Europeans make much of regional origins when it comes to their own food and drink. But notions of terroir collapse when the product in question is chocolate.
I’m always hesitant to write about chocolate because the more I read about it, the less I seem to know. Over the last two decades chocolate snobbery has grown to such levels that it is almost impossible for the layman to make sense of the reality beneath the pretension. Nevertheless, cheered by the news that Cadbury’s will be launching four new varieties of dark chocolate in India soon, I thought I’d make some general observations about chocolate from the perspective of a man who eats chocolate nearly every day of his life, if not from the lofty pedestal of the chocolate expert. The most curious thing about chocolate is that it turns conventional Western notions of food and drink snobbery on their head. Ask a Frenchman about the food and drink of France, and you’ll get a long lecture about the provenance of the ingredients. You’ll hear how Toulouse sausages can only be made in the city whose name they bear. <b1>
You’ll hear about the Perigord black truffle; about how black truffles from elsewhere are no good. And most famously, you’ll hear all about terroir. You will be told that wine is an agricultural product and that French wine is the best because it grows in some of the world’s greatest vineyards. American wine, you will be told, depends on the winemaker, not on the grapes themselves or on the soil or the micro climate. The same is true of all of Europe. Most countries now have their own version of the French regulation of regions (Appellation Contrôlée) for wine production. And if wine from one region is mixed with wine from another area, then there may well be a scandal. (The French have a way around this. When demand exceeds the vineyards in the region, they simply expand the borders of the region as they have in Champagne and Chablis.)
You can agree or disagree with this. Perhaps it is true that the ham of Parma (no other ham can describe itself thus) is superior to other Italian hams. Or perhaps, Europeans make too much of terroir. But either way, Europeans themselves are committed to regional origins. The exception to all of this is chocolate. Talk to the Belgians and they will tell you that they make the best chocolates in the world. The Swiss will make a similar claim. The Italians are proud of their own chocolate.
And the French now act as though their chocolate cannot be matched. But here’s the thing: not one of these countries grows any chocolate at all. So whatever happened to terroir? To the notion that food is an agricultural product that represents the soil of the region it is grown in? To the idea that it is wrong to blend wines from many different places? What happens in the case of chocolate is this: a few monopolist trading houses buy up chocolate from those countries that grow it (in the West Indies, in South America etc). They then grade the chocolate (or more properly, the cocoa bean) according to quality and offer it for sale to the world’s chocolate makers. The chocolate that the French rave about is not grown in a little plantation in the Gironde. It is grown thousands of miles away in South America (usually). The people who cultivate the chocolate have never met the French chocolate makers and frankly, couldn’t give a damn what the Frenchmen do with their
The first that the French see of the chocolate is when it arrives at their docks. This is as true of every single European country that boasts of a chocolate tradition: Switzerland, Belgium, Italy etc. Extend the chocolate experience to wine. Or better still, reverse it. Suppose some enterprising West Indian bought lots of grapes from Bordeaux. Suppose now that he took them to Guyana and turned them into wine. How do you suppose the French would react if he said that he was making the world’s best wine? They would laugh in his face. But this is exactly what the French are doing with chocolate. Sometimes, it gets even worse. Assume our West Indian wine maker decided that he would buy some grapes from Italy, some from France and say, some from Switzerland. His wine would be a blend of all the grapes.
The French would be outraged. So would nearly every European. The man has no sense of terroir, they would sneer. But here again, this is what the world’s great chocolate makers do. When you buy a bar of expensive chocolate, it will often comprise a blend of cocoa beans from all over the world. You can buy single origin chocolate but this constitutes a tiny part of the market. When a great French patissier offers you his chocolate truffles, he’s actually offering you a dish made of cocoa beans from many different countries. So what matters? The beans or the chocolate maker? Here, the French do a quick about turn.
Having contemptuously dismissed Californian wine because the wine maker is more important than the terroir, they suddenly argue that cocoa beans are only important up to a point. The real talent, they claim, lies with the chocolate maker. Yeah, sure. The trouble with most chocolate snobbery is that it exists in a vacuum. People who buy an over-priced mass market brand like say, Godiva, never bother to find out what chocolate the company uses. Now, some chefs have wisened up to questions about the origins of chocolate. So they will brag that their desserts are made with Valrhona chocolate. This usually is a guarantee of quality (Valrhona makes excellent chocolate) but it does not answer the question of terroir.
Valrhona is a brand not a plantation. I am always leery therefore of people who claim that they only buy their chocolate in Paris or argue that Belgian chocolates are the best in the world. Given that neither of these countries grow any cocoa beans at all, how can they make national claims for the quality of their chocolate? There may well be a good chocolate maker in Brussels or an excellent patissier in Paris. But these are claims for individuals, not for nationalities. So, does terroir matter when it comes to chocolate? Surely it must. It is an agricultural product after all. You can now buy single origin chocolate bars in which very little has been done to the chocolate and the taste of the cocoa bean comes through.
Eat four different chocolate bars from four different regions and you will not fail to notice that each is subtly different. How can people mix up regions, ignore the provenance of the cocoa and still claim to produce the world’s best chocolates? What this means, in real terms, is that a man making chocolate in Delhi has exactly as much chance of turning out an excellent chocolate bar or a chocolate truffle as a man making chocolate in Brussels or Zurich. Both use exactly the same cocoa. And the skills are not so difficult to learn. Why then don’t we get better chocolate in India? In the case of wine, for instance, you can argue that our grapes lack the quality of say, Bordeaux grapes. But those excuses are not available to our chocolate makers. I have no real answer, only some tentative suggestions. The first is that good chocolate can be expensive.
Indians do not like paying lots of money for chocolate (not unless it’s got a fancy foreign brand name) so Indian chocolate makers (including the artisanal ones) cut corners and use cheaper ingredients. The second is that we have yet to develop a sophisticated palate when it comes to chocolate. This is not terribly surprising. The majority of Americans, for instance, like Hershey’s with its sour milk taste – a chocolate that no European would be willing to eat. It takes time to develop a national palate and clearly, we’re not there yet. The third is that you don’t really understand what chocolate is about unless you mainline, that is to say, you eat it by the bar without milk, with a relatively high cocoa content and not too much sugar. That kind of chocolate is still difficult to get in India. When I have found it at food stores in Delhi, the bars have tended to be old and have clearly melted and re-solidified several times in the course of their journey to the shop. The fourth is that even the so-called artisanal chocolate makers go to great lengths to mask the flavour of chocolate.
Most of the Indian chocolate boxes I have been sent consist of poncy round chocolates with a variety of nasty fillings designed to overpower the real taste of chocolate. It may seem creative to put orange, ginger and chilli in your chocolate. But it also ensures that the chocolate flavour is assassinated. In my experience, the best chocolate has simple flavours. You can of course eat bars of pure dark chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong in being adventurous and trying something comforting like a fruit and nut bar. My problem is that the chocolate market has now diverged so clearly between serious and flippant chocolate that fruit and nut, which is classified as a flippant chocolate, is nearly always made with milk chocolate.
The dark chocolate bars tend to have grown up nuts such as hazel nuts and no fruit at all. But this could be changing. I gather that among the new dark chocolate flavours that Cadbury’s is introducing is a fruit and nut. Assuming they get it right and do not screw it up with too much sugar, this sounds like it’s worth waiting for. At any rate, with bars of good quality dark chocolate available throughout India because of Cadbury’s distribution network, we may finally be on the verge of developing a national palate for chocolate.