I am sitting at my desk wondering what tack to take on this article. I decide to nibble on a chocolate bar for inspiration mmmm… 61% Venezuelan, the sharpness of the criollo beans turns into a fatty full mouth feel then mellows to a long full finish. The Pacari Chocolate Bars in our shop from Ecuador however may be my favorite. The cacao is richer and somewhat mellower yet deeper tasting than the Venezuela, there is a slight taste of green banana and I swear I can smell tropical flowers. Yet both these chocolate bars are only cacao beans and sugar. Why the extreme difference?
Chocolate will vary tremendously depending on where it is grown. It has terroir, much like wine. There is no good English equivalent for the word terroir. It is so much more than just the soil – terroir is from the word terra for earth- yet it is more about the characteristics of the region in which something grown. It will include the air, the humidity, the sun, fog, the flora and fauna. All this affects the taste of the fruit.
Cacao is grown within about 20 degrees of the equator. This is why you won’t find fields of cacao trees in Hershey, Pennsylvania. And by the way, there are no cacao trees in Belgium. Belgian Chocolate is a way of processing the cacao to make chocolate. The only place the United States where cacao is grown is Hawaii. What do you think of when you think of that band near the equator? Tropical Rainforest? Volcanos? High Humidity? Yup! There are a variety of factors depending on if the cacao is grown in Africa, Madagascar or Mexico. The beans are often fermented outside so banana trees, or any other plants, in the area will affect that flavor of the beans. I am sure you have experienced this with coffee too. A South American bean manifests very differently in the cup than a Arabian one.
I am talking about pure cacao which is used for single origin chocolate, not candy. The cacao beans are grown in big colorful pods that hang off the trees. They break the pods open and extract the beans which are sitting in a milky liquid. There is a huge difference between a single origin chocolate bar and Hershey’s with Almonds, they aren’t even in the same food group. I am not making less of a Snickers bar, but a candy bar is cheap cocoa mixed with a lot of sugar and other fun ingredients to make a confection. There is no terroir in candy, just as there isn’t in a cheap jug wine. The cheap jug wine may be fine with your pizza, but you don’t expect it to have the complexity of a great barolo. Just two different things entirely.
One important fact is that cacao is traded as a commodity on the exchange in New York and London. People making chocolate generally just buy a container at a set price. Even when a region is specified you don’t know exactly where or how the cacao was grown.
Luckily there are now a lot of companies specializing in single origin chocolate which comes from specific regions, even certain plantations. These are some of the most interesting chocolates out there. They have a range and depth of flavors that make them stand out from your ordinary grocery store check out stand chocolate bars.
There has been a huge rise in the last few years of manufacturers who buy directly from, and are involved with, the plantations where they buy their beans. Since most cacao is grown in or near the rainforests of the world, it is vital to be sure the chocolate we consume is coming from companies that promote the sustainability of the environment as well as fair wages to the workers. This is important for a number of reasons. When farmers are underpaid for their product they have to grow more and more of it to make a living. In doing so they will overgrow on the land and cut down more and more of the rainforest so they can grow more and more. The best cacao comes from plantations that are shade grown, near a rainforest because there is a relationship between the animals and trees of that area and the cacao plants.
A horrible side to the business of cacao is the slavery that still exists especially in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, many of these slaves are children. These two countries alone produce over 50 percent of the world’s cacao.
Buying Fair Trade Certified products (an official designation after investigation of the operating process) and knowing which companies buy directly from the growers will help ensure you don’t buy from slave plantations. Such brands as: Pacari, Dick Taylor, Divine, Goodio, Tcho,Cocoa Parlor and Choco Vivo are just some of the companies we have carried. They buy directly from the farmers, not always easy because of the power of the co-ops who control the cacao trade in many countries. The better manufacturers share the profits with the farmers and give back to the communities where cacao pods are grown by educating the farmers on how to get better crops through better technology, and setting up educational scholarships for the children of these villages so they have more choices when they grow up.
Some of the largest companies like Hershey and Godiva still won’t say exactly where they source their cacao. Cadbury in the U.K. and elsewhere outside the U.S. is Fair Trade whereas in the U.S. (owned by Hershey) they can’t make that claim. Lindt is able to claim sustainability and lack of slave chocolate so draw your own conclusions.
Not everyone participates in the Fair trade program, due partly to the fees they charge and the red tape, but many deal directly with the farmers and are doing a lot of good as well as getting magnificent raw materials. This data is easy to find out since many promote it on the label. One company we know buys from a plantation in Ecuador. The workers had never tasted the finished chocolate before. They had always just shipped them out as raw materials, all the beans were exported worldwide. This company treated them all, and still do, much to the delight of all the workers. I hope you too are delighted with whatever chocolate you eat next. There are so many to explore, here’s to a very enjoyable journey.