Craft beer, single-origin coffee, locally-raised bacon — high quality ingredients are a welcome trend these days, transmogrifying our meals into new seasonal and sensory experiences. But while there’s plenty of savoury options to experiment with, those of us with a sweet tooth are sometimes left feeling a little unfulfilled.
Not to worry. You heard it here first, dessert fans; Cook Culture is building the West Coast’s most complete collection of artisanal chocolate in the country. This isn’t your typical Dairy Milk — we’re talking deep, complex flavours and textures you’ve never seen in chocolate before. Helping Cook Culture with this mission is Eagranie Yuh, a grand jury member of the International Chocolate Awards, holder of a Master’s Degree in organic chemistry and long-time food writer. And it’s a good thing too, because until recently I was a self-described chocolate agnostic, who couldn’t tell a Hershey’s from a Toblerone. Yes, laugh it up.
According to Eagranie, artisanal chocolate differs from the commercial stuff in a number of critical ways. For one, the beans themselves. In case you were unaware of this miracle, chocolate comes from a tree — Theobroma cacao, to be precise. Chocolate is the result of roasting and grinding the nibs of their seeds into what’s called cocoa mass. Many commercial brands buy their cocoa mass on the commodity market, looking to purchase in bulk for the best price and consistency. “Think of the difference between a tomato in winter that’s been shipped up from California, and a tomato you’ve just picked off the pot on your balcony,” says Eagranie. “That’s the difference between beans from the commodity market and fine flavour beans.”
These fine flavor beans are chosen by artisanal chocolatiers for their specific taste, which can vary wildly. “There is a wide and wonderful range of flavours in top quality chocolate,” says Eagranie. “Some can taste fruity; Madgascan, for example, has a classic flavour profile of dried cherries, citrus and cocoa. Others are earthy; Dominican Republic chocolate tends to be more classically chocolatey, with spices and dried fruits like figs or currants.”
These flavours aren’t just the result of good beans, however. To best capture the inherent flavours of the beans, they must be expertly processed at the plantation, and along with the methods used by the chocolatier, this determines the chocolate’s final taste. The heat and length of roasting time are good examples of some of the controls producers have over the final outcome. “Commercial chocolate brands are processing tonnes of chocolate, so it’s nearly impossible to process each bean optimally. As a result, they mostly go with a dark roast; think espresso over a light roast in coffee. That can impart bitterness to the finished product, which is why many people think high-percentage chocolate is bitter.”
High quality chocolate also eschews many of the artificial flavours, stabilizers and emulsifiers present in commercial chocolate, including high fructose corn syrup and a bunch of other unpronounceables. “Most artisanal dark chocolate will only contain cocoa beans, perhaps some cocoa butter, sugar, and a touch of lecithin or vanilla.” This way, you get as much of the natural chocolate flavour as possible while preserving the purportedly anti-oxidant elements of real dark chocolate.
If you’re new to artisanal chocolate like I am, here are a few of Eagranie’s recommendations to start with. All of these are available at a Cook Culture or Cookworks store near you.
Sirene Artisan Chocolate Makers — Victoria, BC — http://sirenechocolate.com/
“Sirene’s a good choice, partly because they’re based in Victoria, but also because you get two very different chocolates in one package (one bar from Madagascar, one bar from Ecuador). It’s a great way to experience for yourself the different flavour profiles (and colours) that are found in chocolate.”
Dick Taylor Chocolate — Arcata, CA — http://www.dicktaylorchocolate.com/
“Dick Taylor is a craft maker from Northern California, and they hit all the marks: gorgeous packaging, a beautiful custom mold, and fantastic chocolate. It’s a great example of the world of difference from commercial chocolate and craft chocolate.”
Askinosie Chocolate — Springfield, MO — http://www.askinosie.com/
“I have a soft spot for Askinosie Chocolate – he’s a former criminal defense lawyer who now makes chocolate, and he profit-shares with all the farmers he works with. The 77% Davao bar is made with cacao from the Philippines, and it has amazing notes of caramel, burnt sugar and vanilla – not from any added flavours, but because that’s what the beans taste like. It’s a great example that high-percentage chocolate doesn’t have to punch you in the face.”
We hope that’s enough to get you started on your artisanal chocolate journey. As always, feel free to come by any of the stores for more info and suggestions on what to try next! – Sol