A few weeks ago, I overheard a customer inquiring after the line of fancily wrapped chocolates that we have for sale at the front of the store – you know, our version of the Snickers bar and US Weekly you’d impulse grab in the checkout line at Safeway. In the case of Foodshed, it’s hand-rolled taralli and a selection of Majani chocolates. The customer in question noted the chocolates, and asked one of the cashiers if any of these chocolates were, in fact “single source.” The cashier said no, while I cringed and made a mental note to start writing this blog post.
I’m not critiquing his vocabulary, although single origin is the more generally used term, rather than single source. More the tone. More the step he took back from the chocolates following the confirmation that they were not, in fact, single source (or single origin for that matter…). Because then I had to ask myself, when did “single” become synonymous with quality? This is not to say that single origin products are not or cannot be of high quality. They most absolutely can be. But simply designating them as single origin is no more an indicator of quality than designating them as local. Or organic.
Let’s look at the chocolates in question. Majani. A chocolatier based out of Bologna, a city well known for its indulgent take on cuisine. Established in the waning days of the 18th Century, a company so old it can’t even properly be called Italian, since its founding predates the sovereign nation of Italy. Still, a company that evolves with the times, and is now producing an extraordinarily wide range of chocolate products available around the world, and is perhaps best known for their bite-sized cremini wrapped in eye-catching colors and emblazoned with the ever-iconic FIAT logo. Do all new FIATS come with a box of chocolates? Or maybe buying a FIAT is like opening a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get.
Still, after a quick perusal of the Majani website (and a concurrent state of depression at the realization of the depths to which my Italian reading comprehension has sunk), they do not appear to offer any products that we would deem “single origin”.
What then, exactly, is single origin? Single origin, particularly in the worlds of chocolate, coffee, and vanilla, refers to a product whose main component ingredients are of a single varietal sourced exclusively from a particular area of the world. In fact, the closest parallel to the concept of single origin is the idea of terroir in wine (or pizza), which I seem to find myself writing about quite frequently and unashamedly. Leaving pizza out of this for a moment, let’s take a look at wine. In fact, more than terroir it really might be the term cru on which we want to focus. Referring to a vineyard, or group of vineyards, and which, generally, is accessed by more than one winemaker, certain crus are known for certain qualities and characteristics, which are then interpreted in various cellars into various wines. Not all wines from a single cru will taste the same, because, like all food and beverage products, human intervention is an essential part of ultimately making them palatable.
Now let’s backtrack to terroir for a second. This is the expression of place in a wine. Or chocolate. Or pizza. And while truly extraordinary wines can be created from a single vineyard, truly extraordinary wines are not only created from a single vineyard. Terroir can be expressed in a blend, and, even more so, extraordinariness can be expressed in a blend.
And the same goes for chocolate. Single origin chocolates can be harsh and tough and unlike anything you would ever call chocolate. They can also be delicious. But they are not delicious because they are single origin, they are delicious because the final product expresses the unique characteristics of its origin in a balanced way. Have you ever taken a bite of a simple, roasted cocoa bean? You can taste extraordinary flavors, but you probably don’t want to eat more than one bean. Because along with the unique flavors of that cocoa bean, you’ll probably also get a fair amount of astringency and acid, which, in this instance, are very likely not balanced out by any other characteristics (i.e. sugar) to make it a pleasurable experience to continuing eating the beans.
Granted, most single origin chocolate bars are produced in such a way as to provide the proper balancing ingredients to make it an overall pleasurable experience. Which is why it is, and should be, a sought-after product. A well-made single origin chocolate bar, or ice cream for that matter, is going to teach you things about chocolate that you didn’t know were possible. But you know what else can be delicious? A chocolate bar filled with gianduja – the Nutella-precursor chocolate/hazelnut paste that’s crammed inside one of those Majani bars that the our friend from the top of the story was looking at with such derision. And you know what makes it so good? The fact that the makers use a blend of cocoas that provide the proper chocolatey base for the confection, that highlights the nuttiness of the hazelnuts, and allows for each bite to be delicious, satisfying, and still leave you craving the next one*. Extremeness (extremity?) in food and beverage can be fun, and interesting, and push your brain and your palate to like and understand new things, but in the end the best products might offer an extreme component, but will always end in balance.
The rise of single origin products is, overall, a very positive thing. It brings respect and attention to growers and regions of the world that have long been seen as just a nameless, faceless commodity source. But to truly appreciate their products, we must learn to appreciate quality and not just terminology.
*I promise this isn’t an advertisement for Majani. For the holy union of chocolate and hazelnuts, maybe, but not for any particular product.