A cocoa pod can save the planet. White chocolate is not, in fact, chocolate. Chocolate wasn’t produced in solid bar form until the 1890s. Poor quality chocolate tastes aggressive.
These are just a few of the things I learned at A Chocolate Filled Evening, hosted by The Fine Food and Dining Society with The Pittenween Chocolate Company. The evening consisted of two presentations, an opportunity to buy Pittenween’s products and a feast of samples. The first presentation, led by local artisanal chocolatier Charlotte Flower, opened up the world of cocoa farming, one I certainly never consider when chomping down a Yorkie Bar.
Fresh off the plane from a trip to Indonesia, Charlotte told a fascinating story in defense of singe-origin, sustainable cocoa production. As seems too prevalent in much of today's world agriculture, in recent years cocoa farmers in Indonesia (the third largest cocoa producer in the world) have had to sacrifice the quality of their product in order to make a living. First thing you need to know is that cocoa farming is an incredibly intensive process, requiring one person per hectare (or even more for that coveted organic certification). Because of this high labour cost, processes such as fermentation, by which the white flesh surrounding cocoa beans is rotted off to improve the final taste over a period of several days, are sacrificed because they pays no extra dividend.
These factors add up to an uncertain future for chocolate – thanks to the delicious tasters from Charlotte’s shop though, this heartbreaking proposition didn’t dampen the mood. Her concern with sustainability was evident in these delicious nibbles (all made from single-origin chocolate, of course), particularly in the surprising Meadowsweet and Scots Pine flavours. She also experiments with elderflower, beach nuts and garlic – all sourced locally.All this was well and good, but I was not yet convinced to spend £4.50 on sixty-five grams of “artisanal” chocolate. But then I listened to Chloe Doutre-Roussel, the second presenter of the evening.
A French author and tasting expert, Chloe managed to convince me (and I think the whole room) that good chocolate is worth that embarrassing call to your parents asking for rent money. She began with some choco-history: it existed only in drink form from 500 BCE to approximately 1850 and went through several metamorphoses over the last few centuries, from solid bars to filled chocolates to gourmet chocolates. Chloe then treated us to an ingredients lesson. The only ingredients listed on your chocolate wrapper should be cocoa, cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder (for white and milk chocolate), vanilla and soy lecithin (a natural emulsifier). Avoid the notoriously unhealthy trans fats at all costs; these don't give pleasure, with which Chloe is very much concerned. Sugar-less chocolate, intriguingly, is acidic, even sour. I also learned that white chocolate is made from just cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder and vanilla; “therefore of course it is not chocolate."
Her knowledge of chocolate history was what struck me most about her chat. The chocolate world has evolved extensively in the last ten years, expanding to include new concepts such as chocolate cafes, museums and gold-plated, which did not exist before 2005. Chloe’s response to this “excess and chaos for consumers” is to revisit the basics. She praised the micro batch trend in the US, which promotes a “bean to bar” philosophy, much echoing the "farm to table" trend sweeping the globe: one or two people buy whole cocoa beans and go through the whole process of making chocolate bars themselves. They represent Chloe’s belief that the “journey into chocolate is a personal journey”, which should be unclouded by "boring" quality or distracting decoration.
Is all this beautiful chocolate philosophy true? I like chocolate, but I am not a chocoholic, a die-hard fan, an addict. I attended the event mainly to learn about chocolate’s production. Until in one tasting comparison led by Chloe, we were asked to try two different bars. One was what I would expect from a high-quality supermarket bar. The other (one of Chloe’s) was…fruity light, caramel-y and glorious, and didn’t leave what I can now somewhat self-righteously identify as an "aggressive" acidic aftertaste, as the other bar had. So I would have to say yes – I am happy to spend more on smaller amounts of higher quality chocolate if it’s good for the planet and for me.