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Chocolate and Terroir: Discovering a Taste of Place

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Photo by Patrizia Ferraglioni

by Roger Myers

Our love for almighty chocolate often borders on devotional, using words like dreamy, to die for, and divine, with eyes drifting up to heaven. For the ancient Mayans, however, chocolate really was a religious experience. Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods,” figured prominently in their religious ceremonies, burial rites, and even their creation story.

Local Nectar of the Gods
The Mayans cultivated and propagated their sacred cacao trees in the fertile soils of Mesoamerica. And even if they didn’t know it, when they tasted the fruits of their labor, they were experiencing terroir: that distinct sense of place exhibited in a particular region’s agricultural products, a direct result of the soil (terre) and climate in which those products were grown.

But Things Didn’t Remain Quite So Local Forever…
Fast-forward several centuries. Following the Industrial Revolution, the chocolate market was dominated for 200 years by large-scale manufacturers producing mass-market goods. Of course, this meant chocolate was available in mass quantities (not a bad thing!). On the other hand, if you thought you were experiencing terroir when you bit into these chocolates, your taste buds were suffering from an overactive imagination. These products were (and still are) reliant on huge quantities of cocoa for their blends, making them incompatible with the limited cocoa supplies produced by smaller, more remote regional farms.

Small is Beautiful
The pendulum is swinging back — and here in the U.S., at least, small is beautiful again. Over the last 15 years, a quieter kind of revolution has been growing: Americans have begun taking cocoa seriously. You can now find small producers all across the country, making electrifyingly good chocolates. And much like the recent craft beer and coffee revolutions, the movement consists of a handful of devoted artisans making exceptional products from carefully sourced ingredients. Ingredients with a story, and a true sense of place.

This Must Be the (Taste of) Place
Once you’ve experienced chocolate made from a single origin source — chocolate that really shows off the unique characteristics of where it was grown — it’s tough to look back with any nostalgia at those days when only mass-produced chocolate was available. Happily for the chocolate-lovers of the world, the available options are improving daily.

Case in point: I recently had the chance to sample two remarkable dark chocolate bars, made with cocoa sourced from Guatemala and Madagascar. These Blue Bandana Chocolate Bars are a new product line from Lake Champlain Chocolates — and, full disclosure, I am employed there — in Burlington, VT.

So, Why Does Some Dark Chocolate Taste Like a Bowl of Ripe Bananas?
I could swear I smelled and tasted bananas in the Guatemala 70% Dark Chocolate bar from Blue Bandana — if I didn’t know better, I’d say banana extract had been added to the chocolate. When I considered where the cocoa had been grown, it was no wonder. Planted among the cocoa trees in the Alta Verapaz region are many crops, including cardamom, corn, and a large number of banana trees.

And Why Does Other Chocolate Taste Like Black Pepper and Cinnamon?
The first aroma rising from the Madagascar 70% Dark Chocolate was of freshly cracked pepper. It was redolent of cinnamon, with hints of red fruit and a burst of bright citrusy acidity. Again, once I thought about this, it made perfect sense.

Madagascar is a spice island, and some of the world’s most flavorful vanilla, pepper, and cinnamon are grown there. More to the point, the Somia Plantation, where this particular cocoa originated, grows pepper right alongside their cacao trees.

So why would I expect chocolate from Madagascar to taste like chocolate from Guatemala? They’re like night and day — and that’s exactly as it should be.

Terroir Isn’t Just for Chocolate
Distinct terroir holds true for other agricultural products, too — especially wine. No surprise, since our notion of terroir comes largely from the French and their devotion to celebrating the regional differences in their much-loved wines.

Here’s one example, closer to home: Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, a famous Cabernet from California, is known for displaying unmistakable aromas and flavors of Eucalyptus. As it happens, Eucalyptus trees are planted throughout the vineyard site.

And another (this time in the realm of the bizarre): in Red Hook, New York, a locally produced honey started turning up bright red in color. One of the beekeepers had the honey tested and found it contained Red Dye #40, a food coloring. It turns out the bees were visiting a local plant where maraschino cherries are processed, and then returning to their hives. Unappetizing — but, in its own way, this conveys an accurate taste of place, as well.

“I’ll Take You There…”
That’s why we love this thing called terroir. When we taste a single-origin chocolate, it really “takes us there” — on a sensory tour of the region’s soil, air, aromas, and flavors. Every bite should be a vicarious and pleasing experience of the land and environment where the cocoa was grown. It’s a virtual voyage to distant corners of the world, and one we can experience anytime, anywhere.

As for whether it qualifies as a religious experience — you’ll have to start tasting, and decide for yourself.

Roger Myers is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and has spent his professional career immersed in the worlds of food and wine. Since 2004, he has worked in wholesale chocolate sales for Lake Champlain Chocolates, where he is an integral part of the sensory tasting panel.

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