Full of beans

Categories: Expert guidance

Sue Quinn, food writer and author of Cocoa: an Exploration of Chocolate, on the joys of Christmas chocolate and the art of choosing it well

Christmas is a time of socially sanctioned gluttony, especially when it comes to chocolate. Families squabble over the last strawberry cream in the tub and for a few sweet days, chocolate orange is an acceptable piece of fruit for breakfast. There are chippies deep-frying festive chocolate selections, while the sweet-of-tooth queue at department stores for a chance to create their own Yuletide pick-and-mix.

These different expressions of chocolate love reflect the truth that the world’s most craved food is also the most deeply personal. Our chocolate preferences are rooted in childhood and nostalgia, and also speak of our culinary history and individual palates. I adore chocolate coins because they glinted from my Christmas stocking when I was a kid and now I give the beguiling foil-wrapped discs to my children, nieces and nephews. My husband, inexplicably to me, finds joy in chocolate-coated brazil nuts.

My love for chocolate coins is steadfast, but in recent times I have discovered that they sing just one single note in the cocoa symphony. Cacao (the term generally used for the unprocessed beans) embodies a vast range of flavours, depending on their genetics, the environmental conditions where they were grown (known as the notes of origin) and the methods used to harvest, ferment and dry them. A skilled chocolate maker can further enhance and tease out these flavours through their roasting and refining techniques and being careful not to mask them with too much sugar and additives. When all these factors dovetail beautifully the result is fine chocolate which can carry sublime notes of berries or juicy tropical fruit, earthy mushrooms or bright zingy citrus, burnt caramel, coffee or rich cream. The list is endless.

An ethical choice
Fine chocolate can also be an ethical choice. The monoliths that mass produce chocolate confectionary pay cacao farmers the going market rate for their beans, which is very low. In contrast, the best fine chocolate makers pay a premium to ensure they get the highest quality beans and farmers are remunerated fairly. Hotel Chocolat, part of the same family as cocoa-centric restaurant Rabot 1745, is one of a very small number of UK chocolatiers with its own cacao farm.

The company set up the Rabot Estate plantation in Saint Lucia from scratch in 2011 and work closely with the local community, guaranteeing every bean is bought and paying farmers well above the market price. “But we don’t just send them a cheque,” adds Adam Geileskey, head of cocoa innovation at Hotel Chocolat. “We’ve gotten stuck in and put boots on the ground, doing practical things to help change farmers’ lives for the better, like providing technical support, cocoa seedlings and education through our model farms. And we also support local communities by building medical centres, drilling boreholes and investing in infrastructure such as roads and schools.”

There’s also lots to consider when you buy truffles and bonbons. Although the centres are often the stars of the show, it’s worth considering all the ingredients. Where does the chocolate for the shell come from and does it complement the filling? Is the filling made from synthetic flavourings or natural ingredients? Chocolatier Hayleigh Bazelya, founder of So Chocolicious, finds inspiration and ingredients for her exotic fillings among the traders at Borough Market.

How to identify the best chocolate:

— Check the label: ingredients are listed in order of weight, so if sugar is at the top, it’s not fine chocolate. Fine unflavoured chocolate should contain nothing else but cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar (as well as milk powder in the case of milk chocolate). Vanilla extract (not essence or vanillin) and lecithin are fine, too.

—The best-flavoured fine chocolate contains only natural ingredients, for example, fresh mint or essential oil, and not synthetic flavourings.

—Ask retailers about the provenance of the beans that go into the chocolate they sell. The best will be able to tell you where they are from and whether they are fairly-traded. These details are sometimes written on the chocolate wrapper but beware of marketing hype: many people claim to be fine chocolate makers when they’re not.

—Taste! Ultimately, the best chocolate test is whether you like it.

Here’s to enjoying chocolate this Christmas, in whatever form you love it the most.