As an adult, I’ve grown to adore dark chocolate and seldom go a day without indulging in a chunk or two after supper. Like an tumultuous infant, projecting food from its high chair, my palette vehemently rejects - vegetable fat laden - milk chocolate and sickeningly sweet desserts; therefore, bitter-sweet dark chocolate is my preferred accompaniment to a good meal as it never leaves a wince-worthy, saccharine film in my mouth.
Over the last two years, my taste has gradually matured as I’ve taken time to discover artisanal varieties of seventy percent plus single origin bars. Becoming a teetotaller has also had a compound effect on my taste as I now seek, smell and buy chocolates, coffee and tea like a whisky aficionado.
I follow unquestionably well-written chocolate blogs, track tags on Tumblr and seek boutique brands from around the world to satisfy my curiosity, and the dedication to innovation, quality and ethics leaves me envious. Like the professional baristas of any good coffee house, artisan chocolatiers have long possessed a sense of care and pride that is just beginning to sprout in other food businesses. From sourcing beans to conching and distribution, the processes involved in producing superior products are not for short-termists that dream of franchises, expansions and head-counts. Real chocolate making is a craft and each bar, from the first to last of each batch, requires unrequited attention.
As a purist, I prefer bars as opposed to truffles and exuberant treats. Elaborate boxes and dinky paper cups are, well, akin to Rosé wine: strictly the preserve of mums and girlfriends. However, bars and blocks are the thinking man’s choice. As I slowly pierce foil and hear a snap to confirm good tempering, the aroma of a new bar mystically fills the air and primes the palette to detect specific notes. The results are, more often than not, surprising as bars with zesty bouquets can be preceded by spicy flavours, and rum like flavours are often introduced by scents of vanilla, caramel and raisin.
Mirroring the Mayans, who offered their gods chocolate throughout rituals, the act of eating good chocolate has also become ceremonial for me. These things cannot be rushed. The acerbic taste of the first square, as it initially melts in the mouth, is always replaced by varying degrees of creaminess, followed by sweetness, and then characterizing flavours begin to present themselves after the second and third squares are cheekily devoured in unashamed fashion. I often find myself gravitating towards the kitchen after reading a few chapters of an immersing book as chocolate, much like good wine, can only be appreciated when consumed slowly during wind-down activities. Indeed, haste equals a loss in taste.
My penchant for single origin bars is complemented with the occasional gamble on flavoured bars, by the trader in me, as they exhibit the creativity of good chocolatiers. Coffee, chilli and sea salt variations are now the standard, but decadent when made with quality ingredients such as Himalayan and Maldon salts, single origin coffee beans and distinct chilli varieties. Truly unique fusions, worth seeking, include Arabic spice, lavender, lime, jasmine, rose and cardamom varieties by Rococo; Mole bars by L’Artisan Du Chocolat; and, of course, nettle, almond and coconut creations by Bovetti.
Limited by shipping costs, locality and not wanting to increase the excessive carbon footprint of chocolate, I refrain from importing chocolate directly manufacturers outside of the UK, but temptation always lurks and clicks on shopping basket icons are painfully replaced by clicks on my bookmark button. Exotic offerings from artisanal chocolatiers including Akinosie, Compartes or Theo & Philo, as tempting as they are, act as points of conversation with travelling foodies and, if I manage to pique their interest, I allude to the possibility of receiving a few bars in exchange for the tips.
The significance of provenance cannot be underestimated as uniqueness in flavour is greatly affected by regional soil profiles, fertilizers, water quality and weather. Chocolate made from Venezuelan cacao carries flavours and aromas that contrast those from Madagascan cacao; therefore, when selecting the plain bars, I opt for trusted and familiar varieties of cacao and lesser-known varieties to broaden my palette. Staples in my cupboard include seventy percent bars made with Peruvian, Indonesian and Venezuelan cacao and recent additions, by way of trips to food markets, have included single origin bars made with cacao from Madagascar, The Dominican Republic, Grenada and Saint Lucia.
Both quality and provenance are also notable when using chocolate for baking and cooking. Good quality chocolate is often the difference between good cookies and, well, rather average cookies as baking further unlocks flavour when chocolate melts and mixes with cooking fats other ingredients. For some time, I saved my best chocolate for eating yet, after much experimentation, I recognised the impact of good quality chocolate on the overall flavour of food. Sure, I don’t shatter bars of Mast Brothers’ finest over a kitchen counter for chocolate chips, but selecting eighty percent bars of Green and Blacks over Menier makes all the difference and finer varieties, such as Willie’s, carry flavours to the stratosphere.
Certain recipes and ingredients also amplify the flavour and characteristics of good chocolate and none are more effective than gateaux, coffee cakes and biscuits. Coffee enhances rich, earthy flavours and the black forest gateau, due to its cherries, extracts fruity flavours and complements acidity. Moreover, cold concoctions, such as sorbets, (vegan) ice cream and smoothies, taste amazing when raw cacao nibs are added to them with medjool dates or date molasses.
Treats and, equally, unjustifiable moments of self-indulgence needn’t lead to guilt as the health benefits derived from dark chocolate are manifold. First, and possibly the most beneficial, is a reduction in the likelihood of suffering from hypertension and closely related ailments due to the neutralisation of free radicals by antioxidants; and second, according to various studies, is the regulation of blood pressure and increased blood flow to the brain, which both, in turn, improve cognitive functions. Yes, that dark matter is extraordinarily good for our grey matter.
In addition to the long-term health benefits, there are also short-term, holistic benefits to be derived from the essential minerals, including potassium, magnesium and copper, and theobromine found in dark chocolate such as the strengthening of tooth enamel and suppression cough-like symptoms.
With so much choice and varying prices, it’s easy to think that the ubiquity of chocolate increases quality and standards in a seemingly competitive market? Petrol station kiosks, office canteens and newsagents stock familiar brands of dark chocolate that, to the casual consumer, seem satisfactory. Unfortunately, mass produced dark bars can contain a plethora of chemicals, flavour enhancers and filler to maximise profits whilst keeping retail prices low e.g. the seventy percent chocolates from notable supermarkets contain vanilla, which is added to enhance cacao flavours and bypass the lengthy roasting stages required to release the unique flavours from different beans. Moreover, blending cheaper varieties of beans is also another technique used to create flavour; therefore, questionable supply chains, more often than not, can be traced upstream to manufacturers using blending processes.
As with most food, buying selectively is key due to ethical reasons. A recent BBC Panorama documentary revealed that the trusted fairtrade stamp - especially when used by mass-market confectioners and prestigious chocolatiers - does not guarantee the obsolescence of child labour. Due to the limited governance of supply chains by The Fairtrade Foundation, child labour free chocolate is more likely to come from independent bean-to-bar manufacturers that micro-manage their supply chains or own cacao estates. As a general rule, buying organic automatically eliminates the majority of questionable manufacturers; however, it’s always good practice to read further into the work a manufacturer does to support farming communities and source ethical cacao.
My pedantry may seem excessive to many, but, really, it’s no different to seeking craft beer, local ale or fresh bread. Essentially, good pre-purchase research is - and should become - normal practice for anybody who genuinely cares about the quality of their food and the impact it has on society and the environment.
To help fellow aficionados and anybody else with a keen interest in chocolate, I want to compile and share a cacao discovery map that allows people to discover chocolate by regions; therefore, any tips and recommendations about good bars, beans and brands are welcome and much appreciated. Once I have enough data, I will create a collaborative Google Maps layer and, hopefully, something more comprehensive such as an infographic.