Can You Taste the Terroir? Sampling Single Origin Chocolates for a Sense of Place

The French term terroir can be described as “the web that connects and unifies raw materials, their growing conditions, production processes, and the moment of product appreciation” (Nesto, 131).  This sense of place that can be discerned in a final product is most often associated with wine, an industry in which there is much stricter regulation of geographic labeling of the origin of raw materials and a longer history of vineyard differentiation (Nesto, 134).  In the chocolate industry, single origin generally refers to chocolate made only from cacao grown in one region.  Chocolate produced from cacao from different regions varies in taste due to “the local soil and environment bringing out inherent genetic characteristics” and “the way in which particular styles of drying and fermentation have distinct effects on overall flavor and aroma” (Presilla, 126).

Nineteenth-century advertisement for chocolate that emphasizes the cacao’s Caracas, Venezuela origins, equating origins with quality. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13177/13177-h/images/caracas.jpg

Since cacao began to be exported to Europe, cacao origins have varied in importance.  Cacao has always been sold to merchants based on its origins, whether the origin is defined as the plantation on which it was grown, the region in which it was produced, or the port from which it was shipped (Nesto, 134).  At different points in history, cacao from certain regions was prized due to its high quality, with cacao from particular parts of Mexico, Venezuela, or Colombia advertised and favored by consumers for periods during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Presilla, 124; Leissle, 22).  The advertisement above shows how cacao origins (in this case, Caracas) were used to market chocolate to consumers as high quality.

World map highlighting cacao growing countries, including Trinidad, Venezuela, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Madagascar. All of the highlighted countries fall within 20 degrees of the equator. http://www.kemeh.com/images/worldmap-new.jpg

Over the last century or so, cacao origins became more obscured, as production shifted to other parts of the globe, with the vast majority of cacao now grown in West Africa, and with chocolatiers producing chocolate by blending cacao of various origins (Nesto, 134).  The map above illustrates how cacao production has shifted far beyond its Central and South American origins.  Both the artisanal chocolate makers and the corporate giants, such as Hershey and Cadbury, blend cacao beans from different places and different strains in an attempt to produce a more balanced, consistent chocolate and to distance the final product from its controversial origins in West Africa (Presilla, 126; Leissle, 23).

Single origin chocolate did not start making a comeback until the 1980s, with the resurgence of artisans and the rising interest in food origins (Leissle, 23).  While single origin chocolate still represents a tiny fraction of the world chocolate industry, there are myriad artisanal chocolatiers today producing bars highlighting the distinct, unexpected regional flavors of cacao — its terroir (Leissle, 23; Williams and Eber, 167).

Four single origin Francois Pralus bars, purchased at Cardullo's.  Photo is my own.
Four single origin Francois Pralus bars, purchased at Cardullo’s. Photo is my own.

In order to further explore terroir and to see if differences in place truly translated into recognizable differences in taste, I decided to host a single origin chocolate tasting for my friends.  I chose four single origin bars from the French chocolatier Francois Pralus: Trinidad, Venezuela, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Madagascar, as pictured above.  The choice of chocolatier was influenced by my wish to choose a variety of bars from different regions of the world made by the same chocolatier and with the same ingredients and percentage of cacao (75% for the Pralus bars), in order to minimize flavor discrepancies from factors other than region.  Of course, one confounding factor that I found impossible to avoid was bean type, since different varieties of cacao are much more commonly grown in certain regions.  The Trinidad and Venezuela bars were both made with Trinitario cacao, while the São Tomé and Príncipe bar derived from Forastero beans and the Madagascar bar contained Criollo cacao.  As a point of comparison for the single origin bars and to practice tasting chocolate, I also provided my friends with Dove milk and dark chocolate, which are blended bars at a much lower price point.  The entire selection of chocolates that we tasted is pictured below.

Four single origin Pralus bars with Dove milk and dark chocolate bars. Photo is my own.
Four single origin Pralus bars with Dove milk and dark chocolate bars. Photo is my own.

For the single origin bars, we tasted them as a group, moving from west to east through the different origins.  All of the Pralus bars had a hard snap and dark brown color, but some of them differed quite a bit in other ways.  The Trinidad bar had a smooth, matte exterior and smelled bitter and smoky with some citrus and coffee notes.  The taste of the Trinidad bar was similar: bitter, astringent, and charred with only a hint of citrus.  While the bar was praised for its smooth texture, and slow, clean melt, almost all of my friends disliked the burnt aftertaste and astringent finish.  The Venezuela bar (also made from Trinitario cacao) had a very faint citrus scent, as well as a more subdued taste, with an arc from bitter to sweet with notes of citrus and earthiness.  The Venezuela bar had a matte exterior and melted more quickly, with a creamier and sweeter finish.

While the genetics of cacao are actually quite complicated, varieties have historically been classed as Criollo, Forastero, or Trinitario (with Trinitarios representing a cross between the other two). http://bloguldeciocolata.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/types_of_cocoa.png

After the Trinidad and Venezuela bars, we switched to African island origins and different cacao varieties.  The São Tomé and Príncipe bar (Forastero cacao) was much shinier and had a mild smell, with hints of bitterness, earthiness, and citrus.  Its taste arc went from sweet and citrusy to bitter, salty, and earthy.  The Madagascar bar (Criollo cacao) had a very light scent, with mild fruity and bitter notes.  However, the taste of the Madagascar bar was strong and varied, with creamy, buttery, earthy, smoky, fruity and citrusy elements.  The Madagascar bar, with its sweeter, fruitier notes and comparative lack of bitterness, was the overall favorite of the four Pralus bars we tasted.  A quote by Chloé Doutre-Roussel in Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate accurately encompasses the chocolate tasting: “You have to give the flavor notes of chocolate many tastes and chances.  It doesn’t mean you’ll actually like the chocolates but you may and you certainly will appreciate them” (Williams and Eber, 144).  While my friends may not have particularly enjoyed many of the Pralus bars, they could appreciate the complexity and diversity of flavors.

Pralus Madagascar Plantation Video

Francois Pralus at his cacao plantation in Madagascar. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/img_droite/plantation8_0.jpg

The single origin bars we tried at my chocolate tasting were all produced by Francois Pralus, a French chocolatier who sources beans from many different countries in order to produce 15 single origin bars, as well as some blended bars (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  Pralus also owns and operates his own plantation in Madagascar, as seen in the video and photograph above, so the Madagascar bar is even single plantation chocolate (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  Both on his website and on the packaging, Pralus emphasizes the regional differences and unique flavors of the cacao from each origin, even specifically speaking of terroir and comparing cacao vintages to great wines (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  One of things that sets Pralus apart from many other single origin chocolate producers is his willingness to create single origin bars with cacao from African countries, including Ghana (bar shown below) and São Tomé and Príncipe (pictured earlier) in West Africa, instead of just focusing on more traditionally prized chocolate regions in the Americas (Leissle, 23).

Pralus single origin Ghana bar. Few chocolatiers create single origin bars highlighting West African chocolate, even though the vast majority of cacao is grown in the region. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/gahna-copie.png

While some chocolatiers such as Francois Pralus believe in the importance of terroir and are committed to producing at least some single origin bars, single origin chocolate is not without its problems and detractors.  The first complaint about single origin chocolate is that there are no official or industry definitions of many terms associated with such chocolate and “origin” can refer to areas as a large as an entire country (Nesto, 134).  The lack of agreement over what constitutes single origin chocolate means there can be major discrepancies between what chocolatiers consider to be a region and that references to origins are sometimes more of a marketing tool than a signifier of quality or flavor profile (Williams and Eber, 173).  Even with the Pralus single origin bars, some are produced with cacao from a single plantation, while others use cacao from a certain part of the country, a cacao cooperative, or from the country as a whole.  Another contentious aspect of the lack of regulation is that single origin chocolate is often associated with higher quality beans and ingredients, especially given its generally higher price point, but there are no rules regarding the quality or type of beans used in single origin bars (Williams and Eber, 168-71).

The Pralus Djakarta bar, which blends Indonesian and Ghanaian cacao. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/djakarta-copie.png

The second major issue with single origin chocolate is taste.  While some praise the unique flavors associated with cacao from specific regions and the variation between harvests, others argue that blending can produce a more consistent, better tasting chocolate.  Throughout history, chocolatiers have blended cacao from different origins or varieties in order to enhance the flavor, creating a chocolate with “a total effect greater than the sum of its parts” (Presilla, 126).  Even Francois Pralus produces some blended bars, including the Djakarta and Caracas bars shown above and below, which incorporate some Ghanaian cacao to balance the flavor.  Both of these bars are somewhat problematic, since the packaging makes them look like single origin chocolates, but the fine print on the back and the information on the Pralus website do acknowledge that they are blended bars.  Blending also allows chocolate makers to concoct flavors that vary less from year to year, providing a more uniform product for consumers, who often desire the same experience every time, and chefs, who need consistency for their confections (Williams and Eber, 177-8).  Another reason some chocolate companies practice blending is also cost: by using cheaper cacao as the base and only using small quantities of high-quality beans for flavor, producers can create a chocolate that tastes better for less money (Presilla, 126; Williams and Eber, 180-3).

The Pralus Caracas bar, which incorporates Venezuelan and Ghanaian cacao. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/caracas-copie.png

At the end of the day, chocolate consumption is primarily about taste: consumers seek an enjoyable experience and chocolate that tastes good.  Personally, I love trying different types of chocolate and experiencing unique flavors, and I appreciate the vast range of tastes that can be experienced through single origin chocolates.  I also think it is important not to completely sever areas of cacao production from the finished product: single origin bars and the associated terroir are one way to retain an essence of the place of production in the consumption experience, and by emphasizing the origins over the country of manufacture, focus is partially shifted back to the oft-forgotten plantations and growers.   However, I also only truly enjoy and would spend money on tastes that I find pleasant.  While my friends and I had fun tasting single origin chocolate bars and distinguishing the different characteristics connected with cacao from particular regions, none of us particularly enjoyed the Pralus bars and I would not buy them again given the high price point ($10 and up for a 3.5 ounce bar).  For me, an ideal chocolate balances concerns for price, taste, and terroir.

Works Cited

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.”  Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. 13:3 (2013): 22-31.

Nesto, Bill. “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 10:1 (2010): 131–135.

Pralus, Francois.  “Francois Pralus: Maitre Chocolatier.” Accessed May 4, 2014. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Williams, Pam and Eber, Jim. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Publishing Corporation, 2012.

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