The Next Sweet Thing 

High-end chocolate makers such as Scharffen Berger are revolutionizing how Americans view cacao.

Page 5 of 7

Three years ago, Gordon launched Chocophile.com, where he posts his reviews of specific chocolate makers and invites reader discussion, and organizes East Coast chocolate education events similar to Bittersweet's. Also enabling the nation's sophisticated new sweet tooth are Jerry and Joanne Kryszek, proprietors of Chocosphere.com, an online retailer of high-end dark chocolates. Business, they report, is booming. "People are becoming more and more aware of the differences," Jerry says. "You have different winemakers and different regions. In chocolate you have very analogous things -- different cacao growers, different chocolate makers applying different skills and talents to make vastly different products."

Chocolate makers have been aware of the differences between regions and varieties since Aztec times. But marketing specific named-origin chocolates to the public like wines is a very modern phenomenon. Well, sort of. "As near as I can tell," Gordon says, "the first company to start actively marketing terroir in chocolate was the French company Bonnat in 1903." (Terroir is an expression often used by French winemakers to describe subtle distinctions each plot of land can impart to the same grape varietal.)

The modern push to print the cacao source on the label also came from the French. "In the mid-1970s," Gordon explains, "the French government, in conjunction with a whole bunch of chocolatiers, got together and said, 'There's a lot of cheap chocolate from Belgium. We want to protect the patrimony of French chocolate. '"

As the French style defined itself more clearly, chocolate makers like Robert Linxe of La Maison du Chocolat and Michel Cluizel began bumping up the cocoa content of their chocolates and accentuating the fruity characteristics. "Most chocolate makers, except for the Belgians, Italians, and Swiss, perhaps, agree that the French make the most subtle, flavorful, and richest stuff in the world," author Rosenblum says. "The French can be insufferable about this sometimes, but that does not change the basic reality."

Around 1996 -- no one can agree who did it first -- Valrhona and Michel Cluizel, two French industrial manufacturers specializing in high-end chocolate, began mass-marketing high-cocoa chocolate bars from specific growing regions, even single estates. By 1997 and 1998, when Scharffen Berger was just beginning to make waves in America with its French-style chocolate, the named-origin phenomenon was rolling into high gear in Europe.

The Kryszeks had started Chocosphere.com out of their Tulatin, Oregon, home to supply the United States with artisanal Belgian chocolates, but their focus soon shifted. "In 1999 or 2000 we got our first estate chocolates in," Jerry says. "I have built quite a clientele in them, and I can't always satisfy our need." Chocosphere now carries hundreds of varieties from 32 producers in Europe and the Americas. The prize for terroir hype goes to the Estate line of chocolates from the Italian company Domori, which markets bars made from three distinctive cacao clones grown at the Hacienda San José in Venezuela.

American chocolate makers have jumped on the estate-chocolate trend. In 1997, Frederick Schilling, now an Oregon-based chocolatier, launched his Dagoba line of bars, all-organic, fair-trade chocolates. More and more come from single regions, each of which is described in glowing terms in the company's marketing materials.

In 2002 Burlingame's Guittard, the largest privately owned chocolate manufacturer in the world, introduced the E. Guittard premium chocolate line, named after founder Emile Guittard. The company has specialized in industrial chocolate since the 1860s and supplies such companies as See's. But this new line of chocolate bars and couverture is made with higher-quality beans and old-fashioned, smaller-scale production methods -- the "Sur del Lago" comes from Venezuela, the "Chucuri" from Colombia. Fondeurs such as Michael Recchiuti and pastry chefs around the Bay Area have begun using E. Guittard. "It's beautiful stuff," Chocosphere's Kryszek raves.

More recently, in 2003, Rob Polevoi and Timothy Childs started up Cabaret Chocolates out of the old Hooper's chocolate factory in Oakland, where they make dense, smooth chocolate confections using only Carnero Superior beans, a high-Criollo Trinitario from the Barlovento region in Venezuela.

Not everyone, however, appreciates the move toward named-origin chocolate. Among the critics is Terry Richardson, a British-born confectionery teacher whose chocolate-making classes at UC Davis have attracted students from around the world, including Steinberg. "There are over five hundred compounds in chocolate, but not all chocolates have them," he says. "I've worked in Venezuela and Colombia, and the chocolate there is nice but it's flat. It begs to have other liquors blended with it."

Steinberg also is wary of the phenomenon. The subject actually makes him a little cranky. "I see estate chocolates mostly as a marketing tool," he says. "It's academically interesting from a taste standpoint, but if you delve below the surface, some of these assumptions about what people think they're eating are not true. They think, 'I'm eating Venezuelan chocolate' -- as if Venezuelan chocolate had an identity."

He elaborates in an article posted on Scharffen Berger's Web site: "Geographically defined beans are not nearly as genetically homogeneous as they are often assumed to be. Cacao (and hence chocolate) described as coming from a particular region of a country -- let alone the country as a whole -- is far more likely to represent the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of farmers cultivating land with a variety of soil and climatic characteristics and using a range of techniques."

Influenced by Bernachon and Richardson, Scharffen Berger made the first batches of its bittersweet by blending eleven different beans from around the world. A key reason large manufacturers have always blended chocolates is to assure consistent quality. The world's cacao supply is ever shifting, and Scharffenberger says the formula for each of his company's chocolates changes constantly as employees exhaust new batches of beans and must source new ones. "More earthy chocolates have better finishes," he explains. "So you add those to the chocolates that have fruitier, higher tones and show themselves earlier in the flavor experience. As in champagne blending, you look at it as a time sequence, and link the flavors to have the most there."

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