November 2023 Edit: * Firetree chocolate is now, sadly, ‘may contain’ for milks and nuts.
We neck our beer in this country. We slurp our tea. We quaff our wine. And we chomp our chocolate.
And yet in so doing we miss so much of the complexity of flavour that might be clamouring for attention on our palates. It seems a real shame that food and drink tasting isn’t taught to us at a far younger age, so that we learn more quickly that sweet isn’t necessarily desirable, and bitter likewise not always to be avoided, that tastebuds can learn, adapt, accept, and detect far more than we think is possible — if only we pay attention.
This is especially true in the case of chocolate, if we try to wean ourselves off an exclusive diet of the highly sweetened varieties.
Firetree chocolate has been on my radar for a while — primarily because I would consider them an ‘allergen-friendly’ brand: their chocolate is produced in a nut-free factory, and has always been free of all top 14 allergens*. There are others out there with similar free from qualities, possibly even ‘accidentally’ so, but not all appear to have quite the reassuring understanding and allergy awareness to make their position stated and clear to those who need to know it.
The Firetree Tasting Event I was invited to and which took place last night reminded me of the simple pleasure of taking the time to taste chocolate properly. To stop chomping, and start savouring.
“Rich volcanic chocolate” is what we were on Zoom to enjoy, and I’m abashed to admit that I was barely aware that the cocoa bean could be sourced from far-flung locations outside of mainland South America and Africa. Firetree venture well beyond: aiming to bring cocoa from the Philippines, Caribbean islands, the Pacific islands and elsewhere to our palates.
The Firetree team, led by their experienced chocolate maker Martyn O’Dare, talked me and around 20 other keen chocoholics through the launch of their Innovations Collection — single-estate bars made with cocoa sourced from Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Indonesia and Hispaniola.
I was originally most interested in their new oat chocolate, and which uses a bean from the Solomon Islands (Guadalcanal) — a real departure for Firetree. Oat ‘milk’ chocolate appears to be having a moment — I’ve spotted several launches on the market lately — and this bar, blended with gluten-free oat powder and rice flour, was a smooth convincingly milky chocolate, that many vegans and milk-allergy consumers would I’m sure enjoy.
But as it turned out it was the dark chocolate varieties that most impressed me. I was surprised that the Vanuatu Malekula Island 100% Cocoa bar was so smooth — I’ve never previously found a 100% cocoa chocolate that I could consume painlessly — and although I wouldn’t personally choose it, it would be the one I would now recommend to anyone moving up the scale of percentages and wanting maximum ‘cocoa’ hit.
The two I loved were the Hispaniola, and the Indonesia Seram Island, both at 72%.
The Hispaniola (green packaging) is described as having spicy red fruit notes and a hint of green banana, and although my palate I suspect needs a bit more training to pick out all such subtleties, I did enjoy it tremendously.
Where I enjoyed greater success was with the Indonesia Seram (orange, pictured top right) — at least at picking out and being able to give name to some particular flavours. Where the sleeve described walnuts, treacle and floral notes, I picked up citrus and something Christmas-y, possibly clove or cinnamon. But, as we were reassured, there is no wrong and right in chocolate, and our own experiences of tasting it will be as diverse as the various volcanic soils in which the cocoa tree — the ‘firetree’ — is grown. Because of this, each island’s plantation has its own ‘signature’, Martyn told us, which with careful handling and processing, from experienced growers and chocolatiers, could be teased out, resulting in unique, distinctive products.
Climate change, interestingly, is beginning to affect cocoa bean growers. The two main and minor annual harvests have begun to level up, even swap over, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although as the effects of temperature changes continue to have unintended and unpredictable consequences, one can’t help feeling that these skilled workers in far-flung lands remain some of the more vulnerable among us on the planet.
We could do well by supporting companies who use these growers’ irreplaceable produce, especially those which tick all-important-to-us allergy aware boxes too.
To learn more about Firetree Chocolate, click here.
The Firetree Innovations Gift Box is priced at £33, and is available here.
The next Firetree Tasting Event takes place on 15th December. To learn more and register, click here.