‘The cacao you start the process with is the single most important factor in great quality, artisan chocolate, after that you rely on the skill of the chocolate maker to do the rest.’ – Martin Christy
Here, words and phrases such as “fair trade,” “rainforest alliance,” “organic,” “certified,” and “single estate” lose their overblown and over-promoted promise of value. From tasting the bars of already well-known producers such as Amedei, Amano, and Pralus to the newest players such as Potomac Chocolate and The Chocolate Conspiracy, customers also get a transparent glimpse of what genuine ethical models of trade should really look like. These companies work with buyers who don’t force economically disadvantaged farmers to cut corners in their work – even in how they would ferment and dry the cacao beans.
For example, Alessio and Cecilia Tessieri, the siblings who started Amedei in 1990, pay farmers at least six times the prevailing market rates and make it a point to connect personally regularly with the growers. In the eyes of the connoisseur, chocolate making now appears less like an industry than as a laboratory where culinary risks, experimentation and hard work lead to a transcendental experience.
Through sample tastings, chocolate education classes, and their store purchases, customers begin to understand the need to preserve high-quality crops of cacao beans and to support farmers who should be rewarded for producing a crop that offers exceptional flavor profiles cultivated in the best sustainable agricultural environment possible.
For Ben Rasmussen, the epiphany changed his life. Two years ago, at Christmas, Rasmussen, who always had been content with a Three Musketeers bar to satisfy his chocolate craving, sampled chocolates that his brother purchased after he attended a class at Caputo’s. Rasmussen, a BYU-Idaho graduate who was living in Virginia and working as a computer systems administrator, was so impressed that he encouraged his brother to repeat the sample tastings for other holiday visitors.
‘I had a pretty terrible palate and I never considered myself a lover of dark chocolate,’ he recalls. ‘I certainly wasn’t a foodie in the traditional sense and I even warned my brother not to get his hopes up with me. However, after tasting the gateway drugs – a Valrhona Manjari, Amedei Chuao, Amano Ocumare, and Domori Java Blond – I fell in love immediately.’
By the Fourth of July in 2010, Rasmussen had tempered his first batch of chocolate with beans from the Ivory Coast and he was so hooked that he shuttered his sideline business as a wedding photographer and launched Potomac Chocolate. With a voracious appetite for continuous improvement, he quickly accelerated his learning curve, gaining the attention of the Biagio Fine Chocolate shop in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Potomac Chocolate debuted late last year at a chocolate symposium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
‘Nobody knew we were in the room and the moderator milked the room for comments, which were quite positive,’ he says. ‘There was a woman sitting two rows in front of me who spat out the sample and she was mortified when we were introduced.’ Ironically, Rasmussen has yet to meet Matt Caputo in person.
This Christmas, Rasmussen’s Upala bar with nibs, made from beans in Costa Rica that have not been featured extensively in other bean-to-bar productions, is available at Caputo’s and Potomac Chocolate can be found in at least two dozen other shops including Calgary and London. The bar explodes with promise and it is hard to believe that someone within such a short timespan has been able to achieve such a remarkable product.
The roast is unquestionably rich and deep but Rasmussen shows a deft hand with bringing out lightened, smoothed tones of molasses, berries, and spice. It is a bold bar not necessarily the most complex or refined but it is a memorably satisfying example of chocolate’s elemental perfection.
Boldness is a common trait among many of the products found at Caputo’s. In Utah, The Chocolate Conspiracy is angling to promote chocolate’s full health benefits by offering raw chocolate bars, made from heirloom Nacional beans from Ecuador. A. J. Wentworth, whose culinary background is focused on raw, vegan, and integrative nutritional techniques, then processes the chocolate through 70 hours of grinding and sweetens it with raw, unfiltered honey from a local producer. Other ingredients might include Himalayan pink salt and raw vanilla bean.
Wentworth, who also has a patisserie background, has produced a line of bars that will surprise even detractors who have found other raw bars to be shallow and plastic in taste. His Goji Berry offering, in particular, is a first-rate infused bar that satisfies quite significantly with complex layers of texture and depth which normally would be apparent in bean-to-bar products with the sort of lighter roasts common in many Amano and Pralus chocolates. Part of his inspiration came from the challenges of making vegan chocolate desserts for customers and others, such as ‘my mother who always had been content with Hershey’s kisses,’ he explains.
Likewise, imaginative creations from other relative newcomers amplify the elemental flavors and healthful benefits of top-quality cacao beans. Missouri Chocolatier Alan ‘Patric’ McClure – whose seven years in business makes him a veteran relative to Rasmussen and Wentworth – achieves amazing results in bars such as his PBJ OMG (“peanut better and jelly” as part of the “oh my gosh” line). Using only five ingredients – roasted cacao beans, cocoa butter, cane sugar, sea salt, and peanut butter, McClure, whose other creations have won industry awards and accolades from observers such as Food & Wine Magazine, lets the fruit jelly notes come through the beans.
McClure pushes the boundaries in unprecedented ways, too, such as his collaboration with Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company. Earlier this month, Patric Chocolate released coffee-based Cappuccino and Mocha bars that use an espresso bean as the base ingredient. The taste surprises – in a pleasing way, too.
At Caputo’s, names like Amedei, Amano, Pralus and others continue to anchor one of the region’s most extensive retail offerings of fine chocolate. Amedei always flexes its culinary muscle in many enriching ways. Its Toscano Red bar packs a generous portion of dried fruits – cherries, strawberries and raspberries – into its 70 percent dark chocolate form.
The Amedei 9 bar, which now has earned two major awards from the Academy of Chocolate in London, is a 75 percent creation with beans coming from nine plantations. It runs the gamut in tasting – floral, light, and fruit-scented to rich, darker tones. The finish is so clean that one almost has to do a double-take to make sure that this bar actually contains 75 percent cocoa solids.
Amedei also has moved some of its chocolate creations that used to be available in the small five-gram sample squares into its traditional 50-gram (1.75 ounce) bars. Its Venezuela bar gives generous tasting notes of floral and citrus character along with hints of coffee, cream, and subtle fleeting bits of nutmeg, cinnamon, and other dark spices.
The artisan chocolate world has changed and expanded so much in less than a decade that a few roguish upstarts look upon Amedei as playing it too conservatively or cleanly but no one should ever underestimate this pioneer because they always prove their merit as independent producers who willingly take the risks big chocolate producers would never entertain.
Only Amedei would dare blend white chocolate with the strongly flavored pistachios unique to the tiny Bronte area in Sicily. The nuts, normally used in pastas, ice cream, and baklava, mesh so well with white chocolate that this Amedei creation is undeniably one of the best infused white chocolate bars ever tasted personally.
In many respects, the Utah-based Amano Artisan Chocolate enterprise has become almost as well known and respected in the global chocolate connoisseur community. Its Madagascar bar received the second highest ranked score of any bar tasted by expert connoisseurs who write reviews for the industry’s authoritative online information source Seventy%. It has earned scores of honors in less than five years.
Two Amano bars worth mentioning include Amano Cuyagua, which offers notes of rum, sassafras, coffee, and even earthy morels but has an intriguing finish on the palate that is like the end of a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner.
Special note should be given to its Morobe bar, which indicates precisely the type of rehabilitated cacao production by which farmers in Papua New Guinea. The bar epitomizes what Martin Christy, the internationally respected chocolate reviewer for Seventy% in London, believes is at the core of artisanal producers who seek to bring back the most cherished varietals of cacao – most specifically, Trinitario in this case. He rhapsodizes about Art Pollard’s creation:
‘As you let it melt in your mouth you will have those sharp grapefruit and lime flavours lifting off the bar, hitting the side of your mouth. It’s almost like a grapefruit vinaigrette with the acidity and the sweetness combined. But beneath that there is an utterly splendid caramel experience that holds it all together and well after the final melt you should get leather and a slight dusting of tobacco.’
Finally, Pralus offerings, as usual, should be checked out by customers at Caputo’s, too. Chocolate maker Francois Pralus, who worked as a pastry chef in France before turning his attention to chocolate, has produced bars that rank clearly among Amedei’s best efforts, matching them in terms of immensely pleasing silky tastes and creamy smooth textures.
He is as adventuresome as his Italian counterparts, producing, for example, a Vanuatu bar that contains cacao sourced from Epi, a tiny island part of the nation – really, a South Pacific archipelago with considerable volcanic activity nearly equidistant from Australia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea.
The taste is a fascinating mélange that belies the expectations one expects from the geographical origin of the bean. Fruity and zesty, the bar has fleeting notes of ginger, warm spices, and nuts that seem more appropriate for a late autumn feast.
Another worthwhile Pralus confection is the Barre Infernale that tips its culinary hand to the creator’s patisserie expertise. This is the perfect praline treat.
Quantity should never be the guide here. Most of these artisanal bars include 12 squares and just 2 or 3 at a time impart such incredible taste sensations that the satisfaction is so complete. Therefore, one would hesitate to risk sensory fatigue for fear of missing the complex notes these chocolate treasures offer. And, skip trying to pair them with wine. These confections seem to match beautifully with warmer liqueurs, rums, whiskeys, and scotch.
For more information about Caputo’s offerings of chocolates as well as classes, see here.
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