After learning Step 1, all about how chocolate is made, I wanted to understand even more about fine chocolate and the wide variety of products available. I knew just the place to go.
Chocolopolis is a wonderful little store located at the top of Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. They have a distinction among chocolate stores because of the products are organized by the region the cacao is sourced from. Having purchased a long list of chocolate items from the store, I can easily say that the products are of high quality. With so many exotic options from a variety of countries, the challenge is choosing. Lauren Adler, the owner of Chocolopolis, was so kind as to educate me about the different options. Here's what I learned:
There are seven sections in the store, three of which are devoted to specific countries. One of these sections focuses on products made with beans from Venezuela, which is often regarded as producing the finest cacao, being more subtle and balanced. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get beans there because political turmoil in the country has resulted in some fields being taken over for military bases. Cacao beans from Ecuador have varying boldness, but are bolder than those of Venezuela. There is an endangered bean there, arriba nacional, which is one of the most sought after, known for its floral and fruity flavors. Over in Madagascar, beans are characterized by the their acidic nature--due to the soil in which they they are grown--which produces a remarkably bold flavor. The result of combining the roasted acidic beans with sugar create what many describe as red fruit flavor, often cherry or raspberry, and sometimes having a hints of citrus and cinnamon. Naturally, Lauren reminds me, this all depends on the bean and chocolate maker.
Chocolopolis' also features a section dedicated to broader regions, which perhaps have less predictable in the beans they produce. In Southeast Asia, for example, some countries roast their beans in ovens, which produces a smoky flavor, which is sometimes subtle, sometimes earthy, and, with bad beans Lauren tells me, "It can taste like a bonfire! It's all a matter of bean quality, produced during fermentation and drying." (For more info on these steps of chocolate making, read about how chocolate is made.) The Ivory Coast produces 40% of the world's cacao! This is part of the bigger statistic that Africa, which of course includes Madagascar mentioned above, produces 68% of the world's cacao, over-two-thirds! "But often these are not the highest quality beans," Lauren points out. "Certain areas like this benefit from Fair Trade regulations." (Some companies like Theo Chocolate use only Fair-Trade certified beans.)
Of course, there are also chocolate products with cacao sourced from South and Central America, where all cacao plants originated before they were moved abroad during the slave trade. (Chocolate's central role in Mayan society is fairly well-known. Used as currency (!) cacao beans were also crushed up and used by their ruler for drinking chocolate.) Theobroma cacao is the species of origin. Having the longest history with the plant, more than any other region in the world, naturally beans from South America vary widely. One example which may not come as a surprise is that Colombian cacao can often have a coffee flavor.
Being someone who values a deeper knowledge of the sweeter things in life, I needed to ask Lauren how I could become more knowledgeable about all things chocolate. "Tasting, of course, is the best way. You have to build up your palate." (Just the answer I wanted to hear!) She also recommended a few well-respected books:
- Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light by Mark Rosenblum
- The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloe Doutre-Roussel
- The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael D. Coe
- The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes by Maricel Presilla