October 9, 2012
I have been lucky enough to grab some time with one of the busiest men in chocolate, founder of fine chocolate review site Seventy% and The International Chocolate Awards.
Cat Black: Tell me a bit about your professional background.
Martin Christy: One of my existences is as a programmer and web developer. That is what I was doing around 2000, as part of the first dotcom bubble. At the time I had a small web agency, with a couple of friends and my brother. We made a test site, based around my hobby, fine chocolate. It was out of that that Seventy% began. Seventy% was first live, with an early test version in 2000.
CB: So the subject of the website was almost incidental?
MC: Well I was already interested in good chocolate. I was selling, dealing in good chocolate, handing out small, foil wrapped blocks of the substance in to friends. So it seemed natural to do it if we could, and interesting. So it wasn’t really secondary, but a kind of sneaked in hobby. And it was a really good show site.
CB: And much nicer to have a show site that has some real and yummy content.
MC: One of the things it was good at was community building. The original version of Clay Gordon’s site (The Chocolate Life) started around the same time. But there weren’t that many places to going and find anything useful about fine chocolate. So it was a good example of how to use very early social functions, to build an audience, to build a community. The forum on the site was very popular back then.
CB: I find it really interesting that it came out of your computer work.
MC: If you look at the other successful blogging sites, for example Chocablog and Chocolate Reviews and Mostly About Chocolate, they are all being done by web industry people.
CB: They know how to use it don’t they.
MC: Particularly now, those guys know how to get a decent audience. But I think what is key is good content. There are a lot of different things in chocolate, there is a lot of hard work. But there is definitely a creative element. I have to do something creative.
CB: And actually a lot of lovely creative people around to work alongside.
So, you launched a long time ago. How do you see the chocolate world has changed since you started?
MC: When I had the idea for reviewing chocolate, there were one or two people doing it, but we were the first to really do that in a serious way, I believe. When we began, there was Valrhona Guanaja, which was the first grand cru sort of origin chocolate, there was Caraibe, from the Caribbean, there was Manjari, from Madagascar. And then there was Bonnat, who have actually been doing origins for a hundred years, but was pretty obscure and not that easy to get. And that was pretty much it. So to find origin chocolate beyond that was not easy. In the time that we have been going Scharffenberger came along (they are now part of Hershey). Michel Cluizel, when I started and I first knew them, had the 85%, 72%, 99%, 60%.
CB: So a bit of a range, but no detail.
MC: All the origins have come along with them since. And Amedei weren’t really going, they had just started. Domori was one of the first new origin ones we heard of. So we were scratching around for things to review. And reviewing stuff like Woolworths organic bar, probably one of the worst bars of chocolate I have ever had! If you look back by date on our early reviews there are some weird things in there. Now it is not possible to keep up. If I had an army of twenty reviewers it would still be difficult to keep up. There are so many new bars coming out. It is still only the beginning, but we have gone from traditional or larger commercial companies, to what is more of a micro-brewery model.
CB: A great thing about having started when you did is that you have tasted throughout this development and all that has happened. If you started now you could never recreate that history of knowledge.
MC: I can see advantages and disadvantages of starting now, because the tone has changed a lot. It is interesting to see the new people who come in. On the one hand they have the disadvantage of not having the history and tradition of the more industrial, refined way of making chocolate. Sometimes they are hampered by not having tasted a big enough range, or standards and the classics. If you were training to be a wine taster you would train yourself through tasting various pivotal points, the standards, vineyards and grapes. Then you can go down some different roads and look at the artisans. There is a danger when you start to make chocolate, that you just go, I have made chocolate, fantastic! It is an exciting thing to make chocolate. If you are the only chocolate maker in Dubai, a claim I have seen made, then it is easy for them to feel that what they are doing is fantastic. From my point of view, looking at the whole picture, I do think it is great. But also how does that compare to Valrhona, Michel Cluizel? They too have their good and bad days, for sure. It has changed vastly. It has opened up vastly. I think there are a lot of people experimenting and trying. We will see how it goes. The people I really respect are the ones who keep trying to improve.
CB: They are refining it, pursuing something.
MC: Sometimes they are the most obsessive about quality. A good example is Pacari, with their new inner wrapping. I remember the day when they used to come in small boxes, with a paper foil wrapping inside. It was okay; other people do the same. Santiago (Peralta, of Pacari Chocolate) was the one to say he could taste the cardboard and should not be tasting cardboard. To me the good chocolate makers are the ones that have people like that behind them. I don’t care if they are 100 years old or two years old. To me that is what counts. I have personally never given 100% for a chocolate, I have never tried the perfect chocolate. I think there is always somewhere to go, to improve.
MC: And in knowledge as well. You might be experiencing this too. I thought, I like this stuff, I really like the organic, the fine. I will buy a couple of books, read them, and stick them on a shelf, and then I will go off and buy the chocolate that I want.
CB: And then you will know. But it just doesn’t happen.
MC: Yes that has not been the case. What has been exciting, revealing, shocking, is that collectively in the world we know so little. Not just in our little consumer world. But manufacturers, the big companies, the small companies, the growers on one side not knowing what the producers are doing, the producers not knowing what the growers are doing. People are going around asking fundamental basic questions that there is not an answer too. It is hugely daunting and exciting in the chocolate world. There is no person or people you can go to and say, tell me all.
CB: I didn’t arrive thinking I knew anything. I just knew I had a lifelong taste interest.
MC: I think what is exciting is that we are tasting things that have never been tasted before. We are in some ways returning to pre-Columbian cacao. But also there is so much variation, and other exciting things going on. We now have machinery that is capable of things that couldn’t be done before. So even if we have their cacao we are doing new things with it.
Also there are exciting new styles that are more respectful of the cacao. The traditional method is to start with flavour A in cacao, and roast that, play with it, to get to flavour B. B is that high roast, it is bitter, the reason people say they don’t like dark chocolate. That is strong stuff that is ameliorated by milk powder and sugar. That is traditional. What is happening now is that people are saying they like that cacao, and that taste A, and want something like that taste in the chocolate. Makers are following those tastes through.
CB: Absolutely. I found it great talking to Maricel (International Chocolate Awards Grand Jury member Maricel Presilla), and hearing about this quest to be true to the bean.
MC: Even with all the history and the work that has been done in France, in the last few years we are just beginning that work of exploring those flavours. There is not a person you can go to and say, what are the rules for fermenting cacao to make good flavour.
CB: The International Chocolate Awards is an innovation designed to focus on all these things you are telling me about. Tell me a bit about starting it, how did that come about?
MC: Back in the early days of Seventy%, around 2003/2004, we were discussing some sort of award. 2003 was also the first Chocolate Week. So we were talking to nudge pr and Kate Johns, who were organising Chocolate Week.
Chocolate Week was her idea, it is her thing. We talked about ways we might combine and produce an awards. Then the Academy of Chocolate came along, and had similar ideas, so we fed into that and their awards. I think over time I got frustrated with the limitations of that kind of organisation, and the slow moving pace. I saw quite early on the potential for an international scope. If you build something that is credible here, it can be taken around the world. And something else has happened over the last ten years, London and Britain have become important in fine chocolate, which they never were. Because we are outside the tradition, not French, or Belgian, or Swiss, we are kind of independent and have gained some credibility. Because of that our chocolatiers are free, not stuck in tradition. The British scene now has a lot of respect.
CB: So it is a relevant host for this.
MC: Sure. As of last year we decided it was the right time. I spend a lot of my time doing a lot of international things, building international networks. That was one of the beauties of Seventry% forum, which is a bit old hat now. But between 2003 and 2009, it was a hot place to be. I made contact with a lot of international people. We had people from Scandinavia, Germany and the US, which was great. And then I started to get people signing up from Guatemala, Argentina, Equador. We had this world reach, and suddenly people were coming to me. That is another big change. Ten years ago there was almost zero exposure for cacao growing countries. Most people didn’t know where it was grown, what the tree looked like, how we got from some kind of agriculture to chocolate. They had no idea. Growing countries, especially the fine cacao countries, which are much smaller than the big African countries, wanted to be heard, wanted to be known. So they were very eager to be in contact. Chocolate is an international thing. And there are two worlds of chocolate. There are the producing and the consuming countries. And they want to meet. That is another exciting part of the challenge.
CB: And the International Chocolate Awards, in its first year, has got an international conversation going.
MC: People are eager to connect, and the aims of the awards really are to go out and help promote fine chocolate and fine cacao. Help promote, protect and preserve. It is not easy to make money being a small chocolate maker. It is not easy to make money at the high end, as an artisan chocolatier, working with the best ingredients. It is much easier to buy bulk chocolate, which is not from good cocoa, which is not well treated or made into chocolate and doesn’t taste that good. The market is full of private label branded and wrapped chocolate, where all you had to do is make a phone call, send off your pack design, your eco concept, and go and get yourself onto a supermarket shelf. I wouldn’t care about that stuff if it wasn’t for the fact that it stops people buying the Pacaris of this world, the Amanos even the Cluizels, Valrhonas, Domoris. So it is really really important to reward the best. We will give the awards to whatever the judges think is best. But we expect that what is best made will win.
CB: I think that quality does out, and will get awards. Those will then get to put on gold labels, and hopefully the consumer will pick that up and see.
MC: I think we have seen, with some of the other food awards that have been around and have had chocolate entries, that they have not had any particular knowledge base to work from. Those awards don’t seem to relate to quality. So we want to do something that really addresses what is fine chocolate.
CB: And so redress that. Where do you think the awards will go next, as this has been the first year?
MC: We will definitely expand to more countries. My ambition, and I am overly ambitious, is to hold heats in as many countries as we can. We already have plans to do something in Israel. I wanted to do something in Sweden this year, which didn’t come off, but we will try again for next year. I think countries where there is a good market already. I think Holland is now getting quite a good scene. I think the hardest ones to crack will be Belgium and France.
So the aim is we will look at these consumer countries but start to look at the growing countries as well. Part of the aim of the awards is to start to develop markets, to support the industry and try and do some good. This year we have the Grand final in Chocolate Week in London. And that might be the case next year. But the ultimate aim is to take this round the world.
CB: The Grand Final could be in different spots.
MC: If someone comes along with a proposal to do it in Dubai? Obviously we can’t do this thing for free. The idea is that there are the entry fees, which generally pay for expenses, but we will start to get sponsorship. We will look for big sponsors and we will make it as big as we can really.
And I should say that the awards are one part of this. I remember once asking Art Pollard of Amano, what is your plan? He is a good friend and a crazy guy. His reply was; world domination! In some ways, the grand world plan, the International Chocolate Awards are part of that. Another thing we are trying to get going is Direct Cacao.
CB: Tell me about Direct Cacao.
MC: It is taking a different slant on it. The problem for a lot of small fine chocolate makers and chocolatiers, when they meet the public, say at the Chocolate Festival in London at Christmas, the customer’s first question is often is it Fairtraide, is it organic? And all they can really do now is mumble that it is more than Fairtrade, that they buy direct from the farmer and pay over the Fairtrade price. A lot of customers have walked away at that point. They want the cleverly branded, smart looking Fairtrade, organic thing. But there are only two factories who have made organic Fairtrade chocolate continually in Europe, Icam in Italy and Bernrain in Switzerland. If you have eaten organic Fairtrade supermarket chocolate in this country you have eaten their chocolate. It became obvious to me that it is all the same. I went to the big candy show in Cologne, ISM, and on their stands they proudly displayed all the British supermarket bars that they have made.
CB: Oh okay, there you go, front and centre.
MC: So, the consumer has this easy message with Fairtrade. And Fairtrade has done some good work in coffee. It may arguably be beneficial for the West African countries growing bulk cacao. But it is really debatable whether it is of any use at all in the fine growing countries in Latin America and South America, where the chocolate maker may well be paying over Fairtrade price anyway. So it has really become a misused marketing label. Now that you have big multi-nationals using it for confectionary then it is really devalued. So the prime purpose of Direct Cacao is to give some kind of collective voice, for chocolate makers, chocolatiers and cacao growers, to put forward a more price based, value quality model. And to make that work that certainly means directly trading. It doesn’t actually mean that the chocolate maker turns with a bundle of dollars, because that is impractical, but it means you have a small, short, transparent chain and it is traceable. The lucky accident here, like wine, like with any fine food you can think of, you can only make a good end product with good ingredients. Fine chocolate is very hard to make, and it could go wrong at any point along the process. But you cannot make fine chocolate without good cacao. You can’t get good cacao without paying a decent price for it. And more importantly we won’t have a sustainable supply of good cacao unless we maintain a decent price for it. That means educating consumers, giving some kind of banner or badge to label with. So that when someone comes along and says, are you Fairtrade, you can say no, I am Direct Cacao.
CB: I think you are right that it serves two purposes, ensuring the links and this traceability, and making that easier. But also, at the consumer end it is giving a clear and easily recognisable message.
MC: Absolutely, it needs a simple message. That is why Fairtrade has worked so well, and organic has worked so well.
CB: It is too confusing otherwise. You need to make it clear for a consumer who doesn’t have previous knowledge.
MC: The two organisations are not connected, apart from some people in common, but at The International Chocolate Awards we gave some Directly traded cacao to the Gold plain origin chocolate medal winners. We will also look at giving awards, where there is a named source, back to the source as well in the finals.
CB: That would be really nice!
MC: These connections are really important. A good example is Piura in Peru, and Sainsbury’s have a Taste the Difference bar, which is actually quite good. Their origins are quite good. I think they are made by Bernrain. At the beginning of last year I was having dinner with the manager of one of the co-operatives in Piura, and we were tasting it. He was saying that he was sure there was a lot of Piura cacao in it. And it is £1.32 for 100g.
CB: That is so little.
MC: And he was talking about land he had. He had to make the decision about whether to plant more of their indigenous local cacao, where the Puira flavour comes from, or to plant CCN51, which is the high profitability hybrid that has been developed. He was saying that the farmers are getting no difference in price between the two. So what choice do you have? Do you plant the traditional stuff, which they want to? Or do you plant the high productivity stuff, which will probably deplete their soil after about 8 years. So it is not a good long-term bet. If they go ahead and plant CCN51 the soil will be exhausted, they will then have to plant palm or bananas or put it in some chemical regime, and we will have lost that cacao. The point is that if we don’t pay more we will lose that cacao.
CB: So the farmer will plant CCN51 instead of the other. They have to have a reason not to.
MC: There are a lot of farmers who have an element of pride and joy in what they produce. But number one they have to eat, and send their kids to school. That is an example of where this education hopes to affect the model. I am idealistic about it, but we need to at least try.