The Best Things in Life Can Be Pricey

By Sean Carroll | January 17, 2007 2:08 am

For those of you who had better things to do than read blogs over the holidays, you missed out on the story everyone was linking to: this ten-part expose of the Noka chocolate company. It was a well-done piece, by someone who really knows his chocolate.

Apparently there is an important distinction between “chocolate makers” and “chocolatiers.” The former actually pick the cacao beans and turn them into chocolate, while the latter will buy basic chocolate (“couverture”) from someone else and turn it into truffles or into whatever other form you prefer your dark sinful goodness. A pretty good system, overall; no shame in representing either half of the pipeline, although many manufacturers do serve both functions. Noka is a chocolatier — one of the most expensive in the world. Hundreds of dollars per pound, minimum.

The problem is that Noka pretends to make their own chocolate from scratch, even though they don’t. They don’t quite come right out and lie, but they shamelessly weasel around the truth, trying to give the impression that they’re out there picking beans themselves. Unlike other chocolatiers, who are perfectly happy to reveal who is providing their raw chocolate, Noka keeps it a closely-guarded secret.

But there aren’t that many chocolate makers in the world, and Noka does make a long list of claims about its chocolate — enough, as it turns out, to uniquely pin down who their supplier is! It’s a tiny French company named Bonnat. Apparently, Noka doesn’t even do a very artful job at turning their couverture into delectable truffles; they just melt it down and squeeze it into different shapes. And then sell it at a markup of anywhere from 1,000% to more than 6,000%. But you do get a pretty sweet stainless-steel box, if you go for the more expensive stuff.

Noka and Bonnat chocolate

All in all, a nice bit of investigative reporting, and a pretty damning indictment of Noka’s spin machine. But I was frustrated by a couple of aspects of the expose. Most obviously, with all of the elaborate effort that the author (credited only as “Scott”) went to test and characterize Noka’s chocolate, at no time (apparently) did he directly address the most important question — how good does it taste? The impression is given that it can’t possibly taste any different from the basic chocolate one could purchase directly from Bonnat, and here and there a disparaging comment about Noka’s presentation is thrown in. But really, the entire point is how it tastes, no? I’m ready to buy the argument that it can’t possibly live up to the hype, but I’d like to see that hypothesis explictly tested, with a blind taste test or some such thing.

The other issue is more subtle, and almost certainly unintentional on the part of the author, who is clearly a chocophile. Unavoidably, by revealing the pretense behind a fancy-schmancy chocolate operation, the expose will confirm the suspicions of those who think that the whole concept of boutique chocolate is a scam, targeted at yuppies with more money than sense. Or any boutique food product, really. There are people out there — I won’t name names — who harbor a lingering suspicion that anything more upscale than a good Hershey’s chocolate bar is just an exercise in name recognition, totally divorced from considerations of quality. And that kind of talk makes my sensitive elitist-snob blood boil.

Not that they’re always wrong. One area in which quality definitely matters, I think we can all agree, is fine single-malt Scotch whisky. My own introduction to the pleasures of good whisky came, at all places, at a cosmology conference. It was in Britain (of course), and as an evening’s entertainment the conference hosted a whisky tasting. It was presided over by a gentleman from J&B, who guided us through sips of several different single malts. Even to my untutored palate, the differences were unmistakable, and I was hooked. But the J&B guy, speaking in a charming Scottish accent, told a revealing anecdote: at one point they had a specific blend being sold only in Japan, which was suffering from disappointing sales. So they changed the name, slapped a different label on the same whisky, and tripled the price. Sales skyrocketed. Sometimes it really is about the cachet.

Other times, it’s not. Which I will proceed to rigorously prove by means of a counter-anecdote. I was having dinner with a friend at a fancy restaurant, the Ritz Carlton Dining Room in Chicago. She ordered the wine, keeping its identity a surprise by asking for it by the number on the wine list rather than by name. The bottle was brought to us by a different server, who offered it to me for tasting and inspection (being that I was the guy, naturally). This wine was — amazing. Words fail me. Robust and spicy and deep, with a profound elongated finish, but at the same time subtle and multi-layered, not merely an overly-alcoholic novelty trick. We both agreed it was the best wine we had ever tasted.

So we were enjoying the wine, when she proudly says “I knew you’d love this Barolo.” To which I replied, “What are you talking about? This is a California Cabernet.” Which claim was revealed, by inspection, to be true. And which, rather than causing some minor bemusement, filled us with fear. Obviously we had the wrong bottle, but had we made a mistake in ordering by number? This was a fancy place — she was trying to order a $100 bottle of wine, but there were plenty on the wine list that broke the $1000 barrier. And we didn’t really want to spend the rest of the evening washing dishes.

So, with some trepidation, we asked to peek at the wine list again. Turns out that the bottle we were drinking came in at $300 — not what we had meant to spend, but not completely obscene. And we hadn’t, in fact, ordered the wrong number; there was a mistake on the printed wine list, and two completely different bottles had the same number. Fortunately, this being a classy place, the wait staff was horrified that we hadn’t received what we had ordered, and offered to replace it (we declined), and wouldn’t think of charging us the more expensive price.

But the relevant point here is: paying a lot of money really does buy you quality, sometimes. This was a pretty good blind experiment, since we had no idea what we were drinking. I’ve had a few $100 bottles of wine in my day (not too many — I don’t move in those circles), and this was unmistakably better. Now, we can argue whether the increase of quality as a function of price is really linear, or something closer to logarithmic. But don’t you dare start arguing that there’s some non-outlandish threshold above which everything tastes just as good, no matter how much you pay. Sometimes, if you want the truly good stuff, you have to fork it over.

Now go out there and indulge in some good chocolate! What are you waiting for?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink
  • Paul Schmit

    Having played guitar for about 9 years (for the bulk of my adolescent and adult life), and having owned roughly 10 or so guitars from a number of different price brackets over that length of time, and having played anywhere from 50-100 others without “owning” them, I will second your conclusion. There will always be exceptions, but in a post-modern capitalist nation, many people have extra money to blow, and many others have the skills in craftsmanship and marketing to suck in the highest bidder and make them not feel an ounce of guilt for blowing a small fortune on largely unnecessary and extravagant goods.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    Now go out there and indulge in some good chocolate! What are you waiting for?

    I’m waiting for someone to buy me a 100 dollar box of chocolate.

  • Johan Couder

    I’m waiting for someone to buy me a 100 dollar box of chocolate.

    .

    being a resident of Belgium, I don’t have to pay $100 for a box of the best chocolate in the world :-)

    just about the only advantage Belgium has to offer its residents I’m afraid :-(

  • theoreticalminimum

    Hmm.. it looks like the “Bonnat” link refers back to the post. I guess it would have been this, right?
    If this is so, it seems to me then, mon cher confrère, that what you call a “tiny French company” (What measure are you using?) is actually well-known in France, with a respectable history and appreciated tradition in chocolate making, and with presumably 180 shops in France selling their products.

    But really, the entire point is how it tastes, no? I’m ready to buy the argument that it can’t possibly live up to the hype, but I’d like to see that hypothesis explictly tested, with a blind taste test or some such thing.
    There is apparently a shop in the USA which sells Bonnat chocolate, so you might check it out (contact details given below). Unfortunately, it’s in MA (How come there’s none in CA?! I mean, there’s bound to be a non-trivial number of people who crave for these things in that state…). I must say the stuff is quite expensive..

    CROSSINGS
    (Importateur)
    4 New Street
    WORCESTER, MA 01605
    Tél. 001.800.209.6141 / 001.508.755.5860
    Fax. 001.508.755.6548

    Ce qui fait du bien au palais, ne fait pas de mal à l’âme…” Indulge! ; ]

  • http://www.avinestory.com Marisa D’Vari

    Great post about the $300 wine. I’m glad it worked out for you!

  • Stephen Mulraney

    I think by deducing that the chocolate was Bonnat, he reduced the question of how does it taste to a problem previously solved. I suspect that that was his thinking.

  • http://web.mit.edu/sahughes/www/ Scott H.

    My introduction to single malt came at the Caltech Athenaeum … have you joined yet?

  • collin

    Sean– What wine, in fact, where you drinking?

  • Bruce

    While I second Collin’s question, I have a more important one about the Ritz:
    have they fixed the wine list yet? I’d love to drink a $300 bottle for one third the price…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    The wine was a Stag’s Leap Cab — I forget the details. I’m going to wait until someone serves it to me by accident again. And I presume they have changed the list; this was a few years ago.

    Scott, I’ve certainly joined the Ath, but not sampled the Scotch there yet. Next time you’re in town!

    Thanks for catching the Bonnat link, fixed. I’m not sure that it’s a good assumption to think that the Noka chocolate tastes exactly like the Bonnat (although it may be true); it’s possible just to melt the couverture down and re-shape it, but it can also be altered in all sorts of ways.

  • Sam Gralla

    Sean,

    Are you enjoying See’s candies regularly now that you are in California? Best quality/money ratio out there by far, in my experience.

    -Sam

  • http://paulskemp.livejournal.com/ Paul Kemp

    I have no opinion on chocolate (being perfectly content with a Hershey’s or a Snickers) but IMO life is too short for cheap coffee, cheap wine, cheap whiskey, cheap cigars, or cheap beer. I’m always willing to spend extra in those areas because quality both matters and costs for all of them.

  • http://www.philipdowney.com/weblog/ Philip Downey

    One thing that all the fancy European chocolatiers and couvertures never say or put on their boxes, is that the cocoa all comes from Ecuador and other South American countries. But it’s always “Made in [insert European country].”

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    I think one can see this same paying for quality at much lower price points.

    (1) Ice cream. B&J and Haagen Daasz cost perhaps twice what Dreyers and the store brands cost, but are, IMHO, clearly different and better.
    (2) Both Quiznos and Subway will sell you a sandwich containing steak, but the Quiznos one, while costing twice as much, will not have any fat or tendon in it, and will be a whole lot more tender. The same goes for steak burritos at, say, Baja Fresh rather than Del Taco.

    Oddly, again IMHO, chocolate is one of those items where this holds rather less, or to put it differently, the bulk stuff (Hersheys or Cadbury’s) that you can get in most supermarkets is actually pretty good, and the expensive stuff seems obsessed with making a *different* product (namely very dark chocolate) rather than a superior version of the stuff I like (namely milk chocolate). You can, at Safeway/Vons/Pavilions, and maybe other supermarkets, buy milk chocolate made by Lindt which is about 1.5x the cost of Hersheys and which is, to my mind, clearly better tasting.
    If you want to see what a better class of chocolate might taste like, but don’t care for dark chocolate, and would rather spend about $2 than $100, I’d recommend trying a bar of the Lindt milk chocolate (the basic one, not the weird stuff with coconut or orange or whatever added).

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    “that the cocoa all comes from Ecuador and other South American countries”

    Not any more. From wikipedia (figures are millions of metric tons)
    Africa is clearly far in the lead, and I’d no idea Cambodia was a significant producer.

    Côte d’Ivoire 1.33
    Ghana 0.74
    Indonesia 0.43
    Nigeria 0.37
    Brazil 0.17
    Cambodia 0.13
    Ecuador 0.09
    World Total 3.6

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    I’ve never tasted a $300 bottle of wine – now I am salivating…

    Some See’s Candy stores honor a discount for teachers. Just show them your university ID and get the discount!

  • Jack

    Actually, the curve is more exponential than logarithmic. A BMW is probably only 30% more expensive than the Japanese “equivalent”, but it is many times more satisfying.

    What a joy to see political correctness thrown to the winds just once! Hurrah for money and the pleasures it brings!

  • J

    When my (now) husband and I were shopping for my engagement ring we discovered something like this, too. We both really enjoyed the process (maybe he liked that I did NOT want him to spend two months’ salary!) and we found that we quickly learned to tell the relative qualities of diamonds. Maybe it was a slow day or something, but one jeweler saw that we were into it and showed us some nice 1/2 carat ones of about the quality we were looking for… and then he brought out the $5000 one just so we could see it. The quality that a diamond has to be to cost $5000 (quite a few years ago!) at 1/2 carat is amazing, and this one was stunning. I don’t know how to describe it other than that it was like a frozen droplet of pure deep space. We really appreciated the chance to enjoy something like that… and we bought a perfectly nice much cheaper diamond that’s still on my finger right now!

  • spyder

    There are people out there — I won’t name names — who harbor a lingering suspicion that anything more upscale than a good Hershey’s chocolate bar is just an exercise in name recognition, totally divorced from considerations of quality. And that kind of talk makes my sensitive elitist-snob blood boil.

    Since i stopped drinking (now sixteen years ago) i have had to take my “holic” needs away from great Scotches and superb wines (and indeed there are amazing and expensive qualitative differences in both of those beverages) and put them towards chocolate and ice creams. As with any palate, it is a matter of personal taste and preference, but the essential underlying constructs are the same. The quality of the cocoa bean (and SA is better than Africa–African child slave labor is what drives the price of cheap inferior beans), the quality of the sugar, and most importantly the quality of the butter/dairy sources. Chocolate makers in different countries have used regional recipes for the last 500 years or so, and while some prefer the European taste, i am happier with the recipes created in the Americas, long before the bean went east.

    That being said, find a chocolatier who uses a chocolate made in the way you prefer, then work through their selections. From Europe i prefer the Italian Vente rather than the versions from the North. From the US, i am a CA boy and really enjoy the work of some of the Sierra and Gold Country studios (yes chocolatiers are artists working in studios). I passionately recommend you find a sample of one of my favorites (and yes, i used to live in the same small town for 15 years) DeGroot’s The Truffle Shop in Nevada City, CA. The Chocolate Oblivion Torte is to die for, and if you like quality Scotch, try the Highlander Truffle.

  • KL

    > But the relevant point here is: paying a lot of money really does buy you quality, sometimes.

    Or paying in terms of time. Ever tried making chocolate yourself? :)

  • KL

    Oh, and here’s my contribution:

    http://www.johnandkiras.com/site/Welcome_business.htm

    Their biodynamic ginger one was amazing.

  • Pingback: Physicists on chocolate and wine « Decoherent Rambling()

  • mclaren

    With all due respect, single malt scotch whiskey tastes like paint remover, regardless how elaborately or expensively it is produced. For that matter all hard liquor tastes like paint remover.

    Anyone who wastes money on expensive liquor has gotten duped. Instead of buying costly liquor, gargle with raw sewage once a day and then hit youself in the forehead with a ball peen hammer 50 times in a row. You’ll save yourself immense amounts of cash and accomplish the same thing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    Instead of buying costly liquor, gargle with raw sewage once a day and then hit youself in the forehead with a ball peen hammer 50 times in a row.

    The sewage-hammer maneuver doesn’t look as suave in a bar, however.

  • Pingback: Bacon-Flavored Chocolate | Cosmic Variance()

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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