If you’re a fan of chocolate – and who isn’t? – you’re probably aware of the recent claims of a worldwide cocoa shortage. Despite what you may think, or hope, it isn’t just scaremongering; the threat of a cocoa shortage is real. It’s been attributed to a number of causes, mainly the rising demand for chocolate the world over, but also the new craze for ‘gourmet’ chocolate, with its 70% cocoa content. Hotel Chocolat is one of the main brands behind this new trend; their stores, full of pricey, high-quality chocolate, were once confined to London, but are now spreading across the country, and last year they opened their Northern flagship bar, restaurant and shop unit in Leeds.
One of their latest in-store initiatives is the School of Chocolate, which provides a range of hands-on treats for chocolate lovers. These include tasting classes and the Bean to Bar experience – a chance to learn exactly how the chocolate-making process works and have a go at making your own bar. When I went along to try it out, I was intrigued to find out about how the company justify their arguably extravagant use of cocoa in their products.
In a secluded area of the elegantly decorated and dimly lit bar, over a glass of palette refreshing prosecco, head chocolatier Daniel Morris took us through the basics of the chocolate industry. Hotel Chocolat have their own 140 acre cocoa farming estate in St Lucia, where they help to support the vulnerable cocoa farmers there. They pay far more than average buyers to encourage farmers to maintain their cocoa crops, rather than switching to a more reliable and economically rewarding product as many are doing. Daniel addressed the issue of the cocoa shortage early on in the session, emphasising Hotel Chocolat’s focus on producing cocoa in a way that helps to maintain and support the cocoa industry, rather than deplete it.
The company may pay more and invest more money in to the cocoa industry, but of course they still have to make a profit. Some of their chocolate bars cost around £7 each, and the Bean to Bar Experience is £65 per person; their brand will always be a high-end luxury product inaccessible to a mass of chocolate eaters. But maybe this is the answer to the problem. If we start seeing chocolate as a luxury to savour, rather than to binge eat our way through on an evening, we might start saving some of these increasingly precious cocoa beans.
After trying samples of rich, dark chocolate with complex and unusual flavour textures, produced from a variety of different types of cocoa beans, we were able to try our hand at the art of chocolate making. We ground down our cocoa beans, added sugar and cocoa butter and piped it in to chocolate moulds before leaving it in the fridge to set. It was by no means an advanced session, just a small taster of the effort that is involved in making a product that we take so much for granted.
The Bean to Bar Experience would make a unique and special Christmas present for any chocoholic, if you’re prepared to pay the steep price. The experience is far more than just a ‘make-your-own-chocolate bar’ gimmick. It’s about time that the wide-scale exploitation of cocoa farmers across the world by many manufacturers is brought to light, and people are educated about exactly where this most popular of food products comes from, and that is exactly what Hotel Chocolat is trying to achieve.