Fine chocolate is one of Utah’s secrets—along with powder snow, great microbrews and a vibrant gay culture. But, it’s time to let the cat out of the reusable shopping bag. Forget what you’ve heard about Utah’s low-brow sweet tooth—Salt Lake City is all about making and appreciating exceptional chocolate.
Amano Chocolate of Orem was the first local chocolate-maker to hit the big time. Founded in 2006 by Art Pollard and Clark Goble, within three years it was named one of the top eight bean-to-bar chocolate companies in the world by Martin Christy, founder of both SeventyPercent.com and the Academy of Chocolate. Before it burst onto the American fine-chocolate scene, Amano Chocolate debuted on Caputo Market’s shelves in downtown SLC.
Founding chocolate artisan Pollard is a bit of savant when it comes to beans and sourcing. His were the first American-made bars to be taken seriously, outranking (and ruffling the feathers of) French, Belgian and Italian powerhouses in competitions. It’s because of that single-minded dedication that Pollard has produced some of the most talked about bars in the chocolate world, including Dos Rios (Dominican Republic beans)–a chocolate taste that hits the tongue with blueberries and cream, some woodsy spices, and a wallop of white blossoms like honeysuckle. He just says, “Utah always has had an affinity for chocolate. When we started we were the only bean-to-bar company but now there’s a couple new small ones. We’re honored to be the ones who paved the way.”
Now, Utah also has Mill Creek Cacao, coffee roaster turned cacao roaster; The Chocolate Conspiracy, makers of organic raw chocolate; Mezzo Chocolate, which takes it from beans to brew, and, most recently, Solstice Chocolate, a single-origin producer. To celebrate these and fine international chocolate, Caputo’s hosts a Chocolate Festival every year, inviting local pastry chefs to dream up desserts inspired by chocolate.
But we’re not talking Mars Bars here.
Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate
What’s the diff?
“Chocolate” on the label doesn’t always mean chocolate–one of the major points of enlightenment on the road to becoming a chocolate snob. The snob’s term for what we grew up thinking was chocolate is “mockolate,” meaning candy products made with cocoa solids, but no cocoa butter. Instead, this stuff is made with vegetable oil or some other fat. Legally, it can’t even be called “chocolate;” it has to be labeled “chocolate candy.” When a cacao bean is crushed, the butter and solids are separated. In fine chocolate, they’re mixed back together, along with sugar and vanilla. And even though you may like the flavor of mockolate just fine, remember it doesn’t have any of the health properties associated with true theobroma.
Genuine fine chocolate is made with cocoa solids and cocoa butter from beans from a single country, district or even farm. Depending on its origin and who makes it, the same high-quality bean can yield vastly different flavors.
Yes, we’re talking terroir, a concept fundamental to the wine business and equally important to chocolate.
One of the growing concerns of fine chocolatiers is the chocolate plant itself. As the Fine Chocolate Industry Association says on its website, “The best tasting chocolates in the world are poised for extinction.” Their point is, growers are removing and replacing rare cacao trees with higher-yielding, disease resistant but less flavorful hybrids. When he first started Amano, Pollard says, “Bad cocoa was everywhere. But there was great cacao to be had–fine quality stuff. To get it and use it you had to pay way more than even fair trade and have a personal relationship with the farmers. We always try to have that personal relationship and to be involved. Most of these farmers who make great cacao have never tasted the final product, so I make it a point to bring the finished bar to these producers and have them taste it.”
Pollard recalls, “After working side by side all day with these farmers, I had a bunch gathered and I had them taste the Amano Cuyagua farm. One crusty old farmer came up and told me one of the most profound things. He said, ‘This chocolate is like a river–the flavor of the chocolate goes on and on, it take you to all these wild and wonderful places.’”
The chocolate makers transform the raw beans into gorgeous bars through tricks of science, sweat and possibly, alchemy. It’s usually dark (no milk products, 50-100 percent cocoa), but never bitter. The texture is usually fine (with some exceptions, especially among raw chocolate makers). The chocolate section at Caputo’s Market dazzles emerging chocolate snobs and is a key source for established ones. It’s also the headquarters from which Matt Caputo conducts chocolate-tasting classes and hosts meetings for the Chocolate Society. Here, you can browse, taste and be bowled over by the flavor of something as simple as ground cocoa beans, sugar and vanilla. The young staff is freakishly knowledgeable. Caputo has curated one of the foremost fine chocolate selections in the world according to his peers, i.e. national chocolate experts and the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade which cited Caputo’s chocolate as one of the reasons they named the store one of its “Outstanding Retailers” in 2009.
Utah is also forging ahead in another category: drinking chocolate. Topher and Shannon Webb of Mezzo Chocolate have created a luscious, rich drinking chocolate that puts the insipid instant stuff to shame. Their secret: They make shavings from single-origin bars they’ve crafted themselves. The result is drinking chocolate that is as interesting and fruity as a well-made Spanish Rioja wine.
Like other fresh foods, chocolate has a season, and we are in the middle of it. Granted, the season doesn’t have to do with Mother Nature. It’s determined by human appetite and the mail. From Halloween through Easter is chocolate season, from cool to cool. When the weather warms, chocolate melts quickly and quality is compromised. Of course, the zenith of chocolate season is February 14.