Chocolate Week, Day 2

So after the first day of Chocolate Unwrapped I was thoroughly “chocolated” but still hadn’t really gone round the exhibitors yet. Thus Day 2 would be my time to focus on this. Some I already knew from past experience, such as L’Artisan du Chocolat and Melt, and thus I decided to focus for the most part on companies I’ve not yet visited.

A surprise entry – Complete Cooking, turned out to have the best brownies I’ve had other than my own: they were dense and very soft, with a near-ideal balance of chocolate and brown sugar. They might be a little too far on the fudgy side to be ideal for me (I prefer a little more structure), but this is a quibble. These turned out to be a great success later on when I brought them round to friends.

In contrast Paul Young‘s I think push over the edge into fudgy terrritory. They’re just too soft, almost unbaked. The version they had also had nuts, which personally I prefer without: nuts interfere a bit too much texturally and flavour-wise with the brownie’s essential denseness. Young does, however, produce a nutless version, just no samples available, which comes back to the problem I found yesterday at many tables, only selected items available for sampling.

The winner of the day was Paul Wayne Gregory’s mint chocolate (small confectionery, not chocolate bar flavoured with mint). Quite simply put, this is the best peppermint chocolate anything I’ve ever had. Usually producers overdo the peppermint, leaving something harsh and biting. Not Paul. These precisely balance mint, chocolate, and sweetness, leading to something incredibly addictive and remarkably refined. Manufacturers seem divided between peppermint and spearmint for mint chocolates; usually the less-assertive spearmint is the choice for high-end chocolatiers. Paul Wayne Gregory shows that it’s possible to create a peppermint with the same level of sophistication. Actually, I think chocolates should be called “peppermint” or “spearmint” as 2 separate categories; now we have a winner for each. For spearmint, Theo chocolates has long set the benchmark. Now Paul Wayne Gregory establishes the peppermint chocolate to beat.

I did go to the afternoon talks in spite of doing the rounds at the tables. The Askinosie talk was actually by their Swedish? (I think) distributor. The language barrier proved to be something of an issue. I think the rep genuinely didn’t realise the Lost in Translation problem involved when the opening screen features a large caption “For God Smak”. (Although those unfamiliar with Alice in Chains might not realise this phrase carries a rather different meaning than the one intended!) Language aside, he knew his stuff. The chocolate, it must be said, is much improved over Askinosie’s earlier experiments but still needs work. The Soconusco (Mexico) still has a VERY suspect earthy/mushroom component to it, and on the whole they still need to back off on the roast.

Mestizo (an “authentic” Mexican restaurant in London) gave a brilliant talk on Mole. Typically including chocolate as an ingredient this paste in a thousand different variants is a near-staple in Mexican cooking. I didn’t know it can take hours to make done the traditional way! Still, I’m surprised that some members of the audience had no idea mole is central to Mexican cuisine.

In a rather macabre tradition, apparently Mexicans give each other chocolate (or sugar) skulls for Dia de Los Muertos. They showed us a picture of piled chocolate skulls that rather recall images from Pol Pot’s regime. Bizarre. I’m reminded of the talk by Warren Laine-Naida: like the associations with a chocolate gun, what are the associations with a chocolate skull?

The mole (poblano) they sampled for us was absolutely definitive. I think this is something you have to try to appreciate. As it happens Mestizo will make that easy for all of us with a mole festival at the end of this month and beginning of the next – timed to coincide with Dia de Los Muertos. Will they have chocolate skulls?

Last “event” of the day was the live feed at the SeventyPercent table from Ecuador. It was jerky but it worked, and now perhaps this opens the door for farmers to interact directly with consumers. For instance, I was able to ask about cocoa bean selection, and perhaps hint to them about the prospect for careful selective breeding.

One overall theme that came out of the whole 2 days I can’t resist commenting on. Time and again chocolatiers commented on the idea that there is “chocolate for special occasions” and “chocolate for everyday” – to make a broad generalisation of various comments. They often took pains to emphasize their own liking, in the appropriate time, for ordinary confections such as, e.g. Mars bars. However, I find it striking that such confectioners don’t really attempt to make similar such confections themselves. What could we get with a Mars bar made with first-rate ingredients and according to careful craftsmanship, rather than turned out by the millions from bulk chocolate?

The problem here, I think is with consumer perceptions. Good chocolate carries with it a strong scent of snobbery. It’s laudable that chocolatiers don’t subscribe to such snobbery themselves, but to what extent does extolling the simple pleasures of a Mars bar perpetuate the problem? It’s a question of identifying what is better than what. The essence of snobbery is not in making distinctions in level of quality, but in believing that being discriminating makes you a superior person. This is obviously untrue: it’s merely a case of different people with different needs, desires, and priorities. If, then, we compare a Mars bar against a Curley confection, let us be clear: it is not the people who eat the Curley who are better, it’s the chocolate!

But this plays out in the consumer sector in strange ways. First, it means that from a market-position point of view it’s effectively impossible for quality chocolatiers to make Mars-bar-like products profitably, because people simply won’t buy them. Second, it puts a lot of ordinary people off buying good chocolate, even occasionally, because of the stigma of snobbery that might then be attached to them. Third, it places into peoples’ minds again, this rigid distinction between “chocolate for everyday” (i.e. mass-produced confectionery) and “chocolate for special occasions” (i.e. “fine” chocolate).

The best example, perhaps, of this is a simple phenomenon, prominently on display at the show: the prevalence of assorted boxed chocolates among quality chocolatiers. Assortments are frustrating for almost everyone, because you always know there will be some chocolates you don’t like, and some you really like and wish there were more of. Why, then, do they prevail? If I (or most people, I think) go into a chocolate shop to buy chocolate purely for my own enjoyment, I’m going to do it piece-wise, selecting each individual chocolate according to my own preferences. I know what I like. The same is true when buying chocolate for someone I know (say, a loved one). I again will know what they like and select accordingly. Thus the boxed set seems basically designed for a very specific purpose: as a present for people you don’t know especially well. Look at what this says: if most of the quality chocolate is being bought as rather impersonal presents for rather distant acquaintances, how much of its value is being squandered – in missed enjoyment on the part of the recipient (who, we can infer, will have the same frustration with the boxed assortment that we all get), in missed enjoyment on the part of the giver (who if they are buying mostly for others are not actually buying for themselves, or even for people they’re close to, very much), in the sheer sterility of giving something precious over which someone laboured lovingly to someone anonymous? The net result is that quality chocolate is something people buy more to convey an image rather than to enjoy or give enjoyment to others for its own sake. I would like to see this change, because until it does, snobbery will prevail, and good chocolate will be wasted on vanity.

I’ve generalised here a lot, and certainly deliberately exaggerated the scope and class of the problem in order to make a point. No doubt furthermore that I have my own snobbery to deal with. Please don’t interpret what I’ve said as a blanket, categorical statement applying to all people in all situations, or to any given individual in any specific situation. I use Mars and Curley as examples, but please understand that I am not singling them out in any way other than to provide examples which hopefully most people are familiar with. If I manage to offend I am sorry. This just falls into the category of “things that need to be said” for me.

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