Chocolatier, chocolatier, or chocolatier?

My wife and I managed to sneak away from the house and kids for a few hours this weekend to a small wine and chocolate event in San Francisco. Mindy Fong, a classmate from the UC Davis Chocolate Technology Course, was showing her new Jade Chocolate line at the show, and I was excited to see what she’d been up to since the course. She’s combining chocolate with Asian ingredients to create some really unique (and tasty combinations.)

Mindy Fong and Jade Chocolate

Mindy Fong and Jade Chocolate

Her chocolate covered edamame have a nice, subtle interplay with the crunch and saltiness of the soybeans against the chocolate. She’s got a spicy bar, and a really great rice and tea bar — it’s a Hershey’s Krackle that’s grown up, done some yoga, and now works at a hedge fund. In short, much richer and sophisticated. Highly recommended.

Given that this is a snooty Artisan Chocolate blog, I’m compelled to ask the abstract question here. Is Mindy an artisan chocolatier? To the non-cacao obsessed, this sounds like a pretty goofy question — of course! An artisan is a skilled crasftsperson, she’s spent countless hours matching chocolate to rice, chili peppers, and wheat tea, pursuing her vision of what Jade Chocolate should taste like. If you take a look at this forum discussion on Clay Gordon’s encyclopedic site The Chocolate Life, it’s not that simple. The chocolate community has a seemly unquenchable Aristotlean imperative to order and name the members of the chocolate community. There are chocolate MAKERS (who take beans and make plain chocolate), and chocolatiers (who take chocolate and other ingredients to make confections.)

Chocolate makers have enormous investments in the time, equipment, and travel budgets required to wrestle a cacao bean into quality chocolate. It’s an expensive, painful process. No one outside of the lurkers on chocolate blogs really understand the chocolate process, so these folks feel like they need a way to tell the public that (1) chocolate is not delivered from heaven in the form of neatly wrapped bars, and (2) not everyone that says they make chocolate has to deal with the issues that they do. I’m pretty sure that’s a losing battle, because I think the chocolate process is just too complex, and the gradations in who is a genuine chocolate maker are just too subtle.

Looking at this from the bewildered consumer’s perspective, they want to know that there’s a justified reason that they should spend $9 on an artisan chocolate bar instead of $0.75 for industro-chocolate from a vending machine. There are two powerful reasons to do this: taste and consequences. One, chocolate that is made respecting the diverse agricultural nature of cacao just tastes much better. Different beans taste very different, and a careful hand on roasting and conching can coax worlds of complex flavor out of that diversity. Two, chocolate and the way it is made has monumental effects on people’s lives. Artisan chocolate makers like Steve DeVries and Shawn Askinosie spend a signficant fraction of their lives with cacao farmers, and source in a very responsible manner. Industrial chocolate funnels “product” through a commodities exchange that hides the distasteful nature of bulk cacao production. (see Carol Off’s rather disturbing Bitter Chocolate….more on that book later.)

An artisan should be characterized by an ability to extract and control flavor, and also a level of responsibility for their materials. I think there’s a pressing need to recognize the level of dedication required to make chocolate from the bean (or even more, from the tree.) However, the most important, basic, fact that needs to be communicated is that there is a community of chocolatiers dedicated to making a more delicious, more diverse food with a conscious dedication to how that affects the people that live in the narrow zone of the world that can grow cacao. Arguing too strenuously about the gradations will just yield confusion.

Go forth, find great chocolate, and grill the maker on what it is and where it came from!

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