Candice Alstrom I began reviewing it from another blog that was writing with a hodge podge of beer and food posts. I created it as a place to explore and experiment with pairings and cooking with beer. Also, keep track of beer dinners I had organized and hosted around Boston with my husband's website BeerAdvocate.com. Beer was my day job and where I learned to hone in my palate and understand tasting better.
I learned about finer quality chocolate by working at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Ma. I worked in the bakery and sweets area of the shop because that's where the beer rack was and I began selling beer and chocolate combinations. The chocolate helped ease women shoppers into exploring the craft beer boom in America. Formaggio Kitchen would receive large shipments of Venchi Italian chocolate and from there I tasted their 85% dark bar and was amazed by the smooth edges on the chocolate and control of the acidity. For a while I found a lot of dark chocolate unbalanced and not a joy to eat. But I didn't know why at the time. From there I wanted to learn more than just eat it. Formaggio had the classics like Valrhona, Pralus, Askinosie, Venchi, Cote D'Or, and others. Today there is so much going on in the world of chocolate and Formaggio is keeping good tabs on the new and great brands on the
market. Lot's of American brands to be proud of. For awhile there you'd have to scour the globe and find rare and obscure villages who happened to making great chocolate. Now it's in our own back yards.
A year or two later after leaving Formaggio Kitchen, I decided to track my progress from tastings I had done. BeerAdvocate is the world's largest user based website for people to review beer and discuss it, so I decided to build off that in my own place for chocolate reviews. It's still very small and only my own reviews.
David Arnold I’ve always been interested in food and particularly in the flavors and qualities of food ingredients. My interests in chocolate grew shortly after the first origin bars became available and makers started highlighting the huge varieties of flavors of cacao. With different genetics, growing conditions and the many processes used in making chocolate it is exciting seeing and following what is now being created. I’m especially interested in what the future of fine chocolate can be.
Debbie Ceder We started putting significant effort and accurate ratings into chocolate around December 2005. It was some time before that when Vic was traveling that he purchased a bar from Cadbury that really caught his attention. Returning to the states, he was unable to locate that bar anywhere, and failed to remember where he purchased it abroad. I suggested that we start a database of chocolates we liked so that this wouldn’t happen again. We already had a large website with a number of databases for other items in our lives, so this wasn’t such an unusual idea for us. We travel a fair amount and we like to shop in local markets and experience local cuisines as part of that experience. Chocolate bars are small and easily transportable, and the chocolate keeps well. Once we started rating chocolate, it wasn’t long before we started developing a more refined taste as we encountered better quality chocolate. If you check out our ratings, take note of the years those ratings were made and you can see how our tastes changed over time.
Vic Ceder I first became interested in chocolate around 2005 when I tried three bars that peaked my interest: Cadbury Old Jamaica Rum 'N' Raisins, Chocolat Elot (Girard), and Scharffen Berger Dark Milk. At that time, my only experience with dark chocolate was in a See's Candies assortment box. I thought dark chocolate was barely edible. The Cadbury Old Jamaica Rum Raisin bar had an interesting combination of tastes (although today I would consider it too sweet). The Chocolat Elot (Girard) bar had a different consistency due to sugar crystals and lack of milk - it had a nice snap. And, the Scharffen Berger Dark Milk bar was a very flavorful bar that started me to the path to the dark side of chocolate.
Around that time, I was actively building my square dance web site, www.ceder.net, and on a whim, I added an on-line chocolate bar database, and embarked on a journey to discover the world's best chocolate bar. Rather quickly, my tastes changed to prefer the premium, unadulterated, dark chocolate bars. I found that as I graduated to better and darker chocolate, less of it was required to satisfy me. A couple of pieces of a dark chocolate bar would suffice where previously I would have eaten one or two full candy bars. Nowadays, I wouldn't even dream of eating a Hershey's Milk Chocolate bar – I have no desire whatsoever. As of August 2012, we've tasted and rated well over 1000 unique chocolate bars, with many more on the horizon. Each bar is documented on our web site with a picture, ingredient list, purchase information, comments and a rating from both myself and my wife Debbie. We've saved at least one wrapper from each bar, to someday be donated to a wrapper collector.
Chocofiles In 2007 as I looked at the bars in the chocolate section of our local World Market I asked myself, “I wonder which of these is the best chocolate?” That seemingly benign query was the first step in my chocolate adventures. I tasted all they had and I soon learned that there is a parallel world of fine chocolate that I never even knew existed. So I began exploring and I found the chocolate review website seventypercent.com and the social network “The Chocolate Life” and I began to try more and more bars. I started to learn as much as I could about the multifaceted world of chocolate, cacao, origins, bean-to-bar and so on. After I tasted even more bars I created a database and a rating system to keep track of my discoveries.
I get great joy from learning about God’s creation, so chocolate has given me a wide field to experience this joy of discovery. I’m also wired to master whatever I’m interested in, so that has led me to seek out and devour as much great chocolate as I can. I’m on a quest to find exceptional dark chocolate, so whenever I find a superior bar it brings great satisfaction as I savor it. Of course, it also helps that chocolate contains theobromine and PEAs that enhance your mood! The more I learn the more I want to share my discoveries with other people so that they too can experience the same pleasure. It makes me happy to help others discover the joy of fine chocolate.
Mark Xian Since you frame the question as “fine plain dark chocolate” that eliminates my initial encounter with Cocoa Puffs. Not because it isn’t fine of course. On the contrary; but because it contains rice & other things that make it, probably by definition, other than plain.
As founder of Airtech.com®, the online travel pioneer, I was able to freely travel the world. Airtech® started out life as a way to meet the needs of travel-hungry but cash-poor college students for cheap int’l airfares, & for cash-hungry airlines to make the most of their perishable, unfilled seats.
In other words, we went out & negotiated deals with airlines to turn over their empty inventory to us at prices so low that we could then turn around & sell them at unbeatable fares on a standby basis: Europe for $169. Costa Rica: $119. Hawaii: $99. We moved hundreds of thousands of these thru a guerrilla marketing campaign that posted flyers around cities & on college campuses which read ‘If you can beat these prices, start your own damn airline’ & (pre-9/11) ‘Only terrorists can get you there for less’.
Many of these flights landed me in the so-called “20/20 Zone” – that magical cocoa belt shadowing the equator around which Theobroma cacáo (a tree whose seeds comprise the key element in chocolate) only grows.
Along the way, Airtech® discovered that its core of world travelers has an enormous appetite for global events, parties, & happenings. So the company morphed into an events promotion & production firm.
We developed offerings to meet the cravings of mad-venture / party-happy groups. Among them, Spring Bake, a custom tour that put a new spin on an age-old rite of spring — the mid-March college break. Instead of Florida beaches, however, it happened in Jamaica… March madness of the purest sort.
Another tour took trekkers into the remotest reaches of South America. Our Venezuelan Safari, for instance, entailed an ultra off-the-map trip through cloud forests, class-5 rapids, & over the Andes to either paraglide or run barefoot down the surreal sand-carpeted mountain Pan de Azucar -- the only sheer vertical dune in the Americas.
For Millennium 2000, Airtech hosted a beach rave at X-Puhá, Mexico attended by about 10,000 revel “friends” (remember, this was before FB).
All these spots – Jamaica, Venezuela, Mexico, Peru – boast some world-class cacáo which at the time I considered just another cash crop commodity picked by dirt-poor farmhands.
Festivals comprised yet another Airtech® draw. Burning Man in Nevada, the Berlin Love Parade, & the 420Tour -- the annual festival of peace, love, reggae, & hemp hits in Amsterdam.
Food fairs – wine conventions, foodie confabs, et.al. – never showed up on our menu of options or even curiosity until a little show we scouted to see what the buzz was about. Doubly so when a long line of people queued up outside the venue, standing in the rain to get into it. No band or hip-hop MCs performed that night. Instead it was chocolate show. A chocolate show? Why would anybody stand in a downpour for a chocolate show when candy bars sold all around us? They could just as well buy one in any deli on every corner & move on.
Clearly something was happening & we had to check it out.
Once inside I instantly recognized that a similar buzz which lit the cannabis crowd or fueled winos pervaded among this chocolate setting. A very captive & passionate audience who were hooked on the stuff.
There I met Alessio Tessieri of Amedei who recently secured an exclusive on the entire harvest of the Chuao Valley cacáo in Venezuela – which soon I learned held the same lofty position in the world of chocolate as the Vatican. True to form, Tessieri pontificated on the lore of “fine chocolate” in a hi-brow tone that caused several thought-balloons in my head to pop, “C’mon, dewd, chocolate is effin Halloween candy”. Frankly, he sounded like a master BS artist so my shit detectors went up (Glengarry Glen Ross: “don’t bullshit the bullshitter”).
Alessio gave me a bar of his Amedei Chuao; it was pretty good.
But I ain’t gonna lie about some chocolate epiphany occurring with “the bar”. Ya know, the one that choc-vets expound on at length that changed or saved their lives. Truth be told, several bars did that to me in rapid succession. If there was a tipping point, s’pose it might’ve been DeBondt’s Ecuador 90% re-melted from Domori’s unsweetened couverture. The flavors hurled me into a fried dizzy overdrive (this was only supposed to be chocolate). Plus, it tasted so sweet to make me wonder to this day if it actually contains more than 10% sugar. In any event, that bar pointed to the possibilities of what could, at least theoretically, be achieved with little-to-no-sugar whatsoever, the latter for which I coined the term ‘pod-strength’ – pure 100% unadulterated chocolate crafted from cacáo & nothing else.
Back on outside of the Chocolate Show, I re-entered reality to start researching a little of this scene, as well as the roots of cacáo itself, to ascertain if Alessio & all those crazed choc-heads were psychotic or not.
Naturally the first place I looked was online. There were but a few sites.
None captured the spirit or the essence, IMNSO, of what I’d just witnessed (nor of what I would eventually discover in cacáo). They failed to really bite into the tissue of the matter. The few valiant attempts, led by, I later found out, esteemed & credible people who juggled outside interests (like their day jobs), proved inadequate next to, say, the equivalent wine or even coffee sites.
Next stop: the university library system. Indeed books, despite their inherent limitations compared to digital technology, had done a better job. Most notably the 2 pillars of the new era craft chocolate movement – Sophie & Michael Coe’s True History of Chocolate and The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel Presilla. Both of these titles showcase scholars moving into the space, demonstrating that chocolate could be capable of serious research.
Some major brainpower began crunching on the chocolate subject matter in their wake. John Henderson at Cornell; Rosemary Joyce at UC Berkeley. And when Cameron McNeil released her book Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History, the table in my purview had been officially set for chocolate to regain some of its lost glory & nobility it once attained in antiquity. (Granted, this quick thumbnail sketch is an oversimplification, but hopefully gives you a flash flavor.)
I read profusely for the next few months, from René Millon’s 1955 dissertation (a precursor really to the Coes’ book they wrote 40 years later), & Merle Greene Robertson’s archeological illustrations (see below), to pop histories of Mars, Hershey’s & Cadbury’s.
No matter what stack of chocolate you’ve climbed up to, this still goes down a rigorous, even punishing, book. It takes the extremely long arduous slog down the Amazon — seemingly all 3 million square miles of it, paddling over its 1,000 tributaries, the most circuitous route of all… enough to give malarial headaches — thru the cartography & bio-diversity of cacáo’s formidable botanical history. Actually trekking on foot might feel quicker.
It contained a revelation however: when it comes to classifying cacáo, much of the popular opinion & conventional wisdom is dubious at best, spurious at worst. Bartley implored bringing rigorous scientific classification to bear on the matter in order to clear the field of the nonsense of Forastero & Trinitario.
Out of the blue I called him up on the phone, in the middle of the night, as was my wont since most creatures who belong to this tribe are night owls. (Something about chocolate, theobromine, aphrodisiacs & insomnia clamor together.) He lived in Portugal at the time. Basil startled me. Here’s this brilliant botanist at the apex of plant intelligence & he spent so much time on the phone & in lengthy email correspondences with me, a complete stranger, that I had to ask him ‘why?’. Why take all this time with a foreigner to further explicate your work? He candidly confided that no one else seemed to bother much with his work, which in my book was far & away the most comprehensive treatment of the subject I encountered to date.
Unbeknownst to me, Basil was also dying at the time & he may have felt this was one last chance to share his insights… to pass the torch so to speak.
Not so much a pariah, Bartley had become a bit of an iconoclast in the field. Yet he clearly was on to something: he saw the big picture whilst others, & especially those in the candy business side of it, kept overly myopic.
Bartley’s work proved not to be in vain. Shortly after his death in March 2008, Dr. Juan Carlos Motamayor published a groundbreaking study in October of that year which dramatically reclassifies cacáo into a dozen+ subclusters. Interestingly, much of Motamayor’s conclusions, using advanced genetic testing, substantially agree with Bartley’s who relied on visual cues (morphology & phenotype without the aid of modern technological instruments). By no means a perfect overlap, they are however more than close enough to validate Bartley’s taxonomy.
Since then, organizations such as CocoaNet as well as Mars Corporation are now taking up the challenge to rationalize (i.e., classify), conserve, & utilize cacáo’s diversity – genetically, geographically, & organoleptically (i.e., ‘taste’… because in the end it’s about supreme good flavor). Heirloom cacáo groups are sprouting up & hi-flavor chocolate is hitting the shelves.
So, having amassed all this research & a growing list of contacts from what I drew up as the ‘4-corners of the Chocolate Universe’ (growers – scientists – barsmiths – scholars), it seemed logical that a genuine online resource should exist. A repository of sorts, that renders true chocolate some justice. Figuring that maybe something popped up online in the interim that did just that, I directed a couple Airtech® staffers to dig & find it or, short of that, at least a portal. None could be found.
So we said ‘F it, let’s build it’.
Now I know why no one else has. It’s damn expensive & time-consuming.
It cost an embarrassing amount of money, much of it billed by unscrupulous web developers who rank no higher than auto-mechanics. In fact, most think “www” stands for ‘World Wide Web”. Wrong; it abbreviates ‘Wild Wild West’, online style.
Worse, websites are crybabies that require constant feeding.
Moreover, the subject matter itself – chocolate writ large – is maddening. Its vortex forms a spiraling cone & the trouble is that just when you dive in deep & think you’ve hit bottom, the bottom falls out, drops to another plateau that fools of a new bottom yet that too proves false… just another floor that gives way & drops farther still… onward & on & on…
Does it ever end? Will it ever end? No, because chocolate, like life in general, constantly evolves. Its all-consuming lure acquires a Michael Corleone syndrome: every time you think you’re out of the business, it sucks you back in. That’s the power of cacáo.
Consider novelist David Eggers’ 4 basic appeals to people: money; romance; self-preservation; & recognition. All his principles apply to chocolate: molding a bar is tantamount to printing money; chocolate engenders romantic associations; it’s safe & healthy for self-preservation, & premium chocolate has become recognized as a consumer status symbol lately.
Other than God & sex (plus maybe music), no force on Earth exerts such a wicked pull. Terrifying.
The saving grace to all this mania: those kid-in-the-candy-store moments when a bar or box comes along to re-open the wonder & the awe of it all over again.
The OCD nearly complete, this passion sustains itself on the strength of chocolate being one of the great prisms thru which to purchase a worldview – BION – in sync with Zietschaungundermoutton, a German loan word borrowed from Steve “Candy Freak” Almond. Literally, ‘world in a mouth’… Zietschaungundermoutton conveys how a small bite encompasses the world. the C-spot® thus serves as a graduated tasting course exploring history, culture, cuisine, botany, ecology, politics, int’l finance, global trade, euphoria, bliss, misery, intrigue & treachery thru the planet’s fav-flav. A curriculum with a big difference: it engages all the senses to a sumptuous degree so students end up having so much fun learning that they become unaware that it’s even school.
In the process it connects the dots to the various C-spots (of Culture, Community, Convivium, Currency, Causality, Computers, Commensurability, & Cool), all of which chocolate at one time or another (& occasionally simultaneously) ramifies.
To quote William Arthur Ward, "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires."
Chocolate indeed inspires. In the best of the gaia principles laid out in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, we humans operate under the spell of this higher plant, guaranteeing its propagation & global distribution in a brilliant evolutionary Darwinian scheme, as if chocolate is having us rather than the other way around. In short, cacáo is resourcefully-minded &, due to its manifold properties, we are its porters & protectors (some might say ‘slaves’).
It occupies a special place in human affairs because it inspires reverie, vivid metaphors & whole poems, longings & curiosity. It can be healthful & used daily without clinical side effects (though habitués beg to differ). The metaphysics here may be debatable, but the chemistry of this plant & its near-universal prevalence seems indisputable.
Scott of Dallas Food Dark chocolate started worming its way into my life about a decade ago--not really as a conscious decision ("Hey, I think I'll eat a lot of expensive chocolate!"), but just through gradual upgrades as I became aware of or gained access to better chocolate than I'd previously eaten.
George Gensler I started getting serious about reviewing/studying fine plain dark chocolate about 6 years ago. Before that, I tasted chocolate and tried to find new and interesting chocolate bars, but didn’t take notes. When I found something I liked, I bought it for myself and friends. Chocolate has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up, we ate chocolate with most meals (still do). We lived overseas and had access to many different types of chocolate. When I discovered fine chocolate, there was no turning back.
Maricel Presilla I started studying chocolate when I began to work with El Rey, an important Venezuelan chocolate company. It was then that I really started to pay attention to the literature of chocolate and realized that there was much work to be done. Before that I had enjoyed chocolate viscerally. It was a part of my life; my family on my paternal grandmother’s side are cacao farmers, so I was very familiar with cacao. I knew chocolate first as a fruit and I always gravitated toward cacao, cacao farming and cacao farmers when I began traveling throughout Latin America doing food research. It was natural for me to go to a cacao farm, spend time tasting the pods, sticking my hands on the fermenting pulp; it was all natural. But it was when I began seriously working with El Rey that I started to pay very close attention to both cacao and chocolate.
I had a very difficult job ahead of me. I was asked to help introduce a line of Latin American couvertures into the United States. This was the first time that it had ever been done. The US was not importing fine chocolate from a Latin American source. At that time the fine chocolate market belonged to Valrhona, before that Callebaut was king. So that was the market and the competition that El Rey faced in the US. I figured I had to do everything I could to help sell this chocolate. I had to deliver the proper message, because obviously I was not only helping to sell couverture, I was selling the image of a country, Venezuela. It was when I started reading that I realized the importance of Venezuela: a treasured trove of fine flavor cacao. This was a cradle of fabulous criollo cacao. Venezuela had been the gold standard for the industry for many centuries. I started looking at old manuscripts and old books, reading much more than El Rey asked me to do. In fact, they never asked me to read anything. It was me. I made the decision that I needed to learn. I interviewed chocolate experts, usually old timers in the industry, and I realized that Venezuela had an incredible reputation as a cacao producer. And I realized that this cacao that El Rey was trying to sell was essentially gold. The fact that El Rey had singled out a particular region and decided that they were going to put cacao content percentages on the packages was historic too. It is true that Valrhona had given percentages to their bars, but in terms of identifying the source of their cacao they had done it in a very romantic fashion. For instance, they had given names like Guanaja to a chocolate that had nothing to do with Honduras. And it was something that I had found out through asking good questions and reading. There were a lot of things that were not necessarily true, but Valrhona was an inspiration: all of a sudden this great company changed everything by mentioning regions, broad regions of the world and giving percentages. So I decided that I had to learn if we were going to compete. And compete we did, just by being very honest. El Rey always told the truth. They always said their chocolates were made with Carenero Superior, meaning that it was a high quality Carenero from this particular area Northeast of Caracas, and El Rey gave percentages.
What I did to that equation was that I realized that percentages alone didn’t sell. That you could not sell something labeled just 58.5% and another one 70%. I realized that we needed to give names and identities to these different chocolates and I suggested this concept to Jorge Redmond, the president of the company, who loved the idea. The “percentage” difference makes for differences in flavor and also the 70% chocolate bar had no added cocoa butter. I had just learned that that was pretty fantastic and unique in the business. The French always added cocoa butter. And this chocolate had a lot of flavor. The texture might have been a little dry, but it was an innovation. So I said this deserves a name. I’m always interested in names that mean something, so I looked at the shade trees on the cacao plantation and decided that Gran Samán was the perfect name. Gran Samán is the largest tree on a Venezuelan cacao plantation. It is a stately tree and that was a stately chocolate so I said this is Gran Samán. Bucare, which was a 58.5%, was more delicate, it was smaller in the sense that it was not as robust. It was fine and delicate, so it reminded me of the Bucare, which was another shade tree. When it came to the milk, which at the time I think it was the highest cacao content milk on the market, higher than Valrhona’s, I named it Caoba, because I thought it melted to the color of mahogany.
When El Rey developed its own white chocolate, I also realized that it was very different. El Rey did not deodorize their cacao butter. It was a decision they made very naturally because cacao butter from Venezuela is delicious, very tasty. And I had read that most cacao butter used for white chocolate is deodorized. So it was easy to see that El Rey had something very important in their hands. They had created a great white chocolate. I never really liked white chocolate until that point. When looking for a name for this exceptional chocolate, I looked at history books and legends. I found a lovely legend about Icoa, an Indian white maiden (possibly an albino woman if we are to believe parts of the legend) who lived in Paria peninsula. She (the maiden) was sent to Sur del Lago, the Maracaibo area by her father, to be married. She went on a canoe, but it capsized and she drowned. Then she reappeared as a ghost in Paria where she saved people from drowning. She would be seen wearing a white loin cloth and wearing white jewelry and so I said El Rey’s white chocolate is Icoa! I learned so much out of this experience, from creating a meaningful image for a chocolate. I had read so much by that time. I thought I had learned everything I could about white chocolate. Then I tasted cocoa butter from all over and I realized that it could be very nasty. I realized that some non-deodorized cocoa butters from other regions of the world are very assertive in taste. It would be impossible to make a decent or great white chocolate with something that had not been deodorized. I understood the wisdom of the general market, but I also learned that the Venezuelans had the best cacao butter to be had. So I am familiar with the creation of this product from the ground up. In fact, El Rey asked me to put together the first ad for Icoa in Food Arts. I had to find art, and I commissioned someone to do a painting of the flower of cacao: a beautiful and delicate white flower. That was the picture that El Rey used for the packaging of Icoa. I wrote the legend, which is still being used by them. It was a whole process of discovery and I believed in it. Everything happened organically. It made sense to me to give a beautiful name, create a beautiful story illustrated by a beautiful picture to something that was so extraordinarily good. Even today I am happy to report that it won awards in both the Americas International Chocolate Awards in New York and in London, even over Cluizel, a French brand with great experience.
I learned by reading, by investigating and also by being there where the action was. I had brought the baggage of my own upbringing and my strong and direct relationship with the land and farming. But then I saw myself in a situation where I had to learn quickly because I had a job to do. I had to help get this Latin American product into the U.S. I had to convince people about its merits, so it required a great deal of research. I interviewed so many people and read so many things. All this was before the internet, so it meant spending a great deal of time in the library. It also meant buying books; it meant talking to people, and doing a lot of the ground work. Now it is easy because you can do research on the Internet; there is a lot of information online. But at that time, no, you had to do the heavy duty work of getting into a library and reading everything there is in a library about cacao and chocolate. Traveling, interviewing; I did all that. So researching became a part of my life. I was doing research on food but I was also doing research on chocolate. In both fields, it was a hands-on situation. I was working directly with a large, solid company that had a state of the art factory. El Rey’s factory is pretty impressive, so I talked to Roger Thürkauf, formerly of Suchard and Maestrani, their Swiss technical advisor; a fantastic man who was happy to answer all my questions. In my first book I thank him because he taught me a lot.
That hands-on experience was invaluable. All that experience gave me the tools to write a book. And once I got a contract for the book, it gave purpose and higher meaning to my research. At first it was fun, traveling and researching for my own edification and to give me more leverage in my work, but with a book contract, it became another serious job. I read everything I had to read, I interviewed people and I traveled. By looking at everything that had been written, I realized that there was a gap. Writers would say things about particular cacaos, but I never got the impression they had actually seen them. They would say, “in Venezuela there is the best criollo cacao,” when talking about Venezuelan porcelana. But they wouldn’t show a picture. It was clear that they had never gone to the place where porcelana was growing, so I realized there was a lot of second hand information in the literature of cacao.
I am a primary source person because of my training, my family background and later my work with El Rey, and also because I’m a medievalist. When you are a medievalist, you are trained to work with primary sources; you go to archives. For example, if you are doing research on a thirteenth–century king, you go to the archives and you find everything that was written in his reign. You get the primary sources in your hand and you transcribe that. So I did exactly what I had been trained to do when it came to cacao and chocolate when I researched and wrote my chocolate book. I went places and I photographed the cacao. I learned what to do and not to do. One of the first mistakes that I did was not understand how quickly cacao oxidizes. I went to a plantation and I was looking at trees and trying to figure out a way to identify the pods properly for photography. I started using post-its; but I’d stick this little post-it to the pod with the cacao variety and casually put the pods in a bag. Then the friction oxidized the pods (they would blacken) and the post-its would fall off. Twice it happened and when I went back to Caracas I found a mess when I arrived at the photographer’s studio. Of course I had to return to the plantation and find a different way to treat the pods and a new style of identification. I began to use vegetable Ziploc bags with little holes that I had bought in the US. Now I began to tattoo the pods. And as every pod was cut from the tree, I would practically catch it in midair. Then I would tattoo the information I needed on the side of the pod that would not be photographed, wrap the pod in bounty paper to create a cushion, and put it in the Ziploc bag with holes.
I also created studios in the middle of plantations to photograph cacao. Sometimes I hired a photographer, sometimes I did it myself with the help of my husband. We would use gasoline generators to photograph cacao in the middle of the plantation. We realized that no matter how careful we were a lot of oxidation would still take place. If we were very far from Caracas then we would bring a generator. It would be dark in the middle of the plantation but we would create studios to illuminate the trees and pods. A good example is a picture of a beautiful pink Ocumare 61 in my book. It looks like a photo taken on a sunny spot, but it was very dark in the farm. There is a reflection of light behind the pod on the leaves because we used a generator to power studio lamps; we also had light deflectors. It was heavy duty work, and it took me time to learn how to do it well. And I just decided that if I spoke about porcelana, I needed to see and photograph porcelana. If I spoke about Guasare (which at that time was totally unknown), I had to see and photograph Guasare. I was lucky that my cacao mentor, agronomist Humberto Reyes, was the man who had discovered Guasare. So I was interacting with the people who had actually become primary sources for the industry. I was with them when these momentous things were happening. I was lucky enough that by that time I had already created my own company Gran Cacao. By the time I was doing the book I was no longer working for El Rey, but I was working for me and my own company. I had established a business relationship with a farm in Venezuela. One of my partners, Silvino Reyes, was the son of foremost cacao expert Humberto Reyes and his wife Lillian Reyes, a cacao pathologist.
When I started working in earnest for my book, I retraced my steps in Venezuela with Humberto and Lillian. Most of what I know today I learned from them. I learned my information from the field because there was no book. That was my training. It is an ongoing process and now I still keep reading. I realized that a lot of what I did back then was fundamental and seminal. Although there were monographs and other things, what I did was very hard because the sources were very few. For example, when I was working in Trinidad, Darin Sukha, who is now a big expert in chocolate tasting, was learning from an expert from Nestle. Everyone was beginning to learn about the importance of tasting. We had already done a lot in Venezuela with the tastings that El Rey had organized for visiting chefs and journalists for our Rutas del Cacao (The Cacao Road). It was interesting for me to see that El Rey was ahead of its time when it came to tasting chocolate made with regional cacaos. It was also fascinating to see that many of the visiting chefs had much to say about chocolate tasting though they had never before seen cacao. For example Larry Burdick, Bill Yosses (now pastry chef at the White House), and François Payard had incredible palates. All these people who were beginning their ascent into the chocolate world had tasted regional cacaos that are now on the map. We tasted Sur del Lago. We tasted Guasare. We tasted a broad selection of special cacaos because we had small batches of them. And listening to these people describe what they had tasted was an amazing experience. For me what they did in an afternoon or morning session was an eye opening experience for me. Later in Trinidad I saw how the Cocoa Research Unit, a research center of great importance, was just beginning to explore the realm of cacao flavor. Up to that point, when a research center made decisions about what cacao to propagate, because of a number of reasons having to do with resistance to disease or productivity; flavor was never a part of the equation. And all of a sudden there was a need to understand the flavor profile of any cacao with promising features. At that point, these efforts were baby steps leading to greater things.
Together with Jorge Redmond and other El Rey people, I helped create La Ruta del Cacao, a program to take key people throughout the cacao growing regions of Venezuela. My job was to select whom to bring. So I took a close look at the various regions of the US and chose the best chocolatiers, chefs and writers from these different regions to write the stories of these incredible trips to Venezuela and to chronicle how the chefs and pastry chefs reacted during their experience and how they cooked with El Rey chocolate on site. The chefs loved the chocolate and they cooked with it in the most amazing places, from abandoned beaches to very traditional kitchens. It was incredible to see François Payard and Laurent Tourondel working with local women in Paria, making chocolate in places you could never imagine were fit for chocolate making.
We chose great writers to record these experiences like Corby Kummer from The Atlantic who was fun and fantastic. There was also Elizabeth Schneider who wrote wonderful articles for Food Arts magazine and a lovely story for Saveur. We only selected top people in their fields. But the work did not end in Venezuela. The exercise was to create a reverse campaign. Once the chefs went back to their home turf, most started cooking with El Rey, putting El Rey’s chocolates—Bucare, Gran Samán, Caoba--on their menu.
How did I meet Robert Steinberg? I met him at Rubicon. The pastry chef at Rubicon at that time was Elizabeth Falkner and she had come with me to Venezuela. I spotted her in San Francisco, and I said, “she is meant to do great things.” So she invited me back to Rubicon to do a presentation on chocolate to benefit the Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. At that time I had already met Harold McGee, who had also come with me to Venezuela, and done a lot of work on fermentation. So I organized a panel at Rubicon. (The owners of Rubicon were Robert DeNiro and Francis Ford Coppola. That was an important place in San Francisco. So I conducted an all-afternoon program with Harold McGee as a guest speaker, who spoke about fermentation. Naturally, Elizabeth Falkner cooked with El Rey. And who was in the audience? Robert Steinberg. At the time, he was doing his experiments at home, in his garage, grinding roasted cacao with mortar and pestle. It was at Rubicon that we became friends. And then when I created my own company, he started buying from me. He was my first customer. With his support secured, I just needed a couple serious companies to place the rest of our cacao. At this point Robert used to buy half of the cacao they needed at Scharffen Berger from La Concepcion, our farm in Venezuela. That’s how it happened.
While doing these presentations all over the US at the restaurants of the chefs we had invited to Venezuela, I was talking about single origin; nobody else was talking about single origin. Valrhona was the only company using the concept but very vaguely. It was El Rey, a Latin American company, and I, talking about single origin, talking about Venezuela, talking about criollo cacao on a nationwide campaign that spread the concept in the US. Nobody was mentioning criollo either. I gave talks in Los Angeles with Nancy Silverton at Campanile, in Chicago, Miami, New York. So across the U.S. we were continuously talking about single origin and Venezuela as a great source of criollo and trinitario cacao. I believe that we planted the seeds of change. It changed everything and everyone started copying El Rey. But it is important to give the credit to El Rey, a Latin American company. We’re talking about the early 1990’s. The first serious tasting of a Venezuelan bar was at the French Culinary Institute. I was taking a pastry class at the time, and my teachers did a dessert with El Rey for me. That was in 1984; the first time a single origin Venezuelan couverture had been used in a dessert in the US. The second restaurant that used El Rey in New York and put the name of the company on the menu was C.T. This was the restaurant of Claude Troisgros, a very famous French chef. His sous chef was Laurent Tourondel, who then went on to create the BLT concept and became extremely famous and successful. So you can see how far back these things started. I was not really aware of how important these things were. I just did them. These were things that needed to be said and done. I was totally convinced that what I was saying was right. I had no ulterior motives. I never went to conferences or anything like that because I was already living in the world of cacao and chocolate.
Alex Rast I started reviewing seriously in about 1989, right after I got tired of the poor availability of good chocolate and had embarked upon a series of experiments to make it myself. After considerable work I did manage to produce a bar that I thought was up to my standards - and discovered that it meant a level of effort well beyond what I was interested in doing on a regular basis - so decided to focus on finding and reviewing the fine chocolates already available.
Richard Vaughan I've always preferred chocolate over other sweets, almost to the exclusion of other desserts and confections. For most of my life, I enjoyed mainstream chocolate such as Lindt and Côte D'Or. It wasn't until 2009 that I was exposed to artisan chocolate, and that completely changed my perspective on what chocolate could be. In comparison, my previous favorites were merely good. There were great chocolates out there, and I wanted to experience all of them! I began with the chocolate I could get locally (which turned out to be quite a lot, thanks to Chocolopolis, an amazing local Seattle chocolate store), and then spread to ordering online and contacting chocolate makers directly. I created a spreadsheet, enlisted my friend Lindy to review chocolate bars with me, and started blogging about each chocolate bar we tasted.
My first significant chocolate experience was as a little boy. When I visited my grandma’s house and I tried a slice from a loaf of “dark chocolate bread” she had made.
I was surprised, because it didn’t taste like chocolate, according to what I knew. Of course, I knew very little, because I had only experienced popular chocolate until that point.
So I was fascinated, because here was an extremely complex and novel taste that evolved like a never-ending story; along with a new nourishing, wholesome feeling when you ate it. Something else was significant too: It wasn’t very sweet. To top it off, there were three different textures. My first experience of a decent drinking chocolate was also at my grandma’s home. It was also prepared with little sugar. So these two chocolate experiences ignited my passion, interest and appreciation. They also opened my mind to understand that cocoa was a versatile ingredient, and that chocolate was a recipe. I would do things like make two cups of hot chocolate to compare, each with a different type of sugar.
Eventually the inevitable happened and my mother, who had trained at the Cordon Bleu, competed by making her own chocolate bread. Because I was repeatedly asked to give feedback, and thoroughly questioned, I had to take extra interest and consider what I was experiencing more deeply.
During my childhood and teens I lived in various countries. The family also spent long periods travelling around countries.
In a similar way to adults who move house and sample new local restaurants to decide which are the best, frequently changing location provided me with the opportunity to sample food that mattered to me. I wanted to know how good my favourite food could possibly taste. One food was international: different chocolates were to be found in all countries, so it was a good match between my passion and my circumstances. My parents encouraged this partly because it interested them, and mostly to keep me occupied and happy in our constantly changing environment.
As an adult I continued to travel and live abroad. I sampled chocolate and made notes for myself whenever the opportunity arose. I never considered that other people would do the same. I hadn’t heard of anyone writing chocolate tasting notes or reviews. But I had seen how enthusiastic people could get about wine. My mother was a member of the sommeliers, so I had accompanied her to wine tasting, shows and on visits to vineyards.
By the early nineties I was taking very detailed chocolate tasting notes for my own use. I had more time to think creatively and I had gained considerable experience at the high end of the publishing industry. For the first time I considered how this kind of information could be of interest to others, presented in a book. This inspired me to develop my method of recording tasting notes by considering their utility to other people. But I understood that the scale of the fine chocolate industry was so large that a professional guide book could only be produced by full-time professionals. I was also concerned about some other issues, including how many people might be interested in a guide book about the world’s best chocolates. It was over a decade later that I was able to address these issues, develop the idea, and work on the World Chocolate Awards guide book full time.