Let's Eat

Forget mass market bars, our chocolate has legs

Firetree artisan chocolate is gourmet - and kosher


Chocolate has always been part of David Zulman’s life. As a child in Durban, South Africa, he played in the cocoa sacks at his grandfather’s company, Beacon Sweets & Chocolate.

It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. Later, while studying for an economics degree at Cape Town University, he learned the business from the ground up.

The romance continued when he moved to the UK in 1986 and worked in mass market chocolate production, before returning to South Africa to run his grandfather’s business. After it was sold in 1998, he returned here to continue developing his expertise in chocolate manufacturing; in the mass market and latterly, growing cacao beans.

A few years ago, Zulman recognised a gap in the market. “I’d been growing cacao in the Philippines and realised there was substantial potential for high-end chocolate sourced from smaller plantations.”

In 2016, he held a brainstorming meeting in a North London pub with chocolatiers Martyn O’Dare and Aidan Bishop, which resulted in their co-founding Firetree. “We called it Firetree because when you look at a cocoa tree on a farm, and the sun is behind it, you see this tree full of pods, red, yellow, orange, green — it looks like it’s on fire.”

He explains that a big difference between the chocolate they set out to produce and mass market-produced bars, lies in the quality of the raw cacao. Around two-thirds of the world’s chocolate is made from cacao beans grown in West Africa, where, Zulman says, the land is over-farmed in many cases, and deforestation occurs.

Firetree sources its beans from islands which are all (apart from Madagascar) in the Pacific “ring of fire”— hundreds of volcanic islands running around the South Pacific. These have growing conditions known to produce the best quality beans in quantities too small for the larger chocolate brands, but perfect for an artisan producer.

“The flavours of [the mass market industry] beans are dumbed down to taste exactly the same. The quality of the beans we source from these islands allows us to develop different flavours in both the growing and processing of the chocolate.”

His company uses pods from just seven single estates, each offering a distinctive taste, which, like wine, can vary depending on the soil and even the weather in the year the cacao bean grew.

Zulman, a member of Hampstead Garden Suburb synagogue, wanted to be able to offer his bars to the kosher market, so they are all KLBD supervised.

“There’s a lot of expensive kosher chocolate on the market but not a lot of it is high quality”. He explains that his chocolate is a relatively simple product to hechsher as the bars contain just four ingredients — cacao beans, cocoa butter, unrefined cane sugar and sunflower lecithin. In Britain, he says, where we’re among the highest consumers of chocolate globally, there is an increasing appreciation of the super-premium market. “People are thinking more about where their food comes from, and if it’s full of artificial additives. And also, whether it’s being ethically farmed and if the farmers are being paid a justified amount.”

Firetree controls the process from bean to bar. The beans are scooped from the pod on the farm, fermented, then dried in the island sunshine, before being transported to the UK to be slow roasted in the factory in Peterborough. They also pay the farmers significantly more than market rate to harvest premium quality cacao. “By paying substantially more than the mass market we see that as trying to set the standard of ethical trading.”

Currently, they have seven bars, with cocoa content ranging from 69 per cent to a 100 per cent bar, made from beans grown in the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal. The beans are roasted slowly, to drive out any bitterness, a necessary step as it contains no sugar. Zulman explains the absence of sugar means it cannot technically be referred to as chocolate, and despite sounding fairly hard core, this is Firetree’s best seller, possibly because it appeals to many diets, including diabetic and keto.

Building a brand and reputation in what he terms a “noisy marketplace” has been demanding, but their hard work is paying off. They now supply chocolate to Harrods, Artisan du Chocolat, and other top chocolatiers. And even in what has been a challenging year for retailers, Covid-19 has paved the way for growth in its online business, with slim packaging allowing for its range to be delivered through a letterbox.

They add no extra flavourings to their chocolate, as he says each bar provides its own “taste journey”. Tasting notes (like those given for wine or whisky) are provided at the back of each bar. The taste of the 73 per cent Philippines, Mindanao Island bar, for example, is said to include citrus, honey and caramel. “You first get the citrus, which morphs into caramel and then honey — it’s not just a one-off taste.”

On the site, buyers are told how best to experience all the flavours. “When you swirl wine or whisky in a glass you get long ‘legs’ on the glass, slightly marking the glass as it drains down. Our chocolate has long legs, as after you’ve swallowed it you still enjoy it.”

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