Monday, February 8, 2010

Cadbury's chocolate - trouble ahead

I expected this day would arrive. Cadbury's, as Irish chocolate addicts know it, is an international chocolate manufacturer with a big worldwide presence including national confectionery companies in places like Britain, the U.S.A., Australia and Ireland. It's just been taken over in controversial circumstances by Kraft, the U.S. multinational. Though Kraft is in the red to the tune of a reported €25billion (through either gross misfortune, mismanagement or, as I suspect, the lack of a sustainable vision - or perhaps somebody stole the profits while people were looking away), current economic realities meant they were able to acquire Cadbury's anyway for a trifling €13.6billion. Like they had it to spare. (Why? Not my area of expertise!) I am not optimistic that Kraft, purveyor of staples like Toblerone and Philadelphia cream cheese, will allow Cadbury maintain its traditions of product diversity and ethically-sound business practice.

It's not a simple case of goodie versus baddie. Dammit, the entire Cadbury board voted in favour. Perhaps they felt there was no option, or maybe they were just giving shareholders the best 'deal'. But the members of that board knew, or ought to have known, that a sellout like theirs could ultimately lead to the destruction of the brand and its products, which vary from the new to the very old (186 years old), the good to the (pretty) bad...

Kraft has a food culture of its own. It was Kraft which was responsible for giving many of us our first taste of 'parmesan cheese', albeit in the form of a dry powder that smelt of vomit. That dried, powdered 'parmesan' bore little relation to real Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano, a universally acknowledged food glory), but the little metallic green tubs did the business to a degree and got many of us started. The problem is, big multinationals like Kraft will always, to a greater or lesser extent, change, dilute and corrupt the existing cultures of the companies they acquire and, I suppose, the food cultures of their customers. In this case, Kraft's takeover, which comes at the end of a hostile process, will naturally worry fans of Cadbury's in Ireland.

Why should lovers of Irish Cadbury's be worried? The answer is that the Irish company, though it's been of strategic use in the broader context of Cadbury UK, is nevertheless a relatively small operation and less of a priority internationally. True, the Irish company has exclusively produced a number of Cadbury's key product lines, for example Flake and Crunchie, and it has also supplied the bigger Cadbury company with a substantial ingredient (chocolate crumb) used in its chocolate manufacture outside of Ireland. But Cadbury UK could probably manage without the Irish side given some changes, and shareholders wouldn't bat an eyelid. That's business for you - companies change, they adapt, they rationalise. In any case, the contribution or even the existence of an Irish division of Cadbury's is hardly something the company's typical UK customer knows anything about. Cadbury's British consumers are generally not aware that their Flake or Twirl is made in the Republic of Ireland - though many of them may notice that these, and certain of the other Cadbury lines, taste better than others... which, of course, they do! Here's the real cause for worry, above and beyond the (serious) issue of possible job losses, should Cadbury Ireland be headed for extinction: its unique milk chocolate, the jewel in the Cadbury crown, the basis of the best and most creative of the company's great, historic chocolate bars. Irish Cadbury's Milk Chocolate shares a marketing slogan with the UK equivalent. The company boasts that Cadbury's Dairy Milk is made with 'full cream milk... a glass and a half in every bar' and it's true Cadbury's makes its milk chocolate with liquid, rather than dried, milk, a relatively uncommon practice internationally. But the Irish Cadbury's milk chocolate is quite different and, according to many, far superior in flavour to the British recipe. That's the rub! The company doesn't like to refer to this difference and in fact has done a good job concealing the fact. What's more, product lines made with either of the company's two chocolate formulas, the Irish and the British, sell side-by-side in both Britain and Ireland.


But one is better than the other! The Irish recipe tastes less sweet, feels less dry and chalky - and less greasy - and it doesn't have the same caramel overtones of the British formulation. I prefer its apparent higher-roast cocoa bean flavour, it's crisp, nutty, creamy, distinctive taste, the genius and subtlety of its blend, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Though both types have what Americans call a 'barnyard(y)' flavour and both are slightly grainy in texture, I think British Cadbury's has a slightly 'chemical' taste, which is why I don't enjoy Buttons or UK Cadbury easter eggs, for example. (I wonder, were Buttons once made with Irish chocolate? My memory suggests they used to taste cleaner...) Anyway, these separate recipes may both have their loyal adherents and the company will doubtless argue that each reflects national tastes and preferences; if so, the larger will win out in the end as the cost accountants and corporate planners do their thing. The genius that made Cadbury Ireland what it is will not be understood or appreciated by the Kraft-Cadbury bean (ha!) counters and the better product will give way to the inferior one. It's predictable, depressing - and entirely typical of the evolution of giant multinationals. (I personally don't agree with the theory of 'national tastes'. These change and adapt, for better or worse, and that's one reason European multinationals and specialist chocolate makers have made such inroads in the UK and Irish markets. It also explains the dreaded but misconceived 'truffle-isation' of popular chocolate assortments in Britain. Just look at the mess Nestle has made of the venerable (formerly Rowntree's) Black Magic!)

Of course, customers do demonstrate loyalty to particular favourite foods. If the UK Cadbury-loving population could grasp the idea that certain of their favourite products taste better than others, and that the reason for this is that they are made with a basically better chocolate (the Irish Cadbury's Dairy Milk), then a demand for retention of the Irish production might ensue. But that's probably far-fetched. Cadbury's has a history of relishing public demand, public outcry, even public campaigns relating to its own products, using these outpourings of public emotion in its advertising/PR, and then choosing, somewhat capriciously, to either change its plans or carry on regardless. I don't fancy our chances on this one. Maybe Cadbury's Irish production company will prove itself particularly efficient or it'll score on something like perceived quality or food safety, and maybe the domestic market - Irish consumers - will somehow tip the balance in favour of Cadbury Ireland continuing its manufacturing base here.

I'm worried, and this worry applies to Cadbury's everywhere, not just in Ireland. There are conflicting factors which threaten traditional manufacturers of quality, popular confectionery. On the one hand, the downward pressure on prices created by supermarkets is pushing companies like Cadbury into unhelpful practices like discounting, multipacking, reactive product planning and other forms of diversification which can threaten its core strengths. In this area, Cadbury is fighting the producers of inferior sweets, including giant US and European 'rivals', using their methods, not its own - quality v quantity, if you like, all overseen by the god of marketing. Not an arena which guarantees the survival of the traditional virtues! On the other hand, Cadbury and others like it can expect little or no support from the emergent and influential 'foodie' sector, at least publicly. The most vocal and well-positioned foodies, writing professionally about chocolate, are aligned to a concept of chocolate which emphasises healthfulness, 'purity' and, well, a continental European tradition, really. Never mind that they can rip off poor cacao workers to beat the best, and further down the line will often blend and roast their cocoa beans poorly, the concept can lead to very good basic chocolate. Check out the various dark chocolate formulations from the French company Valrhona (wonderful - though, oddly, Valrhona's milk chocolate formulas are much less appealing than its dark) and a handful of others. Straightforward chocolate bars from the likes of Amadei, Cluizel, Caffarel, Lindt (yep, even Lindt), Castelain and the top Belgian makers, for example, are pretty nice - sometimes very nice - though, as in Valrhona's case, French milk chocolate in particular tends to be much less impressive than the corresponding dark from the same maker. But none of this lot do bars like Cadbury does, and for all their smoothness and simplicity, European chocolate bars in general are often boring and unimaginative. Across Europe, chocolate companies and smaller chocolatiers use lots of samey hazelnut pastes or other nut ingredients (including cloying marzipans) in their confections, there are overly-bitter, one-note flavours in their chocolate (sorry, couverture) and many are beginning to show a lack of sweetness which is positively puritanical. In fact, the foodie concept of chocolate is oriented away from children towards an apparently sophisticated, adult market.

Chocolate foodies, a sub-group of the foodie community, are essentially in thrall to a narrow, substantially French idea of what good chocolate is. They don't know or can't remember what's good about popular, usually less-strong, chocolate. For them, cocoa strength, smoothness and exclusivity - plus other variables like weird and wonderful flavourings like lavender, tea, black peppercorn or even chilli pepper - add up to good chocolate. I like the tea (and lavender) up to a point but I disagree in general with the gimmicky flavours approach. Instead, I value skilful blending and roasting of the cocoa beans used in a chocolate recipe and I like to see chocolate work its magic with time-honoured combinations involving fruits, fondants, nuts, toffees and other caramels, allied to interesting textures and combinations of textures. More knowledgeable chocolate lovers, at least those of a certain age, will remember that the French - wonderful in their attitude to and love of food in general - aren't really big chocolate lovers. It's just that true food lovers cannot but be inspired by the wonder of chocolate, and that includes the French... but let's not allow them to monopolise this aspect of our popular culture. They do wonderful things with chocolate in patisserie and desserts, but their chocolate assortments - even from the top chocolatiers like La Maison du Chocolat and others - are ultimately boring.

The French, with all their experience hopping over the border to Brussels in pursuit of some quasi-legal but ultimately financial advantage, have made quite a fuss about the practice of adding a small percentage (2%-5% typically) of non-cocoa fat to widely-available chocolate as a stabiliser. 'We don't do it', they say, 'and that makes it wrong. Adding non-cocoa vegetable fat, in however small a quantity, means the chocolate is not chocolate'. Hmm, they're not saying that their wine isn't wine after it's been dosed with sugar or sulphur dioxide, I note. Let's get real on this one. I personally would rather Cadbury's and others used only cocoa fat in their chocolate, but the practice of using a very small amount of non-cocoa fat doesn't stop their chocolate being chocolate... and it doesn't stop it tasting good, either. (Actually, the presence of vegetable fat in Irish Cadbury's milk chocolate may compromise the desired 'snap' in the chocolate, but I've always been aware that this problem, and perhaps a little excessive sweetness also, can be addressed by eating the chocolate cold, from the fridge, as many Irish chocolate lovers do. Incidentally, I would pay more for cocoa-fat-only, but others might not!)

In a later post, I intend to take my readers on a tour of the various Cadbury's (and other companies') classic bars and other chocolate products beloved of Irish and British chocolate lovers. I'll describe their appeal and show how they... well, how they work! There are ways and means of eating them to maximise the pleasure they give. I'll show those who remember, those who don't - and those who never knew - how it's done.

7 comments:

  1. Good post thanks for background info.
    We would come home to Ireland each school holiday and therefore got an opportunity to taste and compare the taste of the same bars within a 24 hour period and we always knew that Irish Cadbury's tasted much creamier than the English equivalent.
    I may go for the posh French dark stuff in front of an audience but when I really need that chocolate hit its got to be Cadbury's and Irish Cadbury's at that.
    Nell

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  2. Wow...that's a hell of a lot for a first entry Stephy! i am sad too that Cadbury's are in their last days. really do love Dairy Milk, its oh-so creamy and just so lovely.

    in other foodie news, i made a lovely dinner tonight!! :D t was scrum-diddly-umptious!

    xx nirina

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  3. Good Blog, I will be a regular reader. At last someone who knows his chocolate scene. Wonder where you got that from?
    Eoghan

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  4. My Wife's family have an Irish heritage and go back occasionally, we always give them £20 and get them to buy as many Irish small bars as they can, it is remarkably different.
    Does anyone know of a website where one can buy specificaly Irish Cadbury's bars and biscuits?
    Chris

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  7. And verily it came to pass the move to close down production of Irish Cadburys is on-Rathmore and Dublin plants to shut and stopping production of 'the pink snack bar' and Time Out……the feckin eijits is all I can say :(

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