What does a higher cocoa content mean?
The more cocoa content chocolate has, the nearer it is to real chocolate, but not necessarily chocolate as many people know it. Growing up in Britain in the 1980s, I was quite happy with a sweet, vaguely chocolate taste of around 25-30 per cent cocoa solids. Since the late 1990s, cocoa content has become the only indication of quality that we look for on a bar of chocolate. Of course, it is rather more complex than that.
Chocolate with a higher cocoa content is essential for cooking, giving cakes and desserts a richer, stronger taste, but it’s important not to be fooled into thinking that a higher cocoa content automatically equals better flavour and quality when choosing chocolate for eating. This would be like going to a wine merchant and selecting only the bottles with the highest alcohol content. Cocoa percentage is just one of many indications of quality. Do, however, keep within the boundary of over 60 per cent cocoa solids for dark chocolate and 30 per cent cocoa solids for milk chocolate.
Technically, white chocolate is not in fact chocolate, as it does not contain any cocoa solids. It does, however, contain cocoa butter. One of the very few that I would eat is by a company called Felchlin, which produces what is called a non-deodorised white chocolate. It has a very slight lemony hint and is really lovely as it is not overly sweet.
What is good quality chocolate?
Other factors affecting the quality of chocolate vary from bean type, provenance, terroir and numerous fascinating processing steps, right through to how the chocolatier tempers the chocolate and carefully matches different chocolates to different recipes. There are up to 15 complex steps in processing chocolate – fermentation, for example, is essential to bring out the chocolate flavour of the bean.
Just after the seeds have been taken out of the pod, they are laid in oak fermenting boxes and left to ferment for approximately five days. Moving and loading the beans in the boxes can be backbreaking work. Banana leaves (amongst other things) are used to cover them, and oxidation and the breakdown of proteins into amino acids occur.
Although the farmers are paid more for the fermented beans, known as Hispaniola, this delicate and time-consuming process can be aborted too early if a farmer needs to enter the cocoa market quickly in order to sell beans when the price is highest. Reducing the fermentation period results in lower-quality cocoa. This is just one example of how the delicate process of making chocolate can be affected.
What is fine chocolate?
Just under 5 per cent of the world’s cocoa production is categorised as ‘fine’, meaning cocoa produced from the superior Criollo or Trinitario beans. The other main bean type, Forastero, which is hardy but lacking in flavour, accounts for ‘bulk’ or ‘commercial’ chocolate. With 70 per cent of the market coming from West Africa, these are really quite astounding statistics.
Cocoa is often considered a poor man’s crop by farmers. They are keen to diversify in order to minimise their losses, since not only can there all too frequently be a low price for their beans but the cocoa tree doesn’t start to produce pods until it is about five years’ old. Add the fact that the crop is often blighted by diseases and the farmer very often has to cultivate other crops, such as rubber.
In the Caribbean, bananas tend to be the farmers’ primary cash crop, with cocoa secondary. However, there are currently some interesting developments in the world of chocolate, as chocolatiers and chefs with a passion for the product and an obsession with excellence embark on a mission to find really high-quality chocolate.
One way to do this is via ‘bean to bar craftsmanship – which means that the maker of the bar of chocolate sources the chocolate, maybe even owning the plantation, and maintains contact with the product right through all the processes to finished point of sale. This ensures a level of control and quality that is very unusual in the history of chocolate manufacturing. Sourcing a particular bean from a known plantation and controlling and nurturing its journey gives the customer many assurances – the main one being at source point, where the chocolate maker will have a good relationship with the cocoa farmers and pay them a fair price for their beans.
The future of chocolate farming needs to be looked after carefully, Bodies such as the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO) and World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) are doing excellent work – ICCO’s mandate being ‘to work towards a sustainable world cocoa economy’ that encompasses social, economic and environmental dimensions in both production and consumption.
I believe the ‘bean to bar development is the most exciting and empowering one to date – and in some cases should even be termed ‘tree to bar.
What we use at Melt Chocolates
At Melt we have been using such a chocolate for many years, made by the Colombian company, Santander. It has built up a strong community through growing, processing and manufacturing chocolate on site. Another inspiring company is the Grenada Chocolate Company, founded by Mott Green. He is as passionate about reviving cocoa growing as he is about creating good, secure jobs for the local community. Under this set up, he has enabled fantastic-tasting dark chocolate to be made in a socially responsible way – even the factory is solar-powered. This is where the most interesting future for chocolate lies.
Learn more about chocolate quality and the process of making chocolate from bean-to-bar with our educational Bean-To-Bar Workshop in London. Taste and make your own chocolate from scratch! We will teach you how to sort the cocoa beans and then roast them. Then we will then crack and winnow them. Next, with a pestle and mortar, we will grind the chocolate beans until they are fine. Afterwards, you will taste the chocolate at each stage to see how the flavours of the chocolate changes and develops over time. This journey releases different flavours notes. It is a very exciting sensory experience.
What is good quality chocolate?
Just like wine good quality chocolate depends on bean type, provenance, terroir, and how the chocolatier tempers the chocolate.
What is fine chocolates?
Only 5% of world's cocoa production is considered 'fine'. Cocoa produced from Criollo or Trinitario beans.
What is higher percentage cocoa?
Higher percentage cocoa is dark chocolate - often used in cooking, as it has a stronger richer taste. Dark chocolate is often considered higher quality with its better flavour and higher cocoa percentage.