Some chocolate lovers would happily walk through pouring rain in the dead of night to buy their beloved bar of Galaxy. For others, a bar of Chuao spells bliss. Putting personal taste to one side, we investigate how mass- and artisan produced chocolate differ in terms of quality, ingredients and production.
What do the terms ‘mass-produced’ and ‘artisan’ actually mean? The term ‘mass-produced’ usually describes something that is made in quantity via production line. The word ‘artisan’ comes from the Italian ‘artigiano’ [Latin artitus] and usually describes someone skilled in an art who produces things by hand.
Is bigger better?
‘Big Chocolate’ is an industry-accepted term. As in ‘Big Oil’, it applies to multi-national companies. In the chocolate world these are generally regarded as Kraft (since snaffling up Cadbury), Mars, Nestlé and Hershey.
If you consider that Cadbury’s Dairy Milk sells about 250 million bars every year – that does indeed seem pretty big.* In contrast, The Chocolate Festival’s Master Chocolatiers have only one or two shops. Some such as Bill McCarrick of Sir Hans Sloane have no shops at all and operate with a team of only five staff.
Somewhere in the middle are those familiar high street names such as Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat. Both brands are firmly linked to quality. McCarrick, speaks admiringly of both Angus Thirlwell, the founder of Hotel Chocolat, and Master Chocolatier Keith Hurdman who, according to McCarrick, has made “huge quality imprints” on Thorntons in the past couple of years.
Of course quality is subjective. But there are clear statistics concerning bean finesse. Over 90% of cacao beans are termed ‘bulk beans’. These are mostly the robust, but coarse and bitter tasting Forasteros that are often commodity traded to the multi-nationals.
Fast verses Slow.
In her book, ‘Real Chocolate,’ founder of Rococo Chocolates, Chantal Coady draws a distinction between ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ chocolate. ‘Fast’ chocolate contains as little as 5% cocoa plus added sugar, solid hydrogenated vegetable fats, nut oils and artificial flavourings. ‘Slow’ chocolate has a relatively high cocoa content, contains natural vanilla rather than vanillin, features fine cacao subjected to a slow refining process and contains extra cocoa butter for improved texture.
Asked for her definition of ‘artisan’ Coady explains: “For Rococo, we mean that our chocolate is made on a small scale, using high quality ingredients and that it is prepared with the same love and care as slow food. Just the opposite of industrially produced ‘fast’ confectionery, which uses bulk commodities, churns out huge quantities using mainly machinery and mass distribution/consumption.”
The Rise of the Chocolate Snob
In her book ‘Chocolate Unwrapped’ (Pavilion Books), Sarah Jane Evans who is a Master of Wine, offers accurate tasting notes on artisan chocolate. She points out that there is no legal definition of the word artisan. But for her, it means: “Careful selection of ingredients, hand production and small volumes. Underlying it all is a search for quality: quality of execution, exceptional melt, complex and lingering flavours and individuality. Fine chocolate tastes of where it comes from, of its terroir, and of its manufacturer.”
She adds that, “Single-estate chocolate now has the same glamour as wine from a top French château.” And she is sage enough to worry about incipient snobbery (just as in the wine world): “It is worth remembering that blending across regions or countries is a fine and subtle art. A blend can even out the sharp edges, the seasonal variations, and is very often greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately the search for origin has given rise to a chocolate snobbism taking place over craftsmanship.”
Slave to the Machine?
Who better to ask for a definition than someone calling themselves artisan? In line with other fierce defenders of chocolate craftsmanship, Gerard Coleman of L’Artisan du Chocolat states: “Artisan products beautifully crafted are the last true luxury in a world obsessed with consuming ever more, ever faster.”
As one of the few UK Chocolatiers to conch (grind, refine and blend) his own beans, and the proud possessor of other state of the art equipment, he goes a step further – into the future, as he sees it. “This surprises many who believe that beautiful chocolates are necessarily hand-made by someone with a messy apron and a hat and that junk necessarily comes out of machines used by industrial villains.”
“We boldly defy these conventions. We use technology selectively to improve the quality and consistency of our products. We do not adapt our chocolate to machines; we meticulously search for the right machines for our chocolate, often inspired by traditional craft methods. Machines free our time from routine tasks and give us the chance to be innovative.” His company manifesto is Artisan of the Future.
Bill McCarrick would largely agree. He is quick to define artisan as hand-crafted but feels this in no way conflicts with his use of a small conching machine (he was the first UK Chocolatier to take this path in 2006) and tempering machines.
He points out that, as with coffee beans, good fermentation and roasting are critical to the development of fine flavours. Unlike coffee, however, cocoa beans also go through a variable, if precise, conching process. Conching his own chocolate is an expensive undertaking for a tiny chocolatier, but McCarrick insists it gives him precise control over the end product and allows for fun innovation, such as the hay chocolates he produces for the Dorchester (where the hay, not a “drop of some essence” is added direct to the beans in the machine).
Shades of Grey… or of Chocolate Brown!
Most craft chocolatiers like William Curley, rely on highly regarded couverture (ready conched chocolate) suppliers. “We use only the finest ingredients,” says Curley, “and refuse to compromise, despite the cost involved. I source all of my chocolate from Amedei, which we believe to be the best… Amedei work ethically with plantations in Venezuela to replant trees, rebuild a lost tradition of cocoa and bring new life to the region, which has an extremely positive impact on the environment.”
“For sure in France the ‘artisan boulangers’ do not grind their own flour,” says James Booth, MD of Rococo. “From my own experience of small companies conching their own chocolate, it does not produce as good a product as a careful small industrial process, probably starting with the scale of someone like the Grenada Chocolate Company.”
Chantal Coady agrees: “I would suggest a company like Valrhona is still small enough to qualify as artisan as it is producing a top quality product from 100% traceable sources, normally buying beans direct from the source as opposed to on the commodity market. Amedei is smaller than Valrhona but huge compared to someone like the Grenada Chocolate Co, Amano or Mast Brothers,” asserts Coady. “They all use machines of one kind or another, it’s what goes in that counts!” Chocolate making seems to be an industrial process with many shades of grey.
The Proof of the Pudding
Clearly both camps will always claim their way of doing things is best! Of course the proof of the pudding… This is where The Chocolate Festival comes in, giving everyone a chance to sample a broad range of fine chocolate. Hotel du Chocolat is of a similar mind. Amidst an extensive range of bars and filled chocolates, they present in their ‘Purist’ (rare and vintage) range a 65% dark chocolate with cacao sourced from Saint Lucia, in two formats: a 96 hour conch and a 120 hour conch.
The difference is striking, Angus explains: “Much like grapes and fine wine, cocoa falls into two categories: bulk or fine. Over 95% of the world supply is bulk cocoa and it makes perfectly good chocolate. However, that 5% of fine cocoa is where things get really interesting and that’s where our Purist range comes in.”
Be it the renowned Chuao bean from Venezuela, their own Rabot Estate Trinitario or the beans from their Island Grower partners in Saint Lucia, the company’s aim is to make fine chocolate available to all and awaken experience seekers to the vivid flavours of rare and vintage chocolate. “We don’t believe premium chocolate should be elitist and so we want to make it accessible to as many chocolate lovers as possible.”
Pushing the Boundaries
At The Chocolate Festival visitors can sample highly unusual flavours and textures that “push the boundaries”, as William Curley puts it. He firmly believes that the UK, and very particularly London (where the young Scotsman is now based) is leading the world in this respect. “The shackles are off. Everyone here is open minded about possibilities,” he says with enthusiasm.
So is British innovation related to the rise of the artisan? “Well, someone back home in Scotland told me that a man who doesn’t have very much will create things; someone who has plenty doesn’t need to. So yes,” says Curley, “It tends to be the small people who become creative, become artisans, and they’re the ones pushing the boundaries in a really exciting way.”
* Statistics quoted from Cadbury
Chantal Coady, ‘Real Chocolate’, Quadrille Publishing Ltd (7 Mar 2003)
Sarah Jane Evans, ‘Chocolate Unwrapped’, Pavilion; First Edition Edition (4 Oct 2010)
Jeffrey G. Stern, ‘Artisanal vs. Mass Produced: Some Thoughts on End Consumer Processes and Ecuadorian Chocolate’ (8 Aug 2011)
David Lebovitz, ‘Chocolatiers and Chocolate-Makers’, Living the Sweet Life in Paris (14 Jan 2007)
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