Chocolate has had a bad rap in recent years. As happens when we dig a little below the surface, ugly things begin to emerge. But there are some really cool chocolate businesses out there looking to put the goodness back in. Here are my faves...
Chocolate has had a bad rap in recent years. As happens when we dig a little below the surface, ugly things begin to emerge. But there are some really cool chocolate businesses out there looking to put the goodness back in. Here are my faves…
In the “before times”, I ran a lovely food tour in Clonakilty every Friday in the summer, (Covid put that little gem to bed forever). Every stop on the tour was my favourite in some way, but the one I always looked forward to was our visit to the smallest bean-to-bar factory in Ireland, based in Clonakilty, called Exploding Tree.
I liked it not just because the chocolate it’s founder, Allison Roberts, made was so blinking lovely; or that Allison herself always came across as the coolest thing since sliced bread. Rather, it was to watch how the group suddenly came to understand, truly, what chocolate is, why it’s precious and good for us, and what its pretty and ugly sides are.
That’s the thing: for Allison, chocolate was, and still is, a platform for highlighting both the good and bad that’s wrapped up with this product that we all love so much. Chocolate has a particularly dark side, the darkest of which is the use of child labour, the exploitation of cocoa farmers and workers and the threat to cocoa plantations.
Just as we are starting to learn about how chocolate, particularly cacao, has been proven to be actually good for us (there really is a god!), we are also learning how under threat the production systems behind the end product we get to enjoy are.
Allison’s Exploding Tree is ferociously Fairtrade. She has personally visited the cocoa farms in Ghana, where the women are the land owners and protect it with a vision of passing that legacy to the next female in the family. She has seen how labour intensive the harvesting, fermentation and sun drying process is. And she has seen that by paying a guaranteed fair price for a whole harvest, the money goes back into the community to build better hygiene, homes, schools and hospitals that otherwise these rural farming families may never have.
So, this is all in the background. But it is by no means meant to put you off buying and enjoying chocolate. Rather it is hoped that by choosing to purchase from a maker who already knows these things and has done the heavy lifting for you, you can help them to make a difference to others. That way, everybody wins!
Christmas is fast approaching, and many of us are trying to consider buying gifts that are more ethical or climate conscious. Gifting something edible is always a good idea in my mind, so hopefully these few ideas of where to go will help you to choose a chocolate gift this year that comes packed to the gills with goodness!
In my line of work, I am fortunate enough to visit some amazing chocolate makers and get a real sense of their mission behind what they make, and I also get sent some lovely things to sample as well. You could say that I’ve tasted a lot of great Irish made chocolate and these are my absolute faves that I recommend you get on board with too!
Exploding Tree, Clonakilty, Co Cork www.explodingtree.com
Here is well you will get every possible expression of the mighty cocoa bean! From bars of pure 100% cocoa content, to Ireland’s first milk chocolate bar made from Irish milk (which is something that always blows my mind). There’s also goats’ milk, and an 88%, and an Oat Milk bar that’s suitable for vegans and made with Irish-grown organic oats.
You will also find Allison’s store well stocked with the “ingredients” that go into the chocolate, from the bean all the way through to the powdered milk. This is because Allison works straight from the bean, and because of her own zero waste policy, everything that can repurposed into something else is.
So, that means there is a loose-leaf style tea made from the husks of the winnowed cocoa beans. There are the whole beans themselves, raw or roasted; and nibs (raw or roasted). You can get the coconut blossom sugar Allison uses to sweeten her chocolate, cocoa butter, and you can buy slabs of her untempered chocolate which is great for cooking and better value because its sans all the packaging.
You can buy as many bars of chocolate as you like, or get a monthly subscription of her bars through the letterbox. There are mendiants jewelled with fruits and nuts, heart shaped blocks of 100% recommended as a seasoning and a great substitute for black pepper, and other seasonal gifting ideas such as gift boxes for endless experimentation.
It’s all fab, and eventually you’ll start to learn how to view chocolate as more than just that once in a while treat!
Tony’s Chocolonely www.tonyschocolonely.com/uk/en
Tony’s Chocolonely is arguably the pioneer of the chocolate world when it comes to raising awareness of the dark side of the chocolate industry, and has always been the first one to put their money where their mouth is in terms of making a real difference.
It’s a social enterprise that works towards a serious message and goal while looking all the while like it’s just stepped off the set of a cartoon – and I guess that is the appeal and why it works. It’s doesn’t look half as serious as the good it’s trying to do.
As if to try and up the auntie of this duality, Tony’s Chocolonely has just released a new line of treats called Littl’ Bits with the message that “It takes BALLS to end exploitation in chocolate.”
I happily received a sample pack of all four flavours in a very fetching presentation box to try. The little pouches are filled with lots of tiny little balls, and come in four (it has to be said) fantastic flavours retailing at €3.50 per pack and available nationwide with Tesco, or via their online shop.
• Milk caramel sea salt & biscuit mix with crunchy butterscotch caramel and biscuit wrapped in thick milk chocolate
• Triple chocolate mix with milk, white and dark layered balls of chocolate
• Milk marshmallow & biscuit mix with chewy marshmallow and biscuit wrapped in thick milk chocolate
• Dark orange vegan choco cookie with crunchy choco cookie wrapped in chunky orange dark chocolate
I diligently sampled them all, but my favourite was dark chocolate orange, which is also vegan.
The information that came with the gift pack said:
It takes balls to stand up and call out injustice and exploitation in global supply chains, but action goes much further. Speaking about Tony’s mission to end exploitation in the chocolate industry Nicola Matthews, Head of Marketing for UKI Tony’s Chocolonely, said:
“Today, 1.56 million children work under illegal circumstances on cocoa farms in West Africa; poverty is the root cause of this illegal labour in cocoa. To move out of poverty cycles, cocoa farmers need to earn a living income. Tony’s Chocolonely is proud to pay the Living Income Reference Price for its cocoa, which amounts to between 77% and 82% more than what most other big chocolate brands pay. Despite their small size, our new Littl’ Bits treats create a big impact for cocoa farmers and with this new launch we hope to remind chocolate lovers and other chocolate producers, that delicious and responsibly sourced chocolate can go hand in hand.”
Just in time for Christmas, a bumper pack in super festive looking Christmas styling has just landed, and would make a great stocking filler for kids, big and small!
Clo Artisan Chocolate www.clochocolates.ie
Owner of Clo Artisan Chocolates, Clotilde Rambaud, hails originally from Noirmoutier in France and where she learned the art of patisserie and chocolate making, so you just know that Clo is an exquisite expression of the art of the chocolatier. Clo came to Ireland and based herself in beautiful County Sligo after meeting and falling in love with an Irishman (it’s OK, I did that too!). She opened a successful bakery there called Le Fournil, but eventually she gave in to the call of her heart which was to make exquisitely hand made chocolates and truffles.
Earlier this year, I received a box of those truffles to try, and they really were gorgeous. But recently Clo sent me a sample of her beautifully put together Chocolate Advent Calendar for this season (€45).
The tree-shaped calendar comes with 24 handmade chocolates, each hidden behind a little door. There’s caramel reindeer, crispy praline Santa, marshmallow tree, praline snowman, salted caramel penguin (so cute!), Santa’s sprinkle friends, Biscoff chocolate, and creamy ganache filled chocolate.
There’s also a little touch of magic: Scan the QR code on the back of the calendar to access the Artvive app and watch the calendar come to life. Honestly, I love Christmas so much I could burst, and this just made me feel like a little kid all over again. Such a winner!
On a less giddy note, as well as tasting delicious, Clo does all she can to make sure her chocolate (and her packaging) does good, too. All the chocolate used is ethically sourced 100% sustainable cocoa and free from preservatives or additives. The calendar is housed in reusable and refillable packaging, meaning once the fun is done this year, keep the post and refill for next year, and the year after that!
This is what Clo had to say about her sustainability policy:
“Our chocolate is sourced through Callebaut, who’s initiative ‘The Cocoa Horizons Foundation’, strives to support farmers through education and sustainability, fair wages, and improving living conditions.”
Clo Artisan Chocolates are available from Brown Thomas in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, Arnotts, Ardkeen (Waterford), Kate’s Kitchen (Sligo – no affiliation btw!) as well as their own online shop. (Sign up for Clo’s newsletter, and get 10% off your first order).
Nibbed Cacao www.nibbedcacao.com
Nibbed, based in County Wicklow, is a relative newcomer to Ireland’s incredible chocolate scene started, as it was, as a pandemic project that turned into a reason for being! Since then, Nibbed has become a recognised, tried and trusted brand name and has successfully gone through the Supervalu Food Academy programme, which has a track record for expediting the growth of small food businesses into the fast paced world of supermarket retail. But the products sit equally well on the shelves of independent retailers, too, such is their wide ranging consumer appeal.
I received a pack of Nibbed’s Pure Grated Cacao which is suggested for use as a hot drink. I didn’t get a chance to sample my pack before I headed off to Dingle for this years’ Blas na hEireann awards and Dingle Food Festival. Nibbed did a pop up in one of the shops on Green Street, and word was that their Food Fest offering of that very same Nibbed Pure Grated Cacao mixed with hot foaming milk, maple syrup and cinnamon with a flourish of rose petals on top was a taste of god’s own elixir (I shan’t reveal whose words they were, but if you’re familiar with your food writers, you’ll clock this stylistic use of words immediately!)
With that sentiment ringing resolutely in my ears, off I went to seek it out, found it, paid for it with my very own heard earned cash, and immediately decided that it was one of the best thing I had partaken of all weekend long!
On their website are all manner of cacao inspired products, including an orange and cacao soap block, ceramic mugs and cacao blocks. All the building blocks for a lovely gift, for someone or just for yourself!
As for their credentials: all their cacao is organic, they have a robust “almost zero waste” policy (hence the variety of forms in which to indulge your cacao dreams), and they source their cacao from one supplier who operates as a social enterprise, Öko Caribe in the Dominican Republic.
Bean and Goose www.beanandgoose.ie
Based in Co Wexford, near Gorey, Karen and Natalie have been making beautiful to look at, beautiful to taste chocolates for ten years. Right from the beginning, a commitment to making chocolate that was “respectful to our planet, its resources and its people” means a lot of time goes into sourcing their raw ingredients to ensure they can always stand over that manifesto.
They source their couveture from Original Beans in the Netherlands which in turn sources from a sustainable cocoa farm in Ecuador. From this they make their base for most of their chocolate bars, but they are also open to exploring cacao from different countries and the difference in flavours from other terroirs. Think of it like wine tasting but with chocolate! They choose to work with Original Beans because there is no soy lecithin in the couveture, which means no ethical blur with where the soy comes from to produce the lecithin either.
They really do consider every part of what goes into their chocolate, and are often inspired by the landscape around them. Their solid chocolate disks called Seascape, is inspired by the topography of Karen’s home farm, even. Their packaging is eco friendly, recyclable and biodegradable, and they work closely with Irish designers and illustrators to help tell the Bean and Goose story.
I had the opportunity to visit their chocolate factory earlier this year with the Irish Food Writers’ Guild as part of one of the food tours offered by the Taste Wexford food family. Find out more about them HERE: www.tastewexford.ie. During the visit, we learned about their journey, their story, ethos and commitment to producing the best tasting and most sustainable chocolate.
The bars can be picked up on the fly in a huge number of independent food retailers, as well as also online.
When it comes to gifting, two things stood out for me as brilliant ideas this year.
The first is their Bean Lab where they create their most exciting and seasonal flavours. Every month, two bars are shipped to you or someone you wish to give the gift of monthly lovely chocolate to, via a subscription. The bars aim to tell the story of the Irish seasons and the ingredients Karen and Natalie select. A three month subscription is €75, and comes beautifully packaged with loads of information about the bars and where the flavour inspirations come from.
The other idea I loved are the giant slabs of ornamented chocolate that come with a “Hammer of Joy” for smashing into smaller pieces for sharing. It makes for an ideal gift, or even just a great idea for a post dinner party sweet treat that’s no fuss and engaging! The regular sized sharing slabs are €38.50, extra large is €120, and if you really want to go all out for the ultimate chocolate gift, an XL slab in a handmade wooden box with said hammer of joy is €195.
Neary Nógs www.nearynogs.com
Neary Nógs is Northern Ireland’s only stoneground bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Their focus is on bean variety. As mentioned above, like wine, depending on where the cacao is grown it delivers a myriad of different flavour notes. This is because cacao is high in polyphenols, the enzymes that give a bitter or tanic taste to something. Until you throw sugar at cacao to turn into chocolate, it has many of these bitter, tannic and acid notes, as well as floral, grassy, fruity, earthy tones as well.
Take a look at the IICCT’s Chocolate Flavour Wheel below to find out more!
By focusing on single variety, Neary Nógs can learn to appreciate the particular flavours of a particular cacao, and design their ratios to bring out the very best possible flavour notes in their final chocolate bars.
They do also play with flavours, and one of my favourites of all their bars is the Old Fashioned which is a combination of 70% Dominican Chocolate, Mix Burnt sugar, Orange bitters and Irish Whiskey. My other favourite is Dulamán which is a combination of Gorse flower and lightly salty seaweed, both of which are locally foraged botanical elements.
They also have a fantastic drinking chocolate which is simply knockout and I haven’t found one that beats it for its unashamedly luxury experience. Or try their Cacao Brew which used ground cacao nibs to make a vibrant coffee substitute best brewed in a French press.
If you happen to live near Neary Nógs, they often collaborate with Killowen Distillery for great pop up events bringing together food, chocolate, whiskey and craic!
IICCT Flavour Wheel
If I happen to have sparked your interest in Chocolate Tasting (as opposed to guzzling or troughing!), you can find out more about this scientific approach to cacao via the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting HERE!
Below is the flavour profile map which just goes to show how incredibly diverse chocolate is!
Thanks for reading this extended play blog post! I hope it has shared a little more knowledge not just about chocolate, but about the variety of wonderful chocolate makers out there today that are looking to be inspired by sustainability and flavour, and putting the goodness back into chocolate!
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