This response we hear from Denise Castronovo. Denise is an environmental scientist turn chocolate maker. As a scientist her work with tree canopies was recognized by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai. As a chocolate maker Castronovo sources cacao beans from the same rainforests in the domain of her academic work. Castronovo Chocolate has earned worldwide recognition as a winner of the International Chocolate Awards and the Academy of Chocolate Awards.
Denise’s venture into chocolate making was an evolution from her doctoral studies in Plant Ecology and her profound interest in pursuing sustainable development. Creating a market and demand for products that are sustainably derived from the standing rainforest will enable its long-term protection. This far-reaching goal of conservation and sustainable development is what drives her enthusiasm for chocolate making.
Here’s what Denise told us:
“In chocolate making everything matters. The genetics of the cocoa bean in combination with the environmental factors at the farm impart unique flavor characteristics to cocoa beans harvested from a specific geography. In wine making the term, terroir, is used to describe external factors such as climate, soil type, topography, and neighboring plants in addition to the choice of genetic varietals to plant. Terroir extends to the fermentation processes as well where choices are made on the duration, turning process, temperatures, and whether or not to introduce different yeast cultures. The final stages of flavor development occur during the chocolate manufacturing where choices are made for roasting profiles, refining, conching, and aging. As a scientist-turned-chocolate maker I find this discovery process of learning how to optimize flavor in chocolate to be fascinating.
Let me share a story about how I discovered the importance of terroir in chocolate making. Over the years I have developed a love-hate relationship with cocoa beans from Bolivia, which taught me a lot about the importance of each step in the chocolate making process.
When I started making chocolate I sourced beans from the Alto Beni region of the Bolivian Amazon from the summer 2012 harvest. The region cultivates most of Bolivia’s cocoa and provides and important income source for households. Not knowing much about a new bean I usually start off by breaking open several beans to visually inspect them and taste them raw. At first glance I remember noticing how dark in color the Bolivian beans were in comparison to Dominican Republic beans that I had used before. The beans were nearly black in color. In my mouth the beans had a deep rich chocolate taste with a lot of tannins and rich coffee flavor. The dark color and rich taste led me to pursue a medium to high temperature roast that accentuated the rich coffee and bourbon flavor notes and tamed the earthiness in the bean.
The first time I ground the beans I noticed a remarkable fat content and witnessed some of the blackest colored free-flowing bean-to-bar chocolate I had ever seen. I wondered, was this really a Trinitario hybrid bean? Where was the fruitiness or nuttiness that it distinctive of a Trinitario?
I started researching science journals to see if I could dig up any information on the genetics of this bean. The US Department of Agriculture conducted a study and found a high genetic diversity in the cultivated Alto Beni beans and categorized them as a new group of Forastero cacao that was distinct from other groups in South America. They also found a large genetic influence from the wild populations nearby indicating that both farmers and natural pollination have introduced wild genetics into the cultivated stock. Before 2014 the Alto Beni beans were farmed and fermented by several different small-scale farmers in the region so as I began using more beans I began to experience the genetic diversity firsthand through taste.
The next year’s harvest of Alto Beni beans from the summer of 2013 was remarkably different. The cocoa beans were lighter in color, having some of the characteristic dark beans but also some chestnut
colored beans. When I tried the lighter colored beans, they had a distinctive fruitiness to them and the darker beans still had the rich deep chocolate flavor. I pursued a lighter roasting profile to see if the fruitiness would further develop, and it did. This harvest revealed dark cherry and blackberry flavors, reminiscent of a fine ruby port backed by a long lasting chocolatey finish. The fat content of the cocoa liquor had significantly diminished, revealing a thick dry paste that was much more difficult to work with but the final chocolate was absolutely remarkable.
In the fall of 2013 I received a welcomed visitor to my factory. She was an Ambassador of Chaine des Rostisseur, the oldest gastronomic society in the world, and was shopping worldwide for ingredients for a dinner party she was hosting in Turkey. I will never forget our conversation. We tasted the Bolivia chocolate from the 2013 harvest straight out of the melangeur, admiring its rich, fruity complex flavor. Immediately, she pointed out that Bolivia had a severe drought during the last growing season causing the plant to sequester fine flavor in its fruit and seeds at the expense of storing fat. The same phenomenon occurs in grapes and the best wines come from small grapes sweetened by drought stress. It’s a natural survival mechanism for the plant to entice its predators to eat its fruit and thereby propagate its seeds.
By late fall and early winter 2013/2014, we received the next harvest of Alto Beni beans. The drought was followed by downpours and severe flooding along the Beni River. The fat content of the cocoa beans increased but the flavor was flat and compromised. At this time the region did not have a centralized fermentation and drying facility, so the farmers performed their own fermentation. The extremely wet conditions made it exceptionally difficult to properly dry the beans and consequently the beans took on a moldy flavor that persisted throughout the chocolate making process even with the heaviest of roasts, long conche and aging. The beans had an off odor upon opening the bag and the odor persisted in the taste. I learned a lot working with the Alto Beni cocoa beans. Imperfections cannot be masked in chocolate making and getting each step of the process right is crucial for the refinement of flavors.”