We’re sitting round a table tasting chocolate in the slightly raffish surroundings of Black’s Club in London’s Soho. Even from my highly qualified colleagues there are gasps of delight. The flavours of the beans and bars, some of which even our experts have never tasted before, are simply sensational. The reason? Almost all the samples come from Venezuela, the cradle of fine cacao beans. And in terms of provenance, there is no more authentic – or, arguably, higher quality – source of fine chocolate in the world.
‘The reputation of Venezuelan cocoa is, above all, a question of genetics,’ explains Gilberto Mora, president of the Compagnia del Cioccolato (Italian Chocolate Society). ‘This is where the great single origin beans come from. The soil is rich, and the climate favourable due to the proximity of the sea.’ He reels off names, all renowned for the quality of their cocoa. ‘Porcelana, Ocumare, Canoabo, Guasare, Cuyagua, Cepe, Choronì, Carenero… they all represent the biodiversity of a “cacaotero par excellence”.’
Criollo, the highest quality variety of cacao, developed in the tropical Alto Orinoco area of Venezuela on the border with Brazil. Here, in colonial times, beans were used both as a source of cocoa and, by small farmers, as a unit of currency. From there it spread throughout the country; criollo production now centres on the town of Chuao on the Caribbean coast, about 70km east of the capital, Caracas, and a series of regions strung along the coast, from Lake Maracaibo in the far west of the country to Caranero, about 600km east of there.
All the chocolates we’re tasting are processed by Italian chocolatiers who have been pioneers in the genetic selection of cacao beans and in the vanguard of the improved quality found in products on the market, says Roberto Bava, a predecessor of Mora at the head of the Chocolate Society. It’s interesting to note the very different styles of the producers in this group. They are a diverse bunch: the old-established southern Italian Maglio (which for a long time stuck to chocolate-covered dried fruits); the newcomer, Colzani; the dynamic Venchi, a major producer with stores around the world; the classic, old-fashioned Majani; and well-established producers of single origin chocolates such as Domori by Gianluca Franzoni.
‘The brands we are tasting here may not be the most famous, but they are the ones showing the most impressive step-up in quality over the past two years, thanks to their involvement in cacao bean selections,’ says Bava, a Piemontese winemaker and a chocolate expert of international standing. ‘We’re not interested in their history or the size of the company: what matters is cacao beans and the ability to preserve their character.’
The skill of the processor makes an immense difference. ‘As with wine, how chocolate is made is just as important as where it comes from,’ points out Sarah Jane Evans MW, founder member of the UK’s Academy of Chocolate and the author of Chocolate Unwrapped.
The chocolate is divided into flights. We taste the original bean or cocoa mass – Ocumare, Cepe, Chauo, Forastero – then the products that were made from it. It’s a real ‘bean to bar’ tasting experience. But how to describe the flavours we are encountering? ‘Compare it with a great wine,’ says Bava. ‘When you taste a worldclass wine there’s a sweetness, not of sugar – that’s a kind of parallel. You recognise when you come across a jewel – a wine you would drink on your desert island.”
He goes on to explain how chocolate appreciation has changed over the years. ‘From a simple matter of colour – dark or milk – we focused, at the end of the 90s, on percentages, and then origin. Indonesia was good for milk chocolate, whereas if you wanted dark it had to be Caribbean or African.
‘Then the next step was the variety of bean – criollo, forastero – and now there’s a trend for ‘natural’ and vegan chocolate.’ Evans interjects: ‘Come on. Vegan chocolate is just chocolate without dairy,’ she exclaims. ‘So it’s any dark chocolate. It doesn’t need to have coconut milk or date syrup in it.’
The major surprise to me, at least, is that chocolate that is so high in cocoa solids could be so appealing. It’s something I’ve not generally found in the past – but then I haven’t tasted chocolate of this quality. ‘It’s no longer about percentages. They’re really not that relevant,’ adds Mora.
We are all impressed with how good the milk chocolate bars are. ‘When we had a milk chocolate judging panel the tasters used to want to escape,’ recalls Bava. ‘They would say, “I’m busy, I can’t be there.” Now we have established a super-milk category and they all want to be part of it.’ And who knew that chocolate in a pot could provide more than just a sugar rush? The Venchi spread really is the Rolls-Royce of the Nutella world and, extraordinarily, not that expensive.
That said, it was interesting how much our tastes diverged, especially over the gianduiotto chocolates that both Bava and Mora adored, but Evans and I found far too sweet. It seems chocolate preferences are rooted in childhood. ‘When I taste cremino, I am really a kid,’ confessed Bava.
By this time we were all on a bit of a sugarinduced high, discussing where and when is the best moment to enjoy chocolate. On a plane, said Bava promptly. ‘I always travel with chocolate,’ said Evans. ‘When I go to business meetings the first thing I do is to put a kilo of gianduiotto on the table,’ returned Bava. ‘You have no idea how the atmosphere in the room changes.’
‘Maybe in bed?’ I ventured. ‘Good chocolate surely has to be the sexiest food in the world. It is an aphrodisiac after all.’ I think we can all agree on that.
Chocolate myths busted…
It’s not all about the cocoa content
High percentages of cocoa don’t necessarily go hand in hand with bitterness. It all depends on the origin of the bean and on the way the chocolate is handled – and techniques have improved immensely over the past 10 years.
Milk chocolate is for wimps
Far from it. There’s a new category of dark milk chocolate that is deeply sensual and satisfying. Two of our favourite chocolates in the line-up were milk chocolate.
Serious chocolate only comes in bars
Not so. We all drooled over Venchi’s chocolate and hazelnut spread which is recommended to top gelato and crepes, or as a soft brioche filling.
The French are the world’s best chocolate makers
Admittedly our two Italian panel members might be somewhat biased, but the rest of us were also impressed by Italian skill and flair.
…and the chocolate terms you need to know
• Criollo (literally ‘of pure descent’): A high quality variety of chocolate bean.
• Cru: As with wine, a specific area of origin.
• Cacao: refers to both the tree and the fruit (bean) from which chocolate is produced.
• Conching: The process of stirring and heating the chocolate paste to produce a fine texture and purer, more intense flavour.
• Couverture: The name for the chocolate coating that ‘enrobes’ (another chocolate term) individual chocolates and bars.
The world’s greatest chocolate terroirs
Cacao trees need a tropical climate to thrive: 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, although these are not the most highly-regarded plantations. The best cocoa is found in Central and South America.
Venezuela was the world’s leading cocoa producer at the end of the 18th century and still has a superb reputation – its product is in many ways the essence of chocolate: deep, velvety and naturally sweet. It now only accounts for one per cent of the world’s cocoa output; in recent years it has been plagued by political instability and is not the easiest place from which to source chocolate.
Another great source of South American chocolate; some describe Ecuadorian chocolate as floral, others emphasise its fruitiness. Look out for Nacional – a version
of the Forastero bean.
Madagascar is a very approachable type of chocolate, dark and naturally sweet. A good place to look for 100% chocolate.
Vietnam is much praised for its skill in growing and handling cacao, with French producers like Marou leading the way. Bold and sometimes tannic.
An up-and-coming source of high-quality chocolate which has been championed by a new Canadian craft chocolate company called Qantu. Peruvian chocolate is noted for its freshness and fruitiness, and also harnesses the Nacional variety.
10 products to change the way you think about chocolate
The bad news is that, with the exception of Venchi, many of the chocolates we tasted are made in very small quantities – just as a winemaker might bottle a single barrel or a limited release from an outstanding vintage – and sell out quickly. To be in with a chance of getting your hands on chocolate of this quality you really need to sign up for a subscription scheme or patronise a specialist shop.
Maglio is a family-owned company which has been making chocolate in Maglie, in the heart of Salento, Southern Italy, since 1850, and sources only from sustainably managed plantations. It had three bars in our top 10, of which two were from Cuyagua, a plantation that dates back to the early 17th century.
This bar inched out the same producer’s 100% cacao bar due to the small amount of sugar. Equally intense but with a better balance – the sugar helps transport the flavour but without a cane sugar taste. €7
Reflecting a trend towards ‘dark milk’ bars with a higher cocoa content (the normal level is 25-26%), this was found by the panel to be pleasingly creamy and milky, almost caramelly – the chocolate of cappuccino. €7
Winner of the Tavoletta d’Oro 2019 award (single origins category) and recently voted the best chocolate in Italy, this had incense-like notes. ‘This would be perfect with just a little bit more roasting – another two or three degrees hotter and for another five minutes longer,’ suggested Bava. €7
Based in Bologna where it still has a shop, Majani is the oldest firm of chocolatiers in Italy, dating back to 1796, and is famous for the invention of the Fiat Cremino, a chocolate with four layers of gianduja and almond.
This has notes of dried fruits, flowers and coffee. It comes from
a new plantation in Maracaibo, in the northern part of Venezuela, near Colombia. Very approachable, mellow and sweet, with a lifted acidity. Really super-chocolatey. £4.50
A large commercial producer founded in Cuneo in Piedmont, which has significantly upped its game in the past few years. It has the advantage for chocolate lovers of being more widely available than some of the other producers, with 100 stores.
Made of cocoa, Piedmont Hazelnuts and olive oil, this is basically a fancy incarnation of Nutella. ‘The secret is not to use a lot of oil,’ said Bava. ‘It’s the perfect survival kit when you travel.’ £15
Opinions were split over the Gianduiotto, a beautifully wrapped, triangular-shaped sweet made from gianduia, a paste of cocoa, sugar and hazelnuts. Our Italian panellists adored them, but our two British ones found them cloyingly sweet in comparison with the chocolate bars. ‘Maybe if I was in Turin with an espresso and a glass of cold water, it would be just the thing,’ said Evans. £13.95 (150g)
A comparatively recent entrant to the chocolate world, Slitti, which is based in Tuscany, only started making chocolate in 1989, having started life as a coffee roaster.
Another comparative newcomer, Domori has been making chocolate since 1993, currently in None, just outside Turin. It’s now part of the Illy group.
The only chocolate bar from Ecuador in our line-up made from nacional, which is exclusive to the country. Genetically it’s a Forastero cacao, but it is believed to have mutated and developed a particularly pure character with what our judges identified as a typical taste of fresh banana. Surprisingly rich for a 70% bar. $7.99
Developed by a young chocolatier, Marco Colzani, who previously trained as an oenologist,
Amaro is based in Cassago Brianza, north-east of Milan.
A very limited production of the most famous single origin chocolates of Venezuela, from a high part of the Chuao region. Our Italian judges hadn’t tasted this before but were unanimous in their praise for the honey and red berry tones: ‘Incredible’, ‘Unbelievably intense’. €4.50