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Wednesday, December 10, 2014
SOMA Smoke Monster: The Most Interesting Chocolate Bar I Ever Tasted
When I was ordering chocolate bars for a tasting workshop recently, someone at Soma suggested that I try out their new chocolate creation called Smoke Monster. It sounded so interesting that I could not resist. And upon tasting it, it turned out to be extraordinary.
Both the flavour and aroma is very strong of smoke - like that of smoked meat or cheese. It is nearly overwhelming when you first taste it, but in a naturally smoked way rather than that horrid taste of artificial smoked flavour that is sometimes added to food. It takes some getting used to, and if you can get past the first few pieces, you might even crave it.
So why is this chocolate bar full of smoke flavour?
Well, it begins with the beans, grown in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. When they were dried, instead of using the traditional method of drying the beans in the sun, the farmers dried them using wood fires, which caused the beans to take on a smoke flavour.
According to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), drying cocoa by wood fire is a method of 'artificial drying' of cocoa beans. They say "Artificially dried beans can be of poor quality due to contamination from the smoke of fires..." (ref). The smoke flavour is caused when there is not adequate ventilation for the wood fired dryer. However, Soma has used these beans as an advantage to create a uniquely - and naturally - flavoured fine chocolate bar.
Despite its strong flavour, why do I love it?
This chocolate bar is the perfect example of how any one element in the process of harvesting cocoa beans and making chocolate can affect the overall flavour of the resulting chocolate. Because the beans have been affected by wood smoke, the entire bar tasted like it was smoked. Had the beans been dried out in the sun, the chocolate bar would have taken on an entirely different flavour (likely fruity and somewhat tropical).
Soma tackled these Vanuatu beans head on and made an extremely bold chocolate bar. However, what could be done to overcome the strong flavour is to make a blended bar, where only, say, 10% of the beans used in the resulting chocolate bar are the smoke-flavoured beans, which would add just a hint of smoke flavour to a chocolate bar. A master blender could make something very interesting from these beans, and I don't doubt that Soma has this in mind for the future.
What is Vanuatu doing to improve its cocoa farming and processing methods?
Cocoa in Vanuatu is considered high-quality and organic, however most of the farmers and co-operatives do not have the money to get the 'organic' certification. (ref). This is an unfortunate cycle because they cannot reap the rewards from higher prices in order to pay for certification, which will certainly enable them to charge higher prices.
Vanuatu mainly supplies the bulk cocoa markets in Asia, but since 2012 there is a strong effort to export 20% cocoa to the fine chocolate industry worldwide. In fact, there is an effort by a local organization (ACTIV) to start a chocolate factory, which will help locals understand how their farming and production methods affect flavour, and to sell chocolate to tourists. Certainly the more they learn about making chocolate, the more they will understand how fermenting and drying the beans affects the flavour of the final chocolate product, which will lead to changing processing methods.
Soma's Smoke Monster is a great chocolate bar to add to any chocolate tasting workshop because it offers a great talking point. You can easily learn about and demonstrate how cacao processing methods affect chocolate flavour. Also, as a foodie or wannabe chocolate connoisseur, it is simply something worth tasting. In Soma's usual way, the chocolate is immensely smooth and texturally easy on the palette.
If you do not like 'smoke' flavour, go for Soma's Peruvian Nacional bar instead - it just won a bronze at the International Chocolate Awards. It is smooth and delicious and full of rich chocolate flavour.
And if you find smoky chocolate interesting, you might also like Bourbon-flavoured chocolate by Brooklyn chocolate maker Raaka, where the beans have rested in used bourbon barrels to create a distinct flavoured chocolate bar. Soma also makes the Stratus bar, which involves resting the beans in Stratus Vineyards' oak wine barrels to create a lovely wine-flavoured chocolate.
Package Details and Where to Buy
Here are the package details from the chocolate bar that I tasted today:
BLACK SCIENCE "Smoke Monster - Vanuatu 70%", 80g
SOMA chocolatemaker (Toronto, ON)
Ingredients: cacao beans, organic cane sugar, cocoa butter. May contain trace amounts of nuts, gluten, soy & dairy.