The other night I was having dinner in a restaurant, and struck up a conversation with the fellow dining at the next table, who turned out to be Swiss. As we talked, the conversation turned to what I did and when I replied that I wrote cookbooks on baking and chocolate. His curiosity was piqued…as well as that of the two Belgian women at the other table.
I knew exactly where the conversation soon would be heading, and of course, I was asked the inevitable question: “Which country do you think makes the best chocolate?”
In all honestly, it’s really a pointless question. What if I asked; “What country makes the best wine?” Well, you might answer that there are great wines made in Italy, France, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, etc. And there are lousy wines made in all those countries too.
But is there one country quantitatively better than at making wine than another? Is there some formula that one can follow to show who wins the mantle of Best Winemaking Country in the World? Perhaps one could argue that the soil in one county is better than another, or the weather, or maybe other factors. But for making chocolate couverture, pure, solid chocolate, most of the time the cocoa beans aren’t grown in the countries where chocolate is produced, with a few exceptions.
And is there really a country that makes the Best Chocolate In The World?
Is there some competition going on that no one told me about?
So I answered, “The best chocolate in the world is made in the United States.”
The man was surprised, and the two women started rolling their eyes and laughing. And my French dining companion just smirked at me, since he knows that I said that matter-of-factly as well, just to irk them. But seriously, I don’t know what was so funny. Maybe they were laughing at themselves for not realizing that there’s very good chocolate produced in the United States.
How silly of them; what were they thinking?
The Swiss gent, being more intelligent (not because he’s Swiss, but because he was more interested in my response), listened as I explained, “I’m more interested in artisan-produced chocolates and a majority of them are being made in the United States. Most of the industrial chocolates don’t interest me.”
I explained that I use several top-notch mass-produced Belgian and French chocolate for baking. Plus I went to school in Belgium and spent time working in a very good chocolate shop in Brussels, but there was only a handful of independent chocolatiers in Belgium that are doing quality work, while most of the other chocolates are mass-produced, and not particularly of interest to me.(Although I did plow through a decent-sized box that someone gave to me for Christmas with remarkable speed…so I guess I’m not that much of a snob after all…)
So I asked the women to come up with the names of any small companies, or even just one, like ScharffenBerger, Amano, and Theo in the US, that are making their own chocolate in small quantities in their country, and they didn’t know what to say. Nothing. Pas de reponse. When I asked which chocolate shops they liked in Belgium, they started reeling off a list of places that were part of the large industrial chains, a couple were foreign-owned and not even Belgian.
And even though they couldn’t name any individually-owned chocolate shops in their own country, I could. One favorite of mine is Laurent Gerbaud, who dislikes Belgian couverture and uses Domori from Italy, and Wittamer, who use Belgian-made Barry-Callebaut chocolate.
In France, there are several companies making chocolate on a small-scale, such as Pralus and Bernachon, which are fabulous, but Bernachon is only available at their shop in Lyon and in Paris (at A l’Etoile d’Or) and Pralus is just starting to be more widely-distributed. Otherwise, mostly what’s available here is Lindt, Nestlé, and Cote d’Or, which are great for baking and snacking in general, but I wouldn’t call them interesting eating chocolates.
So it doesn’t really matter if chocolate came from Belgium, Switzerland, France, or even, gasp, the United States, now, does it? Let’s open our minds, folks.
Chocolatier vs. Chocolate-Maker
And since our minds are now wide open, one thing that confuses people is the difference between a Chocolatier and a Chocolate Maker.
Quick show of hands: How many of you know the difference?
Ok, not bad.
For those of you who didn’t know, here’s the difference….
A Chocolatier is someone who makes chocolates, those dipped, nutty, or cream-filled confections that we all know and love. A Chocolate Maker is someone, or a company, that buys and roasts cocoa beans and grinds them into chocolate.
There are lots of chocolatiers out there, probably (and hopefully) several in your city, but there are very few chocolate-makers, since the process is difficult, costly, and requires a lot of very specialized equipment and knowledge. There’s no shame in not making your own chocolate from scratch. Very few people can pull together the equipment for making chocolate, then figure out how to do it correctly, so most small-scale chocolate shops buy their couverture, melt it down, and use it for dipping their chocolates.
Much of this discussion was also prompted by was an interesting series of articles about Noka Chocolate, outrageously-priced chocolate from Texas, which sells for almost $9 a piece, and someone tracked down their lineage. I don’t know if Noka chocolate intended to give people the impression that they’re making their own chocolate from scratch or not (since I was polishing off a bottle of wine while I finished it) but the writer spent considerable time tracking down what he suspects is their couverture du jour.
The writer noted that the company alluded to the fact they make their own couverture, but I never believe anyone who says they’re making their own chocolate unless they have some documentation to back it up, or I can see it being made. Did you know there are only about sixteen chocolate-makers in America? (See below)
Very, very few chocolatiers make their own chocolate. Even a talent like Michael Recchiuti in San Francisco, who’s a chocolatier, happily admits to buying his chocolate couverture, which he sources from the best.
No shame in that…heck, I do it too.
For more information, here’s a list of some of the large- and small-scale chocolate-makers in the United States:
Archer Daniels Midland
Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory
(Edited: As some commenters pointed out, a few companies are owned by larger companies, such as ScharffenBerger, Ghiradelli, and Dagoba. I also included Jacques Torres in the list even though he makes very little chocolate. Frederick from Dagoba doesn’t roast and grind the beans himself, as he told me several years ago: The chocolate is fabricated elsewhere. He and the company are presently at work building a factory in the Pacific Northwest and the beans are likely being sourced for production there in the very near future, which was the latest message from him. I’ve included links to all the chocolate companies and you can visit their web sites, and contact their representatives, for the most up-to-date information.)