|BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : SEPTEMBER 18, 2000 ISSUE|
Raising the Chocolate Bar Higher
Robust? Fruity? Now chocoholics are sounding like oenophiles
Behind the scenes at the tony New York eatery Le Cirque 2000, pastry chef Patrice Caillot pulls a metal tray of dainty bonbons from a cooling rack and waves them under my nose. They're flavored with lemon, cinnamon, mocha, and Earl Grey. With a wink he assures me that these rich, dark beauties melt over the tongue like a silken sundae. I take a bite. Waves of flavor wash over my taste buds, first fruity and sweet, then smoky, and finally dark and smoldering, like espresso beans.
''It's very good, no?'' Caillot grins. Yes, it's very, very good--so good, in fact, that I may never touch a Hershey bar again. The secret of Caillot's bonbons? A small, family-owned French company named Michel Cluizel, which makes some of the finest dark chocolate on the planet by using only organic beans and a high-tech roasting and mixing process that eschews emulsifiers. The jasmine-scented chocolate medallions that Caillot uses for bonbons are the result of mixing beans culled from special farms in Madagascar that grow particularly fine varieties of cacao. Exactly how the beans are mixed, however, is Cluizel's closely-guarded secret.
HEALTHY FAT? What's no secret is that high-quality dark chocolate has become all the rage. Long appreciated in Europe, dark chocolate has been mostly neglected in the U.S., where milk chocolate reigns. But gourmands are now snapping up bars not only from Cluizel but also from such premium producers as El Rey (Venezuela), Hawaiian Vintage (Hawaii), Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker (Berkeley, Calif.), and the industry giant, Valrhona, in France's Rhone Valley.
These makers are crafting pure chocolate with less sugar but flavors so robust and complex that at upscale markets, such as Manhattan's Dean & DeLuca, serious chocoholics talk about bars as if they were fine wines. And they don't mind paying a handsome sum for the delicacies. High-purity dark chocolate sells for $1.50 to $2 an ounce, which means a normal 3-oz. bar can go for as much as $6--compared with $2 for a typical Lindt bar and only $1 for a Hershey. ''At restaurants, you see not just a chocolate souffle, but a souffle with dark Valrhona chocolate on the menu. People know the difference,'' says Sarah Jaye, who manages the growing selection of gourmet chocolates for the online grocer Webvan Group. Health concerns may be driving the trend, too. Dark chocolates are loaded with saturated fats, of course, but they're vegetable fats, which are better for you than milk fats. Moreover, studies have shown that dark chocolates boast loads of cancer-fighting antioxidants and are also an aid in battling depression.
The fad mirrors similar recent trends in unusual cheeses, breads, olive oils, coffees, and teas--and is a bonanza for producers. ''Our sales were up 300% last year [to $3 million], and they're up 250% so far this year,'' says Scharffen Berger's founder and CEO, John Scharffenberger. Still, it's a small market. Leader Valrhona employs 250 people and makes a mere 3,500 tons of chocolate a year.
The story of chocolate has filled several serious historical tomes, most notably The True History of Chocolate, by famed food historian Sophie D. Coe (Thames & Hudson, $27.50). First cultivated in Central America, the cacao tree was exalted by the Mayans as well as the Toltec, Olmec, and Aztec people. Each made a medicinal drink of cacao beans and valued the crop so highly that they used beans as a kind of currency. By 1527, chocolate had arrived in Europe and quickly caught on among the royalty and elite. A century later, European doctors were prescribing chocolate to treat syphilis, hemorrhoids, intestinal parasites, and depression.
The dairy-minded Swiss first figured out how to make milk chocolate by mixing sugar and milk fats with pure chocolate extracts. That eventually turned into the popular milk chocolate bar, which today may contain only 40% pure chocolate. But milk chocolates don't melt on your tongue the way Caillot's bonbons do. That's because cocoa butter in pure chocolate melts more uniformly than milk fats. And cocoa butter coats the mouth more readily, leaving a tasty film that lingers longer than their milk-chocolate kin. No surprise, then, that purists can't stand anything but dark chocolate of at least 60% purity. ''When you have adulterated chocolates, it tastes like you've put ice cubes in a fine wine,'' says Steve Klc (pronounced ''kletch''), head chef and owner of pastryarts.com.
VINTAGES. Indeed, comparisons to wine have become common. That's no surprise to Pierrick Chouard, the longtime chocolate wholesaler and founder of eChocolates.com, who learned about chocolates while studying tropical agriculture in former French colonies of the South Pacific, Africa, and South America. Chocolate has more than 1,200 distinct flavor components, he says, a complexity virtually impossible to mimic with artificial flavors. (By contrast, he says, strawberries have only 400 flavor components.) Serious chocoholics describe premium dark chocolate in oenological terms: oakey, fruity, acidic, crisp, woodsy, or even citrus-scented. And, like winemakers, chocolate companies have begun to designate ''vintages,'' or bars made from beans all picked in the same year, or ''estate'' chocolates made from beans all picked from the same estate.
More than the beans themselves, the complex flavors of high-grade dark chocolate come from the makers' secret bean mixtures and their roasting strategies, which vary times, temperatures, and even cooking means. Cluizel, for instance, uses infrared lights to cook its beans uniformly. This ensures that no water remains inside the beans, which could spoil the flavors, and that beans aren't over-roasted, which creates bitter overtones. ''A chocolate maker will tell you a lot about how to make chocolates,'' says Klc. ''But he will never tell you what blend he is using.''
Klc, Chouard, and Caillot all caution that preferences are a matter of taste: No single dark chocolate stands above the others. But if chocolate lovers stick to bars whose purity is 60% or higher from the big four--Cluizel, El Rey, Scharffen Berger, and Valrhona--they'll always end up with a dreamy bar of fabulous flavor.
By ALEX SALKEVER
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Raising the Chocolate Bar Higher
TABLE: Sweet Secrets
TABLE: Dark Raptures
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