Middlebury Chocolates is a new name to me; it might even be to you too. Stephanie and Andy Jackson are ‘artisan’ chocolate makers out of Middlebury Vermont. I emphasise the ‘artisan’ as this is a term that’s too often banded about. It’s an adjective which is primarily the preserve of multinationals who wish to tap into the growing market for authentic, skilfully-produced food. The general market I doubt would be able to tell the difference between Dagoba (Artisan Confection Confections Company) owned by Hershey and Middlebury – who is at the exact opposite side of the corporate scale. Hopefully, in time, more consumers will educate themselves about the chocolate they consume.
But, putting aside my usual disdain for big business in the fine chocolate industry, I can concentrate on the bare beauty of this chocolate. The beans originate from Belize – there isn’t any other information to allow me to pinpoint the estate(s) the beans originate from other than “Maya Mountain” – but which beans? The cocoa geek in me would have loved to have known. With that in the back of my mind I unwrap the chocolate from its natural, unassuming and tactile packaging to reveal a tight, but slightly irregular bar of intensely dark chocolate which carries with it a brooding red hue. I love chocolate with these aesthetics – I prefer it so much more than the chocolate that looks as if it was the hundred-thousandth to run off the production line that day. Chocolate just tastes so much better when you know it’s been wrapped by hand and love. Machines just can’t replicate that. Automation is no substitute of authenticity.
Doing things by hand does cost. Big businesses enjoy economies of scale. That’s how you can buy a 200g bar of ‘chocolate’ for 85p. That, and because its crap. But similarly, businesses like Middlebury don’t have endless tiers of middle-management to pay for and don’t gauge their success in stock price velocity. Their art is their passion; your satisfaction is their currency.
Flavours don’t need to be big and bold to be enjoyable. They don’t need to be accompanied by velvety textures to satiate your desire. Art doesn’t have to be ‘Pop’ to be popular. Skill can present itself in the simplest of forms. And this chocolate is uncomplicated because flavours are very precise and clrear. They don’t meander. They don’t take you through misty valleys or over mountains with mind-blowing vistas. The slightly mellow flavours exhibit the lychee notes the packaging mentions and also the tart lemon juice. But there’s also hazelnut there and hint of blueberry. It won’t confuse. But who needs Keyser Söze when you can have Abraham Lincoln played by Daniel Day-Lewis? We now what the ending is. We know the story. There’s nothing complicated about it. But by the same token, you’re drawn into it. You appreciate it not only because of the craft but because of the sacrifice. For Day-Lewis’ method acting read the Jacksons’ toil.
The imperfections of the chocolate – the very slight irregularity in the physical texture and the marginally dry texture are what sets chocolate of this apart from the chocolate from the large chocolate companies which sell many tens of thousands of bars of chocolate a year – with mind-numbing regularity. Companies such as Middlebury are exactly where we should be looking to for our chocolate. Some may not like it; others will appreciate the lack of pretence. And to me that is a large part of the enjoyment. Satisfaction comes in rewarding small companies with my custom. It also comes from the understanding that people had a dream to produce wonderful chocolate, and from the realisation that they know they’ve achieved it.
But what next? I have a few more bars of theirs to try. I wonder what the 78% Beniano will hold.