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Standing Up for the Fondeur - a Missive

I've noticed a trend that disturbs me. There are enough misconceptions and unjustified biases in the chocolate world already; it's time this one was laid to rest. I've seen it time and again, in news features and in company literature. I saw it just now. As interest in fine chocolate rises and the number of domestic bean-to-bar manufacturers rises (thank goodness), I see it more often.

"We don't just melt other people's chocolates."

The sentiment is a fair one, but it's so often expressed poorly. There are certainly professionals who "just" melt other peoples' chocolates. These are not the fondeurs; they are the bad fondeurs. The lazy, the opportunistic, or simply the rustic and innocent. Ma & pa candy shops in seaside resort towns "just" melt down other peoples' chocolates; so do large companies that fall over themselves to tell you how refined they are. We've probably all amused ourselves with the story of Noka. Bad fondeurs.

To lump all chocolatiers together as people who just make candy with other people's chocolate is unfair. Do you put Robert Linxe in the same class as Lake Champlain? Jacques Genin and Godiva? There is definitely a difference. Starting with fine chocolate is key; starting with a variety of fine chocolates is equally important. The bigger the palette, the more room for expression. Even leaving out the rest of the process, these two provisions are enough to separate a handful of good chocolatiers from the mediocre majority. Curious that an artisan chocolate maker will go to such lengths to differentiate their process--sourcing directly from small growers, manufacturing small batches in a hands-on fashion to preserve flavor, etc.--and then fail to make the same distinctions for their colleagues on the other side of the fence. It's like a small chocolatier saying "unlike those larger bean-to-bar operations, who only make chocolate-flavored chocolate, we put a dozen flavors in every box". Pretty weak argument.

A good fondeur's work is the same as that of a good chocolate maker, or for that matter, a good chef: create surpassing flavors and textures; create a sensory experience to delight the consumer. A fondeur doesn't make his own couverture, a chef doesn't raise his own cattle, and (in most cases) a chocolate maker doesn't grow his own beans. Having spent some time on both sides of the chocolate industry, I'll vouch that making chocolate is no more or less difficult than making chocolate bonbons. In both fields, it's much easier to make a passable product than to make one that excels. If the artisan chooses to settle for nothing less than the best; s/he is charged with synthesizing numerous base ingredients into something profound and unique. The chocolate maker handles ingredients with larger equipment, and needs a certain understanding of how to employ complex machinery to get very specific results. The chocolatier works with smaller, simpler tools, and employs a certain physical coordination to get very specific results. Both require a deep knowledge of the chemistry and physics at work, and an intuitive understanding of the raw materials and their potential.

Chocolate makers, of course, use fewer ingredients. Many are fond of pointing out the "purity" of their product and its flavor. They like to point out all the things they don't add. Well, of course fine chocolate really shouldn't contain cocoa butter substitutes or vanillin, so more power to you there. But the notion of "pure" chocolate is artificial. Pure chocolate doesn't exist, as chocolate is not found in nature. Once a cacao bean has been fermented, it's essentially a product of human technology. Everything that happens from then on is craftsmanship, and adding soy lecithin or vanilla beans is as valid a choice as drying and roasting. I've had very "pure" chocolate bars that I wouldn't wish on anyone--the only meaningful standard is how a chocolate feels and tastes in your mouth. Everything else is just marketing.

Marketing. I certainly understand why a company needs to differentiate itself from others in their field. Even on a very broad level, however, a chocolate makers' competitors are other chocolate makers, not the chocolatiers. Dismissing the craft of the fondeur in half a sentence is unnecessary and is, in fact, a thinly veiled insult to the chocolate masters of the world. The two sides of artisanal chocolate really have a great deal in common, yet they are frequently treated as different worlds. Surely we would benefit from a little more unity.

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Tags: Godiva, Jacques Genin, Lake Champlain, Noka, Robert Linxe, chocoiate maker, fondeur, melter, thinly veiled insult


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Comment by Mindy Fong on September 29, 2009 at 1:48am
well put!

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