When I was in culinary school, I learned that the tools of any pastry chef are flour, butter, milk, and eggs. With these four ingredients, you can make nearly anything in a pastry shop: flaky croissants, moist cakes, toothsome breads and more. The ingredients are few; the execution nuanced and complex.
Similarly, with two basic ingredients: cacao beans and sugar, plus the occasional dash of lecithin or vanilla, bean-to-bar chocolate makers create chocolate. Cacao beans are fermented, dried, roasted, and crushed into small pieces called nibs. The nibs are then ground into a paste, to which sugar and lecithin is added, and the resulting chocolate is refined until it’s silky smooth.
In the examples below, these chocolate companies add salt and nibs to their chocolate. The result is chocolate in two forms—the kind that melts on your tongue, plus the kind that crunches between your teeth—kicked up with a salty crackle. And tasters diligent (or curious) enough to pry the nibs from the bar can taste chocolate’s more primitive form.
Madécasse Sea Salt & Nibs
This is a bar that cries out to be chewed, and for it you’ll be rewarded with melty chocolate, crunchy nibs, and small explosions of salt. Each rectangle of Madécasse’s bears a line drawing of a cacao pod, the football-shaped fruit from which cacao beans come.
All of Madécasse’s chocolate production—from growing cacao to tying ribbons on packages—is conducted in Madagascar. Started in 2006 by Brett Beach and Tim McCollum, two former peace corps volunteers, the company aims to help develop the local economy.
Madagascan chocolate is characterized by high acidity, plus notes of dried red fruit (especially cherry) and citrus—qualities that definitely shine through in this chocolate bar. Because Madécasse contracts with a chocolate manufacturer in Madagascar, they’re considered a chocolate producer, rather than bean-to-bar maker. The distinction is only notable because Madécasse’s products are, on average, less expensive than true bean-to-bar chocolate—a result of lower production costs in Madagascar.
Potomac Upala 72% Nib and Salt
To really get to know this chocolate, open the foil wrapper and bury your nose in the package. Notes of damp earth, mushroom and spice waft up, followed by the sharp acidity of red fruit. Upon tasting, the fruit reveals itself as raspberries. Chocolate maker Ben Rasmussen lightly dusts the 72% bar with nibs and salt, but lets the chocolate take center stage.
Based in Woodbridge, Virginia, Rasmussen’s Upala bars are made with Costa Rican cacao. He founded Potomac Chocolate in 2010, making him one of the newer bean-to-bar makers in the United States. That hasn’t stopped him from making his mark—his salt and nib bar won a 2013 Good Food Award.
In addition to being one of the newer bean-to-bar companies, he’s probably one of the smallest. Each of Potomac’s bars is handmade and hand wrapped. Don’t be distracted by the homespun look of the packaging; the bars inside are more sophisticated than you’d think.
Pacari 70% Raw Chocolate with Salt & Nibs
Bite into a piece of this chocolate and you’ll get pangs of bananas and flowers that are echoed in the nibs, then chased by wee chunks of Peruvian salt. Pacari’s salt & nib bar is made with raw chocolate, which refers to chocolate that has been processed at low temperatures. From a health perspective, this retains more of the antioxidants that prompt the media to tell us that chocolate is good for us—as if we needed an excuse to eat more. From a flavor perspective, raw translates to a certain wildness in the chocolate’s flavor—a less refined experience, but perhaps a more interesting one.
Since 2002, founders Santiago Peralta and Carla Barboto have been making chocolate in Ecuador, a country known for its fine flavor cacao. Their efforts seem to be paying off, as Pacari is quickly winning over the fine chocolate world. It’s not hard to see why, considering their chocolate’s appeal: award-winning (they cleaned up nicely at the inaugural International Chocolate Awards), socially responsible (they work directly with farmers in Ecuador) and delicious (they make single-origin bars, flavored bars and more).
One question lingers: Why would these chocolate makers sully their bars with salt in the first place? The answer lies in basic anatomy. The human tongue can detect five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Chocolate—the good stuff, made from high-quality starting materials and made with care—can express four of these tastes. The one that’s missing is salt. Until now, that is.