Whether Hawaiian or Venezuelan, 60% or 70%, the next-level buy among cocoa cognoscenti is origin-made chocolate, crafted in the same place the beans are grown. Here’s your global guide to the very best
PREDICTABLY sweet, reassuringly familiar, the chocolate most of us grew up with was engineered to deliver a consistent experience, bite after bite, bar after bar. Yet chocolate, like wine, has the potential to present wildly varied flavors that reflect both genetics and terroir, the singular taste of place owing to environmental conditions such as soil quality and climate.
In short, where the cocoa beans grow matters. And, increasingly, where the chocolate is made is gaining equal billing on the labels of some of the best bars.
Most commercially available chocolate contains a blend of bulk, or commodity, cocoa from any number of unnamed places. Chocolate labeled “single-origin” contains cocoa sourced from only one country or region. And every producing country—from Colombia to Papua New Guinea—has something unique to offer. Beans vary from harvest to harvest, and you’ll find diversity within a country as well as in the methods specific chocolate makers use. But generally speaking, cocoa from Venezuela is known for notes of caramel, honey and nuts, while beans from Trinidad reveal deep flavors of dried fruit. Much of the Madagascan cocoa used in specialty chocolate comes from a farm known for the tart, fruity acidity of its beans, while the touchstone for makers big and small is the rich, aromatic cocoa grown in Ghana.
Zeroing in on these different flavors to reveal the diversity of the cocoa behind the chocolate can open up a deeper appreciation for chocolate overall. “Single-origin isn’t inherently superior to blends,” said Brigitte Laliberté, coordinator of the Global Network for Cacao Genetic Resources. “It’s a link to the farmers and the country. It provides a new adventure.”
Single-origin labeling started in 1983 with a box of chocolates commemorating the 100th anniversary of Bonnat Chocolatier in Voiron, France. Today, single-origin bars can be found in outlets ranging from gourmet chocolate shops to Walmart; the chocolate might be made halfway across the world from where the beans were grown, by an independent or a big industrial outfit. “Obviously there’s a huge difference between a craft maker doing small batches and large-scale processing,” said Emily Stone, CEO of cocoa sourcing company Uncommon Cacao. But identifying origin [of the beans] is a first step.”
The next step: understanding how making chocolate in the place where the cocoa is grown impacts the whole process, from bean to bar. “Chocolate made in the country of origin retains more money in the local economy by creating a value-added product,” said Aubrey Lindley, co-owner of Cacao, one of the oldest specialty chocolate shops in the U.S. “It also allows farmers to have an opportunity to taste the chocolate and develop a better understanding of the critical effect that post-harvest processing has.” Quality chocolates only come from quality beans, handled with care.
With this in mind, chocolate maker Suzanne Kabbani founded her shop, La Maison du Chocolat Ivoirien, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the country that produces more of the world’s cocoa than any other. Close to home, marketing her locally made chocolate has proven at least as great a challenge as production. “Having Ivoirians accept the idea that the world’s leading cocoa [producing nation] could also produce a quality chocolate has been an uphill battle,” Ms. Kabbani said.
It’s paid off, both at the source and at the far end of the supply chain. Now, among chocolate aficionados, “origin-made” is becoming as important as “single-origin.” “It’s the way it should be,” said Maricel Presilla, food historian and author of “The New Taste of Chocolate.” “Origin makers are becoming standard bearers in their own countries.” An internationally recognized chocolate expert and competition judge, Ms. Presilla travels the world visiting makers where they live and work.
Those of us remaining closer to home can travel vicariously, via origin-made chocolates offering tastes of the places they come from. The mail-order bars recommended here make great points of departure.