There are so many misconceptions and miss-understandings about chocolate. The main one is that there are three varieties of cocoa bean, however, one that has really annoyed me recently is that virtually every website you read about how chocolate is made seems to promote a standardised approach where beans are harvested, fermented, dried, cleaned, roasted, cracked, winnowed, ground, conched, tempered and moulded - with no mentioned of what happens before the harvesting stage, nor how different makers will apply their own methods.
The conventional approach reminds me of making these toy gliders as a child: there's a set format, it's easy, you know how the final glider should look at the process is simple - everybody makes these gliders the same way. It is a travesty that we in the industry feel inclined to allow chocolate buyers to see chocolate making in the same, simplistic and formulaic way - there is no accounting for individual preference or making the most of the resources you have.
I've had this post boil away inside of me for the past few months but it wasn't until the Academy of Chocolate conference last week on helping chocolate growers receive more (some) wealth from growing cacao. The panel, which included Chris Brennan from Pump Street Bakery, Paul Hoff from Barry Callebaut, Riccardo Illy from Group Illy (Domori), Cecillia Tessieri from Amedei and Richard Turner from Mood Foods (makers of the OmBar).
Their presentations focused on how they made chocolate, and specifically: what made their chocolate different. The point that I hope others got out of the talk was that all of those companies had approaches unique to their resources, requirements, objectives and experience. Chris at his small set-up in rural Sufflok makes chocolate in much a different way to the multi-billion Pound Barrey Callebaut. In fact, Chris's equipment probably cost less that Callebaut's annual biscuit expense.
You just have to have a look at the images from Katie's from Salt's Chocolate initial chocolate making set up on Kickstarter to see how rudimentary and labour-intensive the process is. Pablo at Forever Cacao has (currently) a similarly basic set-up. Hazel Lee is even pre-retail and experiments making chocolate with the resources she has. I've had a tour of the Hotel Chocolat factory, including their own bean to bar set-up and their approach is massively different to the Pierre Marcolini operation I toured a few years ago. And this will be much different to the huge new Barry Callebaut factory in Japan that opened last year. And you can even make chocolate in one of Hotel Chocolat's Roast & Conch stores.
This just goes to show that as long as you have cocoa beans and the most basic of equipment you can make chocolate. Similarly if you have millions to spare then you scale up the process and make it more sophisticated. In fact, I remember going to Marcolini's and sharing some photographs and Colin at Rogue saying that Pierre was using his machinery wrong. My point is, so what? People like his chocolate. Processes and the approach to making chocolate are flexible. I'm sure Chris at Pump Street tweaks his roaster to get the profile he wants and I know Clay Gordon advises his clients how to get the flavour and textures they want by ingeniously using the equipment they have or even coming up with something never used before.
The Missing Pieces
But virtually all of the blog posts I read about making chocolate miss out a number of vital steps. The most important, and I mentioned it when I asked if we take chocolate makers for granted, is the actual selection of the beans. The process of creating a chocolate bar or couverture actually starts with the selection of the cocoa bean (or actually before that). I see Facebook updates from Bryan Graham and his wife Dahlia visiting Belize selecting beans and finding out more about the estates. I get emails from Dan at Finca talking about the plantations they're working on in the Dominican Republic and how they select beans currently. There are tweets and blog posts galore from chocolate makers showing how they make the long and arduous trips out to growing countries to get to know the specifics of what is on offer in terms of beans and terroir.
But it doesn't stop there. Many makers, and they're not all the size of Barry Callebaut will have a control on the fermentation process (a hugely important process in the development of flavour). Domori, Friis Holm, Bonnat, Amedei, Blyss, Pralus and others I'm sure are tweaking the profile of the fermentation process (how long, how much, how often it is turned, do they use wooden boxes or not) - if not they are able to choose beans with a different fermentation profile. Many will also give direct instruction on the drying of the cocoa such as using wooden racks, not on the ground, and not artificially speeding up the process with heaters. When these steps are mentioned they often come across as outside of the makers control, or as some standardised, non-configurable given.
Others miss out the the quick blast of heat that may occur when the beans are brought to the factory to destroy unwanted additions such as salmonella. Or, as Barry Callebaut, mentioned, before they even get to this stage they do another quality control process on the beans to look for other foreign objects - such as ten foot ladders.
The Bit They Don't Want You to Know
But one of the crucial aspects that most commentators miss out relates to the nature of those that actually harvest the beans. All seem to ignore the use of child labour or the endemic poverty that cocoa growers find themselves in. During the Academy of conference the International Cocoa Initiative explained that there are 168 million child labourers in the world and around 500,000 to 1.5 million can be the Ivory Coast and Ghana. But when you realise that the farmer may only earn $2 a day (if that) and has a family of four or five to support it isn't surprising that his children are set to work on their small-holding.
You ever get to hear of this problem only when the chocolate makers that actively seek cocoa from ethical plantations promote the fact . Everyone else, of course, won't mention it. Only when chocolate makers such as Duffy or Askinosie and others pay far above the market rate for beans does it become a concern to people.
The point is that the people in the chocolate making process, are actually as important as the raw ingredients. Without these people risking their family's livelihood and existence on growing cocoa on their small-holding then there wouldn't be any fine chocolate. You would only get mass, mechanical farms producing environmentally damaging and inferior cacao such as CCN-51
Another Part They Miss Out ...
Far too often these commentators will miss out the actual farming process of looking at the natural environment and how best to make use of it to grow cacao, the level of protection from the sun and what type of shade trees you have available, if you need any irrigation, how to make best propagate the cacao, can you source new root stock, are their any grants from the local government or resources from international organisations, how do you actually sell the cocoa, to whom and at what price, should you form a co-operative, where do you get the labour, should you grow something else instead/
A Sad State of Affairs
As we can see, there are many stages of the chocolate making process that many bloggers and journalists miss out. Unfortunately these are often the most important stages - not least to develop flavour (choosing the cocoa and the pre 'industrial' processes) but also the human element (providing a 'living wage') and the environmental (safeguarding the future of fine flavour cacao).
You may only hear about the magic that people in the Western world provide when making chocolate, but also the severe hardship of those in under and developing nations that really must not be forgotten.