If someone asked you which country has created some of the finest quality chocolate, Denmark probably wouldn’t be the first to spring to mind. Well, Friis-Holm Chocolate is here to change that. Founded by Mikkel Friis-Holm with the headquarters in his home on the northern fjords of Zealand, this artisanal chocolate company is approaching chocolate in a whole new way.
Mikkel trained as a professional chef in his early years, and one of his biggest drives has always been to find the best produce available.
What sets Friis-Holm apart from other chocolate makers is their focus on single bean varietals
You’ve probably become used to seeing ‘single origin’ on the labels of artisanal chocolates – this shows that the cacao has come from a single farm, co-operative or plantation.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the cacao being grown there is all the same variety. Often there can be at least five – if not ten, or even twenty – different varieties of cacao being grown for one chocolate maker.
This results in a chocolate that is formed of a blend of many different cacaos – and for those with subtle palates, that means that even if you buy the same brand your bar of chocolate will never taste the same twice.
Mikkel is fastidious in his research and unrelenting in his philosophy that the variety of cacao is as important to a bar of chocolate as a type of grape is to a finished wine. And, while Mikkel does experiment with blending cacao varietals from time to time, he believes it is important to bring out the true flavours of the individual beans.
The variety of cacao is as important to a bar of chocolate as a type of grape is to a finished wine
Discovering Cacao Varietals in Nicaragua
Much of Mikkel’s research took place in 2008, when he was invited to join a cacao project in Nicaragua with foreign scientists and local cacao farmers.
Around 1000 different varieties of cacao were genetically identified, taste tested, and eventually narrowed down to around 50 that Mikkel and other chocolate makers were interested in. Many of these varieties had been latent for centuries, surviving only in small pockets of the country. Further testing finally resulted in 10 varietals that the project members agreed were the best of the best.
As well as specific varieties, the project found that terroir has just as much impact on the flavour of cacao as it does on coffee and wine. An exciting part of this project was the naming of the varietals discovered.
Although the cacao varietals had been around for centuries, they had never been introduced to the international market and therefore lacked formal names.
In collaboration with the Nicaraguan farmers, Mikkel was involved in helping to define the rare cacaos. These included Johé, Chuno, Nicaliso, Indio Rojo and Medagla – names chosen to reflect the personality of the Nicaraguan land and its people, and all of which Mikkel has selected for use in Friis-Holm’s stunning bars.
Terroir has just as much impact on the flavour of cacao as it does on coffee and wine
Working With Barba: One of World's Rarest Cacaos
Another of the cacaos that Mikkel helped to define was Barba – used in one of Friis-Holm’s single bean 70% dark chocolate bars. This is one of the rarest cacao varietals in the world, partly because Mikkel was the only one on the Nicaraguan project who wanted to use the beans to make his chocolate.
In the whole of Nicaragua (and possibly the world), there are perhaps only 100 trees growing the Barba varietal. And it’s truly special – once made into a chocolate, the initial flavour is mellow and smooth. Then, just as you think it’s about to melt away, suddenly there’s a surprising boldness, with a spiciness right on the back of the tongue like a hit of black pepper accompanying the more familiar cocoa bitterness.
Managing Fermentation to Celebrate the True Cacao Flavour
A hugely influential factor on the flavour of chocolate is the aging and fermenting process that cacao beans undergo before being ground. What Mikkel found was that many of the old, established books on chocolate making recommended a level of fermentation that resulted in an extremely mellow, almost bland flavour. This used to be favoured so that individual chocolate makers could put their stamp on the flavour – for example by using vanilla, orange or nuts.
But Mikkel didn’t want to add other flavours to his chocolate; he wanted the flavour of each specific cacao to be celebrated. So, when he works with the farmers in Nicaragua, Mikkel specifies different levels of fermentation that would still be considered as ‘under fermented’ by nearly all commercial chocolate makers today.
After the variety of cacao, Mikkel considers the fermentation and aging process the next most important part of making chocolate, as it is so instrumental in defining the final flavour.
A hugely influential factor on the flavour of chocolate is the aging and fermenting process that cacao beans undergo before being ground
Bringing 100 Year Old Chocolate-Making Machinery to Denmark
Mikkel had his cacao – now he needed the equipment to make his unique chocolate. The pride of his factory is a long conche – a piece of chocolate making machinery that evenly distributes cocoa butter throughout chocolate, as well as promoting the development of flavour.
A friend in the USA found two long conches in the Dominican Republic, each around 100 years old, and Mikkel promptly bought one from him. It is these pieces of ‘real’ chocolate machinery that Mikkel so loves to use, as they are about making the best quality chocolate – not just about making lots of chocolate efficiently.
Artisanal Chocolate Takes Time to Make
Indeed, efficiency is almost the least concern for Friis-Holm Chocolate. With the expertise of friend and colleague Stephane Bonnat in Voiron, France, Mikkel’s chocolate visions are brought to life in batches of approximately 130-250kg – and each batch takes around 8-9 days to complete.
Mikkel gives an example of Belgian chocolate-making giants he’s met who can produce up to 5 tonnes a batch in as little as 9-10 hours to give an idea of what artisan chocolate makers are up against.
But he’s not daunted – Mikkel takes his chocolate seriously and he knows that his lengthier process is well worth the wait. Much of this time is taken up with conching the chocolate on his beloved 100-year-old machine, to draw out and develop the fullest flavours of the specially selected cacao beans.
Mikkel’s chocolate visions are brought to life in batches of approximately 130-250kg – and each batch takes around 8-9 days to complete
No Extra Ingredients - Not Even Soy Lecithin
Friis-Holm also avoids the use of soy lecithin – an emulsifier with the express purpose in chocolate making of speeding up the manufacturing process. Instead, Mikkel chooses to use more cocoa butter than is usually found in chocolate.
This may be more expensive, but it means he doesn’t have to compromise on flavour or richness of texture during the 8-9 days it takes to make one batch of outstanding chocolate. The same goes for his choice of only using organic, refined sugar to adjust the sweetness. When asked why Friis-Holm doesn’t use unrefined sugar, Mikkel explains that it gives too much of a caramel flavour – and this detracts from the flavours of the cacao that he’s worked so hard to extract.
Mikkel Friis-Holm Wants Us to Become True Chocolate Connoisseurs
It’s fair to say that Friis-Holm’s overall objective is to inspire people to become connoisseurs of chocolate. The result is a range of utterly unique chocolate bars, each one completely distinct in flavour and unlike anything you’ve tried before. They clearly showcase the passion Mikkel has for cacao and the respect with which he treats it.