April 26, 2016
Glorious packaging encases bars from The Chocolate Tree - a bean to bar maker in Scotland that you will want to know about.
I first met Ali and Friederike, chocolate makers behind The Chocolate Tree, at Chocolate Unwrapped in London in 2012. Already chocolatiers, with a stand at the event, they were embarking on a journey to make chocolate themselves from the bean. The lovely thing about the event, and The Chocolate Show London that has grown out of it, is it is a great chance to meet other makers and talk, and through talking learn and gain support. I was impressed at the time by their passion and desire to grow as chocolate makers. I have been more impressed since by all I have tasted. Most recently five new bars that are a glorious group of things to try – more of which below. But first, I have finally got round to bringing the story of The Chocolate Tree, how it began, and what they are up to.
Here is my interview with Ali:
Tell me about your lives before chocolate.
Friederike and I met as performers in a pagan fire festival, we were doing acrobatics, mostly naked and swinging fiery torches about.
When and why did you decide to start making chocolate?
In 2005 we hand built a geo-desic dome tent to take to music festivals. We decided it would be a great venture to use the geo-dome as a chocolate orientated café – a travelling chocolaterie of sorts. It was very successful, and hugely rewarding to make people happy, which we seemed to do very well, so we became highly motivated to do more.
Tell me a bit about how you make your chocolate?
What I didn’t mention is Friederike is a highly gifted mathematician, which was what she was studying before I distracted her. She applies her numbers and patterns to almost everything we do, she’s completely obsessive about detail and it drives me crazy sometimes but I love her for it. My own approach is much more intuitive and playful, I’m the one with an arts degree. We make chocolate by combining these different approaches.
So we source our beans directly where possible, and with full traceability otherwise. We choose premium heritage beans which have good flavoursome genetics, and whose agriculture impacts the local biodiversity in a positive way, organic if possible. We don’t limit ourselves to certified beans though. Sourcing is a great passion for us, we love to travel to the plantations when we have established trade and we have the time and funds.
We make our chocolate in small batches of less than 100kg, each one varies slightly as we are always tinkering with our methods and recipes. Our aim is simply to make the best chocolate we can and share it with others. Along with a great team of people that make it all happen, we rely on some great machinery which we love dearly. Almost every piece of equipment has a name in our factory, the latest is Victoria, an absolutely gorgeous melangeur from Russia.
We don’t make all of our products using bean to bar chocolate, we also use Belcolade, a Belgian organic couverture. Identifying the different ranges is easy, the bean to bar is distinctive in its colourful and detailed packaging, and the couverture range is a different shape with a more down to earth design. I hope if there is one thing that the recent Mast Brothers scandal taught the food industry it’s the importance of being honest with customers. Although we work with both couverture and make our own chocolate from bean we wouldn’t confuse the two. In fact sales of our couverture range are what make it possible to venture into the risky business of making chocolate from bean to bar.
It is a growing trend to be making bean-to-bar, but still a small band of artisans. It must have been a steep learning curve for you. What have been some of your greatest discoveries?
Yes, it certainly is a steep learning curve. I find the whole thing incredibly exciting though, and can easily get swept away with trying to figure out the science behind making chocolate. There are so many contradictions and methods that don’t immediately make sense. For instance today we were discussing how reduced moisture in the beans leads to a more liquid chocolate… There are so very many variables in the process and different approaches that can be used. We have visited a few different chocolate makers and what’s clear is that everyone has their own methods and opposing opinions can often be validated through science that makes sense. In the end the subjective experience of taste is the benchmark we use to decide if we are doing something right, or not.
How have you seen consumer and food professional attitudes change towards fine chocolate since you started?
Slowly, but surely. Chocolate should be a luxury food, enjoyed in small doses of high quality, it has been returning to that status for several years with a growing momentum.
I have sympathy for the consumers, the majority of us have just been getting used to this idea of pulling a few more coins from our purse in return for what is considered to be fine chocolate, and now bean to bar craft chocolate makers are on the scene asking them to spend considerably more. Over a fiver a bar! I can understand why that is perhaps shocking at first, but I bet it wasn’t too different when fancy vintage wines started coming on the market, and now we don’t think twice about them. The problem is unlike wine chocolate doesn’t get us drunk. Most chocolate makers truly justify a high price tag once you look at how expensive it is for them to make their product.
I think food professionals are becoming aware of how much diversity there is in the world of chocolate. Chefs, for the most part, still consider chocolate to be an after-thought compared to most of their ingredients. However there are a few good ones with an eye on the ball who realise by spending a bit more on really good couverture they can key into using the stories of the maker and premium quality to add value to and promote their own businesses.
How do you think the chocolate market is going to develop going forward?
The good news is the ‘bean to bar’ movement is getting a lot more press in the UK now, and is becoming more common place on the shelves of independent retailers and high end department stores. It’s taken off like wildfire in America and much like craft beer I think we will continue to see the trend for bean to bar / craft chocolate grow in the UK. People are getting used to the idea that good chocolate costs more, and really good chocolate costs a lot more. I think the consumers demand for clearer explanation of food provenance is a great thing, and although there will always be exceptions I believe that most small businesses making chocolate are doing it for the right reasons. Usually they are not very profit orientated, if they were they would be doing something else.
Have you always been foodies?
Absolutely. I have always found it really strange as to why anyone would not take food really to heart, we can have so much enjoyment from food. It is about much more than sustenance. Friederike has been baking since she was smaller than the oven, it’s very much in her nature to create wonderful bakes and confectionary for people and she’s always been exceptionally good at it.
Have your palates and feelings about chocolate changed since you started?
Of course our palates have developed enormously, we are pretty good now at tasting chocolate and knowing some of the finer details about it, and what may cause it to taste the way it does. We eat chocolate pretty much every day, at work and for pleasure. My feelings about it, although they are more informed, remain much the same as they always have. It is an ancient and culturally rich food with an interesting and complex history. It comes from distant and remote tropical places which make we want to go on an adventure. It’s a food with massive sex appeal, just the aroma of good chocolate makes our endorphins swoon around, eating it is has always been intensely pleasurable.
What is coming next for The Chocolate Tree? What plans do you have for the chocolate and for your business?
Well, the goal is to make all of our chocolate from bean in the future. We want to grow, but not in a James Bond villain kind of a way which seems to be the norm for most profit orientated businesses. We basically just want to keep making amazing chocolate, keep making people happy, keep trying to support agriculture that benefits and doesn’t deplete the environment and to keep working towards better profits for the people who grow cacao. I would like to see better links between their world and ours in the future. There is no good reason the world should be so full of inequality.
What are your own personal desert island chocolates?
If I could have a regular delivery to my island of a cocoa runners subscription box that would be awesome. I may never wish to leave if that was the case. Assuming that’s out of the question, my current favorites are…
- 1. Dandelion Chocolate – Madagascar 70%
- 2. Domori – Porcelana 70%
- 3. Chocolate Tree – Madagsacar 70%
- 4. Chocolate Tree – Peru 69%
- 5. Marou – Heart of Darkness 85%
So what of those new chocolates? This group of five above are The Chocolate Tree’s latest creations.
A 40% white chocolate with raspberry and bergamot, does a good job of balancing flavours to make the most of the caramel notes of a fine white chocolate. The acidity of raspberry brings essential acidity to the party, offsetting the inevitable sweetness, and the bergamot brings a nice aromatic hint that adds depth and interest.
Chai spice combines with a 60% Pure Nacional dark milk chocolate to produce a comforting flavour combination. The gingerbread quality of the spices, along with the caramel notes in the chocolate and the slight crunch of sugar crystals, create texture and flavours reminiscent of a speculoos biscuit.
A 70% plain dark bar of Columbian cacao from the Huila region has lots of nice fruit notes. But this isn’t zingy with fruit like a Madagascan cacao, rather we have plums and prunes. There is a cocoa-rich aftertaste, which adds up to earthiness and fruit in a good balanced combination.
The orange and amaretti bar makes perfect sense on tasting. Orange and chocolate is a classic mix, but here it does much more the bitter almond notes of the almond biscuit adds to the orange to create marmalade flavours. The crunch of the biscuit then feels like a textural reference to toast. The fruit, caramel and cocoa notes of the Madagascan chocolate amp up the fruit, caramel and toasted flavours of the toast and marmalade idea. I loved this!
Last, but very far from least, a bar that marries The Chocolate Tree’s home in Scotland with the far off lands of their chosen medium, combining whisky with cacao. A 70% bar of South American cacao is given crunch and a glorious warmth with the inclusion of nibs from the same cacao infused with a deeply peaty whisky. A happy combination indeed!