The art of darkness
Mix master... Lindt chocolatier Thomas Schnetzler. Photo: Steven Siewert
Australians love chocolate with caramel, and we're partial to fruit and nuts, but ginger and coffee don't fly.
Flavours apart, we're in line with the global trend for more premium chocolate; a Euromonitor International report shows demand for chocolate with a higher cocoa content, or varieties that are origin specific, is rising.
Kakawa Chocolates in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghust has expanded its single-origin range from eight when it began in 2009 to 15 as interest in the provenance of food grows.
Kakawa chocolate's David Ralph and Jin-Sun Kim. Photo: Quentin Jones
The overall increase in dark chocolate consumption indicates the Australian palate is changing, too.
According to Euromonitor, each Australian eats about five kilograms of chocolate a year. In 2011 almost half the blocks sold were milk chocolate, 28 per cent were filled and 19.5 per cent were plain dark. White chocolate accounted for 4.5 per cent of sales.
''When we all started drinking wine we were drinking sweeter wine,'' providore Simon Johnson says. ''As your palate develops and you are exposed to better products you realise, 'this is better than what I drank the other day', and you start asking why. That's been important to the chocolate evolution that's been happening in Australia and around the world.''
A co-owner of Kakawa, David Ralph, agrees but suspects Australia has some way to go. ''[Interest in the provenance of] chocolate is still a little low in my opinion, that's in terms of our culture, we're a young nation,'' he says.
Johnson, who has been importing Valrhona chocolate for the past 18 years, agrees. Interest in single origin is the domain of a small percentage of the marketplace, he says, but will continue to grow as long as single origin remains a quality product.
''I think it's also driven by this single-origin push by coffee,'' he says. ''People are going, 'why is that coffee different'. It's also driven by a lot of chefs. People are absolutely driving down on provenance and why. The flavour profile is giving the wow factor and they want to know why, like when you open a great bottle of wine.''
Lindt's Melbourne-based master chocolatier, Thomas Schnetzler, says the Australian palate is still very sweet, particularly when compared with Europe, but it is also quite adventurous. ''It is still very milk focused, but the incline of dark chocolate has been phenomenal,'' Schnetzler says.
The top-selling products in the Lindt ''excellence'' range of blocks in Australia are the 70 per cent cocoa, orange intense and 85 per cent. It recently launched a sea salt block on to the market.
''The 85 [per cent chocolate] is up there now, which was almost unheard of 10 years ago,'' Schnetzler says. ''Also, that people would be adventurous with flavours, like the sea salt. That's something that probably 10 years ago people would have gone, 'you put salt in my chocolate?'''
Ralph says the idea of sea salt in chocolate is still regarded as daring.
''People are still a bit cautious, just because they see salt and chocolate and don't associate those two things together, but it's getting there,'' he says.
Add caramel to the mix - a flavour that resonates in this country - and interest is piqued. Sea salt caramel, a liquid-filled truffle, is one of Kakawa's big sellers.
''It's about seasoning and giving balance to the sweetness; it also brings out flavour in the dark chocolate,'' Ralph says. ''The human palate is used to having salt in things, so it makes sense.''
Johnson has been selling chewy salt caramel from Brittany for years. A number of producers have taken the next step and started rolling it in chocolate.
''There's a big trend at the moment, salt caramel chocolate,'' Johnson says.
''Good-quality chocolate with caramel that adds some sweetness and some fleur de sel, so you get that wonderful salty crunch with that hint of caramel.''
Other flavours and fillings that play well here are fruits and nuts. Although when it comes to fillings, Australians can be unpredictable.
Kakawa Chocolates tried Guinness and liquorice bark flavours, but they failed to interest customers. A surprise hit was the seasonal pina colada flavour, made as a bit of fun.
''It's a chocolate ganache and then the bottom layer is pineapple jelly, then we dip it in milk chocolate,'' Ralph says. ''We thought the jelly with the chocolate would be too much. [But] it was very popular.''
Schnetzler expects a flavour like passionfruit to do better in Australia than somewhere like Switzerland, mainly because of the climate. Mint chocolate is more popular here than it is there.
''You don't picture yourself in a chalet when it's snowing outside having a square of Passionfruit Intense,'' he says.
But like Kakawa, there are some Lindt flavours that have not resonated locally, such as ginger and coffee. Others have not been put on the market. Schnetzler says the cherry liquor-filled kirsch batons would be ''too strong, too intense'' for the Australian palate.
The 99 per cent cocoa block can be found in Lindt cafes, but is more widely available in Britain and Europe.
Growing up in Switzerland - where they eat 10 kilograms of chocolate a person, a year - Schnetzler would come home from school each day and eat two squares of 70 per cent chocolate on bread as his snack. That's unlikely to become a mainstream behaviour in Australian homes, but Ralph says dark chocolate is slowly making its mark on the taste buds of the Freddo Frog demographic.
''We are seeing a rise of dark chocolate buying with people, especially kids,'' Ralph says.
''I think it's got a lot to do with the parents, but also the accessibility of good-quality dark chocolate.''
And the changes extend to cooking chocolate.
Nestle's Plaistowe brand, which already has a 70 per cent cocoa chocolate sold for cooking, is about to launch melting pieces with 63 per cent cocoa for home cooks.