Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The ethical quandary of chocolate and how to better appreciate it

Upon telling my friends excitedly that I was going to a chocolate appreciation course at Monsieur Truffle, the standard response was ‘and you don’t already know how to appreciate chocolate???’

There really is a difference between enjoying the consumption of something, and really paying attention to the thing you are eating, where it came from, and how it was made.

We have an after dinner tradition at my house of eating a square of dark chocolate (usually Lindt 70%). As a child I liked all chocolate; milk, white and dark but these days I cannot really eat Cadburys or similar products. They are too sweet and not really about chocolate to me (and looking at the ingredients list the amount of cocoa mass is very very low). To me, chocolate is chocolate by itself, without too much embellishment (with the exception of truffles, or very well made French style chocolate).

So I thought I knew all about chocolate. I was pretty wrong! The chocolate appreciation course at Monsieur Truffle’s new shop (90 Smith St) really opened my eyes to a product I think we take a little for granted. For a start, it can only be grown close to the equator, which means that it is sensitive to climate change and also the product itself changes year by year depending on rainfall etc. Secondly, most of the large companies are buying second grade beans from all over the world and mixing them together (with a whole bunch of other crap like emulsifiers, flavourings, heaps of sugar and preservatives) in order to develop a homogenised product that doesn’t change in flavour year in year out.

The course started by looking at the growing of cocoa and the way it is picked, dried and roasted (and we ate some cocoa beans and some straight cocoa mass, which tastes amazing). Unbelievably, this is done in small villages in poor countries, usually by hand, and typically the locals are not paid very much for their labour (and use/ depletion of their land). I recently came upon an article from the Age which focuses on the way chocolate is grown and issues such as child labour. West African and Asian countries typically have worse conditions for the workers than other countries.

The next stage is shipping the cocoa (butter and mass) typically to Europe where it is processed and then sent all over the world to be consumed. Considering how many food miles one chocolate bar has travelled to be sold at Coles for $2, you start to realise that the people making the money out of it will be the big multinationals but not the locals.

Luckily, at the higher end of chocolate products, the latest trend has been not only single origin bean products, it has also been to start taking care of the communities from where the beans are coming from. Valrhona (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valrhona) recently lost a plantation they had for years to a rich Italian philanthropist who offered the community a chance to grow and has introduced schools and hospitals to the area. This is quite promising for the local communities, who for years have been missing out on this precious ‘commodity’. Remember this is only being done for the premium beans and plantations.

And can chocolate ever be SOLE in Australia? Cocoa Farm is an Australian company with a plantation in North Queensland (but they also get beans from surrounding Pacific islands). You may have seen their products in Wine shops, often with shiraz and other grapes. It is not a bad tasting chocolate and is as local as we can get in Australia. Green and Blacks Organic chocolate is available in supermarkets, but remember that it is now owned by Cadbury and is an English company.

The course also offered a tasting component of premium chocolates (of single origin beans) including Valrhona, Michel Cluizel and Felchlin. We even tasted a chocolate product made with ‘wild’ cocoa beans. Part way through the evening we needed to put it into perspective so someone went down to the local corner store and came back with some Old Gold dark chocolate. It was quite interesting to note the difference between a high end product to a supermarket brand. For a start, the overwhelming flavour of the Old Gold was in fact of vanilla. It also had a real ‘dirty’ flavour to it that I had never noticed before, a real bitterness. The premium products on the other hand were all different to each other and varied from smooth, to smoky, to hints of chilli, honey, and other subtle flavours, that were actually due to the bean and not additives.

The course was supposed to go from 6:30pm to 8:45pm but we ended up being there till 9:30pm! He also had take home booklets for us full of useful information. Monsieur Truffle used to be at the Prahran markets but has moved to a shop in Collingwood/ Fitzroy so that he can make the chocolate on site. If you are at all interested in chocolate, I would recommend this course as a really good way to taste some premium chocolate and learn a bit more about it. What I really want to do next is watch him tempering chocolate and making Ganache but I don’t think that is on the cards!
And yes we have been eating much different chocolate for our 'after dinner snacks since this course ;)

1 comment:

Fitzroyalty said...

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