I started studying chocolate when I began to work with El Rey, an important Venezuelan chocolate company. It was then that I really started to pay attention to the literature of chocolate and realized that there was much work to be done. Before that I had enjoyed chocolate viscerally. It was a part of my life; my family on my paternal grandmother’s side are cacao farmers, so I was very familiar with cacao. I knew chocolate first as a fruit and I always gravitated toward cacao, cacao farming and cacao farmers when I began traveling throughout Latin America doing food research. It was natural for me to go to a cacao farm, spend time tasting the pods, sticking my hands on the fermenting pulp; it was all natural. But it was when I began seriously working with El Rey that I started to pay very close attention to both cacao and chocolate.
I had a very difficult job ahead of me. I was asked to help introduce a line of Latin American couvertures into the United States. This was the first time that it had ever been done. The US was not importing fine chocolate from a Latin American source. At that time the fine chocolate market belonged to Valrhona, before that Callebaut was king. So that was the market and the competition that El Rey faced in the US. I figured I had to do everything I could to help sell this chocolate. I had to deliver the proper message, because obviously I was not only helping to sell couverture, I was selling the image of a country, Venezuela. It was when I started reading that I realized the importance of Venezuela: a treasured trove of fine flavor cacao. This was a cradle of fabulous criollo cacao. Venezuela had been the gold standard for the industry for many centuries. I started looking at old manuscripts and old books, reading much more than El Rey asked me to do. In fact, they never asked me to read anything. It was me. I made the decision that I needed to learn. I interviewed chocolate experts, usually old timers in the industry, and I realized that Venezuela had an incredible reputation as a cacao producer. And I realized that this cacao that El Rey was trying to sell was essentially gold. The fact that El Rey had singled out a particular region and decided that they were going to put cacao content percentages on the packages was historic too. It is true that Valrhona had given percentages to their bars, but in terms of identifying the source of their cacao they had done it in a very romantic fashion. For instance, they had given names like Guanaja to a chocolate that had nothing to do with Honduras. And it was something that I had found out through asking good questions and reading. There were a lot of things that were not necessarily true, but Valrhona was an inspiration: all of a sudden this great company changed everything by mentioning regions, broad regions of the world and giving percentages. So I decided that I had to learn if we were going to compete. And compete we did, just by being very honest. El Rey always told the truth. They always said their chocolates were made with Carenero Superior, meaning that it was a high quality Carenero from this particular area Northeast of Caracas, and El Rey gave percentages.
What I did to that equation was that I realized that percentages alone didn’t sell. That you could not sell something labeled just 58.5% and another one 70%. I realized that we needed to give names and identities to these different chocolates and I suggested this concept to Jorge Redmond, the president of the company, who loved the idea. The “percentage” difference makes for differences in flavor and also the 70% chocolate bar had no added cocoa butter. I had just learned that that was pretty fantastic and unique in the business. The French always added cocoa butter. And this chocolate had a lot of flavor. The texture might have been a little dry, but it was an innovation. So I said this deserves a name. I’m always interested in names that mean something, so I looked at the shade trees on the cacao plantation and decided that Gran Samán was the perfect name. Gran Samán is the largest tree on a Venezuelan cacao plantation. It is a stately tree and that was a stately chocolate so I said this is Gran Samán. Bucare, which was a 58.5%, was more delicate, it was smaller in the sense that it was not as robust. It was fine and delicate, so it reminded me of the Bucare, which was another shade tree. When it came to the milk, which at the time I think it was the highest cacao content milk on the market, higher than Valrhona’s, I named it Caoba, because I thought it melted to the color of mahogany.
When El Rey developed its own white chocolate, I also realized that it was very different. El Rey did not deodorize their cacao butter. It was a decision they made very naturally because cacao butter from Venezuela is delicious, very tasty. And I had read that most cacao butter used for white chocolate is deodorized. So it was easy to see that El Rey had something very important in their hands. They had created a great white chocolate. I never really liked white chocolate until that point. When looking for a name for this exceptional chocolate, I looked at history books and legends. I found a lovely legend about Icoa, an Indian white maiden (possibly an albino woman if we are to believe parts of the legend) who lived in Paria peninsula. She (the maiden) was sent to Sur del Lago, the Maracaibo area by her father, to be married. She went on a canoe, but it capsized and she drowned. Then she reappeared as a ghost in Paria where she saved people from drowning. She would be seen wearing a white loin cloth and wearing white jewelry and so I said El Rey’s white chocolate is Icoa! I learned so much out of this experience, from creating a meaningful image for a chocolate. I had read so much by that time. I thought I had learned everything I could about white chocolate. Then I tasted cocoa butter from all over and I realized that it could be very nasty. I realized that some non-deodorized cocoa butters from other regions of the world are very assertive in taste. It would be impossible to make a decent or great white chocolate with something that had not been deodorized. I understood the wisdom of the general market, but I also learned that the Venezuelans had the best cacao butter to be had. So I am familiar with the creation of this product from the ground up. In fact, El Rey asked me to put together the first ad for Icoa in Food Arts. I had to find art, and I commissioned someone to do a painting of the flower of cacao: a beautiful and delicate white flower. That was the picture that El Rey used for the packaging of Icoa. I wrote the legend, which is still being used by them. It was a whole process of discovery and I believed in it. Everything happened organically. It made sense to me to give a beautiful name, create a beautiful story illustrated by a beautiful picture to something that was so extraordinarily good. Even today I am happy to report that it won awards in both the Americas International Chocolate Awards in New York and in London, even over Cluizel, a French brand with great experience.
I learned by reading, by investigating and also by being there where the action was. I had brought the baggage of my own upbringing and my strong and direct relationship with the land and farming. But then I saw myself in a situation where I had to learn quickly because I had a job to do. I had to help get this Latin American product into the U.S. I had to convince people about its merits, so it required a great deal of research. I interviewed so many people and read so many things. All this was before the internet, so it meant spending a great deal of time in the library. It also meant buying books; it meant talking to people, and doing a lot of the ground work. Now it is easy because you can do research on the Internet; there is a lot of information online. But at that time, no, you had to do the heavy duty work of getting into a library and reading everything there is in a library about cacao and chocolate. Traveling, interviewing; I did all that. So researching became a part of my life. I was doing research on food but I was also doing research on chocolate. In both fields, it was a hands-on situation. I was working directly with a large, solid company that had a state of the art factory. El Rey’s factory is pretty impressive, so I talked to Roger Thürkauf, formerly of Suchard and Maestrani, their Swiss technical advisor; a fantastic man who was happy to answer all my questions. In my first book I thank him because he taught me a lot.
That hands-on experience was invaluable. All that experience gave me the tools to write a book. And once I got a contract for the book, it gave purpose and higher meaning to my research. At first it was fun, traveling and researching for my own edification and to give me more leverage in my work, but with a book contract, it became another serious job. I read everything I had to read, I interviewed people and I traveled. By looking at everything that had been written, I realized that there was a gap. Writers would say things about particular cacaos, but I never got the impression they had actually seen them. They would say, “in Venezuela there is the best criollo cacao,” when talking about Venezuelan porcelana. But they wouldn’t show a picture. It was clear that they had never gone to the place where porcelana was growing, so I realized there was a lot of second hand information in the literature of cacao.
I am a primary source person because of my training, my family background and later my work with El Rey, and also because I’m a medievalist. When you are a medievalist, you are trained to work with primary sources; you go to archives. For example, if you are doing research on a thirteenth–century king, you go to the archives and you find everything that was written in his reign. You get the primary sources in your hand and you transcribe that. So I did exactly what I had been trained to do when it came to cacao and chocolate when I researched and wrote my chocolate book. I went places and I photographed the cacao. I learned what to do and not to do. One of the first mistakes that I did was not understand how quickly cacao oxidizes. I went to a plantation and I was looking at trees and trying to figure out a way to identify the pods properly for photography. I started using post-its; but I’d stick this little post-it to the pod with the cacao variety and casually put the pods in a bag. Then the friction oxidized the pods (they would blacken) and the post-its would fall off. Twice it happened and when I went back to Caracas I found a mess when I arrived at the photographer’s studio. Of course I had to return to the plantation and find a different way to treat the pods and a new style of identification. I began to use vegetable Ziploc bags with little holes that I had bought in the US. Now I began to tattoo the pods. And as every pod was cut from the tree, I would practically catch it in midair. Then I would tattoo the information I needed on the side of the pod that would not be photographed, wrap the pod in bounty paper to create a cushion, and put it in the Ziploc bag with holes.
I also created studios in the middle of plantations to photograph cacao. Sometimes I hired a photographer, sometimes I did it myself with the help of my husband. We would use gasoline generators to photograph cacao in the middle of the plantation. We realized that no matter how careful we were a lot of oxidation would still take place. If we were very far from Caracas then we would bring a generator. It would be dark in the middle of the plantation but we would create studios to illuminate the trees and pods. A good example is a picture of a beautiful pink Ocumare 61 in my book. It looks like a photo taken on a sunny spot, but it was very dark in the farm. There is a reflection of light behind the pod on the leaves because we used a generator to power studio lamps; we also had light deflectors. It was heavy duty work, and it took me time to learn how to do it well. And I just decided that if I spoke about porcelana, I needed to see and photograph porcelana. If I spoke about Guasare (which at that time was totally unknown), I had to see and photograph Guasare. I was lucky that my cacao mentor, agronomist Humberto Reyes, was the man who had discovered Guasare. So I was interacting with the people who had actually become primary sources for the industry. I was with them when these momentous things were happening. I was lucky enough that by that time I had already created my own company Gran Cacao. By the time I was doing the book I was no longer working for El Rey, but I was working for me and my own company. I had established a business relationship with a farm in Venezuela. One of my partners, Silvino Reyes, was the son of foremost cacao expert Humberto Reyes and his wife Lillian Reyes, a cacao pathologist.
When I started working in earnest for my book, I retraced my steps in Venezuela with Humberto and Lillian. Most of what I know today I learned from them. I learned my information from the field because there was no book. That was my training. It is an ongoing process and now I still keep reading. I realized that a lot of what I did back then was fundamental and seminal. Although there were monographs and other things, what I did was very hard because the sources were very few. For example, when I was working in Trinidad, Darin Sukha, who is now a big expert in chocolate tasting, was learning from an expert from Nestle. Everyone was beginning to learn about the importance of tasting. We had already done a lot in Venezuela with the tastings that El Rey had organized for visiting chefs and journalists for our Rutas del Cacao (The Cacao Road). It was interesting for me to see that El Rey was ahead of its time when it came to tasting chocolate made with regional cacaos. It was also fascinating to see that many of the visiting chefs had much to say about chocolate tasting though they had never before seen cacao. For example Larry Burdick, Bill Yosses (now pastry chef at the White House), and François Payard had incredible palates. All these people who were beginning their ascent into the chocolate world had tasted regional cacaos that are now on the map. We tasted Sur del Lago. We tasted Guasare. We tasted a broad selection of special cacaos because we had small batches of them. And listening to these people describe what they had tasted was an amazing experience. For me what they did in an afternoon or morning session was an eye opening experience for me. Later in Trinidad I saw how the Cocoa Research Unit, a research center of great importance, was just beginning to explore the realm of cacao flavor. Up to that point, when a research center made decisions about what cacao to propagate, because of a number of reasons having to do with resistance to disease or productivity; flavor was never a part of the equation. And all of a sudden there was a need to understand the flavor profile of any cacao with promising features. At that point, these efforts were baby steps leading to greater things.
Together with Jorge Redmond and other El Rey people, I helped create La Ruta del Cacao, a program to take key people throughout the cacao growing regions of Venezuela. My job was to select whom to bring. So I took a close look at the various regions of the US and chose the best chocolatiers, chefs and writers from these different regions to write the stories of these incredible trips to Venezuela and to chronicle how the chefs and pastry chefs reacted during their experience and how they cooked with El Rey chocolate on site. The chefs loved the chocolate and they cooked with it in the most amazing places, from abandoned beaches to very traditional kitchens. It was incredible to see François Payard and Laurent Tourondel working with local women in Paria, making chocolate in places you could never imagine were fit for chocolate making.
We chose great writers to record these experiences like Corby Kummer from The Atlantic who was fun and fantastic. There was also Elizabeth Schneider who wrote wonderful articles for Food Arts magazine and a lovely story for Saveur. We only selected top people in their fields. But the work did not end in Venezuela. The exercise was to create a reverse campaign. Once the chefs went back to their home turf, most started cooking with El Rey, putting El Rey’s chocolates—Bucare, Gran Samán, Caoba--on their menu.
How did I meet Robert Steinberg? I met him at Rubicon. The pastry chef at Rubicon at that time was Elizabeth Falkner and she had come with me to Venezuela. I spotted her in San Francisco, and I said, “she is meant to do great things.” So she invited me back to Rubicon to do a presentation on chocolate to benefit the Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. At that time I had already met Harold McGee, who had also come with me to Venezuela, and done a lot of work on fermentation. So I organized a panel at Rubicon. (The owners of Rubicon were Robert DeNiro and Francis Ford Coppola. That was an important place in San Francisco. So I conducted an all-afternoon program with Harold McGee as a guest speaker, who spoke about fermentation. Naturally, Elizabeth Falkner cooked with El Rey. And who was in the audience? Robert Steinberg. At the time, he was doing his experiments at home, in his garage, grinding roasted cacao with mortar and pestle. It was at Rubicon that we became friends. And then when I created my own company, he started buying from me. He was my first customer. With his support secured, I just needed a couple serious companies to place the rest of our cacao. At this point Robert used to buy half of the cacao they needed at Scharffen Berger from La Concepcion, our farm in Venezuela. That’s how it happened.
While doing these presentations all over the US at the restaurants of the chefs we had invited to Venezuela, I was talking about single origin; nobody else was talking about single origin. Valrhona was the only company using the concept but very vaguely. It was El Rey, a Latin American company, and I, talking about single origin, talking about Venezuela, talking about criollo cacao on a nationwide campaign that spread the concept in the US. Nobody was mentioning criollo either. I gave talks in Los Angeles with Nancy Silverton at Campanile, in Chicago, Miami, New York. So across the U.S. we were continuously talking about single origin and Venezuela as a great source of criollo and trinitario cacao. I believe that we planted the seeds of change. It changed everything and everyone started copying El Rey. But it is important to give the credit to El Rey, a Latin American company. We’re talking about the early 1990’s. The first serious tasting of a Venezuelan bar was at the French Culinary Institute. I was taking a pastry class at the time, and my teachers did a dessert with El Rey for me. That was in 1984; the first time a single origin Venezuelan couverture had been used in a dessert in the US. The second restaurant that used El Rey in New York and put the name of the company on the menu was C.T. This was the restaurant of Claude Troisgros, a very famous French chef. His sous chef was Laurent Tourondel, who then went on to create the BLT concept and became extremely famous and successful. So you can see how far back these things started. I was not really aware of how important these things were. I just did them. These were things that needed to be said and done. I was totally convinced that what I was saying was right. I had no ulterior motives. I never went to conferences or anything like that because I was already living in the world of cacao and chocolate.
I look at the color and look of the bar. I examine the bar for defects. I taste it once for an overall impression then I go back to it very deliberately, never chewing, letting it melt. I let all my senses become engaged in the experience of smelling and tasting and I analyze my sensations every step of the way. For instance, I analyze the length of the experience, how the bar feels every second as it melts in my mouth. I ask myself, “How is this chocolate evolving in my mouth? What comes first? What comes second? What is the lingering flavor, how long does the experience last?" For me it is an overall experience. I look at every detail.
Vanilla has been demonized. I think that vanilla traditionally has had a very important role in flavoring chocolate. Judicious use of vanilla is fine so I think we should not think of vanilla in a chocolate as an abomination. Salt is another intangible. I do not have a problem with salt as long as it is used discretely. If you allow vanilla as a normal flavoring for chocolate, you also have to allow salt. These are flavor enhancers that play an important part in chocolate making. You could use a little salt and I have no problem with it. But if the bar is salty and plays a prominent role, then the chocolate belongs in the flavored bar category. If it is negligible like the pinch of salt in a custard, then I don't see a problem with it. But it should be added to the list of ingredients, with vanilla, the type of sugar used, or lecithin. There is a trend towards using different types of sugar in chocolate We were discussing this with other Grand Jury members during rounds of the International Chocolate Awards. When these sugars have very assertive flavors and define the flavor of a chocolate this should be listed as a flavored bar.
That's an easy question. In my experience everything has a bearing on the ultimate flavor of chocolate. It all begins with the treatment of the cacao tree at the plantation and it might end with the wrapper. Some wrappers have chemicals that can give an odd flavor to the chocolate. You have to be very careful in using the right packaging for chocolate. I've seen problems and companies have had to change wrapping. But everything matters. Terroir matters. I've heard very good and respected chocolate makers say terroir does not make a difference. But it does matter. I saw it with Guasare. Guasare from the Andes, from the germplasm station near Merida, has a particular taste. When Guasare was taken to sea level in Paria, to the Francheschi farm, it developed some different notes of flavor. The reason I know this is because I had made chocolate from Guasare sourced in Merida for a project with Mars for a conference organized by the Cocoa Merchants' Association of America. I worked on this chocolate made with beans I sourced directly from San Juan de Lagunillas. I wish I had kept some samples. But I had kept the memory of its flavor in my head, and then I tasted the Guasare bar by Domori. I identified familiar notes, but I noticed substantial differences. Why? Was it the process? No. The process might have contributed some notes of flavor, but I am convinced that Paria's terroir contributes a particular flavor profile to the flavor baseline genetically inherent to Guasare. No doubt, terroir matters. Seasons matter. The earth, the weather, rivers matter.
When we talk about terroir, we also talk about the cultural component of terroir, which is man. Everything man does to cacao matters. For instance, every farmer has a particular way of treating cacao. If a farmer cuts the time of fermentation when the cacao needs more time or less time, this is going to affect flavor in different ways. At the factory, a chocolate maker might decide to over toast the cacao. Some delicate cacaos die when they are over toasted. Others with basic flavor might even benefit from the extra boost. Some great French companies have a tendency toward over roasting. We also know that excessive amount of cocoa butter might tame some very bitter and acidic cacaos but for the most part it dulls the taste of the chocolate. Some of us are very receptive to this practice and find it to be a mark of quality and then some of us hate it. Some of us love that buttery taste and for some of us, including me, it is something to be despised. I think there is a limit to what you can do with cocoa butter. If chocolate makers use too much cocoa butter, it is because they feel the need to mask something.
Fire drying in Indonesia is an example of terroir; it is a solution to a problem of excess humidity, not being able to dry the cacao properly in the rainy season. The problem is that the cacao beans acquire a smoky taste. You can buy a beautiful Java cacao with beautiful large beans of a lovely terracotta color looking almost like a criollo (because they do have some criollo blood), but you can't work with this cacao because it has a dominant smoky flavor. You can't do a fine chocolate with it unless you are looking for that smoky edge. This is totally fine with me if you say you are looking for smokiness, but fire drying is a cultural practice related to terroir.
I would say, let's make a chocolate with this cacao and use it for mole or some savory sauce .
Some companies, even in Ecuador, often use gasoline generators. In general, most farmers try to be careful and keep the generators far enough away so there are no fumes. But I know that in some places like Bahia, Brazil, gasoline generators were often used to dry amelonado very fast and you always got aspirin-bitter and very acid cacao; excess acidity is one of the problems of fast drying.
I think it is essential to have the origin of the beans and percentages on the package. I would like to know more information about the cacao, but I wouldn't force that onto anybody because I know the politics of cacao buying. I don't think that it would be fair to a small guy who stumbled upon a great little farm to say exactly where he bought the cacao because a big buyer will come in and out source this person. I have seen it happen. It has happened to me and also to a lot of people that I care about. It happened with Cuyagua, for example. And so I do not advise to say exactly where you obtained your cacao if you are concerned about unfair competition. But if you are sure of yourself, you should disclose this information and make it a part of your marketing campaign. It will benefit everyone involved. But if you are not sure then you can just give a general geographic location and that would be fine with me. These things are important but I really want to know if the person has a connection with the farmer and if that chocolate maker has a factory. I like to know where the chocolate maker makes his chocolate. I like that that information on the package. All ingredients should also be listed very clearly on the packaging.
I am thinking of Jorge Redmond, who was a visionary; a man who wanted to do a spectacular factory in the country of origin, in Latin America. If you look at the people who are doing that now, you will realize Redmond was ahead of his time and ahead of everyone. And he invested huge amounts of money in the El Rey factory in Barquisimeto. He had inherited his family’s chocolate factory, but he wanted a better one. Investing heavily in the chocolate industry in Venezuela where he sourced his cacao was a revolutionary move. He also created something very important: a network of cooperatives. The cacao farmers were getting better salaries, more than anyone else. He also created an experimental farm in the plains of Barinas that was run by a woman agronomist Beatriz Escobar. The farm was invaded under the auspices of President Chavez and Beatriz was denied access to the farm under threats of death. She recently came to see me at Ultramarinos, my store in Hoboken. She told me she was still working with El Rey in another region, but gave me the great news that several farmers from Barinas had planted Ocumare 61 from genetic material she had gotten from the farm. The picture of the beautiful pink pod at the beginning of my chocolate book is from that farm. What Jorge and Beatriz did on that farm with the help of Humberto and Lillian Reyes was extraordinary. They were experimenting with growing cacao with no shade, and they ultimately realized they needed shade. They also created a complex irrigation system. They were developing an area of Venezuela that in essence was virgin territory for cacao. It was all revolutionary and visionary. So I do admire Jorge for his vision and the impact he has had on the industry as a whole as he spearheaded the concept of single origin in the US and beyond while exalting the quality of Venezuelan cacao.
Of the new generation of chocolate makers in Latin America, I admire Santiago Peralta. What he is doing in Ecuador is the same thing Jorge Redmond did in Venezuela years ago, but with far fewer resources. I have seen how Santiago has built his factory. He and his father Agustín Peralta created many of the equipment. In some cases, they bought equipment in Ecuador and refurbished it. Santiago is the type of chocolate maker who believes in direct cacao trade. He takes his car and drives to farms all over Ecuador to buy the cacao himself. He does not have a wide a network of people working for him. He prefers to do it himself. I suspect he thoroughly enjoys this direct experience. He is interested in getting to know the farmers and their needs. Right now Pacari is involved with over 3000 cacao farming families and paying higher prices for select organic and biodynamic cacao. Santiago, who is a purist, believes in organic farming and he is intimately involved in training farmers in organic and biodynamic farming. In fact, Pacari is the only chocolate company in the world certified with the Demeter seal of biodynamic agriculture. I have seen Santiago at work, and I absolutely admire him for his vision and involvement with cacao farmers. It is not an easy job and it involves many hours of driving up and down the mountains. I would say that Jorge and Santiago symbolize the same thing. They represent the desire to produce excellent chocolate in the country of origin and they are both examples to emulate in Latin America.
People like these are changing the history of chocolate in Latin America. The fact that Santiago won first and second places in the Americas International Chocolate Awards in NY followed by the same performance in the world final round of the competition in London is momentous. I compare the feat to the Judgment of Paris in 1976, when in a blind tasting, a number of savvy judges chose California wines, a chardonnay and a cabernet over well established and iconic French wines. That was 36 years ago, and it changed the history of California wines. Martin Christy understands this, and I hope that this comparison is used more often to describe the results of the International Chocolate Awards. This is a pivotal moment in the history of chocolate. We have seen a change in the gestalt and center of gravity of chocolate. It is no longer in Europe, the heart of chocolate has moved back where it belongs, to the Americas. We have seen this with Pacari’s victory in key categories like dark plain and flavored bars.
And we have also seen this shift to the Americas with Amano. Usually described as a micro-batch chocolate maker, Art Pollard’s Amano is actually a medium-sized company coming into its own. Look at the results of the International Chocolate Awards. We see many sacred cows, some people that I admire like Cluizel, a company that has been my customer for years. I’ve sold cacao to them for 15 years or so. There is also Stephan Bonnat whom I adore and fully support. But still when you look at the results of the competition, you realize there is a new sensibility. In the competition’s blind tastings, people invariably, both in NY and London, chose Ecuadorian and American-made chocolates. These results have a higher meaning.
So yes, the third person I admire is Art Pollard. With few resources and with a factory located in the middle of nowhere in Utah, where there are no cacao trees, this man has developed a true passion for cacao. In Venezuela and Ecuador there are cacao trees, so the influence of cacao is pervasive and unavoidable. But being in Utah developing this consuming passion, to really care for cacao farmers and to really travel to the lands of cacao is unusual and a testament to Pollard’s commitment. I know that Art does travel because I’ve seen him do it. We’ve done it together. I have known Art for years and learned to appreciate his work ethic and his need to experiment. He is always working and experimenting, trying to improve every chocolate. Since he is humble and does not believe that he has not yet made the ultimate chocolate, he keeps striving for excellence as a way of life.
These three remarkable individuals represent three very different worlds. Jorge Redmond, the heir of a great fortune could have been happy anywhere. He has a grand apartment in NY and didn’t have to stay in Venezuela to endure his country’s political problems, but he has chosen to stay and fight for El Rey. He has a passion for quality and excellence. Santiago Peralta has done what no one else in his country has done, produce award-winning first rate chocolate that benefits farmers and consumers. This is an extraordinary feat in a country with a long cacao exporting tradition but a lackluster chocolate industry controlled by a handful of large factories that produce impersonal chocolate for labels that are not bean to bar. Art Pollard represents a new generation of chocolate makers in the U.S. who are redefining the industry. He has inspired countless of micro-batch chocolate makers.
Labels are labels and believing in a label blindly is a lazy habit that a lot of us have and need to shed. First of all you need to taste the chocolate critically, particularly if the label reeks of hyperbole and grandiosity. Saying a chocolate is tree-to-bar or bean-to-bar means that an extraordinary effort has been made to create that bar. It means the chocolate maker has had direct access to the source of his cacao. Tree-to-bar is a concept that Mott Green popularized with his Grenada experiment. He is there in Grenada manning the show at his Grenada Chocolate Company. In the case of Santiago Peralta of Pacari Chocolate, there is also a direct connection with the land. Santiago has a direct link with the source of his cacao. He doesn’t own a farm but he goes to the farms often and not just to buy cacao but also to train farmers in organic and biodynamic agriculture; he knows every tree. In a way Santiago’s operation is tree-to-bar. If an American company based in the U.S. has a similar intimate contact with a farm and has access to every step of the process from harvest, fermentation to drying, it could also be tree-to-bar. Very few actually have that direct contact though. Visiting a farm once doesn’t cut it. It is when you are there many times, when you are sleeping in the farmer’s house and you have an ongoing connection that we can speak of direct trade. I am not speaking about a chocolate maker going on a one-time tour of farms paid for by a particular government. You might come back with a cacao deal, but you saw the farm only once. But to many people, however, even that fleeting experience is used as an argument to label a factory a tree-to-bar operation; just because the chocolate maker saw the cacao trees once. Obviously, there are varying models of interaction with different worth and validity, but it all boils down to the level of intimacy that the chocolate maker has had with the source of his cacao. And that is what we are talking about right now in Direct Cacao. This is a newly created organization. It was conceived in London, but it was launched in Honduras. A group of us went to Honduras to put together a new model of interaction between chocolate makers and farmers that could become an alternative to fair trade. We defined the idea behind Direct Cacao carefully. We have members who are not owners of farms but who make great chocolate and have a direct relationship with cacao farmers and the cacao they buy. Other members have less of a hands-on approach, but still care for the cacao they buy. And then there are people who do a good job sourcing cacao and yet do not have a factory. And we know lots of great brands that do not have factories, but do have contact with farmers or good intermediaries, and they work directly with a reputable factory. This company could be Bonnat, Felchlin, or Pralus. So what do you call the chocolate makers without factories? We need to find a name to distinguish them from those who do have factories. Labels are labels. But it is very important for me to know who is making the chocolate at his own factory (there are not too many female chocolate makers, that is why I said “his” factory). It is very important for me to know that. When Felchlin makes the chocolate for a second party I want to know. I would like Felchlin or Bonnat to be mentioned. How long do people in the chocolate business spend in the factory that makes their chocolate? Are they there every step of the way when the chocolate is being made? I don’t think so. It doesn’t make sense, but there has to be a distinction between them and chocolate makers who own their own factories and have a hands-on experience. This distinction is not disclosed in labels because there are no regulations. Is there a distinction between someone sitting in an office in France and picking up the phone to call a broker and saying, “get me a container” of this cacao from this particular source and a company who send their own trained buyers to the field? Or do you have buyers who really understand origins? These are charged questions because there are many interpretations and many models of interaction. If you don’t buy your cacao directly, what you want are people who are honest and who care about every step of the cacao chain. Good intermediaries know their sources. They travel to farms, and they spend time with the farmers.
In general what we want is more disclosure and we’re putting pressure so that companies begin to explore these direct connections. To belong to Direct Cacao, a chocolate maker would need to prove that they travel to a cacao producing country and that they are familiar with the farmer and the cacao they buy. Also, if you don’t own a factory, you need to prove that you have an intimate connection with the person who makes the chocolate for you. So that would be the ideal situation in an ideal world and all that information should be on the packaging. As consumers become more savvy, they will realize that just because a company’s name is on the package it doesn’t mean that this company actually made the chocolate. But consumers also need to know that even in that raw category of factory-less chocolate makers, there are people who are really fantastic and who really care and who make an effort to be connected.
That’s unfair, because you are asking me for a very limited number of chocolates. But let’s do it by geographic areas. I appreciate some chocolate makers for different reasons. In the U.S., I used to love Scharffen Berger when it started because it was revolutionary. They believed in blends and they did a great job with their 70% when it came out. It was pure joy. I had known the components exactly because I had contributed to it with my Venezuelan cacao. I sourced the cacao for Scharffen Berger’s lovely Cuyagua bar. I also sourced the cacao for El Carmen, a project I did with Robert Steinberg. It was Scharffen Berger’s first single origin bar with cacao I sourced from a particular section of the La Concepción farm. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. So I would say that when Scharffen Berger started I was very proud. And I was proud to see Guittard follow suit and become a champion of my favorite beans. As for the new generation of chocolate makers here in the U.S., I would say that I usually like everything that Art Pollard and Colin Gasko make. What Colin did with his Piura bar was extraordinary. I am also very fond of Shawn Askinosie. He had a change of careers, just like mine going from being a lawyer to become a chocolate maker. He has the social conscience. He is also innovative using goat’s milk in milk chocolate and has done very interesting things such as going to the Philippines to source historically important cacao that had been forgotten, or to Soconusco when nobody was talking about this important region. That was before Bonnat. These are people that I admire for many different reasons in the United States.
Then in Europe I would say Cluizel. This is a family of very brave, no nonsense chocolate makers. They did a very good job with their grand cru line. My cacao from La Concepción was one of the first chocolates from that series and they did a very good job. I became a fan of Los Ancones; from a technical point of view; it is a very good chocolate. For achieving interesting nuances of flavors and for the ability to tame cacaos that other makers would not deal with I would say Stephan Bonnat. He does a great job. These are people that a truly admire.
In Latin America I have always admired El Rey because of his role in spearheading the single-origin movement and for making chocolate in the country of origin of the cacao. Obviously Pacari is doing a sensational job in setting new standards for Ecuador and Latin America. I also admire the cooperative El Ceibo in Bolivia. I don’t know how far they can go but at this point it is a good example of how much farmers can accomplish by coming together. We need more examples like this in Latin America. We are eyewitnesses to a chocolate revolution in Latin America, but the region still faces many challenges. There are serious political problems in Venezuela. Sometimes it is hard for a chocolate maker from a cacao producing country to compete with someone who comes from abroad and pays higher prices. It’s the nature of the beast; if you come from the Eurozone you’re going to be able to pay higher prices, making it harder for the locals to compete. There is always the danger of a large European company setting shop in a cacao producing country and placing a burden on local manufacturers. I also like what Diego Badaro is doing in Brazil with AMMA. Diego is not only revitalizing his own farm, but also making a world-class chocolate with cacao that is not especially easy to work with. He is even doing a remarkable chocolate with cupuacu, a first cousin of cacao with white beans. These are the lone rangers in places that have traditionally imported chocolate from elsewhere; countries where cacao has been traditionally sold to large companies, and where no chocolate maker has done anything worth talking about with that cacao before. Notice that I have mentioned people that have contributed more than good chocolate to the industry; people who have set examples for others to follow or new styles or high standards of quality for the industry.
Of course, I would like to make my own bar. This is something that I would love to do. But most of all, I would like to be a tree-to-bar company in a cacao producing country, which is impossible, because I live in Weehawken, New Jersey. But I dream of living in a cacao growing country and owning a small factory just like the one Santiago Peralta has in Quito. I want something small to medium size and source my own cacao. I would prefer to have my own farm and choose my own varietals. That would be my ideal situation.
The alternative would be to work with farms that I really love. I would choose Venezuela because I have a history with this country and I know exactly where I would go to create a farm or buy from a particular farm that I already know. I’d probably do it with my old partners because I trust them. If I were in the U.S. and did not have the way to make my own chocolate I’d probably work with Art and go to Orem and spend whatever time is necessary there. I’d move in essentially to see what Art does with my cacao. Art would be happy with the arrangements and probably asked me to cook in exchange for the intrusion. If were doing it in Venezuela I’d do it with El Rey and if I were to have my chocolate made in Ecuador, I would also check what Santiago is doing. In all cases, it would be great fun.
For someone like me, who preaches about great chocolate, it would almost be hypocritical to sit in my office and make a phone call to order a bag of beans that I have not seen or from a farm that I have not explored completely or visited many, many times. Probably I would have made my own chocolate already, if I still had a relationship with La Concepción, but the farm was invaded. It would have been so natural for me to get my own beans from La Concepción and maybe open my own little factory here in Hoboken. I knew that farm inside out; that farm was like my backyard. I helped my partners create their protocol for fermentation and drying. Every improvement of that farm had to go through me first so if I made my own chocolate, it would have been technically a tree-to-bar operation. These things are now far in the past due to political problems. I still have that craving to make my own chocolate and I might just get some equipment to make it for fun. I’m not going to say that I won’t do it, or that I’m above anyone because my standards are so high. But it would not be entirely satisfying if I had to get someone to do it for me. It would not make me happy, but if I can do it myself I would be in seventh heaven!