Updated: Mar 24
From the day I posted my review of Amano Papua New Guinea 70% and thanks to the various social media interactions which often spoke of the topic without a real critical judgment, the idea to hunt the assistance of a qualified chocolate maker before dealing with it by myself immediately came to my mind. In my opinion, there was no better choice than Art and Aaron Pollard of Amano Chocolate.
So let`s talk about another topic as "justified" criticism as a pointless ingredient in craft chocolate: vanilla.
The first part of the article will set out to describe "a thoughtful style" and identify the more or less evident influences in bean-to-bar chocolate attributed to "vanilla". The second part will focus on the unmistakable personal imprint of Amano Chocolate.
AMANO CHOCOLATE VIEWPOINT/EXPLANATION ABOUT THEIR CHOICE OF USING WHOLE VANILLA BEANS IN THEIR PRODUCTS
This latest movement of "it isn't chocolate if it has vanilla" is a rather new thing in the overall history of chocolate. It is rooted in the idea that if it contains fewer ingredients, it must be somehow more "pure" and therefore better. There are some that use the idea that their chocolate is superior because they don't use vanilla under the assumption that it is the only way to taste the "true" chocolate flavor. Often they leave out cocoa butter as well creating the basis for a "two-ingredient" bar that has become so popular lately. By these definitions, of course, sugar also covers up the "true" flavor of the cocoa bean. If two-ingredient chocolate is better than three-ingredient chocolate (or four-ingredient) then one ingredient chocolate would be even better, right? After all, nothing can be even more "pure" than the thing itself. Now, this is not necessarily true.
Art Pollard rightly pointed out to me:
"The use of vanilla in chocolate (or actually cocoa drinks) traces its way all the way back to the Olmecs, and leaving it out abandons this long history in favor of "purity". To be fair, the big chocolate manufacturers have always used vanilla as a way to cover up the flavors of their poor-quality cocoa beans. Therefore small-batch chocolate makers who use high-quality and fair-trade cocoa beans, out of a misguided coherence, consider vanilla unnecessary.
It has to be specified that many hand-crafted chocolate makers instead of using machinery designed for chocolate (such as roller mills) use spice grinders from India that have been converted or repurposed to make chocolate. From my experience, when vanilla beans are put into machines of this type, they are not properly ground as they would in a roller mill. Instead, vanilla beans circulate, recirculate and dry out without harmoniously imparting their beautiful flavor; in fact, the husk dries out and turns the vanilla bean into an immensely hard stick. Meanwhile, with chocolate machinery such as roller mills that are designed to process chocolate, the vanilla beans are easily grounded becoming perfectly smooth".
So, what does vanilla do to chocolate?
Vanilla works in many of the same ways salt does. Salt opens up the ionic pathways that we use for taste and that is why when we eat a nice beautiful medium-rare steak, we put salt and pepper on it. These spices allow us to actually taste the true flavor of the meat. I've never met anyone who said that they refused to eat a steak or even complained that their food didn't exhibit its true flavor because salt and pepper were added. However, just like vanilla, these spices can be abused resulting in an unpleasant overseasoned meal. Salt is so important for our tastebuds, it is used regularly not only in savory dishes but also in bread, pastries, and very frequently desserts. Vanilla also opens up the same ionic pathways that salt does and just like salt, it helps to boost the flavors on the palate.
Additionally, it also changes our perception of the mouthfeel. It "rounds out" the flavor of the cocoa beans and removes many of the sharp edges that the cocoa beans naturally exhibit. Traditionally, one way of rounding out the flavor of chocolate is through a process called "conching" which is basically extended heating and stirring of the chocolate. This allows many of the volatile flavors to escape into the air or oxidize causing the loss of valuable interesting notes. In my experience, the judicious use of vanilla along with less conching is required because it actually allows more of the original cocoa beans flavor to remain in the chocolate.
At Amano, we are highly focused on flavor. It is our goal to create the best-tasting chocolate possible. We want our chocolate to be a magical experience for those who enjoy it.
However, it is also important to point out that many chefs and even the chocolate makers that use vanilla use the center pulp of the vanilla pod while at Amano, we use whole vanilla pods. Why? Because the flavor compounds that make vanilla are actually naturally in the skin of the vanilla bean!
What kinds of vanillas does Amano chocolate use and in what amount?
We use whatever vanillas we believe will enhance the flavors naturally enclosed in the cocoa beans. Every ingredient and technique we use is a tool. The proper use of the tools allows us to reach the vision that we have for the flavor possibilities of the final product.
Surprisingly little. We use just enough vanilla to bring out the flavors that we envision for the finished chocolate.
When does vanilla need to be added?
The vanilla needs to be added during the refining process so that it will ultimately become as smooth as the finished bar.
Is it a difficult inclusion to work with?
It can be. The use of whole vanilla beans requires larger machines that are capable of grinding the tough hull of the bean. The harder thing is finding the right amounts to use in the finished chocolate. It is difficult to properly use it in small batches production because the humidity in the vanilla beans can change, affecting their weight, and making it difficult to measure. Indeed small machines often have batch sizes that are too small to get an accurate measurement of vanilla since so little of it is required. We typically have batch sizes of one ton (2,200lbs) so slight variations in the amount of vanilla are easier to control to achieve the desired result.
What do you think about "lecithin and craft chocolate"?
Lecithin is basically a surfactant and affects how fats and waters interact. It works like egg yolks that allow us to mix fats and oils to create a mayonnaise. When lecithin is added to chocolate, it flows better, ensuring a better texture, and it is easily incorporated into recipes that stand a higher likelihood of success. However, the downside of it is that from my experience, it seems to reduce some of the flavors found in the chocolate. So whether it is an appropriate ingredient or not depends on how the chocolate will be used. If it is going to be used for incorporation in desserts (ex. coverture), it is good that lecithin is present but if the chocolate will be used for eating, for the best-tasting experience, when the flavor is the primary consideration, lecithin should be avoided.
Have you ever been questioned about your choice before? And have you ever considered changing your "ingredients list"?
Yes, there have been some that have questioned our choices. I'm always happy to listen to feedback from our customers and people with different ideas on the matter. Sometimes, people's input has resulted in insights for us. However, we will not consider changing our ingredients list simply to follow the fad-of-the-day and pursue what others consider to be right because the result will be just chocolate without a "soul", and people can taste the difference.
As best we can tell, we have had people who have been not only inspired by Amano but have been to such a degree that their chocolate and marketing seem to indicate that they want to BE Amano. This has happened on several occasions. The result each time, in my opinion, has been chocolate that is soulless and without that special "magic" that makes it truly unique. When a new chocolate maker approaches the craft chocolate world, it is important for them to try many experiments and to develop their skill BEFORE launching their business. They need to find their own "voice" and their own "vision". Just like a true artist. They can't just imitate what they see others do and expect the same or better result. Someone can buy the very best sable brushes, hand-ground pigments, the finest canvases and brag about the quality of their "ingredients", tools and claiming their paintings will hang in the finest galleries to be admired by the richest people in the world but without first developing their method and finding their artistic vision, they are no more than amateurs with expensive supplies. And even if it is technically well done, their creation is going to be purely an unanimated "thing" that will, in a certain sense, remain foreign to the spectator.
So, I want to tell to the entrepreneur out there who may read this, before you launch your company, develop your technique and find your own vision, and do not just rely on what others are doing. I spent ten years experimenting before launching my first product. So, find your own voice and seek to bring out the flavors of the cocoa that you see in the beans that you work with. Don't rely on "investors" to buy you time to learn your craft because when you do it, you are ultimately stealing from them, your customers, and yourself. Do not rely too much on other people's work just because you believe there is some level of notoriety at the end or for awards, or accolades, and most especially money. While nice, they are ultimately hollow. The secret to real success is finding true satisfaction in your occupation and being that chocolate maker who comes out from pushing himself to the breaking point. Perhaps nobody will ever notice you and all your dedication. But you will notice because .... you did it.
How do you select your cacao beans? Have you ever considered that some cacao beans do not need/work with whole vanilla beans? Or do you think whole vanilla beans are just versatile ingredients that can be used for all the different origins?
Our cocoa beans are selected based on their flavor and the vision that we have for them. I taste the raw material and close my eyes and envision what flavors are there and how I want to express specific tasting notes. If what I see as the end result is something that I believe is worth pursuing, then we will buy the beans and run several tests to see what we can do to bring out the fullest potential of the beans that we work with.
I do a lot of photography. It is a hobby that has turned into a real passion. It has greatly influenced my chocolate-making through many hard lessons. My photography teacher in college was John Telford. He used to work as a print-man for Ansel Adams and he would follow Ansel's "recipes" for development, dodging, and burning the finished print. Ansel revolutionized the photography world by developing what he called the "zone system". With the zone system, the entire photographic process was taken into account to achieve a specific end result. The photographer would see the world in a series of shades of grey. Then when taking the photoshoot, the image would be purposely "over" and "under" exposed, the development process would also see the image as being purposely "over" or "under" developed. Each step would shift the result and bring the end image ever closer to achieving the vision that the photographer saw when the original image was taken. Ansel used to talk about what he called "Pre-Visualization". He stated that "The term pre-visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, is one of the most important concepts in photography”. Through the use of previsualization, Ansel would look at a scene and understand the entire process, the tools, techniques, and materials that it would take to bring what he "previsualized" to life.
It is similar to how I envision the end result that I am seeking to create when I taste cocoa beans. Everything after that point is designed to take what I have as ingredients, tools, and techniques and to turn them into my final vision. And if I am lucky and if I understand my ingredients, tools, and techniques properly, I can achieve the end result in chocolate in terms of flavor and texture.
Here are a few videos where Ansel Adams talks about "previsualization" and his use of tools to achieve the results he was seeking. Ansel Adams Most Famous Photograph: Moon Over Hernandez Ansel Adams' Story of Visualization
In conclusion, I personally think the technical aspects dealt with by Art Pollard and the educational material supplied are "highly explanatory". It is good to appreciate an example of the constant chaos of the bean-to-bar chocolate movement that we are dealing with. To me it is also a pretty big deal, especially considering the widespread use of any kind of inclusion in a chocolate bar (dark, milk, or white), that someone in our cluster might be arguably "vanilla intolerant". But as always, I do not have the last word on this subject.
Thank you so much to Amano Chocolate for the cooperation.