Meet Chocolatier Stephane Bonnat
Bonnat Chocolatier has been making bean-to-bar chocolate since 1884, when Félix Bonnat opened his first shop in Voiron, France. Since then, six generations of the Bonnat family have crafted chocolate with a hands-on approach and a strict adherence to artisanal methods. Dark chocolate from Maison Bonnat never contains added ingredients such as vanilla or lecithin — just cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar. Over the years Bonnat has nurtured close ties to cacao plantations all over the world, and these relationships contribute significantly to the production of their exceptional chocolate. The Bonnat family chocolate tradition continues today, headed by chocolatier Stephane Bonnat, and its dedication to producing fine chocolate is evident in the extraordinary selection of single-origin and milk chocolate bars they make. Dessert Professional Editor Tish Boyle recently met with Stephane Bonnat at the New York Chocolate Show to learn his thoughts on what it takes to make a really fine chocolate.
Your family has been in the business since the early days of chocolate, hasn’t it?
Yes, I am a sixth generation chocolatier—our company was founded in 1856, and we began making bean to bar chocolate in 1884. At that time, all chocolatiers were also confiseurs and makers of licorice and candied fruit. Chocolate was relatively new then, and it wasn’t until 1878 that Monseur Lindt developed conching. This natural process was extremely important because it allowed acidity and astringency to be eliminated from chocolate. Until this period, chocolate wasn’t something that was edible on it own. All the pictures we have from this period indicate that chocolate was for drinking, not eating. Chocolate drink recipes had a lot of spices to mask the natural acidity of chocolate. This acid is not a dangerous one—it is the same acidity you find in bread, milk, beer and aspirin.
How important was the discovery of the conching process to the production of chocolate?
The molecules in chocolate are like small cubes. The conching is breaking down the angles of these molecules, which is where the acidity and astringency is. This process also does not mask the delicate floral perfumes that are in the beans. The conching process was discovered quite by accident. Monsieur Lindt was a hunter, and he was hunting one weekend and forgot to shut a chocolate processing machine down. When he returned two days later, he realized the machine was still on, and assumed the chocolate was completely broken down and ruined. When he tasted the chocolate, it was much, much better. So he had some research done to find out why this was so, and this is how Lindt really became the first chocolate maker.
What’s the difference between a chocolatier and a confiseur?
A chocolatier is really transforming the beans into chocolate. A confiseur is someone who uses the chocolate, along with ingredients such as praline, nougat, ganache and almond paste to make bonbons. On many old advertisements you would see “Chocolatier-Confiseur” written, which meant that the two activities were done within the same company. Today, everyone calls themselves chocolatiers, even though they don’t make their own chocolate. Many people want us to have a new name, like ‘couverturier’, but this means nothing. In France, for example, we only have five artisanal chocolatiers, and what are we against all these people who are making bonbons with other people’s chocolate?
What’s the best way to taste and discover a “good” chocolate?
There is a huge difference between a good chocolate and a bad chocolate. A good chocolate is a chocolate that you like. You may like a chocolate that I don’t. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad chocolate, it just means that we don’t have the same palate. This is why my company works with 35 plantations, so that we can present 35 different kinds of chocolate, each with different ranges of perfumes. Some are very bitter, some are much more floral. There are no rules in perfumes and tastes. The other solution is also to look at the ingredients. When you buy a dark chocolate bar, when there’s more than cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar in it, that’s abnormal, in my opinion. When the ingredient list is as long as the phone book of New York, well, it’s not chocolate anymore. As I sometimes say, I don’t have a job, I have a hobby, which is why I sometimes spend 18 hours a day making chocolate. Many people enjoy chocolate, but not many know exactly what goes into the job of a chocolate maker. Because there are so few of us, the know-how is almost completely lost. So we have to educate people about the perfumes and tastes so that they can form a better opinion about the kind of chocolate that they really want.
One of the things that helps you know whether or not you are eating a high-quality chocolate is that a chocolate must have a minimum of five different perfumes.…Now, thanks to the improvement of all the plantations that we work with, there could be seven discernable perfumes. And each perfume is so unique. I make a bar from a plantation in Cuba, for example, and I call it a ‘salsa’ chocolate, because it is dancing in your mouth like a pinball. The ending perfume is the same as the perfume you have when you smell a cigar before you cut its tip and light it. It is exactly the same. How can one describe this perfume? There’s no name for it, no adjective. So you can only explain it.
I always say that dark chocolate is a luxury, but it’s an everyday luxury. Why? Because it’s like a time machine. Very often, chocolate is the very first taste that a person will remember all his life long, because it’s so different from what we are eating every day and the perfume is indelibly stamped in your mind. You have to find the chocolate that, when you have a slice, you close your eyes and you remember, for example, the day you made your first attempt to ride your bicycle without the training wheels and you fell off and started crying and someone in your family gave you a small piece of chocolate, and it’s a pure moment of happiness. So now, when you’re older and you find this particular chocolate, and you eat a piece, the perfumes make you travel back in time to this happy place. But there’s no name for that. There’s no word. This is the real luxury. You can also travel back to place with chocolate—the perfumes of Mexico, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, etc., are trapped in the chocolate. Eating chocolate is a way to travel back to those areas through your taste memories with a bit of imagination. Chocolate is so personal. I don’t tell people how to feel when they are eating a particular type of chocolate. You just have to be in a good frame of mind to enjoy chocolate. And the environment is important, too. When you are drinking a wine in a cheap hotel, for example, it can be the best wine in the world, but you will be surrounded by cheap perfumes. When you are in the beautiful countryside, you are all ready to enjoy good things and your palate is ready for something good.
How many chocolate varieties do you make?
We have about 40 different bars. For the dark, we only use 75% in a pure origin. Our couvertures are 65%. From a historical point of view, chocolate has always been made with a blend of several different plantations. As we have only two harvests per year, the perfumes, colors and tastes are changing. If we want to have a consistent product all year long, we have to blend beans from a minimum of five to seven plantations. This way if one plantation’s perfume changes, we can still have a consistent product.
How important is your relationship with the plantations that grow your beans?
For the past twenty years I’ve had a strong relationship with plantations. And this is not only to help them produce really high quality beans, but also to help the final consumers of the chocolate to choose the right one. I always really enjoy going to plantations—it’s really fantastic for me. But it’s also very important to have the plantation harvesters come to France to see why we ask them to do a certain type of fermentation or drying and what this means in the final product. And they also see their names on the chocolate in all the shops and they are very proud of that. And I am also very proud of that. I don’t want these plantations to just rely on my work. I want them to work with other chocolatiers. In the end we will all make different chocolate, because our vision in the work of chocolate is very different. I am not afraid that someone will make exactly the same chocolate as mine. It’s not possible. This is why I don’t have competitors; I only have colleagues. Last year, for example, at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris, I met with three other chocolatiers—Francois Pralus, Georg Bernardini from Coppeneur and Pierre Marcolini—and we all had the same batch of Chuao. It was all the same harvest from the same plantation. And none of the bars were the same. Every operation is so important in chocolate: the roasting, the crushing, everything.
So, whose chocolate was the best?
I can’t answer that. (Mine.)
Tell me about the concept of pure origin chocolate.
My father, Raymond Bonnat, first created the pure origin chocolate for the 100th anniversary of the company. He and my mother created a special box for the anniversary with chocolates from seven different plantations, including Chuao. I was going to school at this time, but it was a holiday week and I came back to Paris to be part of the celebration. At the time, everyone—consumers and professionals—said that the idea of the single-origin chocolate was great for the anniversary, but that it had no future. And today, there is not a single shop in the world that does not have a single-origin chocolate.
Did you always know that a career in chocolate was to be your destiny?
No! That would have been too logical! To be a good chocolatier you have to have a very wide peripheral vision. You have to know many, many things. You have to speak at least three different languages. You have to know things about mechanics, botany—so many things, if you really want to understand chocolate. After university I worked in a few different companies—not just chocolate—and then I finally came back home in 1991. I bought the company back from my assorted relatives, who each had a piece of it. This was a real motivation then for me to succeed.
Of which of your chocolates are you most proud?
Oh, definitely the Cacao Real del Xoconuzco, the oldest cacao harvested by man. It was the personal plantation of the pre-Columbian emperors and it is close to the Izapa pyramid in Mexico. It’s the first cacao that arrived in Europe at the court of Isabella d’Este and then, in 1850, no more explorations were done because the cacao was hard to get and hard to transport. But from 1850 to 1910, it was still considered to be the greatest cacao ever produced, even if nobody alive had ever tasted it. Its reputation was that stellar. It was the reference by which all other chocolate was judged. And then, thanks for a friend who is an anthropologist and chocolate lover, we met the five families who owned the plantation. For five years we helped the planters and harvesters recover and do the drying and fermentation and, after eight harvests—we were able to make the first batch of Cacao Real del Xoconuzo since 1850. And it was immediately perfect. It was completely awesome. I was very proud, because the Bonnat family is the oldest family in the world making chocolate from the beans, and we were using the oldest beans harvested in the world. It was a big surprise for me, because right away, that was my best chocolate. The perfumes range from the tiny floral through the real chocolate taste, but without being overly aggressive. It is very difficult to work with these beans because they need very special roasting, using different temperatures that change according to the weather. This is the kind of cocoa that you roast according to the perfume, not by following a time and a temperature. When you flash the beans, you destroy the delicate perfumes in the beans. When I am roasting my beans, I work exclusively with my nose and my palate.