Tuesday, May 22, 2018

K + M Extravirgin Chocolate: Exceptional Chocolate from Extraordinary People

At the four-way culinary intersection of Art, Passion, Experience, and Science, world renowned
Chef Thomas Keller in Napa, California and Armando Manni in Florence, Italy have created an award winning chocolate experience with K + M Extravirgin Chocolate. Recently Frank Price and I met with Chef Keller and Chi Bui, chocolatier/chef, at the Napa Factory. What a treat! The process was as fascinating and nuanced as the chocolate tasting itself.

Keller and Manni's passion for excellence, the art of combining ingredients, the decades of combined food and culinary experience and the science details and data of cooking have been combined by K + M to deliver a series of sensational chocolate bars that meets their strict standards in terms of flavor and taste--and have the added boost of providing remarkable health benefits. Together, Keller and Manni have spent the past five years on a unique mission: crafting the world’s finest chocolate and one that retains the significant antioxidant health benefits of cocoa beans. The result of their collaboration: K+M Extravirgin Chocolate. K + M Extravirgin Chocolate delivers a fabulous taste, a silky mouthfeel, and has built-in health benefits.

The story of K + M Extravirgin Chocolate is quite remarkable. Keller and Manni avoided the seemingly traditional methods of manufacturing dark chocolate that reduces the level of the antioxidants. At the University of Florence, their team researched the multifaceted manufacturing process to create a unique process that uses science to deliver to the consumer a delicious chocolate with many of the health benefits still intact.

Thomas Keller and Armando Manni worked for five years to find a proprietary process to reduce the typical flavonoid loss by their specific and scientific process of making a delicious chocolate bar while making a silky smooth bar. Their collaboration has resulted in a  Specialty Food Association (SFA) SoFi Award for Best New Product in the Dark Chocolate Category.

Chi Bui is the head chocolatier of Thomas Keller and Armando Manni’s K+M Extravirgin Chocolate. She oversees production, bean sourcing, product development and K+M’s ongoing research with the University of Florence. At a tour at their factory in Napa, Chi Bui, the Head Chocolatier/Chef described their reliable network of knowledgeable chocolate growers whose beans are already high in aroma and high in volatility. Sourcing their cacao beans has been a major priority.

From many single origin cocoa pods that are harvested, dried, and fermented, the beans are sent off to the laboratory in Florence where they are tested. Each step of drying and fermenting helps to build on the qualities of chocolate that are most desired among chocolatiers. These samples are tested to see which will ultimately deliver the desired aroma, special volatility, and high flavonoid content that Keller and Manni desire. The farmers of the selected beans are paid a fair market price and these farmers then become partners as growers and also as part of the supply chain.

The beans are then sent to the factory in Napa. The K + M team gives special attention to each stage of production. They start by sifting and sorting through the newly arrived beans by hand. The single origin beans are sourced from Ecuador, Nicaragua, Madagascar, and Peru. They may visually look the same to the untrained eye, but not to the sorters. The length of time for each process in the factory is determined by the type of bean that is harvested.

At a temperature deemed the optimum for each of the single origin beans, the beans are roasted, then winnowed, separating the nib from the shell to create the nibs. At this point the nibs don’t taste like a chocolate bar, but the chocolate aroma is quiet recognizable. Cacao is beginning to become chocolate. At each step in the process at the state of the art factory, the duration of time and the temperature or pressure is adjusted according to K + M scientific research. Science determines what is best for specific beans to insure that the desired aroma, volatility, and flavonoid level remains high. Single origin beans command respect and diligence from the K + M team.

There is an almost magical moment in the process. Most bar manufacturers re-add the cocoa butter that was squeezed out of the cocoa beans, cocoa butter being a byproduct of the process. But as Mr. Keller explained, reintroducing the cocoa butter later in the process, adds nothing to the flavor profile. Through research, K + M have discovered that the cocoa butter may inhibit the taste buds from fully sensing the variety of flavors. This is where the unique Tuscan extra virgin olive oil comes in.

It is widely recognized that Mr. Manni makes a direct contribution to the entire process. His organic extra virgin olive oil, made by using wine making technology, is added to the mixture. The addition of a silky single origin oil adds a light palate-pleasing and mouth-feel quality that enhances the chocolate. The Tuscan oil opens up the taste buds. The extra virgin olive oil also adds flavonoids to the chocolate. Olive oil is a tastidious ingredient to work with. It's sensitive  to light and oxygen and heat. K+M adds Manni extra virgin olive oil instead of extra cocoa butter, at the end of the process.

Other ingredients? Very little organic sugar is added. The conching time is determined by scientific research to again arrive at the optimum health and flavor benefits. The tempering stage is important to give the much desired cracking sound to the bar when it is snapped in half. The temperature is critical so that the chocolate crystals are lined up just right.

The flavor profiles of each bar are well defined, well balanced, yet filled with nuances that allows the consumer to enjoy a smooth and velvety texture. The tasting notes are rich and elegant. All the chocolates are great, but the dark chocolates are exceptional and intense in taste and flavor. For the milk and dark milk chocolate, organic non-fat  or whole milk powder and organic cane sugar create a fruity flavor forward bar. The extra virgin olive oil is added at the end of the process and is so important for the smooth mouth-feel.

The K + M brand set out to create a chocolate bar with exquisite taste and remarkable health qualities. The team strove without wavering on quality to maintain the high level of antioxidants found in the unprocessed bean while keeping the aromatic flavors and the volatility to allow the consumer to enjoy those flavors. The result: a remarkable chocolate bar from start to finish.

Stay tuned for a review of the sensational chocolate bars in a future installment.

This post was written in collaboration with chocolate expert Frank Price. Frank Price spent 3 years in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), the world’s largest cacao-growing country. Frank gives seminars and tastings on chocolate to corporate and non-profits groups, as well as contributing articles to chocolate blogs and magazines. He has been a judge at the International Chocolate Salons for over 10 years. Frank is a member of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA).

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