When people think of Iceland—that is, if they even think of Iceland—chocolate is not likely the first thing that springs to mind. Volcanoes? Yes. Wool sweaters? Probably. Geysers? Perhaps. (In fact the original geysir is in Iceland and it’s probably the only Icelandic word that’s part of the English language, but I digress…) Maybe even skyr, now that the Icelandic version of yogurt has been hitting high-end grocery stores across America. But chocolate? Not so much…
Growing up in a partially Icelandic American family, familiarity with Icelandic foods has never been that foreign to me. But even I associate things like skyr or the hardfisk (dried fish that’s sort of like jerky) that my grandfather would order from Iceland and send to my dad at the holidays every year more with Icelandic cuisine than chocolate. But as it turns out, the U.S. is not the only place that is getting into bean-to-bar artisan chocolate making—it’s even happening in Iceland.
Omnom Chocolate is Iceland’s first bean-to-bar chocolate company. Started by Kjartan Gislason, a chef turned chocolate maker, and three friends, Omnom is quickly gaining a global reputation for uniquely flavored, high-quality chocolate.
I first heard about Omnom earlier this summer when I interviewed Greg D’Alesandre of San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate for this blog. During our interview, I asked Greg what other chocolate makers he admired—his immediate response was Omnom in Iceland, and he said that he and some of his fellow Dandelion employees had a trip planned to visit them in Reykjavik. Since my family also had a trip planned to Reykjavik this summer, I thought I’d also reach out to Omnom to see if I could speak to them while I was there in the country. So I emailed the “info” address on their website and arranged a time to come to the factory with Kjartan.
Unfortunately Kjartan was sent home ill about an hour before I arrived on the day that I visited the Omnom factory, which is housed in an old gas station house in Seljarnarnes, a peninusula on the outskirts of the capital city. Not expecting chocolate to be made in a former gas station (which I love!), I’d actually completely missed the place the night before when I went on a quick recon mission to make sure I knew where to find the place. But Kjartan directed me to the station house via email and I arrived to find his assistant and Omnom’s first employee, the charming Thorgerður (pronounced thor-ger-thur) Egilsdottir, ready to give me a full tour of the facility.
In business for not quite a year yet, Omnom’s first commercial chocolate release was last October. According to Thorgerður, Kjartan had previously been a chef whose passions were always more on the pastry and baking side than cooking. A couple years ago he started to develop a growing fascination with chocolate, which eventually led to starting the company.
“He’s just one of those persons, when he gets interested in something, he gets really interested. He takes things apart just to see how they function. So he got really interested in chocolate, and he wanted to take it apart to see how it functioned,” she said.
Kjartan began by experimenting with chocolate in his kitchen at home, Thorgerður said, ordering cacao beans on the Internet and grinding them by hand. Thorgerður first met Kjartan a couple years ago when she was waitressing at Dill, a prominent new Nordic style restaurant in Reykjavik, where Kjartan was a chef. He kept bringing his experiments in to the restaurant for everyone to try. Eventually he bought a small grinder or “conching” machine. Then Kjartan came together with the other owners—a designer, a baker and a financial specialist—and they decided they’d see how far they could go with a chocolate making venture, she said.
According to Thorgerður, Omnom’s cacao beans are sourced from Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Belize and the Dominican Republic through a broker in the U.S. She said they would like to eventually source their own beans, but as a small operation, that’s currently beyond their scope.
Handing me a hairnet before we entered the “chocolate room,” Thorgerður walked me through the process of creating a chocolate bar. First, Thorgerður said, Kjartan roasts the beans, then rests and sorts them. At Omnom, cacao beans are roasted “low and slow”—at lower temperatures for a longer time to get the maximum flavor from the bean, just as you would do when you roast anything, whether meat or vegetables.
“It’s to bring out flavors from the cocoa bean more that you would regularly get,” she said.
Then the outer layer of the bean is separated from the nibs. From there, the cacao nibs are mixed with any other ingredients that will go into the bar (sugar, cocoa butter or milk powder, depending on the blend) and “conched,” or ground in a grinder, constantly for approximately 72 hours until they reach a smooth consistency. Each “conching” machine breaks down the nibs while combining and working them together with the other ingredients. (Omnom uses a combination grinder/melanger machine from a Georgia—the state not the country—based company called Cocoatown). Omnom recently invested in four machines, so they can run four different batches at a time, and there is a constant whir in the facility because the machines are usually in some stage of that 72-hour production at any given time. Before they were able to invest in these machines, Thorgerður said they relied on conching machine about the size of an electric bread maker—using that, they were only able to process three kilos of chocolate in three days.
After conching, the chocolate is poured into molds and made into blocks, marked with the date processed and then stored until they are ready to temper the chocolate and make it into 16-gram bars. In addition to making their own bars, Omnom also supplies molded chocolate blocks to local restaurants in Reykjavik so it can be used for pastries or desserts.
To craft the bars, the chocolate must first be tempered, or heated so that it has a smooth, glossy texture. Tempering is also done by machine, heating the chocolate to approximately 40°C (104°F) so it can be molded, Thorgerður said. Making bars is done by hand, pouring the tempered chocolate into the bar molds, leveling it off with a pastry spatula and then placing the mold in a walk-in refrigerator to cool for approximately an hour. Any longer and the chocolate may “bloom,” or begin to turn gray, which can happen if it’s kept at too cool a temperature after tempering.
“It’s a very delicate, delicate process,” she said.
After the bars are made, Omnom’s five employees also package all the chocolate themselves by hand. Omnom’s packaging is colorful—each of their seven signature bars is packaged in a different color paper with animal faces drawn in crisp lines. According to Thorgerður, the team did some research on chocolate packaging and realized that most chocolate packaging tends toward the elegant—with fancy script-like fonts and gold lettering. They wanted something different, so they went with an approach that tends more toward linear design. The packaging can also serve as a serving tray if desired because the paper is of a heavy enough weight that it creates a sort of “bowl” when unwrapped.
“We wanted something a bit more lively, a bit more color, a bit more punk,” she said. “We wanted it a bit more fun and to stand out.”
Omnom offers seven different bars, and I was treated to a tasting of each. Even though Thorgerður said she’s had to “ban herself from chocolate for a while,” so as not to be constantly overindulging in chocolate, she went off her fast to taste with me. “I have to do the tasting along with you,” she said.
The seven varieties are as follows:
Dirty Blonde – white chocolate bar that offers much more depth and complexity than your normal white chocolate. More ecru in color than the creamy white normally associated with white chocolate, this bar is made with caramelized sugar and organic, unprocessed cocoa butter, which together give it the richer color and deeper flavor profile.
Milk of Madagascar (41 percent) – made from their Madagascar beans, milk powder (from Icelandic cows) and sugar. Like most European milk chocolates, this bar has a far more creamy flavor than American milk chocolate, likely because the cows are grass-fed. “Skim milk works the best,” Thorgerður said.
Sea Salted Almonds and Milk – This bar contains the same chocolate base as the Milk of Madagascar bar, sprinkled with almonds that have been boiled in water and sea salt. “The saltiness and the texture just bring it up a notch, really,” according to Thorgerður.
Dark Milk and Brown Sugar (55 percent) – Like the Dirty Blonde, this bar has a richer flavor because they caramelize the milk before it’s mixed with the cacao beans, almost like making dulce de leche, by heating the milk over low heat for a long time. “It draws out the sweetness of it,” Thorgerður said. “It holds the same amount of sugar as our dark bars, but the taste is way more sweet because of the milk. This is our dark horse—it keeps surprising us and others.”
Madagascar (66 percent) – According to Thorgerður, this bar is made from the bean that got them started. “It’s very complex and acidic really—it’s not your usual chocolate. I’m always getting new and new flavors from it,” she said.
Papua New Guinea (70 percent) – This bar stands out in my mind as the most fascinating because it literally has a smoky flavor to it. “Papua New Guinea has a way of accelerating the drying process of the beans by lighting fires under them. We actually got a batch of extra smoky beans, so ours is quite intense in the smoke department,” Thorgerður said. “I absolutely love it—it’s my morning cup of coffee chocolate kind of thing.” And she’s right—you can smell the smoke of the fire immediately as you open the bar of chocolate well before you even taste it. It’s like an intense campfire was infused into the bar—in a good way! “It’s not even that refined—it’s kind of like a smokehouse,” Thorgerður noted. She said that the fires used to dry the beans in Papua New Guinea are just wood and maybe banana leaves, not any special kind of wood like hickory or maple that are often used for smoking meats. “Our version is extra smoky—we just fell in love with it,” she said.
Lakkrís and Sea Salt – Lakkrís is the Icelandic word for licorice root. According to Thorgerður, licorice and chocolate is quite a popular flavor combination in Iceland. But, she said, Scandinavians tend to like their licorice flavor to be salty, not sweet. This bar starts with white chocolate combined with raw Persian licorice root, which is actually what gives the bar it’s dark color. Then a licorice-infused sea salt is sprinkled on the top of the bar. They source their salt from a place in the west fjords of Iceland, where they’re harvesting sea salt using geothermal energy to harvest the salt. Just released in May, Thorgerður said it’s been quite popular thus far, but they believe it’s probably predominantly popular among Icelanders.
Thorgerður said there are a lot of elements that combine to influence the flavors of any particular chocolate. Aside from where the beans are grown and the terroir of any particular source, how the cacao beans are dried and fermented can also have an influence (such as with the fire-dried Papua New Guinea bar). Roasting is another factor. Thorgerður said Kjartan is always experimenting with new flavors, beans and combinations. She compared the nibs inside the cacao bean to unopened flowers—both in appearance and also in flavor.
Although most of Omnom’s sales are primarily being done in Iceland at this time, there are a couple outlets in Paris, Amsterdam and New York selling the chocolate, in addition to the Omnom website and a Danish website. Since their operations are so small right now and they’re concentrated on quality and production, Thorgerður said they haven’t done any marketing whatsoever. Right now they are taking things very slowly—all the attention they’ve gotten thus far has been from word of mouth or sales.
“We just want quality at the moment and then we can figure out the line of everything. But it’s no secret—we’re just not pushing it at the moment,” she said.
However, word about Omnom has already spread pretty quickly. Thorgerður said the partners originally had a five-year plan that they’d fleshed out for the business that they’ve already surpassed and inquiries are coming in everyday from all over the world.
“I’ve discovered that the chocolate industry is quite small, so by word of mouth inside that tiny little circle—that’s what’s happening,” she said. Social media is also helping to get the word out—with people in chocolate circles blogging or writing about them, posting to Twitter or Instagram, things spread quickly. “That’s social media for you really,” she said. People like Greg D’Alesandre of Dandelion Chocolate are also helping spread the word–Thorgerður said he’s been telling everyone in the chocolate community about Omnom.
She also thinks their unique packaging is helping to pique curiosity about the company. “That’s something that catches the eye and people get really curious,” she said.
And despite what one might think, according to Thorgerður, there is quite a lot of chocolate being produced in Iceland. In fact, she said, one company, Nói Síríus, is currently being sold at Whole Foods markets in the U.S. However, Omnom is the first company to tackle the entire process from bean-to-bar. “There’s a lot of chocolate being made in Iceland—just not like this,” Thorgerður said.
“They started out quite small and it escalating really quickly. Basically it’s a story of a guy and his friends, and they just wanted to do something creative and fun and that’s what we’re all about,” she said.
Since I visited Omnom the day before I left Iceland and missed chatting with Kjartan in person, I was able to catch up with him via email when I got home to ask him a few extra questions about how he got started in chocolate and why. Below are his responses.
What drew you to food in the first place?
I’ve been working as a chef for the last 18 years and long as I can remember I’ve always been interested in food. Once I got into it professionally it never [ceased] to amaze me, from using seasonal ingredients and learning new methods.
How long were you a chef before you decided to start Omnom? What made you leave?
I had been working both here in Reykjavik as well [having] done stints in Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden. Working long hours in restaurants can be straining, so it came to a point I wanted to open up a pastry/cafe and make something on my own. While researching for that, I was reading about chocolate and realised, I knew nothing about it or at least less then I thought, being that I’ve been working with it most of my professional life. So I decided to gather more deeper understanding of it and started experimenting with it in my kitchen for a year. Roasting my own beans, removing the shells from the nibs with my hands, grinding and making from scratch. After passing it around for sampling amongst friends, family and colleagues, at that point couple of my friends had gotten involved with me and we decide that we should make a company around it, and that’s how we got started.
Why did you decide to work with chocolate specifically? What is is about chocolate that drew you to it?
Chocolate is just a very fascinating ingredient and with limitless possibilities of usage. But making dark origin bars is really the true magic and never [ceases] to amaze me how diverse in flavour the beans can be, depending their origin or method of making.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in starting the business?
For us finding the right housing for our production and finding our rhythm in production. We have expanded a lot in the less than a year since we started producing. We started on 1 Nov last year selling and it has really gone off here in Iceland, and we [have a] few places in Europe and USA. But really keeping up with demand has been a factor, so we are currently looking for a bigger production space in the next year.
Are there other chocolate makers you admire and who?
I have always admired Valrhona Chocolate, they make some of the best. In the U.S., we [have] been following the rise of the bean to bar movement for a while and are really inspired by Dandelion, Mast Brothers, Askinosie and Videri. All great chocolates, and all with their own style and method.
What’s your favorite chocolate that you’re making?
My two favorite, I can’t really distinguish between them are Dark Milk/Burned Sugar 55% and Madagascar 66%. The Madagascar has maybe a slight edge, since it’s really because of the beans that come from Madagascar, opened my eyes to what chocolate could really be.
All photos copyright of Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes unless otherwise noted. Other photos published here courtesy of Omnon Chocolate.