Category: In My Opinion

Buying Chocolate to gift for Valentine’s Day - or any other

Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular occasions for gifting chocolate. And, yet, many people pay surprising little attention to what they buy. If it’s in a red, heart-shaped box, and it costs more than $20 it has to be good, right?

Maybe not? Where did you get that box and how much thought did you put into purchasing it? Was it a last minute purchase from a drug store on your way to dinner – because it slipped your mind? If so, it’s not likely to deliver the message or impact you want.

Chocolate is known for its ability to forge strong emotional connections and memories and the best way to gift chocolate, for Valentine’s Day or any other day, is to recognize that and work with it. A nice two-piece box that you thought about can say a lot more than the boxed assortment you picked up in a chain store - even if it’s a chocolate chain store.

Buying chocolate for someone you know

The key point to remember is that the gift is about them, it’s not about you. Never buy something you know the recipient does not like.

Buying a boxed assortment says that you punted on thinking; the choice was more about convenience or quantity or price, not quality. When you walk into the store, go to the case (no case? you are not in the right store), and tell the person behind the counter that you’re buying chocolate for a gift - and that the recipient really likes the following flavors. Then ask what they have that matches what you know the recipient likes. If there are five that might work and the choice is either a four-piece box or a nine-piece box, go for four.

Take your time deciding which four and remember the reasons why you chose the ones you did. Then, when you present the box, tell the story about buying it … being presented with so many options and having to make choices and then connecting your reasons for purchasing with something you know, like, or admire about the person … or connect it to a shared experience.

Or maybe the person you’re gifting to is really adventurous when it comes to eating. A selection that is composed of unusual flavors (which you might not like) could be a big hit as it would acknowledge their desire to explore new flavor combinations.

What you’re doing by selecting a gift this way is showing that you thought about the process and the person who the gift is for - while also revealing what it is about the recipient that either attracts you or that you admire, and you’re looking to establish, or reinforce, a strong emotional connection.

That four-piece box selected with care will get you many more props than a larger boxed assortment – even from the same store — unless, of course, you know that the recipient is a fan of a particular brand of boxed assortment chocolates from childhood. Then by all means gift one of those. What’s important is that the gift reflects your understanding of what the recipient likes and values.

Buying chocolate for someone you don’t know

This advice is mostly for selecting chocolate for someone you’d like to get to know better, and it’s basically the inverse of the advice for buying for someone else.

Approach the case and ask the person behind the counter if they have flavors that are what you like, or that you have a special connection with – maybe something from childhood. Select those and be prepared to tell stories about what the pieces mean to you: why you selected them. By sharing the stories behind the chocolate you tell the recipient a lot about yourself. Hopefully in a way that is totally endearing. This is what you want.

For example, growing up in Southern California, we would gift my mother a box of See’s Victoria English Toffee – a childhood favorite of hers from growing up in LA in the 1920s and 1930s – on Christmas Eve. If I were gifting chocolate to someone I wanted to get to know better I would definitely include a piece of toffee covered in dark chocolate and sprinkled with roasted almond pieces and tell a story about the ceremony around gifting the box, my mother unwrapping it, and then sharing the box around so everyone got a piece.

Still don’t know what to gift?

If the gift is for someone you are romantically involved with (or want to declare those intentions) - you simply cannot go wrong by selecting nicely decorated heart-shaped pieces with a filling flavored with passionfruit. Two - one for each of you. And you’ll find that a nice rosé or Prosecco is a tasty pairing.

A great technique when you’re gifting for a boss or other colleague is to go into the store and ask the person behind the case what the most popular items are - what sells best is also often the freshest. You can ask them their favorites, as well, and I sometimes ask to be pointed out a selection that they think represents the best work they do. Pick an unusual flavor - something you might never buy on your own but that is really popular. You could even buy one for yourself (packed separately) and then suggest you both eat the piece at the same time and figure out whether you like it or not.

And in closing ...

Whatever you do, make it fun. If it involves chocolate and you are not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

The Great Forastero vs Criollo Debate

By Clay Gordon, 2008-11-04

Originally published Nov 4, 2008 — There is an unquestioned assumption many chocophiles make: because Criollo beans make better (and more expensive) chocolate, doesn't it make the most sense to replace all those "inferior" Forastero and hybrid-Trinitario trees with Criollos? Wouldn't everyone - including the farmers - be better off?

Well, no, actually. And here's why.

Chocolates made with properly fermented and dried (proper fermentation and drying are key to full flavor development) Forastero/Trintario beans taste different from those made with Criollos. Not worse. Just different. To really generalize here, the flavors in chocolate made from Criollos are milder and more delicate, while the flavors in chocolate made with Forastero/Trinitarios are more robust. You may prefer one over the other, but that is a matter of personal taste and not an absolute judgment .

For even the most knowledgeable chocophile, the goal should be to learn to appreciate all the different flavors of chocolate and not to resort to the unthinking snobbery that runs roughshod over the wine world. There is nothing inherently "bad" about the grapes used to make Merlots. They are just grapes. There is nothing inherently "better" about the grapes used to make Pinot Noirs. Nevertheless, a single movie ( Sideways ) changed the drinking habits of millions worldwide by making it unfashionable, almost overnight, to admit to even liking Merlot let alone drinking it. In the same vein, milk chocolate is not "bad" because it contains milk and dark chocolate does not have to have 70% cocoa content in order to be "good." Yet many people are ashamed to admit they like to eat milk chocolate and won't touch dark chocolate unless it is 70% or more.

One of the great (not just my opinion) dark chocolates in the world produced in the past five years is a 68% bar from Felchlin (their Cru Sauvage) made with beans harvested from Bolivian feral trees (trees that were planted hundreds of years ago that are now "wild") that are genetically Forasteros but that have flavor characteristics associated with Criollos. The chocolate snob, unrepentantly and wrongly fixated on the number 70% and "Criollo" would not deign to stoop so low as to eat a bar with "only" 68% cocoa and made with "only" Forastero beans because it did not meet his or her "standards." In this case, they are arbitrarily cutting themselves off from one of the great chocolate experiences in recent memory. But, as I say to my kids when they turn up their noses at something I really like to eat, "Okay. I guess that means more for me." I don't have any problem with that .

Now that we've dispelled the myth that chocolate made with Criollos is somehow "naturally better" than chocolate made with Forastero/Trinitario beans, the next step is to take a look at what it might mean for a farmer to make the switch.

Perhaps the best example of wrong-o-nomics is the Chuao co-op in Venezuela, a source of very high quality cocoa beans that has for years been hoisted as a poster child to the benefits to farmers of planting Criollos. For close to a decade now, the Amedei company has been paying far above market price for the beans they source from Chuao (reportedly about $9000/tonne as opposed to between $2000-$3000/tonne on the commodities market). The trees planted in Chuao yield on the order of 180kg per hectare (ha; a hectare is 2.54 acres; kg, kilogram - about 2.2 pounds) of dried beans, or about 155 pounds per acre.

In modern industrialized plantations in, for example, Southeast Asia, that grow high-yielding hybrid varieties, yields of up to 3000kg of dried beans per hectare are not unusual. In Western Africa, yields of up to 1500kg/ha are not uncommon as long as the farm is managed "sustainably" (e.g., there are agricultural inputs - synthetic or natural - to replace the nutrients from the soil that leave the farm in the beans).

This disparity in yield gives us the following economic equation:

Chuao : 100ha @ 180kg/ha @ $9/kg = $162,000 gross income/100ha
Southeast Asia : 100ha @ 3000kg/ha @$2/kg = $600,000 gross income/100ha
Western Africa : 100ha @ 1500kg/ha @ $2/kg = $300,000 gross income/100ha

Thus, even though Amedei pays roughly 3 to 4.5 times the market price, the return to the farmer is as little as twenty-five per cent of what could be made if the farmer planted different varieties (i.e., forastero hybrids) of cacao. You can bet that Vietnam - which grew itself into the third-largest coffee exporter in the world from nowhere in twenty years - will be planting high-yielding strains in its attempt to quickly become one of the largest cocoa producers in the world. It can't get there by planting Criollos.

There is another reason not to go down the path of promoting the planting of Criollos at the expense of planting Forastero/Trinitarios. Criollos are products of hundreds if not thousands of years of breeding and inbreeding. Because of this they represent a comparatively narrow gene pool. In addition to being low-yielding and finicky, Criollos are much more vulnerable to diseases and pests, and as we've seen time and again, planting monocultures on a grand scale increases vulnerability in a number of different area. Therefore, betting on the future of chocolate by reducing the genetic diversity of cacao is a very, very bad idea.

One of the things that people cannot truly appreciate until they walk into a cacao farm is the incredible variety of shapes and colors of the pods; bright yellows, greens, oranges to shame anything grown in Florida, reds that would make a fire engine envious, and scarlets worthy of royal attire. The cacao tree provides the genetic template, so all of the pods on the tree are the same basic variety as the tree even though the pods may look very different. However if a flower is fertilized several times with pollen from different sources (and this is a very common occurrence), multiple hybrids will co-exist within the same pod, sort of like fraternal twins or triplets in utero . When the seeds from these pods are scattered by small animals or birds and grow to maturity, new hybrids appear. This process occurs naturally and it this genetic diversity that needs to be preserved and nurtured and that will lead to varieties of cacao that are resistant to the most damaging of diseases - and - that taste good, too.

The key to improving the lives of farmers is not to get them to replace what they are currently growing with low(er)-yielding varieties that require more care and are more susceptible to disease - because the loss in yield doesn't come even close to matching the increase in price. Instead, the key to improving the lives of farmers is to teach them how to manage their trees and farms to reduce losses from diseases and pests and to ferment and dry properly. This will increase their income even if they continue to grow exactly the same cacao they've always been growing, on exactly the same amount of land. By placing on emphasis on quality , and not just quantity , no matter what beans a farmer has, those beans will make better-tasting chocolate so the farmer can charge more for them.

Me? I am an EOCL - Equal Opportunity Chocolate Lover. As long as its good, I'll eat it .