Battle Madagascar Chocolate!

September 30, 2009

As part of my quest to get people to eat better chocolate, I’ve been giving CacaoLab Chocolate Seminars at some small events. It’s not hard to get people to show up and eat some free chocolate, and are interested in hearing about what cacao is, how it’s made into chocolate, and about the obsessives that work to perfect this craft. (Once I’ve cleared the rights to an image, I’ll post the presentation.) Almost everyone has had chocolate, but most would be willing to believe it was pumped out of wells drilled in the Sahara. At the last chocolate seminar, after the talk about cacao, I gave a little coaching about how to evaluate chocolate on a few sensory axes (initial taste, aftertaste, and texture), then staged some head-to-head battles between chocolates from different cacao origins.

The audience fell to the tasting job with gusto, nibbling and taking notes on an evaluation form. Each chocolate was rated on a 1-9 scale for initial taste, aftertaste, and texture. The goal was to evaluate how the newer American craft chocolate makers hold up against the legendary European warhorses. (I’m not making any claims for the science here, but I think there are some worthwhile conclusions.) The first battle was a three way Madagascar competition, pitting the American makers Patric and Amano up against the aristocratic French Valrhona Ampamakia bar. (Here’s a review from the studied palates at Seventy Percent.) The sample size was pretty small, with 11 completed evaluations, but the results were pretty remarkable. From the raw numbers, Amano scored an average of 21.4 points, Patric was second with 20.9, and Valhrona was third with 19.6. Patric got the best overall initial taste score with an average of 7.3, and tied with Amano for aftertaste at 7.1. Amano slightly edged Patric on the texture score, with 7.2 vs 7.1.

Looking at the numbers and the subjective comments on the evaluation forms (15 forms had subjective comments), Amano scored consistently solid numbers across the testers. Patric and Valrhona were chocolates that people either loved or didn’t: both of these chocolates had perfect ratings from different people. Tasters consistently noted that the Patric had strong “fruity” notes (7 of the 15 forms), and five of the tasters noted that the Valhrona was “smooth” and “consistent.” The tasting was not blind, and the boxes were next to the samples. The fruit note was so pronounced in the Patric chocolate that one taster came to me and said the test was unfair because the Patric contained plums! This tester had tried the chocolate, and gone back to check the box, and saw “plum notes”, and drew the conclusion that fruit had been added. To be fair, two respondents named the Amano as their favorite chocolate of the six that were made available for testing.

I’ll be compiling and posting the results of the other two taste comparisons (Venezuelan cacao and dark milk chocolates) later on. The most important overall conclusion is how much people have to learn about the potential of chocolate. In the audiences that I’ve talked with, I estimate that less than 5% have had artisan chocolate, and tend to be surprised at the variety and complexity available. (And, at the seminars, at least a few people run off to order bars from the maker’s websites….that is, the ones that haven’t pocketed bars off the testing table!)


Conflict Chocolate Report

June 28, 2007

The good folks at Grendel in the Underworld linked to a report by Global Witness about how cacao is funding the civil war in Ivory Coast. This monster report (70+ pages of meticulously researched detail) discusses how both sides in the war are taxing cacao growing and transport, and how cacao is being smuggled through Togo and other countries to disguise its origins and evade government blockades. Cacao farmers face paying taxes to the government, and “escort taxes” to rebel groups to allow them through the maze of checkpoints set up throughout the country.

Depressing.

Next up: postings on making Batch 10, a cream powder based milk chocolate!


Too Much Chocolate? Impossible!

June 22, 2007

Does it indicate a problem when you have 27 different kinds of chocolate in your fridge? I took a quick picture of all the “research samples” in the CacaoLab collection today. Amano, Amedei, Askinosie, Caffarel, Guittard, Lindt, Richart, DeVries, Theo, Pralus, Bonnat, Chocovic, Rovira, and friends. Building a taste vocabulary for chocolate is hard work!

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Reviews on these and more coming in the next weeks.


Patents gone wild?

June 7, 2007

The original intention of the patent system was to encourage innovation by giving inventors of useful, novel, and non-obvious inventions the monopoly to enjoy the fruits of that invention. In exchange, they would have to publish the invention in a patent, and thereby increase the amount of knowledge available to the public and other inventors. Recently, there has been a movement to reform the patent system, as it is not used to patent plants, one-click shopping, and a whole host of “inventions” that seem to defy the original spirit of the system.

In that vein, I recently came across this patent, owned by the Mars company that covers “improving the health of a mammal” by administering chocolate with “enhanced levels of cocoa polyphenols.” The very odd thing about this patent is that it doesn’t claim the process of making chocolate with elevated polyphenols (though it does discuss this process), probably because the process involves making chocolate with underfermented cacao, which is probably not patentable. Instead, they claim any process that improves the health of a mammal, presumably humans, by ingesting chocolate made with underfermented cacao. Maybe this means that if you ate some not-so-fantastic chocolate, and your health improved in some way, Mars could sue you for patent infringement. (And, by reading this blog post, you now know about the patent, and could perhaps be charged with “willful” infringement, which triples the damages you owe the world’s largest candy company!)

Nice to know that patent craziness is not just confined to the software and Internet space…


Like Water for Chocolate?

June 5, 2007

Artisan chocolate, made by hand, with exacting attention to the cacao bean is what motivates this blog. At the same time, it’s fascinating to look at how far science and industrial production can drive the frontiers of chocolate. Chocolate making is a gigantic industry, and like any gigantic industry, there are millions of dollars poured into advanced research and development, all with the hope of gaining some competitive edge.

Side Note: For a peek into how brutal the candy industry is at the top levels, check out Joel Glenn Brenner’s “The Emperors of Chocolate“, which details the rivalry between Hershey’s and Mars. It’s a 35 year old slugfest that makes Coke vs. Pepsi look like 3rd graders squabbling in a playground. Even more remarkably, Mars and Hershey’s used to work together closely, with Hershey’s supplying raw chocolate to Mars. As a side effect, while the first M in M&M’s stands for Mars, the second stands for Murrie, the president of Hershey’s at the time!

Patent 7,186,425, just issued on March 7th, shows how this kind of research can turn centuries of technique upside down. In traditional chocolate making, rule #1 is “water is the enemy.” Even a small amount of moisture in chocolate can render it lumpy, granular, and can make it sieze up, destroying machinery. Almost every step of the conventional chocolate making process is about driving out moisture, and the end product has less than 1% water. This patent shows how, paradoxially, to make chocolate that contains up to 30% water! The motivation is to create a lower calorie chocolate that can also contain nutrients that are only water soluble. The trick seems to be to premake chocolate, then very gently mix in a suspension of water in oil (using lecithin or PGPR to emulsify.) The mixture keeps the water from forming a continuous phase, preventing it from affecting the cocoa fat matrix and screwing up the chocolate. Various other inventors have proposed processes for this trick, but none have gotten to this level of water content.

According to the patent, with proper handling through the conching process, and careful tempering, this watery chocolate will form bars with classic chocolate texture that will not bloom for a long time. The primary inventor of this process is S.T. Beckett, the author of the encyclopedic “Industrial Chocolate: Manufacture and Use” and the introductory “Science of Chocolate.”

I don’t think I’ll be heading to the store for any watery chocolate anytime soon, but I have to admire the pure mad scientist aspect of this technique!


A work in progress…

May 15, 2007

If you glance upward, you’ll notice a new tab on the top of the page, a directory of artisan chocolate makers. (Those of you reading the RSS feed will need to regress back to the old fashioned technique of actually looking at the blog page!) This is going to take a lot of work to complete, and I know the list is missing a boatload of makers, and there’s probably some inaccurate information there. My goal is to get a relatively complete list of the companies making artisan chocolate, along with capsule “biographies.” Feel free to leave a comment if I’ve terribly botched something or left out a favorite producer. I will only list companies that start with beans and indicate origin, which sadly means leaving off some great chocolatiers.

Anyway, enjoy browsing, and, by all means, hit your local chocolate store and demand that they carry product by some of these great names.


Do I need a prescription for this?

May 13, 2007

Hershey’s has introduced a somewhat bizzare line of chocolates under the “Goodness” label. (Even the URL for their site, “hersheys.com/happiness/goodness” seems like some kind of subliminal sales tool.) They’ve released three bars under this label.

One is a “whole bean” bar, which threw me for a while. After all, all chocolate is made with more or less the whole bean, right? Well, not quite. The clue here is that the “whole bean” bar contains “naturally occuring” fiber. Where do you get fiber in a cacao bean? The husk! I’m guessing that what they mean by “whole bean” here is that they’ve skipped the step where, after roasting, you remove the tough outer hull of the bean, and have just tossed the nib and the hull into the grinder. This is not an unknown way to do things. Oaxacan chocolate is ground with the hull intact, along with almonds and other spices. Part of the problem is that the resultant chocolate is not very stable, since the small amount of fats in the hull are incompatible with cocoa butter, so the chocolate tends to bloom quite easily. There’s no way that Hershey’s is going to put up with a product that blooms, so they must be performing some kind of science on the chocolate to stablize it. Given that Hershey’s knows how to produce non-melting chocolate, this is probably well within their capabilities. Another interesting question is how this bar fits in the FDA definition for chocolate, being that the nibs used to make chocolate are supposed to be no more than 1.75% hull.

Looking farther, I’m guessing this stuff is completely off the FDA reservation, since it also contains sucralose and other sweeteners. This stuff sounds so bizzare, I have to give this a try! I’ll file a report when I get a bar to review.

As a side note, I’m currently reading “The Emperors of Chocolate” by Joel Brenner, which details the intertwined history of Hersheys and Mars. These “pharma-chocolates” are an echo of the past for Hershey’s. Milton Hershey’s first venture was sold fruits, nuts, and taffy. The start of it’s undoing was Hershey’s father convincing him to invest in making “medicated candies”