What is Handmade Chocolate?

Posted on July 25, 2014 by  Lee Mccoy | 0 Comments

Ever since my first step from seeing chocolate as something I could enjoy consuming to something I can write about, I have always had this awareness of the misuse certain industry phrases. I have seen some large companies deliberately call their chocolates as 'artisan' when I know they're made on a massive production line where the only human interaction is pouring in bulk chocolate into a piece of equipment, checking for mall-formed chocolates on a conveyor belt and then placing them into boxes. This type of chocolate should neither be called 'artisan', nor 'handmade'.

Very little chocolate is handmade - in its truest sense. The issue is that if we move from a pedantic concept of 'handmade' we move into a grey area - one where 'handmade' is used to define chocolates that are part 'ready-made' and then hand-worked.

When we look at how chocolate is made the raw ingredients will normally go through a process of harvesting, fermenting, drying, roasting, winnowing, grinding, conching, tempering and moulding. Historically some of those processes have been done by hand - but not for the chocolate. You could, theoretically winnow, grind and conch by hand, but it would be such an arduous process that for many it wouldn't be economically unviable. The harvesting, fermenting and drying is, of course, done by hand. And the beans can be added to the roaster by hand.

There are, of course, various degrees of authenticity in the chocolate making process, it ranges from Katie Partington's rudimentary processes and Dan Hankle's 'home produced' chocolate to that of Cadbury, Nestle and Mars. All are chocolate makers in one form or another. The issue is that we most often use the term 'handmade' to define the process of making chocolates (bon bons, truffles, ganaches, caramels etc.) as opposed to 'chocolate' - bars and the like from cocoa beans, sugar (and occasionally lecithin).

A number of chocolatiers are also chocolate makers. One example is Bryan from Fruition in the USA - he makes wonderful chocolate and then uses  itwithin chocolates such as truffles and chocolate coated fruit and nuts. Another example is Paul A. Young who has started making chocolate from Menakao beans on a very small scale. I am not sure if he has started to use that with his selection of chocolate treats, but the opportunity exists.

Virtually all chocolatiers will use what's called couverture, this is 'readymade' chocolate, that chocolatiers will temper to get the correct crystalline texture and then use as the shells for chocolates, coatings for things such as almond pebbles, or added to cream to form ganaches. The quality of the couverture is key. They may use anything from Belcolade to Callebaut to Faverger, Zotter, Marou, Menakao, Valrhona or even custom recipes devised with a particular maker.

Sometimes there is a quiet battle going on with whom has the greater talent: chocolate makers or chocolatiers. This is a pretty pointless debate, however, as each requires a different skill-set and have different challenges to overcome.

A chocolate maker will balance roast protocols (time and temperature); conch times; ratio of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and other ingredients), where to source the cocoa beans, etc. A chocolatiers has to either establish which couverture best suits the creation they have in mind, or define the ingredients and fillings that will best suit the couverture they have available. A good example of this struggle to balance flavour, ethics and flavour can be seen with Marc Demarquette who produces some wonderful chocolate with unusual couvertures and ingredients.

Chocolatiers also have to establish the processes. Which should be done by hand and which should be automated. I always love seeing chocolatiers (and chocolate makers) share new equipment, the struggle they have to ascertain which is best for their needs can be very intense:

The problem exists with keeping that 'handmade' feel but still producing sufficient quickly enough to satisfy demand. You can only do that with a decent amount of machinery to expedite the process.

So when you see a chocolatier at a stall, their own shop or even as part of a somewhere such as Selfridges ask if their chocolate is handmade and if they say it is and why they say it is.

Calling chocolate 'handmade' is far less important than it being made from great, ethical, flavoursome ingredients. Chocolate labelled as 'handmade' or 'artisan' is no guarantee of quality. The expert use of quality ingredients is.

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