Hah! That title got your attention :). Who out there doesn’t love chocolate? Admittedly, there are a few who just don’t care for it, but they’re at the tail end of the bell curve. Me, I’m way way on the other side of the bell cure, where I just LOVE chocolate. I mean, I smuggled a box of my aunt’s whiskey truffles from a wedding in California back to our home in Germany. Now, I’m talking here about real chocolate, not the chocolate-like substances that you find in most grocery stores. And I’m definitely not talking about “white chocolate,” which is literally flavored corn syrup in most cases. My kind of chocolate is at least 60% cocoa solids, preferably 70%+.
While we lived in Europe we enjoyed the German Ritter Sport chocolate and thought that was just great. We also loved going to coffee shops (most notably in eastern Europe) and ordering hot chocolate, which was pretty much just melted chocolate. But it was only after we moved to Berkeley that we got a real chocolate education.
Matt is in the Wine Club at his school, which means he gets to go to special events and drink wine. Not a bad gig. One evening there was a speaker from Kallari Chocolate. Though the website isn’t spectacular, their business is to be sustainable in both agriculture and culture from indigenous Latin American farmers. They don’t have any high-paid executives; their money all goes to the cooperatives that make their chocolate. So let me tell you a little bit about how chocolate is normally made.
Cacao comes from a specific orchid in tropical regions of the earth. Just as wine grapes have good growing regions, so does cacao. Once cacao pods are plucked, they’re split open, fermented and dried. If they’re under-fermented, they taste like potatoes. If they’re over-fermented, they taste like poop. You know who buys Kallari’s over-fermented cacao beans? Yup, Hershey’s. Don’t savor that too long or else the sugar flavor might just give way to nastiness (just kidding, I’ve never tasted poop in their chocolate, just general non-chocolatiness). After they’re dried, if they’re not processed on site, they’re then packaged in bags, put on big cargo ships, fumigated at US ports, and then distributed to US chocolate producers. So if you want un-fumigated chocolate–bars that have been made and wrapped in foil before going through customs–go with chocolate that wasn’t made in the US. It can be a US brand, just see where the chocolate is actually produced.
Pure cacao solids aren’t sweet or savory on their own, so to make it a dessert, some other ingredients have to be added. Some kind of sweetener and vanilla are pretty much staples on any kind of chocolate. Milk is a common ingredient that dulls down the chocolate flavor and makes chocolate cheaper to produce (about 20 pods make just one pound of chocolate). Since I’m currently sensitive to milk, and prefer my chocolate dark, I opt for the dairy-free chocolate brands.
Another ingredient that is almost impossible to keep out of packaged goods is soy lecithin. On the trendier chocolates, they indicate “non-GMO” or “organic,” and they tell you that soy lecithin is used as an emulsifier (helps bring together two normally incompatible things into one even mixture). Ah, so it’s “needed” as an emulsifier…meaning I can’t find chocolate without it, right? Wrong. Do you know what else is a great emulsifier? Cocoa butter. That’s right! A product that also comes right from the cacao pod. So why do most companies use soy lecithin instead of cacao butter? Because the cosmetic industry LOVES being able to put “Made with cocoa butter” on their packages. The chocolate manufacturers make significantly more money selling cocoa butter to the cosmetic industry than they would if they just put it back into the chocolate bar. So when you see “soy lecithin” as an ingredient on your chocolate bar, know that it’s lower quality than one without.
And a word about the cacao-producing regions. The main regions are Latin America, different parts of continental Africa, and various equatorial islands (Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, etc). Now consider the orchid plant from which cacao is derived: this plant is happiest in wet, fertile regions. The locations listed fit that bill, except for continental Africa. Continental Africa doesn’t have a lot of wet, fertile regions that can be cultivated with orchids, and therefore the chocolate from those regions suffer. Unfortunately, roughly 2/3 of the world’s chocolate comes from continental Africa, and consequently, to make African chocolate palatable, you have to add lots of sugar and other ingredients to mask the lack of flavor. In taste testings I’ve done with high-quality chocolate (just cacao solids, cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla), I’ve always been able to identify the chocolates from Africa by their sandy texture and non-rich flavor.
So, how do you find great chocolate? Here’s how:
Checklist for Great Chocolate
- Look for 4 ingredients: cacao solids, sugar, cocoa butter (no soy lecithin), vanilla. Other natural ingredients for flavor are acceptable.
- Choose chocolate that has been manufactured on site, not in the US, unless you really like having fumigated chocolate.
- Find chocolate whose beans were grown in Latin America or an equatorial island.
- Look for “Organic” and “Free Trade.” If you don’t care about that, then ignore this item, but they’re important to me. The term “Free Trade” really doesn’t mean much, just that they’re doing the bare minimum for their workers. Ideally, the company can tell you about the cooperative that provided the chocolate, indicating a close relationship with the farmers.
- Expect to pay more. This is quality stuff you’re looking for, you can’t expect to buy a Porsche for the price of a Toyota.
Some of our favorite brands are (in order from favorite to least favorite, but all delicious):
- Sacred Chocolate: I think this is just decadent. They have a bar that’s 85% cacao that just melts in your mouth. This is my favorite, but by far the most expensive.
- Kallari: also superb, and in a much better price range than Sacred.
- Theo Chocolate
- Equal Exchange: Good chocolate for keeping around the house. Their mint flavor is my favorite.
- Fearless Chocolate: Exploding coconuts is my favorite, but the other chocolates aren’t anything special
What are your favorite chocolates? The photo shows a list of cookbooks that my aunt uses. Since I usually just eat the bar and since she’s the baker, I’ll take her suggestions on which books are best!