No sooner had any Nacional conflict between Peru & Ecuador been averted that a Transatlantic bidding war began. Makers from various continents wanted to get their hands on it despite the asking price: a whopping $15/lb. for dry weight nuts. A figure eclipsed by only the most select grade cacáo. Such as Porcelana Criollo, nearly a monoseed, sourced exclusively from small fields south of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela & farther west along the northern coast of Colombia.
The grandest chocolate houses in Europe pulled out their biggest guns & deepest wallets, out-muscling the young Americans.
Start-ups simply lack the clout & capital, as well as the consummate skill to handle the fragile nature of these seeds compared to their seasoned Euro counterparts. The learning curve in super premium chocolate is long & steep, almost in direct proportion to market maturity. The USA has ground to cover. Plus, several American artisan barsmiths are mercurial &, candidly, professional flakes. Some act young beneath their years. For others the troubles & vicissitudes of life befall them.
In 2010 Steve De Vries suspended operations on his own brand. He packed up the equipment in storage & shuttered his studio. The unbearable heaviness of making the perfect chocolate turned into a maddening quest as solitary as a Willie Nelson ballad. Lover’s Lane intersects Lonely Street. He has many friends in this respect. Curt Cobain, Arthur Koestler, Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra, Mark Rothko, artists & romantics for whom the burden of being too personally on the line, with all their skin & flint in the game; the passion that courses thru the blood only to drain into nothingness save for the work they leave behind to inspire posterity. Oh, & the sidebars of finance, plus more ancillary issues written about in Steve Almond’s Candy Freak to throw even the most indestructible onto Freud’s couch, re-tracing their childhood where OCD habits with chocolate began.
Elsewhere the map of barsmiths breaks along these lines:
- The English Commonwealth (Great Britain / Canada) – a budding scene but none to speak of;
- Australia (also English Commonwealth) – none of scale;
- Japan – none of record;
- Asia (China, Indonesia, Malaysia) – none worthy of consideration;
- Central & South America – none of contention.
No doubt in a couple years this map will be redrawn the way Marañón reconfigured it with its Nacional.
Bids narrowed to within a small chocolate circle, arguably the tightest concentration of talent on the planet, circumscribed by Provence-Isère (France), Tuscany (Italy) & the Rhine-Westphalia (Germany).
Each would’ve done it justice for different reasons.
- Stéphane Bonnat, Voiron France, because of his warm roasting curves & finessed cocoa butter cuts that fix & then carry a flavor’s profile. He sought 145 kilos for a test batch, which exceeded Pearson’s supply on hand at the time.
- Coppeneur, in Bad Honnef Germany, because of its exactitude in attaining unfathomable depths in chocolate, especially during the last stage when a maker can leave his mark – conching – which churns a viscous mass called cocoa liquor, driving off &/or subsuming volatiles created way back in the fermentation cycle. It fell out of contention when the Icelandic volcano interrupted air travel all over Europe in summer 2010 & failed to get a flight in time! Perhaps fortuitous since a couple months later Georg Bernardini, responsible for sourcing & quality management, left the company.
- The Tuscan master Domori, similarly dedicated to rescue & recovery missions of rare cacáo strains, declined on gustatory grounds, citing that this perfume drifted outside the range of his current portfolio — that’s how unique it is.
Eventually a notable, though for contractual obligations anonymous, Swiss Manufacturer (“SM”), smack in the center, won the battle on the strength of its pedigree & its original longitudinal conches — the actual units belonging to Rudolph Lindt from 1879 that lap the liquor back & forth ever so slowly & gently oxidize the volatiles, rolling some off while tucking the rest into the body of the bar. Lindt’s factory was the first to employ a conche machine for chocolate making purposes. It produces a smooth texture for that modern standard of refined chocolate – the luscious molten meltdown.
Not necessarily the best-of-the-breed but SM’s Classificado couverture did sweep European pastry awards & one reason Paul Edwards of Chef Rubber recommended the company. The fact that the Rhine River floats all the way upstream to its plant in Basel, Switzerland helps defray the freight costs.
Pearson traveled there at the invitation of preeminent Swiss chef Franz Ziegler. SM impressed him with a remarkably obsessive care to detail & meticulousness.
Pedigree & partnerships notwithstanding, together they still had to master the manifold incremental steps necessary to produce winning chocolate. Each one as important as the next to link up a chain reaction that detonates to excite taste buds the world over. The enterprise so elaborate compared to cured leaves rolled into cigars or the bottled sunshine relabeled wine that it feels insulting to the players involved to pay less for it than either of those other specialties.
Everyone marvels how Marañón’s post-harvest methods continues to improve. Each step of the process – from picking & opening the pods & sorting the seeds, to fermentation, drying & the final preparation – is closely monitored & controlled to assure flavor-integrity & exact traceability. The practical equivalent of tagging each seed with a bar code.
SM reiterates thru a series of analytical panels, which increase Pearson’s confidence in his choice of them, that “the white nuts add a nutty flavor to the fruit & flora profile. For the first time in 6 years we’ve nuts with such fully developed flavor characteristics upon arrival, that we must use the 1879 Longitudinal Conche to protect & coax this wide range of delicate & rare flavors from them.”
Interestingly, the potential suitors left behind in the bidding were subsequently offered a blind tasting of SM’s finished product at a dinner party. Stylistic preferences aside, each found it intriguing, tantalizing.
GO TO PART XV –> Damn Fortune