Almost a year ago, I embarked on the International Institute for Chocolate and Cacao Tasting (IICCT) Level One and Level Two courses. I knew very little about the fine chocolate industry, also known as craft or artisan chocolate sectors across the world. I was blissfully unaware that industrial chocolate even included premium brands like Godiva, Hotel Chocolat and Divine – my expectations were swiftly reset. So, completing the Level 1 and 2 IICCT courses was an eye-opener for me – even a journey! My perspectives have changed drastically. So, why did these courses have such a profound impact? Ecology, ethics and health-related aspects all played their part in changing the way I purchase – and enjoy – chocolate.

Ecology and ethics

In the UK alone, consumers each get through 8.1 kilogrammes of chocolate every year. And globally 4.7 million tonnes of chocolate are produced annually. That equates to a huge surface area given over to the cultivation of cacao plants and in general monocultures. Deforestation, poor diversity of species and natural habitat. By contrast, I found out that fine chocolate producers look for smaller batches – 30-100 kilogrammes of cacao – meaning craft chocolate makers collaborate with smaller, more sustainable farms which may grow a number of crops alongside their cacao trees. This biodiversity is more in-keeping with the natural Tropical environment and ecology.

Smaller plantations mean cacao varieties with better flavour profiles that can fetch a better price, meaning a greater income for the farmer. Like most markets, higher quality demands a higher price and working with an established craft chocolate maker offers a certain predictability for the grower.

Know what you’re eating

Craft chocolate can only be made with certain ingredients, namely cocoa solids, coca butter (for milk chocolate), sugar, real vanilla (not vanilla flavour or vanillin) and soy lecithin. Fine chocolate packaging must state the cacao’s location of origin, namely the country and the valley or place where it was grown, such as Piura Valley, Peru, seen in the label here. We expect to see this information provided on wine bottles as standard and we don’t even question it.

This led me to wonder why we think “Belgian” is enough. And by the way cacao doesn’t grow in Belgium – it comes from the Tropics – and most chocolate branded with this name isn’t even made there!

Bean to bar

Let’s back to the primary ingredients of chocolate. Cacao has to be fermented and dried before it is packed and shipped to where it will be turned into chocolate. All these steps have a huge impact on the final taste of the end product. Fermentation can be hit and miss if not managed properly, allowing mould to develop or the cacao may be left to over-ferment, developing flat, cardboard aromas. Often drying happens on tarmac surfaces that are open to the elements, animals and insects mainly as it’s often the only place available. Consequently, the cacao can take on a diesel/petrol/chemical flavour as these contaminants seep through the outer cacao membrane as it dries. And worse, insects and other unwanted substances can become part of the dried cacao.

Realisation

The realisation that most of the chocolate I had enjoyed over the years had been produced in less-than-ideal conditions and I had no clue what I was eating was quite shocking. I have been so careful about what veg and meat we eat, but somehow it had seemed too difficult with chocolate. Combined with this was the fact that most supermarket-bought chocolate contains large quantities of sugar, cocoa butter and flavourings that are often not from natural sources and there’s no way of knowing the quality or origin of the cacao itself. I really had to question my chocolate-buying rationale.

Sharing

Don’t get me wrong, I still eat the odd supermarket-bought chocolate bar when it suits. But on the whole, we have moved as a family to dark (over 60% cacao) fine chocolate and we share two or three small squares of chocolate on weekend evenings. We let the chocolate melt on the tongue and think about the flavours and aromas we get from it, sharing our enjoyment and understanding where the cacao was grown and who made the chocolate. Not only are we consuming less sugar, but we are also enjoying something together. We all look forward to our Saturday evening with some slow chocolate.

Common knowledge

As I was unaware of the current craft chocolate revolution, I wanted to make sure other people can find out and make an informed choice. So, I’d be interested to know what you think. Is it important to you to know where food comes from? That it is ethically sourced and as sustainable as possible?

Would you give fine chocolate a go? I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

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