Casa Cacao's Jordi Roca And Damian Allsop On How To Unearth The Flavours Of Chocolate
Our enjoyment of chocolate has evolved throughout time. From the rise of Nestle’s milk chocolate in 19th-century England that offered a split-second delight, to bonbons in Parisian boutiques obtaining the fashionable status of luxury, to dark chocolate revived in the last 15 years and vegan bars for lactose-intolerant chocoholics, chocolate has come a long way from its first cultivation in Mesoamerica 3,000 years ago. Now Casa Cacao, a luxury Spanish chocolatier owned by pastry chef Jordi Roca of three-Michelin-star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, attempts to take chocolate appreciation even further at its new Hong Kong pop-up—and I’m here to experience it first hand.
Here at Harbour City’s Cupping Room, seated next to the wooden framed, floor-to-ceiling window that recently fills IG feeds, I am given a small plate of two fermented, dried and unroasted cacao beans, a pinch of roasted cacao nibs, and four tiny blocks of dark chocolate.
The cacao beans are sourced all the way from the jungle and villages of Peru by Roca—once crowned The World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2014— and his chocolatier mentor Damian Allsop, the first pastry chef to work at the historic El Celler de Can Roca. Casa Cacao opened its doors last year in Girona with a chocolate factory, shop and café with the Hotel Casa Cacao on its upper floors. Today, Roca and Allsop are determined that I take a step back, slow down and savour their cacao products. The duo wants their customers to go back to the basics; through their guidance, they seek to demonstrate why chocolate’s own complex flavours should be unleashed and appreciated like wine.
As I break open the unroasted cacao husk, smell and nibble the nut, a fruity, alcoholic taste seeps over my tongue. “I’m not adding the flavour of fruit. I’m opening it up,” Allsop explains. “The fruity flavour comes from the anthocyanin which is in the seed. The acid opens it up so we can start to receive the flavour of black currant and blackberries. As it opens up more, it’s going to give me raspberries, cherries and even strawberries.” He explains that in commercial chocolate, vanilla is often added to keep our palates entertained. Conversely, his version of chocolate—which I sample in the Hong Kong pop-up—contains no vanilla. It’s nothing too sweet or creamy, but dense, rich and dark with a fruity hint to start and a bitter, nutty coffee note to that lingers even five minutes after consumption.
Allsop’s aim is to bring out the natural flavours of cacao that are often masked by the heavy saturated fat in cream, a traditional binding agent in the history of making chocolate. His obsession in getting the complex flavours from cacao came from when he was in the UK making bonbons for his company Damian Allsop Chocolates Limited. “I started working with different craft chocolatiers, but when I’m not working with them, I was trained as a classic pastry chef by Hyatt Carlton in London,” he says. “Everybody used cream. I was told that ganache was cream. It didn’t say a liquid and chocolate but cream and chocolate. I realised 30 years ago that when we got to this type of chocolate, we use a non-flavoured liquid and that’s going to be water. Water doesn’t have to make [chocolate] watery. We want the water to open up the flavours of the chocolate.” In 2002, he invented the groundbreaking water ganache technique to create the world’s first water ganache.
Roca’s training in the sweet world was amateur, until he met Allsop at his grandfather’s El Celler de Can Roca. “Damian gave me the tools to understand the sweet cuisine, its method, precision, craftsmanship, patience, temperance, and obsessive involvement,” Roca recalls. “In the beginning, rules and quantifying were important. I came to know why a soufflé mousses, why chocolate tempers or why a jelly sets. I confess being addicted to sweet amusement for more than 20 years since then.”
Now turning their heads to focus on making chocolate, Roca and Allsop took field trips to plantations in Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador to find the most flavourful cacao. “It took us three hours on a boat, two hours riding on donkeys and another two hours of walking the village in Peru,” Allsop recalls. “We have been lucky to learn first-hand a lot of details about the fermentation and drying process of cacao beans and about people that keep on crafting it with ancestral methods. The intention is to rediscover the original cacao from the genetic point of view. Not only the ancient cocoas attract us but also those that are cultivated and treated by the indigenous peoples, such as the Awajun or the Arhuacos, who are deeply rooted in their ancestral traditions, in which cacao plays a leading role. Other origins such as India are new to us, and we are interested in their aromatic complexity.” Their beans now come from Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, the Dominican Republic and India.
One year into its opening in Spain, Casa Cacao expanded internationally with its first pop-up in Hong Kong. “We are very happy with the culture and sensitivity of the Asian public. This way of seeing these movements both with the bean-to-bar chocolate and with the selected coffee gives us the feeling of being in the right place at the right time,” Allsop says. The shop offers miniature cacao pod bonbons, five dark chocolate bar options ranging from 66 per cent to 80 per cent cacao, and four milk chocolate options ranging from 45 per cent to 60 per cent cacao, including some made with sheep’s and goat’s milk, which are less sweet and have a slightly grassy note. There are two exclusive flavours made with 70 per cent Venezuelan cacao: Ethiopian coffee, as well as liquorice and tangerine. Cupping Room also serves Casa Cacao’s signature hot chocolate, made with 72 per cent single-origin cacao cultivated and fermented in the Kaithpara Forest grown with tropical fruits, as well as a collaborative mocha.
Allsop and Roca’s chocolate dream doesn’t stop here. Apart from introducing new cacao chocolates, they are creating “The Bean to Bar Education Box”, with which chocoholics can ‘taste’ all of the stages of chocolate production of four different cacao origins. Will this set a new bar for eating chocolate? Who knows? But Caca Cacao make it clear that chocolate is meant to be slowly savoured—like wine, or all good things.
Casa Cacao at Cupping Room, Ocean Centre L3 309, Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong