Meet Chocolate Tree – Edinburgh Chocolate Experts
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that we adore chocolate. With Christmas getting closer and the shops bursting with chocolate we thought it would be a good idea to find out more about the art of making this product of the Gods.
An excellent place to start is Edinburgh-based artisan chocolate makers Chocolate Tree. These guys are really passionate and knowledgeable about what they do, and they don’t cut any corners. We had a chat with one of the founders, Ali, who kindly let us in on what he does for a living. (Keep reading until the end to find out if he really eats chocolate every day!…)
1. Where did your passion for chocolate start and how did you learn to make chocolate?
Both of us have always loved chocolate from an early age. Friederike has always been creative in the kitchen, and I have always enjoyed good food, especially puddings.
2. How did Chocolate Tree get started?
In 2005 we started selling hot chocolate from a hand built travelling geo-desic solar powered dome tent at festivals in the UK. It was here that we discovered the brilliance of chocolate and its potential to make people happy and do good for social enterprise and the environment. It wasn’t long before we fully submerged ourselves into our work creating extraordinary chocolate.
3. Could you explain what exactly “Bean to Bar” means to those of us who aren’t entirely familiar with chocolate terminology?
Bean to bar means working from cacao beans instead of working from pre-made chocolate. There is a great difference between the two methods and considerably more work and understanding involved when working from beans. Being Bean to Bar means we can create better, more unique flavours and offer much greater transparency in our sourcing.
4. You say you use ethically sourced ingredients – what exactly does that entail?
Chocolate, along with other products like sugar, tea and coffee, has a very questionable history when it comes to exploitation of people. We work with cacao which is fully traceable back to the origins and the communities. We often directly source cocoa from the farms, which means we have a personal connection with the families. We know from visiting them and talking to them that the premium we pay for good cocoa is enriching their lives. Where we don’t have that personal connection we use organic certification which not only ensures sustainable agriculture but also that the people on the farms are being paid a premium and that the trade is ethical.
5. Why is good chocolate expensive?
A great deal more care goes into every step that is taken to bring fine chocolate to the consumer vs bulk chocolate. The cacao varietals have to be good in the first place – at Chocolate Tree we work with what are known as heirloom Criollo and Trinitario varieties. Then the post-harvest processing is expensive, beans are first fermented and then dried soon after harvest. I have seen bulk cacao processed in the most awful conditions before it is send to the mass market. Then there is the expense of shipping small quantities of premium beans. Finally the costs involved in making micro batches of premium chocolate are very high compared to those of the bigger manufacturers, and last but not least the expense of the lovely packaging. Despite good chocolate bars being expensive, they are actually incredibly good value. Most chocolate makers I know do not do it for profit, but for the love of their work. Otherwise they would have given up or not started at all.
6. What is the best way to eat chocolate?
Begin by buying a really good bar of chocolate, and to do this takes a little homework. Even most ‘artisanal’ chocolatiers are using what’s known as couverture chocolate made from bulk cacao. So if the chocolate is bitter or bland to begin with we really are wasting our time trying to get the most out of its flavour. Once you have a good bar you will know, take your time, take in the aroma, the shine (this is called temper which means the cocoa butter crystals in the bar will be stable), then most importantly let it melt in your mouth, moving it around your palate as it melts. The final flavours that come through are not bitter but surprisingly complex and satisfying. I’d recommend a bar from Madagascar to get started as the fruity notes can be mind-blowing.
7. There is a connection between midges and some of your chocolate bars…Could you tell us more about this??
Well, there is a certain type of midge that pollinates cacao trees. These midges are essential to the eco system of a good plantation. It’s the only good use for a midge I have ever heard of!
8. Could you name a few of your most exotic chocolates?
Our latest addition to the bars is ‘Whisky Nibs’. For this one we use a rare cacao from Northern Peru, soaking the cocoa nibs in a strong Islay single malt before layering the chocolate with them into a bar. It won a silver in the International Chocolate Awards this year. We do a lot of really exotic soft centre fillings too, such as passionfruit & coconut or salted caramel. Then there is of course the Haggis bar…
9. Which of your products would you recommend for giving away as a Christmas present?
For Christmas I’d definitely recommend the Winterspice bar or Winterspice hot chocolate flakes. They make great gifts and the flavour is fantastic, it’s based on a German gingerbread recipe and has all the aroma and flavour of an authentic Christmas market. We are just about to launch our new boxed chocolates too and I am sure they will get a lot of attention this Christmas. If that’s not your thing then maybe Orange & Amaretti.
10. Judging by your blog you travel a fair bit. Is this something you feel is necessary to ensure you get the best quality beans?
Absolutely. I don’t think a chocolate maker can really understand their chocolate’s flavour unless they have been to the origin to visit the plantation. Understanding the terroir and meeting the people who grow and process the cacao is hugely beneficial to the understanding of our raw material. I would say it’s an absolutely crucial part of the role of a chocolate maker, and possible the most exciting part too.
11. What’s the best part of your job?
Well, asides from the adventure thrills of travelling to some fairly remote tropical locations, I really enjoy being able to go home at night and know that we are making a positive difference to the people and the planet. I always wanted to run my own business, to make it ethical and environmentally beneficial and be able to travel and make people happy. Chocolate is the perfect solution for me, and as it’s a family business I work closely with my wife and hopefully one day our children too!
12. Last, and most importantly: do you eat chocolate every day?
Yes, to be honest usually several times a day.
The Chocolate Tree has a chocolaterie on 123 Bruntsfield Place, and a shop in Haddington – but you can also buy their products online. To stay up-to-date with what’s on you can like the Chocolate Tree Facebook Page or follow Chocolate Tree on Twitter.