I’m excited! There’s a new chocolate maker in town. Well, in Australia. And this time, it looks like the real deal.
So what am I excited about? I’d better explain.
First: some terminology. Cocoa is used to make chocolate, but it comes from the Cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). I’ve seen an explanation for the difference in spelling being attributed to variously, non-standardised spellings until the publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, or to just plain spelling or clerical error somewhere between about 1650 and now. Whatever the cause, it seems fair to assume that the explanations are probably apocryphal. Here, I use Cacao to mean the tree, and Cocoa to refer to anything produced from the tree – this seems a fairly common usage.
Cacao trees grow in a tropical, hot, humid environment – hence coming from places like Central South America, Africa, and so on. The rough rule of thumb is “within 20 degrees of the Equator”. And that puts northern Australia into the regions that could grow Cacao. In particular, parts of northern Western Australian, Northern Territory and far north Queensland, provided the soil, rainfall and so on were suitable.
The various Australian State Government departments of agriculture have conducted a range of studies into Australian Cacao, in some cases going back to the 1960’s. In the late 1990’s the possibility of growing Australian Cacao became a lot more serious, when Cadbury Schweppes Australia and the various northern government departments of agriculture formed a steering committee to examine the feasibility of an Australian Cocoa industry.
The committee was not just limited to doing academic studies. Feasibility was examined by study tours of Cacao growing in other countries, as well finding trial sites, obtaining plants, doing trial plantings, examining yields, production methods, flavours, farm economics – you name it, it was considered. The project ran for around 8 years, and the various government departments have released one of the most comprehensive reports ever written (4Mb PDF link) about Cacao growing. Reading the report, I’ve learned a great deal – one of the most interesting topics being fermentation. I’ll leave that for interested readers to dig into more. Suffice it to day, the methods might come as a bit of a surprise.
Some of the trial sites mentioned in the report are no longer growing cacao, while others were destroyed in a cyclone. But some are still going – and in spite of various commercial intrigues there is a small industry just getting started at Mossman, far north Queensland. Whilst Cadbury Schweppes Australia may have had an initial involvement, this is no longer the case.
Based on the promising results from the trials mentioned in the report, several sugar cane growers started Cacao plantations in 2007, and in 2010 joined forces with a consortium of chocolatophiles to form Daintree Cocoa.
At less than 10,000 trees in total, the estates now established are very small by world standards. The growers are taking a gamble – especially knowing that so much of the processing must be by hand, and labour costs in Australia are high. The company has decided on a vertically integrated business; doing everything through growing, picking, pod splitting, fermenting the beans, drying, conching and chocolate making.
Some of this may sound familiar. We’ve heard before about an Australian chocolate company that was making grand claims about sourcing raw material in Australia, which later turned out not to be the case. We at Chocablog were caught in the crossfire of this little fight. To avoid being caught up in similar dubious claims, we’ve done quite a lot of fact checking. This time we seem to have the real deal.
This ambitious project has just taken its first few steps – they have actually made chocolate, with 100% Australian grown Cacao and sugar from the Mossman Central sugar mill. Currently, the beans are processed to the nibs stage in Queensland, then sent to Melbourne for making into chocolate. This arrangement will soon change, with chocolate making equipment on its way to Mossman, where the whole process from tree to blocks of chocolate will be performed locally.
The first commercial batch has just been made, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have received a sample. A proper product launch is expected in October/November 2011 – so we’re fortunate in having a sneak preview.
Commercial chocolate is just like commercial winemaking – great care and attention is paid to sourcing, processing, and blending to get a consistent flavour from batch to batch and year to year. The big makers have their house flavour, and if they deviate too much customers may be surprised or disappointed and might stop purchasing the product. If, like me, you are fortunate enough to live in a region where lots of grapes are grown and wine is made, then an interesting weekend can be spent touring a wine region and tasting the products of the smaller winemakers. Why the smaller? Because with the large makers you know what you will get, and you can pick it up in your bottle shop or supermarket any time. The smaller makers have variety, curiosity, interest, and a high likelihood that nothing from one year to the next will be the same. The vagaries of nature mean you can always find something interesting which will be hard to find anywhere else. And different is good!
So this is the plan for Queensland / Mossman chocolate – single estate origin chocolate will vary between the growing sites, and will vary from year to year. If you want consistency, go to the supermarket. Single estate origin will be interesting, curious, and challenging – so we have an interesting time coming. If the growers can pull this off then there will be chocolate tourists heading to Queensland the way that wine enthusiasts visit the Barossa Valley. Even if it all ends up blended, Australian chocolate will be different to what you will get from other countries. And we can be sure that while the industry is small, there will be variation from year to year.
After all this explanation and build-up – what’s it like?
Firstly – my samples arrived in a post bag, and opening it gives a very pleasant, slightly earthy aroma. Clearly, the bag has chocolate in, but the aroma is has an unusual richness and complexity. It’s hard to describe but imagine a mix vaguely like dark cherries, stewed apricots and brown sugar and you might be getting close.
There are two chocolates: a milk, and a dark.
The milk is 45% cocoa solids and has quite a rich and creamy aroma. Creamy is surprising, and not something I think you can normally smell – but that’s the only way to describe this. The flavour comes in layers, starting very mild and building in complexity – there’s quite a hit of caramel, and it is hard to know if this comes from the cocoa content or the sugar. Because I’m a dark side dweller I’m a harsh critic of milk chocolate, but this I like. It’s a little unusual and I’d happily eat quite a lot of it.
The dark has a closed aroma – you have to work to sniff anything out of it. Nor does it have the same caramel flavour as the milk. This is mild, subtle, sweet, and very very smooth. If I did not know better, I would never have picked this as a 70%, it is however absolutely delicious and by the time a single little sample square is gone I’m ready to open another. Sometimes comparisons help: a Lindt 70% is stronger and more intense in flavour; the readily available Green & Blacks 70% by comparison is huge, big, sharp, and almost prickly. Imagine being caressed by silk handkerchief on a cool spring day.. and compare that hitting your thumb with a hammer. That’s the kind of difference.
This is a very easy eating chocolate and I could scoff it down all day.