Hong Kong chocolatiers look to raise the bar


Chocolate has come a long way. From its humble origins when it was consumed in only its purest form, free of all those scrumptious little add-ons – caramel, nuts, dried fruits, nougat and so on – the moreish foodstuff continues to evolve. The forms and shapes it now comes in are myriad. And surprisingly, it’s not always world-renowned chocolatiers in Switzerland and Belgium that are leading the charge. Asian chocolate makers are getting in on the act too, with tasty – and sometimes downright outlandish – combinations.

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Chai with chaga mushroom. Raspberry with rose and açai. Blueberry lavender. Cherry chilli. If these flavour combinations sound unusual on their own, try mixing them with chocolate. These pairings might prove the perfect amuse-bouche, giving your taste buds a pleasant tingle.

They are also the premium chocolate flavours that have been lovingly crafted by Raiz the Bar, a Hong Kong-based, family-owned business and – most notably – the first bean-to-bar organic chocolatier in the city. While other brands ship over frozen chocolate, or melt down couvertures (chocolate blocks) from Europe to create their own confections, Raiz the Bar starts from the finest raw ingredients to create its bespoke confectionary.

Cocoa farmer David Kebu Jnr holding the finished product, dried cocoa beans ready for export. Photo taken by Irene Scott for AusAID. (13/2529)

The company was founded by two Australian sisters, who are part of a growing group that is leading a vegan, gluten-free, health-conscious movement in Hong Kong. While this trend is well established in Western countries, it has been slow to take off in Asia.

However, this is all starting to change. While the low-cost chocolate confectionary treats found on the shelves of Hong Kong’s multitudinous 7-Elevens – think Twix and KitKat – still dominate market share, premium chocolate (especially dark chocolate) is experiencing high growth. This is led in part by an increasingly health-savvy consumer base. Perhaps most surprisingly, Asia is behind that demand.

“Growth of the chocolate industry over the last decade has been driven in large part by an increasing awareness of the health benefits of certain types of chocolate and growing popularity in Asia Pacific countries,” states a report by Value Research. “As consumers in these areas grow more accustomed to ‘western’ tastes, demand for chocolate has been booming.”

Rising incomes in Asia, particularly in China and India, are expected to contribute to a 30 percent increase in the global demand for cocoa over the next three years.

The report also found that “unique products and consumption experiences are keeping consumers coming back for more.”
According to Priscilla Soligo, who runs Raiz the Bar alongside her sister, Rachel Whitfield: “Our chocolates are free of refined sugar, dairy, gluten, soy, peanuts, tree nuts and GMOs. There is absolutely zero junk in our chocolates.”

“Our chocolates are free of refined sugar, dairy, gluten, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. There is absolutely zero junk in our chocolates”

In fact, the bars are considered so healthy that they are sold in wellness centres around Hong Kong, and the foodstuffs will soon be available for purchase in mainland China and other countries. The question, then, is how does Raiz the Bar ensure a taste that meets the high standards of chocolate aficionados?

The answer – like the brand’s ethos – can be traced back to the bean itself. Instead of using milk or coconut oil, cacao butter is extracted from the bean and mixed with the chocolate to produce a finished product that is creamy and smooth.

Rather than roasting their cacao beans – like most chocolate makers – they leave the beans raw for a pure, unadulterated taste of “real chocolate” without the distraction of other flavours that emerge during the roasting process. The beans, which are sourced primarily from Indonesia, are fermented and dried, then compressed to extract the cacao nibs and cacao butter. Once these products are ground down and liquefied, the chocolate is tempered and other flavours are added to the mix.

The result is a product that is high in magnesium (which aids muscle recovery) and has a low glycemic index. Chocolate is also one of the best sources of phenylethylamines. These compounds are naturally produced in the brain and often called the “love drug” for their ability to arouse feelings similar to the elation that comes with being particularly smitten.

It’s unsurprising, then, that chocolate lovers are willing to part with top dollar for that cacao-based feel-good hit. Despite fluctuations in chocolate prices due to extreme weather and political instability in some cacao-producing countries, the average chocolate consumer will spare no expense when it comes to this decadent treat, according to Value Research.

“Chocolate consumers are considerably price insensitive,” the report states. “Except in rare circumstances consumers are willing to purchase what they consider an ‘affordable luxury.’”

This is backed up by just how much chocoholics are willing to spend to sink their teeth into the tasty foodstuff.

For the ultimate in luxury cocoa comfort, sweet tooths should consider To’ak, an Ecuador-based brand that has repeatedly claimed the title as the world’s most expensive chocolate. One particular offering, the Vintage 2014 bar, retails for US$345 (HK$2,680) per 1.76 ounces. Much like how a fine brandy or wine is aged in barrels, the chocolate is placed for 18 months in a 50-year-old French oak Cognac cask. Only 100 bars were produced – all of which quickly sold out.

As described by To’ak: “The finest of wines, be they from Bordeaux or Napa or Tokaj (in Hungary), allow us the privilege of tasting the valley in which the grape was grown. We wanted to offer this same privilege to connoisseurs of chocolate.

“The idea of ageing our chocolate in a Cognac cask came about quite naturally. Of all the spirits that we paired To’ak with, Cognac in general was always the best partner. In most cases, the progeny of the two flavors – spirit and chocolate – was an enhancement of both. In the best of cases, the combination could rightfully be described as sublime.”

Even if they do say so themselves. But there’s little doubt the Ecuadorian chocolatier takes its craft seriously.

The brand’s “tasting guide” sounds similar to the steps that would be taken at a wine tasting. It recommends cleansing the palate with green apple or white bread, then observing the colour and sheen of the chocolate, followed by the cracking sound when the bar is split into a bite-sized piece. After that, it’s time for the sniff and taste test.

 “Some chocolatiers even experiment with distinctly Chinese flavours like fermented bean curd, black garlic and black sesame”

The chocolate purists at To’ak even pack a pair of hand-made, tweezer-like “tasting utensils” into each box of chocolate to prevent any scents on the consumer’s skin from muddling the aroma, and to avoid any “corruption” of the flavour that could be caused by skin contact.

What consumers are paying for is the taste, of course, but also time. It’s a long and laborious process to take a cacoa bean and turn it into a premium dark chocolate with a taste that is exceptional enough to make consumers overlook the price tag.

Other luxury chocolate brands, like La Maison du Chocolat and Godiva, have also been popular among Chinese consumers – proof that for many, quality rather than economy is the main consideration.

Another homegrown Hong Kong business is Vero. It has been a staple in the city’s chocolate industry for over a decade. The artisanal brand no longer has any retail locations, except for a few occasional pop-up shops, and has instead shifted focus to the bespoke and luxury market. Many of Vero’s clients include corporations, banks and hotels looking for a unique way to increase their brand recognition – and Vero has taken an all-consuming approach to this challenge.

Company logos are not only imprinted onto and engraved into Vero’s chocolates, but they can also be moulded onto chocolates through the use of a 3-D machine, giving the logo a raised effect rather than a sunken or flat surface. This service has been hugely popular and is evidence of the growing demand for a chocolate that not only tastes good, but it also aesthetically pleasing and beautifully packaged.

Vero - Signature Dark Square -16pcs gift box_path“The taste, of course, is important, but I think that the look of it – the shape, as well, and the colour (are equally important),” says Christine Chan, director of business development at Vero. “If you see the Japanese market, the trend is to use a lot of different colours – very sharp, very colourful. People are looking for something more than just plain dark chocolate.”

Vero starts with a couverture containing fresh ingredients from France, Italy and Belgium, then melts it down and adds unique ingredients, sometimes even experimenting with distinctly Chinese flavours like fermented bean curd, black garlic and black sesame, while also sticking to tried-and-tested ingredients like salted caramel and hazelnut.

One unique limited edition set called “Lunar,” released for the Mid-Autumn Festival last year, included miniature chocolates shaped like the moon, with craters and varying shapes and colours. It featured a white chocolate full moon, different shades of milk chocolate and ended with a dark chocolate eclipse, with fillings including toasted black sesame, raspberry jelly, and yuzu and mandarin pearls.

While bespoke chocolate makers are unlikely to surpass the sales of corporate giants like Nestlé and Hershey’s anytime soon, a finely crafted artisanal chocolate will always be a worthy investment among consumers with refined tastes.

Perhaps American actress Mariska Hargitay put it best: “Chocolate is the first luxury. It has so many things wrapped up in it: deliciousness in the moment, childhood memories and that grin-inducing feeling of getting a reward for being good.”

And even when no reward is merited, a piece of chocolate just tastes so darned good.

Text: Emily Petsko

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