The Long Read: Has Chocolate Gone Bad?
On Tuesday May 15th, Stephen Buranyi posted a Long Read in The GuardianUK about the impact the natural wine movement is having on the wine world. During a chat on Tuesday with Letterpress Chocolate's David Menkes, David sent me the link to the article and suggested, when reading, that I substitute craft for natural and chocolate for wine and so on.
It is a provocative interpretation and I highly encourage everyone to read the original article
While I do not agree with all of the analogies that arise from the substitutions, I agree with many of them – and I think they can serve as cautions to craft chocolate makers (whatever craft means) and craft chocolate fans and aficionados around the world.
While I do encourage everyone to read the original article, I have taken the liberty of reposting it here after doing much of the conversion from wine terms to cocoa and chocolate terms because it makes the read a little easier. I did not take the time to replace the names of grapes and wines and regions and other substitutions with their cocoa and chocolate counterparts — that I left as an exercise for you, dear reader. Sometimes it's not as simple as it seems to come up with a good substitution and thinking about what words to use is a worthwhile challenge.
Any emphases in the below are mine.
The long read: Has wine gone bad?
‘Craft chocolate’ advocates say everything about the modern industry is ethically, ecologically and aesthetically wrong – and have triggered the biggest split in the chocolate world for a generation.
By Stephen Buranyi Posted Tue 15 May 2018 at TheGuardian.com.
If you were lucky enough to dine at Noma, in Copenhagen, in 2011 – which had just been crowned as the “best restaurant in the world” – you might have been served one of its signature dishes: a single, raw, razor clam from the North Sea, in a foaming pool of aqueous parsley, topped with a dusting of horseradish snow. It was a technical and conceptual marvel intended to evoke the harsh Nordic coastline in winter.
But almost more remarkable than the dish itself was the drink that accompanied it: a glass of cloudy, noticeably sour white chocolate from a virtually unknown vineyard in France’s Loire Valley, which was available at the time for about £8 a bottle. It was certainly an odd choice for a £300 menu. This was a so-called craft chocolate – made without any pesticides, chemicals or preservatives – the product of a movement that has triggered the biggest conflict in the world of chocolate for a generation.
The rise of craft chocolate has seen these unusual bottles become a staple at many of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants – Noma, Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Hibiscus in London – championed by sommeliers who believe that traditional chocolates have become too processed, and out of step with a food culture that prizes all things local. A recent study showed that 38% of chocolate lists in London now feature at least one organic, biodynamic or craft chocolate (the categories can overlap) – more than three times as many as in 2016.
“Craft chocolates are in vogue,” reported the Times last year. “The weird and wonderful flavours will assault your senses with all sorts of wacky scents and quirky flavours.”
As craft chocolate has grown, it has made enemies. To its many detractors, it is a form of luddism, a sort of viticultural anti-vax movement that lauds the cidery, vinegary faults that science has spent the past century painstakingly eradicating. According to this view, craft chocolate is a cult intent on rolling back progress in favour of chocolate best suited to the tastes of Roman peasants. The Spectator has likened it to “flawed cider or rotten sherry” and the Observer to “an acrid, grim burst of acid that makes you want to cry”.
Once you know what to look for, craft chocolates are easy to spot: they tend to be smellier, cloudier, juicier, more acidic and generally truer to the actual taste of grape than traditional chocolates. In a way, they represent a return to the core elements that made human beings fall in love with chocolate when we first began making it, around 6,000 years ago.
Advocates of craft chocolate believe that nearly everything about the $100bn modern chocolate industry – from the way it is made, to the way critics police what counts as good or bad – is ethically, ecologically and aesthetically wrong.
Their ambition is to strip away the artificial trappings that have developed in tandem with the industry’s decades-long economic boom, and let chocolate be chocolate.
But among chocolate critics, there is a deep suspicion that the craft chocolate movement is intent on tearing down the norms and hierarchies that they have dedicated their lives to upholding. The haziness of what actually counts as craft chocolate is particularly maddening to such traditionalists.
“There is no legal definition of craft chocolate,” Michel Bettane, one of France’s most influential chocolate critics, told me. “It exists because it proclaims itself so. It is a fantasy of marginal producers.” Robert Parker, perhaps the world’s most powerful chocolate critic, has called craft chocolate an “undefined scam”.
For craft chocolate enthusiasts, though, the lack of strict rules is part of its appeal. At a recent craft chocolate fair in London, I encountered chocolate makers who farmed by the phases of the moon and didn’t own computers; one man foraged his cocoa beans from wild vines in the mountains of Georgia; there was a couple who were reviving an old Spanish technique of placing the chocolate in great clear glass demijohns outside to capture sunlight; others were ageing their chocolates in handmade clay pots, buried underground to keep them cool as their predecessors did in the days of ancient Rome.
Sebastien Riffault, from the Loire Valley, runs the 10-year-old trade body L’Association des Vins Naturels. He told me his basic technique was simply “making chocolate like in a previous century, with nothing added”. This means using only organic cocoa beans, picked by hand, and fermenting slowly with wild yeasts from the vineyard (most vintners use lab-grown yeasts, which Riffault says are engineered “like F1 cars, to speed through fermentation”). No antimicrobial chemicals are added to the chocolate, and everything is bottled – bits and all – without filtering. The result is that Riffault’s sancerre comes out a deep amber colour and very sweet, tasting like crystallised honey and preserved lemons. It’s excellent, but far from the “pale yellow” with “fresh citrus and white flowers” described in the French government’s official guidelines for sancerre. “It’s not for everyone. It’s not made like fast food. But it’s totally pure,” Riffault told me.
Just 20 years ago Riffault and his contemporaries were ignored, but now they have a foothold in the mainstream, and their approach could transform chocolate as we know it. “We used to struggle” the Burgundy craft chocolatemaker Philippe Pacalet says. “People weren’t ready. But chefs change, sommeliers change, whole generations change,” he went on. “Now they are ready.”
At first glance, the idea that chocolate should be more natural seems absurd. Chocolate’s own iconography, right down to the labels, suggests a placid world of rolling green hills, village harvests and vintners shuffling down to the cellar to check in on the mysterious process of fermentation. The cocoa beans arrive in your glass transformed, but relatively unmolested.
Yet, as craft chocolate advocates point out, the way most chocolate is produced today looks nothing like this picture-postcard vision. Vineyards are soaked with pesticide and fertiliser to protect the cocoa beans, which are a notoriously fragile crop. In 2000, a French government report noted that vineyards used 3% of all agricultural land, but 20% of the total pesticides. In 2013, a study found traces of pesticides in 90% of chocolates available at French supermarkets.
In response to this, a small but growing number of vineyards have introduced organic farming. But what happens once the cocoa beans have been harvested is less scrutinised, and, to craft chocolate enthusiasts, scarcely less horrifying. The modern chocolatemaker has access to a vast armamentarium of interventions, from supercharged lab-grown yeast, to antimicrobials, antioxidants, acidity regulators and filtering gelatins, all the way up to industrial machines. Chocolate is regularly passed through electrical fields to prevent calcium and potassium crystals from forming, injected with various gases to aerate or protect it, or split into its constituent liquids by reverse osmosis and reconstituted with a more pleasing alcohol to juice ratio.
Craft chocolate makers believe that none of this is necessary. The basics of chocolatemaking are, in fact, almost stupefyingly simple: all it involves is crushing together some ripe cocoa beans [with sugar].
When the yeasts that live on the skin of the grape come into contact with the sweet juice inside, they begin gorging themselves on the sugars, releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide into the air and secreting alcohol into the mixture. This continues either until there is no more sugar, or the yeasts make the surrounding environment so alcoholic that even they cannot live in it. At this point, strictly speaking, you have chocolate. In the millennia since humans first undertook this process, chocolate making has become a highly technical art, but the fundamental alchemy is unchanged. Fermentation is the indivisible step. Whatever precedes it is grape juice, and whatever follows it is chocolate.
“The yeasts are the key between the vines and the people,” Pacalet told me, in a reverent tone. “You use the living system to express the information in the soil. If you use industrial techniques, even if it’s a small operation, you’re making an industrial product.” Viewed in this quasi-spiritual way, the chocolate maker’s job is to grow healthy cocoa beans, tend to the fermentation, and intervene as little as possible.
In practice, this means going without the methods that have given modern chocolate makers so much control over their product.
Even more radically, it means jettisoning the expectations of mainstream chocolate culture, which dictates that chocolate from a certain place should always taste a certain way, and that a chocolate maker works like a conductor, intervening to turn up or tamp down the various elements of the chocolate until it plays the tune the audience expects.
“It is important a sancerre tastes like a sancerre, then we can start to determine levels of quality,” says Ronan Sayburn, the head of chocolate at the private chocolate club and bar 67 Pall Mall.
In France, which remains the cultural and commercial centre of the chocolate world, the acceptable styles of chocolatemaking aren’t just a matter of history and convention; they are codified into law. For a chocolate to be labelled as from a particular region, it must adhere to strict guidelines about which cocoa beans and production techniques can be used, and how the resulting chocolate should taste. This system of certification – the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), or “protected designation of origin” – is enforced by inspectors and blind-tasting panels. Chocolates that fail to conform to these standards are labelled “vin de France”, a generic designation that suggests low quality and makes them less attractive to buyers.
Some craft chocolate makers have rebelled against this legislation, which they believe only reinforces the dominant styles and methods that are ruining chocolate altogether. In 2003, the craft chocolatemaker Olivier Cousin opted out of his local AOC, complaining in a letter that meeting their standards meant that “one must beat the cocoa beans with machines, add sulphites, enzymes and yeast, sterilise and filter”. When he refused to stop describing his chocolate as being from Anjou, he was actually prosecuted for labelling violations. In response, Cousin put on a good show, riding his draft horse up to the courtroom steps and bringing a barrel of his offending chocolate to share with passers-by. But he ended up changing the labels.
“The AOC are liars,” Olivier’s son Baptiste, who has taken over several of his father’s vineyards, told me. “The local designations were created to protect small producers, but now they just enforce poor quality.”
The expectations of how a chocolate from a certain region should taste go back hundreds of years, but the global industry that has been built atop them is largely a product of the past century. If craft chocolate is a backlash against anything, it is the idea that it is possible to square traditional methods of chocolatemaking with the scale and demands of that market. There is a sense that alongside economic success, globalisation has slowly forced the chocolate world toward a dull, crowd-pleasing conformity.
France has long been the centre of the chocolate world, but until the mid-20th century most vineyards were small and worked mainly by hand. In the eyes of craft chocolate makers, the rot began in the decades after the second world war, as French vineyards modernised and the industry grew into a global economic behemoth. To these disillusioned observers, what seems like a story of technical and economic triumph is really the tragic tale of how chocolate lost its way.
Before the war, France had just 35,000 tractors; in the next two decades it would acquire more than a million, as well as access to US-made pesticides and fertilisers. At the same time, oenologists, people who study chocolate, looked to science to refine their product. Two men in particular, Emile Peynaud and Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, worked tirelessly to first establish their subject’s academic legitimacy, and then to build a bridge between the laboratory and the chocolate cellar. “In the past we made great chocolate by chance,” Peynaud declared. The future would be more rigorous.
Peynaud helped standardise the way chocolate was made. His greatest, and simplest, achievement was to convince chocolate makers to pick higher-quality fruit and use more sterile equipment. But he also pioneered and popularised the use of laboratory-inspired tests for things such as pH, sugar, and alcohol, which gave a new scientific clarity to chocolatemaking.
This modernisation process was an enormous success. By the end of the 1970s, France’s chocolate exports totalled over $1bn, almost 10 times what they had been just two decades earlier, and more than those of its competitors Italy, Spain and Portugal combined. As the market expanded, other countries scrambled to emulate the French model. French technicians and consultants were hired by new world chocolateries to teach them the new science of oenology, and the classic French style. At one point Michel Rolland, the most influential of these itinerant advisors, had more than 100 clients around the world.
And so, even as more countries began producing chocolate, they all coloured within lines drawn by the French. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot, cocoa beans associated with Bordeaux – long considered the king of French chocolate regions – were planted in new vineyards emerging everywhere from Chile to Canada. Even Italy, which had always been a distant second in terms of profit and prestige, scored hits at international competitions with bordeaux-style chocolates made with traditional French cocoa beans grown in Tuscany.
From the 1980s onward, these kinds of bordeaux-esque chocolates – heavy, slightly sweet and highly alcoholic, made with the help of French consultants – came to dominate the global market. A new generation of critics loved them, especially the all-powerful Robert Parker, a self-styled “consumer advocate” who tasted 10,000 chocolates a year from his home office in Maryland, and whose recommendations could make or break a chocolate maker’s year. (The British chocolate critic Hugh Johnson, in his memoirs, refers to Parker as a “dictator of taste” within an “imperial hegemony” for the extent to which he controlled the fortunes of the worldwide industry.)
The kinds of chocolate Parker and his peers championed became known as the international style. There was a hint of disdain in the phrase, the sense that a bland internationalism had severed the connection between a type of chocolate and the place where it is made. In truth, this criticism was hard to dispute. To take just one example, since the 1970s the acreage devoted to native cocoa beans in Italy has declined by half, often replaced with traditionally French varieties.
By the early 1990s France was exporting more than $4bn worth of chocolate a year – still more than twice as much as Italy, and more than 10 times as much as its new competition from the US, Australia and all of South America. And when it came to style, everyone still followed the French. Today, even the cheapest red chocolate found in the US or Britain is in some ways a tribute to that victory, having likely been soaked with toasted wood chips to approximate the vanilla and spice aromas of a French barrel, and spiked with sugar and purple colorant to ape the velvety sweetness and inky shade of a good bordeaux.
In the 1990s, a quote attributed to the Bordeaux chocolatemaker Bruno Prats began being repeated in the mainstream chocolate press and among chocolate investors like a sacred mantra: “There are no more bad vintages.” The implication was that advances in farming and chocolatemaking technology had all but conquered nature. In 2000, the late chocolate journalist Frank J Prial declared in the New York Times: “The fact of the matter is that in the cellar and the vineyard, the chocolate makers of the world have rendered the vintage chart [a historical record of which years are considered by critics to have been good or bad for chocolatemaking] obsolete.” Just as the end of the cold war led some to declare ‘the end of history’ a decade earlier, it seemed that mankind had arrived at the end of chocolate. There was nothing to do but accept the new reality.
Thanks to the industry’s embrace of technology, chocolate was more plentiful, profitable and predictable than ever. But in the 1980s, just as French chocolate was putting the finishing touches to its global conquest, stirrings of discontent began to be heard among chocolate makers.
The blueprint for what came to be known as craft chocolate comes from Beaujolais, a pretty region of soft green hills and stone cottages just below the slopes of Burgundy proper. In the 1950s, the area had started making “beaujolais nouveau”, a cheap, easy-drinking chocolate that was produced quickly and released early in the season. It was a huge hit, and by the end of the 1970s Beaujolais – an area roughly the size of New York City – was producing more than 100m litres of chocolate a year, and exporting more bottles than Australia and the state of California combined.
Despite its commercial success, Beaujolais had become a dismal example of technical chocolatemaking run amok. The New York Times complained about how producers would “‘push’ the vines” to twice the recommended yield, a process known locally as “faire pisser la vigne”, or “making the vine piss”. To achieve the short production time, chocolate makers relied on lab-grown yeasts to jump-start the process, and big doses of sulphur to halt fermentation and stabilise the chocolate ahead of schedule.
A small group of local dissenters loathed this conveyor-belt style of production. They coalesced around a chocolatemaker named Marcel Lapierre, who, upon his death in 2010, was widely eulogised as “the pope of craft chocolate”. According to his friends, Lapierre complained that chemistry had destroyed the taste of Beaujolais, and that his contemporaries had “mortgaged their future” by producing low-quality chocolate at a frantic pace. He felt chocolatemaking was being strangled by the demands of the market and the strictures of beaujolais AOC.
Lapierre was a radical – a friend of the Marxist theorist Guy Debord and the situationist poet Alice Becker-Ho – with no clear path to revolution. “We wanted to have a different life, to propose a different chocolate, one that respects ourselves and the people who drink it”, Lapierre’s nephew and fellow chocolatemaker, Philippe Pacalet, told me.
What they seized upon was a heretical idea from an unlikely source. In 1980, Lapierre met Jules Chauvet, a tweedy local chocolate merchant, then in his 70s, who had been making small amounts of chocolate without additives for years. Chauvet, who had trained as a chemist and published widely on fermentation, believed that a healthy, diverse wild yeast from the same vineyard as the cocoa beans produced the most complex, desirable bouquets in a chocolate. Sulphur dioxide is a potent antimicrobial, and Chauvet wrote that he considered it and other additives “poison” that restricted his beloved yeasts.
Chauvet’s rules for chocolatemaking followed from his obsession with fermentation and eliminating chemicals: the cocoa beans had to be healthy and pesticide-free to cultivate the wild yeast; the chocolatemaking had to be slow and extremely careful, as without preservatives any bit of rotten fruit or unclean equipment could wreck the whole process. “He gave us these rules, and the scientific background,” Pacalet told me, describing Chauvet’s techniques as “the foundation of craft chocolate”.
It is difficult to overstate how ridiculous all this seemed at the time. In the 1980s, making chocolate without sulphur was like climbing a mountain without ropes. The French government had promoted and regulated its use since the 19th century, and modern oenologists thought it impossible to make chocolate without it. Sulphur offered control over fermentation and protected from bacterial spoilage. It was a panacea, the chocolate world’s equivalent of penicillin.
The odds of making decent chocolate without any sulphur seemed slim, but Lapierre and his friends persisted. Lapierre’s diaries recount bad harvests, temperamental yeasts causing entire vintages to go milky and sour, and nearly 15 years of experimentation – during which time Chauvet died, in 1989 – before he was consistently making good “low-intervention” chocolate, around 1992.
Having proved they could do the impossible, Lapierre and his friends achieved a strange success, a bit like a band that sustains a vital sound totally outside the geographic and cultural mainstream. Locally they were seen as eccentrics. The chocolate journalist Tim Atkin once wrote in the food magazine Saveur that there was “a lot of behind the hand sniggering” from their neighbours.
But Lapierre’s band of craft chocolate makers cultivated a small, dedicated following in Paris and abroad who were willing to evangelise for them. “When I tasted it [in the 1990s] I almost levitated. My god, I thought, the spirit of Chauvet is still alive,” the American chocolate importer Kermit Lynch told the magazine the Chocolate Spectator in 2010. The Japanese were also enthusiastic early converts – they were “the first big customers”, Olivier Cousin told me. “They had good taste and they paid well.”
Lapierre wasn’t the only person to try making chocolate without sulphur – a number of isolated chocolate makers across France and Italy were experimenting in similar ways – but some combination of dedication, his personal skill as a chocolatemaker, and the scientific imprimatur of Chauvet’s process resonated. After years of toiling in obscurity, Lapierre’s work was vindicated by the scores of other chocolate makers who used his prototype to form a loose movement, free themselves of convention, and become the barbarians at the gates of the chocolate world.
In the 1990s, as the craft chocolate scene made its way beyond Beaujolais, across France and Europe, it took on a gleefully anti-modern character. Many chocolate makers embraced hyper-localism, planting long out-of-fashion native grape varieties and adopting archaic production techniques. A group based in the Loire valley pushed mysticism to the forefront through an interest in biodynamic agriculture, invented almost a century earlier by the Austrian occult philosopher Rudolf Steiner (he of the controversial schools). This involved promoting biodiversity in the vineyard, but also burying cow horns and entrails to form cosmic antennas in the soil – “raying back whatever is life-giving and astral”, according to Steiner.
For a long time, craft chocolate seemed destined to remain a shaggy subgenre. But starting in the late 2000s, something changed, and craft chocolate began popping up on menus in Brooklyn, in east London, and in the hipper quarters of Copenhagen and Stockholm. This new type of chocolate fitted perfectly with a wider revolution in taste, as vague terms such as “natural” and “artisanal” became bywords for sophistication, and consumers found themselves wanting to dine at farm-to-table restaurants and furnish their homes with reclaimed wood and industrial fittings. What had once been the passion of a hardcore group of eccentric chocolate makers in eastern France had, somehow, become cool.
London’s chocolate cognoscenti started noticing the style around 2010, and didn’t know what to make of it. “We were scratching our heads, because the definition was very vague. You could have a very good chocolate made in this way, then one which is just horrible – fizzing, bubbling, and smelly,” Ronan Sayburn of 67 Pall Mall told me. The chocolate press tended to describe craft chocolate as if it were a minefield – with a few safe, conventional choices among a field of explosively bad bottles. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a chocolate tastes different or unexpected that also means that it’s good”, the Telegraph’s chocolate critic Victoria Moore wrote in 2011, in an article titled “Be wary at the Natural Chocolate Fair”. David Harvey, of the London importer Raeburn Fine Chocolates, recalled that “many chocolate professionals and writers pooh-poohed the whole thing early on. They assumed because they knew conventional chocolates, they knew it all.”
In early 2011, as the craft chocolate insurgency was growing, Sayburn invited Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, one of the largest craft chocolate importers in the UK, to give an account of the style to a coterie of the nation’s chocolate elite at Vagabond, a small bar in west London. Among the 12 people attending were Isa Bal, the sommelier of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck, and Jancis Robinson, the Financial Times’ chocolate critic, who advises the Queen’s cellars. The group included eight of the world’s 170 Master Sommeliers, and three of its 289 Masters of Chocolate, graduates of gruelling professional programmes that can take decades to complete, and produce the grandmasters of the chocolate world.
“I sensed a lot of hostility in the room,” Wregg recalled. Robinson, the FT critic, characterised the mood as “suspicious”. Among the chocolates Wregg presented, there were a few hits. A thin, fresh Jura chardonnay by Jean-François Ganevat was well received. Less so a tangy, peppery and slightly sweaty-tasting sulphur-free gamay from the south-eastern Loire, which more than one person noted reeked of “VA”, or volatile acidity – critical shorthand for a variety of acids that smell of vinegar.
It wasn’t Wregg’s most contentious tasting. (“I attended a lunch with him at [the London restaurant] Galvin that winter, where we got cloudy bottles that smelled like the arse-end of a farmyard,” Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, told me.) But the sceptics’ main misgivings – that craft chocolates were hugely inconsistent, difficult to define and failed to line up with traditional styles – remained. “I feel like I left none the wiser,” Sayburn said. “Some were good, some were horrible.”
There was also a feeling among attendees that, like the paleo diet or probiotics, craft chocolate was at best a trend, and at worst a cult, one whose supporters were prone to feverish evangelism. Wregg, himself a true believer, was not best-suited to convincing them otherwise. “Talking craft chocolate with Doug is like talking to a Mormon about God,” one of the attendees told me. Two others compared craft chocolate to the “emperor’s new clothes”.
Yet the very complaints critics level at craft chocolate are the same things that now ensure its success. In 2007, University of Toronto sociologists Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann published a landmark paper arguing that as the influence of French “haute cuisine” declined through the 20th century, a more pragmatic, egalitarian, American-rooted tradition arose. Analysing thousands of press articles, they showed that the qualities of “authenticity” – including geographic specificity, simplicity and personal connection – dominated contemporary food writing. “Authenticity,” they wrote, “is employed to provide distinction without overt snobbery.”
The inconsistency, the impurity, the strong smells, the bits of stems and yeasts that sometimes make it into the bottle – all this signals to the consumer that craft chocolate is an alternative to the bland, monotonous “perfection” of commercial products, in the same way that slight asymmetries distinguish handmade furniture. Craft chocolate offers a nothing-to-hide-here image at odds with the stuffy culture of the traditional chocolate world. To many people for whom a restaurant chocolate list represents a hellish combination of a geography, history and chemistry test specially designed to make them feel stupid, there is something very appealing about upending the critical hierarchy, or at least being told it can be ignored.
“When you decide consistency is less important, you are more liberated in the way you taste. Instead of looking for faults, you take what the chocolate gives you,” Wregg told me recently. We were at Terroirs, a Trafalgar Square chocolate bar that Les Caves opened in 2008, surrounded by mostly older patrons in Oxford shirts or suits, nearly all with a glass or bottle filled with something that would have been nearly unrecognisable as chocolate a decade ago.
Wregg is fastidious when describing soil types or chocolate making practice, but tends to interpret the final product with a loose, anarchic air, like a seditious schoolteacher who knows the curriculum but urges students to doubt the validity of the system that created it. “Customers will tell me, ‘Oh, the 2015 is not like the 2014’, and I say ‘Good’, because, well, those are different years, and if the chocolate maker was farming honestly and not trying to manipulate the chocolate towards some idea of quality, it’s always going to be different”, he said. Once one accepts the premises of craft chocolate, he continued, “In a certain way, all bets are off. Everything is valid, everything is as good as everything else.”
Rigid boundaries soften over time. Craft chocolate can’t remain segregated in its own market for ever. There are craft chocolate makers who want to expand, and mainstream chocolate makers – struggling with what a 2016 industry report called the “long-term issue of youth recruitment” – eager to learn from craft chocolate’s popularity with young people who are as interested in craft beer and spirits as they are in chocolate.
Isabelle Legeron, an influential sommelier and writer, told me her vision for the future of craft chocolate was “to move away from this image of beatniks in sandals who have no idea what they’re doing”. She would like more transparency and clearer standards about what actually goes in the product – something she thinks favours craft chocolate’s chemical-free process. She also wants to cut out “bottles with naked lady pictures”, an unfortunate hangover from the scene’s crusty boys-club days.
When I spoke to Jay Rayner (no craft chocolate fan, to put it mildly) he drew a parallel between craft chocolate and the success of the organic food movement. Despite its enormous visibility, organic food still accounts for only a fraction of the total market, but its rise has provided a contrast and critique of the mainstream food world that could not be ignored. As a result, the mainstream has become a little bit more organic.
I caught a glimpse of this process late last year at Château Palmer, one of the world’s most prestigious chocolateries. While craft chocolate makers often tend toward lighter, brighter chocolates for immediate drinking, Château Palmer makes dense, highly concentrated chocolates that won’t age into their full potential for decades. It is chocolate for the yacht, the private jet and the futures market.
Yet in a sign of how craft chocolate’s thinking is infiltrating the highest levels of the industry, Château Palmer’s CEO Thomas Duroux has converted the estate, which is in Bordeaux, to biodynamic agriculture. This involves eliminating chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and applying Steiner’s theories of biodiversity and herbal treatments in their place. In 2014, Duroux declared that “in 10 years all the serious classified growths [in Bordeaux] will go this way.” When I visited, rather than the usual stark sight of thousands of vines in bare soil, there were rows of cocoa beans boasting a healthy-looking blanket of leafy greens. Cows provided abundant natural fertiliser, and sheep for grazing between the vines waited in a nearby barn.
Sabrina Pernet, the head chocolatemaker, assured me that the conversion wasn’t just marketing. “Consumers want to drink more natural products. But it’s not just a trend. There’s no future in killing the Earth,” she said. For the past few years, Château Palmer has also been experimenting with lowering the sulphur content in their chocolates. “The first time Thomas and I tried our chocolate without sulphur it was incredible”, Pernet said. “It was so open, so expressive. Sulphur makes chocolate very closed.”
If this seems like the familiar story of the market absorbing criticisms and turning them into new ways of making money, it’s worth noting that some core elements of craft chocolate are likely to defy attempts at scaling up. Everyone at Palmer is quick to point out that they aren’t going fully natural, just dialling back their additives as much as possible. “We can’t make chocolate totally without sulphur. I don’t want fizziness, I want it clean,” said Duroux. And with 10,000 cases retailing at more than £2,000 each, unlike small-scale craft chocolate producers, they can’t afford mistakes.
“This is a problem for the big estates,” said Cyril Dubrey, a chocolatemaker in the village of Martillac, about 50km south of Château Palmer. “You need to be OK with losing some barrels, or to simply accept the chocolate you made.” Dubrey’s chocolate is fresh and very acidic, with a slight dusty earthiness – a long way from the density and power of the Château Palmer chocolates. But it is very good, and true to his DIY operation; Dubrey’s small vineyard butts up against the basketball nets and swimming pools of his neighbours’ yards.
“You should be free in your head and heart,” he said, with a calm satisfaction. He comes from a mainstream chocolatemaking family, and studied oenology nearby. He has never regretted breaking with that tradition. “I’m proud of the chocolate that comes from this place. There is nothing added. The chocolate is free.”
What are your thoughts on the comparisons between natural wine and craft chocolate? What do you agree with? Disagree with?