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Friday, July 25, 2008

Mmm, land of chocolate

Feature on this weekend's Chocolate Festival in Temple Bar from today's Examiner.
Chocolate, as the saying goes, is not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that. This is certainly the philosophy behind the sweetest event of summer 2008: the first ever Chocolate Festival which takes place in Temple Bar in Dublin this weekend.

The festival will bring together chocolate artisans from all over Ireland for three lip-smacking days of sampling and tasting, as well as talks, exhibitions, workshops and movies all revolving around the world’s most popular confectionary.

It should certainly go down well in this country where research shows we are officially a nation of chocoholics. Ireland has the highest per capita consumption of chocolate in the world (just ahead of the Swiss), munching our way through 11.2kg each of the stuff every year. What’s more, our chocolate market is the 12th biggest in Europe, estimated at e544m, and we remain the biggest export market for the UK.

It should come as little surprise therefore that attitudes here towards chocolate have become more sophisticated in recent years. While chocolate produced by commercial giants like Cadbury and Nestle evidently remains popular, there has been a growing interest in speciality chocolate, particularly focusing on the origins, and quality, of the product’s cocoa beans, and the conditions in which it is made.

According to market analysts ABM Amro, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was the strongest seller in the Irish market (40 per cent) for the years 2006-2007, followed by Galaxy (12 per cent of market share) and Bournville (10 per cent).

However, the big news from that research was the growth in sales at the premium end of the chocolate market, notably the organic Fairtrade producers Green and Black’s, which grew by double digits in the year.

This development itself is proof of the interest in high-quality chocolate. Micah Carr-Hill, head taster with Green and Black’s, puts the company’s surge in sales down to the growing interest in organic food and that its product contains more cocoa than its milk chocolate rivals (double the amount in some cases).

“I also think the company really took off because we use a fine flavour variety of bean called Trinitario, which has a more distinctive flavour than the Forastero type used by the majority of the world’s chocolate producers,” Carr-Hill says.

“I’m in charge of product development, but I worked in the wine industry beforehand, so I approach the job from a point of view of general taste, not just chocolate.”

The Chocolate Festival’s organiser, Eimear Chaomhanach of the Temple Bar Cultural Trust, says one of the purposes of this weekend’s event is to encourage a wider appreciation of chocolate and how it is consumed.

“There’s so much out there in this field,” she explains. “We had been doing initial preparation on a festival like this for a few years, and we just had the capacity this year to do it.

“The idea behind it really just came from feedback from chocolate enthusiasts nationwide: people who wanted to celebrate high quality, handmade chocolate where the cocoa content is high up the scale. The response has been phenomenal: mention chocolate to anyone – adult, child or connoisseur – and their face just lights up.”

One of the artisan producers taking part in the festival is the Skellig Chocolate and Cocoa Bean Company, which is based in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry. They specialise in handmade confectionary, and one of their trademarks is their adventurous approach to flavours and recipes: recent concoctions have been infused with sea salt, lime and black pepper, gin and tonic and even a Christmas chocolate bar with sprinklings of pine needles and festive spices.

“Chocolate is a fantastic but affordable luxury, and high end chocolate is going the same way as wine, coffee or olive oil,” explains Skellig’s Emily Sandford. “People are travelling more and sampling different cuisines so their understanding of food has improved.

“They are beginning to understand the various flavours of chocolate and the ways it can be used in different combinations and styles.”

The festival will also look at one of the more surprising developments to emerge in the chocolate industry in recent years: the supposed health benefits from indulging your sweet tooth. For centuries cocoa and its derivatives had been hailed as some kind of natural remedy for ailments such as liver disease and kidney disorders.

Of course, in recent decades, chocolate has gotten a bad rap from health officials, as the majority of chocolate consumed is heavily processed, and so is problematic in terms of saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar. However, less-processed darker chocolate with a high cocoa quotient has been shown to be high in flavonoids, an antioxidant which slow down cell damage.

Chocolate artisan Natasha Czoper is a self-confessed “raw foodie” who will deliver a lecture during the festival entitled ‘The Chocolate Revolution’ in which she will extol the virtues of the cacao plant and its positive effects on the body.

Czoper’s company, Natasha’s Living Foods, makes its products from raw cacao beans sourced from the Andes that are cold pressed, rather than roasted, and so retain most of their nutritional worth. Cacao contains some 300 compounds including protein, fibre, iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium, which helps to build strong bones and is known as a muscle relaxant. And it doesn’t end there.

“Cacao also contains phenylethylamine (PEA) which is a ‘bliss’ chemical,” Czoper explains. “This helps to release serotonin in the brain, which creates the same feeling you have when you’re excited or in love. It also helps to keep you focused and alert.

“The way cacao helps stimulate neurotransmitters from the brain is what makes chocolate so powerful and addictive. These chemicals help to orchestrate our moods and energy levels, and they create a compulsion to eat it.”

Czoper also stresses that the mere act of eating high quality chocolate can be just as powerful. “Chocolate is about enjoyment and sharing something beautiful, even if it’s just with yourself,” she says.

“You’ll find that within five minutes of people eating this kind of chocolate that they’re giggling or flirting because they’re starting to relax. Chocolate gives the body pleasure, as well as it being a pleasurable thing to eat.

“People love their sweets in Ireland, but we have such an issue around guilt. The thinking goes that anything that’s really tasty obviously has to be bad. I want to change that attitude and show people that things that are luxurious and tasty can also be healthy and pleasurable.”

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