A late summer book and chocolate pairing: The politics of Normal People and craft chocolate

 

The Louth Literary Coven book club members met for their late summer craft chocolate and book pairing recently. To stimulate discussion and hopefully add to the overall enjoyment of the afternoon, I chose four bars to bring attention to the underlying themes of the novel.

Normal People with chocolate

On the basis that Rooney’s Normal People encourages us to consider how her main characters, Marianne and Connell, are endeavouring to work towards a more equal relationship, where money and social capital are shared, I decided to do the same with my craft chocolate choices.

Our book discussion focused predominantly on the appeal and development of the characters and the intensity and frustration of their will-they-won’t-they relationship. It was a great story and so well written. It was effortless, intense and a pleasure to read.

After our initial discussion we tasted the craft chocolate with bars selected to represent different models of fairer trade, and illustrate how craft chocolate makers are not just focusing on delivering a fine-flavour taste experience, but also on creating more equal trading relationships. These are the bars we tasted along with a brief overview of the group’s thoughts:

LauraTobago Estate Chocolate W.I. Laura Dark Milk 45% (by Francis Pralus)

Our first book club craft chocolate pairing was the award winning ‘Laura’ from the island of Tobago. A delicious bar with thick oozy caramel notes running into higher, sweeter honey notes and a Cadbury Eclair finish. A deliciously comforting bar made by Tobago based Duane Dove whose mission is to make chocolate with the best raw materials, completely free from exploited labour. Rather than selling beans to a European maker, Duane has the chocolate made for him by French experts, Pralus. A transparent and we presume, equal partnership between grower and maker.

BelvieBelvie Ben Tre Vietnam 70%

Next in our book club chocolate pairings was Belvie’s Ben Tre Vietnam. Originating from a Caribbean hillside plantation, where the cacao farmers work among the rice fields and water buffalo of Vietnam. A complex bar with flavours swinging gently between sweet and sour notes, made from beans purchased directly from the farmer and made from bean to bar in Vietnam. A better price for the farmers and the profits remaining in the country of origin.

OmnomOmnom Tanzania 70%

Continuing the book club pairings, we moved on to the chocolate of the Kokoa Kamili Cooperative farmers in the Kilombero Valley, on the edge of Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountain National Park. This time made by Icelandic makers Omnom. A heavenly taste experience delivering peaks of fruitiness: lemon sherbet, yellow fruits, plums and sweet figs balanced with a luscious, chocolate brownie baseline. Purchasing beans from this community of growers brings real economic development to rural Tanzanian farmers.

OcumareDuffy’s Venezuela Ocumare 72%

The final of our book club chocolate pairings was Duffy’s Venezuela Ocumare. This bar took us right back to the beginning of the story of Europe’s love affair with chocolate, and the growing of cacao being a contentious, political and often violent issue. The chocolate was full of character: sweet, sumptuous and enigmatic. Varying market structures and political pressures in the country of origin can create problems for direct trade. This is certainly the case with Venezuela.

The maker Duffy Sheardown is involved in the ‘Direct Cacao’ initiative. An association based on ‘respect, value and mutual benefit between cacao growers, chocolate makers and consumers, aiming to protect and preserve fine cacao’. But buying cacao is difficult in Venezuela as Duffy explained to me, “We cannot buy direct from Venezuela and have to use a wholesaler that we trust and that has a good reputation. We hope to go Direct Trade there at some point.”

Just like the book, the tasting had been an effortless, intense experience and the chocolate a pleasure to eat. The research on the makers and their trading relationships however, made us look beyond the great taste experience and consider the politics of power and dependency and also encouraged the group to look again at our reading of Normal People and the possibility that this too was about power, not just love but a “Marxism of the heart”. (Annalisa Quinn, www.theatlantic.com, April 19) 

Through our book club chocolate pairings, we saw how Rooney had embedded politics ‘closely and rigorously’ (Annalisa Quinn) into her love story and how craft chocolate isn’t just about taste but how makers are also striving to move towards more equal trading relationships.

The result: a fabulous late summer gathering!

For our thoughts on the book’s themes and messages, as well as our full chocolate tasting descriptions and votes for our favourite bars, read the Louth Literary Coven’s full post on the Mainly Books and Chocolate blog here.

Further reading

For further reading on Normal People, the chocolate makers and the trade relationships in craft chocolate, these are some suggested links:

Review of Normal People by Annalisa Quinn https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/04/sally-rooneys-normal-people-review/586801/

Tobago Estate Chocolate https://www.tobagococoa.com/

Belvie, Belgium’s First Short-Chain Chocolate Made In Vietnam: “Fair Trade Is Marketing” http://www.belviechocolate.com/2017/02/11/belvie-belgiums-first-short-chain-chocolate-made-vietnam-fair-trade-marketing/

Omnom Chocolate: https://www.omnomchocolate.com/pages/our-ingredients

Kokoa Kamili: http://www.kokoakamili.com/about

Duffy’s Chocolate: http://www.duffyschocolate.co.uk/

Direct Cacao Initiative: https://www.directcacao.org/

The Chocolate Journalist on Fair Trade: https://thechocolatejournalist.com/fair-trade-chocolate-debunking-the-myth/

Goodnow Farms on Fair Trade: https://goodnowfarms.com/blog/fair-trade-vs-direct-trade/

 

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!

Image-4

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