When Andreas Roesing, Pastry Chef of the Grand Hyatt Delhi, visited friends in the French town of Tain-l’Hermitage, his chief memory was the all-pervasive aroma of chocolate in the air. “Every time we’d open the door, it would envelope us. I can hardly remember anything else from that trip.” Chef Roesing may have been visiting friends who were fortunate enough to live in the little town in the Rhone Valley, but for chocolate aficionados all over the world, Tain-l’Hermitage is no less than the centre of the universe. For it’s where Valrhona has its factory.
For lovers of chocolate, it’s a very small world out there. It includes France, Belgium (not necessarily in that order, but that’s another story), Switzerland, Austria and Holland. But, more importantly, it includes the tropical forests of three continents: Latin America’s Venezuela, Trinidad, Ecuador, Bahia in Brazil and Mexico where it all started; West Africa: Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon; and South East Asia: New Guinea, Samoa, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Chocolate is spoken of in the same breath as fine coffee, wine or cheese. That may be so, but it has more in common with the world of coffee than the other two: cacao plantations, like coffee plantations, exist in the equatorial belt. Both beans travel half-way across the world, after being auctioned, to be processed, principally in western Europe. It is this value addition in most cases which fetches chocolate – and coffee – its cachet. There is only one exception in each case: beans from the legendary Chuao plantation hidden in the mountains of Venezuela are so prized that a blend known to contain Chuao beans immediately commands attention in the chocolatier’s market. In the same way, a blend of coffee known to contain Jamaican Blue Mountain beans causes immediate interest in the coffee market. Neither bean is available on its own: so rare are they.
The affinity that chocolate and coffee have for each other goes beyond mere taste: there are only two types of coffee beans and three kinds of cacao beans, the third being a hybrid of the first two. Criollo beans were the original Mexican variety immortalized in legend as having been cultivated by the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl himself. The majority of beans produced today belong to the forastero group. The third type, trinitario, is the crossbreed between the first two. Much like arabica and robusta of the coffee world, the three varieties of cacao have aromas and characteristics that vary from one country to another because of soil and climatic variations. Thus, Brazilian cacao beans have a smoky taste while those from Ecuador are highly scented.
But what does all this have to do with the chocolate that most of us will be consuming in large quantities over the festive season? Plenty. The chocolatier’s art is to make a pleasing blend which makes optimal use of cacao beans from each region. So well-developed is this art, that top-of-the-range companies like Valrhona have a permanent representative in the cacao-growing regions of the world. The idea is to get hold of the best beans so as to use them in the best blends. Some limited edition chocolates are not blends at all, but grand crus in the same way that the finest wines come from a certain section of a particular vineyard.
To Andreas Roesing, cooking with chocolate in the bakery of his hotel means using premium products. He uses Callebaut callets for his mousses, cakes, ganache tarts and truffles. A callet is a small coin-sized pellet of chocolate that is sold by weight for use in commercial operations. The house of Callebaut, based in Belgium has long specialized in offering products to other professionals. Today, there are few pastry chefs worldwide who do not swear by Callebaut.
Other names in the stratosphere of the world’s finest chocolatiers include Scharffen Berger, Felchin and El Rey. There’s one name, however, that towers above them all like a veritable Mount Everest, and that is Valrhona. This French giant may actually seem like a dwarf next to Cadbury’s and Lindt, but it suits them fine. They’re not into the numbers game. Their focus is on sourcing fine beans and making chocolate from scratch. They’re the best in the world at it: some of their limited edition chocolates use, variously, only crillio beans or only Venezuelan beans.
Valrhona and Callebaut are examples of backward integration in the chocolate industry. From high-end consumer chocolates to premium products for use in the trade to creating “formulae” for master recipes of chocolate based on raw stock, they’re doing it all. Other houses prefer to specialize in one aspect of chocolate-making or another. Thus, one house may do nothing but blend beans, another may roast, ‘nib’, grind, ‘conch’ and temper, all according to the specifications of wholesale customers, while yet another buys ‘readymade’ couverture and creates signature truffles. Within these divisions, some production houses sell to the trade only, others retail their products.
So, exactly what is great chocolate? According to Andreas Roesing, it should have depth of flavour, with top notes and base notes in exactly the same way as a perfume. Ideally, good chocolate should have a smooth, silky texture that means the conching process has been thorough. “The flavour of a well-made chocolate should develop progressively on the palate,” he says. The longer the taste persists in the mouth, the better the chocolate. Distinctiveness is important too. Funky, fermented El Ray is the opposite in the taste spectrum to, say, Debauve & Gallais but each has its devotees.
Roesing hastens to add that addition of natural cocoa butter may help the consistency of chocolate, but other additions such as paraffin to avoid melting, chemical emulsifiers and artificial flavours are cardinal sins. “If it’s not available in India, it’s probably good,” is his tongue in cheek comment which refers to the woeful lack of refrigeration facilities in the country from the time a consignment leaves the cargo hold till it reaches the end consumer, making it impossible for quality chocolate to be brought here commercially.
There are fashions in everything, and chocolate’s no exception. “Mud pies are so much a feature of today’s cakes, that even wedding cakes in Australia use this dense, sticky recipe as their base.” The other huge trend is chocolate mousse cakes that are made without sponge. Contrary to what we’ve always known as chocolate truffle in India, filled chocolates are made with ganache centres which are a mixture of chocolate and cream. These are then coated with enrobing chocolate.
Roesing, and others of his breed all over the world, are unamimous in their praise for chocolate. “It’s the most rewarding medium to work with,” they enthuse. “Marvellously therapeutic, working with chocolate in a cool, secluded kitchen is like being on a high. This is one medium where there’s no wastage, yet gives your artistic talents full rein.” And, they might add, transports the consumer to heaven.