There’s a reason savvy chocolate lovers are eschewing the mass-produced milk bars lining the shelves at their local supermarkets and seeking out quality craft chocolate. And it isn’t the fancy wrappers or the hipster price tags. So, what is all the fuss about? Craft chocolate is produced by small manufacturers who care about where their beans come from, says Antonino Allegra of local bean-to-bar chocolate brand Afrikoa. ‘In South Africa, we care whether or not our meat is free range, but when it comes to chocolate, it still has to be cheap. This, however, often means someone at the end of the chain isn’t paid properly. Everyone is happy the chicken is having a better life, but no one worries about the cacao-bean farmer,’ says Allegra, who started out making his own chocolate after working for more than 25 years as a chocolatier and pastry chef. (Chocolate-makers turn cacao beans into chocolate, while chocolatiers temper and mould the ready-made chocolate into our favourite edible treats, such as truffles, pralines and bonbons.) When Allegra came to South Africa in 2010, good-quality chocolate was hard to find. But, lately, a chocolate revolution has been brewing, says Lara Sklaar of Joburg company Monatê Chocolate. (In Sesotho, monate means ‘delicious’.) She became a raw-chocolatier/chocolate-maker more than six years ago, after her brother taught her about chocolate-making and asked her to start a branch of his company, Fine & Raw, in Johannesburg. At Monatê, every batch of chocolate is concocted by hand, with love and at low heat. Sklaar explains the artisanal approach: ‘People are making chocolate directly from beans from various regions – much like in the coffee industry – and are more aware of sustainability and fair trade.’ Di Burger is organiser of the Winelands Chocolate Festival, where SA’s chocolatiers, chocolate-makers, and pastry chefs come together annually. Burger came up with the idea for a chocolate festival while she was researching a book about chocolate. One big trend she is seeing is a move away from too much sugar. ‘I was amazed to discover a number of local pastry chefs, chocolatiers, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs shunning the sugary, mass-produced chocolates we all grew up with, and sourcing couverture [high-quality chocolate containing more cocoa butter] to create flavourful artisanal chocolates and patisserie.’ Burger is in the process of launching a website, The Chocolate Collection, which will offer monthly selections of the best local chocolate delivered to your door.
Bean to bar
A huge international trend is bean-to-bar chocolate. In a market in which consumers, – as Allegra mentioned – are starting to care about where their food comes from, this is the new hot ticket. With bean-to-bar chocolate, ‘The chocolatier, who is also the chocolate-maker, sources the beans directly from specific cacao farmers,’ says Burger. This allows them to confirm the farmers’ Fairtrade status, and to ascertain that the beans are properly fermented and dried. ‘They are in direct control of the roasting and the all-important conching [maturing of the chocolate],’ says Burger.
Unlike mass-produced chocolate, made with no concern for the quality of the cacao beans or the manufacturing process, bean-to-bar is about carefully crafting chocolate that accentuates the natural flavour and characteristics of the beans, says Allegra. ‘Afrikoa’s chocolate range is all made from the same cacao beans, but, through the way we modify the temperature slightly when roasting and conching them, we can create completely different flavours. ‘When you open a cacao pod, the beans are coated with white pulp. This is what gives the chocolate its flavour. For example, beans from Tanzania have very high fruit notes – pineapple, pear and lime. Whereas, with mass-produced chocolate, they roast (and conch) the beans so hard, they remove all this natural flavour.’ Allegra buys his cacao beans directly from a group of Tanzanian farmers, which means there’s no middleman. ‘By cutting out the often-exploitative middleman, the farmers’ income has increased by 250%,’ he says. ‘With the extra money, they feel financially secure, and have more time and resources to grow beans properly, and take better care of the trees and soil. So, both their lives and the quality of the chocolate are improved.’ And, because the beans travel directly from Tanzania to SA (instead of being shipped to Europe and then back here), the carbon footprint is much lower and the beans are much fresher. Getting to this point took Allegra years of work and repeated trips to Tanzania: ‘The farmers live in remote, rural areas with basic education. We had to help them with opening bank accounts, writing invoices, registering a business, transport, dealing with government departments… It would’ve been much easier to pick up the phone and order the beans from Europe. But that’s not what we are about. Afrikoa is about making excellent chocolate that makes everyone happy – from the farmer to the consumer. Yes, we are single-estate, organic, gluten-free preservative-free, vegan … all those fancy words. But more than that, we are about making something in Africa and doing the right thing from the get-go.’
There are at least four varieties of cacao beans, explains Burger. Some of them are more flavourful and more difficult to grow – and therefore more expensive than others. Another factor that affects the taste is the terroir: the soil, topography and climate in which they’re cultivated. Beans grown in Madagascar, for example, tend to be lightly fruity (think apricots) with a citrus tang; while beans from Venezuela have more of a plum and ripe-berry taste. Allegra says there are more than 600 natural flavour compounds found in cacao beans (wine has about 200). He says, ‘My goal is to accentuate the natural flavour of the beans. Mother Nature has already done an amazing job, so why mess around with that?’ The effect of the terroir on the taste of the beans means no batch of quality craft chocolate should taste the same year after year. ‘You can’t buy wine from a small wine farm and expect the vintage three years from now to taste the same. The beans I received this year taste slightly different to six months ago, because there was less rain last season. By the time that big-brand bar arrives on your supermarket shelf, it could already be more than 12 months old; and, because they don’t get paid a good price for the beans, the farmer cannot invest the time to ensure that fermentation, drying and other processes are done properly. So the quality of the cacao beans suffers and the chocolate manufacturers have to work the chocolate so much to make it taste good that they end up removing all the natural characteristics of the beans to give it a standardised flavour.’ About 70% of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa. The rest is from South America, with a very small percentage from South East Asia. ‘Africa has always been considered a bulk producer, rather than a producer of quality beans,’ says Allegra. ‘Cacao isn’t endemic to Africa and farmers haven’t been educated in how to increase the quality of their beans. This way, the price was kept low. But this is slowly changing as people become prepared to pay for quality. Madagascar is doing a really amazing job. Tanzanian cacao beans are really good quality too.’
Raw chocolate – made from beans that haven’t been roasted – is also trending.
By not roasting them and keeping the temperature low during the production process, the beans retain the maximum amount of nutrients. Anthony Gird and Michael de Klerk started the artisanal raw-chocolate brand Honest Chocolate when they could not find any excellent, dairy-free, organic, raw chocolate in SA. The chocolate they produce is tempered by hand in a small facility in Woodstock, Cape Town. ‘Our beans are ethically sourced from Ecuador and Tanzania, and we focus on a chain-of-positivity concept: our goal is to have ethical consideration for both the people and the environment,’ say the pair. Fitting their ethos of keeping it local, the wrappers of their chocolate bars are mini artworks hand-illustrated by local artists, and each bar is wrapped by hand. ‘Our raw chocolate is fruitier and more upfront in its dark notes than a roasted product would be,’ say Gird and De Klerk. They explain that chocolate can be more intense and fruity in its raw state, with the roasting process bringing out different notes in it. Sklaar agrees that ‘it is much stronger and has an earthier taste.’ Detractors say raw chocolate has the potential to carry pathogens that are killed during the roasting process. However, raw-chocolate-maker Sklaar insists this is not a problem, provided you buy your chocolate from a reputable company that sources its beans from a farm where the chocolate is stored and cleaned properly. ‘The beans we use are rigorously tested and come with certification that they are free from any pathogens,’ she says. ‘People are becoming more conscious of eating healthier and focusing more on fresh ingredients, so raw chocolate fits that profile,’ say Gird and De Klerk. More good news is that ‘chocolate made from roasted beans still has great health benefits, as long as you’re eating dark chocolate (70% cacao and above).’
‘Visually, a fine-quality chocolate
has a clean, shiny surface. Dipped confections will have a softer satin finish,’ explains Di Burger of the Winelands Chocolate Festival. When you break off a block, the chocolate should break with a ‘snap’, which shows it was correctly tempered. Dark chocolate should always be eaten at room temperature. Don’t gulp it down – let it melt in your mouth before you swallow it, so the flavour of the chocolate can emerge. As with wine, you should experience three levels of taste: an initial burst of flavour, the hidden notes as they come to the fore, and the lingering aftertaste. As the chocolate melts on the tongue, the mouthfeel should be full, velvety and smooth – not dry or gritty. A poor-quality chocolate will have hardly any aftertaste.’
Text: Ilze Hugo; images: Gallo/Getty Images, Stocksy