Welcome to the 5th annual Dark Matters Chocolate Awards! I tasted so many lovely bars in 2020 that it was such a difficult pleasure to pick the very top bars!
Throughout the year I keep a running list of potential nominees in multiple categories. To qualify, the craft chocolate bars must be ones that I tasted in the actual award year and that I paid for myself. (Makers do occasionally send me bars to try, and some are award worthy, but if I received them for free they get left out of the running in order to keep the awards fair). I tend to look for bars that are either complex, or manage to represent an inclusion in a clean, clear, or unique way.
Some of the winners might be part of a makers permanent line-up, but they may also be a one-time creation that is no longer available.
And the winners are…..
White Chocolate Inclusion Bars
Would you believe this was my hardest category to narrow down since it had the most potential nominees? If you are new to the craft chocolate scene, I hope you will visit white chocolate again if it has been a while. In the past few years white chocolate has gone to such exciting new places!
6th Place: Fjak Sjokolade Blackcurrant Pie Nordic Collection. Tastes of blackcurrant, cream, oats, almonds, honey and pastry! Fjak is a maker that should be in your chocolate stash for sure!
5th Place: Askinosie Chocolate White Chocolate made with goat’s milk, house-pressed Davao Philippines cacao butter and roasted cacao nibs. Tastes of light goat’s milk, pale honey, cocoa and light cinnamon. So addictive it’s worth ordering two at a time!
4the Place: The Cocoa Forge Toasty White with 72% Nunokoloa, Rakiraki Province Fiji chips, Seville orange peel and Dominican Republic cocoa butter. Tastes of cream, caramel and cocoa with hints of chocolate cake.
3rd Place: Foxglove Chocolate Black & White bar. Black currant and white chocolate with black licorice. Tastes of butterscotch, black currant, salt, vanilla wafer cookie, malt and subtle licorice. As a kid I never liked licorice candy, but craft chocolate makers utilize licorice in such tasty ways that now I am a fan.
2nd Place: Mission Chocolate Romeo & Juliet. Cream cheese white chocolate with guava chunks. Tastes of cream cheese, ricotta cheesecake, cream and hear shaped fragrant guava pieces. Amazing! Wish I had ordered two!
1st Place: Violet Sky Chocolate Sourdough French Toast bar featuring bread from The Elder Bread shop. Tastes of sourdough, pastry, butter, French toast, cinnamon, salt, vanilla and mace. One of my all time favorite inclusion bars ever.
Milk Chocolate Bars With or Without Inclusions:
3rd Place: Castronovo Chocolate’s Dominican Republic 55% dark/milk bar. Tastes of cream, caramel and rich hot cocoa. Yum!
2nd Place: Svenska Kakaobolaget 54% Coconut Milk. Vegan “mylk” chocolate. Tastes of sweet coconut macaron, buttery and light caramel. I confess this bar sat in my collection unopened for a while, but once I tasted it, I wished I had opened it so much sooner. What a pleasure!
1st Place: Theo & Philo’s Adobo bar with a soy sauce toffee and black pepper. Tastes of milk chocolate covered toffee, savory soy sauce and black pepper. Unique and delicious!
Dark Chocolate Inclusion Bars
6th Place: Goodnow Farms Chocolate Lawley’s Rum 72% Ecuador cacao with Lawley’s Rum in collaboration with Boston Harbor Distillery. Tastes of vanilla, oak, molasses and raisin with a finish of tropical fruit, brown fruit and subtle stone fruit. A very special bar!
5th Place: Arete Lavender bar with 65% Maya Mountain Belize Cacao. Tastes of lavender, peppermint and light pale stone fruit with some cocoa and minerality in the finish. I hope you had a chance to try this bar! I hope they return to making chocolate again someday.
4th Place: Marou’s Mekong Kumquat 68% Tien Gang Vietnam cacao. Tastes of kumquat (both the bright, fresh citrus and the zest), clove and cinnamon with mango and grapefruit appearing in the finish.
3rd Place: Askanya Chocolate Bouquet Vert 65% Haitian cacao with lime zest. Tastes of lime, black pepper, cinnamon and light honey. While this may seem like a simple inclusion Askanya did a lovely job with the interpretation and presentation of lime in this bar.
2nd Place: Bixby Chocolate 20 Karat Primo Bar 70% Dominican Republic cacao created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Primo Restaurant and represent Primo’s roasted rosemary almond snack. I confess that rosemary is my least favorite herb, so it’s quite something to represent it in a way that completely wins me over, but I couldn’t stop eating this bar! Great job! Tastes of almonds, rosemary, black pepper, salt and crushed red pepper.
1st Place: Madhu Chocolate 71% Idukki Indian cacao featuring Diaspora Co. black pepper. This bar appears in Madhu’s four bar Lakshmi Collection. At first the black pepper is the main star, but as you revisit this bar additional flavors make themselves known including vanilla, fruity pepper and pale stone fruit. I’ve had a white pepper bar and a couple black pepper bars all by other makers, but so far, this is the best I’ve had! This is a very special tasting black pepper as well.
Bars with Coffee
Coffee is one of my favorite inclusions so it gets it’s very own category! Do you like chocolate with coffee?
4th Place: Cuna de Piedra 73% Mexican cacao from Comalcalco, Tobasco with Buna Coffee. Tastes of coffee, lemon rind and malt.
3rd Place: Primo Botanica Café Superior 75% Oro Verde Peru and Maya Mountain cacaos with Guatemalan coffee from Touchy Coffee. Tastes of espresso, nice acidity level, nutty, roasted coconut, caramel and dark honey.
2nd Place: Atypic Chocolate Long Black. Tastes of coffee, molasses and mild lemon peel. So good!
1st Place: River-Sea Chocolates Double Bean-Double Buzz with 72% Columbian cacao and made with Columbian coffee. Coffee from Weird Brothers Coffee. Tastes of rich coffee, earthy, mild lemon zest, a touch floral towards the finish followed by an ending of cocoa-dusted brownie. Double the pleasure for sure!
Higher Percentage Dark Chocolate Bars
What’s your favorite 90 – 100% bar?
2nd Place: Theo & Philo 90% cacao from the Philippines. Tastes of dark fruit, brown fruit, woodsy and cocoa. I’ve enjoyed all the bars I’ve tried so far my Theo & Philo. They are worth seeking out!
1st Place: Zotter Labooko 100% Sambirano Valley Madagascar bar. Tastes of cocoa, red berry, oak, deep dark chocolate brownie and coffee with a long cocoa finish and a full-bodied mouth feel.
Dark Chocolate Bars 70 – 78%
6th Place: To’ak Chocolate 75% Galapagos Santa Cruiz Island cacao 2018 harvest. Light roast with a 7 day fermentation. I like that they enclosed a whole cacao bean to try. A nice touch! This bar tastes of oak, fudge, vanilla, ricotta, rum and chocolate cake batter.
5th Place: 9th & Larkin 70% Tien Giang Vietnam cacao. Tastes of dark cherry, unsalted butter, dark brown sugar and a finish of brownie. A pleasure to taste!
4th Place: Zotter Labooko 70% Mountains of the Moon Uganda cacao. Tastes of cream, blueberry, cocoa, earthy, spice and waffle cone with a touch of red berry in the finish.
3rd Place: Soma Chocolatemaker 70% Sambirano Valley, Madagascar. Tastes of strawberry and gooseberry with a finish of cocoa dusted brownie. Soma is consistently fantastic!
2nd Place: Chocolate Naive Nano_Lot Cacao Sierra Julian. El Salvador cacao. Tastes of vanilla (none added), chocolate chip cookie, nutty, dark stone fruit, mild cigar and speyside scotch.
1st Place: Beau Cacao 78% Asajaya Malaysia 2019 harvest. Tastes of nutty, peanut meets almond meets Brazil nut butter, cereal, light red fruit for a few seconds and brown sugar with a finish of chicory. Given the fantastic shine and snap of this bar followed by the creamy mouthfeel and flavor if you close your eyes it feels like eating a nut butter cup. Lovely bar!
Congrats to the winners!
What a delicious year! I hope some of your favorites made an appearance here and I wish all of you delectable chocolate this new year!
*All pictures in this post were taken by, yours truly, Victoria Cooksey.
Who doesn’t enjoy a great bonbon? But what makes a bonbon great in the first place? It used to be that the majority of options were boxes of chocolates with an unknown filling (until you perhaps took a bite out of each one to find out), and honestly not the best flavors in some of the cheaper options. Now that craft chocolate is continuing to grow the chocolates may be made from single-origin, high quality cacao beans by craft makers.
Sometimes bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers are using their own chocolate to make bonbons (hence the term bean-to-bonbon), but now chocolatiers are also experimenting with different maker’s chocolate in their own creations. Then there’s the craft makers with chocolatier backgrounds and chocolatiers that also now make their own chocolate. Confused yet? Don’t worry! It’s all delicious!
In this blog post we will deep dive into this bean-to-bonbon topic by exploring the chocolately minds of amazing chocolatiers and bean-to-bar chocolate makers alike for a solid knowledge foundation of chocolate in regards to working with craft versus more industrial chocolate in chocolate work and the challenges with pairing single-origin chocolate flavors with inclusions. (Single-origin chocolate can have different flavors occurring in the cacao from each origin and even each harvest year-to-year). In fact, we are going to learn quite a lot of information, and yes, we will even find out what makes a bonbon great!
A huge thank you to Olivier Fernadez of Gaston Chocolat in Vanuatu, Steph Shafer of Bella Sophia Chocolates in California, chocolatier David Upchurch in California, Paul John Kearins of Chocolatasm in Massachusetts and both Russell Pullan and Albert Chau of Fifth Dimension Chocolate in England for sharing all their experience, amazing talent and knowledge for this post!
*Special Note: Not every chocolatier in this article uses bean-to-bar/craft chocolate every time in their creations. Some may use it for special collaboration projects, on certain occasions, for fun experimentation of items, or sometimes it is single-origin chocolate, but not from a small craft maker every time. This article is looking at the information/experience gained from the occasions that the chocolatiers have created with bean-to-bar/craft chocolate, but also to learn from their overall knowledge of their skills as a chocolatier regardless of the type of chocolate used each time. (Often on their website’s product description, wrappers or social media posts chocolatiers will list when they have used craft chocolate/bean-to-bar in a particular item).
Most chocolate makers are using their own chocolate for their bonbons, but they might also be commenting on their previous experience in the realm of chocolatiers prior to using their own bean-to-bar chocolate. Bean-to-bonbon refers to using this high quality craft chocolate to make bonbons.
In regards to terminology, technically all chocolate, small or industrial, could be bean-to-bar since it is made from cacao beans of varying qualities, however, for the purpose of this post when I ask for experience with “bean-to-bar” and “craft chocolate” I’m referring to chocolate made with high-quality beans by craft makers.
Victoria Cooksey: What experience do you have in the realm of a chocolatier?
Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: At Gaston our endeavour from day one was to get the best of the Vanuatu terroir into fine chocolate and this was never limited to Cacao and chocolate bars. With this in mind, I started experimenting on bonbons and truffles a little short after we had our first Vanuatu origin chocolate out of the refiner back in 2014. At the time, it was a two ingredient rustic type of Dark 70% and, though it was rich in flavours, it proved hard to work with due to a low fat content. It wasn’t until 2017 after we opened Gaston’s manufacture and retail shop that I really got the time and room to start making and selling chocolate truffles and bonbons on a more regular basis.
Most of what I learned on truffles and bonbons is connected to a special relationship that goes as far back as when I was 7 years old and I visited Jean-Louis Vaissaud’s chocolate and truffles shop in my hometown on the French Riviera. Later I have come to know Jean-Louis as a friend and mentor and he played a key role in developing Gaston, being my go to person to train with and one I can chat for hours and days with about confection and pairing flavours.
Steph Shafer/Bella Sophia Chocolates: I am a self-taught chocolatier, with 4 years’ experience. I have participated in the chocolatier Primer Book, the Oscars and the Daytime Emmy’s. I have made chocolates for restaurants, hotel turn down service, Bourbon distillery, weddings and charity events.
VC: What inspired you to become a chocolatier?
David Upchurch: My relationship with my mother was at it’s best when cooking and we both loved to bake. So I had basic baking skills as a Southern kid. My senior year of college I lived in Paris, France. There I experienced culture shock, in so many ways. Pastry and chocolate were a revelation. I ate chocolate bars with marked percentages. I ate my first truffle on the parvis outside of Chartres cathedral. I was smitten. So chocolate, the romance of it, the complexities, the art of pastry work, it stayed with me. I began my profession career in chocolate in 2010 when the recession changed my career path.
VC: How does a chocolatier approach differ from a bean-to-bar chocolate maker? What are the similarities?
Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: If I had to compare a chocolatier and a maker I would picture a DJ and a producer, one is a living library and knowledge of tunes that he masters at mixing to create a moment, while the second makes the very music from scratch in refining sounds and frequencies. Both have in common a universe of their own that they share through their creations, a make and a signature.
In terms of technique, the chocolatier has a wide palette of ingredients to work with which comes with a serious amount of knowledge of food processing required for it could affect the shelf-life of the products while a maker has more room on this end but less variables to create bars. It might prove even more challenging when commitment is made to an origin as tree to bar since you cut yourself from the option of sourcing different origins and works on a narrower range of genetics. It triggers creativity to come-up with novelty. But if you look at music, again, you would think after centuries of using a guitar and a drum that we might have exhausted the things that were never done before or revisit them in brilliant ways. This is how I would picture it best.
Steph Shafer/Bella Sophia Chocolates: With a chocolatier, there is a lot of thought that goes into which percentage of cacao to use with each filling, not all percentages go with each other, you need a perfect balance, or it won’t taste as good.
I feel like, all of us who share a passion for chocolate also share a passion for making everyone happy, we do this through our chocolate. One of the best feelings, is watching someone take a bite of your perfectly thought out confection, we scream inside quietly, with anticipation to see the thrill on your face, every one of us. We all end up melting, tempering and molding chocolate, whether we make it ourselves or buy it from a maker already prepared.
VC: When did you first start using bean-to-bar in some of your creations?
David Upchurch: Friends who happen to be growing cacao in Costa Rica, convinced me to join them at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in 2017. I was hooked immediately into the craft chocolate movement. The social justice goals, the rainbow of humanity involved, the positive energy and camaraderie, the possibilities of chocolate, all that clicked with me. It was there that I made a few lasting friendships. Among those are the ladies who create and promote Conexion Chocolates out of Quito, Ecuador. Since then I have moved toward chocolate makers that are more ethical and work directly with farmers / producers.
VC: How long have you been using single-origin chocolate in your creations?
Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: We have been using single-origin chocolate since we started in since 2013 – this is something we have decided to do, as we like the different flavour characteristics of various single-origin chocolates.
VC: What are you looking for when you pick out someone’s bean-to-bar chocolate to work with?
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well, up until now it has always been with someone who I know on a personal level. In this somewhat intimate community in the US it’s not unusual to spark up friendships. That leads to conversations exchanging of ideas and then of course being a chocolatier I am eager to try out their chocolate. What I am looking for is something that is ethical/sustainable, apart from that it’s kind of random; I will take some of the chocolate and taste it first and go from there.
David Upchurch: I look for fluidity and refinement. I look at the ingredients and fat content. I look to the maker for the intended use of the chocolate. A bar of rare cacao may not be best used in a peanut butter cup. There are a growing number of small batch makers offering couverture. I look for flavor and what could unfold from that chocolate.
I have collaborated with local makers 9th and Larkin, and Jay Holechek of The Latest Batch. My workhorse chocolates are by Felchlin, made in Switzerland, Conexion and Republica del Cacao, made at origin in Ecuador. These are all direct-trade chocolate makers.
VC: What inspired you to recently start making some of your own bean-to-bar creations?
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: A friend of mine who was formally operating as Carbon Chocolate told me he was stopping and I asked him what he was doing with his grinders, he sold one to me and I have the opportunity now to play around and create small amounts of chocolate for my own specific recipes. When I started with a blend of coffee and cocoa beans I was humbled at the process that my friends in the craft chocolate Making world are masters of… ITS HARD!
It is not something I intend on making a big thing of; just small, fun, playtime projects.
VC: Does bean-to-bar chocolate behave differently when it comes to tempering than with larger produced/standard type of chocolate you might have practiced with before switching to bean-to-bar? How does bean-to-bar chocolate affect the making of a ganache or other fillings versus standard chocolate?
Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: Yes, fluidity of the melted chocolate is the most noticeable difference. In a bean-to-bar chocolate, the lower amount of cocoa butter and the type of cocoa butter used would affect the viscosity of the chocolate – This would increase the chance of air bubbles on the shells as well as thicker shells when we make molded chocolates. Ganache is not being affected as much, because we would add cream and other ingredients into the chocolate, and thus we can control the fluidity more easily.
Albert Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: Also, with bean-to-bar chocolate, the flavour may not be so consistent over time. Just like wine, we expect variations in the harvest of cacao every year due to weather etc, and that can affect the flavour of the chocolate. However, without careful control of the post-harvest processing such as fermentation and roasting profile, the flavour can vary widely, and that can make it challenging for flavoured ganache, as the pairing of flavour with the chocolate may work in one bean-to-bar batch but not in another.
VC: Does bean-to-bar chocolate behave differently when it comes to tempering than with larger produced/standard type of chocolate you might have practiced with before becoming a chocolate maker? How does bean-to-bar chocolate effect the making of a ganache or other fillings versus standard chocolate?
Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: Indeed, commercial types of chocolates tend to have much higher contents of fat and sugar which alters their viscosity, and the lecithin will also have an impact. It proves harder to work with craft chocolate, they’re usually thicker and solidify faster, but it adds so much flavours and generosity to the recipe and it’s an integral part of it, not just a vehicle for the ganache. I would tend to use higher percentage of cacao and low sugar in the chocolate we make for bonbons to balance the sugar contained in ganache and fruits. Sugar will increase your shelf life but I don’t like it when it overpowers your senses, it’s almost anaesthetic for me though we keep it as low as possible and mostly in ganache for the preservation of the bonbon. And I love the way everything melts when you crack the shell and get that explosion of flavours from the ganache blending in the chocolate.
VC: Does bean-to-bar chocolate behave differently when it comes to tempering than with larger produced/standard type of chocolate you might have created with? How does bean-to-bar chocolate effect the making of a ganache or other fillings versus standard chocolate? Does it change how the chocolate works in molds for larger decorative pieces?
David Upchurch: Ha! Let’s write a book! Industrial chocolate, marketed toward pastry professionals, is designed to be easy to use in a variety of applications. Pastry professionals are intensely busy and need consistent and facile chocolate. Working with small batch chocolate requires more knowledge of the chocolate material which most pastry professionals lack. The variations in small batch chocolate create the adventure. Flavor of course is the fun part. Fat content of beans varies by genetics and terroir. Tempering is based on fat crystallization and so the science will be consistent in any chocolate. Conching and refinement varies by maker and these variables affect every aspect of workability. Couverture chocolates vary in added fat content as well as refining. It all comes down to viscosity and the varying factors that play into viscosity. Chocolatiers need fluid chocolates that can work in molding and shaping. We need to know fat content as an ingredient as it will affect any application of that chocolate. Working with bean-to-bar or small batch chocolates requires more knowledge of the material and more testing for consistency.
Lecithin is a key ingredient in most couvertures. It provides more fluidity than added fat which can mute flavor. Two ingredient chocolates have very limited applications because of their viscosity. They are just too thick.
VC: Does bean-to-bar chocolate behave differently when it comes to tempering than with larger produced/standard type of chocolate you might have created with? How does bean-to-bar chocolate effect the making of a ganache or other fillings versus standard chocolate?
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Yes it does behave differently in the majority of cases, it is often much thicker than “conventional” couvertures. Also the majority of craft chocolates contain no emulsifying ingredients as do mass produced chocolates. the addition of lecithin aids in the manufacture of ganache, which is an emulsion. There is some controversy about the use of Lecithin with claims to health issues which are largely unfounded, for a chocolatier lecithin a bonus not a hindrance As it keeps the chocolate fluid and allows cream and other liquids to be incorporated into the Chocolate without separating. I am sure any lecithin in the chocolate I use comes from ethically produced organic sources.
VC: What are the challenges of pairing single-origin chocolate to the various caramels that you make?
Albert Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: It is very much down to pairing the flavour profile of the chocolate with the caramel. At the start of the development process, we might like to have the caramel in milk chocolate ideally. However, during the development process, we might find that it works better with dark chocolate, and then we would find out that it works with one particular origin’s dark chocolate and not another.
VC: What are the challenges and the pleasures of matching inclusions with the bean-to-bar chocolate?
David Upchurch: Flavor and texture and color are the most fun parts of the game for a chocolatier. The flavor of a chocolate is usually a starting point, then we have fun with possibilities. The challenge again is viscosity. If it is fluid it has more sculptural applications than if it is viscous. What inclusions I pair with a chocolate are partly decided by the shape or texture of the final piece. Two-ingredient chocolates suggest simplicity as bars, mendiants or rustic shapes. Fluid chocolates offer more options. Each has their place.
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: The pleasures are of course knowing that the chocolate has been produced in a purely hands-on manner just as the products I make from them have been. It fortifies the artisan element. In small batch craft chocolate flavors can be much more nuanced and at the same time much broader if that makes sense! Flavors can be extremely bold and that allows me to be equally as bold in my flavor combinations. Challenges are that often a successful flavor pairing will not be as successful with subsequent batches from small makers as they are at the mercy of the harvest, which can deliver subtly different flavor profiles and even the source of that harvest can just dry up.
VC: What makes you decide a flavor/inclusion/filling would be better suited to making a bonbon instead of making a chocolate bar?
Steph Shafer/Bell Sophia Chocolates:I like the fact that you can fill a bonbon with all kinds of yumminess, from a dark chocolate silky smooth ganache to a crème brulee, you can’t really stuff a bar with multiple layers like you can with a bonbon.
VC: What makes you choose to make a bonbon instead of an inclusion bar?
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: There is no pre or immediate choice made, I will use it for a variety of items once I have it in a significant amount in my possession. Some creative processes result in me discovering that the chocolate is probably not best suited for enrobing and small-cavity molding due to its viscosity which means I continue only using it for bars or solid pieces for bars or solid pieces.
Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: Mostly the ingredient and the way its flavour varies in the processing. Some fruits work better in ganache than dehydrated for inclusion in a bar, with evaporation of the water you tend to lose flavours and end up with acidity only. Cooking alters flavours too and might work adversely. This might be even more relevant to the Vanuatu terroir which fruits are usually high in water contents and very subtle. The season and what’s available from the producers, in our garden, or at the market is usually what triggers inspiration.
We also pay a lot of attention to the textures. An inclusion should not be to hard or unevenly spread over the bar or else you end up with unpleasant mouth fell or huge variations in flavours from one bite to the next. For textures we use a wide range of local nuts that are very tasty and with different fat contents. We have developed a range of coated products specifically to put forward the local nut and some pairings with craft chocolate are insane.
VC: What characteristics make a bonbon great?
Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: When every element comes together and it has that “wow” factor. It doesn’t have to be a complex or unusual flavour combination – good quality ingredients that balance well with the chocolate used is crucial. The texture is also important – whether it’s a silky smooth caramel or different layers of contrasting texture in a bonbon. And of course, it has to look good too, and the appearance should be part of the story behind the chocolate.
Albert Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: I agree with Russell. For me, there’s no one set of characteristics for a great bonbon, but usually after eating one and I want to eat another one, that’s a good start. The best indicator is when I would have that strong desire to go to the chocolatier’s shop just to buy that bonbon, even when it’s in a different part of the world!
Steph Shafer/Bella Sophia Chocolates: Visual/Taste/Smell/Texture/ First people eat with their eyes, so my passion for art gets to take center stage, each one a mini abstract piece of art. It’s also important that the smell, texture and taste of the chocolate shell blend perfectly with the filling, because the wrong percentage can throw off the balance.
VC: What makes a bonbon special?
David Upchurch:texture + flavor + presentation – It is magical when those elements come together and just sing.
Context and associations – A simple truffle enjoyed at Chartres cathederal changed my world. The last food my mother ate before passing, was a rose caramel that I made. Bonbons shared in unique moments, with people dear to us, can become very potent memories.
Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: The balance between flavours and textures. You have to have both the taste and mouth feel right. When you have both, it’s like an intense kiss. The tempering for a perfect mirror shine, like jewels. The shape, it gives your bonbon a personality. Some use colours and I find it beautiful, but I like sober, intense dark.
VC: What do you want the consumer to experience in a bonbon versus a bar?
Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: To me a bonbon is the perfect bite, an explosion of flavours and textures that blows all your senses. The bar is more of an intimate relationship, a nice ride that develops bite after bite in layers and complexity. Somehow I find it easier to have expectations when I crack a bar whereas the bonbon is always a question mark. I want the consumer to be adventurous in bonbons and try something unexpected, intense, be carried away and live the moment like time has stopped for a blink. With bars, it’s more like flirting and becoming comfortable, this little happy place they can get back to every time they open a bar. I often ask clients about their chocolate rituals and it is always special.
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well naturally I want it to be a journey. I like to create layers of flavor resulting in an overall experience that is memorable. The same goes for bonbons and bars and confections. There is no distinction between them.
VC: What do you want the consumer to experience when they try one of your bonbons?
Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: First and foremost – I’d like them to enjoy our bonbons. If it’s one of our more innovative or unusual flavours, I want them to be open-minded and try them – we love it when they are introduced to flavours that are not often paired with chocolate, and we see that surprise on their faces. Our “Siem Reap” (Cambodian Curry) is a classic example – savoury Southeast Asian curry in a sweet white chocolate is such an alien concept, but we just love the customers’ eye lit up when they taste this bonbon and experience that flavour journey, and open their eyes and minds to some new combination of ingredients.
Alber Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: I also like the consumer to enjoy some of the more mainstream flavours – often the simpler ones are harder to do. We do a fair amount of research when it comes to sourcing ingredients too, and we use the best quality ingredients we can get, and let the ingredients do the talking.
VC: What other confections do you like to use craft chocolate in? What challenges does single-origin chocolate bring when incorporating it into confections?
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well, my products consist largely of solid pieces and filled bonbons and I use craft chocolate in all of them. The biggest challenge of using single origin is there is no challenge! I treat a single origin exactly the same way I treat all the other craft chocolate I receive it has a flavor profile and I do my best to honor that. There is leveling off sanctity regarding single origin and people who know me I’ve probably already gathered that I’m like “whatever, Let’s make some shit”.
Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: One of our recent projects is the collaboration with Pump Street Chocolate. Some of their most famous flavoured bars contains baked products e.g. Eccles, Sourdough & Sea Salt, Rye, etc. We are huge fans of their bars, and when they asked us to create the bonbon version of their bars, we just had to say yes straight away! It’s not as simple as just melting these bars and turning them into ganache – the breadcrumbs from sourdough and rye would go soggy in ganache very quickly, and we want to keep to the distinct characters that made their bars famous. So we have to use some different techniques and tricks to make the bonbons.
David Upchurch: The challenge again is viscosity and fat content. Some confections need more care and balance, and some are more forgiving. Understanding the material is important. A rare cocoa should be used appropriately and not muddied. I use fine chocolate in pâte de fruit and jams / spreads. The range of flavors can be fun.
VC: What other types of confections do you like to experiment making with craft chocolate?
Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: Baking! Revisit all the classics dropping the sugar content and using craft chocolate is always a recipe for success. Now I have to be honest and sometimes simple is nice. In Vanuatu most of the traditional cooking is steamed, food wrapped in leaves and covered in hot stones straight of the fire pit for hours long slow cooking. Inspired by the custom we experimented on Chocolate fondants steamed on firewood and it is just mind blowing.
VC: How do you keep the “fun” in your bonbon creation?
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well look at me! Most people who know me and follow me get that I’m pretty frivolous, silly, thoughtful and, most importantly, creative. The expression “you do you” kind of applies when it comes to Chocolatasm, Keeping the fun is being the fun.
Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: We are always on the lookout for new ideas and flavours when we eat. Some of our friends find it rather amusing when eating out with us, as the conversation always ends up with one of us asking “will this work in chocolate?” and then we start analysing the dish in front of us and debating why a certain flavour would or would not work.
Albert Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: We love a challenge! Every year we set ourselves a challenge. For example, the perception of a caramel in white chocolate is usually frowned upon because it’s considered too sweet. So last year we decided that we wanted to do a white chocolate caramel bonbon, and the result was our “Stockholm” (Salt & Malt Caramel in White Chocolate).
VC: What makes bonbon creation fun?
David Upchurch: Playfulness, finding the time to play and create. I enjoy watching the seasons change and make associations with chocolate. Also the camaraderie of playing with other makers. The challenge of making all the techniques work can be fun, and, and frustrating too.
VC: What would help consumers, and the chocolate word, understand that a person can be both a chocolatier and also sometimes a chocolate maker?
Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well as far as “Joe public” goes there is often no distinction between the two when I tell them I am a chocolatier and they fully assumed that I also grind up the beans to make chocolate; that’s when I have to educate. I think in this time of social media a good presents with your public and your product is imperative in showing what it is you actually do. The “big cacao” Industrial chocolate making companies focus on imagery of people eating their product, running around laughing; you get it. In the craft chocolate world our social media is based on images of the sourcing of the ingredients and the manufacture of the products, so people are becoming aware through social media what different branches of the chocolate world are actually doing. Anyone in this business who doesn’t have a solid social media presence is missing out on enormous opportunities for exposure, sales, education of the general public.
VC: What would help consumers, and the chocolate word, understand that a person can be both a chocolate maker and a chocolatier?
Steph Shafer/Bella Sophia Chocolates: I’m proof that you can be both, I have learned both ends of the maker/chocolatier world, while one side turns the bean into the chocolate, the other side has to thoughtfully plan out fillings, inclusions and artwork, both of these together make a perfect marriage.
Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: It’s interesting because in France when you train for chocolatier you have to pick another major like bakery or pastry chef, you can’t be just a chocolatier by graduation. It is hard for me to imagine making chocolate and not making bonbons. It would feel like forcing creativity to fit in boxes. Most successful chocolate makers also do bonbons and I believe it tells a beautiful story when your clients feel the link between your bars and bonbons and understand why you chose to develop certain flavours in a bonbon and others in a bar. Certainly, chocolatier is more academic and I find it a lot more technical than chocolate making for the number of ingredients and variables you can adjust but you can be super-creative in both fields and turning beans into chocolate often proves equally challenging. I believe working and training on both bonbons and bars helps me to become a more accomplished craftsperson and also opens an infinite field of possibilities which will have me driven for a while.
Thank you to Gaston Chocolat, Bella Sophia Chocolates, David Upchurch, Chocolatasm and Fifth Dimension Chocolates for all this wonderful bonbon information!
Thank you to all of you who take the time to check out this blog and read all of the interviews!
Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz is the co-founder and CEO of Les Chocolateries Askanya whos craft chocolate bars feature Haitian cacao along with the bars being made Haiti.
All of the chocolate makers at Askanya are women and Askanya happens to be celebrating it’s 5th anniversary this year. (Congrats and wishing you many more years Les Chocolateries Askanya!).
Studying industrial engineering and achieving an MBA, Corinne long-term vision was to create both a business and jobs, but she didn’t know at the time those dreams began that the business would be in craft chocolate.
(My personal favorite Askanya bar is the 65% Bouquet Vert Lime Chocolate dark chocolate bar with a lime zest inclusion with the zest also coming from Haiti-based MyaBel Food & Beverage).
Corinne’s openness and personality shine through in this interview and I hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as I have.
Victoria Cooksey:How has your work/life experience, travel and education all lead you to start a craft chocolate business?
Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz: Unfortunately, I was not the chocolate lover. I didn’t get in the craft chocolate business because I was a chocoholic (Sorry, Victoria – but I do love delicious food, in general).
Growing up in Haiti, I was aware of the poverty and lack of opportunities surrounding me (whether it was the cook asking for extra help to pay for her grandson tuition or the housekeeper needing money for a medical emergency). As a teenager (back then), I promised to myself: when I grow up, I will not just do “charity”, I will create jobs.
I figured studying industrial engineering and getting an MBA would help me run a business efficiently and profitably, when I was ready to realize this bucket list item of mine.
So almost 15 years later, I had the skills and knowledge and was deciding what business to run. By then, I wanted my business to generate revenues for farmers (since 60% of Haiti’s population are susbsistence farmers), to create blue-collar jobs (since only 4% of the population has a four-year degree) and finally to be outside of the capital Port-au-Prince to provide opportunities in the countryside. Then (only then) Istarted researching crops, and learned about several crops, among them cacao and the nascent potential of the craft chocolate industry. The rest is History.
VC: Whatdoes chocolate mean to you?
CJSS: Prior to getting in the craft cacao industry – nothing! Or maybe just hot chocolate on Sunday. Now, it can be considered as a black gold – good for you (health-wise), good for the growers (financially); so good for the world!
VC: What makes Haitian cacao special?
CJSS: For one, we have some vintage cacao trees in Haiti (older specimen). In addition, compared to Ecuador that has big uniform cacao estate, Haitian farmers cultivate “ tropical garden”; where on less than a quarter of an acre (sometimes smaller parcels), they have a little bit of everything (mango, lime, orange, coffee, vetiver, plantain,.., and cacao). Therefore, it feels that all this “mélange” gets in the taste of the Haitian cacao beans.
VC: How was chocolate viewed in Haiti and used in daily life/holidays when you were growing up? How has that changed now that craft chocolate is available?
CJSS:Growing up, we almost only had chocolate as “hot chocolate” drink. They would be the artisanal cacao mass (so 100% cacao (fermented sometimes, dried always) that was cracked, unshelled and grinded sometimes by hand and turned into a small ball) that would be mix with spices and hot milk and sugar. Craft chocolate is still very new in Haiti – we (Askanya) still get compared to Hershey or M&M Mars –a very new “industry” requires a lot of education of potential customers. In addition, if you think about it – craft chocolate is frankly still unaffordable to most Haitian (as the GDP is $800/year) – so a very small part of the population can afford a $5 or $8/bar.
VC: Why is it important to work with cacao famers directly? What does that involve?
CJSS: When working with intermediaries, farmers really just get peanuts for their crops (sometimes as little as 5% of the final resale price) and often they can not live off their lands and end up giving up and moving to the city (which creates rural exodus – another problem as often enough jobs are not available in the big cities). Therefore being able to offer a living wage (not a minimum wage) to the farmers is important to make it worth their effort and their time in order for them to live decently from growing and harvesting the cacao (and passing on a profitable or at least living trade to their kids). For us, the living wage ended up paying the farmer almost 7 times the local rate for their cacao pod / beans.
VC: Any tips on how to begin the process of direct trade/sourcing cacao beans for people interested in making bean-to-bar chocolate?
CJSS: First, try to find a reputable firm (ask around to chocolate experts, like you Victoria). In the USA, Uncommon and Meridian are the most known / established. In Haiti, you can rely on us (through our sister firm – G&S Cacao), or contact PISA (via Uncommon Cacao) and FECCANO (selling mostly on the European market). Then once you decide who to work with, it’s time to ask for a sample. From there, it’s working together and making the cost and logistics work for the two partners. This process has worked for our clients and they keep coming back for more.
VC: How has your business benefited your community? How does your company empower women in your community?
CJSS: We source our cacao from 500 cacao farmers in rural communities in Northern Haiti (Grande Rivière du Nord and Limonade); our sugar cane from 200 sugarcane farmers in Center Haiti (Thomonde) and our lime and oranges from Myabel, a farm located in West Haiti (Croix Des Bouquets). Thanks to our recurrent purchases, we provide direct revenues within these farming communities; money that can be used for food, health, education and more.
All our chocolate makers are women – young adults and / or mothers. Working in our chocolate factory was often their first formal work opportunity, for a company that respect them, treat them well, pay them on time. Many of them have been able since then to rent their own apartment, provide adequately for their children / dependents and become the breadwinner for their families.
For our sustainable practices in the chocolate industry, we won the NW Chocolate Sustainability prize in November 2017.
VC: What is the inspiration behind naming your chocolate Askanya?
CJSS: My husband! When I was about to launch my business, we have been married for 5-6 years and we have agreed that whatever business I would do in Haiti, I should not be in Haiti (so outside of our NY home) more than 6 months per year and the business should be named like his German hometown – Aschersleben in German, Ascania in Latin or Askanya in Haitian Creole. Voilà.
VC: How has your experience/studies/degree in Engineering translated into assisting you with running a chocolate business?
CJSS: Being an industrial engineer help me setup the company production processes efficiently – I unfortunately don’t get to practice it that much (as I am not always in Ouanaminthe and we have a fantastic Head of Production who take care of the day to day operations), but when we were working on launching the company almost 6 years ago, I definitely used these skills to establish the workflow, the production output, the employees work scheduling, the material sourcing / reordering processes, etc. All in all – what are all the least amount of inputs needed to produce X chocolates at the lowest cost, while taking into account the infrastructure, legal, human resource, product sourcing challenges surrounding us. This is a real industrial engineering problem.
VC: Since Askanya is celebrating it’s 5th anniversary this year, how has your view on chocolate/craft chocolate making changed over the past five years? What has become more difficult in the chocolate business? What has gotten easier?
CJSS: Through these 5 years, the challenges have changed, we overcame many, but new ones have popped-up. Early on, the main challenge was making sure my grandparents old summer house transformed into a chocolate factory had the appropriate updated infrastructures (electricity / plumbing)that would sustain production. The next challenge was producing at origin in the tropics (we had a tough time with tempering, but we overcame and mastered it). Then came shipping the finished products from our small town in North-Eastern Haiti to Port-au-Prince, our first main market, before we pivoted to the USA). Now, it’s mostlyhaving enough sales to make it worth the effort (so if you are reading this – please buy and/or recommend /introduce use to some stores that can be a great fit for our chocolates.
We are cash flow positive too, but the total original investment is still not paid back.
VC: Where would you like Askanya and the craft chocolate movement to be in another five years?
CJSS: Profitable & Better understood – I cringe, when companies who pretend to “support” minorities /small business” just want to pay $2/bar (just shipping out of Haiti cost $0.75/bar). Dude, you are not helping small businesses when you put the “bar’ so low.
I feel the Western world still need to be educated about what it takes to get your chocolate bar in your hand safely and child-labor free: farmers need to be paid enough to make it worth his/her time (if not, child labor practices will continue – let’s not be hypocritical about that); all-natural products are more expensive because they are more expensive to produce and they don’t have preservatives (preservatives are here to “preserve”, but are not entirely good for your health) – which explains their higher cost. Finally, many of the countries at origin (where cacao is found) still don’t have modern infrastructures – therefore, there’s an extra cost to producing there that people should be aware of and willing to bear.
VC: What impact would you like your chocolate to have on the world?
CJSS: I would love Askanya to be a model for other companies, located at origin and willing to take the risk to produce at origin, which also create more revenues for farmers (and a more sustainable world). These companies could be producing for the local market or for export. But this won’t happen if we don’t get people on-board, educated and willing to ditch their sugar-laded sweet for something natural, healthy, good for them. Similarly, even within Haiti, we need to teach people that being produced at home doesn’t necessarily translate to cheaper.
Thank you so much for this interview Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz!
*All photos in this interview post were provided by Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz. of Les Chocolateries Askanya.
Elliott Curelop and Harshit Gupta founded Madhu Chocolate together and named their chocolate after mother Madhu Gupta whose name means “honey” and “sweet” in Hindi.
Originally a software engineer and a product developer by profession these Austin, TX based bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers found their winning combo by pairing Indian inspired flavors with Columbian cacao.
Due to the Texas heat their shipping of chocolate is paused until the end of August, so in the meantime we can enjoy learning some new info about Madhu until we can get our chocolate fix again! (If you are in Austin, TX you can still pick up or get orders delivered).
Victoria Cooksey: When and how did you become interested in making bean-to-bar chocolate?
Elliott Curelop: I started making chocolate as a hobby. I have always been interested in the process of how things were made, and was excited to learn that it was possible to make my own chocolate from scratch at home. I still remember how impressive I thought I was when I made my first batch, though I’m certain now it was total garbage!
It was after doing that for a while that I started experimenting with flavors, and our trip to India is what really inspired both Harshit and I to start a business.
VC: How did you decide to use cacao from Columbia?
Harshit Gupta & Elliott Curelop:We had a tasting panel with a bunch of our friends and a variety of chocolate with the same percentage we made from cacao of different regions (our friends are too kind to do such hard work for us for free). Everyone noted what they did/didn’t like about each chocolate, and then ranked them from one to ten. The clear winner was the Tumaco, Colombia beans and for good reason; they’re just wonderful.
VC: How do you incorporate chocolate into your daily lives? How do you enjoy it on special occasions?
Harshit Gupta: Elliott has to taste chocolate every single day while he’s in production, so he doesn’t eat it as a daily dessert like I do. I’m obsessed with chocolate, even after all this time working with it. I usually have brownies, chocolate sorbet, or some other chocolatey treat at my disposal as an after-dinner treat.
On special occasions we like to make fancy desserts for one another. Elliott made a flourless chocolate torte once out of our 70% and I could have died, it was so amazing!
VC: What has been some of the challenges with pairing traditional Indian flavors with chocolate?
HG: I think the biggest challenge we run into is educating our customers as to what they should be tasting. Most people know what saffron is, but very few people here know what it tastes like. They just know it as that stuff that makes paella yellow. It’s similar with cardamom, to a lesser extent, but we find ourselves spending a lot of time explaining what these spices are, what they are usually found in, and why we thought they would taste good in chocolate. This is also where handing out samples really comes in handy.
VC: What has been your favorite combo and why?
EC: Orange Clove is hands down my total favorite. I loved clove studded oranges during the holiday season, and was so excited to be able to make something that is so nostalgic yet also new. Also, I love citrus fruit so I never get sick of this one.
VC: What takes an inclusion bar from good to great?
EC & HG: Quality ingredients is the number one answer. You spend all this time roasting cacao, cracking it and grinding it for three days. Why would you flavor it with anything other than the best ingredients you can find? I can’t even imagine turning to artificial flavors for that.
Another thing that’s very important is making sure that if a flavor is advertised on that packaging, that the flavor is present in the bar. We’ve tried so many chocolates where the inclusions are thrown on the back of the bar at the last minute and they don’t add any flavor. We almost always grind our inclusions into the chocolate itself even if we are decorating the back because it’s so important to us that our customers feel like they’re getting what they expected out of their chocolate.
VC: With Austin, TX being a place that can reach high temps, how have you had to adapt your chocolate making due to the weather? Any tips for shipping and/or storing chocolate when the temps rise?
HG: We’re very lucky that the AC in our manufacturing space works very well, so even when it hits the triple digits we know the chocolate isn’t at risk. We can’t ship in peak summer though, so that’s always a bit frustrating for us. Still we’d rather not ship at all than send out a product knowing the quality will be impacted by the weather.
As far as tips, I would say look for a cool dry place to keep your chocolate. We don’t recommend the refrigerator, because chocolate tends to absorb the flavor of what is sitting around it, but if it’s the only cool place in the house I suggest wrapping it in plastic or putting it in an airtight jar to keep odors out.
VC: Any suggestions for pairing some of your inclusion bars with some specific cheese, wine, beer, etc?
EC: We like to suggest pairing our Cardamom chocolate with a nice cabernet because the cardamom tends to bring out some nice subtleties in the wine. I also think our Orange Clove goes wonderfully with a nice bourbon or Old Fashioned as both the orange and cloves play so well with the woodiness of the spirit. We also think that stout beers have a nuttiness that tends to pair wonderfully with our rose pistachio and coconut cashew. Honestly, one of the fun things about chocolate is that it can work in so many different situations, so I suggest playing around with pairings.
VC: Since you started making craft chocolate, how has your thoughts on chocolate/chocolate making changed?
HG: For us the biggest change was our fixation on the ethics of chocolate. Human rights and wage issues in the production of cacao are nothing new, but it seems very abstract when you aren’t in the industry. Starting a business and seeing how your choices directly impact the suppliers really made us realize that we have an opportunity and a duty to obtain ingredients in a way that isn’t exploitative and also won’t destroy the planet.
VC: What impact would you like your chocolate bars to have on the world?
HG & EC: We would love for people to see our bars as an example of the benefits of cross-culturalism. We’re taking what’s long been a Euro-centric product and giving it an Indian twist using South American cacao. I hope people can try our bars and understand the beauty that can be had once you leave your comfort zone.
Cacao fermentation? What is
it all about? How does it affect cacao flavor? Why is it so important?
Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat makes tree-to-bar craft chocolate in Vanuatu from cacao beans that are grown there. This interview is specific to cacao fermentation and Olivier’s experience/knowledge with fermentation in regards to Vanuatu cacao and location. Quite informative!
Victoria Cooksey: Will you give a brief description of the cacao fermentation
Olivier Fernandez: The fermentation is the second step in the process right after harvesting. It is said to require a minimum of 80kg of green beans to work and could possibly be done on a smaller scale with heating assistance but our experience in the field led us to use a standard 200kg size box. Below, we believe the critical mass to get to the right temperatures is not achieved. It is common to see farmers ferment into bags or digging holes in the ground covered in banana leaves, however we never experienced favourable tasting results from such practices and always witnessed inconsistency from one batch to the next. The fermentation is a two-step transformation of sugars and fats, with a first step consisting of a transformation of the sweet flesh wrapping every bean into a juice which has to drip through the box and out to create space in-between beans and activate the second phase with air and bacteria coming into play. Beans are braised a few times in the second phase to re-introduce fresh air and revive fermentation. Both the length of the fermentation and number of braising vary based on the genetics, the outside temperatures and the flavours you want to develop.
VC: Why is the fermentation process of cacao important?
OF: To us, fermentation is the most critical step in the whole process, the moment you develop the precursor of the chocolate aromas and magnify the cacao you are working with. Let’s put it that way, you could have the finest genetics to work with, if you miss on fermentation your chocolate will taste terrible. Now you could work with mainstream cacao and master fermentation and end up with beautiful and unique chocolate. We believe it speaks volume on how critical fermentation is, and this is common to both cacao and coffee, with a trend for more and more experimenting on flavours and complexity of both when altering variables in the fermentation process.
VC: What are some “off” flavors you have noticed if cacao is under
fermented? If it is over fermented?
OF: An under-fermented cacao will have a high level of ammonia
and literally smell pee, it’s simply terrible and beans will have a typical
purple colour when you do your cut test. For the over-fermented, it is more the
mouldy flavours, cheese flavours that you will detect. Now you should realize
that unless you practice grading upstream in the process, you will have a
disparity of size in the beans entering into the box, and it implies that
smaller beans will ferment faster than larger ones, thus you will always have a
disparity in cut test and what you are looking for is the mass result. In
previous interviews we pointed out how the pre and post-harvest handling of
beans could make a difference and this is mostly related to what will enter the
VC: Does the type of material/wood the cacao is fermented in
affect the final flavor?
OF: Yes and no. We believe that essences of woods which are prone to release sap in the process should be avoided and so are any type of treated wood like timber used in building or logistic for palettes which are loaded in chemicals for long resistance. At Gaston we used reclaimed wood from trees that were damaged during cyclones. Now telling you that a particular type of wood would give a specific flavour, we believe it would be exaggerated. Not that there is no interaction between the wood and the beans, though we use banana leaves to isolate the beans from the box, but because the magnitude of other variables on the final flavour like the duration or the type of bacteria interacting with the beans in the process is way more important. It is also to be said that we do not work in labs thus each batch has slight variations from the previous one since we have no grip on weather and outside temperatures.
VC: Is the cacao used in your chocolate bars farmed, or is
some/all of it wild cacao that is collected?
OF: The Cacao grows in plantations in Vanuatu, you would get wild trees in random places from birds and animals moving seeds but cacao was all man planted in the beginning and plantations are mostly dual crops with a shed from coconut trees. That said, some abandoned plantations would now look a lot closer to wild than a proper plantation and these are still harvested. A main work we are conducting is to restore some old plantations and get them back into operations with a source of income for the farmers. Know that in Vanuatu the amount of man planted areas is small compared to the vast size of tropical lush rainforest. Logging is limited and there is no mining. We do not face issues of deforestation and people have a profound sense of balance and respect for nature. 60% of agriculture in Vanuatu is for subsistence, not commercial.
VC: Did you begin to make chocolate before you worked on
fermentation with growers/cacao collectors, or after?
OF: Like most chocolate makers yes. I was blending beans with
sugar and other ingredients and enjoyed what came out no matter what or how
terrible it was. Always had fun in the process. However, I would say it is only
after we went back into the field and spent a few years on fermentation and
plantations rehab that we really started to make chocolate. We chose on purpose
to settle Gaston in Vanuatu for it is a country that grows cacao and an origin
which has yet to make a name for. Work with the trees is the key and we would
not conceive to run Gaston in another way. I worked from bags of beans without
contact with the farmers in the past and you are bound to make something with
the beans no matter what comes out of the bag, and believe me it is not always
great. Though I took it as a challenge back in the days, there was a lot of
frustration into the process too.
VC: What has been the biggest challenges in educating
growers/cacao collectors on how to ferment cacao? (Or did they teach you about
OF: Vanuatu had a commodity type of cacao market before we
began our work and fermentation was the least of the concerns with little
attention paid to it and a focus on volumes. Prices dropping through the years
didn’t trigger any will to invest or maintain plantations, the local market
being controlled by a handful of intermediaries shipping overseas for a nice
mark-up. It was only after we ran a few workshops on how to ferment cacao and
access fine flavour cacao niche market that farmers realized there was an
alternative that would drive higher incomes but requiring more work. It didn’t
click in every location we tried to develop our program and we were confronted
to lack of will and doubts regarding the changes we were introducing in a
process that had been ran for decades in a mechanical repetition of harvest,
dump beans in boxes until it’s full (even if it meant to fill the box over
three or four days of work), turn the beans three times over 7 days and dry
them on hot air type of dryers. Indeed, the process is quick and completed in
10 days when our technique requires at least 18 days between harvest, fermentation
and drying. We also faced the terrible outcomes of programsdestined to
help the farmers and led them to believe that sun drying was the key and only
requirement to qualify for fine flavour cacao. Organisations would mislead the
farmers on prices, pay them a premium over commodity market price that did not
capture the additional time and work it take for sun-drying and leading to
another drop in efficiency and revenues for the farmers. These were our main
challenges and it took three years and a few success stories to materialize to
convince more farmers of the good of this work. To restore a scale of pricing,
we studied everypart of the process, timed and priced it and came up
with a transparent system. We pay two to three times above the commodity cacao
market and our price is net into the worker’s pocket which means we pay for
transport, bags and insurances required to move the beans to our processing
VC: What has been the most rewarding part of helping others
improve the fermentation process?
OF: The farmers are connected to their cacao in a way we didn’t
witness before. They now see it as a valuable crop and source of income. We
have seen a constantly growing number of farmers wanting to join our program
and started with 3 to reach about 120 last harvest. You might find it small and
it is the measurable extent of what we can do at our scale. Let’s be honest, we
did the work to enhance the quality which serves us as well and we are not here
to save the world. Our packaging doesn’t talk about fair trade or socially
responsible behaviours, we simply do it. We believe that for as long as we use
it as a marketing tool it will not become the norm. Everyone in the bean to bar
movement is aware and has good practice. I personally believe it is a signature
of this branch of the chocolate industry. At the end of the day what matters is
that farmers have a better management of their resources, plant new trees for
the future generations and work together to achieve quality that pays.
Customers are no fools and they don’t need labels to make the difference.
VC: What has been the most surprising thing you have learned about
OF: The way flavours develop based on timing and braising is the key, acknowledging that you have made the necessary work to build functional fermentation boxes in a good environment. You can literally have two to three flavour profiles depending on genetics based on alteration of these two variables.
VC: How does weather affect the fermentation process?
OF: The variations of temperatures between winter and summer harvests are affecting the fermentation, at night the fermentation would slow down in winter forcing us to develop different fermentation profiles to get more even results across batches. The number of braising and days of fermentation has such an influence over the final result that we firmly believe it is the main trigger for variations of flavours from one farm to the next in a same region. The bacteria in the air are pretty consistent across the same region and so are the soils and water precipitations. It is virtually impossible to recreate the same fermenting conditions batch after batch unless it is done in a controlled environment like a lab. This is why we focussed on the process more and developed simple practice that would get consistency. Still we see variations over the seasons and batches.
VC: Have you experimented adding in other inclusions during the
fermentation process to add to the final flavor? If so, what are your thoughts
on that process? What are your thoughts on double fermentation? Any flavor
changes with that style?
OF: On a small scale we experimented inclusion of passion fruit
in the process which proves unsuccessful after roasting. Though we had
flavoured beans after drying with residual parts of passion fruits, these same
flavourful vegetal parts burned in the roasting process which was fairly
disappointing and didn’t have the effect we were expecting. There was a
remaining of acidity but you would not have been able to distinct from which
fruit is was. Now, there are so many variables that we can play with already
that inclusions are more of a trial for fun at this point in time. On a similar
experience, one of our bags travelled on a ship next to a hand of ripe bananas
and loaded in flavours which you could detect later in the process. At the time
we are more focused on ageing of nibs to see what can be achieved. If you don’t
see it in our range of chocolate, it means our attempt failed or was not
VC: Is there anything you would like to see change about cacao
fermentation in the future?
We would love to see chocolate makers more involved in the fermentation
process itself. There is a hype about travelling the world to scout new beans
paid at farmer’s gate but little is shared about fermentation profiles. I like
the work of plantations like Ingemann who are offering two to three
fermentation profiles per genetics, this is future, this is how we’ll keep on
bringing new flavours and this is worth for cocoa butter too and the market of milk
and white chocolates.
Thank you so much for this interview on cacao fermentation Olivier!
*All photos in this interview were provided by Gaston Chocolat.
Luisa Abram’s bean-to-bar chocolate features bars made from Brazilian wild cacao harvested in the Amazon Rainforest. Besides loving Luisa’s chocolate I’ve also attended her talks on Brazilian cacao the past two years at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle and this lady knows her stuff! I don’t know if she will have a talk next year at the festival, but if she does I highly recommended attending it!
Luisa has been helping to educate and improve on the process of cacao fermentation in Brazil and this blog post is entirely about cacao fermentation.
Why is cacao fermentation important? What is the process? How does it affect the flavor of the cacao beans? Read on to find out more!
*All photos used in this blog were provided by Luisa Abram and were taken from the first ferment on Juruá river, Novo Horizonte Community early 2018.
Luisa Abram checking cacao fermentation in Brazil
Victoria Cooksey: Will you give a brief description of the cacao fermentation process?
Luisa Abram: I can give a rather technical answer, but you can find about all that on the web. Instead, I will say what I smell, sense and see. The cocoa pods are broken and inside them there are several beans covered with a thick white pulp. Beans are thrown in a wooden box and covered with banana leaves. After 24 hours, I remove the leaves and look at them. They should still be green. Then I get my face close to the beans in the box, close my eyes and take a deep breath. My nose searches for a very typical smell, a smell that takes my mind to a bakery, when the baker is making bread! Then I check the temperature of the beans. I don’t use a thermometer. Instead, I stick my arms inside the mass. Should be a bit warm, not hot. I look at the mass to see its colour, should be white still, and to check if little white dots are present at the edges of the box, the coldest part of it. These dots are the yeasts, the same ones responsible for bread making bread. Next couple of days, the beans are moved to another box, so that oxygen can end the anaerobic conditions the beans were subjected until then. The smell changes , from a bread like odourto an alcoholic one. The pulp begins to disappear and the colours of the beans change to ochre. By the fourth day, a light vinegar smell appears in the mass, the temperature reaches close 50 C and you can really feel that the beans are being cooked! More turnings of the boxes are done for the next few days, until the mass loses temperature. This indicates the end of the fermentation. It should last between 5 to 7 days depending on the size of the beans, outsidetemperature, the size of the mass and how mature the fruits were in the beginning.Continue reading “Cacao Fermentation with Luisa Abram”
I’m amazed that it is already time for the 4th Annual Dark Matters Chocolate Reviews Craft Chocolate Awards! Each year chocolatemakers are upping their game and 2019 was no exception. With so many amazing bars to choose from it was quite the challenge to narrow down the list!
How do I choose winners? Throughout the year I taste hundreds of bars and I keep a running list of bars as nominees for various categories. I look for chocolate that is complex flavor-wise, extra pleasant textures and the representation of single origin and/or inclusion that stands out above the crowd. (It’s important to note that different cacao harvests and separate chocolate bar batches all lead to potential changes in the flavors that come through so the bars tasted in 2019 might taste different than the current 2020 version).
The bars that are eligible to win are ones that I tried in the same year, meaning that the bar might have been made in 2018, but I didn’t actual taste it until the year 2019. Some of these bars are limited editions and some may be part of a makers regular line up.
What disqualifies a bar for being a nominee? As a reviewer, makers sometimes send me bars. (Which is quite a treat! Thank you makers!). If I am given a bar for free then I leave it off the nominees list. I received bars this year that I truly believe deserve awards, but alas, I must continue to stick to my own rule.
On the eve before Caputo’s 8th Annual Chocolate Festival, which featured the Icelandic Omnom Chocolate, they held their first private media dinner with Kjartan Gíslason, chef, Chocolate Maker and Co-Founder of Omnom Chocolate with a theme of a traditional Icelandic dinner. Also present from Omnom Chocolate were, Thorlakur Thor, Export Manager and Hanna Eiríksdóttir, Marketing Manager. While the meal was presented in an elegant fashion, it managed to also be casual and family style. Traditions, especially family and food traditions, are important to Caputo’s Matt Caputo and Yelena Caputo with this meal captured these sentiments.
2019 marked the 5th year in a row that I have attended the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA. With each year different trends emerge. This article focuses especially on craft chocolate trends at NW and may or may not be reflective on trends seen elsewhere.
Trend #1: While makers still offer 100% bars I noticed a much greater presence of milk and dark/milk bars this year including an increase in milk chocolate inclusion bars.
Trend#2: For several years various salts have been featured in bars, but this year makers are turning to a range of peppercorns and/or a combo of pepper with salt.
Tomomi Kaneko of Sweets ESCALIER (Pic taken by Victoria Cooksey at the NW Chocolate Festival)
Tomomi Kaneko of Sweets ESCALIER is a great example of someone able to live in multiple chocolate worlds by creating both pastry and his own bean-to-bar chocolate in Niigata, Japan. Each year at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle I make sure to stop by his booth, which always has such a pleasant energy about it, to pick up bars for both myself and to give as gifts. Tomomi also draws the pictures for the wrappers and each bar comes with the option of various wrappers so the purchaser may pick the one that speaks to them best.
Enjoy this mini-interview!
Victoria Cooksey: When did you start making your own bean-to-bar chocolate and what was your inspiration to start making chocolate? How long have you been making chocolate?
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