Chocolate need not be bad for you and with new "bean to bar" artisans there is every reason to indulge.
Rather than Easter eggs this year, consider presenting loved ones with a clutch of the new posh chocolate bars available.
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of pioneering artisanal businesses producing exciting “bean-to-bar” chocolate. Willy Wonka might be the prototype for these new chocolatiers, such is their individualism and creativity.
Around 90% of cocoa beans are bought purely on weight, as a commodity. The rest are grown, harvested and processed with greater care. Good chocolate makers talk about fine cocoa beans like artisanal roasters talk about coffee beans, treating each batch with care in order to bring out a wide range of flavours, from floral to fruity to toasty.
A number of the new chocolatiers – such as Original Beans, Amano, Askinosie, The Grenada Chocolate Company and Friis-Holm – combine the luxury of chocolate with social enterprise, buying directly from farmers for a good price, some even making the chocolate in the country of origin.
These star bars generally cost from £3.50 to as much as £9. However, fine dark chocolate, in particular, is so intense in flavour that one or two squares (eaten slowly) really is enough.
There are a number of trends to explore alongside single-origin dark chocolate bars, which specify the cocoa’s country and type of bean.
Pacari buys and makes its organic raw chocolate in Ecuador and has twice snatched the top prize at the International Chocolate Awards with its 70% Piura-Quemazon bar. You can truly taste the tropical fruity nature of cocoa beans in this bar.
Then there are the new fine milk chocolate bars. Chocolate aficionados have long looked down on milk chocolate because it dilutes the flavour of the beans with dairy and sugar. But some makers now use a much higher cocoa content – 50% or more – so you get both the flavour of the beans and the lusciousness of the milk. It doesn’t always work but the good ones are delicious.
Duffy Sheardown of Red Star Chocolate, one of the few bean-to-bar artisans operating in the UK, won the Silver Award in the milk chocolate category of the International Chocolate Awards with his Venezuela Ocumare 55% Milk.
Sheardown worked as a racing-car engineer before setting up as a chocolate maker in Cleethorpes. His attention to detail and careful buying of beans has led to accolades and awards. Good-quality beans are the key difference between good and great chocolate, Sheardown says, and finding the way to bring out their flavours leads to a world of different tastes.
Red Star’s Venezuela Ocumare 72% dark chocolate and Honduras Indio Rojo 72% are two dark chocolate bars made to the same recipe but with different beans. “The Venezuela is more traditionally ‘chocolatey’ and has flavours of almonds, bananas and raspberry jam,” says Sheardown. “In contrast, the Honduras has an almost savoury aftertaste and flavours of sweet currants, tangy orange, raisin and coffee. Which you will like best is hard to predict but they are very different.”
Sheardown says more people now consider fine chocolate worth the price. His best-selling chocolate bars are also his most expensive, perhaps because they are the award-winners but also because more chocolate-lovers appreciate the tastes.
For those at the sweeter end of the spectrum, there’s even posh white chocolate, made with more cocoa content than usual.
One spin on white chocolate is Valrhona’s Dulcey bar, launched in 2012 as the world’s first “blond” chocolate. Valrhona’s chief chef accidently left white chocolate cooking in a hot-water bath for nine hours and found that delicious, buttery, fudgy flavours developed. This bar replicates that taste, with 32% cocoa content.
The range of chocolate bars on sale is boggling. Seventy% runs fine chocolate courses, if you want to train your taste buds. Chocolatier is one of a number of good websites for information.
To buy, go to the website of a specialist such as Chocolate Trading Company or the recently opened Alexeeva & Jones, which has a shop in Notting Hill Gate.
One new enterprise to help you explore is Cocoa Runners. It sends you a monthly selection of bars with tasting notes. The team has tasted more than 500 bars to build up a “chocolate library”.
Just beware: quality, clickability and lovely packaging make online chocolate-bar buying addictive.