Rare are the people who will shun upon a piece of chocolate.
In pre-Hispanic MesoAmerica, the cacau bean was a revered and sacred product, used as much as a window to spirituality as a form of everyday currency.
In the 18th century, Carl Von Linnaeus coined the term Theobroma (Food of the Gods) Cacao to designate the oddly-shaped tree of whose beans the Spanish, French and quite rapidly the whole of Europe, became so very fond of.
Beyond MesoAmerica, cacao (or cacau) cultivation has now spread to the far reaches of Asia and Africa, supporting the multi-million-pound chocolate industry which keeps sputtling out thousands of tons of chocolate every year.
As the aptly named Food of the Gods, chocolate is nowadays perhaps - just perhaps - the food item which appeals most widely to us all. Despite its roaring popularity however, very few of us are aware of this whole other world of chocolate hiding just a little way out of plain sight and trust me, this is a world worth discovering.
I first happened upon the beauties and surprises of the bean many years ago already, in a little shop in Montreal held by none other than a real chocolate aficionado, Miss Choco. She stocked and sold Bean-to-Bar Chocolates from artisans scattered across the world and the very first bite I took was something of a revelation. This was not the chocolate I was used to, not even close to the best and greatest bars I had since then been accustomed to buy off supermarket shelves. This was chocolate; this was real chocolate with a whole range of variations, intricacies and fantasies in flavour. You could say I sort of fell a little bit in love.
It may seem as no surprise then that when recently in London I decided to pay a visit to Dom from Damson Chocolates.
Dom has nothing of a culinary background, is not a pastry chef, did not even know a thing about chocolate before starting his blog Chocablog back in 2006. Of course, he knew as we all do of the Bounty Bars and Snickers and Chomps, but that was it.
Little by little, learning and writing about the product took more and more space in his life. Dom started experimenting with chocolate making in his own wee kitchen, using the tools which were on hand; toaster oven for roasting, sturdy rolling pin for smashing the beans, hair dryer for winnowing and so on and so forth. His chocolate production soon outgrew the space of his home kitchen so he quit his day job and set himself up in Angel, London. It was January 2015 and yes, it was a leap of faith.
Damson Chocolate grew thereafter, with all the ups and downs the artisan producers meet along the way. In 2016, fire destroyed the better part of the workshop and yet, barely a year later, as I was chatting away with Dom and Nehan, the newest addition to Damson Chocolate, the company seemed in as best a shape as ever.
Dom walked me about, showing me all the different equipments which served in the process of transforming beans to bars. I peered over Nehan’s shoulder as she stood, hair dryer in hand, cooing over a blend destined to becoming drinking chocolate. Yum!
At the tempering station, Dom dipped a spoon of their special Vietnam edition. Crafted with beans generously gifted by Marou, the now well-established pioneers of bean-to-bar chocolate in Vietnam, the fruity pop and crackle of these gorgeous beans shot through my mouth. Heavenly.
I finished off the visit in the shop where samples of each chocolate bars were laid out in plates for customers to try. As the fan of Vietnamese Chocolate I am, I was unsurprisingly pleased with each of the variants. For amateurs of deeper, darker and more lush kind of chocolate however, I strongly recommend the Madagascan bar which just so happens to be Dom’s favourite.
It is well known in the world of micro-producers and artisans that one of the challenges they face is to achieve consistency with the product they offer. As with wine or tea, the chocolate bean is affected not only by terroir but by variables such as temperatures, rainfall, sunshine, etc… A single bean from a given plantation will never yield the same flavours or aromas from year to year. In the world of bean-to-bar, the bean is the ‘star of the show’ and very little additional ingredients allow to mask or alter its true character; from harvest to harvest, no chocolate bar will ever be the same.
When I asked Dom how he was able to manage such variability, he answered quite simply that every ‘batch’ he made was absolutely unique. Just like wine, his product varies from year to year in function of the general climate where the beans are grown.
Unlike a Cadbury bar for example, where one knows exactly what they will get, biting into a bar of Damson Chocolate is a bit of an adventure which will reveal itself more or less entirely different if tried again but a year later.
As the chocolate (and more generally food) aficionado I am, I find this particular point sums up well the beauty and surprises offered by the artisan bean-to-bar chocolates we increasingly find available on the market. A chocolate bar is much more a process than it is a product and my visit with Dom and Nehan reminded me how so much care, space and respect must be given to a base ingredient in order to transform it into the beautiful and delicious product it becomes along the way. Like wine grapes and vines, the cacao bean speaks a mind of it’s own and it is amazing/inspiring to see how great Dom has done in learning to listen to it’s subtleties.