October 07, 2020
The lack of diversity in the chocolate industry can be quite astonishing. A huge amount of the world’s chocolate is made by just a handful of multinational companies, all using the same types of cacao from the same areas - mostly West Africa and Indonesia - to create chocolate with a standard ‘chocolatey’ flavour. Most small-to-medium sized chocolate companies are chocolatiers who buy pre-made chocolate from these bigger companies - the most common of which is Barry Callebaut in New Zealand. These chocolatiers can do all sorts of unique and creative things with the chocolate, but the chocolate itself is the same as what thousands of other companies are using.Imagine if the wine industry was like this. Imagine if most of the wine you saw on the shelf was made by the same company, just with different added flavours and different branding, and all offering the same kind of ‘wine’ flavour notes. And what if almost all the wine was just made with Sauvignon grapes, rather than the huge array or grape varietals that we have access to today. It would be a crying shame! And yet this is exactly how the chocolate industry is, and we’ve all grown up thinking that this is a normal situation.Bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers are bringing diversity to chocolate and offering us a whole new world of experiences. It’s currently a small segment of the chocolate industry but within it you’ll find a vast array of options that you’ve never seen before. Different flavour notes in the chocolate, specialist varietals of cacao, unique small-batch chocolate making techniques, different farming and fermentation methods - it’s all the exciting diversity that we’re used to with wine or beer or cheese, but in chocolate it’s a relatively new thing. This is one of the main reasons for the work we do at The Chocolate Bar, and why we choose to only stock bean-to-bar craft chocolate. If you haven’t yet experienced this kind of chocolate, you’ve got some very exciting and delicious discoveries in front of you!
October 02, 2020
For my latest interview I caught up with Luisa Abram, whose beautiful chocolate is featured in this month's subscription boxes. Luisa is based in São Paulo, Brazil, and she set up her family-run business in 2015. Throughout her study of gastronomy at the Anhembi Morumbi University, Luisa made regular trips to the Amazon Rainforest, during which time she developed a fascination with wild, heirloom cacao. All of Luisa’s chocolate is made with cacao found growing in the wild along the Amazon river plate, and she works with a variety of riverside communities to help discover, gather and ferment the cacao in very small batches. I thought it would be good to find out more about this incredible chocolate project, and I'm sure you'll enjoy sharing in Luisa's ebullient passion...
What is your background and what led to you becoming a chocolate maker?
I went to culinary school and I always loved making food, especially pastry. When I was finishing my degree my dad gave me a book about molecular desserts! Chocolate was in the first pages and so I fell in love! I had no idea prior to the book that you could make chocolate at home, so I went to do a bit of research on cacao. My first instinct was to import cacao from Ecuador, but I soon discovered that Brazil does not allow cacao from abroad to enter the country (because of a history with witches broom, a fungi that destroyed cacao production back on the late 90s). So then I found out that the Amazon rainforest was the birthplace for the cacao tree and I went to look for wild cacao. After months of research we finally got in touch with a cooperative in the state of Acre, close to the border with Peru. It was always a dream to go to the Amazon and when I arrived, I knew it was the right place to be!
Who runs the business with you and what are their roles?
All my family! My Sister works in the Sales and Administrative department, my mom works in a multinational company during the day and at night she comes to the factory and takes care of the orders. My dad also has a day job in the financial market and at night does our finance and also helps with machinery, and I'm in charge of the production.
How do you decide which cacao to source and where to source it?
We only work with wild cacao from the Amazon Forest. First of all, we look for the riverside families who are willing to follow our fermentation protocols, then we analyse the density of cacao trees in the area, to see if this will have a positive impact on the communities that will harvest the wild cacao. If there isn’t enough density, it doesn’t make sense to harvest for either side, given the difficulties of getting to those trees within the forest. Then we harvest a test batch and make chocolate with it to see if the taste is interesting, and assess the terroir. After that, if the cacao makes good chocolate, we go back to the forest and collect DNA samples to send to a laboratory in Washington DC, to analyse the data to see which family the cacao belongs to, if it is a brand new varietal, etc...
What interests you about wild cacao?
I can say that everything about it interests me!! When you have the biggest forest in the world being the birthplace of cacao, it just makes more sense to do something new!
Also, Brazil is so big that we have a really diverse culture throughout its regions. I’m always eager to learn about new ways, and the Amazonian culture is one of a kind! Working with nature and the preservation of it is great! And the most amazing part of it is to see the impact of my work in the wellbeing of the riverside families. I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to work side by side with people with a completely different reality than mine, in the city of São Paulo. And with the result being chocolate - it’s just the icing on top!
Is there a big following for bean-to-bar craft chocolate in Brazil?
We would not call it big yet here in Brazil, but since 2014 we’ve been seeing very expressive growing rates. As a consequence of this growth, we now have strong tree and bean-to-bar associations, and a women’s group with over 100 members.
How does your location influence the chocolate that you make?
Being in a country of cacao origin, which contains a vast area of the Amazon Forest, gives me numerous opportunities to create and use local ingredients. The cacao extracted around the margins of different rivers and regions have distinct terroir and can give chocolate with particular tastes and flavours. Ingredients like cupuaçu, açai and Brazil nuts can be added to give wonderful inclusion bars.
Cupuaçu is widely known in the Northern region of Brazil. You find it in the Amazon and in the states on its borders. It is used to make sweets, jams, desserts and juices, as well as added to chocolate in bars, bonbons, dragees and truffles.
What are some of the biggest challenges in your work?
We only work with wild cacao, so getting the beans out of the Amazon is a real challenge. We have to find the right partners that care about the fermentation and drying of the beans, the way we taught them. That means we have to go every year to all the origins to make sure everything is being done in the right way.
How has COVID19 affected your business?
COVID had a major impact on flights and our biggest customer is in the US, so getting the chocolate shipped was a big challenge. Also, visiting the communities was difficult and we had to increase the price of the cacao because everything had price adjustment. Our clients before COVID used to be markets and small specialty food stores, but we saw a shift with COVID and our website became a major part of our revenue. Customers started purchasing directly from us!
What’s your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?
Everything! Going to the forest, fermenting the cacao, making the chocolate. Seeing how cacao and chocolate can make a difference in the life of many people. Creating new flavours and making people happy.
Thanks so much to Luisa for taking the time for this interview, and for sharing these beautiful photos with us.
September 29, 2020
As I’m sure you’re already aware, the mainstream cacao industry is rife with ethical issues, such as slavery, enforced child labour and the general mistreatment of farmers, who often earn barely enough to survive. As people become more and more aware of these issues, we see more and more chocolate companies ‘greenwashing’ - making dubious claims about the ethics behind their products, and often using made-up symbols and fake certifications on their packaging.
Even the official certifications are failing to achieve most of what they promise to. I’m not an expert on this topic but I talk with many people who are, and there’s an almost unanimous consensus that, whilst filled with good intentions, well known certifications like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance are not even close to achieving what they set out to achieve, particularly in West Africa, where about 60% of the world’s cacao is grown. That’s not necessarily entirely the fault of these ambitious certification schemes, but the result of trying to fix a system that is so heavily broken. There’s an old saying where I come from - ‘you can’t polish a turd’. The mainstream cacao industry is undoubtedly a turd, and the system needs a complete overhaul.
The fine cacao and craft chocolate industry are showing how things can be done differently, and with as much transparency as possible. The chocolate makers we work with are paying around two or three times the market rate for their beans, as opposed to the tiny premium offered by certification schemes (usually around 10% more than the market rate). They are working with farms where slavery is absolutely not an issue. One of the key things that is different about the fine/craft system is that it values quality over quantity. The much higher rates paid to farmers are based on the quality and flavour profile of the beans - it’s about doing the right thing, but it’s also about creating mutually beneficial business relationships that are sustainable and built to last. Likewise, that is why the chocolate we sell is more expensive than most supermarket brands - you’re paying for something that’s truly ethical, as well as something that is much higher quality and offers a completely different flavour experience.
These issues around ethics and sustainability in chocolate are unbelievably complex, and made all-the-more confusing by the greenwashing we see everywhere, not to mention the big money marketing campaigns that are so much more prevalent than the voices of people and companies who are actually doing great things. Fine cacao and craft chocolate is just a drop in the ocean of this huge industry, but I hope that one day the example we’re all setting will be much more widespread, and that the world can embrace ethical trade and a quality over quantity approach to chocolate.
Photo courtesy of Luisa Abram. Views expressed are my own.
September 14, 2020
Flapjack was one of my favourite treats as a child so I decided to create this recipe and see what can happen when you throw some high quality craft chocolate in the mix. Traditionally the ingredients of flapjack are very minimal but I decided to jazz things up a bit. This recipe is so easy to make and takes no time at all, even for an amateur baker like myself. Enjoy!
Ingredients (makes nine)
- 135g whole rolled oats
- 135g quick/Scotch rolled oats
- 120g butter (or dairy-free alternative)
- 110g raw sugar
- 2 Tbsp golden syrup (or honey)
- 60g dark chocolate (around 75%), broken into small pieces
- 5 Tbsp Fix & Fogg Everything Butter (or crunchy peanut butter)
- 1 heaped tsp cinnamon
- 4 Tbsp cacao nibs
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
1. Put all of the ingredients except for the oats and cacao nibs into a pan and heat gently on a low heat. Stir until all of the ingredients are combined and all of the chocolate is melted (takes around 8 minutes).
2. Combine mixture with oats and cacao nibs in a large bowl. Stir thoroughly until evenly mixed.
3. Put mixture in a small baking tray, lined with baking paper, and flatten out - should be around 2-3cm deep. Bake in preheated oven on 175°C for 30 minutes.
4. Leave to cool on a cooling rack for an hour, then slice into squares and devour!
September 03, 2020
The humble chocolate chip cookie can be taking to dizzying new heights when you introduce single origin craft chocolate. This simple and delicious recipe was created for us by Grainne Kerr, a talented local pastry chef and chocolatier who currently works at both Baron Hasselhoff's and Grace Patisserie. This recipe uses the Chocolat Madagascar 65% bar (featured in the month's subscription boxes), but you can play around with different chocolate and find what works best for you. Enjoy!
300g plain flour
4g Bicarbonate soda
4g baking powder
170g unsalted butter
190g brown sugar
130g castor sugar
200g chopped hazelnuts
1. Cream butter and sugars together until the mix has softened and slightly lightened.
2. Add egg to butter mix and combine.
3. Add dry ingredients, nuts and chocolate to the mixture and mix well to fully incorporate.
4. Weigh out dough to 45-50g balls. You should get roughly 24 portions.
5. Cook by placing dough on a lined baking tray, keeping dough about 6cm apart from one another to allow for spreading. Cook at 170°C for 10mins. Slightly less if you prefer a chewy cookie, or longer if you like a crunchy one (like me).
Pro tip: if your cookies need a little help to spread during cooking, you can press down on them with a flat bottom cup or small plate.
Thanks so much to Grainne Kerr for creating this amazing recipe for us!
August 10, 2020
The Story of Our Rhubarb & Custard Bar
In late 2019, Clayton McErlane at Baron Hasselhoff’s kindly invited me to make a chocolate bar with him, from scratch. Despite my years in the chocolate industry and a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of the bean to bar process, I had never actually made my own chocolate. How could I turn down this opportunity to work with my number one chocolate friend and learn the tricks of the trade?
Over the course of a few months, Clayton took me through the whole chocolate making process, including sorting and roasting the beans, cracking and winnowing the cacao, grinding and conching, tempering the chocolate and moulding the bars. It was a revelatory experience that filled me with even more respect for the professionals. I loved learning all the little touches that Clayton has learnt over the years; there are so many subtle techniques that seem insignificant by themselves, but across the whole process they add up to create something beautiful. Things like adding the ingredients to the grinder in gentle increments (rather than all at once), the perfect polishing technique for the moulds, little tricks with tempering and moulding so that you get the perfect looking bar with no marks, bubbles or bloom, and how to wrap the bars in a neat and efficient fashion.
At every step of the way we paid extremely close attention to temperature. Not just for the obvious things like roasting the beans or tempering the chocolate, but also little touches like warming up the grinder before we started adding ingredients, warming up the cocoa butter and cacao nibs before grinding them, warming up the moulds before adding the chocolate, and even being conscious of whether or not we wanted the air conditioning on. It’s an exact science that can take years to master, and involves a mixture of sensitive intuition and painstaking attention to detail. I developed a much deeper appreciation for the talent of the makers we work with.
As for the bar itself, I wanted to create something that's filled with fond personal memories. One of my favourite desserts as a child was my mum’s rhubarb crumble with custard - I loved mixing the crumble together with the fruit and custard, then eating ridiculously large spoonfuls. This bar aims to replicate that experience in the form of chocolate.
I came up with the idea of making an oat milk bar with added rhubarb powder, vanilla and nutmeg. I knew I wanted to use a cacao with bright fruity notes, and thankfully Brian Campbell at Miann was able to supply us with incredible Anamalai beans from Tamil Nadu, India. The tricky thing was that we were only making one micro batch of chocolate, so there wasn’t really an opportunity to test the recipe. We had to just go for it, using a combination of my intuition (read: total guess work) and Clayton’s experience of making similar bars in the past.
I’m really happy with the result, and I’m sure you guys are going to love it. If I was to make the bar again I would use slightly more rhubarb powder and a little less nutmeg, but I reckon it’s incredibly delicious as it is. We only have 50 bars available so this is an extremely limited release - be sure to grab yours before it’s too late!
Please note: $3 from every bar will be donated to the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
Here are a few more photos of the process...