What is it about Jews and chocolate?
Britain has more than its fair share of Jewish entrepreneurs making, marketing or simply selling the addictive stuff. Many from unrelated backgrounds — seduced by their inner chocoholics into working with the products of the cocoa bean.
“We love chocolate because of our sweet tooth, and perhaps because being parve, dark chocolate is easy to use in desserts,” explains Spencer Hyman, who abandoned an IT career to spread the word about fine chocolate via online company Cocoa Runners.
Hyman explains that there is a massive difference between top quality chocolate and mass-market confectionery.
“Good chocolate is all about how the beans are grown and cared for as well as the skill of the makers in roasting, grinding and blending the nibs within the pod into a bar.”
For some, 70 percent chocolate — the gold standard many mass-marketers often cite as a magic number — can be over-roasted and too intense, while there are some very fine 62 and 64 per cent dark chocolate, and milk chocolate too.
Cocoa Runners is an online chocoholics’ club, which sends subscribers four rare bars every month with tasting notes. They also do one-off tasting boxes.
“The point of difference is that our bars are from small batch makers whose production would almost never reach the supermarket,” he explains.
“A couple of my suppliers have had a presence in Wholefoods or Waitrose but most are not otherwise available in this country.”
Also in his range is raw chocolate from Pacari - a chocolate maker from Ecuador who has gone to pains to find a rabbi to bless his kosher production, and some “premier cru” from Santo Domingo made by Michel Cluizel - who has a separate production of kosher chocolate in his New Jersey factory. Cocoa Runners’ kosher suppliers also include Sean Askinosie of Missouri and Tcho in San Francisco.
Fine wine terms like “crus” are used to denote growths from single plantations, which in Hyman’s view is apt. “Chocolate is where coffee was 20 years ago and wine 50 years ago. People are starting to become aware of the differences between chocolate made in different parts of the world, in texture as well as intensity,” he says.
“By giving customers a taste questionnaire, we believe we can identify the kind of bars they’re going to like.” At £14.95 per month, you’d hope so — though Hyman points out the retail value of the bars is at least £20.
Former kibbutznik Yael Rose is another chocolate entrepreneur whose background is even more unlikely than Hyman’s Silicon Valley experience.
“My expertise arranging the logistics of trips for generals in the Israeli army helped me plan my chocolate festivals,” says the Israeli creator of The Chocolate Festival, which will, in the coming month bring artisan chocolate to Brighton, Oxford, Bristol and London.
Rose moved to Britain several years ago with her musician husband, and it’s here she honed her love of chocolate.
“I saw a programme about chocolate maker Willie Harcourt Cooze, who bought a cocoa plantation and made his own bars with imported beans, and I was inspired. I love meeting Britain’s chocolate-makers and introducing them to others as passionate about the good stuff as I am.”
The mother of five, including a baby, has found time to not only bring the festival to Tel Aviv — “Israelis have a slightly sweeter tooth than the Brits” — but to also expand the British festival from London’s South Bank to three more cities.
You will not find Steph Saffer’s chocolates at this year’s festival, but it’s worth seeking out her Kokopellis confections on her website, or at West Hampstead, Jewish-owned boutique Cocoa Bijoux.
“My chocolates, made with fresh cream, need to be consumed within two weeks, so are not suitable for the many retailers who demand a longer shelf life,” she explains.
Saffer uses Valrhona, the French “couverture” — a chef’s favourite — for her base material, and adds intriguing ingredients like passion fruit, tonka bean or matcha tea.
Her chocolates look as good as they taste, some gilded or spattered with bright colour as randomly as a Jackson Pollock canvas. If it seems a strange pursuit for a part-time fund-raiser who studied criminology, Saffer shrugs: “When chocolate gets under your skin and you decide to embark on the mad idea to make it a business, you just go for it, however unlikely it seems you can make a living from having so much fun.”