Chocolate. To some a simple confection and to others a sophisticated delicacy, as layered as a fine wine. But what is ‘real’ chocolate and why should consumers be more discerning? Libbie Hammond spoke to Sara Jayne Stanes, founder of the Academy of Chocolate, to find out

Having now been in existence for 15 years, the Academy of Chocolate still maintains the philosophy upon which it was founded – the belief that eating fine chocolate is one of life’s great pleasures. “We wanted to campaign for better chocolate and to promote a greater awareness of the difference between fine chocolate and mass-produced chocolate confectionery,” Sara Jayne Stanes, founder of The Academy of Chocolate, explained.

“We wanted to encourage chocolate lovers to look ‘beyond the label’,” she continued. “This also meant improving the standard and knowledge of chocolate in the UK by promoting an understanding of the ingredients of chocolate, through the chain, from bean to bar.”

When talking to Sara, she emphasised the point above about ‘real’ chocolate, and the Academy’s desire to establish the difference between chocolate and chocolate-confectionery, which is a product manufactured with a lot of sugar and little actual cocoa solids. “With the confectionery style products, most of us (including me when I first started) never taste the chocolate itself, as it is masked with so much sweetness that it kills the flavour. Chocolate ‘addiction’ comes from the sugar not the chocolate, particularly as the majority of chocolate confectionery contains only very small amounts of chocolate in the first place.”

So, if we want to experience some ‘real’ chocolate, what do we, as consumers, need to look for? “The cocoa solid content should be more than 60 per cent,” Sara confirmed. “Cocoa solids are simply the cocoa bean. However, like most things in life, the strength does not always indicate a good cocoa.”

According to Sara, ‘proper chocolate’ can only be created from the careful assembly of a myriad of factors including the variety of the beans, where they are grown, the fermentation process, the drying, and the manufacturer’s recipe and methods, not just chocolate with high cocoa solids.

Therefore, the cocoa producers themselves play a pivotal role in helping consumers find real chocolate, but as Sara pointed out, this isn’t straightforward. “The Academy believes that in reality, few producers really understand the difference between fine chocolate and confectionery. Nor do they realise that chocolate is made from a fruit, the cocoa bean, with flavours that can be very subtle if they are not masked in sugar and fat.

“As a result, it is difficult for consumers to find a selection of fine chocolate and make up their own minds. We strongly believe that giving people the chance to savour and to learn about fine chocolate will give them a greater appreciation and therefore anticipation for more ‘proper’ chocolate’.”

Prestigious awards
It is not just the producers that need to expand their understanding of chocolate, as the cocoa farmers themselves also have a crucial role to play, and Sara noted that over the last 20 years there has been a refreshing trend to link the cocoa farmer with the whole production process.

“This is partly because of the exploding interest in ‘real’ chocolate and the internet. This is a great move as we can begin to understand the journey from the farmer to the factory and the different varieties of beans and the method of processing – which is harvest, fermenting (to get the best flavours and ameliorate the astringency and bitterness), drying, shipping to the factory, sorting roasting, winnowing, grinding, refining, conching, and finally tempering (oh and enjoying!) Because of this openness there has been a greater understanding between the farmer and the manufacturer, which has in turn led to greater communication and co-operation.

“In addition, one of the Academy’s roles is to encourage the transparent sourcing of cocoa beans from the plantations and encourage their production in socially fair and environmentally undamaging conditions.”

Raising awareness of the importance of the provenance of chocolate and the significance that the right ingredients plays in the creation of ‘real’ chocolate is one of the Academy’s major responsibilities, but it is by no means its only function. It also identifies, recognises and showcases the world’s most talented chocolate producers and finest chocolates, through its own prestigious Academy of Chocolate awards. “These were also launched in 2005, when we received 12 awards entries. To give you an idea of how far they have come, so far this year, we have seen around 1600 entries, which marks a significant improvement in awareness,” noted Sara. She also highlighted the hard work of Silvija Davidson and Westminster Kingsway College as well as a host of expert judges in the success of the awards.

Sadly, due to the coronavirus pandemic the Awards judging process had to be halted, but the samples are being kept safe under the correct conditions and Sara was confident the Awards would be back on track as soon as is feasible.

The amazing array of different products that are sent in for the Academy judges to assess each year often give an insight into the trends that are likely to emerge in the future. From looking at 2019’s award winners, a lot of dark chocolates were given prizes – for this year Sara is predicting that ‘dark milk’ chocolate will be very much on the chocolate agenda. “Most milk chocolate contains about 25-30 per cent cocoa solids. Today there are more and more dark milk chocolate bars containing anything up to 60 per cent cocoa solids. They’re very delicious!” she added.

Before we finished our conversation, Sara also highlighted the team the Academy, who she credits with being a major part of its success in the industry. “We could not have achieved what we have over the years without a strong team of AoC management including Chantal Coady OBE, Sarah Jane Evans MW, Marie Pierre Moine, Clive Martyr, Simon Wright, Will Torrent, Angus Thirlwell, Christopher Reeves, Robin Dand and Piers Zangana for our comms.”

We must also include a reference to legendary chef Michel Roux OBE, who sadly passed away in March this year, shortly after Sara’s interview. She credited him as her ‘chocolate mentor’ and he had been the Patron of the Academy since its foundation. “Michel Roux was, and always will be, a hospitality champion,” she said. “It was a privilege for all of us at the Academy to know him. His presence and influence will outlive us all.”

The Academy of Chocolate has gone from strength to strength since its foundation, and Sara says that its ambition to see chocolate savoured in the same way as fine wines is still something it is hoping will come to fruition. “Once you have discovered what pleasure, complexity, richness and wide sensations there is in fine chocolate, you never look at chocolate the same way, you never buy chocolate the same way,” she said. “We want to bring this opportunity to as many people as possible, with no vested business nor commercial interest. We have already seen fantastic growth in understanding and appreciation of real chocolate and expect this to continue to grow.” D

For further information please visit: www.academyofchocolate.org.uk