Larry joins the first of a series of tasting and discovery events being offered by Firetree, purveyors of rich, rare volcanic chocolate. Readers, note: this is not, simply, for vicarious pleasure, there’s an invitation for Arb readers to the next one…
As if there couldn’t be any more improvements to being confined to the house for weeks, the unseasonably bright balmy spring we’d been having suddenly turned. April reverted to its traditional dampness, and with the onset of a day of drizzle, the clouds turned as grey as the collective national mood.
Thank heaven for postal surprises, then. A genuine surprise, too; one I’d almost forgotten I’d ordered amid the myriad ‘lockdown’ paraphernalia: a slender box dropping on the doormat with the word ‘firetree’ emblazoned below the postage label.
Inside, three packets containing something that promised to be ‘rich volcanic chocolate’ with such far-flung provenance as Karkar Island in Papua New Guinea and Melkula Island in Vanuatu. Is Vanuatu known for its chocolate, I wonder? That’s the point. This is Firetree, purveyors of rare, remote cocoa, born of volcanic islands and carefully selected to create chocolate the like of which you’ve never tasted before. I’d ordered these confections ahead of a ‘virtual’ tasting event I was soon to join hosted by Firetree’s co-founder, Martyn O’Dare.
Resisting the temptation to tear them open, I parked them on the highest shelf in the kitchen, away from prying 6-year-old fingers, and awaited my instructions. At the appointed hour, I logged into the Zoom link, joining several others in this rather unconventional enterprise of a chocolate conference call, and up popped Martyn, offering a warm welcome and asking us if we’d all received our bars. We had, and couldn’t wait to tuck in.
But this event is not, simply, about tasting chocolate. Presenting from his warehouse, sacks of cocoa beans on shelves behind him, Martyn takes us on a journey to these remote volcanic islands. Before we open each bar, Martyn gives us some context, showing us images and maps of Karkar island, one of those we were to sample, and pictures of the plantation, “our cocoa grows on the western and southern flank of this volcano”, taking us through the processes involved, the personalities involved, including the flore and fauna, and many quirky facts besides; on Karkar, for example, a former Japanese railway from WW2 had been repurposed by the cocoa team to transport their beans.
And so to the tasting. We unzip the wrapper and take a whiff; it’s rich and reminiscent of pine forests. As we taste, Martyn’s enthusiasm is palpable, “This hits you immediately,” he enthuses, guiding us through its flavour profile. “Mmm…it’s nutty, moving to brown fruits and sweet raisins. Just as it starts to fade, you get a subtle truffle, almost mushroomy flavour. I love this after lunch, for its strength. It’s like a sharp espresso.”
“Is there an obvious chocolate ‘flavour’?” Someone asks. “Oh no,” says Martyn, “there are up to 10,000 in the flavour profile of a good chocolate, like a fine cognac.” He explains how Firetree uses unrefined sugar to enhance these. “Think of painting,” he says, “if you paint on a flat surface it’s uninteresting. If you paint on a canvas, you get depth and texture. Unrefined sugar is a flavour platform, a canvas for us to paint on.”
We’re soon on to the last one. “Immediately you set foot on Vanuatu,” Martyn tells us, “you smell red fruits. And so with this chocolate.” I pop a square in. “It takes a little longer to melt, but bear with it…here we go, it’s kicking in. Gentle at first, there’s raspberry, then cherry…” This sounds like exuberant nonsense, but I’m really getting it. “There’s some sourness, like soft lemon.” Yes, there is. “And now you should be starting to get cherry again – it has a strong peak, and a lovely long finish.” Typically, chocolate would have a quick taste spike and drop down, but this chocolate takes you through a series of different flavours that have all come through the cocoa bean. “Bear in mind there are no flavours added,” Martyn tells us, “this is just the cocoa. You’re going on a little journey when you eat good chocolate, and it should last!”
The schoolboy enthusiasm is infectious. “It’s amazing to think that from these hard, dry beans, you can get such a delightful range of flavours.” It certainly is, and, just for a moment, I’m transported to Vanuatu myself; I feel the muggy warmth from the photos, the chirruping of insects, the smell of the fruits.
And all too quickly I’m back in suburban Surrey, looking out at the darkening skies. “For the next tasting session,” Martyn says, “we’re going to the Solomon Islands…”
I can’t wait.
The next Firetree Chocolate Live Tasting is on Wednesday 20th May at 8pm. Follow the link for details. To be able to guarantee delivery of the chocolate, please place your request by Wednesday 13th April. Firetree will then share a Zoom meeting link you’ll need to join the 20 minute session. Arbuturian readers are offered an exclusive 10% discount on the selection pack of 4 bars (with free shipping), simply use the code ARBUTURIAN10 when you place your order.