Claudio Corallo, the art of real chocolate
An exclusive interview with Italian chocolatier Claudio Corallo, regarded as one of the world's top chocolate producers. His chocolate is the only one that is both grown and produced in the same place – on the islands of São Tomé and Principe, in the Gulf of Guinea. Let’s find out what makes his chocolate so unique.
Can you tell us about your chocolate concept?
The basic principle is that in order to get great products, it's essential to have great starting ingredients. It may sound obvious, but this principle is actually applied to cocoa much less than it is to, say, olive oil or wine. No one would ever think of producing good olive oil with poor quality olives, or good wine using second-rate grapes. That is the basis for all products, including chocolate.
Our Big Nibs, that is, our commercial cocoa beans, is the product that best encapsulates this idea: raw and roasted beans that are then hand-peeled with the only aid of the tip of a sharpener – quite a difficult process, by the way. Cocoa beans either taste good or bad. No two ways about it.
What are your key production stages?
Production can be divided into two parts: the first includes growing up to harvesting, the second goes from harvesting to storage. The first stage is influenced by many basic factors, including soil quality. When a plantation is located in the forest, there will be smaller harvests, lower yields and more waste, just like coffee. However, once harvested, processed and selected, the quality of that cocoa will not be affected by the amount of work you've been putting into your plantation. Cocoa must clearly be harvested at just the right time.
Processing begins after a two-step selection and includes fermentation and drying. The final step is storage. That's also critical, as storing fresh products at the equator is not that simple. From harvesting to storage, we need to pay close attention to several factors, a chain of steps that is specifically designed to preserve the quality of our cocoa. Processing being the same, what makes the difference is obviously terroir and variety.
How is your cocoa so different from mainstream cocoa?
First of all, let's make one thing clear: bitter cocoa is not good cocoa. Bitterness is always a flaw, just like it is in coffee. The big lie that good cocoa must be bitter is surprising, to say the least. The much-celebrated bitterness of cocoa is not caused by the absence of sugar. Bitter cocoa is actually the result of poor processing. Consequently, adding sugar does not make bitter cocoa sweet – it only makes it sugary. That's why when you eat bad chocolate, once the sugar bomb wears off in the mouth, you're left with a strongly bitter taste in the throat.
The easiest way to understand this concept is to taste raw cocoa – commercial cocoa beans, which we offer peeled, raw and roasted. The beans are broken because when we peel them, in addition to the integument we also remove the root, which requires breaking the beans both in raw and roasted products. We also do something that is amazing yet incredibly simple: we taste the beans. If they taste good, we can make good chocolate, if they don't, we need to go back to processing and see where the problem is.
If the product is not good as is, no machines or miracles can make it good. As I said, it's just the same with oil – if you use poor quality olives, you may filter it, process it, alter it all you want, you'll always end up with olive-based lubricant. The same is true with cocoa: if the commercial beans, which are the basic ingredient, are not good, then there's really nothing you can do.
How long does it take for cocoa beans to ripen and what are the most critical processing stages?
It takes about 5 months from flower to fruit. But only 2% of the flowers end up turning into fruit. That means that for every two fruits you need 100 fertilized flowers. Good cocoa can easily be ruined at any processing stage, including storage. Because of the tropical climate and high moisture levels, mold develops quickly. For this reason, our storage facilities in Nova Moca are dehumidified and raised above ground level. Nova Moca is also where our coffee plantation is, about 1000 meters above sea level. The temperature at night can drop as low as 11° C and I think the resulting thermal shock helps preservation, because our dehumidified containers keep the environment dry and the strong variation in temperature helps keep and improve the cocoa.
Maturation during storage is also key because, just like coffee, freshly processed cocoa has a grassy taste, which it loses during this additional maturation period.
Is roasting also a very delicate step?
Cocoa can only be ruined by roasting it too much. When it's good raw – that is, if it were possible to make excellent chocolate from raw cocoa – a little roasting won't ruin it. So it's actually much simpler than it seems.
Strangely enough, when it comes to chocolate people don't usually realize that the more cocoa is processed, the more flavor it loses. We grind our cocoa as little as possible, as experience tells us that the more we process it, the more freshness and fragrance we lose. It's the same principle as steak tartare. When chopped with a knife the meat will have one flavor, when minced with a meat grinder it will have a different flavor. Or take almond paste: you get a very strong fragrance as soon as you start crushing your almonds, but if you go on for too long, you'll just lose it. The same is true for parsley, and so on.
When you have good cocoa, your goal is to preserve its fragrance both in raw and roasted products.
So the general rule is, keep processing to the bare minimum.
The best way to understand the importance of limited processing is to compare two of our chocolates. Take our even grain size 75% cocoa and our Soft 73.5%. The former is made by grinding cocoa and sugar together down to 40 thousandths of a millimeter, while the second contains small pieces of unground cocoa beans. The recipe is essentially the same. Soft has an extra 1.5% of sugar for a total of about 26.5% instead of 25%. It's interesting to note how much more vibrant and fresh Soft tastes just by adding 12% of unground cocoa. As I said, the same applies to olive oil: if you take good olives and ruin them with processing, you'll lose all of the fragrance. The best oil is obtained from the very first cold pressing.
So grinding should also be limited. What particle size is it best to stop at?
On average, industrial chocolate is ground to 10/12 thousandths of a millimeter. We stop at about 40, because when we grind cocoa to make chocolate, the fragrance increases up to about 40 thousandths of a millimeter, then it starts to decrease. Industrially, it's usually ground to a finer particle size for better texture and plasticity. For example, if you want to make little chocolate Donald Ducks, you need to grind your cocoa much finer than we do to make it more pliable. But if you just want to eat it, it's best to stop at 40 microns.
What are the advantages of manually peeling the beans?
If you mechanically peel cocoa beans with a casse cacao tarare or cocoa crusher, the beans come out of the machine with at least 3% of the roots and integument left. Those tough pieces of integument and roots are then lost when the cocoa is ground down to 10 thousandths of a mm. But if you stop at 40 microns you'll feel them under your teeth, so you can't afford to leave them in. That's why all our chocolate is made from manually peeled cocoa – we want to make sure we completely remove those parts before grinding. It's the most expensive process, but it's the only way we can bring our cocoa as close to perfection as possible.