August 14, 2012
It was an honour and a pleasure to sit down with the international taste expert and Grand Jury member of the International Chocolate Awards.
Cat Black: First, can you tell me a little bit about your professional background.
Monica Meschini: Before I explain my professional background I think it is important to explain my life. I was born in Rome, and two fantastic people adopted me at three days old. My adopted Granny is a really good cook. Everything was homemade and came from the countryside. She had a really fantastic palate, and was a really wonderful, very traditional cook. She taught me to smell, to sniff, to touch, to have a direct relationship with food and drink. When I was four years old I was mixing dough for bread, I made pasta, I cooked everything with her.
CB: So right from the beginning, food was completely natural to you.
MM: Absolutely. We had no money at all, but the best food that I could have. That was the priority for my Nanny. And when we cooked together she would ask me; “What is this inside? Please tell me what is in this, without tasting it.” So I sniffed, and I could recognise if there was sea salt, or black pepper. At four years old!
CB: What was a gift she gave you!
MM: Yes. She was a very simple woman, but she compared my gift to the piano playing that she heard in the big house next to the little one where we lived. She felt that it was like perfect pitch in music only with my palate. I didn’t understand at that age what she meant, but later I did. For this reason my first wish is to teach children, they are our angels. I teach children from the age of three, and they have completely pure palates. They naturally close their eyes to taste better naturally.
CB: You can recognise something of yourself in them.
MM: Exactly! Then at 19 years old, so 33 years ago, I decided to do my first sommelier course. I come from Tuscany, the food is very simple, but wine is everywhere, So I was the first woman in Tuscany, and one of the first in Italy, to have a professional qualification in wine.
CB: That is anyhow rare for a woman.
MM: 33 years ago, very much so, now there are more than men. So I learnt to catalogue and categorise tastes very precisely. At that point I worked in an office most of the time. But I had my summer holidays to work in wine, or to come to London to work in restaurants and learn about ethnic food, especially Indian.
CB: You told me that you had worked in two different Indian restaurants in London.
MM: Yes, only to help in the kitchen, one is really famous, the other one less so, but very important for my experience. Very important for me too was Pat Chapman at The Curry Club. I really got to understand many other herbs and spices and kitchen techniques than those we use in Italy. And my mind was opened. I can say a big thanks to London.
CB: It is very unusual for an Italian girl from a simple background to be travelling to London.
MM: It was my dream to come to London. I don’t know why. Someone said to me that I am adopted, and I am probably not totally Italian?
CB: Because you have these wonderful blue eyes? That is not typically Italian.
MM: The person who had me, whom I cannot call mother (I cannot give the name of mother to someone who gave up a little infant in that way), her husband worked in the foreign affairs ministry. So I think my biological father may not have been Italian.
CB: And also, maybe I am wrong, but there is something about being adopted that can give a person a searching mentality. You are searching for something, even if you are very settled and happy with your adoptive parents, there is an idea that there are things out there in the world that might connect to you.
MM: Yes, probably. But I can’t go looking for my biological parents because I know exactly who I am. So I went around, to London, but also to Spain, New York and Paris and did the same. I am not the best chef, only someone that at the beginning washed the dishes!
CB: But with curiosity and enthusiasm, learning and tasting.
MM: Absolutely. I can smell anything. Just as I arrive I can smell the smoked herrings twenty kilometres before I get to them. I am very lucky, because I could not and did not study for that. I have a natural talent, and I have followed it. Thanks to London, to my experience, and to my grandmother especially, because my mother and my father were not like that.
CB: It was your grandmother who drove and prioritised that for you.
MM: Absolutely. Sometimes she would blindfold me and put something under my nose and ask me what it was. Because children, like adults, are distracted by what they can see. We are disabled by it, it distracts us.
CB: So then what was the catalyst to make you particularly involved in chocolate?
MM: That is interesting because I don’t really like sweet things. Before I explain I also need to say that I did other tasting courses, in olive oil and cheese, and also water. I am a water taster, because I am also a tea taster, and I must know what water is used first. So I continued with that, but in 1995, for just 3 days, someone organised, in Perugia, in Italy, a weekend about chocolate, called Cioccolatomania. I visited this, and at my first tasting session I met M Robert Linxe of La Maison du Chocolat, the best chocolatier in the world. And also Paul de Bondt, who was just beginning that year, and Cecilia Iacobelli, and Chantal Coady. Valrhona chocolate started for the first time in Italy at that time. It gave me food for thought. Until then I hadn’t found chocolate yummy, but now I knew why. Because I can’t eat something that is rubbish, and, with some rare exceptions mass market chocolate is rubbish.
CB: So it hadn’t been good enough to interest you.
MM: Yes, or to make me curious about it. So at that time I discovered another world of chocolate. A year later I went to the event in its second year, which was a bigger event. And that year we founded the Compania del Cioccolato. It was like a club for gourmet chocolate lovers. I was one of the first associated with it, and within six months there were more than a thousand of us. I became a director straightaway and was very involved, even becoming the president for a time. In the meantime we also formed The Italian Tea Club. Chocolate is fantastic, but tea is my real passion. I am English I think, or Indian, or maybe Chinese! But I am an Italian that cannot drink coffee at all. I can smell, I can taste, I can tell you if it is no good, but I don’t like it. During that time chocolate was undergoing a big evolution. It was not so trendy then, it was only the beginning.
CB: Yes it was the beginning. Since then what have you seen happen in chocolate?
MM: It is incredible, because at that period people only ate milk chocolate. I discovered why later, because the dark chocolate was horrible. Very often it was made from modified beans(likeCCN51 beans), which are too bitter. They are used to make it easy to produce in bulk.
CB: In the UK everybody also ate milk chocolate because dark was too bitter, the beans tasted burnt.
MM: Do you know why the beans were burnt? Because if there is a defect in cocoa beans, mould, or some strange flavour, it is covered by over-roasting. People do the same with coffee. Chocolate should look a similar colour to the beans used, apart from criollo which is white. Not that dark, black burnt colour. But even from some of the nice companies, with great marketing, you end up buying and tasting charcoal, sugar and marketing, for a high price. So it is very important that colour is the first thing to consider in dark chocolate.
CB: When I was a child I used to go to France where I had family, and I could buy bars that were better. They weren’t what we are tasting now, but they were better than what I found in the UK. I would line them up and look at them and taste them against each other.
MM: For comparison. In Italy there is a company called Domori, who had the great idea to make all their bars the same percentage, the same sugar, but different cocoa beans. They are all 70% and I think it is a fantastic idea as it allows for a direct comparison, more so than if you have five (same beans) Madagascan chocolates, one 75%, one 60% etc. You cannot understand really from that the peculiarity of Madagascan cocoa beans and chocolate.
CB: I think that is really important. But I also think that the media, certainly in the UK, took up the idea of 70% and ran with it in a slightly irrelevant way. So the story went that if something was 70% it was good.
MM: And of course 70% can be good and can be horrible. Because if you haven’t processed the beans the correct way, from plantation to chocolate bar, you have rubbish, 70% rubbish. But also people prefer blends, because the blend maker in the company balances bitterness and acidity.
CB: They get rid of anything that is a bit awkward.
MM: And yet with every different type of bean there are two harvests, even in the same plantation, and you can have wind, or rain or hurricane, something can change, it is an agricultural product. So the results with always have differences.
CB: But chocolate is something in which people have not wanted diversity, unlike in wine, where they are very preoccupied with it.
MM: People prefer the blends because they are very balanced. In Italy we have a word ‘ruffiano’, liked by everyone.
CB: We would say crowd pleasing.
MM: I like to discover something surprising in a bar. Like Dos Rios by Amano, a chocolate from the Dominican Republic, which smells and tastes exactly like violet. Violet that I can recognise immediately, and yet it is not there, and fantastic bergamot that is not there. Children are wonderful at this, at finding things. When I have a classroom of children I ask them if they remember Ratatouille, you know the movie with the little mouse.
CB: As you have been talking I have been thinking about that film.
MM: I am Ratatouille I think!
CB: Yes that character is so like you. Driven by your palate and sense of smell.
Because cocoa is an organic product, subject to changing harvests, and beans differ so much, it is crucial to take real care to be true to bean. I was talking to Maricel (Presilla, fellow Grand Jury member of the International Chocolate Awards) who knows so much about this. The whole issue of difference, between types, between years, between harvests, between locations, is going to be something that is desired and examined, hopefully.
MM: Exactly. You know that Martin (Christy, co-founder of The International Chocolate Awards) decided to organise a non-profit company called Direct Cacao.
CB: Yes I have read about it and he has told me about it. It is an organisation aiming to facilitate chocolate experts in informing and supporting directly sourced cacao and its farmers.
MM: Direct Cacao is so important, because now, finally, we are making direct contact with the farmers. And we can consult them, and help guide cocoa bean production to make things better, in the future. Because at present most people in growing countries don’t eat chocolate.
CB: They don’t eat it so they don’t know what to do.
MM: They can’t understand that it is very poor. Sometimes it is also said that it is horrible that children work in plantations. I think it is horrible, but if they aren’t working in the plantations where to they have to go? Some of the alternatives are far worse? It is another world, and we cannot say if we don’t live there.
CB: No, it isn’t right for us sitting here in comfort to pass judgement.
MM: So, I decided to discover cocoa. Because I could imagine that we could do more and go further. Because if I can taste a defect I must say to the people how they can correct it. And for ten years I was the director of the best chocolate festival in the world. And I met all the best chocolatiers and chocolate makers from all over the world, the Europeans and Americans, who were all really friendly. I think we are richer now in every sense.
CB: Do you think that it is only going to get continue? There are far more small makers now, particular in America it seems.
MM: Yes, it is wonderful! But very often they are really squeezed by big companies, it is very difficult for them to survive. Things like this (The International Chocolate Awards) are really important for that. And it is important that we involve the Embassies of producer countries too. And in Italy, about every two years, I hold a chocolate Masterclass for chocolate tasters. That is very important because we prepare people to do tasting like this. You have a natural palate, you are lucky, but most food journalists or a food bloggers don’t understand at all. They speak and speak about this world, but they don’t know, they don’t cook.
CB: For me it has been a surprise and a pleasure. I am a writer, but food has also been with me my whole life. So it was entirely natural to write about food. But this, finding that I had a palate that might be of equal use, that is a huge discovery and a pleasure.
Speaking of discoveries, you have had so many on your journey, tell me about some of them.
MM: I have also discovered some bad things. For example, when I was in Africa, and in some countries in Latin America, when I looked into the empty fermentation boxes there had not only been cocoa beans inside (I prefer not to say exactly what else I found in there).
CB: Oh no!
MM: And cocoa beans have cocoa butter inside, which absorbs everything, like eggs in the fridge. Then I understood why normally (but we have friends that produce in this way very well) you can’t always have raw chocolate, because it is very important that you cook those beans! So that was one discovery!
But I also discovered also like Madagascan and Venezuelan chocolate are basically the best and my favourite. And sometimes I discovered little situations that surprised me. For example in Tobago, which is not the best in our minds, but suddenly there were some floral notes in the chocolate! It was a very small producer. Almost all cocoa is processed into chocolate in Europe or the United States. So, there is a gap. So in that case I discovered something really wonderful. Very often these are little situations that survive very difficult circumstances.
One of my greatest discoveries was in the Dominican Republic, where there were two plantations, just one kilometer apart, but one was 200 meters above sea level. The same producer, the same farmer, the same cocoa beans, everything was the same, right up to the chocolate bar. They tasted completely different. One was very light, perfumed, full flavoured and fruity. The other one had tobacco, wood and coffee notes. That almost seemed impossible.
CB: The only difference was that altitude! That is a real discovery, how fabulous. Then you see the capability of that cocoa.
So, this is the first year of the International Chocolate Awards, there will have been heats in various countries and then the Grand Final in the UK in October. What do you think the International Chocolate Awards is going to do next?
MM: I think a lot more countries will participate in the future. It will be a lot of work for us! Because at this moment we give everything for nothing, only to help the chocolate makers. I think next year we will have double the number of participants, or triple, which is fantastic. And we need to ensure we balance the palate of the Grand Jury and of the judging too. The judging pack is very descriptive for that reason.
CB: Yes I read mine very carefully.
MM: You know one thing that I forgot completely. After the festival in Perugia I decided to open the first Chocolate Bar in Italy. It was called Hemingway, it was tiny but a really nice place. I had Domori chocolate, which was crazy because at that time people didn’t understand at all. But I opened that bar with a mission. And I had a lot of nice customers, who did understand. I would melt my blend of Domori chocolate in milk for a cup of hot chocolate. But people would ask, can I have cream please? Because normally in Italy you have cocoa powder, sugar, water, and you need often fat to round it out, so they add cream. But I said no cream here, you have milk and there is cocoa butter in it. People thought I was completely crazy, thought they wanted cream. Later they would tell me I was right, it was complete, it didn’t need more. Or people would come to ask for chocolate cake, and a cup of hot chocolate, and a lot of things. I would say no, just one thing, and water. Then they could decide if they wanted more. Again people thanked me later. I didn’t just want business. I wanted to teach about chocolate, and about tea of course. It was very nice, the best place in Italy, I think. And it was unique, because now it is in the hands of other people.
CB: And it is different because they didn’t fully understand?
MM: They couldn’t. I am not a rich woman, but I couldn’t just run it as a business and make money, I needed to be satisfied first.
CB: You are amazing, you have made yourself a citizen of the world, despite your very simple background.
MM: Yes, and I am really proud, and also really lucky, because I followed a path that was set for me by my Granny. Who knows, if I had had my original family, I might have missed my real work.
CB: What other plans do you have for the future?
MM: My dream is to open another Hemingway, but not the same, bigger. A colonial style place for tea, chocolate and coffee at a really high level, a mixture of museum, school and coffee bar. Where people can see the best chocolatemaker or chocolatier from Italy and all over the world come and talk about chocolate and taste. What a wonderful place! I had the idea 25 years ago, with Hemingway too. But sometimes in life you have partners in a project that aren’t right to continue with. And when the dream becomes a nightmare, you need to stop. But that is still my long term dream. In the meantime I want to help the poorer countries to connect to those that can help, big companies, but ones that are fair. Really fair! Fairtrade is not always enough. To make connections, because then everyone is richer, not only in money. With these connections I think the world can be better.
CB: Finally, what is your desert island chocolate?
MM: Seriously Madagascan, and I think Domori. I am Italian! Domori Sambirano 70% when it is one of the best harvests. Valrhona Manjari is from the same place. Or it can be Domori Guasare from Venezuela if I go to the desert island before September. Because it doesn’t come out again until the end of September, so I would have it before anyone else, so that would be nice.