A few months ago, renowned chef Michel Roux Junior was lambasted on social media for declaring that France was the home of chocolate. His critics had a point - the craft of chocolate making has long since been taken up elsewhere, and while France might still claim to be the historical home of chocolate, superb chocolatiers have emerged from all around the world in recent years, including from that once unlikeliest nation of chocolate champions, the USA.
What's the secret to the rapid rise of these young bloods? Well, facial furniture abounds for one thing, but I'm pretty sure it takes more than a certain level of hirsuteness to create a fine chocolate bar.
Maybe the answer lies in the 'stripped back' approach some of these new outstanding producers have taken. It's striking how many have come from backgrounds completely unrelated to chocolate making. Perhaps, too, you need to be a slightly obsessive, attention-to-minute-detail type to start with. And I mean that in a good way. Dustin Taylor and Adam Dick, for example, were formerly (boat) carpenters. Rick Mast was a classical musician, while his brother, Michael, worked in film.
They've been forced, then, to start from absolute scratch, and to learn on the job - from how to choose the right bean, to how many hours of conching are needed for the perfect quality bar. The ambition is both admirably audacious and outrageously bonkers. But then again, as George Bernard Shaw once said, "All progress depends on the unreasonable man."
It's a demanding apprenticeship, but one that has allowed these producers to explore and tweak every aspect of the craft in a way that perhaps long-established chocolatiers, with reputations and customer expectations to maintain, haven't necessarily had the chance or incentive to do.
Has this unconventional approach worked? The evidence surely speaks for itself. In a handful of years, Dick Taylor and the Mast Brothers haven't succeeded simply in making 'ok' chocolate: they've made exceptional, award-winning, globally-recognised chocolate. In a mere fraction of the time that most European chocolatiers have been making the stuff, these US upstarts have seemingly both mastered the art and won over the punters. It is, by any standard, an astonishing achievement in a highly competitive market, particularly in an industry so steeped in history and traditional methods.
Of course, in the time that the chaps have been learning their trade, the world of chocolate has continued to evolve, too. Hunting down and securing superlative cocoa sources has now become something of a mission. In that vein, both Dick Taylor and the Mast Brothers have been working with beans from Belize, a country not especially well known for its cocoa, and certainly not for making 100% Belize bean chocolate. The result is two distinctive bars I've been hankering to get my hands on.
The Mast Brothers 70% cocoa bar comes covered in their signature bespoke outer wrapper. It's instantly covetable, and for that reason, I wouldn't be entirely surprised to find their past wrappers selling for stupid money on Ebay in a few years' time. And if ever these chaps fancy a career in wallpaper design, I'm sure they'll have plenty of offers.
Anyway, the bar. It's pungent with dark, rich cocoa. As aromas go, it's positively reverie inducing.
The surface of the chocolate is shiny and immaculate. Only the merest pressure is needed to break a piece off, and the snap that rings out is pistol-shot sharp. Clearly there's been some fine tempering at work.
It melts cleanly and evenly in the mouth, although it has a slight - but not unpleasant - graininess to it. The procession of flavours is quite something. At first, a fleeting dash of TCP-like astringency, then cherry/plum (or maybe even cherry plum), liquorice, and coffee, before a spectacular ending of juicy red wine so luscious that I wish I could drink it. In short, it's a very respectable bar of dark chocolate with well-balanced acidity and a decent mouthful of fruit.
The Dick Taylor bar is a different experience altogether, and a reminder of the importance of the chocolatier's craft - the beans come from the same region, but the end product is quite, quite different from its rival.
But first, the similarities. Wrapper design - check. Gold foil - check. Sheeny, shiny chocolate - check. And then some. The Dick Taylor hallmark is their beautifully surface-etched bars. Imagine exquisite fretwork, but in chocolate. It's stunning to look at, a real piece of art in itself.
It's seems a shame to break it, but needs must. And, like Mast Brothers bar, the quality of tempering is instantly evident: the snap is impressively crisp.
As for the taste test, my immediate impression is one of indeterminate soft floral notes - the blurb makes claim for jasmine, but I can't honestly say I can be so specific. That's followed swiftly by a surprising but pleasant bitterness and acidity. It's rather like the flavour of raw cocoa nibs - with the same level of fruitiness - but with a little mellowing roasted refinement and sweetness. Intensity is the watchword here. Whereas the Mast Bros bar gives way to an array of fruit flavours, the Dick Taylor chocolate doesn't really develop much further on the palate - it remains largely true to the initial flavours, showing only some further deep caramel tones of prune, and perhaps a tiny hint of apricot.
I tried these bars with a couple of friends who happened to be visiting. Both are fans of dark chocolate, but neither of them would claim to be aficionados. I wondered if the gentler, more accessible flavours of the Mast Brothers bar would hold the greater appeal - but no, the votes went to Dick Taylor. For a single square at a time, I'd probably plump for the Mast Brothers, but for my desert island bar, I think I'd also be inclined to give Dick Taylor the nod.
Make of that what you will. Both are fine bars. Both deserve plaudits. Both will help keep the US firmly on the world's radar for exemplary chocolate making. And both should probably be sent, toute suite, to Michel Roux Junior.