The Terroir of Chocolate

As I sit at my computer thinking about this article I’m nibbling on a chocolate bar, 61% cacao from Venezuela. mmmm… I’m enveloped by the sharpness of the criollo cacao beans, followed by a slightly earthy and nutty flavor that mellows to a long full finish. Venezuelan Chocolate may be my favorite. Although I do have one from Ecuador in my shop that is richer and somewhat fattier tasting than the Venezuelan, a slight taste of green banana and I swear I can smell tropical flowers. Yet both these chocolate bars are only cacao and sugar. Why the extreme difference?

Chocolate will vary tremendously depending on where the cacao is grown. It too has terroir, much like wine. There is no good English equivalent for the word terroir. It refers to the characteristics of the region in which something grown. Soil is a big part of it, but it includes the air, the humidity, the sun, fog, the flora and fauna. All of this affects the taste of the fruit.

Cacao is grown within about 20 degrees of the equator, which is why you won’t find fields of cacao plants in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The only place in the United States where cacoa is grown is Hawaii. What do you think of when you think of that band near the equator? Tropical Rain forest? Volcanos? High Humidity? Yes, and a variety of other factors depending on whether the cocoa is grown in Africa, Madagascar or Mexico.

I am talking about pure cacao which is used for single origin chocolate, not candy. There is a huge difference, chocolate and candy aren’t even in the same food group. I am not making less of a Snickers bar, but a candy bar is cheap cocoa mixed with a lot of sugar and other fun ingredients to make a confection. There is no terroir in candy, just as there isn’t in a cheap jug wine. The jug wine may be okay with your pizza, but you don’t expect it to have the complexity of a great Bordeaux; just two different things entirely.

Cacao is traded as a commodity on the exchange in New York and London, so people making chocolate generally just buy a container at a set price. Even when a region is specified you don’t know exactly where or how the cacao was grown, quality can be spotty and labor practices not inspected.

A movement has developed in the last few years of specialty chocolate makers who are directly involved with the plantations from which they buy. These artisan companies make single origin chocolate, with the cacao coming from only one plantation or a small group of farmers, producing some of the most interesting chocolates out there. They have a range and depth of flavors that make them stand out from your ordinary supermarket chocolate bars.

Since most chocolate is grown in or near the rain forests of the world, it is vital to be sure the chocolate we consume is coming from companies that promote the sustainability of the environment, including organic growing, as well as fair wages to the workers. This is important for a number of reasons. When farmers are underpaid for their product they have to grow huge amounts of it to make a living. In doing so they will overgrow on the land, deplete the soil and cut down more and more of the rain forest so they can grow more and more cacoa, resulting in a less flavorful cacao bean. Sadly slavery exists on some of the cacao plantations, especially those in Ghana and the Ivory Coast; the two countries that produce the largest percentage of the world’s cocoa

On the other hand, there are fair trade and direct trade merchants who not only pay appropriately, but give back to the communities where cacao is grown, by developing programs that enrich the area in many ways. Many farmers are aware of the quality of their beans , they can – and do- command high prices for them when they deal directly with the manufacturer. This allows them to control their destiny as well as giving them the wherewithal to continue to grow prized beans such as the criollo I was just enjoying. So you can eat your chocolate with a clear conscious and open taste buds.

My suggestion is go out and gather some bars of chocolate and perform a tasting. Some brands I recommend are: Taza, Pacari, Claudio Corallo, Chuao, and Malie Kai ( this last being one of the few single origin Hawaiian Chocolates). For these manufacturers chocolate is a labor of love: they hand pick the best beans directly from the growers, most are organic, and Corallo grows and manufactures his own chocolate on the island of Sao Tome off the West Coast of Africa.

When tasting good chocolate treat it like tasting good wine. Go slowly, notice the texture of the bar, take a small amount at a time, allow it to melt a bit in your mouth – warmer chocolate will give off more flavor- make sure it hits the various parts of your tongue to get the most out of the flavor, and exhale through your nose so you pick up the nuances through your sense of smell. Also be aware of the finish. How long does the flavor last after you swallow it? You’ll find you need much less of good chocolate to satisfy you than you would if you were eating a sugar and additive packed candy bar. Next time you are at a good gourmet store, look at the chocolate shelf, notice the single origin and organic chocolates and give yourself a treat. Warning: once you start down this road there may be no going back.

Terry August, 323/466-7654, terry@fancifull.com

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