The dark fantasy of a chocolate connoisseur
The first thing you need to remember about chocolate is that there are two quite distinct categories of product that go by that name. The first includes the mass-market, industrial chocolates we grew up on: the Cadbury’s, the Snickers, the Mars bars, the Kit-Kats, etc. And the second is high-end chocolate crafted by skilled chocolatiers, derived from high-end beans and usually, made by a different process than the industrial stuff.
What both categories have in common is the cocoa bean. As you probably know, the bean has been cultivated in South America for thousands of years, though, originally, it was used to make a savoury drink. When the Spanish invader Hernando Cortez landed in the Americas, the Aztec King Montezuma made one of those errors that transform history. He mistook Cortez for a re-incarnated deity and welcomed him with a pot of chocolate.
Cortez and his men slaughtered the Aztecs, colonised their country and took chocolate back to Europe where inventive chefs created a sweet version. Later, chemists were able to figure out how to harden chocolate, leading to the creation of the chocolate bar, and then eventually, to ‘filled’ (with nuts, nougat, wafers, etc.) chocolates, like say, Snickers or Kit-Kat.
Though chocolate has been around for millennia, milk chocolate, oddly enough, is of relatively recent origin. All chocolate is based on fat (80 per cent is cocoa butter) while milk is based on water (89 per cent). The two are natural enemies and it wasn’t till 1875 when Henri Nestlé, who had invented condensed milk (still a big seller for Nestlé), joined hands with a chocolate chemist called Daniel Peter to add cocoa powder and sugar to the condensed milk, that milk chocolate was born and with it, the craze for commercial chocolate bars.
But milk chocolate is not the same all over the world. There are now different industrial processes and each yields a distinctive flavour. Hershey, the American chocolate giant, uses milk powder and its chocolate has a distinctive taste (like sour or spoilt milk). In Switzerland, Nestle’s successors add condensed milk to unsweetened chocolate for a creamier flavour.
In India we have grown up on Cadbury’s, which gave us a taste for its English-style caramelised milk chocolate loaded with sugar. One theory about Cadbury’s early success in India is that the oversweet, caramelised milk taste reminded Indians of our own milk-based sweets. (Another is that Cadbury’s were the first and created the chocolate palate in India.)
All this conditioning has made us resistant to other kinds of chocolate. But it hardly matters these days. Because cocoa is expensive, most commercial chocolate brands don’t use much chocolate. The point of a Kit-Kat or a Snickers or even a Mars Bar is not the chocolate covering – it is the non-chocolate stuff inside.
I have a lot of respect for the industrial chocolate sector and for some of its creations (the Snickers bar is magic!) but I don’t think it has much to do with real chocolate. Instead, this sector, with its emphasis on packaging, marketing, innovation etc, reminds me more of Coke and Pepsi.
Real chocolate, on the other hand, is like fine wine, which is why it falls in a completely different category. And in fact, the parallels with wine are striking. The cocoa bean is an agricultural product. Its quality varies from season to season, different regions produce beans that taste significantly different. Ghana produces reasonable quality chocolate while Congo does not. Chocolate from Chuao in Venezuela is better than chocolate from anywhere else in that country. And so on.
Unlike wine, chocolate is not a First World product – no cocoa grows in Europe. The general rule of thumb is that a First World product is always spoken of in terms of terroir. (Burgundy for wine, Parma for ham, and now Kobe for beef.) But with Third World products, the raw materials are rarely spoken about while the attention is paid to the First World guys who work with them.
So, the centres of the chocolate world are places like Belgium, Switzerland and France. And the heroes are so-called artisanal brands, most of which are really fully industrial or are subsidiaries of conglomerates. Valrhona is owned by the giant Bongrain. Godiva is now owned by the Turkish Yıldız Holdings. Suchard is owned by Mondelez, the multinational that owns Kraft, Cadbury’s and Kool-Aid.
Even so-called hip brands like Max Brenner, famous in America and Australia, are divisions of global giants. Max Brenner is a subsidiary of the Strauss group, the Israeli food giant. Royce, with over 40 stores abroad and many more in its native Japan, is a large company that sells drinking water, coffee, crafts and even insurance.
None of this is to say that the ‘luxury’ chocolate brands make bad chocolate but only to point out that these days, they are as much into marketing and packaging as Mars or Hershey. And image alone is no guarantee of quality.
So what should you look for in a luxury chocolate? Well, speaking for myself, I look for two things. Like good wine, the chocolate should interpret the flavour of the bean. And if you are tasting chocolates made by famous chocolatiers like Michel Chaudun or the pastry chef Pierre Herme (who buy their chocolate from big manufacturers), you look for creativity in fillings, delicacy of construction and of course, the dark taste of good chocolate.
You need to remember that the overwhelming taste of commercial chocolate is sugar and milk. Real chocolate should (ideally) have no milk and much less sugar. You judge the cocoa-content (anything below 40 per cent is a waste of time), the colour (and the gloss), and the fragrance: good chocolate should contain fruity aromas. It really is a lot like judging wine!
Making high-quality chocolate involves a process so complex that were I to describe it in detail, you would probably turn the page. But one key element is the conching, a process invented in the 19th century that creates texture and shifts the flavour compounds between the particles of chocolate so that each flavour emerges in your mouth at intervals creating the multi-layered taste that good chocolate and good wine share.
Conching is an expensive process, so commercial chocolate is quickly conched, but quality chocolate needs to be conched for several hours. The same is true of tempering (carefully heating, cooling, heating again etc), which gives the fat in the chocolate a stable crystalline structure (I told you the process was tedious!) leading to a sheen on the surface of the bars, a cleaner snap when you break off a piece and resistance to “bloom” (when the outside of the chocolate turns white).
In 2007, Yogi Deveshwar, ITC’s long-time chairman, decided that he wanted the company to make world-class chocolates. ITC’s consumer products and foods are wildly successful but they have no great reputation for luxury. So Deveshwar made this a challenge for ITC Foods. It took ten years of experimentation and research, and the expertise of some of the world’s best consulting chocolatiers but they came up with a line of chocolates called Fabelle, which was launched this year.
This is top-of-line chocolate, sourced from several different countries, conched for at least 12 hours and then hand-crafted. As we have seen, if you buy high quality beans and treat them with respect, it doesn’t matter whether you make the chocolate in Japan (Royce) or Switzerland (Suchard). One factor that does matter is how soon you eat the chocolate. All bars and all chocolates – even if they are well-packed – begin to lose flavour over time (think olive oil, not wine). And yet most foreign brands can take months to reach consumers. ITC pushes its chocolates into the shops within 24 hours of manufacture. And if a packet does not sell within the stipulated time, they will discard it only because the taste will not be at its peak.
I have to say, in all honesty, that I was very sceptical when I tried my first Fabelle chocolate. To my surprise, the quality of the chocolate itself was outstanding. Fabelle will market bars marked by single origin (Madagascar, Equador, etc) but their moulded chocolates are masterful, with delicate construction and unusual fillings (Fleur de Sel, Nacho chili, acacia nectar, etc).
I first tried Fabelle at the chocolate boutique at the ITC Gardenia hotel in Bangalore three months ago. (Because of the obvious synergy, the Foods division is teaming up with the Hotels division to run the boutiques at ITC Luxury Hotels.) I was so struck by the effort and expense that had gone into creating the chocolates that I wondered how ITC would ever make money on such a niche product, no matter how excellent it is.
I am told by VL Rajesh, head of ITC Foods, that in the months since, they have opened new boutiques at other hotels and the response has been phenomenal. Apparently, Indians love eating and gifting high-end chocolates.Which is encouraging. Because it is nice to see how Deveshwar’s passion to make something I never thought was possible in India – a truly world-class chocolate – is translating into commercial success. Clearly, the rest of us have been underestimating the Indian consumer!
From HT Brunch, September 25, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch