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During the Indian summers, one thing that is ubiquitous across all homes is mango. Some of the well-known varieties most of us have heard of are Alphonso, Badami, Chausa, Dasheri, Kesar and Langra out of close to 283 varieties. Though all of them may seem similar, they all differ from each other in flavour and colour along with their size and texture. The natural conditions that the mangoes grow create these distinct and wonderful flavours in them. Cacao and its flavours are much like mango but on a much larger scale.

Imagine the region across the globe 20 degrees above and below the equator and you have the region where cacao is grown. The cacao tree produces the cacao fruit which contains the cacao beans. When grown naturally, cacao symbolises earth and all its eccentricities. A chocolate produced with cocoa bean grown in one region can vary completely from that produced in a region just a few kilometres away. Nature gives cacao its flavour and these flavours ultimately become a part of the chocolate. Let us take a look at what defines the flavour of the cacao.

Varieties of cacao

Of the ten major families of cacao recognized today, the most well-known are the Criollo, Forastero/Amelonado, Trinitario and Nacional varieties. Nacional is considered to be the oldest variety of cacao in the world with a fragrant aroma and remarkable complexity with fruity, floral, nutty and earthy notes. Criollo is known to be exceptionally smooth with little or no bitterness, with rich nutty flavours and classic chocolate notes. Forastero is a resilient cacao variety with rich chocolate flavours and strong bitter compounds. Trinitario considered a hybrid of Amelonado and Criollo has rich chocolate flavours but reduced bitterness due to the criollo lineage. Under ideal conditions, these are how the beans should taste. But these flavours and aromas change depending on the various natural conditions which at times cannot even be measured. Moreover, cacao is known for its high interbreeding so no two trees are alike and it’s quite common to see trees with multi-coloured cacao pods or fruits.

Environment / Terroir

The soil, climate, flora of the region, the topography along with other natural variables also define the flavour of the cacao. For example, droughts tend to bring out the sharper, citrus notes while heavy rains bring out the subtle fruit and spice flavours. A lot of cacao, especially in Asia, is grown under the shade of coconut and banana trees and hence imbibe a lot of flavours that comes from these trees. When we see an industrial brand of chocolate, we see all chocolates as one. But it is so much more than that. With so many varied flavours and with so much depth.

Fermentation and drying methods:

Fermentation of the cacao beans is one of the most important steps in the creation of chocolate. The size and type of the fermentation container, the number of days the cacao is fermented along with many other factors define how the cacao would finally taste. Once fermented, they are dried. The drying method – sun dried, artificial drying or any other – contributes to the final flavour of the bean and of the chocolate.

Roasting

If and how a bean is roasted also defines the end flavour in the chocolate. When cocoa beans are roasted, along with reducing the moisture content, it can enhance certain notes while subduing others. When left unroasted, it retains the (often) high acidity and the raw flavours of the cocoa bean, provided it is handled well. Some cacao beans have such delicate flavours in them that they need to be roasted low and slow to retain those flavours in the chocolate. As a general rule (but not an end in itself), a bean roasted at high temperatures may taste more chocolatey and nutty while one roasted at low temperatures may taste fruitier. We roast our cocoa beans at low temperatures to retain and enhance the core flavours of the cacao.

Grinding & Conching

Grinding and conching are the final steps in the process of chocolate making. Cocoa nibs, which form the insides of the cocoa beans are ground for many hours, sometimes even days, till they turn into liquid chocolate. Once the chocolate is ground, it may be conched (mixed, smoothened and agitated) to bring out desirable flavours and remove undesirable flavours present in the cocoa.

A wheel of flavours contained within cacao

Flavour Wheel

When we take a look at the flavour wheel above, we are astonished at the flavours that can exist within chocolate. This is majorly because we have come to associate chocolate with just one kind of flavour. Chocolate can give flavours in wine a run for its money with its sheer variety and complexity.

However, all this is if the cacao has been grown and processed properly and responsibly to create good cocoa. And this is a big ‘if’. If not then the varieties do not matter. A chocolate made from Criollo beans grown in bad conditions, with no care for the chocolate and earth and fermented without any care is not going to taste good. Period.

At the same time a forastero can taste as good as or even better than a good criollo. The variety of the beans or the origin of the cacao do not matter. Great flavour chocolate can be created from any bean which has been grown naturally with utmost care for us and our planet and then fermented and handled well.

Also what eventually matters is our palate and our preferences. Some may like the fruitiness of a nacional while some may like the deep chocolate flavour of a forastero. After all we are all unique. And there is a unique chocolate for all of us.

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