David Siegel’s Chocolate Porn

High-end chocolate is a gift for yourself and your friends

David Siegel
Nov 29 · 11 min read
One of the three chocolate sections in a single department store in Geneva. The Swiss eat twice as much chocolate per-capita as any other country in the world.

This is part of my Product-Porn series.

High-end chocolate makes a great stocking-stuffer — even better if you appreciate what you’re tasting. I’ve done dozens of chocolate tastings around the world, where I educate people about dark chocolate. It’s one habit where even the most expensive bars are affordable to most people. But beware — once you have tasted the world’s best chocolate, you may not go back to <insert your favorite brand here>! Take it one square at a time and immerse yourself in my world of dark chocolate.

The Basics

There are three species of cacao:

The Forastero, on the left, accounts for 94 percent of world production. It’s hardy, resists rot, and has good yield. Farmers love it. The bean is purple and the chocolate tastes like coconut. The beans are sold in the commodity trading markets. This is what most chocolate is made from, including Godiva, Lindt, Patchi, Sprungli, Guylian, Tcho, all Belgian chocolate, and most expensive chocolates in the fancy stores.

The one on the right is Criollo, which has low yield, is easily attacked by fungus, is difficult to pollinate, and has the most flavorful beans. Farmers hate it. Criollo accounts for about one percent of world production and is the species prized by connoisseurs.

The rest is Trinitario — various hybrids of the two. A Trinitario pod can be bright purple, orange, yellow, or red. You can tell a Criollo bean because it’s purple or red outside and white inside, whereas the other beans are purple. Most Trinitarios are disappointing.

Here we are in Ecuador tasting the lemony pith that surrounds the beans. Cesar is trying to collect the beans after we “process” them to take back for fermenting, but the boys keep spitting them out because it’s fun.

Here’s that same bean cut in half on the left, and a Criollo from Madagascar on the right:

Forastero or Trinitario on the left; Criollo on the right.

Here’s how they look when drying, the white beans are obvious:

Connoisseur chocolate is generally made with a mix of Criollo “flavor” beans and the other “bulk” beans. They never say what the blend is. Even if it says “single origin” it has a mix of species in the farm. Only if the bar says “porcelana” is it more than 50 percent white bean. I’ve never heard of a 100 percent white-bean bar.

The makers of various bars want you to think that good beans come from around the world, but that’s not true. Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Ecuador, and Dominican Republic have no decent beans. Venezuela is home to ninety percent of the best Criollo beans, Madagascar probably has about six percent, and the rest are from various experimental plantations around the world. Most of these don’t work, because the Criollo variety is too fragile.

The Bad News

Unfortunately, the golden age of chocolate was probably the 1990s up to 2005. That’s because Hugo Chavez and his successors destroyed the Venezuelan economy and gave much of the land to peasants, who didn’t manage it well. Many of the famous Venezuelan haciendas are no longer producing good beans. Today’s porcelanas are less vibrant. Today’s Chuao beans are barely recognizable from those twenty years ago. They had a plum-raisin taste. Madagascar cacao still has citrus notes but they aren’t as nuanced. Because of one man, the really good cacao is mostly gone.

The best beans come from Venezuela and a few select plantations around the world. The best bars are made in Italy and France. Switzerland has almost no good chocolate producers. The only exception is Felchlin, which produces a few interesting bars.

From my tour of the Felchlin factory in Schweiz. On the left, they are making “couverture” 5kg bars for restaurants and manufacturers. On the right is the conching process, which makes the bars taste more smooth. Most Felchlin bars are conched for 72 hours, which is much longer than other Swiss manufacturers.

The two most important brands are Amedei and Domori. They have the primary contracts with the best growers. Valrhona has access to some good beans, but the bars are hard to come by (you’ll see them below).

Almost all dipped chocolate and candy chocolate is made with commodity Forastero beans from Cote d’Ivoire or Brazil. So-called high-end chocolate from Godiva, Maison du Chocolat, Teuscher, Jacques Torres, Richart, the big Swiss brands, Belgian brands, and the so-called “craft” bars from Tcho, Scharffenberger, Mast, Affinity, and almost all the others — are all made with commodity Forastero beans or some Trinitario blends that are not particularly good.

The famous brands use the cheapest beans and add value through marketing, because they know the public has no idea what good chocolate tastes like. Price has nothing to do with quality. It’s all signaling, storytelling, packaging, and branding.

All “organic” chocolate comes from Forastero beans, most of which come from the Dominican Republic. Any bar with salt, ginger, espresso, nibs, or other precious flavors is going to be made with Forastero.

White chocolate and milk chocolate are not worthy of the name chocolate. They are grocery-store candy.

High end connoisseur bars are made with at least 30 percent Criollo and don’t have extra flavors or ingredients. They have no milk. They may or may not have lecithin or vanilla, but most have both. They range from 60 percent to 75 percent cacao. Any bar with more than 75 percent is not worth eating, and the 100 percent bars are junk.

High quality chocolate is almost never sold retail. Only a few stores in the world carry the good stuff. The Meadow in New York is one of them. Because there’s so little of it, you have to get most good chocolate mail-order.

Chocolate Contains Theobromine

Theobromine is related to caffein. While chocolate also has a small amount of caffein, it’s the theobromine that makes your heart pound. The more sensitive and the lighter weight you are, the less you should eat. Half a bar of chocolate will keep most people from falling asleep for at least 3–6 hours.

How to Taste Chocolate

High-end chocolate isn’t food. It’s something to taste and savor by itself. I recommend having it before dinner or some time after dessert, so you can actually taste the chocolate, not mix it with other flavors. A bit of fresh fruit and a glass of water are good companions. Put the piece of chocolate in your mouth, let it melt, and taste it until it’s gone. Never chew good chocolate.

Chocolate has more flavor components than almost any other food. If you taste coconut, that’s the purple (Forastero) bean. If you taste coffee, that’s the roast. If you taste vanilla, that’s the added vanilla! The rest of the flavors come from the bean itself. They can be anywhere from fruity to savory to yeasty and more. These are the flavor characteristics of the bean, which come from a combination of the genetic material, the terroir, fermentation, the recipe, and the conching process at the end. Chocolate has as many as 1,300 flavor components — far more complex than wine or coffee. A good bar is not too sweet, not too much vanilla, and lets the flavors come out, usually toward the end, once most of the chocolate has melted in your mouth.

Chocolate Porn

Here are my recommendations. Any bar on this list is going to be worth trying. All the links come from Chocosphere, which is where you should buy your chocolate if you live in the United States.

Amedei

Amedei porcelana, one of the best bars in the world. It doesn’t have the complexity it used to, but it is still fruity and yeasty. Bars are hand-numbered. For a party, get the 5-gram wrapped tasting squares for people to try.

The Blanco de Criollo is a new Peruvian bar I haven’t tried. Peruvian growers have been experimenting with Criollo for about 15 years, mostly with poor results. This bar is worth trying.

Amedei Chuao. Formerly one of the best “hacienda cooperativos” in the world, with distinctive berry and dark cherry tasting notes, should still have the characteristic raisin and nutty flavors. Good, but not as great as it once was.

Amedei Toscano is a bar with a very dark roast for the Italian market. Even though it’s sweet, it tastes burnt. Americans and Europeans won’t go for this bar. It’s worth trying, but you won’t likely want more.

Domori

Beware, Domori is only for serious chocolate lovers. This is not a normal chocolate. Without vanilla it is much less smooth. My expression for this is “tasting the farm.” You will definitely taste the farm in these bars.

The Domori high-end bars are characterized by a mirror finish in the mold, which can only be accomplished with a sub-20-micron grind. No other bar in the world has this fine a grind. The bars are very thin, for tasting. Don’t be fooled by the price — by weight, this is about the most expensive chocolate in the world.

Domori Porcelana is easily one of the best bars in the world. It is one of the most complex tastes in the world. Highly recommended, but don’t expect to taste any vanilla. Also comes in tasting squares.

Domori Tasting Box. Domori makes several criollo bars, none of which I’m thrilled about except for the porcelana. They are too farmy for most people. It’s worth trying this box, but don’t give it as a gift.

Chocolates El Rey

The only factory in Venezuela, still headed I believe by Jorge Redmond (they moved the office from Caracas to Texas, but I think the factory is still in Caracas). El Rey produces high-end chocolate in 5-kilo bars mostly for pastry chefs in the US and Europe. The small wrapped bars are rarely found at retail. They are stiff — that is, they have a higher melting temperature than most, which helps them make strong peaks and swirls when melted. Take your time letting these bars melt in your mouth. These bars are strong on roast and light on vanilla. They all have the classic “Sur del Lago” plum flavor.

Bucare is a sweet raisiny bar that is going to be popular at a party or with people who aren’t used to high-end chocolate.

The Mijao is better for tasting. It melts readily and is a nice balance between sweet and flavorful.

Pastry chefs know the Gran Saman. It’s quite a dark roast, not too sweet. It’s not an every-day chocolate bar, it doesn’t melt quickly, but it’s worth trying.

Cluizel

This French company has an “around the world” approach, and most of their bars aren’t worth trying. However, a few bars are interesting.

Try the sampler pack and see if there’s anything you like. You might not like any of them, but the Madagascar bar is decent. Try the Mangaro. Do not gift.

Original Beans

Original Beans is a growing company owned by a good friend of mine in Holland. He supports the farmers, uses the Felchlin factory for production, and works with pastry chefs around the world. He plants a tree for every bar sold. Order the sampler pack: includes the wild Bolivian, the Congo bean that tastes like oranges, and the Peruvian white-bean bar. Makes a lovely gift.

Valrhona

The vast majority of Valrhona’s chocolate is made from commodity beans. However, Valrhona has always maintained one of the best single-origin programs. Unfortunately, two of their best bars are now gone.

El Pedregal is one of the legendary Venezuelan plantations and is still producing. It was always a very delicate flavor. Now it’s even more delicate (=not much taste). Try it and see for yourself. It’s still special.

Madagascar Manjari replaces the old Ampamakia bar, which came from the Millot estate, which I toured in 2007. This bar delivers the citrus notes from the same plantation, but I assume the bean ratio is different. Very worth trying.

Books on Chocolate

These books also make good gifts for chocolate lovers. I can’t recommend very many, but if you want to learn more, these are the books I would save in a fire:

Now in it’s third edition, The True History of Chocolate, by Michael and Sophie Coe is an excellent introduction to the origins and popularization of chocolate.
Now in its second edition, The Science of Chocolate is a chocolate-nerd’s dream, especially all the molecular diagrams, crystals, and processing temperatures.
The Roca brothers own El Celler de Can Roca, which has been voted the best restaurant in the world. They journey back to Central America to learn chocolate’s secrets.
Chocolat, by Pierre Marcolini. Marcolini has very high-end fancy stores that sell mostly fancy Forastero, but he has sponsored a few interesting Criollo projects and is genuinely interested in taking the craft to a new level.
The New Taste of Chocolate, by Marisel Presilla, is a classic. She is a giant of chocolate education. I usually bring a copy to my tastings and give it to the person who asks the most questions. Makes a great gift.

Summary

Exploring the world of dark chocolate is a rewarding adventure — find what you like and enjoy it. Don’t let the experts tell you otherwise. This is the best I can do given conditions at the farms these days. I do tastings a few times a year now, mostly for friends or fundraisers, but the business didn’t take off as I had hoped.

If you give chocolate as a gift, be sure to tell the recipient not to chew it. Please don’t send me bars or ask me what I think about your favorite bar. If you love it, write about it and tell your own story!

This is part of David Siegel’s Product Porn series. Please subscribe to me to learn about future editions. More are coming soon:

If you came here via Marginal Revolution, you may enjoy Inreality.show or Rise up, Africa!

David Siegel is a serial entrepreneur in Washington, DC. He is the founder of the Pillar Project and 2030. He is the author of The Token Handbook, The Digital Money Book, Open Stanford, The Culture Deck, Climate Curious, and The Nine Act Structure. He does consulting, coaching, and gives speeches to audiences around the world — see his speaker page if you would like him to speak at your next event. His full body of work is at dsiegel.com.

David Siegel

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Provocateur, professional heretic, slayer of myths, speaker of truthiness to powerfulness, and defender of the Oxford comma.

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