Chocolate. Yes you heard that right. Evidently it’s a new trend in the world of confectionery: gritty though not necessarily darker “Mexican style” chocolate bars. The story was in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday but I just came across it this morning. It’s here, but behind the WSJ paywall. Here are the lead paragraphs if you’re wondering what this is all about:
Craft chocolatiers are using ancient techniques of the Aztecs and Mayans to create a dairy-free, low-fat product with a consistency a bit like crunchy dirt. Some chocolate lovers can’t seem to get enough of it.
This type of chocolate, sometimes called Mexican-style or stone-ground chocolate, is earthier, spicier and generally made with less sugar than sweet, creamy, European-style chocolate.
With Mexican-style chocolate, cocoa beans are roasted and shelled to yield edible cocoa-bean “nibs,” which get ground into a coarse liquor and then mixed with sugar. Most makers temper the product, raising and lowering the temperature before pouring it into molds.
Grinding, often done with stone disks, is the crucial step that creates the characteristic texture.
“We are seeing this return to chocolate-making roots,” says Carla Martin, a Harvard University lecturer in the department of African and African American Studies who specializes in the study of chocolate.
Nice work if you can get it! Anyway, the odd thing about all this is that that those coarse Mexican chocolate disks you find in grocery stores aren’t meant to be eaten like candy. You use them to make silky smooth drinking chocolate. The story notes the distinction but fails to observe the way in which it undermines the whole “chocolate returning to its roots” narrative being created here. There’s nothing traditional or authentic about eating gritty chocolate bars. No self-respecting Aztec or Mayan would ever have chomped down on a hard mass of sandy ground cacao for fun. If I were one of their modern-day descendants I’d be insulted! But then you hit the key paragraphs:
Though most stone-ground chocolate adds sugar, it doesn’t typically add cocoa butter, yielding a less-processed product than what European-style chocolatiers make with conching machines, which knead chocolate to create an evenly blended bar.
That is a major reason stone-ground chocolate has become popular with young entrepreneurs: It doesn’t rely on pricey refining equipment.
Which is another way of saying that a lot of “stone ground” chocolate is the product of inexperienced chocolate makers who don’t have much equipment or know-how. So instead of talking smoothness and quality they shift the terms of the conversation to “processing”, “refining” and “ancient techniques”. What was once coarse and gritty is now “authentic” and “stone ground”. That deserves a Clio award.
But it seems to me there’s a real business problem here beyond the advertising slight-of-hand. A big part of the stone ground trend appears to be about lowering the bar to entry (no pun intended) to get into the chocolate industry. The trouble I see is that some of these entrepreneurs are lowering the bar so far that just about anyone with a food processor and some ring molds could conceivably do what they’re doing.
Forgive me for sounding cranky here, but in truth my first reaction when I read this story was: what a crock! But I have to admit I’ve been wrong before. And really, who am I to interfere with budding chocolatiers trying to make a buck? Maybe I need to just pour myself another cup of strong tea and get with the stone ground program. Here’s to nibs in your teeth!