Chocolate is as scientific as a NASA experiment in space, and as simple as your child enjoying a little warm cacao in the evening. Somewhere in between the marketing fluff, the stories we read on the internet, the selection in a gas station and a high end chocolate store, there are irrefutable truths about what makes a chocolate truly great. Here are the 9 insider secrets.
Contrary to what you see on European chocolate advertisements, the most important part of chocolate is not ‘a glass and half of diary milk chocolate’ or purple cows roaming the Swiss countryside. It is not about the hours of conch, nor about the sugar. It’s all about the cacao and the maturity of the cacao pod when it was gently twisted from the trunk of a theobroma cacao tree. Every cacao variety has her own aroma and flavour profile, which when you smell and taste together, without any processing, you can notice like the shadows of night and day. The harvest time of cacao is just as important as the variety! Therefore the most important question you need to be asking your chocolate company was – when was this harvested! Think about what you know from wine, it is the same. As in life, the biggest contributors to greatness in chocolate is maturity, and in the case of chocolate, it is all about the combined maturity of the cacao pod, the tree, the farming community, the grinding location and the connoisseur!
1. Cacao Pods are Fruit and Should Be Treated as Such
Fruit from a cacao tree is a giant berry which we call cacao pod, which contains 30 to 50 seeds, which our industry called beans. No wonder it is confusing, our industry calls a fruit a pod, and a seed a bean. It is very understandable that chocolate connoisseurs take some time to learn the details of what makes a great chocolate, when the basic information about the fundament of this great treat is not even well explained. Once the tree reaches maturity at about four years, the fruit (pods) will sprout out from its trunk and branches directly. The cacao tree is a hard worker, producing flowers and fruit year-round (albeit it wet season vintage is definitely more flavourful than dry season). The delicate nature of a ripe fruit, like any fruit, means that they need to be protected from pressure, temperature, and abrasion. You see, once the fruit is carefully twisted from the trunk, it starts to break down with fermentation. This is good, because that makes the ‘flavour’ in the cacao seeds/beans. However, it is extremely delicate and needs to be managed by proud artisans who can spot the best fruit to pluck, and what times they need to be out, moved into shade and cared about.
2. Harvest and Transport Cacao Fruit With Care and Separate Those That Come From the Ground
Cacao is not something you just drop to the floor and scoop up with the other pods, like an olive or apple. A cacao pod picked carefully from the branch or trunk directly will have a better quality than one that was already resting on the understory. Additionally, during moving the pods, it is important to use shallow jute bags, which allow air flow (to keep temperature down and dryness) and not too many pods to be carried at once. This means that the little ones at the bottom of the bag don’t get squashed or mouldy during a long hot day of picking and carrying. Anything on the ground is classed as second rate, and is good for compost, or large multinational companies.
3. Classify, Separate, and Process Different Classes of Cacao Fruit Separately
In any fruit basket, you know that a tree will produce different qualities of fruits and the same absolutely happens on the theobroma cacao tree. It is important to review each tree and separate classes of pod quality from their condition, ripeness and pest-ness. Of course, keeping the best versions and sending the rest to compost or …
4. Do Not Store the Cacao Fruit
The longer it takes to scoop out the pulp of the cacao fruit, which contains the seeds/beans, the worse the whole fruit will become. Oxidation and fermentation are both processes which occur rapidly and are consequent. Although there is a fermentation process in cacao pulp to create flavour in the beans, it needs to be done in the right way. Just an extra half day of a cacao pod in the sun can make a new home for fruit flies. Of course, the longer storage or slower the work, the quality of chocolate aroma and flavour will deteriorate. You can find guys scooping out flesh into large interim buckets or containers in the middle of a forest, whereby the cacao beans can start fermenting correctly.
Prolonged storage or slow working of the fruit is contrary to the production of quality chocolate. Oxidation and fermentation occurs in the stored fruit pods, which can lead to defects and off flavours in the cacao.
5. Process the Cacao Beans Quickly and at a Moderate Temperature
Beautiful chocolate comes from a cacao bean that was fermented, dried, cracked, ground and conched within a timely fashion. Every maker will have their choice, but some will be faster and slower than others. The point at which exothermic reactions (sugar and oxygen) for fermentation and raw cacao beans in drying is as equally important for sanitation as it is for flavour. Depending on the weather of the day – dry, humid, cold, raining these two processes will be faster or slower each time (if done naturally in the sun on wooden racks). The cracking, grinding and conching needs to be relatively quick in the process as well, because the longer a dried cacao bean sits in a jute bag waiting to be ground, the less intense it will be. I prefer temperatures of the entire process to be under 50 degrees centigrade, because I believe that overt roasting and processing destroys the integrity of the cacao. But every chocolate maker will have their own opinion and it is your job to figure out what you prefer for your tastes.
6. Create Different Grades of Chocolate
Because of the incredibly complex series of steps involved in chocolate, there can be different grades of chocolate produced. For example, if fruit that was on the ground is used, that can be used by some companies in lower grade products. It comes down to the orientation of the chocolate maker, who their customers are and what their price pressure is. It is best for you to know what standards you prefer, from quality, and choose from there. Cacao is classified by faults and quality parameters by the industry, although it is a lot to understand, just ask your favourite chocolate maker to explain which defects and quality elements they work with, and you can decide if that matches your gastronomy preferences.
7. Store the Chocolate with Care and Love
A chocolate maker goes through a lot of steps to grow and make beautiful treats, so it needs to be stored just as carefully! Storing in clean and dark places from 18-21 degrees centigrade is perfect (aka with your red wine). Air tight packaging that can be re-sealed is the best choice because then you can open, enjoy a little, and put the rest away for later.
8. Keep Everything Clean
Chocolate can easily become contaminated. It is like a big sponge for aromas and odours. Odours can get into the chocolate at the atelier of chocolate maker, or even at the store or your home. Clean surfaces are the first place to make sure that rancid odours won’t get in, be sure to check that!
9. Be Chocolate Connoisseur
A chocolate connoisseur knows a little about what it takes to produce, grow, pick and grind high quality cacao fruits. It is the important to know the sensory evaluation of cacao beans, and chocolate and be able to recognize defect. Know your tastes, inform yourself about different varietals of species and it will help you love your chocolate even more.
These are the most important secrets of great chocolate. Go visit your favourite chocolate maker to test your new found knowledge! Ask when the pod was picked, how long it took to get to fermentation tables and what temperature roast they use! Find out what you love the most, and you’ll become more of a chocolate connoisseur and know how to determine and find your favourite treat.Text: Alyssa Jade McDonald-Baertl Images: Markus Görl, wwf, thesavory, devinechocolate, commons