The best chocolate certainly comes from Western Europe. But, the question that needs to be asked is: does chocolate have to be made in Europe alone to be considered good? Not really, but making chocolate – as opposed to growing the cacao bean – does require a temperature of about 18 degrees Celsius. Warmer than that and chocolate loses its snap – the liquid crunch of a good chocolate. Much warmer and good chocolate is in danger of melting. And it is one of the ironies of the chocolate world that though all cacao is grown in tropical countries around the equator, it is processed in the temperate zone. Most of the world’s cacao beans come from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, Java in Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Madagascar and Jamaica.
What exactly makes fine chocolate fine? Several things. The species of cacao tree is vital: criollo is the finest of the three types of trees, the hybrid trinitario next and forastero the least desirable. There’s a rider however: in the third world where the cacao bean is grown, small farmers would rather dry their cacao beans hastily and dispose them off to agents who give them the same rate as beans that have been carefully dried in the shade, the better to retain and develop their inherent flavours.
Most of the processes that turn the cacao bean into chocolate are performed in the countries of the developed world that manufacture chocolate. Among them are roasting milling and conching, the latter leading to a finer molecule that makes chocolate ‘melt in your mouth’. At this juncture, there’s one process that could result in good chocolate or an industrial product that is of little interest to gourmets: the cocoa butter. It is a natural part of the product, but because it is so highly sought after by the beauty industry, many large-scale manufacturers of chocolate take out the cocoa butter and add vegetable fats. No serious chocolatier would call the result chocolate; it’s usually referred to as compound. Unlike chocolate, compound has one advantage: it is not prone to melt.
The other point to note is the percentage of cocoa used in a particular chocolate. Less than 70 percent is not considered serious; over 80, and you’re treading on delicate ground: unless you know what you’re doing, it tastes too intense for first timers, and anything over 90 percent cannot, by definition, have sugar.
Finally, Nature endowed each cacao-growing district with a secret: chocolate whose bean originates in San Tome will have top notes of mixed spice especially cinnamon, whereas others parts of the world have undertones of coconut, citrus, even red fruits.
The world’s finest chocolates:
One of the few serious Italian player from the land of Nutella, Amadei personally chooses its beans from plantations, rather than from brokers. It goes without saying that they don’t work with couverture bought from back-end suppliers, but make their own. Chuao and Porcelano bars are their best products.
A French company that is over 100 years old, it has a very limited production, the better to control quality. They were the first company to make bars from specific countries, the first to make chocolate with 75 per cent cocoa and the first to introduce the concept of vintage in chocolate. You can find part of their range in Bon Marche, Paris.
They were the first serious player based in Latin America, and until a couple of years ago, the only one. Their chocolate – occasionally available in Asia – is dark, funky and unusual. All the chocolates from their small range are made with beans from an area south of Caracas.
So far, the only of the high end players that is available in India, where they supply couverture (bulk chocolate) to select deluxe hotels. Most chocolate snobs go straight for dark, as opposed to milk chocolate, but Felchlin’s milk chocolate has all the richness and creaminess that you would expect from the well-fed cows of Switzerland.
La Maison du Chocolat
Robert Linxe is as good a chocolatier as a businessman – a rare combination in this particular field which tends to produce geniuses in the kitchen, but duds at the cash counter and the PR world. His shops around Paris, London, New York and Tokyo are better known for bon bons than bars. The milk chocolate in his truffles has an underlying note of honey. Excellent for presenting as gifts.
This company has perfected the art of conching (stirring a vat of chocolate at high temperature) and their Excellence range is a high cocoa (over 74 per cent) one. The best part? It’s widely available at good stores in India. If you want to experience the world of fine chocolate, but don’t know where to start, you can’t have a better introduction than this.
The best known of the Belgian brigade. Like most others from this country, Marcolini are more famous for their range of bon bons as opposed to the more serious bars. Remember Godiva? That too started out as Belgian before being bought over by an international conglomerate, and is still known for its bon bons.
Located in Roanne, France, Francois Pralus makes his own chocolate from hand-selected beans. Widely considered by connoisseurs to be the most talented chocolatier on the planet, Pralus bars often have undertones of the earth – mushrooms, tropical forest and wed wood – but that’s the way this genius wants to take his customers back to the origins of the product that they’re sampling.
Like Guittard and Michael Recchiuti, Scharffen Berger exists in the Land of Hershey Kisses. He works with the finest couverture sourced from others to create a range of products that are sought after by chefs and the end user alike. His 85 per cent cocoa bar is among the finest in that category: a fiendishly difficult feat to achieve.
They have miraculously managed to guard their quality in spite of being the giants of chocolate, making bars for the discerning customer, chefs and other manufacturers alike. Their Manjari bar captures undertones of ripe red fruit, Caraibe contains the flavours of a tropical island and Palmira the slow explosion of coffee. They are starting to be available in India, mostly to select deluxe hotels.