Brady Brelinski, editor of The Flavors of Cacao, caught up with the C-spot’s® elusive figurehead. This far- & wide-ranging interview covers lots of ground & dives to considerable depth. Is it really, as Brady said, a “chocolate magnum opus”? Take a nibble, chocolatarians, & judge for yourselves.
1. When did you start reviewing/studying fine plain dark chocolate and what is it about chocolate that gives you the passion to make it such a big part of your life?
Since you frame the question as “fine plain dark chocolate” that eliminates my initial encounter with Cocoa Puffs. Not because it isn’t fine of course. On the contrary; but because it contains rice & other things that make it, probably by definition, other than plain.
As founder of Airtech.com®, the online travel pioneer, I was able to freely travel the world. Airtech® started out life as a way to meet the needs of travel-hungry but cash-poor college students for cheap int’l airfares, & for cash-hungry airlines to make the most of their perishable, unfilled seats.
In other words, we went out & negotiated deals with airlines to turn over their empty inventory to us at prices so low that we could then turn around & sell them at unbeatable fares on a standby basis: Europe for $169. Costa Rica: $119. Hawaii: $99. We moved hundreds of thousands of these thru a guerrilla marketing campaign that posted flyers around cities & on college campuses which read ‘If you can beat these prices, start your own damn airline’ & (pre-9/11) ‘Only terrorists can get you there for less’.
Many of these flights landed me in the so-called “20/20 Zone” – that magical cocoa belt shadowing the equator around which Theobroma cacáo (a tree whose seeds comprise the key element in chocolate) only grows.
Along the way, Airtech® discovered that its core of world travelers has an enormous appetite for global events, parties, & happenings. So the company morphed into an events promotion & production firm.
We developed offerings to meet the cravings of mad-venture / party-happy groups. Among them, Spring Bake, a custom tour that put a new spin on an age-old rite of spring — the mid-March college break. Instead of Florida beaches, however, it happened in Jamaica… March madness of the purest sort.
Another tour took trekkers into the remotest reaches of South America. Our Venezuelan Safari, for instance, entailed an ultra off-the-map trip through cloud forests, class-5 rapids, & over the Andes to either paraglide or run barefoot down the surreal sand-carpeted mountain Pan de Azucar — the only sheer vertical dune in the Americas.
For Millennium 2000, Airtech hosted a beach rave at X-Puhá, Mexico attended by about 10,000 revel “friends” (remember, this was before FB).
All these spots – Jamaica, Venezuela, Mexico, Peru – boast some world-class cacáo which at the time I considered just another cash crop commodity picked by dirt-poor farmhands.
Festivals comprised yet another Airtech® draw. Burning Man in Nevada, the Berlin Love Parade, & the 420Tour — the annual festival of peace, love, reggae, & hemp hits in Amsterdam.
Food fairs – wine conventions, foodie confabs, et.al. – never showed up on our menu of options or even curiosity until a little show we scouted to see what the buzz was about. Doubly so when a long line of people queued up outside the venue, standing in the rain to get into it. No band or hip-hop MCs performed that night. Instead it was chocolate show. A chocolate show? Why would anybody stand in a downpour for a chocolate show when candy bars sold all around us? They could just as well buy one in any deli on every corner & move on.
Clearly something was happening & we had to check it out.
Once inside I instantly recognized that a similar buzz which lit the cannabis crowd or fueled winos pervaded among this chocolate setting. A very captive & passionate audience who were hooked on the stuff.
There I met Alessio Tessieri of Amedei who recently secured an exclusive on the entire harvest of the Chuao Valley cacáo in Venezuela – which soon I learned held the same lofty position in the world of chocolate as the Vatican. True to form, Tessieri pontificated on the lore of “fine chocolate” in a hi-brow tone that caused several thought-balloons in my head to pop, “C’mon, dewd, chocolate is effin Halloween candy”. Frankly, he sounded like a master BS artist so my shit detectors went up (Glengarry Glen Ross: “don’t bullshit the bullshitter”).
Alessio gave me a bar of his Amedei Chuao; it was pretty good.
But I ain’t gonna lie about some chocolate epiphany occurring with “the bar”. Ya know, the one that choc-vets expound on at length that changed or saved their lives. Truth be told, several bars did that to me in rapid succession. If there was a tipping point, s’pose it might’ve been DeBondt’s Ecuador 90% re-melted from Domori’s unsweetened couverture. The flavors hurled me into a fried dizzy overdrive (this was only supposed to be chocolate). Plus, it tasted so sweet to make me wonder to this day if it actually contains more than 10% sugar. In any event, that bar pointed to the possibilities of what could, at least theoretically, be achieved with little-to-no-sugar whatsoever, the latter for which I coined the term ‘pod-strength’ – pure 100% unadulterated chocolate crafted from cacáo & nothing else.
Back on outside of the Chocolate Show, I re-entered reality to start researching a little of this scene, as well as the roots of cacáo itself, to ascertain if Alessio & all those crazed choc-heads were psychotic or not.
Naturally the first place I looked was online. There were but a few sites.
None captured the spirit or the essence, IMNSHO, of what I’d just witnessed (nor of what I would eventually discover in cacáo). They failed to really bite into the tissue of the matter. The few valiant attempts, led by, I later found out, esteemed & credible people who juggled outside interests (like their day jobs), proved inadequate next to, say, the equivalent wine or even coffee sites.
Next stop: the university library system. Indeed books, despite their inherent limitations compared to digital technology, had done a better job. Most notably the 2 pillars of the new era craft chocolate movement – Sophie & Michael Coe’s True History of Chocolate and The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel Presilla. Both of these titles showcase scholars moving into the space, demonstrating that chocolate could be capable of serious research.
Some major brainpower began crunching on the chocolate subject matter in their wake. John Henderson at Cornell; Rosemary Joyce at UC Berkeley. And when Cameron McNeil released her book Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History, the table in my purview had been officially set for chocolate to regain some of its lost glory & nobility it once attained in antiquity. (Granted, this quick thumbnail sketch is an oversimplification, but hopefully gives you a flash flavor.)
I read profusely for the next few months, from René Millon’s 1955 dissertation (a precursor really to the Coes’ book they wrote 40 years later), & Merle Greene Robertson’s archeological illustrations (see below), to pop histories of Mars, Hershey’s & Cadbury’s.
Vaulted crypt housing King Pakal’s sarcophagus replete with cacáo iconography supports the immense weight of the Teocalli (temple pyramid) above… a sacred Vegas resplendent with illumination & surreal plumage for showgirls (by Mayan scholar / illustrator Merle Greene Robertson)
Of all the titles out there, one really shook & woke me up: Basil Bartley’s The Genetic Diversity of Cacáo & Its Utilization.
No matter what stack of chocolate you’ve climbed up to, this still goes down a rigorous, even punishing, book. It takes the extremely long arduous slog down the Amazon — seemingly all 3 million square miles of it, paddling over its 1,000 tributaries, the most circuitous route of all… enough to give malarial headaches — thru the cartography & bio-diversity of cacáo’s formidable botanical history. Actually trekking on foot might feel quicker.
It contained a revelation however: when it comes to classifying cacáo, much of the popular opinion & conventional wisdom is dubious at best, spurious at worst. Bartley implored bringing rigorous scientific classification to bear on the matter in order to clear the field of the nonsense of Forastero & Trinitario.
Out of the blue I called him up on the phone, in the middle of the night, as was my wont since most creatures who belong to this tribe are night owls. (Something about chocolate, theobromine, aphrodisiacs & insomnia clamor together.) He lived in Portugal at the time. Basil startled me. Here’s this brilliant botanist at the apex of plant intelligence & he spent so much time on the phone & in lengthy email correspondences with me, a complete stranger, that I had to ask him ‘why?’. Why take all this time with a foreigner to further explicate your work? He candidly confided that no one else seemed to bother much with his work, which in my book was far & away the most comprehensive treatment of the subject I encountered to date.
Unbeknownst to me, Basil was also dying at the time & he may have felt this was one last chance to share his insights… to pass the torch so to speak.
Not so much a pariah, Bartley had become a bit of an iconoclast in the field. Yet he clearly was on to something: he saw the big picture whilst others, & especially those in the candy business side of it, kept overly myopic.
Bartley’s work proved not to be in vain. Shortly after his death in March 2008, Dr. Juan Carlos Motamayor published a groundbreaking study in October of that year which dramatically reclassifies cacáo into a dozen+ subclusters. Interestingly, much of Motamayor’s conclusions, using advanced genetic testing, substantially agree with Bartley’s who relied on visual cues (morphology & phenotype without the aid of modern technological instruments). By no means a perfect overlap, they are however more than close enough to validate Bartley’s taxonomy.
Since then, organizations such as CocoaNet as well as Mars Corporation are now taking up the challenge to rationalize (i.e., classify), conserve, & utilize cacáo’s diversity – genetically, geographically, & organoleptically (i.e., ‘taste’… because in the end it’s about supreme good flavor). Heirloom cacáo groups are sprouting up & hi-flavor chocolate is hitting the shelves.
So, having amassed all this research & a growing list of contacts from what I drew up as the ‘4-corners of the Chocolate Universe’ (growers – scientists – barsmiths – scholars), it seemed logical that a genuine online resource should exist. A repository of sorts, that renders true chocolate some justice. Figuring that maybe something popped up online in the interim that did just that, I directed a couple Airtech® staffers to dig & find it or, short of that, at least a portal. None could be found.
So we said ‘F it, let’s build it’.
Now I know why no one else has. It’s damn expensive & time-consuming.
the C-spot®, conceived as a kind of watering hole for chocolate bringing those various 4-corners together (growers / scientists / barsmiths / scholars), finally launched in 2011 during an unveiling at The Smithsonian’s symposium From Mayan Worship to Modern Wonder. Far more than a mere blog, it sums up into an anthology of chocolate.
It cost an embarrassing amount of money, much of it billed by unscrupulous web developers who rank no higher than auto-mechanics. In fact, most think “www” stands for ‘World Wide Web”. Wrong; it abbreviates ‘Wild Wild West’, online style.
Worse, websites are crybabies that require constant feeding.
Moreover, the subject matter itself – chocolate writ large – is maddening. Its vortex forms a spiraling cone & the trouble is that just when you dive in deep & think you’ve hit bottom, the bottom falls out, drops to another plateau that fools of a new bottom yet that too proves false… just another floor that gives way & drops farther still… onward & on & on…
Does it ever end? Will it ever end? No, because chocolate, like life in general, constantly evolves. Its all-consuming lure acquires a Michael Corleone syndrome: every time you think you’re out of the business, it sucks you back in. That’s the power of cacáo.
Consider novelist David Eggers’ 4 basic appeals to people: money; romance; self-preservation; & recognition. All his principles apply to chocolate: molding a bar is tantamount to printing money; chocolate engenders romantic associations; it’s safe & healthy for self-preservation, & premium chocolate has become recognized as a consumer status symbol lately.
Other than God & sex (plus maybe music), no force on Earth exerts such a wicked pull. Terrifying.
The saving grace to all this mania: those kid-in-the-candy-store moments when a bar or box comes along to re-open the wonder & the awe of it all over again.
The OCD nearly complete, this passion sustains itself on the strength of chocolate being one of the great prisms thru which to purchase a worldview – BION – in sync with Zietschaungundermoutton, a German loan word borrowed from Steve “Candy Freak” Almond. Literally, ‘world in a mouth’… Zietschaungundermoutton conveys how a small bite encompasses the world. the C-spot® thus serves as a graduated tasting course exploring history, culture, cuisine, botany, ecology, politics, int’l finance, global trade, euphoria, bliss, misery, intrigue & treachery thru the planet’s fav-flav. A curriculum with a big difference: it engages all the senses to a sumptuous degree so students end up having so much fun learning that they become unaware that it’s even school.
In the process it connects the dots to the various C-spots (of Culture, Community, Convivium, Currency, Causality, Computers, Commensurability, & Cool), all of which chocolate at one time or another (& occasionally simultaneously) ramifies.
To quote William Arthur Ward, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
Chocolate indeed inspires. In the best of the gaia principles laid out in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, we humans operate under the spell of this higher plant, guaranteeing its propagation & global distribution in a brilliant evolutionary Darwinian scheme, as if chocolate is having us rather than the other way around. In short, cacáo is resourcefully-minded &, due to its manifold properties, we are its porters & protectors (some might say ‘slaves’).
It occupies a special place in human affairs because it inspires reverie, vivid metaphors & whole poems, longings & curiosity. It can be healthful & used daily without clinical side effects (though habitués beg to differ). The metaphysics here may be debatable, but the chemistry of this plant & its near-universal prevalence seems indisputable.
2. Do you have a standard review process that you follow and can you share it here?
the C-spot® process is very transparent in each of its reviews by their very layout & design, & how each aspect is weighted.
As per the timing, setting, logistics:
Storage — 65ºF / 55-60%RH; chocolate aerated for approximately 2+ hours & brought to ambient room temperature of ~76ºF
Some sessions are conducted collegially at roundtables to compare notes, while others are done individually. Whenever the latter, the first encounter is tested blind, put out by a second person, without any wrapper in sight or markings on the mold.
Once the initial evaluation is recorded, I then give it a whole day, resampling intermittently to re-confirm, or alter as the case may be, those first impressions. For special cases of truly monumental impact, & therefore import, it can extend to a whole week in order to really ‘get to know it’ & get a clear read on it. Unlike coffee cuppers, or wine sommeliers who shotgun thru cases of bottles if not barrels at a single sitting (Parker racks 10,000+ a year), chocolate delimits itself by the melt which requires more time, leisure & consideration for proper evaluation as opposed to a swig & spit & taste-notes of “big fruit; score it a 10”. Chocolate, after all, embodies a full sensory experience — often an overload — engendering intimacy. So we ‘chew’ & ‘melt’, between alternate tastings, because both have their strengths &, moreover, each reveals a different side of flavor.
Which leads to the question of ‘when’. Some “gurus” proclaim that certain times of the day are more optimal than others for critical tasting periods. They’re usually the same ones who brandish antiquated “taste maps” that divide the tongue into regions, each corresponding to specific sensations of sweet / sour / bitter / salty & the newest member – umami. In reality, the tongue possesses manifold & indiscriminate taste receptors wired to the brain.
Our scent-limit for discerning a variety of aromas at any given single instance has been scientifically measured at around a half-dozen, except alpha-tasters can quadruple that number in a game called ‘Sniffy-Sniff’. Here’s how to play along at home with chocolate:
Always best, they say, to conduct ‘formalized tastings’ first thing in the morning… even if nature calls with runs to the bathroom. Start by picking a scent – could be any scent – let’s see what sticks to the palate walls… for instance ‘this bar bathes the taste buds as a bar of soap does the skin & smells like yummy hair spray atop an excretion blown out to a sea of mouthwash… so if you’re feeling kinda Minnesota, this will make you look Californicated’. Then pass out ratings based on the most severe grade-inflation (kissing ass helps procure free product from chocolate makers in the future): 9.9. Yeah, that’s a good score.
All just a minor aspect of the maker-critic incest. ‘Gee, one of the great things about this job is all the free chocolate.’
Now that you know how to play the game, let’s examine the fetish of ‘only-early-in-the-morning’ for a proper tasting session. People liken chocolate to sex since it contains traces amounts of aphrodisiacs (such as PEA – phenylethylamine, the “Love Chemical”, an adrenal-related compound that is also naturally created within the hypothalamus of the brain & is released to flood the brain during orgasm, producing that warm glow).
Some humans enjoy “quickie sex’ first thing in the morning, right before rushing out of bed, mainly on account that even rapid faster-than-a-blink sex is better than none at all seeing how many have to bolt for the door & get to their 9-5 cubicle.
But is it the best sex?
Maybe; occasionally; especially to those who prefer groggy, blurry sensations.
Then again, midnight sex can be pretty orgasmic too. Or the outdoor variety under the midday sun at noon when the senses are fully awakened. (By way of analogy, shoe salesmen recommend trying on a new pair in the afternoon when the foot is more likely to be fully swollen.)
Ditto spontaneity as opposed to some monastic ritual of keeping the hours with prayers.
Truth be told, whenever the moment seizes & moves, be it 3 in the morning or 4 in the afternoon, carpe diem in sync with Roberta Flack “that’s the time, I feel like makin’ love to…”
Besides, such an M.O. more faithfully enjoins the slow food movement, which many choc specialists advocate. Oh, which reminds me… an overall clean, simple diet is primary for a sharp palate.
3. What makes your reviews different compared to other reviews you have seen?
This, again, is self-evident.
the C-spot’s® reviews delve into the matter, conveying the most comprehensive in-depth information – both technical & descriptive — bar none (bad pun intended).
It does so in such a way that if all you want is the quick gloss / overview with numeric ratings & hi-, medium, low metrics on a bar or boxed assortment’s essential qualities, those are easily indexed at the top of every review page. Plus the data points, of who, what, when, & from where, as well as the genotype (varietal, cultigen, etc.) are also easily indexed.
Picking up on Gianluca “Mack Domori” Franzoni’s lead whose rescue & recovery of rare cacáos helped aid a retro-revolution in premium chocolate, the C-spot® offers the most comprehensive taxonomy or classification system of cacáo varietals geared for the consumer market (& attracts the interest of the professional trade too). Whereas most still cling to the overly simplified Forastero / Trinitario / Criollo, we deal as much as possible in specificity to ‘get it right’ & render justice to the field lest folksonomy take hold.
Alternatively, if readers desire to bite into deeper layers, the expository sections of the reviews deliver copious explanatory notes for them.
Above all, the C-spot’s® reviews lead with an Impact statement. Usually a free-style verse & often irreverent, the Impact Statement relates the personality of a chocolate. Every bar & box has one. A few comment that our “vivid metaphors” go too far. Well, people may want the clinical facts but we’re hard-wired for storytelling too.
For example, the Mayans, chocolate’s great primogenitors, placed cacáo at the very center of their ideology as a sacrament where the deified was reified & vice-versa. Their venerable history still holds considerable importance for them right up thru to the present.
A defining quality of the Mayan cosmo-vision is a cross-media, sensual dimension that animates objects, landscapes, myths, deities… in reality everyday life. For the Maya, the world was a transformational, multi-sensory place, governed by analogic reasoning where all senses – sight, scent, touch, hearing & taste – merged in what Mayan scholars Houston & Taube call ‘cultural synaesthesia’. Set within landscapes the Maya conceived as sacred, substances such as jade attracted moisture thru magnetic force, bestowing greenery & fertility to the fields surrounding it. Similarly, turquoise, the property of the gods, was believed to emit smoke, while quetzal feathers symbolically linked those gods to Mayan rulers. And cacáo with its association of heart ‘n blood would literally course thru the arteries of trade networks as a type of currency.
Less than a century ago, cacáo continued to circulate as a form of currency in Central America. Even today it solemnizes weddings, birth rites, Spring fertility festivals, healing ceremonies & generalized cofradías (brotherhood). Cacáo especially retains sacredness during Easter — its association with “re-born again” ancestors now transferred to the crucifixion on which it resuscitates the Christ for his resurrection.
These manifold symbolic & metaphoric associations of the Maya were picked up by Euros who confiscated their goods to hand them down thru the generations. Several continue to linger in the West to this day, such as the link between chocolate & romance.
In light of all this, the C-spot® Impact Statements, hyperbole & all, might be too tame by comparison.
Language represents another area that set our reviews apart. Up until recently, a vocabulary specific to premium chocolate did not appreciably exist other than copycats stealing terms from oenophiles or, worse, rote foodie talk which usually boils everything down to ‘tasting-by-number’ & meaningless spittle (hence the C-spot® List of Banned Words). There is still a long way to go on this but the C-spot® basically devises a nomenclature in the spirit of elevating the field.
We’ve coined several terms:
- Barsmiths – refers to those who work from the raw material cocoa; replaces the clunky-sounding “bean-to-bar” chocolate makers (bean assigning a humble if not altogether cheap connotation right up there with ‘pinto’ & ‘fava’)
- Bromans – we never address the people who cultivate cacáo as “farmers” because, again, farmers in the English-speaking world are considered dirt-poor rubes. Winos never call their farmhands that pick grapes “farmers”. Oh, no, they’re “vintners” & consumers pay them handsomely for it. the C-spot® prefers ‘growers’ or ‘Bromans’ in reference to those who husband Theobroma cacáo trees (the botanical name of the tree from which all chocolate derives)
- Chocorater – a portmanteau of chocolate + rater… the choc equivalent of a sommelier (or for “oo la la” French-sounding sophisticrats try ‘Chocorateur’)
- Flavor Profiles – see individual hyperlinks (Earthen; Twang; Naked)
- CQ – for Chocolate Quotient (a measure of baseline or center-point cocoa flavor free of any interference, nuances or under / overtones); a much-needed substitute for “chocolatey” / “chocolatiness”
- Single-Estate – a lot of growers / brokers / manufacturers use ‘plantation’, a pejorative in the Americas with associations to slavery. For years we’ve encouraged “single-estate”, a baronial term but, hey, if Nancy Pelosi can brag about her $5 million Napa estate growing grapes, then why not chocolate?
- Pod-Strength – the equivalent of scotch’s cask-strength or 100% unsweetened chocolate with no sugar added; just elements naturally found in the cacáo pod . The list keeps growing…
Perhaps some of these will stick in the vernacular. Hopefully our effort inspires the industry to codify an acceptable glossary.
The upshot: some complain as one person did that our reviews leave them “exhausted & uniformed” (a bit of a contradiction as well as a paradox, doubly so considering this person eagerly & often emails us for yet further info on our reviews listed on the Recent Reviews page) while others leave compliments that “This is the best article ever written about us & our chocolate. We learned from the article as well. You are a true journalist & critic. It is like a story, a book. Yes, I read your reviews as a great book! Your writing style – it is insane! I love it. Bless ya.”
And utmost for the consumer, all C-spot® reviews are fully searchable with powerful search attributes to help chocolate enthusiasts find their PCPs (Personal Chocolate Preferences).
4. How long do you spend on a single chocolate review?
No more than 2 hours for the actual write-up to “keep it fresh”.
Similar to music recording, a band can overdub a track to death or cut it in one take to give it more of a live, animated feel. A typical review usually takes an hour to write up. For very special ones that merit a more thorough evaluation & accounting, that can stretch to twice as long.
5. How do you avoid bias or preconceptions in your reviews?
- Blind Tasting — you’d be surprised how well this technique alone works. Once I gave a cocoa maven a Dark from a barsmith that this person absolutely adored & refused to ever say an untoward word about, even when their stuff was dog-product. During the blind taste test the maven tore into it & ripped on it unmercifully. Upon revealing the name & make, this individual could not believe it with their own eyes & was totally shocked that such sewage came out of their favorite maker.
- the C-spot’s® general ethos – “no sacred cows” – largely takes care of any preconceptions.
- As an independent consumer advocate, we hold no vested interest in any chocolate ventures. We rarely cozy up to others in the biz. This has its costs, both in terms of financial & social capital. It can be a lonely enterprise. And we’ve paid for it thru ostracism from an industry that pays consultants & bloggers to kiss up. One trivial example: a bean-to-bar clown offered us its latest release for free if we retracted a prior unfavorable review of one of its other bars. Our response: “you think we do this for free chocolate?”
- Again, the design & construction of the the C-spot® review format builds-in objectivity. Deconstructing a chocolate into its constituent features mitigates subjectivity. Of key importance in this regard & unlike other reviewers, especially in the wine world, is that we never award any points whatsoever based on “Preference”, “Opinion” or other personalized judgments which often are weighted for 20% or even 30% of a total rating – an enormously wide berth for skewing a bar or a bottle toward subjective impressions. Such a category provides a dustbin for sweeping in all sorts of uncritical / unfiltered “je ne sais quois” (to use French expression) into the final score. It’s intellectually & professionally lazy.
- Employment of baseline referents to calibrate the session. This serves a 2-fold purpose: a) a standard measure vis-à-vis the test sample & b) taste receptors grow dull with age (pssst, many well-known alpha-tasters are past their expiration date & wouldn’t know good chocolate if it bit them hard on the tongue; doubly so for the pros working for the candy giants who rarely sample fine-flavor chocolate to begin with; ergo a Callebaut manager calling a stick of cocoa butter disguised as 70% “dark” bar the “best chocolate I’ve ever had”). So pure cane sugar (for sweetness), quinine (for bitterness), citric acid (sourness), salt, MSG (umami) are on hand if need be to calibrate the palate. Of course, eventually e-noses will make all of this arcane if not obsolete.
- Finally the mental discipline. This involves how to concentrate while tasting a bar in order to tease apart its flavor. It ain’t what most people think, or do for that matter, & one reason why many / most miss it (‘it’ being the ‘flavor notes’)… a topic TBD (To Be Discussed) at my upcoming presentation at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle. Be there to unlock the keys of this mind-melt meditation technique.
E-Nose-to-Nose: Sniffing Out the Competition
And now a word or some conceptual grounding on subjectivity:
With respect to flavor(s), subjectivity is an overblown hoax of mass deception. It apes the overarching geist of the times: relativity.
Funny though… in terms of sound, humans have more or less agreed on some tones being more pleasing than others (for example, a triad versus a tritone; the latter definitely has its place & purpose, especially valued in idiomatic placements). This emerged over centuries & pre-dates Bach’s well-tempered exercise in fixing the major / minor scales. Pythagoras well before him theorized certain mathematical principles that led to the harmonic overtone series & acoustic relationships.
Likewise, the Western canon, that archive under siege from the School of Relativists, generally elevates, say, Beethoven’s 9th above Ga-Ga’s Born This Way. Or to be more street, an ice-cream truck jingle over a police siren.
Driving the theme home farther, we reach consensus on vision as well. No one except the blind (in which case they’d be cited for another infraction) can talk their way out of a moving violation for running a traffic light with the excuse of ‘officer, a doppler-effect in my field of vision makes red appear green’. (Try it & see what happens.)
Ditto touch: while some may prefer thorns to roses, they represent a distinct minority.
These senses we generally agree on. But for some odd twitch when it comes to matters of taste, common ground gets tossed out the window & trashed with ‘it’s so subjective’ and ‘way too personal’.
Scientific research is gradually debunking myths surrounding subjectivity & flavor. For further insights, see the C-spot® Crushpad article On Matters of Good Taste.
The responsibility of any critic should be to check the “I” & to decouple the personal from the professional while realizing the inherent limitations thereof. This owes much to Martin Buber’s “I-thou” / “I-it” relationships rooted in Kantian critical theory / phenomenology, & aesthetics. Credit also John Dewey’s no-nonsense approach to rooting perception in experience outlined in his piece titled Art as Experience, later picked up by Rorty who sought to dissolve the objective/subjective divide, undermining analytical epistemology.
Not to be overlooked in all this (nor to sound pathological either) is the fact that chocolate, especially really high grade / high octane chocolate, speaks.
I know this sounds strange, like when you talk to God, it’s prayer; when God talks back, it’s all of a sudden bi-polar disorder. But chocolate does speak. In volumes & in tongues. (It is, after all, Theobroma cacao meaning ‘god-food’.) It might be hard to figure out exactly what a chocolate says but based on taste alone it sure as hell says something. It can talk to you like that. By simply plugging into the source & listening / tasting, the reviews literally almost write themselves, replete with their own dialed up rating, & any coded messages therein. It’s that personality, often related in the Impact Statement, communicating with you & engaging in a conversation. Put another way: a bar is a letter to the universe. Reviews are the replies back.
And so The Laws of Chocodynamics, particularly the 2nd & 3rd Laws – Trust Your Pal (palate, that is)… good is what you like, followed by There are standards & some chocolate is better than others; recognize quality even if you don’t like it. These address how one goes about evaluating & rendering judgment without sliding into a comfort zone where everything reduces to personal preferences of “I like it”.
For that very reason, many of my own personal favorites are not necessarily the “best” & vice-versa. Truthfully, some of the stuff I really like could never be considered top quality material, just as, say, Vosges & Godiva ain’t really premium chocolate (though they masquerade as such & charge preciously for it).
Knowing the difference & being able to maintain this key distinction guards against overly subjective viewpoints.
6. When reviewing chocolate, how do you rank the different aspects in order of importance? (eg. Flavor, aroma, aftertaste, texture, your overall opinion or some other variable.)
See explanation above as well as the C-spot’s® self-defined format in any of The Daily Reviews.
7. What is your ideal ingredient list and what do you consider acceptable when you are referring to fine plain dark chocolate? (eg. Zotter is one example of a company that uses salt but doesn’t consider it a flavoring.) Is salt acceptable? What about cocoa butter substitutes such as vegetable fat or coconut oil? What about alternatives to cane sugar? (eg. Maple sugar, stevia, cane juice, coconut sugar.) Vanilla for sure, and lecithin somewhat can alter/add to the flavor. Should either be used at all?
Chocolate is an unnatural compound with respect to its being unfound in nature. It is, therefore, a human invention. Arguably among the greatest human inventions. To transform an otherwise bitter seed & create a sumptuous treat w’all call ‘chocolate’ was no mean feat thanks in large part to the Mayan civilization responsible for bringing this invention to fruition.
Cacáo seeds are bitter for a reason: as an evolutionary device so that predators like monkeys, birds & micro-organisms attracted to cacáo for its sweet pulp surrounding those seeds will suck on them, then spit ‘em out & thus assist in propagating the species. Very clever of cacáo (& in concert with the aforementioned gaia hypothesis). It consequently became jungle trash ingeniously re-cycled by man & re-purposed for human consumption.
Just about all of chocolate’s history has run on a dual or even triple track due to this seminal fact.
So a) pre-Columbian Mesoamericans for over 1,500 years cultivated to the highest degree what are now classic heirloom varietals, naturally selected & bred for traits they prized. Then b) modern technical engineering that incorporates their ancient processing methods deep within its machinery — as well as some new ones — elaborated upon their original chocolate manufacturing.
Even so, here’s the 3rd track: flavorings were added to either mask or improve the invention, most of them, again, rooted in Mesoamerica: the twin powers vanilla & pepper, as well as achiote, corn, honey & later a decidedly European inclusion — the grand catalyst of them all — cane sugar.
Let’s face it: to those activists campaigning on “Don’t Mess With My Chocolate”, you’ve been messing with it every time you add a teaspoon of the white stuff, let alone half a bar’s worth. Distinctions between cocoa butter & vegetable oil, though not entirely trivial, sound like childish rants when viewed from this larger perspective. Besides, heavily adulterated candy allows for premium chocolate to differentiate itself & provides a marketing advantage.
If someone feels that added cocoa butter, vanilla, & lecithin (what the C-spot® dubs the theatrical make-up kit of chocolate) improves the end flavor or enhances it in any fashion, we accept that just as much as we do exorbitant spending on attractive packaging / wrappers to lure customers with dazzling visuals. It may or may not always work, it might even be tatty or in poor taste but those are the choices any artist is entitled to make. The last thing we want to encourage is some cocoa-mafia operating as formula police. Ya know, politically-correct censorship councils that deem vanilla a hate-crime & “thou shalt not use lecithin” piety. Tyrannical regimes typically are driven by either ignorance or ideology or intuition, & occasionally a mix of all 3.
Some crafty barsmiths explicitly call attention to additives & we’re OK with it. Like their compatriot Gianluca Franzoni (aka Mack Domori), Elvira of Italy understands that vanilla is an additive just as, say, nuts or raisins or the taboo of the “Don’t-Mess-with-My-Chocolate” children – vegetable oil. Both released bars titled “Vanilla” as a counterpoint to bars they produce without it.
Vanilla, when deftly rather than clumsily employed as a mask or cover up, can bridge gaps in a chocolate blend utilizing cocoas from several origins. Or even within a single-origin it can span the high & low notes, unifying a flavor profile that could otherwise be disparate.
Beyond vanilla, tongue tricks such as Scharffen-Berger’s Milk Almond Bar enriched with safflower oil – a killer vegetable fat that cocoa gurus assail for adultery – can be quite gratifying.
Sometimes such ‘tongue tricks’ even work miracles.
That dead tissue found in The Mast Bros Madagascar 72% was re-animated in their version of an Almond bar with salt & — gasp!! — the childish taboo of the “Don’t-Mess-with-My-Chocolate” crusaders – vegetable oil. Not just any old Crisco either, but olive oil. The Masts excelling at what the Bros do best: combos.
Granted this is an example of a flavored confection but instructive nonetheless.
For this reason, the C-spot® covers more than just plain classic dark chocolate bars.
And there too vanilla has its place.
Take Naïve’s plain Dark Grenada bar. Pretty tame / generally subdued, dappled with mild fruit notes. Nowhere near the rambunctious character of other bars from this island. Additional cocoa butter contributes to that (helps cool the embers of a fairly good roasting). And too vanilla, which mediates the highs & lows into a middle spectrum. Quite the judicious use of it; even brave really, in this era of incipient neo-spartan taste when purists eschew additives.
But the real difference with Naïve’s use of it: nothing feels extraneous (save for Texture which might’ve benefitted from yet another heresy — such as a drop of lecithin). Just the opposite: the elements integrate & meld rather seamlessly, despite the Textural grain, as if intrinsic to one another. Hence, its classicism in flavor: a studied poise to defy naiveté, especially next to many erupting Grenadas that scrape the tongue out.
A cogent argument can be made that lowly Milk Chocolate is more elaborate than Dark Chocolate. It certainly contains more ingredients & the skill involved to align them harmoniously is multiple that of Dark Chocolate. A great Milk Chocolate bar is superior to janky Dark Chocolate bars any day. (Note the caveat of ‘janky’.)
Same holds true with a boxed chocolate assortment which calls on a whole panoply of components, techniques, pairings & judgment.
Neo-Spartans / Modern-Puritans — those hardy types now championing bars formulated from cocoa seeds & sugar without any additives (except sugar, of course… but, hold it, ain’t that a spice?) — kid themselves if they think otherwise.
Yes, sugar — the one “legal” additive which “purists” among the cocoa-mafia deem acceptable to still qualify as “pure chocolate” after “banning” vanilla, lecithin, & even cocoa butter.
If they were really true to their tenets, the only genuinely pure chocolate would be 100% unsweetened chocolate. How many succeed at that? How many even dare to attempt?
Anyone worth their salt, ur… chocolate, acknowledges that the clearest window onto a barsmith is thru the quality of its unsweetened 100% Dark Chocolate (no sugar to catalyze cacáo’s myriad of compounds) – if it will man-up to make it – because in certain respects a 100% represents the parentage of the entire line.
That said, the C-spot® sides with da Vinci (simplicity is the ultimate sophistication) & Einstein (everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler). We eagerly await the day of chocolate without any adulterants whatsoever, including no sugar. With advances in cacáo breeding & innovative barsmiths, that day may arrive sooner than later.
Pralus’ Le 100 and Zotter’s Das 100 plus Domori’s Puro point beyond the possibility (their very release has already made it possible) & to the real promise that, thru genetic research & culinary technique, cacáo will regularly be able to stand alone & excel without the aid of “any additives whatsoever” – to quote Fray Bartolomé de Fuensalida’s take on a Mesoamerican chocolate he sipped in the year 1618 – & grant fresh credence to the cliché that everything old is new again (& hopefully improved too).
Because while seemingly vogue, this modern approach toward additives is old news. Prior to 1800, vanilla was scarce & hardly ever used in the American colonies. When it finally appeared in chocolate around the turn of that century, makers introduced it with clear labels reading “vanilla chocolate”, “chocolate a la Vanille” or in the case of Baker’s Chocolate Company “No. 1 with vanilla”, as opposed to the chocolate standard made without vanilla which was labeled “plain chocolate”.
So in addition to Cacáo, Chocolate, Community, Collaboration, Connections, & tongue-in-cheek Connotations, the ‘C’ in the C-spot® also symbolizes the Roman Numeral ‘100’. (Roman numerals? Ergo yet one more reason for the C-spot’s® motto: Welcome to the Retro-revolution of Chocolate.)
As in 100% unadulterated, pure-play chocolate. Nothing says chocolate more.
8. What aspects in the chain of chocolate making (starting with growing and ending with wrapping) do you think have the biggest impact on flavor?
(Sorry, Amano Art Pollard, not every incremental step is as important as the next.)
9. If you could standardize how fine chocolate is labeled, what information do you think should be included on every package? (eg. Percentage, origin, coordinates, bean type, seasonal weather description, harvest date, altitude, bean grade, ingredients, process, farmer, plantation, coop, vintage, birth date chocolate was made, flavor notes, company name, length of fermentation, equipment used, times turned during fermentation, awards, roasting description, conching time, etc.)
All the above except for awards which are a specious game scored by foodie-“yummifiers”, aka feeding-machines, that vacuum up anything / everything in sight & declare it “yummy” but are often clueless when it comes to premium chocolate.
Besides, taste we’re told is ‘so subjective’ so what does an award mean anyways?
It means money as one exorbitantly-awarded chocolate maker discovered running around the country, the world really, entering all these “contests”, many of them with the thinnest competitive field, then posts ribbons, medals & citations they collected all over their website & packaging to dupe unsuspecting buyers.
Enough digression… back on point, listing soil type & starter culture(s) (if any) would nicely complete the data set.
Trouble is, like those “awards” how can you fit it all on the packaging? Plus seals from Fair-Trade, UTZ, Organic, Rainforest Alliance, et. al., that now make chocolate bar wrappers more crowded than the endorsements on NASCAR drivers.
The practical reality is that rampant disorganization / myth-information pervades the industry to belie any accuracy of information.
- Mislabeled accessions, genotypes, & tree stock;
- Seeds pulled from many properties, each often growing different kinds of cacáo, undermine the notion of “single origin” & thereby create traceability problems;
- Fermentation is such a complex microcosm unto itself requiring a manual of its own;
- Conching variables (duration, sheer / friction, heat, etc.)
Standards & definitions, in short, are hard to come by.
Unless a consensus can be drawn that defines single-estate or true single-origins, with secluded genotypes, practicing micro-fermentation… & on down the entire production chain, the end result will remain a “hodge-pod” (to drop yet another term coined by the C-spot®) of hybrid mongrels, mutts & dumb clones that prevail today.
Hope springs & a few glimpses, however imperfect, point the way to a possible future: the vertically integrated models of Claudio Corallo & Daintree; the rather uniform Nacional cacao of Marañón Canyon; the segmented varietals at the Hacienda San Jose in Venezuela; & info-rich packaging with respect to processing parameters from Fresco.
10. Is there a person in the chocolate world whom you especially admire? Who and why?
Chocolate, too big for any one person, invites many commendations (several already mentioned above):
Gianluca Franzoni better known as Domori, because his rescue & recovery missions of heirloom cacáo.
This Magister Ludi of chocolate (Master of the Game) is a leading light who set a new standard dissecting varietals with power & finesse, developing an acuity for splitting hairs in distinguishing between Fine & Extra-Fine Cacáo thru the investigation of intrinsic genetic values. Described in his Domori Codice (a learner’s guide to premium cacáo / chocolate of which nothing like it existed until he published it), each varietal carries different & exclusive sensory / flavor traits. In fact, Domori took a stand against the rising chorus at the time which shouted out that all seeds are the same; that the only difference spelling quality lies in post-harvest production; & that all things being equal, any distinctions result from terroir. He’s resolute that certain cacáo seeds are simply greater than others, echoed in the C-spot’s® 3rd Law of Chocodynamics.
Truly showing the way back into the origins that gave proof to his motto Cacáo Cult, he voyaged farther than just about anyone thru the jungle maze (the ‘jungle’ metaphorically located at Hacienda San José in Venezuela where he & the Franceschi family enjoyed a rich collaboration) to push the boundaries that even natives envy & respect (calling him ‘Hidalgo’).
Enthusiasts put their trust in him to personally deliver the goods so whenever he printed the ‘Domori’ label on the package, it meant excellence &, admittedly, varying degrees of it because the cavil against Domori is / was consistency. But in a world of cookie-cutter uniformity, artisanship might be measured in the variable slots, the slight inconsistencies that spell d-i-f-f-e-r-e-n-c-e while still delivering excellence.
His low-impact processing (low ‘n slow roast / shorter conche) yield true & honest chocolate, placing the burden on deeper understanding of cacáo genetics, selection & handling, generating honest flavor. It was the harbinger for both the retro-American style & the neo-Spartan approach.
Claudio Corallo — The Cacáo Jones of the trade, husbanding a humble &, until now, neglected varietal of potentially historical value: a possible direct descendent of the 1st cacáo to leave its American homeland in 1822 for the Old World… to Príncipe Island off the Atlantic coast of Africa. An Amazon Amelonado rechristened Monka, grown on his own estate – Plantacao de Terreiro Velho. Corallo intimately knows the DNA of his trees & their seeds which goes with the territory when cultivating, harvesting, & handling every step in the processing chain himself (among the few who can make this vertically-integrated claim). Beyond Bean-to-Bar, it’s Bud-to-Bud™ (cacáo flower bud to your taste-bud) & Claudio Corallo a full-fledged ‘Budsman’.
Daniel Vestri (Bonao, D.R.), Francois Pralus (Nosy Bé, Madagascar), Dan Pearson (Marañán Canyon, Peru), Frank Homann (Central America), Seneca Klassen (Hawai’i) + others – a vanguard leading the charge in what amounts to a neo-colonialism in the tropics, less as an overarching imperialist hegemony & more from a pragmatic understanding of chocolate’s enormous market chain spanning thousand of miles – grown in one spot on Earth & sold in an entirely different latitude — & the hope of shortening that chain with all its links & gaps by purchasing properties around the cocoa belt to grow their own cacáo in order to obtain high quality produce for their bars.
Implicit in this movement is a typical attitude among most local cacaoteros / campesinos / growers who see cacáo only as a cash crop for export & don’t give an F. Who can blame them – it’s generally a miserable life.
Smelly, humid, snake-ridden, mosquito-infested. If their micro-bites somehow fail to deliver dengue fever, then typhoid – a contaminated water-borne disease – probably will… right on the farmhands &/or their family. Should they avoid getting sick – lack of immunity, after all, the #1 killer among Amerinds at the time of the European invasion – then the reward for all the toil comes when the commodity price falls as production picks up.
(Sorry the shit just got real: The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side – James Baldwin.)
Because income from cacáo stays persistently low, a grower needs a 2nd job, which adds to the hours he or she must spend on the farm. How does a daily grind of, say, sunrise to sundown, no-benefits, no-overtime, sub-minimum wage, every-single-day-of-the-year sound? What about taking care of – insert favorite adjective here: unique, scarce, aromatic, fine – cacáo trees just to see that the yield amounts to a third of a plot planted with a full-sun “bulk” variety which, BTW, locally fetches the exact same price? Is it any wonder that growers just get fed up with “fine cacáo” & plant something else… anything that at least pays the taxes if not the bills? Is it any wonder that segments of local communities acquiesce with Big Oil & Mining companies to exploit indigenous lands? Or that they just lose hope with cacáo, chop it down or sell it off to some profitable cattle ranchers? It is any wonder that they dream about sending their kids to grammar school (forget college for the moment) so they WON’T have to be poor cacáoteros?
Upon enjoying that “fine chocolate”, please savor the subsidy that these Bromans gave you. They toll the 12+ hours a day in order that the fruits of their labor can be procured by consumers on the cheap. And pay no mind if you overpaid for that bar. Chances are the money was pocketed by wiseguys who actually profit most from this venture. (Thank you Wall Street for paying close attention to your computer screens all day long at the trading desk.)
The Women of Chuao for resisting the armies of wannabe-MBAs with high-yielding “Forastero” in the briefcases promising to increase revenues for the villagers there if only the good ladies on this peninsula give up their traditional ways for “efficiency”.
Colin Gasko (Rogue); Alan McClure (Patric) – at the head of the American class… hardcore to the core; very studious, curious & tenacious in understanding the manifold & even minute dynamics of flavor development from the seed at the source to the end taste. Their considerable chocolate works reflect a monomanical obsession.
Stéphane Bonnat – ‘the happiest man in chocolate’ at the controls of the venerable House of Bonnat Chocolate who keeps the right perspective that at the end of the day chocolate is about the pleasure principle. He delivers it… in spades & bars.
Basil Bartley (for the aforementioned reasons) & Juan Carlos Motamayor who, in addition to extending the framework of Bartley’s work, is one of the few cacao geneticists who has the inclination & the palate to actually taste premium chocolate, having worked at Amedei in the past. He stands as one the few scientists who ‘gets it’, gets the objectives of the premium sector &, above all, knows it. You’d be astounded how many so-called cocoa gurus rarely consume chocolate & a couple well-known one don’t even like it but, because their livelihood attaches, they stick with it.
Mars research fellow Ed Seguine – outspoken & incredibly resourceful, especially in the area of bio-chemistry.
Jeff Hurst – a no nonsense bio-chemist at Hershey’s who gets right to the heart of the matter
Dapeng Zhang, Lyndel Meinhardt, et.al., ‘The Beltsville Boyz’ at the USDA /ARS in Beltsville, MD for their initiative to rationalize the int’l cacáo database
Mott Green – a warrior on the frontline, in the trenches, with battle scars to prove it, & lots of integrity to boot
Steve De Vries – pioneer of the new American scene
John Nanci aka The Chocolate Alchemist – the pied-piper of the New American Chocolate Craft Movement. Many a home-based & micro-batch processor has gotten a start & sourced their initial supplies from him divining his know-how & cacáo seeds – some going on to fame & reverse fortune (investing thousands to make hundreds). But the real payback, of course, comes in producing a world-class bar that hits everybody’s C-spot®.
If it ever gets written, one of the few chocolate books worth reading would be John’s chronicles on busting the myth of those who said that home-made bean-to-bar chocolate couldn’t be done because it’s overly complicated, too messy, & prohibitively expensive. Truthfully & regrettably… it is. To paraphrase T.S Eliot, making chocolate would be easy were it not for bitter beans, which only emboldens the DIY-tribe to over-achieve & just do it; breaking the mold, inventing compact tools, & perfecting a process so generations to come will have at it & think no more of it than a self-service gas station to prove the 5-star Chef Gusteau’s maxim that anyone can make chocolate. And with the onset of global-warming, they’ll be growing cacáo trees in their backyards! (Added Bonus: no more shady deals trying to truck shipment containers from the tropics).
Whether consciously or intuitively, Nanci knew at some level it could be done because it already had been done. How, after all, was it achieved at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when Western chocolate manufacturing got its start with neither machines yet-to-be-invented nor the Internet to compare notes & exchange ideas?
Gary Guittard – on the home team; the All-American chocolate good guy
Shawn ‘how to spell ethics in chocolate’ A-s-k-i-n-o-s-i-e
Volker Lehmann – another crusader bringin’ it out of the jungle (literally, in some pockets of Bolivia); very astute & irreverent; a C-spotter® of the highest order
Michael & the late Sophie Coe & Maricel Presilla for putting premium chocolate back on the map with their books that form the twin pillars of the new choc era
People occasionally email the C-spot® with ‘why all the stuff on the Maya?’. Well, blame Cameron McNeil. Her book, Chocolate in Mesomaerica: A Cultural History, does for Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cacáo what Sophie & Michael Coe’s True History did for Post-Columbian Western chocolate: elevates it in a cumulative celebration that ends up the definitive, authoritative source. And the Maya as much as the Mexîcà are the pivotal switchpoint between the 2 cultures.
Clay Gordon & Martin Christy – each a voice & advocate for better chocolate in their home countries (USA; UK)
The leadership demonstrated by Mary Jo Stojak & Pam Williams at FCIA
J. Sandy Hepler, Giffe Laube, Gregory Landua — peripatetic cacáo bounty hunters who trek thru the backwoods in search of ancient relics & modern wonders; field-type kind of guys driven by practical curiosity – to discover supreme tasting cacáo – letting the ‘chocolate angels’ guide them along the trails. Whenever they make a find, they like to camp out close-by & experiment with custom fermentation. Very old school / true school.
No survey would be complete without Chloé Doutre-Roussel – the overcommitted doyenne of this niche & global ambassador of the trade.
Many others too… consult the C-spot® for the complete directory of ‘who’s-who’ (with apologies for those omitted here)… like those countless, unheralded artisans enacting Voltaire’s maxim to tend their own garden, exemplified by Kee Tong who quietly operates in the shadow of Jacques Torres & minds her own business so well that by 3PM on most days her shelves are sold out to the dismay of late-arriving customers. Still doing much of it by hand, whichever firm insures J. Lo’s ass should cover Ms. Tong’s hands – that’s how, pardon the obvious pun, key they are to the enterprise, because at her feverish 10-fingered pace, herbs & over-the-counter anti-inflammatories would seem inadequate medical coverage.
And, finally, I’d be remiss to forget my grandmother Antoinette who taught each of her 32 infant grandchildren to talk with this teaching tool: “speak for grandma & grandma give you a chocolate”. They all accepted her instruction along their various paths to becoming lawyers, doctors, investors, teachers, administrators, chefs & artists.
11. “Bean to Bar” is often used as a quality indicator for fine chocolate even though there are many bean-to-bar makers with no real intuition or understanding for flavor or quality development. Are there other models or examples of companies who are not fully bean to bar that interest you and why?
As noted earlier, some chocolatier boxers are phenomenal transformers that work from couverture. Masters of that craft include Torreblanca, Catinari, Curley, Chaudun, & the Dubys.
On the bar side, Bernard Castelain, a re-melter & moreover an ‘optimician’… not a bean-to-bar maker but a restoration artist, optimizing defiled or damaged goods (such as Cacao Barry couverture).
Tcho’s mobile units transported to the field & places in-between helps bring flavor awareness closer to the source, & their promotional materials tend toward the instructive in codifying the flavor of cacáo, delineating taste profiles built on the work of predecessors such as Richart (which has done similarly for the French market) & Domori (for genetics / varietals at large).
Then there’s Vosges – a fine-chocolate fraud to rank right up there with the ear-wax sold by Godiva. Both have won their low-ratings the hard way. They earned them.
As hard to swallow as this might sound sacrilegious, Vosges’ marketing & vogue flavorings (bacon; curry; goji; olives; black sesame seeds / wasabi; macha… all terribly executed for mediocre outcomes btw) rises to the level of fashion – haute chocolature — which spurs interest in chocolate across the board that even serious barsmiths piggyback on. For that, Vosges deserves credit to add to the millions of dollars it banks in revenues. Sure, it all amounts to faux-French “oo-la-la”. But Americans, susceptible to such frou-frou, buy it up.
12. Who are your top five favorite chocolate makers/brands? (If for whatever reason you prefer to list five individual bars that would be just as interesting.)
Again, favorite and best are 2 separate categories (the C-spot® ranks the latter within The Chocolate Census which houses ratings & reviews). Both share a common trait however: transience.
Perhaps the most classic recent example of this would be Coppeneur — a label that vaulted to the stratospheric heights around 2008/09 on the strength of due diligence, select sourcing & that German art of engineering which tallied close to a dozen masterpieces in its collection combining intensity with finesse of flavor.
A year on since director of sourcing & quality management Georg Bernardini left Coppeneur, the company chose to emerge from his shadow by downsizing & streamlining its catalog in 2012. Gone are sundry origins & several upper-percentage bars, replaced by more accessible offerings for a wider market.
The move marks a retrenchment of sorts. A re-positioning in the marketplace & a shift away from an obsessive, even maniacal, attention to detail in the pursuit of sensory peaks to one that now pays more mind to the business & the bottom line.
Such is often the story, whether in chocolate, art or life. Scharffen Berger, for instance, underwent a less grand evolution (because its portfolio carried nowhere near the gems of Coppeneur’s). Just as Julian Schnabel’s “plate paintings” broke thru & gave way to other visual interests (film primarily), a barsmith may be able to fixate for only 18 months or a couple years at a certain peak level before drawn into different areas that consume their time & energy.
While sad but true that the great ones come & go, be glad they came into existence at all. Catch them on the rise, stay with them at their best, & harbor some gratitude should any fall from ultimate grace in creating chocolate nirvana for mere mortals.
And not to worry, in a busy world of 7 billion people, replacements can be always be found. From the German-speaking world of chocolate barsmiths, Zotter now fills the void… & then some.
So, whenever discussing the rankings – whether ‘favorite’ or ‘best’ – bear in mind their perishable nature & try to keep it as current as possible.
The Patients & The Doctors, Julian Schnabel (1978)
To play back your question, here’s a list of neither the favorite nor the best but instead the C-spot® Dirty ½-Dozen (keep checking the website for the full dozen). The Dirty Dozen take their cue from the movie of the same name that portrayed a small unit of convicted felons-turned-commando squad for a special ops mission; a suicide mission really whose few survivors have their sentences commuted to gain their freedom. Quite analogous to chocolate… it’s insane madness (just ask anyone deeply immersed in it).
These Dirty ½-Dozen Chocolates are unsung heroes, fanatics with unique qualities / character, perhaps unorthodox, that rise above their oft-meager ratings. The kind of bars you want in the foxholes of life to cover your back when incoming fire assaults you or during that Chocolate 911 when you need an EMS hit to escape medical danger. Comrades in arms… the C-spot® Dirty ½-Dozen:
I. Danta White Chocolate with Nibs — Cacáo butter is the goddess of vegetable fats & a primary ingredient in White Chocolate, along with milk, sugar, & typically vanilla.
Most often a victim of ridicule & discrimination, some consider ‘White Chocolate’ a contradiction in terms, unworthy of the name; that it’s not even chocolate at all since it contains no cocoa mass (if it did, it’d be brown).
Enraptured “Whiteys”, however, embrace it. When well done, it’s replete with the mouth… & Whiteys – the wiggas of chocolate – are all in it for the mouth… that over-the-top orgasmic bodymelt; proclaiming that maybe it is a feminine thing, that most women have a love affair with cocoa butter that baffles almost all men. As one maker in praise of cacáo butter says: I love everything about it … I love its texture … its melting properties … its crystalline structure & its temper-ability … I love pressing it … & I love the powder it leaves behind.
Danta marries the feminine White Chocolate butter to masculine nibs in this bar for a yin-yang stud… a tongue-throb of sensory-textural overload. Oral sex really (including some nibbling teeth behind a smooth lip) right up there with the Taoist discipline of ‘tongue kung fu’. To maintain decorum in public, this bar requires the art of how to fake NOT having an orgasm.
II. Grenada 60% — Friend-of-the-Earth Mott Green, always outnumbered / never outgunned, takes on the much larger forces of the Grenada Cocoa Association with his brand of the ‘dirty dozen’ – 12 or so organic growers.
Whereas the bigger Cocoa Association supplying the likes of Chocovic, S-B, and Felchlin (the last via Larry Burdick) moves around 5,000 lbs /week, Mott & Crew might do a fifth of that.
Small & nimble, these brothers just kill it… while redefining ‘friendly fire’.
Their modest 60% Bar is an RPG of smoked spice-bread from the little bean that could. What this cacáo lacks in pedigree it makes up for in ambition. An overachiever that surprisingly & affectionately keeps on giving as it shreds the mouth chamber.
III. Grand Kru – Epic chocolate-making, direct from the source on Príncipe Island off the coast of West Africa. Flavored Gatorade™ (shhhh… confuses the liquor licensing authorities)… for well before, during, & after the game. ‘Grand Kru’, so re-named by the C-spot® (the official label reads Chocolate with Raisins & Cocoa Pulp in Bitter Liquor) because a) this contains fermented cacáo alcohol as fine as Grand Cru wine &, more importantly, b) in homage to the nation of The Kru, perhaps the most African of Africans, who so resisted being taken into slavery that their would-be masters simply gave up trying.
Mad-genius Claudio Corallo knows each & every one his beans better than house pets. He grows & harvests them himself. No one is more committed. He tends to a humble &, until now, neglected varietal (a direct descendent of the 1st cacáo transplanted to Africa from Brazil in 1822 so we’re tasting some history) which had been a dried-out seed of an underdog that lay dormant for years in a dark corner until Claudio cut some bush & the rains came… then the sun shone. What he coaxes out rivals a big sound from a tiny violin – basically making him a virtuoso – & this is his masterwork. It probably enjoys cult status back in his homeland of Italy, where intensely proud & moral men no doubt sacrifice their virgin daughters for it.
IV. Douglas Fir — David Castellan of Soma Chocolatemaker literally thinks outside the box. Namely, that box of assortments by chocolatiers the world-over which, despite its assorted ways, usually contains the SOS (Same-Old-Same). Hell, this guy even thinks outside the bombone by dropping this Douglas Fir medallion. A highly unusual, essential oil of the evergreen permeates this soft-‘n-sweet-as-jelly ganache… berry tart / pine sharp & resinous throughout, mellowed by a buttery chocolate with a slight meaty / pemmican finish.
In a world where bonbons proliferate by the millions to make the pursuit of them a foolhardy Faustian bargain, this stands its ground against any on-comers. Truly a rare & stupendous uniquity.
V. Milk Chocolate today is the bad boy of bars, viewed as adulterated blasphemy by purists. That’s why Al nassma’s Camel Milk Chocolate bar, an outlier of a Milk Choc if there ever was one, is on the team. A dromedairy (pardon the spelling) magic-act that leaves a strong impression. Chocolate, a sacrament in the Maya world & adored in Christian Europe, now on the way to the heart of Islam via camelback.
VI. Every special forces Delta op requires stealth & subversion. This squad sports 2 of them in case a substitute is needed —
a) Pacari Raw 100 – unsweetened / unroasted “raw chocolate” (in quotes to mimic Santiago Peralta of Pacari who answers the question ‘just how raw this is?’ with a wink & nod);
b) Lurking in the dark shadows to be called upon if need is Amano’s clandestine Dos Rios – a gangster chocolate.
13. Magic wand question. If you could order the production of any plain dark chocolate bar(s), what would you like to see made and who would make it for you? (This could be a single bar or whole product line. Could be blends, single origins, and anything you come up with for specifics in growing, post harvesting, and chocolate making processes that you can imagine.)
Not a magic wand question at all… I’m actually working on transmuting this fantasy into a reality. Stay tuned. Caveat: most super-blends are disappointments (Centenario by Felchlin) if not dismal failures (CCN as far as a hybrid blueprints go).