Whether you are visiting Reykjavík or are a resident, I highly recommend a tour of the omNom chocolate factory (at Hólmaslóð 4, near to the Old Harbour in the 101 district of Reykjavík). The factory has ample parking and is easily accessible by the number 14 bus.
This fascinating tour is offered three times daily, year-round, regardless of weather. To book your spot, visit the omNom website at www.omnomchocolate.com
In a cheerful, pristine setting you will discover the adventure of chocolate-making. omNom is a bean-to-bar manufacturer with its own range of exclusive chocolate products, all of which are invented, tested, refined and manufactured on site. But the inspiration for new products? Well, sometimes that begins elsewhere.
“It might be a flavour combination that I’ve dreamt of that night,” explains omNom founder and chocolatier Kjartan Gíslason, “or if I eat at a restaurant and see something that I didn’t think of before, or maybe something I read about while looking through a book. I don’t know, inspiration just comes. I think about chocolate combinations all of the time, so every time I see a new ingredient or something I haven’t thought about for a long time I wonder how this will taste like, together with chocolate. Then, of course, there is the whole question of should it be white or milk or dark”.
During the tour, you will learn how to make chocolate, beginning with the cacao bean.
Like centuries of people intrigued by the potential edible delights of cacao beans, I sense Kjartan ‘s spirit of adventure as he prepares a cold brew to share.
I think of the Mayans, who liked a hot and frothy chocolate drink. And the Aztecs, who drank their chocolate as a cold brew spiced with pepper and cinnamon. Watching Kjartan work, I remember a quote from the Aztec emperor Montezuma II, who called cacao “the divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food”.
As he works on his cacao potion, Kjartan compares the initial bean products to “really undeveloped red wine your mouth just swallows up together”. Assessing beans for potential purchase and use at omNom, Kjartan says “we do all of the tests and tasting of the roasted beans. We try to eat them - they get quite light compared to how they were. Then we try the nibs, then some cocoa paste. And we make some brew from the husks”.
Mention of the husks sends me back to my childhood, when I lived near Hershey, Pennsylvania. Although the chocolate products produced there are much inferior to the omNom range, the discarded husks of cacao beans are used as mulch on the town’s flowerbeds. After a light rain followed by sunlight, there is a deliriously beautiful, potent chocolate scent that wafts all around town.
“What we do here with the husks,” Kjartan explains, “is we make a little drink out of them. So we put some ice, this is basically like sitting overnight in cold water brewing and then we remove the husk so that we have a tincture. To this we add a little bit of maple syrup. It’s not that bitter but rather acidic. Then we give it a little shake”.
This is the cold brew that Kjartan makes during my visit but, given the relentless omNom quest for perfection, you never know what concoction might be produced during your tour.
“It’s also nice to add a little bit of cream into this,” Kjartan enthuses. “It gives it a little body. It’s kind of like iced tea. You could add a bit of lemon in there. You get that nice pure cocoa flavour coming up at the end”.
Cold brew is not a product that omNom sells. Rather, it is the method they use to explain to people what the husk and bean really are. And to show very clearly that a chocolate bar is more than just a chocolate bar. The cold brew demonstration makes it obvious that cacao is part of the cola family of plants.
“Sometimes, we try to make a fizzy drink out of it as well,” says Kjartan. “With a few more spices in the brew, you have something that is closer to a cola drink”.
omNom founder and passionate chocolatíer Kjartan Gíslason
This is just the beginning of an omNom factory tour. Next we have to taste some of the current omNom chocolate products : )
Kjartan explains that beans from two different origins are used at the factory, those from Madagascar and those from Tanzania, and that products made with Nicaraguan beans will be added to the omNom range in 2017. An omNom chocolate blend made from various beans is sold commercially to cafés and restaurants that serve hot chocolate, but the beans are kept separate by source for all other omNom products.
A hot chocolate, such as you might find around town, made from omNom chocolate products
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to taste each omNom bar with Kjartan during the tour and again, soon after, with my son, who is a chemist, upon my return to England.
My takeaway bag of omNom bars plus a sneak preview of this year’s special Christmas range!
Here are some notes from these chocolate tastings:
“The Madagascar bean has a really nice kind of fruitiness to it. It’s more evident if you try our dark version,” says Kjartan. “With the dark version you can taste a very citrusy beginning and then it kind of goes up into red berries, raspberries, cherries”. He talks about the very particular acidity of these beans and a fruitiness that Kjartan says goes way beyond any other dark chocolate or cocoa bean that you can find in the world. “This fruitiness is really what drew me to chocolate making,” he admits. “I love to explore the differences that dark chocolates have, knowing that chocolate has origins similar with wine depending where you get your grapes and how they are harvested. Also the fermentation process affects how a wine will taste that year. Most people don’t realise that the same applies to the cocoa fruit and specifically how they are dried and fermented before reaching the chocolate maker”. Kjartan emphasises the care taken at omNom to source raw materials.
“We always seek clear origins for our ingredients”.
-Madagascar 66% bar – To me, this bar smells the fruitiest, like a mix of raisins and apricots. When grated, it still holds a subtle fruitiness, with the apricot note becoming stronger, which is why I think it combines so well with nuts but may not work with added fruit. Eaten in block form, the raisin aspect seems stronger.
This is my son’s favourite bar. As a fruit lover who usually prefers milk rather than dark chocolate, he appreciates the higher cacao content and the fruitiness of this bar. But which fruit?
“Hmmm,” he ponders, “maybe like a grape, grapefruit and kiwi whizz? But I need to try more to be sure”. Sadly, at this point, we’ve run out : (
-Milk of Madagascar 45% bar – This seems like the same chocolate that is in the salty almond bar. My preference is for dark chocolate but this does seem to be a seriously good bar of milk chocolate.
-Sea Salt Almonds + Milk – At a time when minimal salt consumption is in vogue for health reasons, the salty taste seems very strong to me but this is the best-selling bar at the factory shop and abroad. I like the textural experience of eating it, with the almonds sprinkled onto warm chocolate so that the resulting product is layered when the chocolate has set.
My son’s feedback is that this is a good but not amazing bar and he finds it “a bit weird that it’s so salty”.
“The Tanzanian bean also has a kind of fruitiness to it but more like a forest fruit with peaches, apples and pears,” says Kjartan. In comparison to the Madagascar bean, the Tanzanian bean is more bitter and more conservative as a chocolate. “I think this is a better overall cooking chocolate. I would make a mousse or brownies with the Tanzanian product as it has a bit more character. I get slightly more excitement from this because the sourness is not what I am expecting from a chocolate brownie or as a mousse. It produces something very interesting. We don’t make cocoa powder but people can cook with our bar products. Various restaurants buy our chocolate in large bulk for their menu”.
-Tanzania 70% bar – this bar has the deepest chocolate scent. It’s woody, intense, exotic. When grated, it is only mildly sweet and tastes slightly smoked instead of woody. In block form, this chocolate is smoulderingly rich. I would love to try it with mint or crowberries.
My son’s feedback is that it is a bit too dark for him to eat alone.
-Dark Milk of Tanzania 65% bar – This bar smells like a dark milky chocolate stream. With closed eyes, I can imagine licking it off myself (or someone else) as we float along. It’s bliss! The taste reinforces that smell. It is as if the chocolate is suspended in a flow of milk. This is the best milk chocolate I’ve ever tasted. The aftertaste is slightly bitter and lingers at the back of the tongue. The milk content softens this and anyway, as a dark chocolate lover, I appreciate that. I also taste the faintest wisp of smoke. Grated, the taste of the bean comes through similar to the darker Tanzanian bar yet is diluted in a vague milkiness. I don’t taste fruitiness.
“With this dark milk bar we can take away a lot of the sugar and add a lot of cocoa paste and still get the flavour of a milk chocolate,” explains Kjartan. “This bar has the least amount of sugar that we have ever put in a chocolate. It’s around 25%. With so much cocoa, a little bit of milk gives hints of sweetness plus adds creaminess. I like the whole spectrum of this dark milk bar, the overwhelming chocolateness as well as that sweet hint. Also, the interesting aftertaste. We don’t explain all of this on the wrappers. People have to just work it out”.
Products made with cacao butter-
-Coffee + Milk – Although my son isn’t a fan of coffee, he does drink it when he has to work very late but he says he would prefer to eat this coffee chocolate bar instead of drinking coffee in future.
This bar provides a wonderful pick-me-up. Sniff it, once you uncover it in the wrappings, and the chocolate has a definite coffee smell, possibly the scent of slightly burnt beans. But the taste has nothing overcooked about it. You immediately get the coffee note and the milkiness of the chocolate seems for a passing instant to imply something close to caramel, but that progresses on to a clear taste of what this bar is- milk chocolate and coffee. The more of it you eat, the longer the coffee aftertaste lingers. It’s a great energy boost and mood-lifter for a tired traveller or overtime worker.
Although this bar is satisfying, it does leave a craving for one more piece. My reaction is all the more amazing because I do not like, have never liked and absolutely never drink coffee. That won’t change but, in times of weariness, I will seek out and happily eat an OmNom coffee chocolate bar. Who knew? And what if, like most people, you actually do like coffee?
-Lakkris + Sea Salt – This weird and wonderful taste adventure is the best-selling omNom bar across Iceland. Foreigners may consider it a novelty to combine liquorice with chocolate, but for Icelanders this is nothing unusual. Kyle, the receptionist at omNom, tells me that up to 15 of the most popular candy bars in Iceland contain liquorice.
Yet the OmNom bar is unique. The liquorice powder used has a very strong flavour and Kjartan allows it to dominate. At first taste, this bar reminds me of my mother’s beloved creamy liquorice toffees. It would hardly be possible to eat an entire liquorice salt bar at once and there’s no need. Just one bite leaves a beautiful lingering aftertaste to remind you that you’ve eaten both liquorice and smooth milky chocolate. It’s good to see the designer’s most unusual creature adorning the packaging because snug inside is one very quirky bar of chocolate!
My son the chemist says that this salty liquorice chocolate is surprisingly good, although he isn’t keen on liquorice. “It tastes better after you’ve eaten it,” he adds.
Kjartan sources raw liquorice powder from Germany. “Liquorice,” he explains, “is pressed from the branch of a tree. Once removed from the stem, there is a certain way of pressing that produces a crystallised juice from the oven. This is somewhat related to the sugar family. Unfortunately, the common perception of “liquorice” is cooked molasses with flour and flavouring. What that produces is actually a candy, which is not real liquorice. This,” Kjartan says as he reaches for the dark powder, “is the essence of liquorice. We like to source clear origins”.
New Product range-
As Kjartan recalls, omNom began out of curiosity. Together with his friend Óskar Þórðarson, who is now the company CEO, Kjartan was keen to follow up on an epiphany he felt after visiting the Valrhona chocolate factory in France some fifteen years ago.
“The first time I tried to make a bar, it surprised me a lot. We bought the tools and beans to make that first chocolate online about three years ago. It was very exciting to taste my own bar made in my own kitchen at home”.
Kjartan’s curiosity remains strong. During my tour of the factory, I see malted chocolate balls, spiced seasonal cookie bars and a cherry vinegar sugar syrup under development in the test kitchen.
Malted chocolate balls and other experimental items still in the test kitchen during my tour
The Malt Balls will soon be available to buy, from early December, but only at the factory shop. There are three varieties:
-Lakkris + Sea Salt
-Milk of Madagascar
As we tour the factory, Kjartan shows how omNom chocolate is made.
“The beans we use are fermented and dried on the plantations where they come from. Our roasting method differs depending on what kind of chocolate we are making and what kind of bean we are using. So, for example, for the milk chocolate,” Kjartan explains, “we do a little bit of extra roasting to get a bit of extra flavour. We do this in stages to maintain a core temperature”.
Next in the process is winnowing, which cracks open the cacao beans. With the shell and husk blown away, the edible part of the bean, the nib, is revealed. Nibs are ground down into a paste, or mass, from which chocolate is produced.
“For refinement of the chocolate mass, we have both traditional stone grinders and ball refining machines,” Kjartan says as we see them all in action. “Heat is produced by friction but we also have a cooling element to lower the friction heat as necessary. Especially with milk chocolate, there can be a lot of heat generated through friction with the milk powder and sugar granules”.
In a separate area of the factory, we observe the tempering process.
As bars are turned out from their moulds, they are quickly wrapped.
“Every morning we do around 2,000 bars,” Kjartan says. “We do this before lunch and after lunch we do different types of other jobs. We don’t work all night”.
The Test Kitchen
We visit an impressive test kitchen where ideas and new products are developed.
Kjartan shares the design priorities for his chocolate products.
“Whatever we are making, it is about the flavour. If it’s a cocoa bean and we are doing some signature origin thing, then this is about letting the bean do its own talking. In that case, we just want to get the roasting and production right”.
“Generally,” he adds, “I don’t like things that are so sweet that they leave an annoying sweetness sensation in your mouth afterwards. I would rather have a distinctive flavour stick there. If we are working to create, say the liquorice or the coffee chocolate, there must be a powerful flavour that you experience with the first bite. For my taste, it can’t be gradually coming through the more you eat. Sometimes people have not complained, but said that it was a very strong flavour. That kind of feedback makes me very happy”.
Everywhere I look, I see order, cleanliness and a professional system in operation. The omNom factory is impressive and well worth a visit if you appreciate fine chocolate.
The omNom bar design has unusual awkward, asymmetrical sections that are at odds with the rectangular whole. It’s impossible to break pieces off along every individual score line. What you do get is a jagged piece of chocolate that is haphazardly scored and reminiscent of Iceland’s quaking landscape.
The substantial packaging on these chocolate bars goes beyond mere protection for the product.
“We think chocolate should be fun to eat and enjoy,” Kjartan says about the packaging. “We are the ones who take it seriously in the making of it so that you don’t have to”.
A different stylised creature is featured on the outer wrapping of each type of chocolate bar. Insect loather that I am, it’s unfortunate that one of my favourite bars features a beetle. For me, that’s off-putting, so much so that I want to quickly divorce the great chocolate inside from its bug wrapper.
But, taken as a group of illustrations, these creatures- a hovering bird, majestic ram, the bat, the beast, bovine, bug and tentacled sea being- merge as some collective mythology that pays tribute to Iceland’s own heritage of monster and miniature tales.
This is the work of South African graphic designer André Úlfur Visage. Visage’s illustrated characters for omNom originate from inspiration during his travels and stay on Iceland between 2007 and 2011. He describes the thick card “box” portion of the chocolate bar wrapping as “a secret chest of happiness”.
Happiness is a crucial aspect of the omNom business model. After Kjartan disappears back into his factory, Kyle, the shop attendant and receptionist, is quick to volunteer an opinion about his employer.
“I think there is no better place to work here in Iceland than omNom. They are very considerate and they really care if their staff is happy. That is really hard to find,” Kyle confides to me. “It’s like a dream job. I get to eat chocolate every day I am here and my boss is amazing. I wake up in the morning and look forward to work”.
“We are a lot of people working together who love chocolate - that’s pure happiness. We are always smiling. On Fridays, for example, we close shop to have lunch together as a family. We have a kitchen that we use only for cooking lunches and a different person cooks each week. Four times a year, once per each season, there’s Games Day when we divide ourselves up into four groups for competition and games”.
“We also all get to design our own chocolate bar. I consider myself very lucky and it is the healthiest chocolate ever. This is more like a lifestyle than a job”.
Personally, I love the combination of chocolate with fruit. Although the omNom chocolate itself does has a fruity undertone, I wish that omNom would try some chocolate + fruit combinations. When I suggest the idea of a goji berry dark chocolate bar to Kjartan during the tour, he tells me that he is unconvinced about goji berries.
“They smell like feet to me,” he says. “They are also quite acidic and get stuck in your teeth. But, it’s a possibility”.
Enter this year’s newly introduced omNom Winter Bars. There is no sign of goji berries but just look at the treats that await us:
-Dark Nibs + Raspberries!
-Dark Cherries + Almonds!
Plus, a reappearance of the very popular Milk + Cookies bar, which is available in a limited supply and only at the factory shop.
And, this year’s new special Christmas bar is Spiced White + Caramel
Near to the end of a long and eventful year, omNom has released a new wave of happiness.
omNom omNom omNom omNom omNom omNom omNom omNom omNom : )