Tag Archives: dark chocolate

Bonnat Chuao vs. Bonnat Chuao – Does Origin Matter for Dark Chocolate?

My French friend, Gilbert, arrived with a gift in hand of not one, but eight Bonnat dark chocolate bars!  You see, he lives a stone’s-throw from Bonnat Chocolatier’s shop and laboratory.  Set among the Douphiné mountains in Voiron France, Bonnat opened shop in 1884 only one year after Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine to refine chocolate.  In the more than 100 years since then, they’ve been making a prolific range of bars and confections in a classic style and now distribute globally.  Gilbert brought me two of Bonnant’s best bars – Chuao and the tighter appellation – Chuao Village.

Bonnat Chuao two bars_9005a

Is the Chuao Villages bar with its more specific single-origin beans really better than the more diffused Chuao origin?

In my last post on Chuao, among the most read ever, I compared Chuao chocolate bars from five different chocolatiers.  Each bar uses cacao beans from Chuao, a village in coastal Venezuela accessible only by boat. What I didn’t explain then was that Bonnat makes two such bars – one from a wider region around Chuao and the other made only from beans harvested from Chuao proper.  At least this is the common understanding between chocolate experts.

The true origin of the beans is not perfectly well understood and the Bonnat website only offers this description of the more specific origin and more expensive Chuao Village bar (translated from the French):

“Very homogeneous, this chocolate offers a tasting and olfactory symphony that can only satisfy lovers of delicate sensations.”

I’ll revisit “delicate sensations” at the end of this post; let’s just say they have a point.  In the meantime, I organized a double-blind tasting of the two Bonnat bars side by side. I wanted to see if there was much difference between the bars and if, in fact, the more expensive bar prevailed as the superior chocolate.  To add to the certainty, or perhaps confusion depending upon the results, I asked my Wife, Genevieve, to also do a blind tasting of the two bars.  To keep things fresh, I did not refer back to my previous post, now 5 years old.

MY TASTING NOTES

BONNAT CHUAO VILLAGE “VENEZUELA” 75% DARK CHOCOLATE

OVERALL RATING:  91

AROMA:  Light overall.  Butter, toast, apricot light floral notes.  You will need focus to find this aroma. It won’t jump out at you.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Light and slow to start.  Apricot and dried fruits.

MIDDLE TASTE:  Butterscotch, crème brûlée, whipped cream.  Moves towards nuts and butter.

FINISH:  Tropical fruits, cherry, some nuts.  Incredibly well balanced and never unpleasant.  One of the longest finishes I’ve experienced in any chocolate. It’s as if the bar was made for the finish.  A long, delicate, serene and charming ride.

TEXTURE: At first it collapses into brittle crumbles before melting and releasing its flavors.

BONNAT CHUAO “VENEZUELA” 75% DARK CHOCOLATE

OVERALL RATING:  85.

AROMA: Like its sister above, this bar has a very delicate aroma.  Floral, honey, almost perfume-like.  This is the one area that I scored this bar higher than Chuao Villages due to a more pronounced nose.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Cherry, butter.  Slow to develop perhaps due to the thick bar.

MIDDLE TASTE: Butter, roasted meat, honey ham, very ripe banana, cashews.

FINISH:  Grapes, wine with some metallic astringency at end mixed with olive oil.

TEXTURE: Very similar to Chuao Village.

GENEVIEVE’S TASTING NOTES (blind tasting)

Chuao Villages:  A lot of fruit in this one – like dates and figs.  “It’s nice (shrug).”

Chuao: Slow approach. A little more acidic. Coffee.  Less perception of sweet.  Very slow to start, then sets in suddenly.

In the end, she decidedly preferred the Chuao Villages more for its fruitiness.  Consensus!

Bonnat Chuao Bare bars_9017

The color of the bars is very similar with the Chuao bar (L) being slightly more red than the Chuao Village (R).  The flaky bits on the bars are due to my handling as I continued to enjoy these over a stretch of days.

Last Bite

When I had tasted Bonnat beside the other five in 2013, it wasn’t my favorite.  Awesome, incredible chocolate, but not number one among the greatest of Chuao.  But then I like bold, intense flavors and the Bonnat bars are more subtle and subdued.

I might dare say that Bonnat’s style is classically French with some similarity to patterns in the wine industry.   New world wine makers, such as those in California, while expressing a range of styles, have done very well with big, sometimes lively reds like Zinfandel and Syrah that are often drunk young. On the other hand, the French, stereotypically prefer to age their wines longer to develop more subtly and elegance.  Could it be the same with chocolate – not the aging part, but the elegance and delicacy?

This theory would hold water if it weren’t for other French chocolate makers like Francois Pralus and Valrhona making bolder bars.  Is there a classical European style embodied by producers like Bonnat, most Belgian and Swiss chocolatiers as compared to a contemporary style like that of Valrhona and the new world?  While I have an unfortunate tendency to look for patterns where there may be none, I have to admit that such geo-cultural generalization in chocolate are dangerous.  The good news is that there is something for everyone with each chocolate maker applying their own unique style.  If you prefer delicate, subtle and silky chocolate, this is the one for you.

We had fun savoring these chocolates and are feeling pretty smug that we could pick the best of the two of the best ever.

End Notes

[1] I was given these bars from a friend who has no connection to Bonnat Chocolatiers.

[2] I rated the Chuao Villages bar slightly higher at 92 in the previous tasting and called out somewhat different flavors.  I don’t feel that this is any contradiction.  Cacao is an agricultural product after all and we can expect variations in flavor from year to year not to mention changes in my own perceptions.

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Caribeans Single Estate Dark Chocolate

I had the good fortune of returning to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to enjoy the waves, sleep in an historic jungle house, and eat some fine chocolate[1].  It was awesome to see how the local chocolate scene continues to evolve.  Caribeans is a cafe and chocolate proprietor located just across from Playa Cocles.  It was here that I met Caribeans owner, Paul Johnson, to talk about the burgeoning chocolate scene on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.

Paul moved to Costa Rica more than a decade ago with his wife.  They left famously chilly Minnesota for a less famous slice of paradise on the Caribbean sea.  Like many entrepreneurs, he spent some time exploring and tinkering with business ideas including a stint designing and welding funky art bikes.  Although PV has a funky, almost edgy feel and cycling is the preferred mode of transport along the cratered dirt roads, the concept just didn’t find legs.

In those early days, he came to realize there was no internet cafe in town, so he started a simple place by the harbor where people could get a decent cup of coffee.  Still, it wasn’t quite right – the locals who congregated by the harbor were less interested in coffee than more traditional cacao tea or drinking cocoa.  That drove him on a search for local cacao beans and eventually into the chocolate business.  Caribeans is now a place where you can get a great espresso drink, hot chocolate and single-origin chocolate bars from the region.

In the years since my first visit, he’s moved shop out of the bustling harbor streets to a more heavily-jungled area about two kilometers south. It’s here that he cobbled together a chocolate factory in the hills behind the cafe.  If sourcing high-quality cacao beans in a region decimated by the monilia fungus wasn’t hard enough, getting chocolate-making equipment was even harder.  He did buy a melanger, but the rest he built himself with some Rube-Goldberg-style innovation and help from experts back stateside.

Perseverance paid off.  Caribeans is the first Costa Rican bean-to-bar chocolate maker in one location.  In the shop, you can find a dozen or so single-origin bars many of which are single-estate bars acknowledging the contribution of the cacao growers themselves.  Caribeans now has direct relationships with over 20 cacao growers along the Caribbean coast.  This model not only improves bean quality though constant feedback between grower and chocolate maker, but also provides a premium price to the farmers.

After talking chocolate with Paul, I stepped into the walk-in chilled display room and selected from a couple dozen flavored and pure chocolate bars.  Here’s my take on two favorites.

CHOCOLATE REVIEW – Caribeans Chocolate

WHAT: Caribeans Single-Estate Maruin Gandoca 72% Dark Chocolate. 25 g (2.1 oz). Ingredients: cacao, sugar.

Where to buy Caribeans Chocolate.

WHEN: April, 2015

OVERALL RATING: 85.

AROMA:  Light tobacco, caramel, smoke, light floral – rose, ham.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Butter, almonds.

MIDDLE TASTE: Cherry, apple, cantaloupe.

FINISH: Fig, cashew, butter, whipped cream. Stays pleasant to the end.

TEXTURE: Looks like the melanger is working just fine.

WHAT: Caribeans Single-Estate Harta Lazo Kekoldi 72% Dark Chocolate. 25 g (2.1 oz). Ingredients: cacao, sugar.

Where to buy Caribeans Chocolate.

WHEN: February, 2015

OVERALL RATING: 82.

AROMA:  Melon, banana, guava, strawberry.  Overall a little subdued on the nose.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Apple, very slight hint of red fruit.

MIDDLE TASTE: Apple, strawberry, elusive citrus, rose.

FINISH: Banana, cafe-au-lait, tubers, some astringency towards the end.  It may be that the soft aroma and slight astringent dryness towards the end has to do with the heat – both the environment that they’re made in and storage.  Caribeans has a temperature controlled chocolate room in their shop and I tasted this bar within a couple of days of purchase, so it’s not so clear.

TEXTURE: Generally smooth. Some granularity towards end.

Overall, both were equally interesting bars, but I’m giving a nudge to the Maruin Gandoca for a bit more intensity and complexity.

LAST BITE: Caribeans has done an amazing job making chocolate under less than ideal conditions – the heat and humidity of the jungle for starters.  Eating this stuff reminds me of my first trip to Playa Cocles  where a all the chocolate seemed to exuded a certain local personality of buttery brown sugar and coffee.  Now,  by tasting the prolific line up at Caribeans, I’ve discovered there is more diversity in the beans of this region.  Depending upon the chocolate, the flavors span the range from coffee to dried fruit to melon to bananas.

Paul Johnson has a vision for the future: Puerto Viejo could become the “Napa Valley” of chocolate.  I have to agree that there is a lot of synergy in a concentrated food-tourism destination.  For example, Northern California and Bordeaux attract a lot of people keen on wine who want to learn and enjoy the world of wine.  Art enthusiasts go to Canyon Road in Santa Fe to peruse and buy art.   The wine makers and artists in these places are, in a sense, competing with each other and benefiting from each other at the time.  They’re mostly benefiting because a greater number of like-minded people are drawn to the destination.

So why not the same for chocolate?  Imagine a place where you can go and see how cacao is grown, watch chocolate being made, and taste chocolate from a range of different makers – all in one stop.   Unlike the wine tours, when you’re done tasting ten or fifteen different chocolates, you’re completely sober, so you can drive, walk or ride a funky bike to your next destination.  It seems the vision is starting to become real.  Since my last visit, they’ve held the first Puerto Viejo Chocolate Festival where for a day or two you can come together with others to explore the cacao of the region.

NOTES:

[1]  I first drafted this post in 2015…I’ve been busy.