Growing up in Malaysia, Shobitha Ramadasan wasn’t much of a chocolate eater, despite her father’s job as head of R&D for the country’s cacao industry.
It was too hot,” she says. “I was more interested in ice cream.”
And by the early 1980s, her father had changed jobs. “He felt there was no future in cacao,” says Ramadasan, “so he’s not altogether happy about my new career. But I reckon cacao must be in my blood.”
Having started her working life as a lawyer, Ramadasan is a now certified chocolate sommelier who educates people about the delights and complexities of chocolate. She believes chocolate should be appreciated and savoured, just like fine wine. Both, she says, have terroir, in that you can distinguish regions and beans in the same way you can tell regions and grapes. And while both are fermented and require skilled attention post-harvest, cacao has an estimated 1,500 flavour components, compared to wine’s 800-1,000.
“Most origins will have a signature tell-tale quality,” she explains. “For example, a Venezuelan Porcelana chocolate, containing the rarest and most expensive cacao in the world, having whitish ‘porcelain’-coloured beans, will always have a nutty quality and a light-brown appearance. But there is a lot of experimentation in chocolate making at the moment — for example, the ageing of chocolate — and the extent of an origin’s flavour profile is almost endless.
“It’s down to the creative interpretation on the part of the chocolate maker. One chocolate maker’s bar made with Madagascan Sambirano Valley cacao may have distinct notes of red fruit, while another chocolate maker may hit additional nutty notes with just a few adjustments to their roast profile and conching time. This is the beauty of craft chocolate — every creation is unique to its maker, with no two ever able to replicate the exact same outcome.”
Ramadasan came to her second career as a chocolate expert after working as a lawyer, first in litigation and then in-house for corporations in Malaysia involved in shipping and oil and gas. At the age of 27, her employer asked her to move to Paris.
“You don’t say no to that!,” she says. “Until then, I had thought my whole life would be in Malaysia.”
In France, she met her now-husband, and worked with Airbus in Toulouse. “It was in France that I discovered the joy of chocolate,” she says. “French chocolate was so much better than anything I had tried before.”
By 2019, Ramadasan had spent 12 years working as a lawyer and was disenchanted. The job was demanding and stressful; she felt it was starting to take a toll on her health. She decided it was time to try something new and applied for a sabbatical, thinking she might travel to India to discover more about her roots.
If I sat there and ate three pieces very slowly over the course of 15 minutes and really thought about what I was eating and experiencing, it helped me to be in the moment and disconnect
“But then Covid happened and I fell into a depression. I was in therapy and my therapist said I needed to be doing mindfulness. But it wasn’t working for me, perhaps because I wasn’t in the right headspace. When I was looking for a way to self-soothe, chocolate came into my life. I think now that it was divine intervention! Chocolate was a good medium for me. I used it to help with my daily meditation practice. If I sat there and ate three pieces very slowly over the course of 15 minutes and really thought about what I was eating and experiencing, it helped me to be in the moment and disconnect. And, in doing that, I discovered that each type of chocolate has its own personality. I started exploring different origins and it turned out to be a positive hobby.”
Fatigued by the pandemic, Ramadasan was grateful to have found a new subject in which to immerse herself.
“I was glad it was not dangerous like wine or spirits; chocolate is intrinsically safe. After a while, my therapist asked me what I was doing and I told her. She said, ‘Whatever it is, keep it up — it’s working!’”
As her interest in chocolate developed, Ramadasan enrolled in an online course with the International Institute of Chocolate & Cacao Tasting and completed her Level 1 certificate.
“Afterwards I thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’ Given my Asian background, having sent me to law school, my family was appalled. Everyone said I was making a huge mistake. And then Airbus had a voluntary redundancy scheme and I decided it was time. As part of the package, the company funded retraining, and I used that money to go to chocolate school. I engaged an expert to mentor me and completed my Level 2.”
At that stage, Ramadasan wasn’t sure about which aspect of chocolate she would devote herself to. Would it be chocolate making, retail or cacao research like her father? But the more she studied, the more she kept coming back to the core tenets of the bean-to-bar movement.
Born in San Francisco out of a desire to see a change in an industry that has traditionally been rife with exploitation, bean-to-bar is all about traceability and transparency, always asking the fundamental questions: who is the cacao bought from, and how much for?
“Bean-to-bar is all about control of the whole supply chain,” explains Ramadasan. “A bean-to -bar chocolate maker controls every step of the process, from ethically sourcing speciality-grade cacao beans, to roasting and grinding, to crafting the final chocolate bar.”
The problem is, of course, that bean-to-bar comes at a price. And while many of us have become accustomed to shelling out for specialty coffee, finding that the instant stuff doesn’t cut it any more, we have not reached that stage with chocolate. We’re more likely to grab a cheap bar on the run than we are to seek out single-origin craft chocolate.
“The big question is, how can you justify spending €10 on a chocolate bar?” says Ramadasan. “I realised the educational side was what I was most drawn to. Chocolate is rife with so many issues, and bean-to-bar is an international movement that is shifting the paradigm. It is part of a much wider movement looking at where our food comes from. The saying goes, ‘Cacao is labour, chocolate is luxury,’ but bean-to-bar opens doors to equality and social justice, and the new world of specialty chocolate is a powerful teacher in embracing diversity and inclusion — the tasting is just a bonus!
“I come from a culture where taking time and contemplating what you eat and drink is really important, both for your own appreciation but also out of respect for the suppliers. We know about wine sommeliers, and the idea that the soil and the grape varieties define the taste and structure of wines, and I’m here to show it is the same for chocolate. When you taste chocolate properly, like wine, it offers a whole new level of complexity and quality.”
The Irish palate has become more refined and appreciative of good food, wine, whiskeys and coffee in the past few decades, and I believe chocolate will be next
Ramadasan initially launched her business as a chocolate sommelier in Paris, only for her husband’s job to bring him to Ireland less than 12 months later. She has now relaunched here, offering online courses in which she teaches her students where chocolate comes from and how it is made, explains chocolate terminology, labels and certifications, flavour notes, origins and terroir, and instructs them as to what to watch out for when tasting chocolate. Ahead of each course, students get a tasting kit, which includes bars of chocolate, cacao beans, cacao butter and aroma samples, so that everyone can taste together.
“People are really open here in Ireland,” she says. “It wasn’t that easy in France, because there they think that French chocolate is the only chocolate worth eating. Here people will try everything. Most people like chocolate and I’ve found that Irish people really love chocolate!”
Ramadasan wants to equip her students to choose chocolate that is ethical, sustainable, and delicious. How does she convince them it’s worth spending €10 on a bar?
“When you buy a craft chocolate bar,” she says, “you are paying for speciality cacao rather than the bulk commodity cacao that you find in industrial chocolate. Also known as ‘fine flavour’ cacao, this involves good genetics and special care in the drying and fermentation of beans, which is labour intensive. Craft chocolate makers pay cacao growers highly for this. And then you are paying for the craftsmanship. From beans to chocolate, there are many labour-intensive steps involved in making good chocolate — roasting, winnowing, pre-grinding, grinding, conching, ageing, tempering, moulding and, finally, wrapping. The result of these processes is chocolate which has a fine aroma, complexity of flavour, and creamy texture.”
In her classes, Ramadasan touches on trends such as plant-based chocolate (“Here to stay!” she says), alternative milks (“Camel is big in the UAE and there’s chocolate made with donkey milk too”) and funky inclusions. Flavours to watch out for are porcini, black garlic, blue cheese and kefir.
As well as teaching her online classes, Ramadasan is working with Irish bean-to-bar chocolate makers such as Proper Chocolate and Exploding Tree, who share her ethos.
“The Irish palate has become more refined and appreciative of good food, wine, whiskeys and coffee in the past few decades,” she says, “and I believe chocolate will be next. Ireland is bursting with Michelin-starred restaurants, and our food producers are some of the best in the world. The new bean-to-bar trend in the world of chocolate is gaining momentum in Ireland and I feel Ireland is soon going to be a world player in high-quality chocolate, as it is with grass-fed beef, cheese and whiskey.”
A guide to tasting chocolate
⬤ Take the time to appreciate the aromas, flavours and textures.
⬤ Start by looking at the chocolate. Notice its colour, shine,
and mould design.
⬤ Listen to the sound as you break off a small piece. This is the ‘snap’. Let it melt in your mouth. As it melts, take note of the chocolate’s smoothness and creaminess. Some chocolates require slight chewing first, depending on the type.
⬤ Pay attention to the chocolate’s flavours. Is it sweet, tangy, bitter, or somewhere in between? Can you identify any specific flavours, such as vanilla, nuts,
coffee or fruit?
⬤ As you continue to taste the chocolate, take note of any other sensations or textures. Do you notice any crunchiness from nuts, cacao nibs or bits of sugar? Is the chocolate drying or waxy on
⬤ Finally, think about the overall experience of tasting the chocolate. Did you like it? Why or why not? Was the flavour well-balanced, or did it lean too far in one direction?
⬤ The key to a successful chocolate tasting is to take your time and savour each bite. By paying attention to the aromas, flavours and textures, you’ll be able to appreciate the unique fine qualities of the chocolate and fully enjoy your tasting experience.
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