How To Buy Fantastic Chocolate

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Cocoa Runners’ Simon Palethorpe and Spencer Hyman

With so much choice, tricky terminology, and dietary and ethical concerns, it can be a challenge to choose a quality bar of chocolate. We asked Spencer Hyman, co-founder of fine chocolate retailer Cocoa Runners, to take the stress out of shopping with this handy list of dos and don’ts:

The dos

1 Do read the ingredients
This should be your first step when buying any chocolate – and here, less is more. Depending on type, the labels on the bars we sell typically list just three or four simple ingredients: cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, and milk. Incomprehensible additives and mystery numbers have no place. As food writer Michael Pollan noted: ‘if your grandmother wouldn’t recognise the ingredients, leave them on the shelf’.

2 Do look at bean origin

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Check where the cocoa comes from. If only the country is mentioned, the odds are that the chocolate is made from a blend of beans – often industrially processed. Listing a country or region of origin is a start, but dig deeper – does the label mention a particular region, co-op, plantation or farmer?

Craft makers work directly and consistently with farmers and estates, and know the importance of great beans and processes. It’s also worth checking the maker’s (or Cocoa Runners’) website for more details – there’s only so much space on a label.

3 Do find out if a product is ‘bean to bar’
In other words, whether the named maker has crafted the chocolate from cocoa bean stage right through to the product you’re looking at, rather than simply melting and moulding another maker’s couverture. Every step in the process from tree to bar influences flavour and helps a maker express the flavour of the bean. Bean-to-bar packaging might mention steps like winnowing, roasting, conching or grinding.

4 Do be prepared to pay more

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Making great craft chocolate takes time, skill, and high-quality cocoa beans, and this is reflected in the price. As with fine wine or liquor, you’re paying for carefully-sourced raw materials whose flavours have been coaxed out by a skilled artisan. Rather than asking ‘why is it so expensive’, ask yourself how some chocolate can be so cheap – and what compromises must have been made along the way.

The don’ts

1 Don’t place too much emphasis on percentage

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So many factors affect a chocolate’s flavour, including bean origin, roast and conch time, chocolate type, and amount of added cocoa butter. There are great bars from white right through to 100% – and percentage alone is not a great guide to flavour, as different beans are naturally more intense than others.

2 Don’t assume that dark chocolate contains less sugar
Always check the label. With the ongoing popularity of ‘dark milk’ chocolate – which has a richer cocoa flavour than the ‘classic’ milk most of us have come to know, but retains that creamy character – it’s now not too difficult to find a craft maker’s dark milk bar with less sugar than in a ‘classic’ 70% dark chocolate.

3 Don’t believe ‘raw’ chocolate hype

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42°C is the temperature commonly accepted as the cutoff point for declaring a food ‘raw’. And, outside an oxidatation chamber or high up a mountain, it’s not viable to ferment a cocoa pod to produce beans without exceeding that. Then there’s the fact that, at various points during fermenting, drying, and conching, temperatures often exceed 50°C. You can buy some great small-batch, single-estate bars where the makers have used unroasted beans, but calling them ‘raw’ isn’t quite accurate.

4 Don’t be taken in by marketing
We love beautiful-looking bars, but don’t be guided by the glossiest packaging or the weirdest ingredients. Similarly, be wary of miraculous health claims. In moderation, chocolate is a great part of a balanced diet, but it’s not medicine. Eat what tastes good, choosing chocolate that’s crafted by small-batch makers directly from the cocoa bean.

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PLUS: Catch Cocoa Runners at The Chocolate Show
Visiting The Chocolate Show at London’s Olympia from 14-16 October? Visit Cocoa Runners’ stand and learn a little more before shopping for hard-to-find bars from the globe’s greatest makers in the Craft Chocolate zone. Cocoa Runners will also be hosting a series of free tastings, pairing chocolate with drinks including rum, Square Mile coffee, Whittard’s tea, Badger beer and Borough Wines’ wine.
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Exclusive chocolate subscription offer

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Cocoa Runners’ Chocolate Library is an expertly-curated compendium of craft chocolate – and, each month, the company’s subscribers receive a box of the team’s favourite bars. Tempted? Click here to subscribe and quote ‘goodthings10’ for £10 off your first box.

For more information on Cocoa Runners, please click here.

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