Some of us spend decades searching for the dream job, Helen López, AKA Helen Chocolate found hers (and mine…) after a few years in journalism. Today, new INC member, Helen is at the helm of a 360-degree fine chocolate business that spans tastings, events, communication, public speaking, advice to producers and sales & marketing around the globe of a product with 5,000 years of heritage. The director of the Escuela de Chocolate of Madrid spills the beans on what it´s like to be fully immersed in chocolate.
How did you come to work with chocolate?
In 2009, when my father-in-law was hospitalised in Venezuela, I realised that there was a huge shortage of medicine there so I decided to hold “chocolatadas” or rather charity chocolate events in Madrid whereby I offered people a mug of Venezuelan hot chocolate in exchange for their medicines which we shipped back there. I discovered a talent for talking about chocolate and decided to make a career out of it.
What prompted your fascination with chocolate?
As a child I had always been intrigued by the aromas emanating from the local chocolate factory, of El Rey in Caracas. Perhaps like Charlie Bucket in Road Dahl´s world-famous book! My grandmother is from a cocoa-producing area of Venezuela and I have always been interested in gastronomy, culture, art and travel so the chocolate industry really ticked all the boxes of my wish-list as my work combines all of those different elements neatly together.
Can you name all the aspects of the chocolate industry that you´re involved in?
I run the Escuela de Chocolate near Opera in Madrid where I hold various types of tastings from interactive, fun consumer events to bean to bar production workshops for professionals.
I also have an events company that arranges diverse corporate chocolate-related experiences for companies.
I´m a public speaker on all things chocolatey such as innovation, sales and marketing.
I also represent several chocolate brands commercially in Spain and other countries such as Korea.
What are the latest trends in chocolate?
The growing trend in veganism has had a huge impact as the demand for plant-based food increases globally. There are lots of milk-substitute bars coming onto the market now.
I´ve also seen many original flavours emerge such as Ginger and Tamarind and Dark Milk is gaining ground in the popularity stakes.
Another huge change is that cocoa producing countries are increasingly involved in the finished bar as opposed to solely supplying the cocoa. This means they are better equipped to retain more of the value associated with the finished product.
How has the chocolate industry evolved over the past decade?
Like all food items there is a significant move towards premium quality that focuses on provenance. It is now possible to buy top end select cocoas, from single producers and pay 30 euros for a high-end bar.
I heard worrying rumours that there is a shortage of cocoa, is this true?
Far from it! There is a surplus of mass-produced cocoa, in part due to a spate of good harvests in Africa and prices have gone down dramatically over the years. In terms of top-quality cocoa, there is always fierce competition for premium beans but we´re not going to run out! [Editor – phew!]
What are some of the most original chocolates you have seen lately?
Japan produces some delicious chocolates flavoured with teas. Whilst Taiwan has come up with a surprising white chocolate and prawn combo. Closer to home, I´ve tasted anchovy-flavoured chocolate from Santander and another with Torreznos (porky scratchings) from León.
Tell us about your upcoming documentary on the history of chocolate in Spain
I am working on a film to recount the rich history of chocolate in Spain as Madrid is the capital city with the second highest number of chocolate establishments in Europe. Originally brought over from the Americas 500 years ago, cocoa was soon converted into a fashionable hot drink, enjoyed particularly by the aristocracy. [Editor´s Note: I can personally recommend a steaming mug of hot chocolate as the perfect end to a night out dancing].
Which lesson has been the hardest to learn?
Mastering all the different strands of my diverse chocolate business. In addition to leading chocolate tastings, I had to learn how to sell chocolate all over the world, teach business skills and take on an advisory role to producers round the globe. It is quite a solitary business and I´ve been a trailblazer in my sector which means there are many other people out there copying what I do which keeps me on my toes and can create a lot of pressure.
You have a notable theatrical flair when you lead your chocolate tastings, where does this come from?
I think it comes from my artistic aptitude for dance which I studied for many years and also my passion for storytelling. Chocolate, in all its various guises is also an artform in itself. My personal trajectory from one of the poorest areas of Caracas to setting up my own business in Madrid has resonated with a lot of people. At the end of the day my main aim is to inform and entertain people from all walks of life using chocolate as a vehicle.
You hold consumer tastings at your workshop near Opera in Madrid, I expect you have some funny stories to tell.
We´ve certainly had our fair share of unexpected incidents over the last 10 years. Once we burnt the caramel so we had to hold the chocolate tasting on the move around the Madrid, which later gave rise to chocolate walking tours. Another time a lady went into labour halfway through a tasting and on another occasion 2 separate groups realised they were remotely related to each other!
When it comes to chocoholics Switzerland leads the way with an average consumption of 8.8 kilos per capita or 1.6 bars of 100g of chocolate per week, how does that compare to you?
Well in actual fact I eat a lot of cocoa-based products in addition to the traditional bar. For example, caramelised or chocolate-coated nibs, barbecue sauce with chocolate and at home I like to whip up a chocolate mayonnaise with olive oil, garlic and onion to spread on toast.
In Spain we consume less than 2 kilos/chocolate per capita per year but my dream is for premium chocolate to regain popularity so as to benefit the entire supply chain.
What do your kids think about your profession?
My 9-year old son, Diego, loves what I do for a living and has even given several classes at school on the whole production process. It´s fair to say that in general there is a growing interest in the provenance of our food and in the producers themselves. My son is a great taster of white chocolate which, by the way, happens to be my favourite too (as long as the cocoa butter used is premium quality). Surprising as that might sound for a professional chocolate taster!
What´s next for Helen Chocolate?
Trips to chocolate plantations! Nothing beats seeing chocolate being made in its natural habitat.
For further details on tastings for adults, children, groups, corporate events:
Telephone – 653592631
Calle Meson de Paños 2
The Editor would like to personally thank Helen for inviting her to attend her weekly tasting at the Escuela de Chocolate and for providing riveting insight into the tempering and refining process and generally coating her hands in the most delicious glossy mahogany-hued chocolate she has ever tasted.