THE BLOG

What makes good chocolate?

02/04/2015 15:16 | Updated 02 June 2015

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*Madeline Weeks [2014] is a Gates Cambridge scholar as an MPhil student in Geographical Research studying linkages between the production of shade-grown coffee and wellbeing of coffee farmers in Veracruz, Mexico. She also pursues a deep passion for chocolate and overall promotion of happiness, both to the consumers and the producers. Follow her on Twitter: @madelinecacao or her blog: www.cacaoycafe.org. Picture credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net and Salvatore Vuono.

Springtime brings about an awakened sense of curiosity and desire to indulge the senses. Around this time of year we may be thinking about purchasing fresh flowers or luxury chocolate gifts. When it comes to chocolate there's something to please nearly everyone: from the milk chocolate Easter rabbit to the dairy-free vegan bar. With such an abundance of choice, the hunt for good chocolate is really an exercise of intellectual and gastronomical exploration.

Certifications like Fairtrade mark, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, Organic, and Vegan can make it seem like this decision is easier. Or they can make it downright confusing. These days consumers are so bombarded with eco-certifications, ethical awards, and health claims that it can be hard to tell which labels are actually doing good for ourselves, the chocolate makers and cacao farmers, and the environment. Many artisanal and truly high quality chocolate bars do not carry any conventional certification at all. What they carry instead is a story behind the bar.

A multidimensional global commodity

Chocolate is a fascinatingly complex global commodity. It intersects disciplines and sectors, addressing topics as diverse as global trade, agriculture, rural livelihoods, biodiversity conservation, commodities speculation, health and heritage. There are 49 major cacao-producing countries in addition to many smaller ones. Additionally, there is no single chocolate flavour. Even more than fine wine, chocolate has over 400 flavour compounds and its bouquet of flavours is influenced by thousands of decisions, from the soil in which the plant is grown to the final phase of processing. Colorful flavour wheels such as those developed by Chocopolis and TCHO can help give consumers a vocabulary to describe this diversity of taste.

However, there is a darker side to chocolate too. Large chocolate manufacturers monopolise the industry, yet the majority of cacao is grown by small-scale farmers who straddle the equatorial line and often the line of impoverishment. The spatial and technological divide between the farmers, the large chocolate companies and the consumers translates to a huge discrepancy between the final price of the product and the income farmers receive. There are also pressing environmental concerns. Cacao thrives in biodiverse hotspots such as the Amazonian region where shade grown forest ecosystems provide a habitat for birds, insects and other forest-dwelling organisms. Grown according to traditional organic methods free of agro-chemicals, complemented by prices that actually improve rural livelihood conditions, cacao can be part of the equation of environmental conservation and social justice.

Hidden gems

The rise of the craft chocolate market has transformed the ways in which the world sees chocolate as much more than a sweet confection. Beyond certifications, small chocolate makers are about forming meaningful relationships with the cacao farmers. They address the ethical concerns through a more transparent supply chain with labels such as "direct trade", "bean-to-bar", "single origin", and "single estate". They preserve the genetic diversity of the plant by seeking outstanding, bold flavours through fine aroma or heirloom cacao. They keep things simple by using fewer ingredients - sometimes just cacao and sugar - to stay honest to the consumers and honour the nutritional power of pure cacao. And most importantly, they are businesses that strive to do good for people and the environment. Good chocolate is ethical, ecological, and enjoyable.

With such diversity in flavour, country of origin, and type of manufacturing the choice of which chocolate to purchase can be surprisingly complex. When deciding which chocolate to purchase or gift away, there is no "best" chocolate. Certainly there are some not-good chocolates, namely those made with low quality raw ingredients and that are part of a larger industry of quantity over quality production. But perhaps one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to discover good chocolate is to hunt for chocolate that tells a story. Ask with curious mind: Where was the cacao grown? Where was the chocolate manufactured? What's the story behind the bar?