Full of (cocoa) beans

Mohini Chaudhuri | Updated on January 17, 2018

On the block: Bean Therapy offers chocolates with black pepper, Himalayan rock salt, Lonavla chikki and Guntur

David Belo of Earth Loaf at his factory in Mysuru

A bunch of chocolatiers are reinventing India’s palate for the world’s favourite confectionery

If the advertisements we’ve grown up watching are to be believed, there isn’t a problem in the world a bar of Dairy Milk can’t fix. Having a bad day, a lover’s tiff, or stuck in traffic — all you need is a bar of sugary milk chocolate to lift your spirits. However, today we have a small yet significant bunch of chocolatiers across the country quietly questioning this perception. Their argument is that a bar of chocolate can be so much more than the mass-produced variety we swear by. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be sweet.

Leading this revolution is David Belo, a Londoner of South African origin, and the founder of Earth Loaf chocolates. A former mixologist, Belo has now traded London for a small factory in Mysuru, and premium spirits for more humble foods like jamuns, apricots and gondhoraj lemons, which he pairs with chocolate. “I look at chocolate as a grown-up food akin to wine and even single malts,” he says. “Cocoa has more flavour compounds than wine. It’s a complex food that can be extremely healthy. But when you process it with sugar and preservatives at high temperatures you lose a lot of these subtleties”.

Soon after Belo launched Earth Loaf in 2014, Jane Mason and her husband Fabien debuted their brand Mason and Co in Auroville, Puducherry, with the same vision. Their challenge is to convince customers that chocolate that is organic, vegan, soy-free and gluten-free can also be delicious. “Anywhere in the world, if you buy good quality dark chocolate, it will be all these things. In India people look at chocolate as something different. When we started, people said we were crazy to make dark chocolate in India. But the response we got pushed us to grow the business,” says Jane. Belo adds that he receives polarising reviews for his concoctions. Either people love it or hate it. But lately, he’s even managed to convert a few to the dark side, quite literally. “These are people who don’t like it in the beginning, but they think it’s cool so they try it again, and then they are hooked and can’t go back,” he says with a laugh.

Sanjoy Solomon of Bean Therapy, too, fuses his chocolates with unlikely ingredients like black pepper, Himalayan rock salt and Guntur chilli. His trick to winning over sceptics is adding a hint of nostalgia in every bar. One of his popular flavours is elaichi saunf — a mouth freshener several communities keep handy to pop in after meals. He’s noticed that this flavour works best among the Gujaratis and Sindhis. Similarly, his mix of chocolate and chikki is a hit in Mumbai. He sources his chikki from Maganlal in Lonavla — a mammoth chain that specialises in making this traditional sweet of peanuts and jaggery. “I use only local Indian ingredients. In Mumbai, chikki is a humble food, not very gourmet. I wanted to add that to chocolate to give it texture and nostalgia,” says Solomon.

It takes these chocolatiers months to crack a new flavour. After that too, they keep refining till they achieve the perfect blend of ingredients. They produce the chocolate in small batches, with not more than two helpers for assistance. “It’s your antithesis to industrial chocolate,” says Belo. “Like anything that is artisanal, everything here is handcrafted, made in small batches, and needs some level of skill — one that takes a lot of training to develop — to be produced.” That explains why Solomon makes only four or five new flavours in an entire year. He says the most distinct feature of something that’s handmade is its imperfections. “In my bars, the mango I use is not powdered, but chopped. And with the pepper, you will find each grain to be of a different size. It’s an experience,” he says.

The biggest stumbling block, however, is sourcing the perfect cocoa beans. Industrial chocolates use even subpar beans, which is eventually mixed with sugar and milk to mask its problems. But for Jane, it took a whole year of wandering around the farms of Tamil Nadu and Kerala before she could even think of making chocolates. “The quality of what was being produced was bad. I can’t blame the farmer because their buyers didn’t require anything more. It takes more scientific focus. Eventually, I found a couple of farmers who were willing to work with us. It’s one of the reasons we’ve grown very slowly,” she says.

Having said that, these entrepreneurs believe the wave of artisanal chocolate will soon rock India. They feel Indians who travel the world and are exposed to different cultures, don’t need much convincing. As for the rest, they too are warming up to them. Bello, who was the first to make artisanal chocolate, is surprised by the number of competitors he’s earned in just two years. And he expects many more in the years to come. He says, “We’re going to see an exponential growth. After all, the cocoa is here!”

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Published on August 12, 2016
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