As I was mulling over my last tasting, which included a single-origin Papua New Guinea dark chocolate bar, I was torn about whether or not to publish my next fine chocolate review.
For being so unapologetically smoky—so much that I couldn’t perceive any other flavors—posting on that product wouldn’t have honored the scope of my advocacy for truly fine chocolate. Additionally, it was twice a torment deciding not to display something made by a name among the most respectable.
It got a matter of facing it once and for all… If ever there was a vilified and misunderstood cacao origin profile in the fine chocolate community, that was not Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire, not Brazil, but Papua New Guinea (PNG.)
Mistakenly epitomized as the quintessence of the pyrazine, PNG cacao celebrated as coming across smoky in its deep and true nature does a non-negligible disservice to the unaware who hope to learn better on great chocolate. At least two critical reasons should validate the end of such a misconception still going on in 2020:
1) ‘Smoky’ IS NOT an inherent flavor to the cacao bean.
All the origins of specialty and fine cocoa are rightly described in respect to specific aromatic precursors (floral, fruity, spicy, herbal, etc.), which are already INSIDE the bean—and can be developed and controlled mainly through fermentation, roasting, and conching. Of the many flavors possible, ‘smoky’ not only IS NOT a flavor descriptor unique to PNG cacao but actually a flavor defect that can be present in ANY cacao bean origin when post-fermentation pollution with smoke occurs during drying or storage.
(To learn more about cocoa and chocolate quality and flavor attributes, read the finalizing protocols by the International Standards for the Assessment of Cocoa Quality and Flavour (ISCQF), the internationally-recognized initiative in fine chocolate aiming to harmonize a common language for more transparent communication throughout the cocoa value chain.)
Passing on the idea that Papua New Guinea cacao is accepted and expected as ‘smoky’ is as ingenuous as the disingenuousness of the two-dollar brand that proposes heavily roasted ‘extra-dark’ chocolate treated with chemical alkali and hopes to disguise the bitter and burnt notes of a cheap product as a finesse destined to consummate gourmets.
For my first tasting of single-origin Papua New Guinea chocolate being so revealing, smokiness was far from associating the Asian-Pacific cocoa origin with the bad rap it had unjustly earned. The intoxicating explosion of dried cherry and red fruit jam flavors, sparkled with delicately nutty and sweet hints like hazelnut and honey, was such that to describe the same richly-satisfying profile one would need to figure out the brightest Peruvian and Venezuelan cacao fused one with the other.
2) ‘Smoky’ flavor traces may indicate a safety concern.
Most cocoa beans in tropical areas are naturally and carefully dried in the sun. In Papua New Guinea, unfortunately, rain pours so much that the sun is short supply. As a result, farmers call wood fires the only drying solution accessible in their growing region. But the smoke produced by uncontrolled wood fires has a massively negative impact on the intrinsic flavor of PNG cacao.
Contamination by smoke from wood fires during drying causes a characteristic smoky off-flavor in liquor and chocolate, sometimes described as ‘hammy‘ for being reminiscent of smoke-cured bacon. The problem with smoky off-flavors is they cannot be ‘corrected’ during chocolate making as the cocoa butter in the beans has literally been ‘cured’ and infused with smoke during improper drying or storage practices.
As if it wasn’t enough, exposure of fermented cacao beans to smoke also implies raising a food safety concern, as environmental contamination with potentially carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) compounds may likely develop. Given this worry, the EU has set maximum PHA limits for cocoa beans and derived products with Commission Regulation 2015/1933.
Modern-day cocoa sourcing programs like Cacao-Trace by Puratos are trying to revive PNG cacao’s flavor potential and minimize incorrect post-harvest practices at the origin by equipping farmers with significantly more ecological and sustainable solutions like solar dryers. Solar dryers are wooden structures raised on an open bed left exposed to receive direct sunlight when the sun is available, and covered with a tarp as soon as it rains.
Hoping for a better understanding and valorization of PNG cacao in the future, rejoicing with the idea that smoky is an attribute acceptable in fine chocolate may be the next thing to rediscuss for sustaining truly better chocolate.