High-end chocolate production spurs chocolate revolution
Chocolate's stature as sweet ambrosia was assured from the moment in 1753 when the Swedish scientist Linnaeus christened the cacao bean...
Chocolate's stature as sweet ambrosia was assured from the moment in 1753 when the Swedish scientist Linnaeus christened the cacao bean Theobroma, meaning "food of the gods." Chocolate has been much loved — and connected to love — ever since.
The cacao tree, with its football-shaped, bean-bearing pods, was first cultivated in the tropical rain forests of Central America around 1000 B.C.
Centuries later the Spaniards appropriated the bean, and during the 16th and 17th centuries spread it around the world. By 1875, a Swiss chemist named Nestlé created milk chocolate; then America's ubiquitous Hershey Bar — and a torrent of other inexpensive, sugary chocolate bars — followed.
Until recently, sweets for your sweetie may have been well-intentioned, but they were seldom worthy of rapture.
But a sea change is roiling. Call it a chocolate revolution, maybe even choco-mania. The United States is now blissfully enrobed in superior-quality, lushly packaged, artisan-crafted chocolate.
Chocolate fanciers visit stores specializing in fine bars, checking labels for cocoa mass percentage (the measure of pure cocoa versus flavorings such as milk, sugar and vanilla) and noting the region, country and even plantations where cacao beans originate — and probably getting a geography lesson along the way. Quick, where's Sao Tome?
Likewise of keen interest, the particular strain of cacao bean — including the rare criollo, somewhat more common trinitario, Ecuador's nacional variety and various sought-after blends thought to be superior to the more common forastero strains. Some manufacturers are even selling bars made from beans harvested in particular years. Mark Bitterman, co-owner of The Meadow, a flowers, wine and high-end chocolate shop in Portland, proudly points to the great chocolate resulting from the 2002 cacao harvest in Venezuela's Chuao region.
There are new trends in high-end chocolate production worth watching. One is the emergence of "rustic" chocolate reminiscent of pre-industrial varieties. Instead of conching (grinding and aerating the beans and other chocolate ingredients for days to produce the smoothest possible product), crafters are minimally processing their beans and using less refined sugars in their creations.
These rough chocolate bars are a treat for those who enjoy crunching into cocoa nibs and sugar crystals, but may not be for everyone. The best example of the new rustic chocolate comes from Italian artisan Claudio Corallo and is crafted from beans from the west African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe.
In addition to the rustics, expect to see more chocolate actually made where the cacao is grown. (Venezuela's El Rey and Vintage Plantation from Ecuador do this now.) Why ship the beans vast distances for all the value-added steps if the same work can be done in their place of origin?
Now bean-to-bar chocolate makers are primarily in Europe and the United States.
Seattle's Fremont neighborhood serves up Theo, which touts its bean-to-bar operation that uses only organic and fair-trade cacao beans.
The forebear of them all is Scharffen Berger of Berkeley, Calif., founded in 1996 by champagne maker turned chocolate artisan John Scharffenberger and physician Robert Steinberg. They were the first U.S. craft chocolate makers to turn beans into chocolate bars.
From farther away, brand names to look for include Valrhona, Michel Cluizel, Pralus and Bonnat from France; Amedei and Domori from Italy; Chocovic from Spain; and Green & Black's from England.
How hot is demand for gourmet brands? Sales figures published in one trade publication, Candy Industry, show a 40 percent leap from 2005 to 2006, though that's for all dark chocolate.
Hershey and Ghirardelli have jumped on the cocoa-mass percentage bandwagon, listing measures on their higher-end products. Hershey has been especially attentive to the buzz. It has begun to produce its own line of "reserve" chocolate, and in serial moves that dismayed many choco-fanatics, it acquired Scharffen Berger in 2005 and all-organic Dagoba of Ashland, Ore., in 2006. So far, it appears they have left these companies to do what they have been doing best.
Does a chocolate's provenance really matter to the flavor?
With the big players now jumping in — and prices for high-end solid chocolate often exceeding $1.50 or even $2 an ounce — it may be time to examine whether the new wave is mere marketing mumbo jumbo.
Frederick Schilling, cocoa cult evangelist and founder of Dagoba, is emphatic that the rise of single-estate, varietal and other specialty chocolate is the real deal. He sees a "huge difference between cacaos of different continents, countries, regions within countries and even farms within a region."
But experts agree on one point: Consumers should be tasting for themselves.
What about the connection between chocolate and romance? Unfortunately, there is no study that establishes a link between chocolate and romance. More likely, as pre-eminent author and food nerd Harold McGee said of chocolate, the "sensory experience" of enjoying it just "is powerfully appealing." More please.
Here's a tire-kicking experiment: Pay a visit to your BMW dealer. Weave through the sleek wares on display — but tiptoe around that strange blob...
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