What's in a chocolate bar? In cheap bars, any number of things - milk powder, sugar, flavourings and even added oils. In the expensive bars with high cocoa content, it's essentially the cocoa bean and sugar (plus small amonts of soy letichin and vanilla). So if you're buying a good 70 per cent chocolate, you've got close to 30 per cent sugar.
But it turns out you don't need the sugar at all. Enter Canberran ice-cream supremo John Marshall, who is making 100 per cent chocolate bars. No sugar, no milk, nothing, in fact, other than cocoa beans.
Such is Marshall's excitement about his chocolate that he's holding a party to celebrate - a ''Willy Wonka'' party at Stripey Sundae in Nicholls on August 29.
One hundred per cent chocolate is available elsewhere, although not readily, and is usually aimed at cooking. Lindt does a 99 per cent bar, although the ingredients list still includes sugar, along with cocoa powder. Marshall's chocolate is simply the ground and conched beans.
Marshall began making chocolate to use in his Frugii branded ice-cream. It is an ongoing dream of his to make the world's best ice-cream, and he figured he had better make the chocolate from scratch. It was a natural progression, he says, from making chocolate for ice-cream, to using it in homemade cakes, to making chocolate bars. He started using sugar, but is now avoiding sugar in his diet, so decided to eliminate the sugar from his chocolate and see what happened. As it turned out, nothing bad at all, and now he loves it.
"It's me trying to show people about food made the real way, it's not just a chocolate, you don't just buy it in a bag, this is how it happens," he says.
The process, Marshall insists, is relatively easy, although ''easy'' is subjective. He works in a purpose-built kitchen in the basement of his Canberra home. He imports the beans direct from a company in the US, which sources them from growers from around the world, and they arrive dried and fermented.
He roasts them in a small domestic coffee bean roaster, varying the time and heat according to the flavour he is trying to achieve.
"None of them are right, none of them are wrong, but you can sort of push the flavour however you want, I'll probably learn about that for the rest of my life," he says.
At that point the beans have lost some of their moisture. Marshall puts them through a machine to crack them, then a winnower, which separates the broken cocoa nibs from the skin.
The next step is placing the cocoa nibs in a wet grinder. Marshall heats the nibs to 50 degrees. As the wet grinder spins, it crunches and grinds the cocoa nibs against granite wheels, which are held on stationary spindles. Through this simple process, which continues for 24 to 36 hours, cocoa nibs are turned into thick, smooth, liquid chocolate, with nothing added. It's a balancing act to get the flavours right, though. Leave it for too short a time and the tastes are too volatile; too long and it can become flat and insipid. Marshall then tempers the chocolate in another machine and pours it into moulds.
Incredibly dark and rich, the bars snap in half in a satisfying way. When eating the chocolate it's difficult not to expect some sweetness, but it never comes. The chocolate melts in the mouth and surprisingly is less bitter than many commercial dark chocolate varieties. I like it, but would only want to eat a very small piece at a time. The strong flavour lingers on the tongue long after eating it.
Marshall says his chocolate is particularly strong, because when he orders the beans he specifies that they are for ice-cream. The wholesaler provides him with strong-tasting varieties so they don't become too diluted when mixed with other ice-cream ingredients.
Most commercial chocolates use forastero beans, the equivalent to robusta beans for coffee. They are a hardy variety cultivated for mass production. Marshall uses criollo and trinitario beans, which are more rare and he says three times the price.
"These are a little more fanciful, susceptible to the bacteria around, and because these need a lot of TLC they they're used a lot less in the industry so I'm trying to turn that upside down," he says. "Because I'm a small guy using a small amount, I might as well go for the best beans."
At the Willy Wonka party, Marshall will be on hand demonstrating chocolate-making techniques. Anyone who buys something on the night, even just an ice-cream, will be given a 100 per cent chocolate bar, and two of three of those bars will contain a golden ticket - giving them $100 worth of free Frugii ice cream.
Marshall says he is creating the bars for the party, as a celebration of Canberra's centenary, and has no immediate plans to make them more widely available. But he doesn't rule it out.
>> Larissa Nicholson is a staff writer.