Chocolate heaven: an evening with Cocoa Runners at Out of Office Coffee
February 16, 2018
Hands up who eats chocolate every day? Apparently, 25 per cent of us do.
Last week I was invited along to a chocolate tasting session at Out of Office Coffee in Newport Pagnell. Not one to pass up a chance to eat free chocolate (who would?) I said yes. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.
If you've ever been to either of Out of Office Coffee's shops, you may already know it sells artisan chocolate bars from a supplier called Cocoa Runners, which specialises in single grower, bean to bar chocolate from around the world including Madagascar, Vietnam and the USA. On its books it has more than 800 bars from craft chocolate makers. Cocoa Runners runs a service where, once a month, subscribers receive four different bars and there is no repetition from one month to the next.
Last Thursday, Spencer Hyman (who I recognised from his appearances on Channel 4's Sunday Brunch) from Cocoa Runners was our guide to the world of craft chocolate - we're not talking about your average bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk here. Chocolate is undergoing somewhat of a revolution as smaller scale chocolate makers are able to source beans directly from small farmers. It seems chocolate is no longer just for scoffing in front of Netflix on a Friday night, but is designed for savouring with a glass of red wine after dinner. And it is that market Cocoa Runners is appealing to.
After enjoying some tasty coffee (and cake) on arrival it was time to get down to some serious chocolate tasting, and serious it was, as it was also an opportunity to learn about much less widely discussed issues in the chocolate making business including good and bad production practices, deforestation and slavery.
We tasted 14 different chocolates, varying in cocoa content from 100 per cent (bitter) to 40 per cent (white chocolate). There were smoky, caramel, spicy and earthy flavours among others as well as different mouthfeels and textures. There was something for everyone although not every chocolate was a hit with some of the 100 per cent cocoa content bars not striking a chord with many. Those ones are not designed for chomping on, although one of them, we were told, goes well with red wine.
But when it comes to chocolate, it seems there is more to consider than just taste. Chocolate does have its dark side. Agricultural practices have led to deforestation in places such as Côte d'Ivoire. According to an article published on The Guardian website in September last year, rainforest cover has been reduced by 80 per cent since 1960 thanks to the cocoa trade.
The cocoa industry has also seen the use of child labour and slavery, although the big names in chocolate say they are aiming to eradicate their use. Whether they are doing that quickly enough, is another matter.
Cocoa Runners says it sources its chocolate from producers who use beans from farmers that don't cut down rainforests and even use the rainforest canopy as a form of shelter for the beans.
The evening was an entertaining as well as a learning experience. Not only did we get to try some different types of chocolate we would normally pass on, we were also given some food for thought.
I will say however, that at a cost of £18.95 a month for four bars, the subscription service for me is difficult to justify spending my money on, although I may consider buying an individual bar the next time I am at Out of Office. The average person on the street may agree, but if you like the gourmet side of chocolate, you might consider it worth shelling out for.
On the matter of poor labour practices and deforestation, as consumers we must be prepared to put pressure on the larger firms to make sure they are ethical in everything they do and practice corporate responsibility. A look on the website for Cadbury reveals it has a programme called Cocoa Life which it says aims to improve the lives of cocoa workers in farming communities in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Indonesia, India, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil. Whether it actually does what it says on the tin remains to be seen.
If you are interested in finding out more about Cocoa Runners, you can find them at cocoarunners.com