Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Chocolate Bookshelf: Raising and Otherwise Considering the Bar

Mort Rosenblum’s 2004 Chocolate: A Bittersweet Story of Dark and Light found a place on bookstore shelves as a chummy did-you-ever-wonder story.   Accessible, if speaking in a distinctly New York upper-middle-class voice, Chocolate told general readers that the neatly packaged candy they so casually enjoyed has its roots in jungle produce, the outcome of strange pods harvested by loony and romantic expats throughout the developing world.

Next, at one year intervals, came Sara Jayne Stanes's Chocolate: Discovering, Exploring, Enjoying, Chloé Doutre-Roussel's The Chocolate Connoisseur, and Clay Gordon's Discover Chocolate (with the subtitle "the ultimate guide to buying, tasting, and enjoying fine chocolate," sort of a mash-up of Stanes's keywords), books I termed chocolate self-help guides here on Chocolate in Context.  Compared to Rosenblum's generalist book, these volumes were smaller in terms of page-count, publisher, and audience.  But their specialist authors wrote them because that small audience was cohesiveand growing.  Chocolate consumers increasingly wanted to know how to account for quality in the chocolate they bought.  Collapsed into that question of "what makes chocolate great" (but still secondary to the big quality question) were the matters of how cacao and then chocolate are produced, and by whom.

In 2012, in the post-Omnivore's Dilemma, pro-food studies world, those secondary questions are now at the forefront.  "Today, with so many people interested in where their food comes from and how it is grown, and heirloom varieties in crops like tomatoes, we have renewed focus on food and flavor and a new opportunity to map [chocolate] flavor starting at the genetic level," Gary Guittard explains to Pam Williams and Jim Eber in a new book on the chocolate shelf, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate.  Genetics factor heavily into the story contained in these pages, which tell us that "everyone just getting their heads around Trinitario, Forastero, Criollo, and Amelonado" should "get ready for some new, head-exploding information."  The chapter that follows outlines an industry-changing 2008 study by Juan Motamayor (who heads up a project funded by the Mars corporation and the USDA) that might be termed the "cacao genome project," proposing ten or more "genetic clusters" that can effectively indicate the characteristics of cacao beans in the place of the three or four inexact and speculative broad categories that have seen explosive marketing applications in the 21st century ("criollo" as much of a buzz word as "seventy percent").  Another subject that Raising the Bar helpfully disentangles is that of cacao traceability and certification.  Along with vocabulary words about origin and percentage, chocolate consumers are increasingly confronted with (or sometimes confronting their chocolate makers with) Organic, Fair Trade, Utz Certified, and Biodynamic labels.  Increasingly, too, are individual and collective attempts to correct for the ineffectiveness of many of these programs and the imprecisions of their marketing campaigns, advocating for more pragmatically effective solutions like Direct Cacao.  Raising the Bar chronicles conferences, meetings, and resolutions on these ideas that took place as recently as this summer.

Raising the Bar is a new chocolate book for a new decade.  It is perhaps the most thorough of all of the books mentioned here, and also the smallest.  The self-published project features some of the same easily branded exotic characters as Rosenblum's chocolate narrative (and adds some new ones, like Marañón Chocolate using Fortunato cacao in Peru and the "tiny, tiny, tiny" chocolate maker Zokoko in Australia) and provides some of the same practical advice as Stanes, Doutre-Roussel, and Gordon.  Though Williams', founder of the modern-day culinary academy Ecole Chocolat (which offers classes both online and on-site in cacao-producing countries), focuses less than the other authors on packaging a seductive chocolate narrative and more on providing as accurate a picture as possible.  (But I wouldn't mind if Williams and her coauthor Eber stripped the hokey quotes from Albert Einstein, Forrest Gump, and Henry Ford from this package as well.)  Like many of the artisan chocolate makers featured in the book, Williams has been creative and effective in cutting out the middle menby publishing the book herself she was able to update it as close to the publication date as possible, and to decide exactly when to publish it, too.  And she can also market Raising the Bar directly to the narrow-yet-cohesive audience she has in mind.  The general did-you-ever-wonder reader might not want to stick around for the latest sales figures and genetic classifications, while established professionals won't find much here that they don't already know (though if they attended a meeting of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association in recent years, they might find themselves in these pages).  But chocolate enthusiasts on the way to becoming chocolate professionals now have a valuable resource in Raising the Bar to call their own.

Chocolate readers in other categories might find reason to peruse the new On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao and should keep an eye out for the forthcoming (currently titled) Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly too few people don't read books these days and those who do tend to be the ones that already know the stuff. This book is the wrong resource for the right time.

Above and beyond that, it has been 4 years since Motamayor published his study in October 2008 which was predicated on work of others, notably Bartley and Lachanaud. Practically nothing has been done to apply those principles either in the propagation of cacao subtypes or their commercial marketing.

About a year and half ago, forty some odd cacao samples from Madagascar were tested. The analysis showed some interesting results. But again nothing has been done to date to isolate and preserve those cultivars from hybridizing which they are doing as we speak.

Until action is taken, this is mostly talk.

PS: Maranon is an exception not because of any human ingenuity but because it lies in a remote valley with a relatively uniform and contiguous crop.

11:26 AM GMT-5  

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