MY PHILOSOPHY OF CHOCOLATE
My passion for chocolate was born of a love of adventure. That spirit took me to Venezuela and led me to buy Hacienda El Tesoro in the cloud forest. Fifteen years later I started the first bean to bar chocolate factory in Britain for hundreds of years. I am a cacao farmer first, and an artisan chocolate maker second. I’d like to introduce everyone to the beautiful dancing flavours of real chocolate, made with the great single estate cacaos of the world and 100% natural ingredients.
The first thing I made with my own cacao was hot chocolate. Sitting on the mountainside we added water and fresh raw cane sugar to 100% cacao. It blew me away. When I tasted that purity of flavour I realised that the world had lost touch with what real chocolate is. Something that was once revered as the food of the gods had become nothing more than a sugary confection.
I want everyone to experience some of the awakening I did. Few things give me more pleasure than watching someone gasping with delight as the chocolate melts and the realisation dawns that all that flavour comes simply from the cacao.
My quest to make great chocolate takes me on the cacao trail into the forests of the world, in search of the finest beans. All my beans are traditionally shade grown Trinitarios or Criollos coming from single estates.
Single estates cacaos are like fine wines, each one with its own stunningly individual flavour born of its genetics, soil and climate. One might taste naturally of nuts, another of summer fruits.
I buy my beans direct from the farmers, and pay never less than $500 a tonne over world cocoa prices. The fair trade premium is $200 a tonne. That is $12,500 on a 25 tonne container and none of this goes to middle men.
It is to capture these subtle notes and unique flavours that I make all my chocolate in small batches from bean to bar. I roast in antique ball roasters, and then take three or more weeks to make the chocolate at low temperatures. Industrial chocolate is made in a few hours.
I grew up in a large family leading a virtually self-sufficient existence on an island off Southern Ireland. We kept goats for milk and cheese, milled our own grains and evaporated off sea water for salt. So using completely natural ingredients and making everything from scratch comes naturally to me.
My dark chocolates contain just cacao, raw cane sugar and natural cocoa butter – no soya lecithin, no vanilla - nothing that gets in the way of the flavour of the bean. I don’t buy anything in. I caramelise the sugar and clarify the butter to make sea salt caramel as you would in a restaurant kitchen. I roast my own nuts to make pralines.
The cacao takes a long journey from ‘bean to bar’. It is not something that can be hurried. In the Chocolate Factory, my role as Chocolate Maker is simply to help each bean develop and show its unique flavour as completely as possible. You could say it is a celebration of cacao.
OVER THE YEARS I HAVE BEEN ASKED MANY QUESTIONS
How you can tell if a chocolate is good?
The answer is look at the ingredients. If it contains vanilla, someone is covering up the fact their beans have no particular flavour. If it contains soya lecithin which is a processing aid, it is because they are using an industrial production process which prioritises speed over flavour.
Finally of course, check to see if it says what beans are being used. Are they fine varieties from individual farms? Remember single origin chocolate means nothing…. Chocolate from Ecuador is like saying Wine from France!
How did I come to have a cacao farm in Venezuela and start my adventure as a chocolate man?
When exploring the Venezuelan Andes in 1993 with my then wife Tania, Carlos, the Colombian artist we’d met, told us we had to go to “Choroni, where the mountains meet the sea,” and the adventure began. Choroni was as beautiful as Carlos described. Mervyn, the beach umbrella seller, who took a fancy to Tania’s sister, told us of a hacienda in the cloud forest for sale.
We went to investigate Hacienda El Tesoro in the Henri Pittier National Park, where 1800 metre mountains steep into the Caribbean Sea. I knew from a guidebook that some of the best cacao in the world grew in the region, but this was my first introduction to the cacao tree and their beautiful multi-coloured pods jutting out from their trunks.
Tania and I never intended to buy a one thousand acre cacao farm in the Venezuelan cloud forest. But surrounded by the colours and the teeming life, I felt at home. And then the owner, Fernando, changed his mind and decided not to sell.
Three years later, after returning to London and almost giving up hope, I got the phone call. I sold the flat and bought the farm. Fernando had fallen in love with the place as a boy and vowed to buy it, but his children were not interested in farming. I think the interest I showed meant a lot to him.
The forest still feels like home. I am more relaxed and in my element surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of the forest than anywhere else. I can close my eyes and be back walking the land and emerging into the sunlight or picking up a freshly fallen mango for breakfast.
Why did I build a chocolate factory and start making 100% cacao, not in fact chocolate at all? (Cacao does not become chocolate until you add sugar to it.)
Oddly, before I bought El Tesoro, my cacao farm in Venezuela, I was not a big chocolate eater. I found it too sweet, unsurprisingly, since your average chocolate confectionery bar contains no more than 5 –10% cacao liquor; the rest is mainly fat and sugar. In the last 150 years, as manufacturing methods have advanced, the mass market has transformed cacao into something that its earliest devotees would not recognise at all.
So when I first tasted my own cacao, it was as if a light went on, as I realised that chocolate was not one brown flavour but the home of many. Now when I make my eating chocolate from bean to bar, all I add is raw cane sugar and a little extra cocoa butter for smoothness.
I wanted everyone to experience some of the awakening that I did, and started making and selling my El Tesoro 100% cacao in the local village, then beyond. From this small beginning, I became convinced that the world was ready to rediscover cacao.
It also came naturally to me to go back to the basic ingredient, by which I mean cacao not chocolate. From the age of four, I lived with my parents and four sisters on the deserted Horse Island on a wild stretch off Ireland’s south west coast. We spent our time making cheese, smoking fish, milling flour, growing vegetables and pickling fruit. I fished and foraged and loved it – we even made our own salt.
With a 100 per cent cacao cylinder in your hand you can decide whether to make a sweet or savoury dish, you can put your passion to work in the kitchen. It is a versatile and powerful ingredient, a building block of flavour. Mine is now used by top chefs around the world.
This childhood formed my cacao dream in more ways than one. My father gave me the skills to put together the machinery and build the chocolate factory. We were always tinkering with engines and contraptions.
That allowed me to find and restore the antique chocolate machines that I loved and I knew would make fine cacao and chocolate in a way that can be lost with some modern machinery. It made a virtue out having a very tight budget. It is possible to be both a dreamer and a doer and become a chocolate man.
What is the difference between the beans you use and normal beans?
The difference is flavour. I use Criollo and Trinitario beans that are less productive but which produce a much more interesting range of flavours and aromas than Forastero beans from which more than 85% of the world’s chocolate is made. These are hardy, high yielding cacaos that give a classic chocolate taste, but tend to be rather bland.
It was the Criollo bean that the Mayans so revered that they used in it religious ceremonies and used it as a currency.
When I was living all the time in Venezuela, I used to go on bean odysseys with my little beaten up pan, making ganache from the different cacaos I found. Cream is a great neutral and allows you to capture the most subtle flavours notes.
The cacao trail has continued to take me round the world, from Peru to Indonesia, and I have many treasured memories of beautiful beans and the people who grow them. But sometimes I come across a bean that is truly special and there is that heart stopping moment of discovery and delight. It is these beans that I make my chocolate from and that give such wonderful flavours to my single estate bars.
What does it mean when you say your chocolate is Direct Trade?
I think I can confidently say that my form of direct trade goes beyond certified fair trade. Being both a cacao farmer and a chocolate manufacturer naturally means that I put the ethical sourcing of my beans at the heart of the way I make chocolate.
I source all my beans directly from the farmers. I visit the farms and get to know the farmers, the challenges they face and the production methods they use.
I only buy premium beans, some people call them heirloom varieties. So these are beans that are worth paying more for. I never pay less than $500 a tonne over world cocoa prices. The fair trade premium is $200 a tonne. So on each 20 tonne container the farmers are getting $10,000 more than if they sold on the open market. Direct trade means that this money is going directly to them, not to a trader or intermediary.
Is my chocolate organic?
As far as ingredients go, I am more concerned with what is natural and what is best, than with focusing on whether or not they are certified organic. None of the beans I use have been produced with the use of chemicals, however only some of them are formally certified organic. Some other ingredients are chosen to be organic for reasons particular to them – for example the raisins are organic to avoid palm oils often used with conventional raisins.
The best tastes always come from fine ingredients that are not mishandled or contaminated. That was why I wanted to popularise cacao as a pure ingredient. It is so versatile, powerful and delicious but the way it has been packaged and mixed in Europe since its discovery and export by the Conquistadors has often done it few flavour favours.
One of my most important ingredients is cocoa butter. The cocoa bean is half cocoa solids and half cocoa butter, but you need a little extra cocoa butter to get the perfect melt and smoothness. I use natural cocoa butter not the more common and cheaper deodourised one that is in reality just plain white fat. This means that in my white chocolate you can actually catch the flavour notes of the bean – with 20% less sugar than most white chocolates and with no vanilla, this makes it one remarkable bar.
If other chocolatiers made chocolate out of the beans you use, would it taste the same as yours?
In short, no. Purity of flavour not only relies on ingredients of the highest quality, but also on processes which respect them. A good chocolate is defined by three factors: the genetics of the bean, the post harvest practices of fermentation and drying which are crucial to ensure the beans develop their flavours, and finally the particular style and talent of the chocolatier.
Because I buy my beans directly from the farmers, I can work closely with them on their post harvest. Then by roasting the beans in small batches in old ball roasters I can control their flavours and never get the slightly bitter over roasted taste you often get with mass produced dark chocolate – each bean is then conched for some three weeks, with the precise length of time varying each time such that I get the exact flavours that I want.
Having found all these dancing flavours, you have to protect them. That is why I use neither soya lecithin nor vanilla. Soya lecithin is used to make tempering the chocolate easier and to help maintain shelf life, but I find that it gets in the way of the flavour of the bean. Vanilla is often used in balance with sugar to create a background taste that again masks small flavour differences, perhaps between one crop and the next - but it is precisely these flavour differences that I want to celebrate.
When people eat my chocolate they say the flavour goes on and on - this is because I use less cocoa butter than usual. The down side is that it makes the manufacturing process harder as the chocolate does not flow so easily and the machines need cleaning more often, but when you let one of my Sea Salt Caramel Black Pearls melt, the Madagascan 71 shell takes you to the banks of the Sambirano where the cacao was born, then after the caramel has rolled in and out, you are left with the same summer fruit flavours of the cacao that you started with. This would not happen if I used more cocoa butter.
Is chocolate really an aphrodisiac?
Cacao has through its long history often been associated with romance and sex. Cacao was revered for its aphrodisiacal properties among the Maya and the Aztecs in ancient times. The conquistador Bernal Díaz describes seeing the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma consume vast quantities of a cacao drink, which he was told was for success with women.
The Spanish were very taken with the idea of chocolate as a love potion. Although the Church usually allowed it to be drunk by priests and monks during fasting, a number of Inquisition documents reveal a deep suspicion of its alleged power to excite the venereal appetite, citing examples of men who sought out ‘knowledgeable women’, or witches, to cook up seductive chocolate drinks with which to debauch their targets. Equally, women would mix their blood with chocolate in order to seduce unwilling men.
In the eighteenth century, the notorious Marquis de Sade was implicated in a scandal involving the known aphrodisiac Spanish fly, with which he is alleged to have spiked the chocolate pastilles on offer at one of his balls, provoking a spontaneous, frenzied orgy. The marquis was a huge fan of chocolate. Not only did he consume it in coffee, biscuits, cakes and drinks, but he swore by cacao butter suppositories for his piles! Casanova was another chocolate devotee. He fervently believed it to be an aphrodisiac, often drinking it to enhance his love-making.
Modern research into the cravings of the female sex has shown that chocolate increases libido and counteracts mood swings in women. It contains magnesium and iron, so female chocolate cravings might signal a physical need for these nutrients because magnesium levels rise and fall during the menstrual cycle and iron may become depleted. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, another chemical that is found naturally in the body; it releases a dopamine in the brain that stimulates physical pleasure. It has been suggested that this is why some women say they prefer chocolate to sex, although this is probably oversimplifying things. After all, men love chocolate too.
Perhaps part of chocolate’s appeal is that it contains a molecule called anandamide, which is said to activate cellular receptors and make you feel happy and high. I am the living proof of this theory! Whenever I experience a dip in energy at the factory, I whip up a quick hot chocolate booster, or just grab a bite of unsweetened cacao if I’m pressed for time. Within minutes, I’m buzzing and energized again. My chocolate never fails to uplift me.