It took me far too long to realise that most of what I was being told about chocolate was just plain rubbish. For far too long books, blogs, journalists and just people that just should know better, propagated myths, untruths and inaccuracies. The result of these lies and misrepresentations is that people don’t know supermarkets don't sell fine chocolate, the sell chocolate that they market as 'extra special', 'excellent', 'truly irresistible' and chocolate that you can 'taste the difference', but which is often tasteless.
I sought to find out just how bad supermarket chocolate has become and gauge the challenge that true artisan chocolate makers face in encouraging people to experience the fine chocolate that is readily available on the internet. Now if you didn't want to read the two-thousand or so words below detailing how woeful supermarket chocolate is and why it encourages people to misunderstand the food of the gods.
A brief summary of the mistakes people make:→ Fairtrade isn’t unquestionably what cocoa growers need;
Example: Tesco Finest Swiss 72% Plain Chocolate
The cover indicates that the cocoa beans are from “premium grade cocoa beans sourced from South America and Africa”. Now I'm not saying that blended chocolate is poor, far from it, but those continents are huge. Does the cocoa come from generally fine countries such as Venezuela or São Tomé, or does it come from Ecuadorian CCN-51 cacao which has had a greater level human involvement in its development or ‘wild’ Bolivian cacao, which by its very definition hasn't? I doubt even Tesco know.
The packaging here appears to associate African cocoa with being both worthy of “finest” and “premium”. I contend that that is a generalisation that does nothing to help people learn more about great chocolate. Furthermore the word “Swiss” is given prominence not only in the product name but also above a Swiss flag. It’s as if because Switzerland consumes the greatest weight of chocolate per capita than any other nation that they therefore know how to create the finest chocolate. Most people that buy this chocolate, I suspect, couldn't even name one Swiss chocolate maker, if prompted they’d probably say Lindt. Seeing as this bar cost just £1.50 I doubt that Felchlin or many fine chocolate brands could justify producing chocolate at anywhere near that cost. For my own mind, many inferior current Swiss companies live off the reputations that their forbears earned over the past century.
Furthermore, we live in a world where brand perception reigns supreme. Just who do you think owns Tobler, Cailler and Suchard? It’s probably not who you think and leads me to juxtapose the ownership of those brands by multinational American companies with very small American companies making great chocolate. Small-batch American chocolate makers such as Potomac Chocolate, Amano, Mast, Ritual, DeVries, Rogue, Fruition, Dick Taylor, and Manoa make some of the finest chocolate you’ll ever taste and it’s such a travesty that the British and Americans assume all American chocolate is dreadful.
Example: Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference 72% Ecuadorian Fairtrade Dark Chocolate
I’ll start with the least obvious point first and this is where I do believe the mass-produced chocolate industry is making headway. Compare this bar which has a tasting note of "rich and intense, with hints of liquorice and spice", although it’s a typical description which has also been used when profiling red wine, it’s at least an improvement on Tesco’s imaginative "smooth and intense chocolate flavour". Asda’s 'Truly Extra Special' bar has a description: "a bittersweet Organic Fairtrade dark chocolate …" – there’s not a lot to go on there. Compare that to the Pralus Indonesie: "Fresh and subtle, woody aroma with wild mushrooms, slightly acidic and long on the finish", or the Valrhona El Pedregal 2001: "This rare Criollo cocoa is appreciated by chocolate experts for it’s exceptional aromatic strength. Through years of hard work, Valrhona is committed to bringing this cocoa bean back to life by rebuilding the El Pedregal plantation, dedicated to the Porcelana. Its subtle notes of honey and ripe fruit never fail to charm."
Also of crucial importance is that often even those with a degree of knowledge often make assumptions and many chocolate makers and retailers do nothing to educate and dis-spell myths. If a chocolate had "Ecuador" as the cacao origin, because of the hype surrounding the forced CCN-51 bean that all cocoa from Ecuador is of that variety, rather than the wonderful Arriba Nacional strain. If you particularly want to avoid chocolate with a great level of human involvement, shouldn't you be told on the packaging?
The point here is that we start to enjoy a chocolate even before we've picked it up off the shelf. If we’re not encouraged to explore flavours by even given the guidance that chocolate can have varying flavour, aroma and texture profiles then what’s the point in trying anything new?
The other issue I have with this chocolate, and which is also present in the Asda Extra Special and the Co-op Ghanaian 85% is that of Fairtrade labelling. The premise of Fairtrade is that those growing cocoa on their own small-holding are brought together with a co-operative, trained, given support and education and a stronger position when it comes to selling their beans. Of course there are pros and cons of this system. The benefits obviously are a move towards a higher standard of living for the farmers, the ability to learn from others and a more efficient process of getting the beans to the consumer (the previous process couldn't be much worse to be honest). The downsides relate to the costs for these farmers to be certified, there’s an application fee, an Initial Certification Fee, an Annual Certification Fee, a Modification Fee, Product Specific fees, Cancellation Fees and Follow-up Audit Fees. I have a degree in economics and I went dizzy trying to work them out. If you want to try you can find the current fees here. If you’re clever, you’ll skip to the example where it shows that new producers can expect an initial fee of €5040 (£4278). With the average farmer earning around £325/a, my own mind states that the figures just don’t add up - and people should be aware of that when they instinctively think Fairtrade is the pinnacle of ethical compassionate buying.
Furthermore, as Dom points out, just because you’re buying a bar of chocolate with a Fairtrade logo on it, it doesn't mean that all of the cocoa in it is Fairtrade, let alone any other ingredients. That relates to the ‘Mass Balance’ system where if a maker can prove that the same volume of beans is Fairtrade as non-Faritrade beans then you can label your chocolate as Fairtrade.
The premium chocolate makers pay for cocoa isn't really sufficient to make as much a difference as those that buy direct. Whether that’s feasible on a massive scale is another point, but the important one is that just because chocolate has a Fairtrade label on it, then you should stop thinking about the source of the ingredients and the impact your money has on those growing it. Fairtrade has a massive budget behind it, but it is crucial that chocolate-buyers research that project and its alternatives and form an educated opinion.
Truly fairly traded chocolate could be seen where the final maker shares risk with the growers. There's direct involvement of the company that puts their name to the chocolate into the growing stage. Growers face enormous risks, what with weather and disease, they're easily left in the lurch with a failed crop. Makers need to be there for them if that happens, and the premium you pay for your bar needs to reflect that.
Example: Tesco 85% Cocoa Ivory Coast & Ecuador Plain Chocolate
Here I believe we have the most important fallacy in chocolate. I spend a lot of time at chocolate festivals and hanging around the chocolate aisles of supermarkets and I've lost count of how many times I've heard people say "the higher the cocoa content the better the chocolate". Now it’s not really their fault. My mother told me the same when I was growing up and I feel we’re still in the mind-set that was established in the early late 1980’s when Lindt and Green & Blacks started to fill the shelves of the big supermarkets. Only when I started to spend money buying chocolate from makers not represented in these stores did I notice how varied chocolate can be at the same % level. You just have to compare Pralus’ 100% bar with the 100% Bouga Cacao – they’re both radically different chocolates. People aren't told to look for or ask about the relative balance of cocoa solids and cocoa butter – that ratio has a direct impact on intensity.
But flavour is the crucial aspect here and this 85% chocolate might not make any "extra special" or "finest" claims but it is certainly devoid of any fine flavour. It’s dull, lifeless and tastes of cardboard – but if you pay £1 for a bar then what do you expect?
Example: Truly Irresistible Fairtrade Ghanaian dark chocolate.
This bar serves to disprove the notion that dark chocolate is inherently bad for you. The cover of this chocolate has the very worthy “green light” indicators that gauge food products against their Recommended Daily Amounts and in this instance Fat, Saturates and Sugars are all labelled as "High" with half a bar giving you 37% of your RDA for fats, 80% for saturates and 8% for sugars. There’s no mention of magnesium and other minerals, nor is there any mention of polyphenolic flavonoids and the possible impact they have on blood pressure, cholesterol etc.
Consumers generally believe chocolate is bad for you, my view is bad chocolate is bad for you. It’s incumbent on makers and retailers to educate people to the positive elements found in good quality chocolate.
This chocolate also proves the point that marketing something as “truly irresistible” it doesn’t actually mean that it is. Although there was slight red fruit jamminess in this Ghanaian chocolate, it was particularly average overall. If pay £1.65 and expect great chocolate because it’s pretty much sold as such then why should they spend three or four times as much on a chocolate from a renowned maker? They’ll think it’s not worth it.
Just as we see with many household brands filling chocolate with much cheaper vegetable oil and even palm oil, we need to be aware that even fine makers mask the bean with vanilla or use refined sugars. Very few avoid the use of these refined ingredients or soya lecithin. We actively seek those makers that produce great chocolate using the cocoa bean and natural sugar.
What's more, supermarkets peddle endless amounts of white 'chocolate' that is just laced with fats and sugar and when chocolate is consumed as a confectionery you're less open to consider true chocolate as having life-enhancing properties. But when you look at darker chocolate you should understand the minerals and acids present in good quality chocolate. But then, also, we have a problem a 70% bar of 'Criollo' and other cacao variants will have 'differing' levels of these trace elements as well as the same cocoa level and bean. You have to look for chocolate made with love for more wholesome chocolate.
We've become accustomed to false, intensely sweet or salty foods, that can't be doing us any good. Turn over the packaging and inspect the ingredients and consider if you're willing to put that in your body.
Example: Lindt Excellence 90% Cocoa
You can find this bar for £1.85 in Tesco, two for £2.50 in Waitrose or £2.34 online but serves to show that just because a chocolate has a “fine” brand to most people; it doesn't mean its great quality chocolate. I found the aroma unpleasantly sweet and dominated by vanilla. This bourbon vanilla is also very heavy on the palette. Now I know that this price is far from excessive, but it does show that brand is no determinant of quality. The texture may be fine, but the flavour very one-dimensional. The same can be said for fine quality. There are tablets of chocolate made by very highly regarded chocolate makers that don't reach the standards they have set. And that's where chocolate exploration plays its part.
Example: Tesco Finest 60% Peruvian Chocolate with Coconut
The description for this chocolate is "Single origin Criollo and Trinitario beans create an intensely smooth plain chocolate in perfect harmony with the delicious taste of exotic coconut." It’s this use of buzz words that annoys me most about chocolate. 'Single origin” is no pre-determinant of quality. Valrhona’s Guanaja is a made with a blend of beans from a variety of Caribbean origins and is a good quality chocolate and is much more agreeable than this “single origin” creation.
Another crucial aspect is the use of Criollo and Trinitario beans – well so they say. I wasn't aware there was any Criollo in Peru. Bloggers, and I count myself in this, have been responsible for peddling myths relating to cacao varieties. Criollo cacao has been marketed as the finest of three varieties of cacao. This is an over-simplification of the varieties of cacao as to make use of the term almost redundant. Cacao is not the fussiest of fauna, it’s very promiscuous. I find it difficult to believe, therefore, any real form of purity with cacao – certainly not any cacao that Tesco would get their hands on and sell for £1 for 100g at least.
Almost paradoxically, in recent centuries excessive cultivation of Criollo has reduced its natural diversity and when combined with its heightened susceptibility to disease we can see the genetic make-up of cocoas, certainly from the higher production nations of South America, becoming less “Criollo” and more bastardised.
It’s the same with Chuao, my belief is that more chocolate is made possible from Chuao beans than there are actually Chuao cocoa to make chocolate from. Chuao is a small plantation in Northern Venezuela that only Amedei had rights to produce chocolate from a few years ago. Latterly the market was opened up and the likes of Pralus, Fresco, Chapon, Soma, Amano and even Hotel Chocolat produce chocolate labelled as “Chuao”. My contention is that Chuao isn’t as good as it once was.
And another element that needs communicating and this chocolate is a perfect example. What per cent of that “Criollo and Trinitario” chocolate is actually made with Criollo? Even if it contained the tiniest fraction of Criollo, they’d still be in their rights to put “Criollo” on the label. This might increase sales, but then consumers could well be disappointed with the flavour and not buy far superior “Criollo” chocolate in the future as a result.
Furthermore, we've got to stop thinking of chocolate in terms of Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero and think more of strains and cultivars. Good work is being done by the Cacao Genome Database and we should use their work to form our own perceptions, but at least consider that categorising cacao into these three, narrow and flawed groups is not helping people understand more about chocolate. We should be thinking of Arriba Nacional, Amelonado, Chuno, CCN-51, Carenero, Indio Rojo, Ocumare, Rio Caribe and others.
I could go onto explain how the term “chocolate maker” is still not an understood term. You’ll see chocolate with “bean to bar” on it. Of course chocolate comes from the bean. But very few companies control the entire process from the moment the bean has been removed to the pod to it’s formed as a recognisable bar of chocolate. Twenty-five per cent (another over-generalisation) of a chocolate’s flavour profile is determined in the fermentation process, another quarter in the roasting etc. Some companies just take the processed liquor and turn it into chocolate, others will get roasted beans. My minimum level of involvement for a chocolate maker for my mind is somebody that takes unroasted beans, adds their skill and as few other ingredients as possible and turns it into chocolate.
Another issue I have is that chocolatiers get called chocolate makers. They’re not. They don’t make chocolate. They turn couverture chocolate into bars by either adding other ingredients, or not in some cases. That’s not to disparage their craft, but it’s an important distinction to make.
So there we have it - a large list of errors and inaccuracies propagated by people that should know better but who's motives are more focused on making money out of you, rather than educating you and helping you find and enjoy better chocolate.
Credits: I would like to thank Piotr Krzciuk for providing some valuable feedback - he's always great to bounce ideas off and a true lover of the bean. And Alyssa Jade McDonald who I believe is unrivalled in her passion for making the good that chocolate can do for growers and their communities go even further. A Heroine.