There's chocolate, and then there's chocolate.
Dark, pure, chocolate --with 60-70 percent cocoa -- is on the rapid rise for U.S. consumers in search of intense flavors. Chefs of all stripes seek out high quality bulk chocolate to make their creations special. And hey, why not, when doctors are finding more evidence that good chocolate is actually good for our health, especially the heart, when taken in small daily amounts.
While Americans have had a love affair with manufactured candy bars since the early 20th century, gourmet or artisan chocolate is on the rise. But souring good chocolate isn't so easy.
At the top of the chocolate chain sits a little French company, called Valrhona, which buys or harvests from its own plantation nearly 30 percent of the world's premium chocolate, while producing less than 1 percent by volume.
The Valrhona chocolate company, based in southern France, produces a wide variety of single-plantation and single-variety chocolates, that sell in the five to seven dollar range. Not cheap. But that single bar can go a long way, and last you two or three days if you want.
So where does chocolate like this come from?
Nearly 80 percent of the world's cocoa production comes from West Africa, specifically in countries like Ivory Coast. Plantations also exist in Venezuela, in the Eastern African nation of Madagascar, and a few other countries as well, all near or on the equator.
Beans are picked when ripe, and they are fermented, dried, cleaned, and then roasted. The shell is removed to produce cacao nibs, which are ground and made into chocolate liquor. Unsweetened baking chocolate contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. Fat and sugar are added to make the more common sweet chocolate. Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that also contains milk powder or condensed milk.
The highly manufactured chocolate, like M&M's, for example, contains milk chocolate, which under the legal definition is chocolate by simply including the chemical elements of the cocoa bean and the cocoa oil or "cocoa butter." (The Chocolate Manufacturers Association in the United States, began lobbying, thus far unsuccessfully, the Food and Drug Administration in 2007, to change the legal definition of chocolate, allowing them to substitute partially hydrogenated vegetable oils for cocoa butter, in addition to using artificial sweeteners and milk substitutes.)
But in the sublime heights of chocolate, the purer cocoa products is what's in demand. Chocolatiers --like wine makers --look closely at how the cocoa bean is grown and produced and consider several factors, including the origin of the cocoa beans, if they're blended or not, and how they're fermented.
In the 1980s Valrhona and other serious chocolatiers began labeling their products with the percentage of cocoa beans used. That helped spark a revolution where artisan chocolate makers seek the finest quality and infuse it with flavors from exotic fruits and nuts.
As for chefs, chocolatier extraordinaire Thomas Haas, who ships his creations all over the United States and Canada, by special order, uses only Valrhona for his finest work.
"I have been three times to the factory. What I really like is their 'old world-new mind' approach to the craft of chocolate making. Their techniques, equipment and production volume has not changed a lot in years, yet they are innovative and progressive," said Haas.
He uses only the very finest ingredients in everything he does, but Valrhona has been a constant over the years.
"I have never been high in my life," he laughs, "but the last time I walked through their production, the smell of chocolate was so intense, good intense, that I almost got lost!"
While a single chocolate ganache from Haas can cost north of $10, some say you get what you pay for. Haas does not lay claim to making the world's most expensive chocolate, however. That distinction can be awarded, at least for now, to chocolate maker Fritz Knipshildt. It's made of 70 percent Valrhona cacao, which is blended into a creamy ganache with truffle oil. The truffle is then hand-rolled with a dark truffle on the inside and dusted with cocoa powder. The price for that: $250 per chocolate.
Issues of sustainability, labor practices and social conscience are more and more in play for the world of chocolate, as they are for coffee and many other food products. Valrhona is a star on these fronts, but the reason they are so successful is the flavor of the final product.
Make your heart, and your sweet tooth, happy. Try a bar today.