My philosophy of chocolate
My passion for chocolate was born of a love of adventure. That spirit took me to Venezuela, led me to buy Hacienda El Tesoro high in the cloud forest, and remains with me as my quest to make great chocolate takes me on the cacao trail around the Equator into the forests of the world, in search of the finest beans.
My chocolate is all about flavour. Great cacaos are like fine wines, each one with its own stunningly individual flavour born of its specific genetics, soil and climate. One might taste naturally of nuts, another of summer fruits. It is to capture these subtle notes and unique flavours that I make all my chocolate from the bean- which is called bean to bar chocolate! I buy single estate cacaos direct from the farmers, roast them in antique ball roasters and make them into chocolate using just raw cane sugar and natural cocoa butter – no soya lecithin, no vanilla, nothing that gets in the way of the flavour of the bean.
The first thing I made with my own cacao was hot chocolate. Adding water and a little honey, it blew my mind. 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.
‘Melt into a World of Adventure’
Over the years I have been asked many questions
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. 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 a 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.
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 Tesoro100% 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 – cacao. 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 – and make a virtue out having a very tight budget. It is possible to be both a dreamer and a doer and become a chocolate man.
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 Sierra Leone, 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.
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.
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.
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 energised again. My chocolate never fails to uplift me.
This means I buy my beans directly from the farmers and pay them prices significantly higher than world cocoa prices. In fact the premiums I pay are never less than $500 a tonne, compared to fair trade premiums of $200 a tonne. All the money goes directly to them not to middlemen, and they can choose to spend it on whatever development projects they need. I visit the farms usually once and sometimes twice a year, so I see at first hand how they do everything and can work with them to adjust certain things. These personal relationships give me confidence that from social, environmental and quality perspectives everything is as it should be.
Sometimes the road less travelled is longer, harder and less certain but that is why it is exciting. You do not always end up somewhere you want to stay, but you learn so much getting there it is always worth the journey. I do not always have all the questions let alone the answers, but I will keep on dreaming cacao and work it out along the way.