a passion for chocolate.  I mean, chocolate is good and I enjoy it, but it in of itself isn’t what drives me.  I have a passion for discovery, teaching, learning, building, creating, exploration, and helping others find those passions in themselves and supporting it however I can. Chocolate Alchemy lets me do that.  In short, my passion is for problem solving.

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John Nanci shooting a video series teaching how to make chocolate. Photo Credit: Chocolate Alchemy

The term “craft chocolate” is currently not regulated. How would you define craft chocolate?

To me craft chocolate is chocolate made with intent.  I might be able to argue that it is where one person has a hand in every step of the process of creation.  It might not be any more or less than that. To expand a little though, it has little to do with scale.  Someone that pours beans in a hypothetical machine, pushes a few buttons and chocolate comes out the next day isn’t making craft chocolate even if it is only one pound. Alternatively, some that is using 3 bag (500 lb) roaster, watching the controls, who has personally formulated the chocolate and decides when it is done is still craft as they have their hands in it.  Intent.

What is the difference between the cacao used in industrial chocolate and the cacao that you carry?

How is my cocoa different from “industrial”?  It goes back to 3).  Intent.  Sometimes what I carry is exactly the same cocoa.  What is different is that I have evaluated it blind and chosen it on its own merits. I’ve not picked it because of a cut test or a spec sheet.  I’ve roasted, winnowed, and made chocolate from it evaluating it at every step.  That said, I carry both conventional (“industrial”) cocoa and specialty cocoa, the later generally coming from smaller coop and farmer holdings. Often those later beans have been prepared, again, with intent.  But at the same time, I’ve rejected many a specialty bean because it didn’t stand on its own merits.

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Cocoa bean from Peru (Norandino). Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy

A lot of bean-to-bar craft chocolates only contain two three ingredients: cacao beans, cane sugar, and sometimes cocoa butter. Industrial chocolate, on the other hand, often contains cocoa butter, but also vanilla, and soy lecithin. Could you briefly explain the role of these ingredients? How do they impact the taste and/or texture of the chocolate?

First off I have to tell you how pleased I didn’t see wax, oils and other things in your list. I hear way too much about how those are in ‘most’ consumer chocolate and it just isn’t true.  So thanks for that.  As for the others, I’ll address lecithin first.  And I’ll say outright that I see nothing wrong with it. And I’d challenge near anyone to tell from taste or texture whether it was present.

It plays 2-3  roles and depending on your process, makers can decide whether to use it or not.   Most people think of it as an emulsifier. That is really only true if you are making an emulsion, or a homogeneous mixture of a water and an oil. That isn’t chocolate. Chocolate is oil-based, so it doesn’t need any emulsifier per se. But it does use part of that property.  It helps bind trace amounts of water that can either be present still in the chocolate or bind water that comes in from the atmosphere. In either case, when it ties up the water, the viscosity of the chocolate is reduced and tempering and molding become easier.  If you don’t have a viscosity or water issue, there is no need for it. The other reason it is used has to do with shelf life and transportation times and temperatures.  In short it helps chocolate resist blooming to some degree. If your craft chocolate is sold locally, consumed quickly and/or just doesn’t show signs of having tempering or bloom issues, it is again of no benefit.  The history is that many commercial large scale chocolate did and do travel great distances and hang around a while.  The lecithin can help keep it presentable to the consumer.

Vanilla. I don’t have a great answer here. Tradition is what I would say. Why do we add it to so many baked goods?  Tradition?  How did it become tradition?  I can only assume, and I am only guessing here, is that at some point someone added it to a recipe and found it to their liking. Heck, I like vanilla. I put it in my chocolate sometimes. Most of the time I don’t.  Sometimes it’s added because so many people simply associate the flavor, even very low, with chocolate and when missing, people can find the chocolate ‘lacking’.   Honestly it can annoy me to hear people preaching down on vanilla.  It isn’t fair and it can be condescending playing up the ‘purity’ of two ingredients by putting others down.  My take is make and eat what you like.  If it contains vanilla (or whatever else) and you like it, then that is all that matter.  You and that chocolate are not lesser for it.  It’s about enjoyment.  On the flip side, I agree with getting outside your boundaries and trying chocolate that is ‘just’ cocoa and sugar.  Just don’t get to thinking you are better than ‘the masses’ eating (and enjoying) their chocolate that has other things.  Be open minded and enjoy what you are eating and accept others have different tastes and that different is NOT inferior because it is different.  Ok, so maybe I did have a bit to say.

Looking back at your question, I would say using vanilla with a heavy hand, out of the gate, leads to the potential of masking what the chocolate can offer on its own and my preference is to start simple, cocoa and sugar, and only add vanilla and lecithin if the need is there. Basically, if it isn’t broken don’t fix it.

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Milk chocolate in the making. Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy.

Cocoa butter.  There are three things I want to address here. First, it is purely optional. At least in higher percentage chocolate. Chocolate needs about 30-35% fat to flow well in a refiner. Given that a bean is around 50% cocoa butter, that means if you drop under 60-70% cocoa mass in your chocolate some extra cocoa butter is going to be needed just for practical purposes. After that, and a little counter intuitively, a touch (2-5%) cocoa butter can actually heighten a chocolate’s flavor as it helps the chocolate dissolve faster in the mouth leading to the impression it is more flavorful. It is basically the same effect if you were to eat a spoonful of granulated sugar vs a piece of rock candy.  Both are basically 100% sugar, but the rock candy doesn’t give that burst of flavor. I personally add 5% cocoa butter to all my chocolate for that reason. More after that amount can be added to change the mouth feel of the chocolate and is just a personal choice of the maker.  The final thing I want to talk about is what I see as some makers going over board.  I’ve heard it going around that certain makers are making a big deal about how others chocolates are not true single origin chocolate, and are implied (or stated outright) to be inferior, because of the use of a couple percentage points of cocoa butter from an origin that does not match the bean.  In my opinion “Single Origin” is just to make it clear you are not blending your beans.  Such, I can technically I can see that a “single origin” bar from Ecuador isn’t “pure” if it has 3% cocoa butter from the Dominican Republic, but I have to ask, so what?  Sure, the cocoa butter, by its nature is changing the chocolate a little, but you can’t get me to believe it’s making it inferior because it’s from a different origin.  There just isn’t reason to make this distinction to my mind.

During my challenge, I discovered you sold equipment and ingredients to make chocolate at home. What advice would you have for someone looking to invest in chocolate-making equipment for their home kitchen?

I guess the main thing to advise is to decide how deep you want to get and what your work to money ratio is.  Basically you can fully outfit yourself to make chocolate very easily, but it isn’t super cheap. Alternatively, with purchased roasted nibs and a melanger, the bare minimum, you are ready to go.  After you get comfortable, take steps backwards.  Raw nibs. Roasted bean. Raw beans. Becoming proficient with each stage (and new piece of equipment) before moving on.  And as odd as it sounds, accept you need a melanger. It’s so hard to hear the tales of people struggling to make blenders, mixers, and other things work that I’ve tested and failed with and at the end of the day spending more on ruined equipment than just starting off right.  Granted I was initially told you could not make chocolate at home, but that is totally different from being told a specific piece of equipment won’t work and you thinking you can make it work.  Oh, and ask LOTS of questions.  It is why I am here.  I do my best to answer everything that comes in in a timely fashion.  But do at least a little homework first. “How do I make chocolate?” probably isn’t the best first question if you catch my meaning.

Thank you, John, for taking the time to answer my questions.

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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?

 

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  my favorite chocolate-makers. 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.