Terroir and Chocolate-Just a Bunch of Bananas?
Posted by Jeff Stern on June 12, 2017
I taste a lot of chocolate that comes my way. I also used to do tastings regularly several times a month for clients or tourists who came in to our shop when we lived in Ecuador. We regularly tasted the same chocolates, so it´s easy to tell if the same products really taste the same every time.
They often don´t.
And, there are some products so terrible or so contaminated, I usually skip over them after a few tastings.
And, knowing how much of Ecuador and other cacao producing countries operate in the field and factory (sometimes without strict quality or technical controls in chocolate production) there are occasionally serious contamination or quality control problems. And that can also be said to be true for some producers in the US too!
Mistakenly, I think some people will believe certain flavors exist because of certain components that define “terroir.” Sure, soil, climate, and cacao varietal of course do influence flavor.
Post-harvest treatment and fermentation, and the processing including roast temperature and time, grinding technology, and conching technology also play a large part in flavor development. So how much does terroir, and more specifically the types of plants occasionally found growing alongside cacao, influence its flavor?
Just How Much Flavor is from Terroir?
Maybe this idea is taken too far. I don’t believe that because mangoes, or bananas, or citrus is growing nearby, the chocolate produced from those beans is going to have hints of those flavors. That’s just a major stretch, one I’m not willing to accept. Additionally, do we have any way of really knowing these crops are growing close to the cacao that made the chocolate we're eating? Most cacao is produced by small growers, and there can be major variation of crops growing near their cacao plants-from none to many, including cassava and other non-fruit tropical crops. Have you ever heard anyone say this chocolate tastes like cassava aka yuca?
I’ve got a particular chocolate, an Ecuadorian one. I’ve tasted the bar on several occasions. I’ve pointed out to clients, after the fact, the strong banana overtones in the bar. And they have always agreed. There’s just no way there’s that much banana flavor in the bar naturally.
The same company produces a chocolate-covered dehydrated banana. Maybe it’s a panned item, I’m not sure how they produce it. But the only way I can see why the chocolate tastes so much like banana is because of cross-contamination going on.
A Case of The Blind Leading the Blind
Unfortunately, the uninformed consumer in the US or Europe or elsewhere usually just takes it for granted-oh WOW! banana flavors, that the bar must have come from cacao beans grown where bananas are growing. Copy from the company’s website or other reviewers’ comments may support this idea.
Suggestion is a powerful motivator!
So we have the blind leading the blind. Or rather, blind information supporting the assertions of others who are equally misinformed. And we get not only a series of false assertions about a particular chocolate, but a whole standard narrative that is wrong. This narrative begin based on erroneous information because of perhaps lack of quality controls or cross-contamination in an unknown factory somewhere in on the planet!
Now, I admit my assertions are somewhat speculative, since I don’t have all the facts. But I have a lot of them. If you want to argue with me, come on in and try this particular chocolate I’m talking about, and then we can talk some more. Leave a comment and I'll be glad to talk to you!
For more interesting reading, back in the very early days of the single origin movement the NY Times wrote up this piece-fascinating stuff!