Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge: With Quality Chocolate, Price Is Not Important

The modern chocolate industry has been changed by the rise of artisanal chocolate makers, historically popular in Europe and newly popular in the United States. Small-scale chocolate manufacturing was seen as a response “to the perceived loss of flavor and quality in industrially manufactured chocolate,” (Martin & Sampeck 2016: 53). In contrast to the “Big Five” industrial chocolate companies—Nestle, Mars, Cadbury, Hershey’s, and Ferrero, (Martin & Sampeck 2016:50), artisanal chocolate makers are “unconcerned with producing identical bars with every batch” and “seek instead to draw out the unique flavors of the beans,” (Leissle 2013: 23). Because chocolate artisans are small-scale manufacturers, their products are primarily available at specialty stores.

On Tuesday, May 2, 2017, I visited a gourmet grocer, Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge—the original of the Formaggio Kitchen family of stores, to examine their chocolate selection. Since it opened in 1978, Formaggio Kitchen has expanded to Boston and New York. From the chocolates of artisans to bean-to-bar chocolate makers (1970s -1980s) to craft chocolate makers (since the mid-2000s) (Martin & Sampeck 2016: 54), all chocolates at Formaggio Kitchen are categorized as small batch. In the chocolate industry, small batch chocolate making has highlighted chocolate and cacao’s “country of origin—the conditions of production” and “local […] tastes—the conditions of consumption” (Martin & Sampack 2016: 37). Through the curation of the chocolate section at Formaggio Kitchen and the packaging of the individual chocolate bars, the importance of the conditions of production and consumption in small-batch chocolate making is echoed. The presentation at Formaggio Kitchen further suggests that the cost of these exceptional chocolate bars is secondary to their high-quality taste.

Initial Observations of the Chocolate Section

Upon finding the chocolate section at Formaggio Kitchen, my attention was initially captivated by the store’s personalized notes in front of or near the numerous chocolate brands available. These notes described how the chocolate bars taste by highlighting any combination of notable ingredients, cocoa content, origin of the cacao beans, place of manufacture, or distinct production technique.

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Overview of chocolate section at Formaggio Kitchen on 5/2/2017. No information about the price of each bar is visible.

As a consumer accustomed to knowing the price of a product almost immediately after I see it on a store shelf, I was surprised find the absence of visible price tags. To know the price of the chocolate bars I examined at Formaggio Kitchen, I had to grab the desired bar off the shelf and turn it around. Of all that was emphasized about each chocolate bar, how much it cost was not. Based on the store’s choice to present their chocolate bars in this fashion, I concluded as a potential customer that price came secondary to taste, brand, cultural origin, and so forth.

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Overview of chocolate selection at Whole Foods on 5/2/2017. Represents the typical presentation of chocolate with a visible price tag at supermarkets in the U.S.
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Whole Foods presentation of chocolate contrasts that at Formaggio Kitchen where price tags are small stickers behind the chocolate bars and not as easily visible to the consumer.

Overall, I also noted the absence of familiar chocolates, including those from any of the Big 5 companies. In fact, I did not recognize the majority of the chocolate brands available at Formaggio Kitchen prior to my visit. The only brands I recognized were those Dr. Martin introduced during lecture (e.g., Dick Taylor, Potomac). Thus, my quest for knowledge about the chocolate selection at Formaggio Kitchen continued with my individual inspection of each chocolate bar and the content on its packaging.

Available chocolate brands (and flavors) at Formaggio Kitchen:

  1. Amedei (white chocolate with pistachios, milk chocolate with hazelnuts, Chuao)–$7.95 – $17.95
  2. Aynouse L’artesa (pure cacao, olive oil, fondant 65%, bitter orange, bitter 85%)–$7.95
  3. Chocolat Moderne —$8.95
  4. EHChocolatier (coconutty bar, peanut butter crunch bar) —$10.95
  5. Dick Taylor (brown butter with nibs and sea salt, black fig, fleur de sel, northerner blend) —$7.95 – $8.95
  6. Donna Elvira (pistachio, Modicana style, Pepperoncino, Mascobado, Cobaita) —$5.95 – $8.95
  7. Madre chocolate (coconut milk and caramelized ginger) —$11.95
  8. Marou (72, 74, 76, 78 single origin dark chocolate) —$2.95, 0.8 oz
  9. Mayana (kitchen sink bar, fix bar, space bar, haute and spicy–made specially for FK) —$8.95
  10. Poco Dolce (Assorted tiles, Aztec Chili tiles, Burnt Caramel tiles) —$23.95
  11. Potomac (San Martin 65 Milk, San Martin 70 dark + salt, 70 dark) —$8.95
  12. Pump Street Bakery (Rye Crumb milk & sea salt, Honduras bread and butter, sourdough and sea salt 66%) —$9.25
  13. Ritual (Belize, Fleur de Sel, Madagascar, Ecuador, Midmountain) —$7.95 – $11.95
  14. Romanengo Amaro (62% and milk) —$16.95
  15. Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé (green spices & matcha tea in white chocolate with lemon oil, caramelized lavender flowers in milk chocolate with star anise, cardamom dark chocolate) —$10.95
  16. Somerville chocolate (lapsang souchocolate, hops infused dark milk, Nicaraguan 70%) —$9.95 – $11.95
  17. Taza (chocolate disks: vanilla, chipotle chili, guajillo chili, coffee, super dark, caca puro, cinnamon, salted almond) –$5.50
  18. Venchi (cremino fondente, chocolate cigars-orange and chocolate, aromatic cocoa, nougatine) —$10.95

In-Depth Analysis of the Chocolate Bars:

Colors and Images:

The majority of the chocolate bars at Formaggio Kitchen had higher quality, and often more elaborate, packaging than industrially produced chocolate. For some bars, the color of the packaging, black in the case of the Amedei Chuao bar, or the lettering, metallic in the case of the Maraou and Ritual bars, conveyed its premium status.

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In the case of Chocolat Moderne’s chocolate bars, the clear packaging made visible the vibrant colors infused in the chocolate bar. The intention behind the clear packaging is illuminated by Chocolat Moderne’s mission “to create visually stunning, hand-crafted confections […]” on the Meet the Chocolatier note featured at Formaggio Kitchen.
Supporting Chocolat Moderne’s aforementioned notion of chocolate as a medium of art, a Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé bar declared: “We don’t consider ourselves to be only bean-to-bar chocolate makers, but artists as well. We look at chocolate as an art material, and attempt to surprise and entertain out customers through our chocolates.”

Taza’s stone-grounding and use of chilis in their chocolate most explicitly identifies with the Mesoamerican cultural origin of chocolate and cacao (Norton 2006:684). As indigenous societies did, some of the chocolate bars, including EHChocolatier and Marou, glorified chocolate’s primary ingredient, through their inclusion of on the cacao pod on the package. Some bars, such as Madre, highlighted additional ingredients in their bars, such as coconut and ginger.

Place of cacao’s origin versus place of chocolate manufacture:

The place of manufacture of chocolate and the origin of its primary ingredient, cacao, are not always the same. While cacao can only grow near the equator, the manufacture of chocolate is not bound to any region.

Prior to the rise of industrial chocolate makers, such as Hershey or Mars, the practice of advertising the place of origin of the cacao beans used to make chocolate was common among European artisanal chocolate makers (Leissle 2013: 22). Over time, however, the place of manufacture overshadowed the place of the cacao’s origin as taste was linked to European national palettes (Leissle 2013: 23). Considering Europeans are the largest importers and processors of cacao and consume the most chocolate per capita in the world (Martin & Sampeck 2016:37), I was not surprised to find that chocolates manufactured in Europe were well represented at Formaggio Kitchen: Hungary (Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé); Italy (Amedei; Donna Elvira; P. Romanengo Amaro; Venchi); Spain (Aynouse L’artesa); United Kingdom (Pump Street Bakery).

For some European brands, the culture of the European place of manufacture was reinforced through the use of the corresponding language on the packaging (e.g., Amedei—Italian, Aynouse L’artesa—Catalan, Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé-—Hungarian). The bars that included multiple language translations, such as English, on the package reflect how globalized the chocolate industry is.

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Although crafted in Saigon, Vietnam, the use of French (“Faiseurs de chocolat”) on the Marou chocolate bar doubly alludes to the bar’s French manufacturers as well as the history of cacao in Vietnam. France was the one to introduce cacao to Vietnam—the only Asian country represented in the Formaggio Kitchen chocolate section, in the 19th century (Marou Chocolate 2013).

Meanwhile, it was not until the turn of the 21st century that a significant number of small batch chocolate makers began to appear in the United States. Since 2005, “more than thirty fine flavor chocolate brands have been founded in the United States,” (Williams & Eber 2012:155-156). The chocolate bars crafted in the United States, grouped by their specific state of origin, included:

  • California: Dick Taylor, Poco Dolce
  • Hawaii: Madre Chocolate
  • Massachusetts: EHChocolatier, Somerville Chocolate, Taza
  • New York: Chocolat Moderne
  • Virginia: Potomac
  • Wisconsin: Mayana

Of the American craft chocolates, Madre chocolate highlighted its Hawaiian culture by featuring the Hawaiian word chocolate, or kokoleka, on the bar.

At Formaggio Kitchen, Donna Elvira, Madre chocolate, and Pump Street Bakery identified themselves as being bean-to-bar on their chocolate bars.

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For bean-to-bar chocolates, the flavor and quality of the chocolate bar is tied to their batch number, listed on the package. Although not pictured, Donna Elvira, Madre, Potomac, and P. Romanengo Amaro chocolate bars also listed their batch numbers. 

Ultimately, the place where the chocolate was manufactured was more heavily advertised than the place of origin of the cacao beans used. Among the chocolate bars that included the place of origin of the cacao beans, an underrepresentation of West African cacao was evident. In general, fine chocolate makers favor Criollo and Trinitario varieties, primarily found in the Central America and the Caribbean, over Forastero breeds, the majority of which are in West Africa (Leissle 2013:23). The gap is significant because 70% of cacao exports are West African, but only 4% of artisan chocolates use West African cacao.

Ingredients, Health Labels, and Social Awareness:

“Many of these US manufacturers may be small, but they have been driving recent changes for the better in the industry: Change the world—make better chocolate. They pride themselves on direct and transparent trade, paying top dollar for the best beans, speaking out against forced labor, investing in education, and making chocolate that tastes nothing like the multinational mass-market brands,” (Williams & Eber 2012: 156).

In response to growing consumer consciousness, many chocolate bars advertised the certified quality of their ingredients, health information, environmental concern, and social consciousness. Research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows that demand for organic cocoa and chocolate has risen (Williams & Eber 2012: 197-198). In addition, fine chocolate makers have adjusted their products to meet the rising demand for lactose-free, sugar-free, and high-cocoa-content chocolate options from consumers (Williams & Eber 2012:185). Notably, some chocolate brands choose to explicitly label their dark chocolate as vegan and gluten-free even though dark chocolate, in general, is inherently vegan and gluten-free (Williams & Eber 2012:185). The following certifications and health-related labels were featured on some of the chocolate bars at Formaggio Kitchen:

  • Dairy-Free: Amedei, Marou
  • Gluten-Free: Amedei, Aynouse L’artesa, Marou, Potomac
  • GMO-Free: Poco Dolce
  • Kosher: Amedei
  • No soy lecithin added: Romanengo Amaro
  • Nut-free: Potomac
  • Soy-free: Marou, Potomac
  • Organic ingredients: Potomac (cacao); Ritual (organic cacao, organic cane sugar, cocoa butter), Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé (cocoa beans, organic cane sugar, organic cocoa butter, cardamom)
  • Organic chocolate: Taza
  • Vegan: Ritual

As evidenced above, demands from consumers extend to the specific ingredients used in the making of chocolate. In contrast to an industrially produced chocolate bar, such as a Hershey’s bar, most craft chocolate bars have higher cocoa content and lower sugar content. I found that the purity of the chocolate bars is conveyed through the simplicity of their ingredients—no artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, or unrecognizable ingredients were listed on the small batch bars. Ritual and Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé also expressed environmental awareness through a “Please recycle” request and a “We support the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International” sticker, respectively. Similarly, Taza advertises its participation in Direct Trade.

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Chocolate brands may choose to advertise multiple certifications to catch the range of concerns of consumers may have.

Lastly, a few of the chocolate bars asserted their quality taste through the inclusion of national and international awards: Chocolat Moderne’s (sofi Gold Award 2012, 2013); Pump Street BakeryInternational Chocolate Awards; Madre (Northwest Chocolate Festival 2014 Gold); and Mayana (Food and Wine Editors Top 10).

Concluding Thoughts:

In a study comparing taste preferences for different combinations of fat and sugar, 7.6% sugar with cream containing 24.7% fat was deemed to be the most desired (Benton 2004: 214). Although the sugar content of chocolate tends to be higher than the ideal figure, the widespread attraction of chocolate can be attributed to how closely it resembles the fat-to-sugar content of foods perceived to be the best tasting (Benton 2004:214).

When it comes to optimal palatability, chocolate is nearly perfect. Because most chocolate tastes good by virtue of their composition, I asked one of the employees at Formaggio Kitchen about how their chocolate buyers choose the chocolates in their inventory. She shared, ” Our manager and chocolate buyer do a lot of tastings and attend the sofi awards. Often, when they travel, they’ll find something they like and we end up getting it. They are always looking for something unique and different.” Formaggio Kitchen’s personalized notes asserted the unique tastes of their selection of chocolate bars without attention drawn to the final price of the bar. Concurrently, the chocolate makers represented at Formaggio Kitchen presented the quality of their chocolate through ornate packaging, place of manufacture, origin of cacao beans, certified quality of their ingredients, health information, environmental concern, and social consciousness, and awards.

Still, one must be aware that the chocolate found at Formaggio Kitchen may be financially unsustainable or even inaccessible to average consumers. Most chocolates at Formaggio Kitchen cost anywhere from just under $8 to over $20. This price range is may be at least 8x the cost of $0.99 chocolate bars at convenience stores. Furthermore, because the selection of chocolates available at Formaggio Kitchen is not available at convenience stores or most supermarkets, the intended customer is one that is educated about the source of their food, willing and able to pay a higher price for their food, and interested in discovering unfamiliar food products. Therefore, while price may not be important when it comes to proclaiming the quality of chocolates at Formaggio Kitchen, it does matter when it comes to the accessibility of these small batch chocolates.

Works Cited

Benton, David. 2004. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” pp. 205-218.

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

Marou Chocolate. 2013. Published on Jul 20, 2013. http://marouchocolate.com/post/55951688118/history

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” pp. 37-60.

Norton, Marcy. 2006. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111 (3): 660-691.

Williams, Pam and Jim Eber. 2012. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. pp. 141-209.

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