20070924chocoz.jpgOne of the fascinating things about the candy industry is that it's rather like fashion. The are the couture confectioners and the mass marketers. The coutures start the trends, create the flavor combinations, and drive the interest in the market by being daring, and, of course, the huge factories take what's up-and-coming and turn out the lowest-common-denominator versions.

The difference, however, is that although people may be interested in trying new things, for the most part they eat the same thing they've eaten since childhood, the same things their grandparents may have eaten. If you look at the top ten candy bars, every one of them has been around for 40 years or more.

I sat in on a session at the All Candy Expo on capitalizing on the hottest premium chocolate trends. Joan Steur was the moderator and the panelists were Michael Antonorsi of Chuao Chocolatier, Jean Thompson of Seattle Chocolates and Jaques Dahan of Michel Cluizel. Each were asked to list their three top three key trends.

Jean focused the products and the consumers views of them with the new emphasis of cacao percentages, chocolate as a gourmet food and chocolate as a lifestyle.

Michael also gave his list from the view of how chocolate is perceived and accepted noting the shift of chocolate from a gift item to a personal indulgence, the move from candy bars to premium bars and how consumers now seek out fresh chocolates instead of the shelf stable ones found in drug stores. He also noted that people’s palates have matured and there is more awareness of nuanced flavors and the indulgence of multi-layered flavors with an acceptance of multiple influences.

Jacques noted the emergence of single plantation (single origin) , the shift to all natural and premium ingredients and soy free and/or allergen free. Michel Cliuzel chocolate is one of the few brands available that does not use soy lecithin as an emulsifier, which means that those with soy sensitivities can eat their products.

While few people regularly buy the most premium brands of fine chocolates, we do benefit from their risk-taking and experimentation in the marketplace. The idea of adding savory items and spices to chocolate may come from the very first chocolate ever made, but it’s the fine chocolatiers that reintroduced us. The fusions of fruits, nuts, vinegar, spices, beer, wine, liquor and even cheese are notions brought to us by the small chocolatier opening themselves up to new ways of bringing a unique and transcendent experience. Don’t think that it’s all stuffy either. Last year I tried a bonbon with Pop Rocks in it and Chuao’s bonbon of the month features Nerds on top of it! There’s room for amusement and play here.

One of the items at the show that exemplified this would be the new 99% Cacao Truffle from Michel Cluizel that Jacques urged me to try. It’s pure chocolate couveture (and of course the ganache is made with the same 99% cacao chocolate and some added cream). I was expecting a dry and acidic experience like baker’s chocolate. On the contrary, it was extremely creamy, smooth and rich with full flavors of chocolate but only the slightest trace of bitterness and a clean finish without being dry. It didn’t need the sweetness. The higher cacao percentages can be seen emerging in the mass-marketed bars of Hershey’s and Dove and in the step up with Cote d’Or, Dagoba, Lindt and Ghiradelli.

While I still think that the most of the fine chocolatiers are price prohibitive for mere mortals, as an occasional treat or indulgence, they make me sit up and take notice by really making me think about the flavors I’m enjoying (or not in some cases). The good news is that the authentic experience may be limited for most of us, but it does trickle down. Scharffen Berger may be best known for their Nibby Bar (dark chocolate with cacao nibs) but Hershey’s recently introduced their Cacao Reserve line with a dark chocolate bar with cacao nibs that even won the Consumer Reports best upscale bar taste test.

Yes, I like my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and M&Ms, but I also enjoy the wacky limited edition bars that they come out with including the Elvis tribute Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup with Banana Crème or the KitKat Pumpkin from Japan or Snickers Almond Dark bar.

I’ll leave you with this passage from The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda explains it all:

Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
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