How craft chocolate is like olive oil.

A few blocks from our house, there’s a store that sells olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Nothing else.

Photo credit:  Emre Gencer

Photo credit: Emre Gencer

Dispensed from spouts sticking out of the sides of shiny silver canisters, the oils are uniquely, noticeably different, some tasting grassy and buttery, others peppery and herbaceous. But all bold and strong, unlike olive oils you find in a conventional supermarket.

“Once someone tries a real extra virgin – an adult or a child, anybody with taste buds – they'll never go back to the fake kind. It's distinctive, complex, the freshest thing you've ever eaten. It makes you realize how rotten the other stuff is, literally rotten. But there has to be a first time. Somehow we have to get those first drops of real extra virgin oil into their mouths, to break them free from the habituation to bad oil, and from the brainwashing of advertising. There has to be some good oil left in the world for people to taste.” – Tom Mueller, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

After reading this book, it’s apparent that chocolate has another food item to liken itself to, in addition to wine, tea, coffee, and beer: olive oil. In a likewise nascent stage in terms of appreciation, quality control, and regulation, olive oil, like cacao, doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I am guilty of lacking respect for olive oil, assuming that buying anything labeled “extra virgin” was good enough. That is not the case. Cheap olive or even non-olive oils are often fraudulently marketed under the extra virgin label. Again, from Tom Mueller’s book:

“But olive oil labels all say the same thing, whether the bottle contains a magnificent oil or this schifezza…. “ He pointed the neck of the bottle at me like a gun, then lifted his glasses to read the label. “It says what every olive oil says: 100 percent Italian, cold-pressed, stone-ground, extra virgin….” He shook his head, as if unable to believe his eyes. “Extra virgin?” What’s this oil got to do with virginity? This is a whore.”

So if you can’t trust the label “extra virgin”, what does constitute truly good olive oil? What differentiates a good olive oil from a cheap substitute, or an olive oil that’s labeled as such, but isn’t even olive oil at all, but instead cheap soybean or canola oil that’s colored with additives and marketed with Italian flags? Enter Ultra Premium Extra Virgin olive oil:

Ultra Premium (UP) is a new category of olive oil that distinguishes the highest quality olive oil in the world. The UP standard was created in response to the growing need to separate high quality extra virgin olive oils from what dominates the so called “gourmet” and “premium” olive oil markets, as well as the broader category sold in mass markets the world over under thousands of brands and private labels. The absurdly low standards created and fostered by numerous trade associations and government agencies responsible for policing them has only contributed to the confusion and misinformation. EU producers are actually given a perverse incentive in the form of government subsidies to keep their oils in storage until market conditions improve. This practice clearly demonstrates the governmental complicity with retailers and bottlers to sacrifice quality for price. Lack of enforcement and testing by these trade associations and governmental agencies has led to a marketplace dominated by inferior oils and rife with adulteration. These practices by some of the world’s largest olive oil producers and bottlers have led to a steep decline in prices of extra virgin olive oil and are driving quality oil producers out of business. –

When comparing this definition with cacao, the best analogy I can think of is Hershey trying to pass its Hershey’s Dark as high quality craft chocolate, even though its ingredient list reads like this:

Sugar, Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Milk Fat, Lactose(Milk), Soy Lecithin, PGPR (Emulsifier), Vanillin (Artificial Flavor), Milk.

Unfortunately, the cacao industry doesn’t yet have these types of standard definitions in place, nor the governing body to monitor them. Yet. The Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, founded by Carla Martin is on a mission to be and do just that. Last February, I attended their three-day cacao grader intensive training and am a better, more conscientious chocolate maker for it.