Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Claudio Corallo Chocolate

(My sincerest apologies to the Chocolate 201 folks who are waiting for Claudio Corallo tasting notes. Consider this a meandering introduction to man and his chocolate. The Claudio Corallo tasting notes are in the next post.)

Claudio Corallo store in SeattleI confess that Claudio Corallo Chocolate was one of my primary reasons for doing Chocolate 201. Period. I think it’s one of the best—if not the best—expressions of what artisan bean-to-bar chocolate is and should be. Don’t get me wrong: the others that I highlighted in the series are immensely talented chocolatemakers who do a wonderful job. But from a philosophical standpoint, it’s hard to beat Claudio Corallo.

I’ve mentioned before the numerous steps that go into the transformation from cacao bean to chocolate bar. For most, this process includes harvesting, fermentation, drying, roasting, winnowing, grinding, conching and tempering. Not only is that a lot of steps to get right, but with each step you get further away from the original product. And, as happens with mass-market chocolate, the number of steps means that you can end up with something totally divorced from the starting product.

There are a number of reasons why Claudio Corallo is different from all other chocolatemakers, but I think there’s one important distinction: He grows the cacao himself, on the tiny islands of Sao Tome and Principe where he lives. Other chocolate makers work directly with farmers or buy plantations, but Claudio actually grows cacao. He takes immense pride in this.

Claudio CoralloWhen I had the out-of-this-world experience of meeting him earlier this year, he made a point of saying that he isn’t a chocolatemaker; he’s an agriculturalist. His mission is to grow the best beans that he possibly can, and then to do as little to them as he delicately transforms them into chocolate. He’s a soft-spoken, reserved man. As he doesn’t speak English, we communicated in French. (Very. Slow. French.) He speaks with such passion about what he does, and though he’s reserved, he got quite excited about certain topics, nearly buzzing in his chair. He is adamant about expressing the true chocolate, and paying attention to the little details.

Little details like picking out the germ from each cacao bean. Each cacao bean starts from a germ, which is a fibrous woody thing about 1 centimetre long. It doesn’t taste very good, and it doesn’t have a very nice texture. Most chocolatemakers leave the germ in because it’s so arduous to remove it. Claudio insists that the germ is removed, and his staff go through each bean and remove the germ by hand before it is ground.

From there, most chocolate is conched, but not Claudio’s. His chocolate goes straight to the tempering table where it is spread into thin slabs, then hand-cut and packed into spacey-looking silver packets. Chocolate is typically conched to decrease the particle size, drive off undesirable flavours (acetic acid—vinegar—being one of them) and enhance desirable flavours. Claudio doesn’t conch his chocolate because he wants it to be an expression of the bean, not some polished-up version of it. It speaks to the pride that he takes in the starting material; it’s so good, why mess with it?

The end effect is a chocolate that tastes like cacao beans: specifically, Claudio’s cacao beans. He makes a 100% bar, and it isn’t the least bit bitter. It’s aromatic, nutty, earthy and full of all kinds of flavours that I’ve never tasted in chocolate before. It tastes wild, like a wet forest floor. And I mean that in the most wonderful way. Despite no added sugar, the chocolate doesn’t taste bitter.

Claudio Corallo product lineWith such fanatical control over each step of the process, you’d think that there would only be pure chocolate bars. Well, you’d be wrong. There are inclusions—that is, stuff in the chocolate—like sandy sugar, candied ginger, candied orange and cocoa nibs. And each one is done in a very particular, analytical way.

I’m not the only one who’s completely enamoured with Claudio Corallo’s chocolate. The BBC did a short film about Claudio Corallo, and he was mentioned in an excellent article about chocolate and terroir in Gastronomica’s Winter 2010 issue.

There are also pictures and information about Claudio’s operations on his website. See how chocolate gets transformed from bean to bar.

Claudio Corallo’s flagship store is located in Seattle, WA. The next time you’re in town, stop by for a visit.

Claudio Corallo Chocolate
2122 Westlake Avenue
Seattle WA 98121
206.859.3534

Building a chocolate vocabulary

Eating – the action of lifting food to your mouth, chewing and swallowing – is pretty straightforward. Tasting is something else entirely.

Even then, there’s a difference between tasting and being able to articulate what you’re tasting. Often, people lack the vocabulary to describe what they’re tasting. The lack of vocabulary can be frustrating, because then you can’t communicate what you’re experiencing to someone else – and as a result, you can’t compare results or have a conversation about it.

I know that my palate has gotten better as I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve become more conscious about tasting. Even then, my ability to describe flavours in chocolate is much more advanced than, say, wine or coffee, two products that are equally complex and flavourful. Typical chocolate profiles include the words fruity, nutty, floral, toasty…and the list is endless.

What words do you use to describe the flavours in chocolate?

Chocolate vocabulary lesson

I throw a lot of terms around, like “bean-to-bar” and “confection,” and I’ve never really sat down and defined what I mean by those terms. I’ve defined three words: chocolate makers, chocolate blenders, and chocolate confectioners, to the best of my ability. I’ve also listed some of my favourites in each category. These are not exhaustive lists, and I know that I’ve forgotten (or simply don’t know about) some great stuff out there. If I’ve offended you…well, that’s just too bad.

Anyway. Here we go.

Chocolate makers

Also called bean-to-bar producers, chocolate makers actually make chocolate. They start with cacao beans and process them into the delectable thing that we know as chocolate. Typically, the chocolate comes in the form of chocolate bars, or chocolate pistoles (giant, flat chips). This chocolate is sometimes sold to consumers, while some is sold exclusively to industry folks.

Chocolate makers buy dried, fermented cocao beans from farmers, though their level of involvement in the growing, fermenting and drying process can vary. Some chocolate makers work very closely with farmers, while others deal exclusively with bean brokers and never meet the growers.

Chocolate makers are one part agricultural expert, one part production engineer, and one part artisan. They need to understand cacao (an agricultural product), be able to transform it through a series of steps (that’s the engineering part) and create something delicious, nuanced and distinctive at the end (definitely an artistic pursuit).

Some of my favourite small-batch producers: Amano Artisan Chocolate, Soma Chocolatemaker, Claudio Corallo, Theo Chocolate, and Askinosie Chocolate. I’ll also admit that I’m partial to working with Valrhona chocolate, thought they’re far from small-batch.

Chocolate blenders

Chocolate blenders don’t make chocolate, but they buy chocolate and blend it. This is less lame than it sounds. It’s not quite bean-to-bar, but there’s still a fine art to blending a chocolate mixture that is delicious and distinct. Think about an artist’s palette; while the colours come in a tube, the right mixture of colours can express something that stock colours can’t.

I don’t taste as much blended chocolate as I do bean-to-bar chocolate, but I was impressed with Chocolove’s 73% organic dark chocolate bar. You can read about it here.

Chocolate confectioners

Chocolate confectioners are what most people think of when you say chocolatier: someone who takes chocolate and creates bonbons, pralines and truffles. Way back when, the term chocolatier meant someone who took chocolate from bean to confection, but not anymore.

Chocolatiers don’t typically make their own chocolate. It’s partly economic, and partly because the two tasks are so very different. The equipment required is completely different, and it really doesn’t make sense to have the equipment to process chocolate and turn it into bonbons. (Two exceptions: Soma Chocolatemaker and Theo Chocolates are both bean-to-bar producers and chocolatiers.)

Quality confectioners work with quality ingredients: chocolate, but also with cream, sugar, spices, fruits, nuts, and liquor. Beware of fondant, corn syrup, or – to quote Michael Pollan – “anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.” The lack of preservatives in quality confections means that these treats have a limited shelf life: 3 weeks, at most.

There are a lot of folks out there masquerading as top-end chocolatiers. Some of them are pretty good – say, an 8 out of 10. And then, there are some whose attention to detail, flavour profiles and execution are all there. If you want to impress me, bring me something from Thomas Haas, Christopher Elbow, Norman Love, Kee’s Chocolates, Vosges, or La Maison du Chocolat.

P.S. Thomas Haas is opening a new location in Vancouver, next to Lumiere. Boss-man says that it’ll be open in mid-October. Wheee!

A human s’more

I love barbecues. There’s something about burnt food on a barbecue that tastes infinitely better than the food that I occasionally burn in my kitchen.

And marshmallows. I mean, really. Fire + marshmallow = nom nom sticky nom nom.

Except, of course, that you need to bring skewers or some sort of poky device in order to toast marshmallows. Which, sadly, I failed to do at last night’s barbecue. I ended up talking to the man behind the grill, who declined a marshmallow. He claimed that he had eaten too many as a kid and has been off them since. In fact, he claimed that he ate so many in one sitting that his head became a giant marshmallow and chocolate began to ooze out of his ears. And then someone put his head between two pieces of graham cracker and he became a human s’more.

I’m pretty sure that he was kidding, but man. I could kill for a s’more right now.

P.S. Did you know that there are four marshmallows in a serving. Four!

Guilt-free chocolate (for real, now)

I’m kind of partial to this post I wrote in response to Callebaut’s announcement of low-calorie, no-melt chocolate. I guess you could say I’m a chocolate purist. I’m also picky as hell – and yes, I do realize that it’s just my opinion and that you are welcome to yours. But, well, this is my blog and I’ll post whatever snarkiness I feel like, ya hear?

(Which is kind of funny in itself, because I’m infinitely nicer in this blog than I am in real life. Well-tempered? Some days.)

So in a time when everyone is concerned about where their food comes from, how does chocolate fit in? After all, the majority of cocoa is harvested using some form of slave or child labour. Egads. Never mind the calories (I’ve never been a fan of guilty calories, anyway) but moral guilt? Sure.

Well, that’s all the more reason to spend money on good chocolate. Chocolate that’s sourced ethically. Whether it’s fair trade, direct trade, organic, or whatever labels people have chosen to align themselves with, there are some companies out there who are working directly with farmers. I have grand plans of highlighting some of them over the next couple of weeks. Oh, what fun!

Why bother with artisan chocolate? Well, it means that the consumer can eat chocolate that’s been ethically sourced. Of course, that also means that you’re willing to pay a bit more for it – but the higher cost is some mixture of marketing, licensing (it ain’t cheap to get a fair trade label on a chocolate bar) and a reflection of the actual cost of producing food.

It’s about accountability. Since farmers are accountable to the chocolate buyer, the pickier the chocolate buyer is, the more care a farmer will take. The extra care is buoyed by the fact that the chocolate buyer pays more, and in most cases, works with the farmer to create better working conditions. It’s a win-win situation. And since the buyer has now invested time in purchasing the beans, you’d better believe that they’ll take extra care in processing the chocolate. They’ll baby the chocolate, take care to roast it to perfection (and not one second later), and follow every step to ensure that the consumer gets the best possible chocolate.

On a more holistic level, it means that you’re buying a product that was made with love. I’ve yet to meet anyone in the food business who is primarily driven by money. More often than not, choosing to work with food comes from a very primal place. You do it because you love it. You do it because you must.

And you can taste it in artisan chocolate. You can taste the hard work that the farmer put into it, the care that went into selecting the best beans, the attention to detail in every step of the processing. In all my talking with artisan chocolate makers, all of whom use slightly different processes, one common theme emerges: they unequivocally, absolutely love what they’re doing.

Contrast that with the mass chocolate market, where the goal is to make as much money as possible, with the cheapest ingredients possible. Farmers? Care? Love? What’s that? We’re talking about the bottom line, fillers, waxes and preservatives. And lots and lots of marketing so that the consumer can pay as little as possible for the lamest product possible.

And really, why? So that we can stuff our faces with a shadow of chocolate? No thanks.

Eating with your eyes

They say that you eat with your eyes first. I’ve heard it before, most often from French chefs wearing tall hats. I really struggled with this in culinary school, because presentation is not my strong suit. Technical chops, sure. You could cut open my mousse cake and the layers would be of equal thickness, the gelée right in the middle, the sponge soaked all the way through.

But my presentation? Oh, it was passable, acceptable, competent. But I wasn’t about to win any awards for innovation or take-your-breath-away beauty. One of my classmates was a former architect, and everything that he made was a work of edible art. His stuff really was too beautiful to eat.

I was speaking with a chocolatier friend of mine the other day. Her temperament is not what you expect from a chocolatier. In the spectrum of the culinary world, you have cuisiniers at one end: hot-tempered, chasing the adrenaline of fast-paced service, and working on a sweaty line. Then, you have pastry chefs: working in their corner of the kitchen, measuring and weighing ingredients diligently, and making fancy decorations on teeny tiny desserts. And then you have chocolatiers: strange folks with cold hands, who eschew ovens, forever coaxing and taming the beta crystal in cocoa butter.

My chocolatier friend is lovely, but she—by her own admission—is not very patient. She doesn’t hand-dip her chocolates, because that’s just excruciatingly slow. She makes molded chocolates, which look fussy but which, if executed properly, will give you 24-36 identical chocolates in one fell swoop.

Her chocolates taste lovely. The flavours are clear and bright, with balanced profiles that develop as the ganache melts. However, hers are not the fanciest-looking chocolates. This summer, she went nuts and put a diagonal green stripe on a mint-flavoured confection. They’re far from ugly, but they have a certain understated look. They say, “hey, I may look simple, but I’m darn tasty inside. Just give me a try.”

It’s like all her energy goes into the taste, and whatever’s left goes into the presentation. I get that.

Compare that with some chocolatiers who use copious amounts of coloured cocoa butter to jazz up their chocolates. There are swirls and spatters galore. Sometimes—but not always—the insides are as delicious as the outsides promise. Sometimes, there’s too much decoration and all you can taste is the cocoa butter on the outside. Often, the chocolate is all talk and no walk: pretty, but tasteless (or worse, bad tasting).

So there’s the dilemma. In a perfect world, chocolates would look beautiful and taste amazing. In reality, there are few people who are up for that challenge.

Sure, I eat with my eyes first. But when all is said and done, I’m eating. And if it doesn’t taste good, then what’s the point?

Chocolate on a stick

Remember sports day in elementary school? A day of potato sack races, balancing eggs on spoons, and tying your leg to someone else’s and trying not to trip as you lumbered across a field? Yeah, sports day.

I have a distinct memory of burnt hot dogs and fudgesicles. It turns out that fudgesicles are not frozen fudge, but frozen pudding.

Egads! Frozen chocolate pudding? No wonder they were so delicious.

Think of the possibilities: butterscotchsicles, bananapuddingsicles…ricepuddingsicles? Erm, maybe not.