A product review blog primarily focusing on food + drink that is organic, sustainable, wild-harvested, ethical, or otherwise well-produced.

Tag: craft chocolate

Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat

marou-chocolate-craft-bean-to-bar

We first encountered Marou by chance while wandering around the small specialty shop Chelsea Market Baskets in NYC. Its ornate packaging helped it stand out amongst the store’s particularly large (and better than normal) chocolate selection, and their regional hyper-specificity piqued our curiosity. Being modest, we started with just the Bà Rịa bar, and as always, hoped for the best.

It delivered in shocking spades. We had had our fair share of craft chocolates, many of them single origin, but there was something understatedly yet vastly different about Marou. For a year since, we’ve looked forward to sampling a broader selection of their original series. Still with the taste of the Bà Rịa bar in our memories, we knew this was going to be an important tasting.

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With so many craft chocolatiers cropping up these days, it seems necessary that we go into a bit more detail regarding Marou.

Marou is a Vietnamese bean-to-bar chocolate company, based in Saigon, started by two Frenchmen named Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou (the name Marou coming from MA-ruta + Mou-ROU). Unlike the majority of origin bar series (which are now so popular they practically make up an entire subset of the craft chocolate scene) that are differentiated by country (e.g. Belize, Ecuador, Samoa), Marou’s bars – not just their cacao fruit but their sugar cane as well – all come from within the single country of Vietnam, specifically Southern Vietnam, and are further subcategorized by their respective provinces.

They work directly with small family farms who not only harvest, but also dry and ferment the beans* they cultivate, so that a firm division is established between the growers and the chocolatiers (this is a relationship we have yet to see disrupted on any sort of large scale in the chocolate world. Even Cacao Prieto, who own the farm that grows their fruit, still have it shipped up to their Red Hook, NY factory for production). Though Marou specifically addresses matters of ‘fair trade’ (they pay the cacao farmers well and maintain close relations with them), and the generally biodynamic approach of their growers, there are just enough informational gaps in regards to farming practices that we’re left frustrated.

Much cacao that goes into ‘bean-to-bar’ or craft chocolates is organic, if not in certification, then in practice. Most cacao-growing regions don’t have to force their fruits to excel, so generally little outside help is needed in producing quality material. Additionally, cacao trees prefer to grow in the shade of other trees, which encourages biodynamic farming practices in lieu of the more common monocropping which so dramatically disrupts natural ecosystems. In keeping with this pattern, the source fruits that become Marou’s bars are grown with minimal intervention or fertilization, however some of the farmers may on occasion employ unspecified sprays** to defend against aphids and other invaders – the only definite exception to this being the cacao grown in Tiền Giang.

We recently had the opportunity to talk more with Marou directly, and Samuel had this to say regarding the farming practices of their growers:

“On the farms that we visit regularly we’ve never seen any farmer spray any pesticides on the cacao trees; of course we have no way to know for sure whether all other farmers that provide pods to our fermenters are the same, but based on 5 years on the ground buying cacao we’re pretty sure that the cacao we use is not sprayed with toxic stuff.”

As for the bars themselves, all are wrapped in a coloured paper corresponding to the colour of the fruit from which it’s made. Though they have explicitly talked about using Trinitario cacao (a sort-of messy hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, and in this case red in colour) in their Bà Rịa bar, nowhere else had we seen or heard mention in regards to the rest of the line. We were confused. If they’re so touting terroir, and if the bars are all in fact Trinitario, wouldn’t disclosing this information further support their thesis?

Samuel had this to say:

“Trinitario is not so much a variety as a loose definition of varieties that are hybrids of Forastero and other cacao varieties. Cacao trees in Vietnam come by way of Malaysian hybrids that were selected a couple decades ago and introduced by the Nong Lam Agricultural college in HCMC. Most of them are labelled Trinitario but more precisely they bear technical names like TD2, TD5, TD18…, that’s before farmers do their own crossbreeding, grafting, etc…

Unlike a French wine farmer that will plant a whole field with say Cabernet Franc and another with Sauvignon Blanc, the various cacao hybrids are usually planted together haphazardly by Vietnamese farmers, which makes good sense to avoid diseases (clones of the same hybrid tend to succumb to the same pests / diseases en masse), but is less than ideal to control what goes into a specific cacao harvest.

So to answer your question: we don’t give more precise variety indications because the information is not really available in a meaningful way. A typical heap of cacao pods at the farm presents a variety of shapes and colours betraying the fact that it comes from a number of different varietals.”

Additionally in this article you can hear from Marou their thoughts concerning chocolate and terroir (which is of course critical to their practice, seeing as the geography of each bar is taken to be such a defining feature of each), and take from it what you will. There they talk about their belief (one we share with them) that both the variety of cacao and its growing location play heavily in determining the bars’ characteristics. How this is even a contested matter at this point is beyond us. To think that soil conditions among other things wouldn’t influence the flavour of a highly environmentally sensitive plant seems absurd. Whatever the influencing factors might be, the result is an impressive lineup of chocolates with incredibly rich, well-defined, but also illusive characters.

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Because of these bars’ complex nature, we broke up our tasting into 4 sessions over the course of a week. Though the core profile of each is strongly evident, there are clouds of meta-flavours surrounding them that are maddeningly difficult to define.

The following notes are written in order from lightest to darkest in terms of percentage of cacao:

Tiền Giang, 70% – This bar, for us, was an unexpected though once experienced unsurprising meeting of strong colour association (specifically that of a very dark, sort-of midnight purple) and physique or physicality. Though it’s indisputably a delicate bar, we found ourselves repeatedly returning to adjectives that if describing a human would relay an opposite form. What one of us characterized as curvy, thick, and sultry, the other called bosomy. Magnolia, lavender syrup, and other decadent floral aromas suggested themselves, all this underscored by a creaminess reminiscent of extra marshmallowy instant hot cocoa.

Đồng Nai, 72% – We found this to be the ‘friendliest’ of the bunch, despite its being slightly darker than Tiền Giang. The flavour is rich, but in a gentle way, with a dark caramel or butterscotch note adorably dominating the palate. Its got a sunny disposition that lights up in your mouth immediately, while bringing to mind things like buttered popcorn and walnut. On first tasting, one of us was reminded of turmeric, mustard flower, and other curry type spices, but over subsequent tastings couldn’t manage to return to the sensation.

Lâm Đồng, 74% – This bar played out like one of those mystery novels that has you all turned around right up until the end, at which point you’re presented with a conclusion so simple you’re shocked you didn’t see it earlier. In general, it possesses an airy quality; light, accessible, pleasant. But to locate specific notes was stupidly challenging. After extended deliberation (but mostly after a lot of experiments with different ways of tasting and untasting) we finally found what had been lingering on the tips of our tongues – toasted brown rice! Once we made this breakthrough, a cascade of more specific associations became clear: genmaicha (a Japanese green tea blended with toasted brown rice), brown rice crispy treats, the old-school health food classic Rice Dream ice cream, and even plain brown rice syrup.

Bà Rịa, 76% – Returning to the first bar we tried, we were instantly reminded of what we had for so long been anxiously awaiting. Despite it having been a year, upon even the first bite, its flavour came back with such familiarity that it felt much more recent. Such is the distinctiveness of Marou’s bars. As before, the first thing we noted was the intensely sour though decidedly not ‘citrusy’ brightness (which actually hits you first on the nose), followed by the flavour but not the spice of cayenne pepper, and then a hint of carob. It had an intangible tropicality for both of us, yet neither of us could say quite why. In fact, there is much we aren’t able to say about this bar, as its peripheral character seemed to constantly be shifting upon inspection, avoiding any in-depth sort of analysis. This is a quality that is present in many complex foods and drinks, but which in Marou (and particularly with the Bà Rịa bar) has an almost purposefully devilish, trickster-like quality that though frustrating is also admittedly fun.

Bến Tre, 78% – While it may seem odd, as darker bars are typically the most complex, and the flavours here are in no way cookie-cutter, this was in a way the quickest bar for us to understand. It was all rather plainly laid out. Briefly, but right upfront was something akin to burnt wood, or charcoal, followed by an unusual sour punch – a combination of lime creamsicle and soured butter or cream. Overall, it’s hilariously bright for being the darkest in the lineup.

Then, of course, texture is the other half of the equation. We would argue that even more so than flavour, texture illustrates the greatest contrast between one chocolatier’s product and another’s – partially because that is where more of their work takes place. The fruit itself provides most of the flavour. Eschewing the fermentation (something Marou only does themselves in the case of one bar) and roasting of the ‘beans’, tempering (what creates chocolate’s texture) is where the most distinctive mark is made. The difference between a bar from Dick Taylor, for example, and a disc from TAZA is enough to make you wonder how these two are considered to be the same basic ‘thing’.

The texture of Marou’s bars remained consistent throughout the line. Unlike with Mast Brotherswhose texture in our experience provides little in the way of personality, Marou clearly takes great care here, and as we’ve seen from their ingredient sourcing to their labels, leaves nothing overlooked. Each bar was exceptionally smooth without sacrificing dimension, having just enough fine granularity to suggest their origins (ground, dried cacao) but not so much as to call attention. With every bite, they perfectly gave beneath our teeth, while providing a wonderfully satisfying percussive crack. Once chewed (or just allowed to sit in the mouth), each melted just slowly enough to occupy a consistency most similar to brownie or cake batter, where both the liquid (cocoa butter) and grain (cacao bean and cane sugar) are discernible as separates but experienced still as one entity.

One of the best things about these bars is how clearly hands-off the makers are with them, respectfully allowing the cacao fruit to really shine. Attempts to ‘engineer’ food never result in complexity as rich as what nature provides, as the best vintners know (so much of what Marou has to say seems to echo the knowledge of wine-making’s rich history) and as any well-raised heirloom fruit, vegetable, or animal will evince. It’s easy to approach chocolate creation using other historical chocolates as a reference point, but to wholly listen to the fruit from start to finish and allow it to point in the direction of a new chocolate takes great restraint as well as sensitivity.

Though their distribution is currently very narrow, the awareness of and hence the demand for Marou is steadily increasing. In a creative field awash with products labeled ‘craft’ and ‘artisanal’ that don’t provide further evidence for said descriptors beyond their packaging, here is chocolate that speaks for itself of the artistry that goes into its production. We would appreciate more clarity in regards to the farming side of things, but hopefully that will come with time and frequent inquiry from curious consumers.

It will be interesting to see just how much demand Marou will be able to accommodate as they grow, or what form(s) their growth might take. According to their current model, there is only so much growing they can do before they become another entity entirely. Perhaps the world of chocolate will increasingly reflect the world of wine, with the best selections of any given production getting snatched up by speculators and distributors reselling at a premium which reflects the current state of availability and market interest. For the sake of our wallets and the appreciation of good food by all we certainly hope not, but if any craft chocolate is deserving of its high dollar value, Marou is it.

*Note: What are generally referred to as cacao ‘beans’ are in fact the fatty seeds of the cacao fruit.

**This is the biggest informational gap, and it is in regards to this more than anything else that we would appreciate a bit more transparency; what kind of ‘sprays’ are being used? – as those can range from entirely benign to highly toxic and/or environmentally damaging.

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Cacao Prieto – selections from the Criollo series

Cacao_Prieto_Original_Dominican_Spice_Craft_Chocolate

Since the Mast Brothers emergence from Brooklyn in 2007, craft chocolatiers have become an integral part of the urban Northeast’s artisanal foods scene. Of course the Mast Brothers are practically a household name at this point, but their former position as ‘those chocolate folks from Brooklyn’ is no longer a tenable title as three other companies also hailing from the area seem to be gaining a strong foothold: Fine & Raw, Raaka, and Cacao Prieto. Being the least familiar with the latter (as their distribution seems to have the smallest radius), we were intrigued when we came upon them recently; first by the nicely typeset, open-framed boxes of their organic, single-origin fruit-and-nut ‘bark bars’, and then by the decadent packaging of their Criollo series. Impressive production standards, including the fact that they own and operate the farm their cacao and sugar both come from, made the decision final.

As now seems to be expected of craft chocolate producers – at least in Brooklyn – Cacao Prieto has a factory/store which offers tours and tastings of both their chocolate and a variety of liquors (many infused with cacao) that they also produce in-house. Their founder, Daniel Prieto Preston, is a former aerospace technologies inventor, a background which after moving into the role of chocolatier he brought to the field in order to invent and improve upon various chocolate-making machines he felt had yet to reach their full technological potential. Chief among these is Prieto Preston’s Vortex Winnower – a custom winnowing machine which is made to separate cacao nib from husk to a degree of exactitude that has until now been otherwise unachievable.

In trying to select two bars which might best represent their general approach, we went with Original and Dominican Spicethough other flavours such as Orchid and Absinthe were also tempting.

You can’t help but take notice of the Criollo series’ packaging. It’s attractive. That said, beyond simple aesthetics it becomes a bit problematic. In this line of bars, the design appears to be directly referencing the Dominican Republic’s colonial history, as well as another popular export from the republic: cigars. Here we find the company’s name ‘hand-written’ on a cigar-style label in a script that feels designed to give the impression of its having been penned by an early colonist-turned-plantation owner. These labels impose themselves on the underlying ‘primitive’ patterning which appears to be very vaguely hinting at the idea of traditional Dominican art or textiles. Then to make things official, the outer label is reinforced with an embossment of the Prieto seal, putting the final stamp on this miniature drama of semiotics. Of course, we aren’t assuming any of these details are intentional, but feel they warrant mentioning.

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Once unwrapped, the two bars appear identical in colour, which makes sense as all their cacao is of the same hyper-specific origin. Their minimalist gridding stands in sharp contrast to their highly stylized exterior packaging. There’s no bas-relief artwork cast on the bar’s top, no geometric texturing of each square, just chocolate effectively divided into rectangular pieces. The background connecting all the pieces is both disarmingly thin and reassuringly sturdy, making for an easy and clean breaking off of each bite, as well as an unaffected minimalism and lightness that feels very contemporary.

Biting into the bars, we were both immediately underwhelmed. Where’s the cacao fruit? Hidden beneath the dark roast perhaps, as that’s most of what we found we were tasting. The roast is, in its own right, lovely, but it definitely makes for a much more uniform flavour profile, one that is far more distanced from its roots than we expected from a company that so touts the distinctiveness of their ‘terroir’. Texturally too, the degree of smoothness, though impressive, didn’t do anything for us. Initially exciting, the silky extremity ultimately felt artificial, similar to ice cream made with a Pacojet. Likely appealing to some, but not to us.

The Original bar was a subtle experience. With none of them being particularly distinctive, most of the flavours we found had to really be reached for. There was an element of dried fruit, specifically one of raisin, which was nicely distributed throughout, giving it a good rounded balance. The high, slightly fruity, pre-bitter part of coffee was present as well. Overall though, it’s just a really well-made, ‘classic’ chocolate. Classic in the sense that it tastes familiar and comforting, favours roast over fruit, and strives for uniformity in its texture. It would make for a really great s’more.

Dominican Spice defied our expectations as well, but in a much more interesting way. Knowing it was to contain allspice, clove, cassia (cinnamon), and nutmeg, we were prepared for the spices to be much more heavy-handed; a ‘flavoured’ chocolate bar. We were instead confronted with a very tastefully balanced ratio of cacao to spice. Achingly restrained, so delicately handled that it felt more like an example of a slightly different varietal than an alteration of the bar we’d just tried. For the most part, none of the spices stood out on their own, but together formed something akin to a mild winter tea or a good eggnog. In different moments, we briefly tasted dried blueberry, chicory, and at one point a spiciness that was difficult to attribute a source to.

It should be said that we have definite preferences in chocolate bar styles. Generally, we like to experience the cacao plant itself in some way, whether that’s by highlighting its true fruitiness, or by leaving enough texture behind to help draw attention to its original seed state. Cacao Prieto produces bars that do neither of these things, but with that said, for a certain and other taste, these could be near ideals.

Despite our indifferences, the bars are undeniably strong from a technical perspective. Nothing is wrong with them, per se. They’re smooth, rich, and incredibly well-balanced. They may not be carving out radically new territory in the field of chocolate bars, but they’re certainly refining aspects of it. There’s a lot of subtlety to their craft, and the basic ingredients are all highly traceable and seem to be coming from an excellent source. Though they’re not our cup of tea, we do appreciate Cacao Prieto’s intended trajectory.