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The Polyamory of Chocolate

Behind every great bar of chocolate is a team of passionate experts

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If we’ve learned anything from the locavore movement, it’s that relationships are important. Those heirloom tomatoes, the ones with furrows like a bulldog’s forehead? They’ve been imbued with the passion of the tomato farmer, whose face may or may not be equally wrinkly. That tomato is the vehicle for a relationship — one between you and the tomato farmer. Logically, that relationship extends to other foods, like eggplants, kale, and strawberries. But when it comes to food other than produce, such as cheese, wine, or chocolate, things get a bit more complicated.

Consider the chocolate truffle. If you take pains to shop at local businesses, then you probably know the person who made it. This person is a chocolatier — someone who buys chocolate and uses it as an ingredient.  For example, they can add mint-infused cream and a knob of butter to make mint truffles, or dapple a thin layer of chocolate with fruits and nuts to make bark. Or they can pour liquid chocolate into a mold to have it emerge as a hoppy bunny or bearded man.

You might argue that your relationship with your local chocolatier is no different than with the tomato man. Well, I posit that, in fact, your chocolate relationship is polyamorous. As far as the chocolate is concerned, the chocolatier is the last cog in the machine, the other ones being the chocolate blender, chocolate maker, and cacao grower.

Roasted cacao beans

If the chocolatier is the last cog in the machine, the cacao grower is the first. Crazy as it sounds, chocolate grows on trees — and to be precise, in pods that stick off the trunk of the tree Theobroma cacao, which only grows 20 degrees above and below the equator. When the pods are ripe, cacao growers slice them off and crack them open to reveal the sticky white fruit inside. The fruit is fermented, causing the flesh to drain away and leave behind black nubs: the cacao beans.

The beans are dried and then shipped to chocolate makers, who roast, peel, and grind the beans into a thick paste. To this, they can add sugar to make dark chocolate, or sugar and milk powder to make milk chocolate. While it’s trendy to make artisanal chocolate with only these ingredients, most fine chocolate connoisseurs accept the additions of cocoa butter, vanilla, or soy lecithin (an emulsifier). However, they frown upon vegetable oil, waxes, stabilizers, or fake flavors — often added to mass-market chocolate to cover up cacao of questionable quality and flavor.

There are few chocolate makers in the world. The big ones you’ve heard of — Hershey’s, Mars, Cadbury — but there are also slightly smaller manufacturers whose names get mentioned on dessert menus (ahem, Valrhona). On the other end of the spectrum, craft chocolate makers are popping up all over the world, but especially in the United States. They’re often called bean-to-bar chocolate makers because they transform cacao beans into chocolate. Many leave lucrative careers — as lawyers, physicists, carpenters — to try their hand at making chocolate. Others juggle a job by day and make chocolate at night. No two companies are the same, but they all share a passion for making chocolate.

A melanger mixes chocolate liquor with other raw ingredients.

Finally, there are chocolate blenders. As their name suggests, blenders buy chocolates and mix them — sometimes creating custom blends for chocolatiers, and sometimes bars for sale in stores. Blenders run the gamut from talented artists that create a blend that far exceeds the sum of its parts, but can also include straight repackagers, who buy chocolate, melt it, and sell it as their own.

There’s nothing wrong with repackaged chocolate, but the way it’s sold can be misleading. Here’s a rule of thumb: If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. Making chocolate from scratch is both labor- and time-intensive, and it will cost a little bit more than your standard grocery fare.

This brings us back to you, the eater. While many chocolate lovers are rightly excited by confections, truffles and barks, there’s a growing movement to taste chocolate on its own. Much like wine is more than rotten grapes, people are learning that chocolate is more than ground-up beans. It can have inherent flavors of fruit, flowers, earth, nuts, and more. And while it’s a fine canvas for flavor, it’s worth tasting on its own.

If you learn more about chocolate, you’ll start to realize that it goes far beyond the chocolatier. What we know as chocolate is the result of many steps and many people’s work. Just go with it. Relationship status: It’s complicated.

Photos by Nick Hobgood via Flickr (Creative Commons) and Sanjay Acharya via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons).

Eagranie Yuh is a writer, editor, and chocolate educator. Prior to that, she was a chemist, pastry chef, and chocolatier. She writes a sweets column for the Vancouver Courier and is a regular contributor to Edible Vancouver. Her essay on frankenchocolatechip cookies is included in Best Food Writing 2012 and she’s the author of the forthcoming Chocolate-Tasting Kit (Chronicle Books). Eagranie is a frequent judge of chocolate competitions and blogs about the science of sweet things at The Well-Tempered Chocolatier.

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