Single origin chocolates mean magic to its aficionados, what with its subtle nuances, sensitivity to terroir and sustainable practices that don’t exploit farmers nor the planet. Yet for the rest of the cocoa-loving masses, they are seen as niche products cosseted in poncey snobbery.
Not at The Dark Gallery – a chocolate specialist café in Millenia Walk. The café’s owners are on a mission to make these unapproachable treats accessible for all. Here, single origin chocolates are spun into ice cream and confectionery like tarts, macarons and smores. The ice cream platter for instance, comes with tasting notes that details the chocolate’s acidity, fruitiness, bitterness and intensity.
“You see a rise in artisanal concepts around the world that’s concerned not just in the origin of the food but also the farm it’s from,” says Li Lihui, the youthful CEO of Thirtythree, which is behind the concept. “In Singapore it’s lacking, and I feel that we can grow to appreciate it. We have chocolate cafes, but it’s really nothing too educational.”
The rise of independent chocolatiers
Indeed, The Dark Gallery is part of a global movement where buyers and makers have become more sensitive to the origins of what they eat and create. It is seen in the third wave coffee movement that launched thousands of cafes in cities across the world and is now picking up chocolate lovers in its wake. Much of this is thanks to a new generation of independent chocolatiers who create small batch chocolate products for an affluent audience.
That’s no different for Singapore as our city has been seeing more artisanal chocolate businesses like chocolate makers Fossa and distributor Beans to Bars take root in recent months. The drawback? The customer base, while well-heeled and discerning is very much niche, hardly making a dent in the way chocolates are understood beyond these small circles.
Li is no stranger to the limited impact of a niche product. Her firm is also behind cold pressed juicing sensation Hic Juice and runs a franchise of US ice cream brand Marble Slab Creamery.
“Hic Juice is very health focused – it serves a very niche market because of the price point and [the product] being a functional beverage. It’s not a mass brand.”
A drive to do more
Starting The Dark Gallery then is an opportunity for her to prick the cultural bubble around a niche idea by educating and connecting with customers. Here, the focus isn’t just on making sales but to create a genuine platform.
“It’s very easy to come up with a nice looking café and have overpriced things – people will go once and instagram it but they won’t return because there’s no value there,” she explains. “That’s why we call it The Dark Gallery. The focus is on dark chocolate and we want to showcase the different origins, the benefits and the craft of the chocolates.”
That single origin chocolates are growing in popularity across the world helps. Suppliers have begun introducing it into their usual slate of offerings in response to growing market request. “The single origin chocolates are usually purchased by pastry chefs and hotels,” says Li. “The price tag is a little bit higher than the commercial blends but more of them are becoming more discerning. When there’s a market for it, the suppliers have to meet it.”
When The Dark Gallery opened earlier this July, the space offered three types of single origin chocolates from Tanzania, Dominican Republic and Venezuela but Li wants include chocolates from Southeast Asia.
Chocolates from our backyard
“More and more of these chocolatiers and farmers are starting to make chocolates out of Southeast Asian cacao,” she explains. “A lot of people think Swiss or Belgian chocolates are the best – but these are just brands. If you look at the map of where cacao is grown, Southeast Asia is part of the belt where conditions are suitable.”
Next month, the space will start stocking up Pahang origin chocolates by Chocolate Concierge – a Malaysian craft chocolate brand that produces chocolates out of cocoa pods foraged by the country’s indigenous communities and also owns its own cocoa plantation.
Li also intends to collaborate with these artisanal chocolate makers to conduct appreciation workshops where participants can savour single origin profiles and the terroir that impacts its taste.
“Maybe by next year we can have a tasting platter of Southeast Asian origins – who knows?” she says. “Singapore is part of Southeast Asia and for me, from Day One, it’s meant to be a space that can stand out. Our vision is to be an international brand. If we can find a good combination of Southeast Asian chocolates to showcase, that would be nice.”