The chocolate in our house is typically mass-produced chocolate purchased from Trader Joe’s, our usual grocery store stomping grounds. Frequent fliers include the mini milk chocolate peanut butter cups, sea salt and turbinado sugar dark chocolate almonds, Belgian milk chocolate bars 3-packs, and more recently, a selection influenced by this course, mini Valrhona 56% dark chocolate bars, as well as their more formidable 71% cousins. All of these chocolates are milk and/or high in sugar and cacao butter, with the exception of the 71% bar, making these products extremely palatable to the average American consumer. Also, with the possible exception of both Valrhona bars, all of these products are most likely produced with bulk cacao, the term used to describe over 90 percent of the world’s cacao, which is grown with the intent of producing “a solid core of satisfactory—or better—chocolate flavor” (Presilla 123-124; Presilla 118). Uniformity is key for bulk cacao, since the Big Five chocolate manufacturers prize consistency of taste above all else to cater to their customers’ strong brand (and flavor) loyalty (Allen 21).1 Although I have long been familiar with dark chocolate and some bean-to-bar chocolate, particularly the Somerville-based Taza Chocolate, taking this class has exposed me to the world of craft and fine chocolate. The obvious end result was a trip to the gourmet food store, Formaggio Kitchen, to purchase four bars of craft and fine dark chocolate to share with my husband, and, as a counterpoint, with some of my coworkers. As the title suggests, sharing these new flavors with my husband was a spectacular failure, but my journey revealed the elitist side of craft and fine chocolate, as well as the hold that the flavors of milk and sugar have on (an admittedly very small sample of) American chocolate consumers.
My trip to Formaggio Kitchen was an experience in privilege in and of itself—my ability to access these chocolates, let alone pay for them, would not be true of many Americans. Formaggio Kitchen is an excellent gourmet food shop with locations in Cambridge, Boston, and New York City, as well as an online store. It focuses on cheese, but its list of products from the website includes, “Artisan Cheese, Chocolate, Cheese Clubs & Samplers, Specialty Seafood, Olives & Antipasti, Olive Oils & Specialty Oils, Candy & Confections” (formaggiokitchen.com), and others, with language that advertises products from an expensive, high quality store. Two levels of remove put this establishment at a distance from most Americans—first, there are only three physical locations, so if you do not live in the greater Boston or NYC area, you are out of luck. The second level of remove is the placement of the two Formaggio Kitchen locations within Cambridge and Boston. The Cambridge location is located on 244 Huron Avenue, about a 20-25 minute walk from Harvard Square, in what feels more like a residential neighborhood than a commercial district. While the Boston location is slightly more accessible, both stores are pretty out of the way for anyone who is reliant on public transportation and/or the commercial hubs of the city that spring up around major transit centers. Certainly, the internet, theoretically the world’s great equalizer, could partially remedy this situation, but the delicate nature of Formaggio Kitchen’s perishable products requires expensive shipping, which is a deterrent for many consumers in this age of free shipping and even free returns from many large online retailers. In short, Formaggio Kitchen is designed to be accessible to those with the resources to afford its products.
Indeed, these craft and fine chocolate bars are not cheap. I purchased four bars, two of the Rogue Tranquilidad variety, each for $16.95 for 2.12 ounces or 60 grams, one bar of Amedei 70% Chocolate for $9.95 for 1.75 ounces or 50 grams, and one bar of Aynouse L’Artesa for $6.95 for 5.3 ounces or 150 grams, coming to a total of $50.80 spent on 11.29 ounces of chocolate. This kind of cost is intentionally contrary to the trend that Coe and Coe describe as “the near-disappearance of the connoisseurship that had typified the aristocratic and clerical chocolate drinkers of a bygone era [such that] [inexpensive] mass-produced chocolates seem to have conquered all” (257). Presilla notes similarly that “even excellent chocolate had become faceless and anonymous, for the great majority of customers had no way of seeing and judging the cacao from which it was made” (41). Formaggio Kitchen’s shelves, while fairly inaccessible to many, are working to counteract the trend of chocolate as a cheap, mass-produced, faceless indulgence. According to their online webpage dedicated to “Artisan Chocolate,” “Ahhh, the power of chocolate. Touted for its health benefits and enjoyed by just about everyone, this is certainly one of our favorite food categories. We focus on bean-to-bar producers who eschew emulsifiers and create their wondrous chocolates with nothing more than sugar and cacao” (formaggiokitchen.com). Although problematic in several places—most notably, Castell, Pérez-Cano, and Bisson’s article makes it clear that further studies are need for conclusive connections between chocolate consumption and health, as well as at what doses (271)—this statement sums up one of the newer trends in conscientious chocolate consumption, one that has given rise to these fine and craft chocolate bars.
Accordingly, Formaggio Kitchen curates its selection to include chocolate makers doing relatively small batch chocolate production, which sometimes, but not always, indicates greater ethical standards in cacao production and sourcing. Also, the in-store labels describe individual bars’ flavor profiles, identifying nutty, floral, or earthy notes in the chocolate, as well as (in most cases) the company, source of the beans, percentage of cocoa solids, and type of chocolate. While the labels do not explicitly name the individual people who grow cacao or who make chocolate, restoring connoisseur vocabulary and culture to the chocolate industry may begin to put a human face and intrinsic value on the production of fine chocolate similar to the cachet of excellent wine, craft beer, or artisan cheese. That being said, Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier is concerned about the viability of the future of craft and fine chocolate (Gasko), let alone the reality that any shifts in consumer culture defined by such a large conglomerate of the Big Five chocolate companies, as well as larger mid-size companies, is an uphill battle.
Sharing these craft and fine dark chocolate bars with my husband, Donal (name changed), was not a success based on his taste preferences but was more successful than the tasting with my coworkers in terms of flavor analysis. I selected three different chocolate bars that I hoped would appeal to his taste buds, which I knew to have a strong preference for milk chocolate and a dislike for even the mildest dark chocolate. Based on these criteria, the Rogue Tranquilidad bar was a stretch at best, but I hoped that he might try it after getting through the Amedei 70%, chosen for its sweeter flavor profile, and the Aynouse L’Artesa 65%, chosen for its high sugar content and similarity to Taza chocolate, with which Donal is familiar. We also began with a Trader Joe’s Belgian milk chocolate bar and a Valrhona 56% dark chocolate bar, again to try to ease into the tasting. I went over the steps of tasting with him, using methods modified from class tastings, Presilla’s The New Taste of Chocolate, and Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing. We began by looking at the chocolate and evaluating its color and gloss, then smelling it for any underlying flavor notes. Next, we broke the piece of chocolate to determine the sharpness of its “snap,” and smelled it again to see what other scents we could determine. Finally, we tasted it for texture, letting it melt on the tongue, and then for flavor.
Donal enjoyed tasting the milk chocolate, which he is used to eating, and learning about the influence that cocoa butter and cocoa solids have on the snap of a piece of a chocolate bar. Given that milk chocolate has a high fat content from the added milk and cocoa butter, the break in the first chocolate sample was not smooth, like a bar high in cocoa solids would have. Having taken a Science of Wine class for his science requirement in college, Donal is familiar with the steps in a wine tasting, which are quite similar to those for chocolate tasting. He identified a slight citrus flavor in the milk chocolate that I was unable to detect, but that was overwhelmed by caramel when I told him that was the main note that I could sense. When we moved to the Valrhona chocolate and I asked him what he smelled, he said with a pronounced frown, “dark chocolate.” He did not finish the sample. After that, he chose not to taste the Amedei or the Rogue bars, but he was willing to smell each one for the flavor notes. He did give the Aynouse L’Artesa bar a brief nibble, being familiar with Taza’s roughly finished dark chocolate, but the rest of that piece was also returned to me. He did note that the chocolate bar wrappers all gave the impression of imitating high-end wine labels, with frequently minimalist or otherwise elegant design and layout. While we enjoyed seeking out the different notes in the smells and tastes of the bars, we concluded that I need to bring back dark milk chocolate from Formaggio Kitchen, although I am unconvinced that anything darker than traditional milk chocolate will be a success in this (hopeless? helpless?) case.
The tasting I conducted with two colleagues, Sarah and Adam (names changed), was better received in terms of taste but less nuanced in terms of flavor than the tasting with Donal. It was also a much more informal and quick tasting due to the nature of the workplace setting. I talked a little about smelling, snapping, and tasting the chocolate, as well as the difference between chocolate made with pure cacao solids and sugar versus that with added cocoa butter and/or other additives or flavorings, but I was not able to do so in as much detail as I was with Donal. Adam, who has similar tastes to Donal, actually enjoyed the Rogue chocolate quite a bit, which surprised me. He did not have any significant flavor feedback, but he did enjoy the “snap” too. Clearly, the physical engagement with the “snap” can be a satisfying “in” for people who have not done much or any intentional chocolate or food tasting. Sarah sampled both the Rogue and the Aynouse L’Artesa bars, and while she enjoyed the Rogue sample, she seemed to like the second sample better. Her immediate reaction to the Aynouse L’Artesa was to say that the flavor profile was more complex, but upon further consideration, she asserted that perhaps it had more to do with what seemed to be a greater amount of sugar in that bar when compared to the Rogue bar.
Combining the feedback from these two tastings leads to some interesting commentary on the types of tasters and an affirmation of the common flavor preferences for some, if not many, American chocolate consumers. While it was somewhat disappointing for me that Donal was not able to enjoy the craft and fine dark chocolate in the tasting, Barb Stuckey’s article suggests one possible reason why. Her husband, who cannot stomach many bitter flavors like red wine, green vegetables, or dark chocolate, is what is known as a supertaster, or as Stuckey prefers to say, a hypertaster. Both labels describe a member of the population with the highest number of taste buds on the tongue, which renders that person extra sensitive to strong or bitter flavors (20-21). It is possible that Donal is a supertaster, but it is also possible that he is a taster or tolerant taster (nontaster) who simply does not enjoy bitter flavors—Stuckey’s article makes it clear that the breakdown between hypertasters, tasters, and tolerant tasters cannot account for all food preferences, just as one way to understand some of them (29). Donal was familiar with these categories of tasters from his Science of Wine course, and we were able to have a conversation about taste and flavor preferences in the context of Linda Bartoshuk’s system.2
Another outcome from this wider chocolate tasting experiment was anecdotal evidence that supports the theory that many Americans prefer sweeter, milkier chocolate as a general rule. In “Big Sugar’s Little Lies,” Taubes and Couzens have documented the aggressive tactics of the American sugar industry to resist regulation of sugar consumption guidelines, to the detriment of Americans’ health. Unsurprisingly, thanks to these efforts, as well as other trends in food production and marketing, most Americans now have a strong taste for sugar and other sweet foods. I would argue that these marketing efforts have been so influential that they may have led Sarah to think initially that the more sugary chocolate was more flavorful, when in fact it simply had more sugar and cocoa butter in the recipe. Donal’s reactions also reflect the widespread preference for milk chocolate over dark chocolate in our society. While these preferences themselves are not “good” or “bad,” per se, they do have a strong influence on what types of foods we choose to consume, and they may be something for the craft and fine chocolate industry to consider as it evolves.3
My next steps, following this expedition? In short, to try more fine chocolate and share it with more people. While I have identified some of the issues with high end gourmet foods, and fine and craft chocolate in particular, Formaggio Kitchen is an excellent place to start for trying bean-to-bar chocolate if you are interested and live in the Boston or Cambridge area. I am curious to see what some of my other family and friends, particularly those who already have an affinity for dark chocolate, think of brands like Rogue and others. I also look forward to trying some dark milk chocolate with Donal, if he will consent to being a guinea pig one more time. While I acknowledge the problematic elitism of fine and craft chocolate, I also believe these products are providing a much needed perspective in an industry so otherwise dominated by only five companies. I look forward to supporting these small bean-to-bar companies, particularly the ethically sourced ones, now and in the future.
- The Big Five chocolate companies—Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, Ferrero Rocher, and Nestlé (Allen 21)—do not include Trader Joe’s, of course, but they do dominate the market with incredible control over what kind of cacao is most commonly grown and therefore available to other chocolate manufacturers.
- Donal has in fact taken one of the tests that assesses taster type, as a requirement for his Science of Wine class, and he is unsurprisingly either a taster or a hypertaster (supertaster).
- Indeed, a growing number of small batch chocolate makers are offering “dark milk” chocolate bars, which are intended to appeal to consumers who prefer their fine chocolate with larger amounts of milk and sugar (Martin “Haute Patisserie”).
Thanks to Formaggio Kitchen for permission to take the pictures included in this blog post. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.
Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York: AMACOM, 2010. Print.
Castell, Margarida, Francisco Jose Pérez-Cano, and Jean-François Bisson. “Clinical Benefits of Cocoa: An Overview.” Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Ed. R.R. Watson et al. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, 2013. 265-275. Print.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2013. Print.
formaggiokitchen.com. Formaggio Kitchen. Web. 10 May 2015.
Gasko, Colin. “Film Viewing and Rogue Chocolatier Tasting and Interview.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 6 May 2015. Class Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Film Viewing and Rogue Chocolatier Tasting and Interview.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 6 May 2015. Class Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Haute Patisserie, Artisan Chocolate, and Food Justice: The Future?” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 29 Apr. 2015. Class Lecture.
“Mini Peanut Butter Cups.” traderjoes.com. Trader Joe’s, 9 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 May 2015.
Presilla, Marciel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, Revised. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.
“Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Chocolate Almonds.” traderjoes.com. Trader Joe’s, 19 Mar. 2012. Web. 10 May 2015.
Stuckey, Barb. Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. New York: Free Press, 2012.
Taubes, Gary and Cristin Kearns Couzens. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” MotherJones. 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
tazachocolate.com. Taza Chocolate. Web. 10 May 2015.
“Three Chocolate Bars.” traderjoes.com. Trader Joe’s, n.d. Web. 10 May 2015.
“Valrhona Le Noir.” finedarkchocolate.com. Fine Dark Chocolate, n.d. Web. 10 May 2015.
“Valrhona Le Noir Amer 71% Cacao Dark Bittersweet Chocolate (Pack of 5).” amazon.com. Amazon, n.d. Web. 10 May 2015.