The passion behind Seventy%
Martin Christy, Sevent%’s editor and founder, is one of the world’s leading bean-to-bar chocolate experts. Ten years ago, a music producer trained in IT, Martin founded the one of the first websites to specialise in fine chocolate. Because of his obsession with fine chocolate, he began a journey that took him to cacao-growing countries, put him in touch with fine chocolate makers and led him to an exploration of the connections between these worlds. He tells his story to Susana Cárdenas Overstall.
Beginnings[dropcap]I[/dropcap] grew up eating bad English chocolate”, says Martin Christy as we are about to have a coffee on Upper Street in Islington. Martin orders a cappuccino and he asks the waiter not to add chocolate powder on the top, as he takes a bar of dark chocolate from his bag and stirs in a few flakes to his coffee himself. Martin Christy was born at home in Slough, Berkshire, just under the famous chimney of the Horlicks factory. Maybe the morning he was born, the wind was blowing in the right direction and he was caught by the smell of chocolate, as the Mars factory lay just half a mile away from his parent’s house. Perhaps this had a strong effect on him. He grew up though in the North of Birmingham, an area he calls ‘Cadbury country’.
We are about to have a long conversation on how he got involved in this passionate world of chocolate. He explains that at some point in his life, he became vegetarian and more interested in the sourcing of food and what was behind it.
One day, while he was foodie shopping at Harrods’ confectionery department, he discovered French chocolate maker Valrhona. “I was reading the package and I said to myself :I have to try this”. The first bar he bought was Guanaja, which was a blend of cacao from Caribbean Criollo named after the first encounter Europeans had with cacao. Valrhona did not choose the name for the cacao source, they chose it for the story. Guanja was one of the Valrhona “Grand Cru” chocolates, created in 1987 (followed by Caraïbe with cacao from Dominican Republic and Manjari, from Madagascar). These were first made only as couverture cooking chocolate, but around 1991 were launched to the public as eating bars. Before this, there were no origin bars in the UK and the concept of the “Grand Cru” origin chocolate bar simply did not exist. (It took this long for someone to realise that this chocolate was far better than anything else.)
This was all very new for Martin.
“When I tried my first piece of Guanaja I knew that it was the beginning of my journey with fine chocolate. Once I realised there was something else, something better, then it became harder and harder to go back to newsagents, to high street chocolate.”
Not long after this, he discovered some single origin bars which Bonnat had been making since 1910. Later, he discovered Michael Cluizel and then Rococo, which was the only good quality chocolatier in London. “It was a big deal to go to King’s Road and try all the different flavours in little sample trays”.
A world of cacao and chocolate
In 1999, Martin started a web design consultancy with some friends, but when the dot-com bubble burst, work was scarce and the company closed down. During this time, he was getting more and more into dark chocolate. He became obsessed with it and decided to build Seventypercent.com as a test website. He designed the website as an extension of his hobby without knowing that it would be like opening a Pandora’s chocolate box.
He started reviewing bars: Guanajo, Michel Cluizel, Lindt 70% and that was almost it. It was difficult to find new bars to review. All of a sudden, people started sending him chocolate to review. He had a forum where aficionados could discuss dark chocolate.
“I did not know that on the other side, the production side, there were fine growing countries which had never had any recognition – Venezuela, Ecuador – their cacao went into big industrial blends.
All those growing countries were almost in the same position as us consumers, eager and hungry to be connected with the real consumers of their work. People started to log into our forum from Ecuador, Guatemala, Brazil, America, everywhere.”
The New Taste of Chocolate
An epiphanal moment for him came in 2003, when he was reading the first edition of American chef, Maricel Presilla’s book “New Taste of Chocolate”. Then, he fully understood what vast and complicated subjects chocolate and cacao were. It was time to travel to the source.
Cuban-American writer Maricel Presilla and a friend of Martin’s recalls, “Martin and I were left alone on a bumpy three-hour trip to Alto el Sol in Peru to see suspected Amazonian cacao which ended up being CCN-51. Sharing the back of a pickup truck, clinging onto each other for dear life, while trying to take pictures of our surroundings, I felt I had found someone I could trust, respect and whose friendship I could enjoy. He has a wicked, understated sense of humour that made me laugh – the yin to my “in-your-face” Caribbean yan – and he was so solemnly serious about cacao and high quality chocolate. This is a man after my own heart, I said to myself”.
Martin began to realise that there is a big gap between consumers and growers, that nobody – including himself – really understood both worlds: the worlds of cacao and chocolate. For a long time, most Europeans and Americans who worked with chocolate had no idea about its origin and the taste of cacao in the farm. So Seventy% started playing a crucial role in connecting people and helping consumers better understand the difference between fine chocolate, made of fine cacao, and commercial chocolate made from bulk cocoa.
“Through his website he has done an amazing job of opening up the world of fine chocolate to consumers, helping its growth and development. He has also done wonders for introducing small chocolate makers to the UK”, says London chocolatier William Curley.
It seems that in ten years, many people have discovered the wonderful complexity of the cacao and its origins. Many have become chocolatiers, chocolate makers or enthusiasts. You can really see how people have developed a small interest into a passion.
“It is almost a dangerous journey to begin and you do not know where it is going to take you. There is a kind of innocence in chocolate. It has so many mercurial qualities because it gives this innocent pleasure, it has a complex, almost sexual connotation and it lures you into its world in innocence”, says Martin.
Is this the reason why chocolate is so fascinating? I ask. “Chocolate has this dual nature, you can flavour your pudding with chocolate or cook with chocolate, you can also sculpt a person, build a cathedral or create a tribute Berlin Wall out of chocolate. As a food, chocolate is very unusual and enchanting and now this world of chocolate is becoming as complex and as enchanting as fine wine”.
Recovery and discovery
According to Frank Homann, founder of Xoco Gourmet, Martin´s contribution to the chocolate world is significant. “He has managed to organize and communicate the aspects of quality in high end dark chocolate. He is probably the only one to do a comprehensive job at that. Seventy% is clear and easy to use. A clear message is what the chocolate world needs in order to move forward in terms of quality. In this way, Martin is one of the early pioneers in the industry, one of those few who make a difference”.”Seventy% has focused on the sensorial journey. It is obvious that Martin has a passion. He cannot help it, and it becomes very easy to work with him because he is simply so very curious about the chocolate he has in front of him. “As a true “foodie” he enjoys it and can taste things we normal beings can only learn from”, says Frank.
Martin tells me “The really exciting thing is the journey of rediscovery that many chocolate makers are embarking on. Now with DNA evidence, we have the opportunity to discover tastes that no one has ever experienced before. We are reaching back to the original Mayan and Aztec cacao, back to days when refined, chocolate as we know it, did not exist. But now with our artisanal industrial techniques, we are creating a completely new world of flavour.”
“What I expected was going to be an innocent continuation of my love for chocolate into just something a little more sophisticated, actually turned into the beginning of a journey into this fantastic, complex and never ending world”, concludes Martin.