Choc tactics

Artisanal chocolate now looks as delicious as it tastes with super-chic fashion- and design-influenced packaging. Mark C O’Flaherty melts on sight.

November 19 2010
Mark C O’Flaherty

Weekday afternoons at the tiny Mast Brothers factory in Brooklyn are a family affair. A team of 10 have lunch before Rick Mast and wife take turns, with friends and brother Michael, hand-wrapping chocolate bars in exquisitely patterned papers. The Mast Brothers operation is one of a growing number of small-scale, young chocolatiers who have a fresh, contemporary style of presentation as well as an innovative, artisanal approach to production.

Many of the new brands are bringing aspects of fashion and graphic design to the table. While the Mast Brothers themselves have been celebrated by foodies as the sole bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers in the US, and had most of their kitchen hardware designed and created exclusively for them, they’ve also captured the imagination of the hip neighbourhood of Williamsburg – they look like Amish Comme des Garçons models and have been fêted for their natty attire, luxuriant beards and choice of typography as much as for their wonderfully pure dark chocolate with fleur de sel.

More tellingly, they are Thomas Keller’s source for chocolate dishes at his Michelin-starred restaurants Per Se and French Laundry. “We started off by wrapping our kilo bars in butcher paper,” says Rick Mast. “And then found some vintage Italian papers from New York Central Art Supply to wrap the smaller bars. But our dream was always to create everything ourselves. So we design and print everything with friends. We’re not businessmen with marketing majors; we just like the imagery and typography we’ve used. We have an appreciation for an old-world aesthetic and the handcrafted.”

On the other side of the East River at Bergdorf Goodman, Alice Chocolate ($30) has an equally distinctive look. A Swiss product that echoes the aesthetic of Chanel, each stark white sliding box has a silhouette portrait of a girl and contains five slender silver bars of Wild Amazonian Criollo 68 per cent dark chocolate. The high-style, glossy milieu of Bergdorf’s is its ideal home.

Many of the most interesting arrivistes to the haute chocolate world have direct links with fashion. The scene at Cocomaya in London is colourful, gossipy and very chic – all zesty acid colours and gold cups. The café is a hub for high tea, thanks to the bonhomie of co-founders Joel Bernstein, former head of concept at Liberty, luxury accessories designer Walid al Damirji and Serena Rees, co-founder of Agent Provocateur. They create incredible chocolate – their passionfruit, olive oil and fig and sugar-free rose ganaches have customers ordering large orange selection boxes (£36 for 24) – and they’ve just launched a collection of bars (£5.25) adorned with bright florals and butterflies. They’ve worked with Manolo Blahnik on a chocolate shoe and have just opened a concession, A Chocolate Wonderland, at Liberty. “We’re image conscious,” says Bernstein. “The aesthetic is very important for us – our background in fashion brings a unique attention to detail. And we like kitsch.”

A background in textiles, rather than fashion, is shared by the founders of two more established brands in the UK and the US: Chantal Coady of Rococo, and Maribel Lieberman of MarieBelle. Lieberman grew up amid the cacao fields of Honduras but moved to New York City to study fashion. She segued into food 10 years ago, opening MarieBelle in NoLita, selling chocolates emblazoned with fashion illustrations. “The images were based on my lifestyle,” she says. “The pistachio ones had hats and mannequins on, and the espresso one has a woman walking energetically in the street. When I started it was very hard to put the graphics on the chocolates and I had them done in Europe. Now we do it in-house, but it’s still complex – each colour is its own layer and takes 24 hours to dry. The lavender has five colours, so takes five days.” Boxes at MarieBelle range from four pieces ($14) to 100 ($260).

The blue and white antiquarian literary illustrations on the packaging at Chantal Coady’s Rococo have been spotted in many discerning households. But this year, 18 of the bars were distinctively redesigned. “I was looking out at the Moroccan garden at our Motcomb Street store, staring at the patchwork of colours in the tiling,” recalls Coady. “I had a light-bulb moment.” The result is a collection of bars with emotive colours and patterns, including spicy orange for chilli pepper and crystalline blue and white for sea salt. For Christmas, Rococo’s gift sets will contain three bars (£16.50).

Curious Chocolate could soon become a brand with instant recognition factor. It was set up last year by Ben Bailey and quickly found favour at Terence Conran’s Albion deli in Shoreditch as well as at Harvey Nichols and now John Lewis. As well as high-quality bars (£3.50) of dark, milk, white, marmalade, crystallised ginger and caramelised almond, Bailey produces boxes of truffles and wafers (£9.95), each immediately identifiable by its retro-letterpress-style packaging.

“I found a tiny workshop in Amsterdam with drawers full of print block,” says Bailey. “The images that stood out were locks, keys, pigeons and cutlery, which we’ve used. The graph-paper graphics lend an air of nostalgia; I found the typeface in an obscure magazine; then we chose sophisticated chocolatey colours with a flash of fluoro pink to keep it fresh and modern.”

Aesthetics are also key at bean-to-bar company Zotter. Artist Andreas Gratze has created the imagery for this Austrian chocolate enterprise, a specialist in offbeat, delicious “hand-scooped” slabs (£3.25) that coat fruits and ingredients such as whisky, peanuts and ketchup in couverture. Collectors of Gratze’s fine art also buy and keep wrappers from every new bar that appears – gifting a set of 10 or 20 different bars is as exciting for the aesthete as it is for the gourmet. His work has something of a graphic-novel flourish about it, particularly the male and female silhouettes on the Rose and Basil bar.

It’s space-age detail that gives Singapore’s Chocolate Research Facility its USP – the store has more in common with the high-concept beauty interior of its neighbour Aesop than with a traditional confectionery shop. And the 100 per cent Chocolate Café in Tokyo also chimes more with stark, clinical perfumeries than with candy stores. The standout item here is 365 Days Chocolates, which allows clients to order a year’s supply of chocolate, month on month (¥5,500, about £41 a month). Fifty-six styles (from single-bean to fruit and herb) appear throughout the calendar, each dated in sharp ITC Avant Garde Gothic type.

Melt is one of the smartest and most progressive chocolate shops in London. It sells a range of Chef’s Chocolates (£18.50 for 10) created by some of the UK’s most renowned kitchens, including The River Café (a 75 per cent bitter chocolate truffle from nine different beans) and Mark Hix (cider brandy), each packaged with Melt’s distinctive lower-case type, as well as the collaborator’s logo.

Many of the most style-literate chocolatiers have embraced a sea change in tastes. As Daniel Sklaar of Fine & Raw in NYC says, “There’s a trend for darker chocolate, but also single-origin bars and an approach that provokes different levels of flavour. It’s more of a wine mentality. You might be a fan of Madagascar bars in the 80 per cent range, or prefer 70 per cent Ecuadorian.” His attention to detail includes packaging with bold flowing lines: “Like the chocolate… simple ingredients with rich flavours.”

Eco-awareness has had a radical effect on the look and taste of fine chocolate. Philipp Kauffmann co-founded Original Beans in 2008 and has just released a newly packaged range, the result of a collaboration with the Department of Graphic Sciences in LA. Intricate, rich and stylish, it also fits with the Original Beans ethos of “the planet: replant it”.

“We wanted a tactile feel,” says Kauffmann. “It should feel as much like a gift to oneself as to others. It’s also entirely derived from trees – cacao beans, FSC certified cardboard and wood cellulose foil.” Esmereldas Milk (£5) with fleur de sel and 42 per cent cacao has a standout taste (creamy yet mildly salty), but Kauffmann’s favourite is Cru Virunga (£5), produced on the fringes of the Virunga National Park, home to some of the world’s poorest populace. “We’ve started to introduce cacao and make this chocolate to restore livelihoods.” You can find it on the menu at Scott’s and The Ivy in London.

The best modern chocolate tastes good, looks good and sometimes even comes with a conscience. While the best chefs are drawn primarily by taste, and the likes of the Mast Brothers represent a new foodie rock’n’roll, the smaller and more exclusive the operation, the more control the chocolatier has. Although Rick Mast sees the chocolate he produces as a proud Brooklyn phenomenon, he also admits “there’s nothing local about chocolate”, because the beans don’t grow in New York City. “From next year we’re going to sail our beans here from South America to diminish oil abuse.”

The imagery of the chocolate box has changed, and with companies such as Mast’s, perhaps, just perhaps, chocolate can become slightly less of a guilty pleasure.

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