The advent of a Christmas calendar filled with artisan bean to bar chocolate

Not surprised this campaign has already reached its target. What an excellent advent adventure!

Culinary Adventures of The Cocoa Nut

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To the choc-o-phile, the arrival of advent provides legitimate license to eat chocolate every single day – usually before 9am.

But to date, Christmas and craft chocolate haven’t often gone hand-in-hand – at their lowest-rent, advent calendars are filled with morsels that are variously waxy, chalky, sugary, cheap and generally downright nasty; even at their fanciest, you’re unlikely to find anything made from bean to bar chocolate nestling in those windows.

That’s something Lilla Toth-Tatai (aka @littlebeetle_chocolates) is aiming to change. Obsessed with craft chocolate and the people behind it, Lilla started filling her own homemade advent calendars with bean-to-bar chocolate back in 2015 – and, this year, is attempting to bring her concept to the masses via a crowdfunding campaign.

Initially produced in a limited run of 200, the resulting Taste Better Chocolate advent calendar would serve as a showcase of 24 of the world’s finest artisans – the…

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Talking Terroir in Fine Chocolate

Terroir is a French agricultural term, generally thought to mean ‘soil’ or ‘land’, but soil is only part of the story. A well-used term in the wine world, it is equally useful when describing fine chocolate. When we talk about terroir we are referring to the wider ecosystem of a location including its geology, biology and the agricultural practices used to produce the grapes or cacao. For cacao, this includes the harvesting and collection, fermentation and drying processes.

Terroir was the focus of a recent Louth Chocolate Tasters session where we began to learn about the role of microbiology and environment in the development of flavour in chocolate. It would take intense analysis to discover the exact origins of flavours in every bar, which is why the word terroir is so useful to us when we understand how the farming environment and practices can have an impact on flavour development.  And what better way to learn than through a series of taste comparisons focusing on location, fermentation and drying methods.

Cacao Plantations: ‘Logical Green Anarchy’

plantation med resIf we could all visit a cacao plantation, we would immediately begin to understand the complexities of the term terroir. For me, the word ‘plantation’ summons up visions of large, planted areas with regimental straight lines. It was reading Maricel Presilla’s description in ‘The New Taste of Chocolate’ that really brought it home to me. Maricel describes, “…a jumbled community of trees, vines and other growth shrouded in the sweltering green chiaroscuro of the South American Lowlands…the hum of insects and crackle of dead leaves underfoot…like something you would expect in a Jurassic jungle.” Or, quite simply, “logical green anarchy”. (Prescilla 2009) It is a managed environment but still so intensely natural.

Location Comparison: Piura Peru vs Cusco Peru

For our location comparison, we sampled two bars by Peruvian makers Maraná who have sought out what they consider to be the finest examples of beans from particular regions of Peru. We chose the 50% Piura dark milk from the Alto Piura valley made with ‘Blanco’ beans, and the 50% Cusco from the fertile valleys of Quillabamba using the native ‘Chuncho’ beans.Marana

The Piura bar delivered a gentle aroma of yellow fruit, caramel and cream with a slow event melt and a thick and creamy mouthfeel. There were mentions of cream and butterscotch progressing to honey and then deep molasses on the finish. In comparison, the Cusco bar had a sharper, nuttier aroma with a quicker melt and a smoother mouthfeel. There were butterscotch notes mentioned again, but this time more like banoffee pie. There was a definite sweetness with hints of nuts and dried fruits. This wasn’t about preference – they each have their own distinct regional character but the Cusco bar was on this occasion judged to have more complexity and intensity of flavour.

Fermentation Process: A Pulp Fiction.

open pods and beans low resI recently attended a course given by Dr Zoi Papalexandratou of Zoto, a recognised expert in fermentation to learn more about the intricacies of the microbiological and chemical processes involved. To cut a very complex story short: once the pod is opened, the sweet, white pulp surrounding the beans comes into contact with yeasts and bacteria which turn the sugars into alcohol. The introduction of oxygen turns the alcohol into acetic acid that penetrates the bean and, along with the increased temperature, kills the embryo inside. The enzymes within the bean then stimulate the breakdown of cells to create the all-important flavour precursors. The speed and the length of fermentation are key factors in the determination of flavours.

Fermentation Comparison 1: Double Turned vs Triple Turned

Makers are now beginning to give more detail about fermentation regimes on their packaging but direct comparisons are still difficult to come by. Friis Holm’s experiments in fermentation have however proved irresistible to fine chocolate enthusiasts, providing an excellent illustration of the link between fermentation practices and final flavour.  His Nicaraguan Chuno 70% is produced in both a double turned and triple turned version with the only difference being the number of turns given to the beans during fermentation; the extra turn simply introducing more oxygen into the process. All other variants in the fermentation and drying are held constant.Friis Holm

In the double turned bar we found notes of burnt sugar and spice on the aroma, a pleasingly swift melt and a smooth, creamy but cool mouthfeel. The flavours discovered were spices, apricots, a hint of ‘something a little green and vegetal’ that we struggled to pin down, and a little astringency and walnut notes on the finish.

The triple turned was found to have ‘more aggressive’ flavours but was not as ‘punchy’ as the double turned. In comparison, the melt was slower and warmer with more earthy and wood notes, and hints of black olives rather than the fresh, green notes. The aftertaste was also judged as shorter and less pronounced.

The preference was overwhelmingly for the double turned.

Fermentation Comparison 2: Short vs Standard

The second comparison was between a Rugoso 70% with a standard fermentation time and a shorter fermentation described as ‘bad’ on the firmly held assumption that it if the fermentation time is too short, there is insufficient time for the full development of the flavour precursors.

Unfortunately, due to a postal mishap, the standard Friis Holm bar didn’t arrive, leaving us to compare the short or ‘bad’ fermentation with a Rugoso 75% from Zoto in Belgium which, although not a direct comparison, is made with a standard fermentation and drying protocol. Holm’s shorter fermentation delivered aromas of yellow fruits and currants, with a cool and creamy mouthfeel. Notes of bananas, citrus, currants and sweet, malty biscuits in the flavours were interspersed with a struggle between its creaminess and astringency.

The Zoto bar was found to have an altogether more chocolatey aroma, still with hints of sweet fruit. The flavours developed more slowly, with bananas, strawberries and cocoa. The astringency was there but more balanced. This bar may have revealed its character more slowly but interestingly the overall preference from the group was for the ‘brightness’ of the first bar.

Drying: The Story Continues 

When fermentation is complete, the beans are laid out to dry, usually naturally in the sun. They are turned and mixed to encourage aeration, to prevent mould and the development of off note flavours. By the end of the process the beans are dark brown, hard, dry and with all their flavour precursors in place, ready for the makers to express the flavours through bean-to-bar process.

Drying Comparison: Sun vs Smoke

To illustrate the importance of drying we chose bars from Papua Indonesia and the neighbouring Papua New Guinea where, traditionally, beans are dried over fire. In this case, only the second bar – Soma Black Science Papua New Guinea 70% – uses beans dried by wood fires, so we were fully expecting to taste the smokiness.sun vs smoke.png

First, we tried the unsmoked bar: Original Beans Papua Kerafat 68% which, for some, delivered a slow, balanced melt and an indulgently, creamy mouthfeel with subtle caramel, apple and ‘tomato plant’ green notes. Very different from the customary smoky Papua New Guinea experience. But the second bar, which was chosen for its promise of ‘fragrant wood smoke’ (Cocoa Runners description), didn’t deliver on this occasion. Instead we found earthy notes, citrus sweet berries and liquorice with only the slightest suggestion of charcoal; the bonfire haze of wood smoke had evidently long since departed.

Despite the lack of smoke in the final bar, tackling the term terroir made for another fascinating LOUTH Chocolate Tasters session.

References: Prescilla, M. (2009) The New Taste of Chocolate, New York, Ten Speed Press, Pg. 95

A Fine Chocolate Discovery Experience

6th September 2018. My first official Cocoa Encounters Discovery Experience event. Another opportunity to talk about fine chocolate and discover who likes which chocolate styles and flavours. Every session is different. You can never predict which bars are going to be the favourites. Taste experience is so very personal; influenced by all your senses, memory and even mood. But what I hope everyone goes away with, is the experience of tasting something new.

Instead of telling you how I thought it went, I asked along someone I met at a recent business seminar. On hearing about Cocoa Encounters, Claire revealed her own passion for chocolate and since Claire’s expertise is in writing, this time I thought I would ask Claire to describe her personal discovery experience. Here’s what she wrote:

What could be finer than a Fine Chocolate Discovery Experience? As a chocoholic I was extremely excited about the opportunity to sample a range of fine chocolate from around the world courtesy of Cocoa Encounters, and I was not disappointed.

At Duffy’s Chocolate Studio in Humberston, Kathryn, the founder of Cocoa Encounters, greeted my fellow tasters and I with a glass of sparkling pressé before we seated ourselves around tables bearing hand crafted, specially designed, oak tasting boards at each place setting, already signalling this was to be an impressive event. Within each of the eight numbered circles on the tasting boards lay ample, tempting samples of white, milk, dark and flavoured bean-to-bar chocolates.

Our mouths already watering, Kathryn outlined exactly what we were going to experience during the slow tastings, beginning with her own journey of experiencing fine chocolate. A certified Level 2 qualified taster with the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasters (IICCT), as well as a judge at the upcoming Chocolate Awards in Florence, Kathryn possesses a depth of knowledge of – and passion for – fine chocolate that positively oozes out of her!

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Kathryn guideus expertly  through all of the eight tastings with the impressive confidence of someone who really knows her stuff. Establishing the art of sensory tasting at the start, we all touched, smelled and finally tasted every sample, melting (not munching!) and savouring their creamy or nutty or spicy or smoky or citrus notes deliciousness.

Recording our tastes and thoughts on the accompanying chart, and cross referencing with the accompanying descriptions for each sample, resulted in a greater understanding and appreciation of what makes fine chocolate much finer than your average supermarket offerings. To illustrate this, Kathryn offered samples of Flake as a comparison tasting and the difference was immediately apparent, with the fine chocolate samples genuinely tasting far superior. Never one to normally refuse any well known brand (or even lesser known brand!) of chocolate, I was genuinely astonished at its inferiority in comparison!

bars croppedAfter finishing the tastings, we all consulted our record charts and declared our favourite samples. Personally, having a sweet tooth, I thought I would prefer one of the white or milk chocolates, but I LOVED the Menakao Madagascar with Orange and Cranberries – a fine chocolate I would never have previously considered even tasting as it is dark and flavoured! Thank you Kathryn for introducing me to a brand new and delicious taste sensation, and thank you again for the complimentary bar I received as part of the experience – I had to restrain myself from buying even more from the selection available!

Tasting craft chocolate is an experience best shared – everyone should encounter the delicate craftsmanship of fine chocolate!

Claire Jennison, Penning and Planning 13.9.18

Cocoa Encounters goes live

Just in time for World Chocolate Day on 7th July, I finally took the plunge and launched my new venture – Cocoa Encounters. And what better place to do it than the Chocolate Studio of Duffy Sheardown, as tasting Duffy’s single origin chocolate was really the start of my own chocolate journey.

IMG_1777It was an opportunity to introduce friends and colleagues, all with a passion for fine food, to the chocolate tasting experience. We were joined by members of the local press.  I didn’t want to just tell them about what I was doing but to taste for themselves the difference between standard and craft chocolate. I think they did…we will wait to see the coverage to find out!

The aim of Cocoa Encounters is to help people who love chocolate or fine food to discover craft chocolate and its flavour potential. To find out how to buy better chocolate, to look beyond the fast and convenient and to discover the pleasures of fine flavour and slow eating. I have found getting together with friends or colleagues for a tasting experience is a great way to do this, so that is what Cocoa Encounters is all about.

My intention is also to use this blog to talk about my new chocolate journey: the chocolate I discover, the people I meet, chocolate events and news from world of craft chocolate.

You can follow me here or on social media on facebook @cocoaencounters or twitter @KathrynLincs