Easter may be the time most associated with chocolate for UK consumers, but, for the craft industry, October is the time for the ‘global pageantry’ of fine (Salon du Chocolat, 2020) because October was, until this year, the month of national Chocolate Week. Though this year, as October loomed, along with the resurgence of the pandemic, plans for Chocolate Week were conspicuous by their absence. Then, from the depths of Devon, came a digital ray of hope!
To understand the gains of this year’s digital offering, we should first look back at the joys of Chocolate Week past.
Here in the UK, we have a reputation for chocolate consumption. In 2017, Mintel data told us that we consumed the most chocolate of any country (Ritschel, 2018), but 2017 was also the last year the Salon du Chocolat brought its chocolate extravaganza to London. This stunning event, with its flamboyant fashion show and spectacular chocolate sculptures, gave chocolate lovers of all persuasions the chance to immerse themselves in the world of chocolate and meet some of the industry’s most talented professionals. It had become our Chocolate Week’s flagship event.
Luckily for us, the momentum started by Chocolate Week continued, and the growing number of artisan makers and chocolatiers continued to use the week to bolster our interest in all things fine. Last year, Chocolate Week was still attracting considerable media attention. Markets and events were held across the country and I, along with many other chocolate enthusiasts, visited the Chocolate Takeover of London’s Canopy Market, organised by Cocoa Runners. Compared with the 20,000 m² and 230 exhibitors of the Paris Salon du Chocolat, the Canopy Market is more bijou than breath-taking, but, even so, two days never seemed to be enough time to attend the talks, catch up with makers and taste all the new bars.
Last year you could, of course, as I did, along with 100,000 others, visit the Salon du Chocolat in Paris: an experience I vowed to repeat as often as I could.
October has also become the month for rewarding the industry’s finest with the World Finals of the International Chocolate Awards (ICA). During the month, chocolate tasters and professionals are asked to give their time and palates to judge the best of the best. The promise of travel, meeting new people and the camaraderie of fellow judges are the best incentives for taking part. The pandemic put a stop to that, and this year we switched to ‘remote judging’: a monumental logistical achievement by the team at ICA. My admiration has grown for the judges facing those hundreds of samples in the isolation of their own homes. Judging for the UK Chocolatier awards has been my only involvement this year, but motivating myself to sit in my solitary tasting zone to evaluate the 40 samples of filled chocolates and spreads was surprisingly difficult, though, of course, necessary, valuable and, in the end, undeniably pleasurable.
With October seeing the convergence of so many chocolate professionals in Europe, last year it was also the month for attending professional conferences: the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasters (IICCT) held its first member’s forum in Florence and the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) held its second conservatory in Paris. As I was already in Paris for the Salon, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to join my first FCCI gathering. So there I was, in a small auditorium filled to the brim full of cacao farmers, distributors, makers, bloggers, marketeers and academics from around the world. In such company, it is difficult not to feel a degree of imposter syndrome, but the shared ambition and mutual support of the delegates was so incredibly welcoming and inclusive that I had some of the most enlightening and inspiring days of my chocolate journey so far.
But that was last year. As October 2020 and Chocolate Week approached, the potential for feeling part of the community and inspiring consumers to discover fine chocolate were swiftly diminishing. Then posts promoting the Digital Chocolate Festival began to circulate, and, on further investigation, the name behind the initiative became obvious: Nicola Knight, founder of events and education company Celebrate Cacao and creator of the Exeter and Torquay chocolate festivals. Speaking to Nicola recently, I had the opportunity to ask about her experience of the losses and gains of Chocolate Week in a pandemic.
Chocolate Week, the Salon du Chocolat events and Nicola’s festival bring together both artisan makers and more mainstream chocolate businesses. As the craft market is still relatively small, the aim is to attract the general public and then, as described succinctly by Nicola, ‘gently educate this captive audience’ about the benefits of fine chocolate.
In the face of Coronavirus restrictions, Nicola, luckily for us, had the foresight to follow the initiative of the chocolate makers by ‘pivoting’ her business and taking it completely online. At live events, success is evident not just in the satisfaction of the exhibitors but in that level of ‘buzz’: the observation of impassioned conversations between consumers and makers reassuring Nicola that her gentle education approach is really paying off. Attracting that wider audience to a digital event without the promise of the extravaganza of chocolate creations was potentially going to be even more of a challenge.
The surprise for Nicola was that the event, once created and presented, seemed to gather its own momentum. The chocolate community was looking for a place to gather, to talk, share and celebrate cacao, and the Digital Chocolate Festival provided that space.
The event attracted an international audience and, by appealing to the growing number of craft chocolate converts, Nicola was able to focus more on her passion for the fine flavour market, exploring the ideas of sustainability, taste and craft, and encouraging loyalty alongside discovery.
There is an added bonus of course if, like me, you didn’t manage to attend all the sessions you wanted to: they are all still there, waiting to be enjoyed again on Facebook. (See link below)
I found similar solace in the FCCI online Origin Series. You cannot watch Carla Martin, Jose Lopez Ganem and the growers, distributors and makers invited to join them on screen without feeling the warmth, solidarity and excitement of the industry.
As Chocolate Week approached and I sat at my little desk in Louth, Lincolnshire feeling very disconnected from the world of fine chocolate. Happily these digital events sent my feelings of despondency packing and ensured my optimism for the future of fine chocolate was still alive and kicking. Hopefully, for our next Chocolate Week without a pandemic we will benefit from the inclusivity and contact of both real-life and virtual events.
Links & Further Reading
Digital Chocolate Week 2020
Find the Digital Chocolate Week event schedule on the Celebrate Cacao website: https://celebratecacao.co.uk/s
and the session recordings on the Eat Better Chocolate Facebook page:
International Chocolate Awards: https://www.internationalchocolateawards.com/
International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasters: https://www.chocolatetastinginstitute.org/
Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute: https://chocolateinstitute.org/
Chocolateweek.co.uk, 2018. About Chocolate Week. [Online]
Available at: https://www.chocolateweek.co.uk/about-chocolate-week/
[Accessed 4 November 2020 ].
Ritschel, C., 2018. CHOCOLATE PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION ON THE RISE ACROSS THE GLOBE. [Online]
Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/chocolate-production-easter-mintel-gnpd-europe-consumption-vegan-a8276236.html
[Accessed 6 November 2020].
Rojas, L., 2019. The Culture Trip: The Story Behind the Salon du Chocolat. [Online]
Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/paris/articles/interview-the-story-behind-the-salon-du-chocolat/
[Accessed 6 November 2020].
Salon du Chocolat, 2020. What is Salon du Chocolat?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.salonduchocolatny.com/en-gb/about-the-show.html
[Accessed 6 November 2020].