Chocolate: Cocoa Culture

Stirred, melted and poured into exquisite shapes, cocoa butter can be one of life’s great pleasures. Australian Baking Business discovers the secrets of chocolate from some of Australia’s best chocolatiers.

Xocolatl Artisan Chocolates and Café is a family owned and operated Melbourne business dedicated to producing only the highest quality products. Master chocolatier, Christos Partsioglou with his youngest daughter, Tina, locally produce Belgian couverture chocolates that are inspired by tradition.

The artistically trained Mr Partsioglou brings an artists’ eye to producing each of his hand-crafted pieces. He is also passionate about innovation, taking an eclectic approach to a traditional craft that has won him awards as well as setting him apart from his competitors.

Some of the delicate pieces include flavours such as the popular Cherry Liqueur and Balsamic Strawberries as well as Basil & Champagne, Cardamom, Shiraz Cassis, Gorgonzola & Mango and Goat’s Cheese & Peach Jelly

The European tradition of chocolate making is brought through into their boutiques which “elude style and sophistication” where customers can relax and be carried away into a romantic old-world city.

Mr Partsioglou’s hot chocolates are said to “match the standard of the chocolates, being recognised the best on the market” with six different varieties on offer. The well-trained baristas can prepare any coffee beverage using Jasper Coffee, a local and boutique coffee roaster that prides itself on being fair trade.

The full range of Xocolatl products are available at the company’s two retail outlets in Canterbury and Kew East.

Do more with less

There’s a French saying that goes, ‘When you do less, the ingredients can do more’. ‘Fast Ed’ Halmagyi has dedicated his cooking to that motto with the quick and healthy meals he presents each week on Channel Seven’s Better Homes and Gardens. The sweet-toothed pastry chef will also be hosting the main stage of the upcoming Hunter Valley Chocolate Festival in August, marking his fifth year of involvement with the event.

The self-described ‘food nerd’ is touted as having an ‘encyclopaedic’ knowledge of chocolate, which Baking Business quickly discovered as he jumped from discussing six-chain carbon reactions to the roles Marie Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier have made to pastry and commercial cookery.

“I am as interested in the history, culture, science and processes of cookery as I am in the more procedural side of things. So for me, understanding why sugar changes colour when you’ve exposed it to heat always interested me as much as the way it tastes,” Fast Ed said.

“I love the fact that there’s all these layers and layers of knowledge underpinning it. I find it very intriguing.”

For bakers and pastry chefs looking to add some chocolate to their product range during winter, Fast Ed offers a simple but insightful tip.

“One thing I really love is pairing herbs and chocolate; I think they work particularly well. Milk chocolate pairs unbelievably well with thyme. It is an absolute match made in heaven. Dark chocolate can compare extremely well with rosemary. White chocolate, you can get away with a bit of margarine but that’s possibly an outlier,” he said.

While Fast Ed prefers to enjoy subtle flavours when it comes to tasting chocolate, he believes that one of our defining characteristics as humans is that “too much is never enough”.

“I guess from that perspective, I tend to get chocolate with less sugar than other chefs may, simply because I like the idea that I can actually taste the native cocoa flavour itself,” he said.

Sugar and chocolate overload are a major issue in our food, Fast Ed said. He recommends pastry chefs take a lesson from Asian chefs and reduce the amount of sugar they use in their sweet cooking.

“Texture is vastly overlooked. I think a lot of Australians forget that what makes a meal feel right as a complete experience is partly the way it feels in your mouth. That contrast between chewy and elastic, soft, crisp, that actually creates a sense of completeness.”Fast Ed will be presenting at the chocolate festival alongside the likes of Adriano Zumbo, Team Pastry Australia captain, Dean Gibson and The Bather’s Pavilion executive pastry chef, Anna Polyviou. While he considers himself a food traditionalist, he is also inspired by his avant-garde peers.

“Adriano is an extraordinarily creative man who believes that the next frontier is the only frontier to be in. I’m a lot more of a traditionalist when it comes to cookery. I don’t align myself with a level of transformation that Adriano’s dishes undergo. For me the most magnificent thing about an apple is the apple. I don’t need an apple to taste like a truffle,” he said.

The pastry chef published his second cook book An hours the limit last year and has a third book coming out in 2011. He spends most of his time with recipe development, writing up to 2500 recipes a year.

Working in television can be a “slightly unusual business” and isn’t always as glamorous as it might appear from the outside, Fast Ed revealed.

“You spend a lot of time working on development and testing and probably two-thirds of my job is writing. A very small amount is actually creating the television end of things,” he said.

Quality over quantity

Australians are increasingly looking for better quality chocolates as they become more health conscious, according to Hillier’s Chocolates general manager, AnnaMaria Lapetina. According to Ms Lapetina, this change has become evident in the boom in chocolate boutiques popping up all around Australia.

“It’s about quality over quantity these days so the popularity of the ‘family block’ of chocolate is diminishing as people turn to higher cocoa contents, hand-crafted chocolates and unique flavour pairings,” Ms Lapetina explained to Baking Business

“There has also been an increasing trend toward dark chocolate as an alternative to milk chocolate,” she said.

Even after 100 years of history and decades of growth, Hillier’s conching process remains the same as first envisioned by Englishman Ernest Hillier. Established in Sydney in 1914 as Australia’s first chocolate manufacturing company, it re-located to Melbourne in 1934. Hillier’s now conches approximately five tonnes of chocolate daily, adding up to around 1000 tonnes of chocolate a year. Their chocolate is conched for more than 22 hours to ensure smoothness and quality.

While an increase in production and the introduction of machines for moulding and decoration have taken place, the human element will always be needed when working with chocolate. Ms Lapetina said that incorporating robotic machinery would remove all of the human touch from their processes and much of the passion from the work.

“Plus, it is too much fun getting our hands dirty,” she said.

The company has a two-fold vision of how it intends to strengthen the brand further with customers.

“The first is to help people discover quality chocolate. I think that in the current market place with so many inferior products on the shelves, Australians are being deceived as to what real quality chocolate is. We would like for Australians to be experimental with their chocolates. Try different things and see what real quality is out there. This is happening to an extent, but there is always scope for growth,” Ms Lapetina said.

Hillier’s second vision is to reignite a culture of gifting to others.

“We want to make chocolate fun again and to reintroduce the act of giving to the young adult market.”

As quality ingredients are the key to quality products, Ms Lapetina recommends bakers shop around for the best quality chocolate.

“Look for high cocoa contents in both your milk and dark chocolates,” she said.

Cocoa spirit

There is no chocolate culture in the world, only a chocolate tradition focused on taste, according to prolific chocolatier Max Brenner. Opening his first Australian business in 2000 and having grown to more than 25 ‘chocolate bars’ spanning five countries, the frustrated writer turned chocolate icon is well on his way to elevating the cult of cocoa to its “rightful” place.

Mr Brenner believes that chocolate should no longer be viewed solely as a gourmet product, but also as a “symbol of diverse human emotions and personalities”.

“I don’t invent anything in chocolate. It all exists in people’s minds and hearts. I just express it in the most tangible way – a way that everyone imagines chocolate and wishes to experience it,” Mr Brenner said.

Mr Brenner first worked in Europe as an apprentice to world-renowned experts in baking, sweets and marzipan. He opened a small store in a secluded alleyway in his native Israel in 1995, where he began work on his chocolate dream with the aid of a small mixer and a number of simple kitchen tools. Presenting his concepts at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, California, he received an “outstanding” reaction, resulting in him opening his first Australian chocolate bar.

The chocolate bar concept is a ‘temple’ for chocolate lover; a “place to indulge in childhood chocolate fantasies”.

“Imagine a world of huge chocolate bricks, delicate candles, fine pralines, French chansons, crates of cocoa beans from exotic countries, colourful toy tins with ribbons, and melted chocolate poured over warm pastries,” Mr Brenner said.

Mr Brenner believes his success resides in the unique character of his company, which has combined romance, nostalgia and a “childlike, provocative spirit” together with an emphasis on a “warm, personal” connection with its customers and excellent service.

He believes he is “freeing chocolate from its cage” by allowing people experience it to the fullest.

“Until now, chocolate was sold in a manner contradictory to its sensual, warm and playful character, closed behind a glass barrier, being untouchable in a sterile environment,” he said.

Max’s ultimate dream is to one day create his own “chocolate bald man city”.

Chocolate education

Education has been key to growing a healthy cocoa culture, with Melbourne’s Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School helping future chocolatiers learn the craft.

Making chocolate is hard physical work, according to school assistant Seung Yun Lee. The Korean pastry chef knows a thing or two about making chocolate under pressure, having recently competed at and won the Asian leg of the Callebaut World Chocolate Masters. The 34-year-old crafted a chocolate Aztec showpiece (pictured right) using more than 10kg of chocolate that required constant stirring in order to complete. The competition was exhausting, but the final result impressed the judges enough to book her a place at the Calleabut finals in Paris in October.

“I just did my best and I was so nervous, I (felt it in my) stomach the whole competition,” Ms Lee told Baking Business

“It was a lot of pressure but I could see the different pastry chefs, how they worked with chocolate and the show pieces… it was amazing.”

Ms Lee first started as a pastry chef in Korean window bakeries, cake shops and bakery cafes before moving to Sydney in 2007.

Wanting to learn how to make and handle chocolate but not knowing where to go, she moved to Melbourne and discovered it was a vibrant chocolate hotspot.

“Melbourne people love chocolate,” Ms Lee said, “chocolate is really popular (here).”

First learning the craft as a student at Savour, she improved her skills and was given the opportunity to assist teaching the school’s classes. She is still an assistant but has begun to teach a few private classes of her own.

Her days can be physical and time-consuming, with eight-to-10 hours of work followed by another five hours of training. It’s all worth it though, as her works allow her to play with the incredible properties of high-quality cocoa butter, which can be mixed, melted, frozen and constructed.

“It’s so interesting. Chocolate is an amazing ingredient,” she said.

Savour teacher, Kirsten Tibballs (pictured left) recently returned from a nine-day trip to South America where she visited plantations as part of Callebaut ambassadors’ forum. The forum was an opportunity to network with the world’s best pastry chefs and chocolatiers as well as visit three different types of plantations.

The price of cocoa was a major topic, with a decrease in the decline of cocoa occurring alongside political unrest in the Ivory Coast and an increase in demand. Sustainability was also an issue in South America, with a decline in cocoa growth due to diseases in the late 90s wiping out 90 per cent of all cocoa production. New methods of cocoa and planting to improve production are now being tested, which Ms Tibballs was able to observe.

“I think the difficult thing is that it’s sometimes more profitable for farmers to grow other agricultural products such as rubber, palms for the palm oil – where cocoa can tend to be a bit sensitive to pests – and things like that,” Ms Tibballs said.

“It can take quite some years for it to bare any fruit. (With) rubber and palm trees for the palm oil, you can get a much faster and a bigger return of money by planting those crops. I think that’s one of the major problems.”

Australia has one of the strongest artisan chocolate and bonbon retail presences in the world, according to analysis from chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut. Ms Tibballs said Australian chocolate culture was unique in the Asia Pacific region, due to the Savour school empowering students to take the major step to open their business.

“There’s nothing in Australia, even Asia, that compares (to our school) in terms of tuition,” Ms Tibballs said.

Chocolate culture can change from city to city, with Sydney and Melbourne having two very different chocolates markets, she explained.

“I wouldn’t say (Melbourne’s) superior, I would say maybe more cosmopolitan than Sydney. But Sydney consumers demand a different product. Even though we are every close, we are two very different markets. And one’s not necessarily better then the other, just catering to different needs I think,” she said.

“I think we have a more Italian, maybe more European, French influence in Melbourne, more so then Sydney. So we’re catering for that.”

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