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Chocolate Supreme

Chocolate’s deep flavor is compounded in the rich, spiced-chocolate doughnut topped with cream-cheese ice cream and shavings of dark chocolate at Starbelly in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of California Milk Advisory Board. Despite the recession, premium and artisan chocolate products still sell as consumers look for a little lift

By Priscilla Martel

Chocolate connoisseurship has reached new heights. Artisan and craft chocolates attract a cult following not unlike that for fine wine and coffee. And, despite the recession, premium-chocolate sales set a record in 2009, according to Packaged Facts market research. Fine chocolate is an affordable treat that still opens wallets. A look at artisan and premium chocolate trends shows that consumers crave new flavor experiences and excitement in a category that has come to be known as a luxury indulgence.

“The consumer palate is following the same path with chocolate as it went down with cheese and olive oil,” says Carolina Gavet, Marketing Manager of Valrhona, a French premium-chocolate manufacturer. “What are the flavors, where does it come from?”

Like many of the basics, bread and wine for example, quality chocolate starts with a few basic ingredients — cocoa beans, sugar and perhaps some vanilla. The selection, fermentation, drying and handling of the beans, then the processing into bars of chocolate ensure flavor and quality. Despite recent news of Theobroma cacao growing in California, cacao trees thrive only in the equatorial band, which includes West Africa, Central and South America and Indonesia. And there are but three primary varieties of cacao beans — the aromatic, scarce Criollo; the plentiful Forastero; and the Trinitario, a flavorful hybrid. The least-flavorful, Forastero, accounts for about 90 percent of the world’s production, so chocolate makers vie for the best beans.

“The best chocolate-makers regularly go down for the harvest and oversee the fermentation and the drying of the beans,” says Alexandra Leaf, a culinary historian and “chocolate guide” in New York. “They have an understanding of the end results.” She adds that farmers never taste the beans, and the partnership between growers and chocolate-makers is very important. “The chocolate-maker begins with beans. The chocolatier works with base chocolate made by someone else,” she says.

Whether multinational or micro-batch, all “bean-to-bar” chocolate-makers focus on the roasting and conching of the beans to bring out the flavor and magical texture in their final products. After the beans are roasted, crushing and milling create the gooey paste called chocolate liquor. Pressing extracts the cocoa butter, leaving a dry cake of cocoa powder. The final step, the controlled blending, or conching, ensures that volatile flavor and aroma compounds are retained.  And careful tempering guarantees chocolate buttery mouthfeel.

Well-crafted chocolate has a deep sheen and snaps when broken. The way it melts on the tongue is part of its sensual appeal. By savoring chocolate, connoisseurs identify aromas and flavors like those found in wine. There can be acidity, astringency an floral and other vegetative notes in quality chocolate.

In the mid 1980s, Valrhona introduced chefs to a line of Grand Cru chocolates made with beans from specific regions, such as its Manjari from Madagascar. Now, many producers label their chocolate with the growing region or even the name of the particular estate. Chuao, a coastal region of Venezuela, is one area gaining attention for the quality of its beans and the knowledgeable farmers who cultivate it. Cocoa from the Chuao plantation, a farm cooperative, has received appellation-of-origin branding from the Venezuelan government. Presently, all of its output is under contract to Amedei chocolate in Italy. But expect more farms and growing areas to gain recognition.

The listing of the cocoa percentage is quite common on chocolate bars, bonbons and, increasingly, on dessert menus. Although it is not a true signifier of quality, cocoa percentage does indicate the amount of pure cocoa solids in a bar. (The amount of sugar, flavorings and cocoa butter can vary between bars with the same percentage of cocoa solids, however.)

“Ethical chocolate” is a growing segment in the specialty chocolate industry, notes Curtis Vreeland, confectionery market specialist for Packaged Facts. Products bearing “organic” and “fair trade” labels showed measurable gains in retail sales in 2010, according to Vreeland’s research for Packaged Facts. These cocoa products are capturing more consumer interest, though they represent just a fraction of world production.

At Lillie Belle Farms in Central Point, Ore., the Smoky Blue Cheese Truffle is surprisingly popular. And Chef Kimberly Morabito whips up a vegan chocolate mousse made with avocado and coconut oil at Table Nectar Catering in Oakland, Calif. The secret ingredient in the signature foie gras at Wish, at The Hotel of South Beach in Miami, prepared by Executive Chef Marco Ferraro, is shaved white chocolate. Chefs and confectioners are boosting sales with such unusual combinations and trading on chocolate’s popularity and versatility.

Chef Kimberly Morabito’s raw chocolate mousse with avocado and coconut oil proves chocolate’s versatility in application and flavor pairing. Photo courtesy of california avocado commission. According to Vreeland, savory-inspired flavors are among the more active trends in the U.S. chocolate market right now. Bacon, cheese, chiles, curry, olive oil, salt and smoke are crossing over from the savory side into chocolate desserts and confections. The complex flavors, acidity, and richness of cocoa butter are what make these combinations work.

Take the popular blend of burnt caramel and salt as interpreted by Knipschildt Chocolatier in Connecticut. (Its best seller is a burnt caramel molded in a 71 percent Ecuadorian single-bean dark chocolate topped with pink Hawaiian sea salt.)  The buttery, creamy notes in the caramel and ganache offset the bitterness of the burnt caramel and a dark chocolate. Salt balances the sweet and bitter notes.

Like their counterparts on the savory side, confectioners are exploring flavor combinations with the help of molecular science. The Belgian chocolate manufacturer Belcolade offers its customers a flavor-pairing tree designed to introduce novel chocolate and food pairings. On a molecular level, the company analyzed the flavor profiles of its “origin” chocolates.

Bernard Lahousse, creator of the Belgian site www.foodpairing.be, matched the flavor compounds in the chocolate with those of other edibles in his food database. (Cumin and bread pair well with Belcolade’s Costa Rican dark chocolate.) The Chocolate Foodpairing database reveals complementary if unexpected flavor pairings meant to entice chefs, confectioners and bakers to create new combinations using Belcolade chocolate.

Along with an interest in extreme flavors, chocolatiers and pastry chefs are exploring textural and other sensory components to add to premium chocolate. Callebaut and Valrhona sell enrobed, round cereal pieces called “pearls” for use as garnish. Panko, puffed rice cereal, corn flakes and the like add texture and crunch to chocolate desserts. And there are adult versions of the Nestlé’s Crunch Bar, the first multi-sensory chocolate, such as Chuao Chocolatier’s Firecracker, a caramel-fudge chocolate with chipotle chile and salt rolled in popping candy and enrobed in dark chocolate.


Like endurance athletes, chocolate extremists seek out punishingly bitter or fiery chocolate. Bloggers compare tasting notes of 100 percent cacao from Bonnat or Pralus, two esteemed French bean-to-bar chocolate-makers. Lillie Belle Farms’ latest creation is called Do Not Eat This.  A blend of milk and dark chocolate with arbol, aji amarillo and ghost chiles, the chocolate is meant to be shaved over ice cream.

“Chocolate trends do repeat themselves,” notes Leaf. “Chile and hot ingredients with chocolate is a reworking of the original recipes in cacao.”

Even milk chocolate is being re-imagined.  Chocolate-makers are experimenting with “dark milk chocolate” products with increased cacao content that are less sweet with more of the snap and unctuousness of dark chocolate. While standard milk chocolate ranges from 10 to 15 percent cocoa solids, Scharffen Berger makes a 41 percent and Guittard a 38 percent cacao it describes as “bold, rich milk chocolate with caramel accents and fresh dairy notes.”


As if we need more reason to eat chocolate, ongoing medical research links myriad health benefits to chocolate consumption. Beneficial antioxidants called flavonols are abundant in natural dark chocolate. Manufacturers have devised ways to preserve these compounds when processing chocolate. Several differentiate themselves by making chocolate with guaranteed flavonol levels. Oxanti from Belcolade and Anticoa from Barry Callebaut are two such chocolates. Xoçai is another company offering a range of products from high-antioxidant sipping chocolate to “nuggets” of dark chocolate with açai and blueberries, upping the antioxidant properties.

Chefs and operators are becoming more mindful of chocolate’s healthful attributes.

“Foodservice is seeing increased demand for desserts featuring boutique chocolates — those infused with  functional super fruits like açai or blueberry, for instance,” says Chris Radovan, vice president of R&D for The Cheesecake Factory.

Resveratrol, another antioxidant found in chocolate and red wine, is associated with improved memory and cardiovascular health.   Between its unique new flavor profiles and documented health benefits, chocolate has earned an expanded place on the menu, much to diners’ delight.


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