Chocolate: A Seriously Brief Overview

Chocolate is an infinitely huge industry. I’m not even going to attempt to pretend to know all of the ins and outs. It is, however, useful to know a few of the basic principles and processes that are associated with it. It means that you can make a more educated and informed decision when you choose your treats!

It’s not all serious though, it is, after all, a source of pleasure and wonder. So I won’t be all doom and gloom and serious about the whole affair, promise!
In a way, it’s actually quite funny, my friends all tease me for apparently being a chocolate ‘snob’, or so they say. I’m honestly not! I promise, pinky and all. I just take a little care with my choices. Hopefully this section might be of use to you, you’re very welcome to skip onto another post if you find it horrendously boring, but it could lead to you changing your mind about some of the things you thought you knew about chocolate and the industry that surrounds it.

Chocolate: the basics.
I say this, with a handful, and not just a pinch of salt. I was actually debating writing a mini series of posts about chocolate, but I’m not actually entirely sure how interested people would be. So i’ll stick to an overview and see if you guys would like to hear anything in more detail. Working in a chocolate shop, you have to cover all your knowledge bases. Nobody wants a useless assistant, especially when a lot of these people are spending in the hundreds of pounds for non-essential products.

Okay, so where was I? Chocolate: A Brief History of Almost Nothing.

Where did it come from?
It’s debated, is the short answer.It could have come from the Orinoco valley in Venezuela, or from the Amazon basin, or somewhere in Central America (so very vague, I know!). It’s pretty safe to that it didn’t originate too far away from these places though. For reasons you will read about in a little while (oh the intrigue! Can you feel it burning?).

Cocoa is a right pain to grow. I’m not joking. It’s a massive diva. It’s a tropical tree, meaning that it will only grow 20 degrees either side of the equator. Anything over that and it’ll struggle and most likely die very quickly unless it’s in a controlled environment.

It’s split into 3 types – Criollo, Trinitario and Forestero. It can also be separated into two broader types – Bulk or Fine. Criollo and Trinitario are classed as ‘Fine’, and Forestero beans are classed as ‘Bulk’, and for a very good reason. Forestero’s hardy nature means it yields more beans, it’s more resistant to disease and other sneaky problems. It’s the taste too, because it is quite mild tasting, it lends itself very well to huge commercially sold chocolates, that rely heavily on blending with other ingredients, such as milk, sugar, vegetable fat etc, because the taste of the original bean doesn’t ‘interfere’ with the final product. Bulk chocolate makes up 95% of chocolate production, leaving only 5% for Fine. Which really isn’t very much at all, so you can imagine that does drive up the price of Fine chocolate quite a bit.

A Taste of Magic.
Okay, one of the most important things to remember with chocolate (well, with all food really) is that nobody is ‘wrong’ for liking a certain type. There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, and there’s nothing wrong with eating 100% Venezuelan Criollo that has been cellotaped to the wing of an albatross for a month. It’s personal preference! Of course it’s nice to get out of your comfort zone and try something new and exciting, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop eating what you enjoy. So yeah, feel free to express your opinion and enthusiasm for things you like, but don’t shove it down people’s throats.
Now back onto subject. Think of chocolate like wine, or coffee, or olive oil. The place that it’s grown in and they way it’s grown has an incredible impact on the final taste of the product. So, with that in mind think, if you will, of a cocoa tree…

Okay, got it? So, these fickle little beans draw a LOT of their taste from the surrounding soil and other plants. And the different types of soil can have different effects on the resulting taste, as does the general climate of the area. So say, for instance, Saint Lucia. It has incredibly volcanic soil, which on the whole gives the resulting chocolate a hint of raisins, or redcurrants. It’s difficult to describe without physically showing you in person. I won’t go into too much depth here, as it’ll get complicated very quickly without physical examples. Plus, it’s not good to generalise, the stages of production can very much affect the overall taste of the bar as well, so it’s not technically accurate to say that ALL bars from Saint Lucia will taste of redcurrants and raisins, it’s just very common.

Trinitario beans can be traced back to it’s origins in the West Indes, Trinidad to be specific. I should probably explain that Trinitario is a hybrid bean, it is literally a cross between Forestero and Criollo, and depending on the percentage of Criollo it has in it’s DNA, depends on what it tastes like (amongst other factors!). One day, the good people of Trinidad just decided to cross the two types together to gain both the hardiness of Forestero, and the beautiful flavour of Criollo.
So basically, the villagers were sick of all their good trees dying, so they mashed beans from both of the trees together in a big cauldron, heated it up to 132.2C and buried it in shallow soil for 40 days and 40 nights. Until one day, the villagers woke up and found an entire cocoa plantation had grown overnight…. *That bit might not be true*

Fair Trade – What’s the dealio?
The UK is the biggest Fair Trade market in the world at the moment, by a considerable margin too, so obviously it’s going to be an important part to mention. I’m not here to criticise this initiative as a whole, just in relation to chocolate! So Fair Trade, it could require a bit of a mini explanation. Because although you’ll know what it looks like on branding, and have heard the name endless times, you might not know exactly what it does. I’ll try not to rant too much.

So, Fair Trade is an independent organisation (that is governed neither by companies, traders or anyone else) that makes sure that suppliers get a fair price for their goods and operate according to ethical standards. This means no child labour, no slave labour, the ability to unionise the workplace and safe working environments for the staff. On top of this, the growers become part of a network where they can share their knowledge, expertise, funds and moral support. 
Good, right? Who wouldn’t love that principal, it’s about basic human standards of life. 

There are, however, a LOT of flaws with this initiative. And when I say a lot, I mean it. It’s all well and good plastering a Fair Trade logo on the front of your bar, but what does it really mean? A lot of people think that buying Fair Trade chocolate means they are helping to support communities, and in a way I suppose they are, it’s just in a small way. To have the seal, you only need to use a very, very small percentage of Fair Trade cocoa beans to be classified. So companies like Cadburys or Galaxy (Mars), who take pride in their Fair Trade bars, could be using 90% non Fair Trade beans and only 10% Fair Trade. It’s not even just this. To get your produce accepted onto the scheme, farmers have to spend a hefty $3,000 a year. That’s a hell of a lot of money for someone who has a small crop or farm. There’s also the issue of demand, companies don’t always buy the whole crop, leaving the farmers lumped with a lot of produce that they can’t sell, plus the organisations don’t always pay right away and there are a lot of people that live pay-cheque to pay-cheque.

So it’s not the be-all and end-all of classifications. It would be good if it wasn’t corrupt and everyone played nice, but to put it plainly, it is a business, a business that makes €3.4 billion annually and is increasing every year. There are dozens of schemes like Fair Trade that achieve harmony and fairness with greater success. So please don’t have tunnel vision with ethics, they’re not always entirely positive. I have so many people who walk into the shop, ask for fair trade chocolate, and when I say we don’t have it (we have a very successful alternative initiative in it’s place bear in mind), they walk straight out the door. It’s funny, that people won’t even listen to my reasoning why we don’t have one. 

Ahem, rant over, apologies!
That is literally the tiniest speck of the tip of the iceberg, but I won’t bombard you too much. Feel free to let me know if there’s anything more you want me to cover in depth. Actually, I didn’t even get onto how it’s processed. Boy are you guys in for a treat when I get round to that. Brace yourselves for a forcefield of crazy knowledge!