Discriminating consumers are catching on to the unique flavors.
“People started to understand that there is more to chocolate, and that it has as much depth and complexity as wine,” Masonis said.
Artisanal chocolatiers hunt for unusual varieties, roast them delicately and coax the flavor to the max rather than seek consistency from high-yielding, low-cost cacao plantations.
If words falter in describing distinct artisanal chocolates, that may be fitting given that the scientific name of the tree is Theobroma cacao, “food of the gods.”
As an ethnobotanist, Bletter has studied the chemical properties of the cacao bean and come away impressed by its complex chemical melange.
“It’s got a huge number of antioxidants, beneficial fats in the butter and psychoactive compounds including stimulants,” Bletter said. “It’s actually this complex cocktail . . . that makes us feel happy and awake” by eating chocolate.
Advocates suggest that consumers let artisanal chocolate melt in their mouths and savor it to notice the tastes of the beans.
“Eating your chocolate in a different way will change the flavor and prolong the experience,” said Conrad Miller, a self-described “cacao-ist” and high-end purveyor at Chocolate Earth, a shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. “People eat chocolate too quickly now. That is part of the problem.”
True chocophiles say the taste of different cacao beans can be dramatic, depending on soil, rainfall and the type of fermentation used before roasting.
“Venezuelan beans have an incredible spicy flavor, like cinnamon or nutmeg,” Bletter said. “Even in Hawaii, there is an amazing difference even from one side of the island to the other. . . . There’s also Indonesian, which is hazelnutty. They do a very short ferment there.”
“Just like they talk about terroir in wines, there’s terroir in chocolate,” he said, referring to the notion that geography plays a role in flavor.
“People want to know where the chocolate is coming from,” Mann echoed, adding that in his case he buys directly from specific farmers. Everything else about the business is local, too, including the elegant cigar-style boxes that contain some of his chocolates.
Like many artisanal chocolate makers, Mann handcrafts not only plain milk and dark chocolate but also varieties with raisins, rum, organic cashews and bananas, coffee, caramel and coconut. What he shuns are the usual ingredients of industrial producers, such as lecithin and vanilla.
Because he and his 16 female employees produce only about 1,500 pounds of chocolate a month, mostly for the domestic market, they take special orders.
“Anybody can come here and say, ‘I want my chocolate a little more fruity,’ or ‘My dad likes tequila. Can you make it?’ ” Mann said.
Artisanal chocolatiers venture increasingly into unusual flavorings. Madre Chocolate in Hawaii sells passion fruit and chipotle bars, while Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago offers a chocolate bar with hickory-smoked bacon. A boutique in New York’s Soho neighborhood, Xocolatti, sells a rose cardamom truffle and bars with saffron nut chikki flavor.
“It’s controversial in some ways,” Miller said, noting that some contest judges think that even the addition of vanilla qualifies as a flavored bar. “I am fairly agnostic. I understand that there are wonderful pairings to chocolate.”
Momotombo has snagged its share of awards. At the International Chocolate Salon last year in San Francisco, it won three gold awards. A year earlier, Mann won a silver medal at the Fall Luxury Chocolate Salon for his dark chocolate bar.
“The awards matter on a spiritual level,” he said, “because Nicaragua has this great cacao tradition that has been neglected and stepped on. It’s a vindication of sorts.”
“We really see ourselves as part of the renaissance movement that’s happening in gourmet chocolate all over the Americas,” Mann said.