The Terroir of Chocolate

As I sit at my computer thinking about this article I’m nibbling on a chocolate bar, 61% cacao from Venezuela. mmmm… I’m enveloped by the sharpness of the criollo cacao beans, followed by a slightly earthy and nutty flavor that mellows to a long full finish. Venezuelan Chocolate may be my favorite. Although I do have one from Ecuador in my shop that is richer and somewhat fattier tasting than the Venezuelan, a slight taste of green banana and I swear I can smell tropical flowers. Yet both these chocolate bars are only cacao and sugar. Why the extreme difference?

Chocolate will vary tremendously depending on where the cacao is grown. It too has terroir, much like wine. There is no good English equivalent for the word terroir. It refers to the characteristics of the region in which something grown. Soil is a big part of it, but it includes the air, the humidity, the sun, fog, the flora and fauna. All of this affects the taste of the fruit.

Cacao is grown within about 20 degrees of the equator, which is why you won’t find fields of cacao plants in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The only place in the United States where cacoa is grown is Hawaii. What do you think of when you think of that band near the equator? Tropical Rain forest? Volcanos? High Humidity? Yes, and a variety of other factors depending on whether the cocoa is grown in Africa, Madagascar or Mexico.

I am talking about pure cacao which is used for single origin chocolate, not candy. There is a huge difference, chocolate and candy 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 jug wine may be okay with your pizza, but you don’t expect it to have the complexity of a great Bordeaux; just two different things entirely.

Cacao is traded as a commodity on the exchange in New York and London, so 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, quality can be spotty and labor practices not inspected.

A movement has developed in the last few years of specialty chocolate makers who are directly involved with the plantations from which they buy. These artisan companies make single origin chocolate, with the cacao coming from only one plantation or a small group of farmers, producing some of the most interesting chocolates out there. They have a range and depth of flavors that make them stand out from your ordinary supermarket chocolate bars.

Since most chocolate is grown in or near the rain forests of the world, it is vital to be sure the chocolate we consume is coming from companies that promote the sustainability of the environment, including organic growing, 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 huge amounts of it to make a living. In doing so they will overgrow on the land, deplete the soil and cut down more and more of the rain forest so they can grow more and more cacoa, resulting in a less flavorful cacao bean. Sadly slavery exists on some of the cacao plantations, especially those in Ghana and the Ivory Coast; the two countries that produce the largest percentage of the world’s cocoa

On the other hand, there are fair trade and direct trade merchants who not only pay appropriately, but give back to the communities where cacao is grown, by developing programs that enrich the area in many ways. Many farmers are aware of the quality of their beans , they can – and do- command high prices for them when they deal directly with the manufacturer. This allows them to control their destiny as well as giving them the wherewithal to continue to grow prized beans such as the criollo I was just enjoying. So you can eat your chocolate with a clear conscious and open taste buds.

My suggestion is go out and gather some bars of chocolate and perform a tasting. Some brands I recommend are: Taza, Pacari, Claudio Corallo, Chuao, and Malie Kai ( this last being one of the few single origin Hawaiian Chocolates). For these manufacturers chocolate is a labor of love: they hand pick the best beans directly from the growers, most are organic, and Corallo grows and manufactures his own chocolate on the island of Sao Tome off the West Coast of Africa.

When tasting good chocolate treat it like tasting good wine. Go slowly, notice the texture of the bar, take a small amount at a time, allow it to melt a bit in your mouth – warmer chocolate will give off more flavor- make sure it hits the various parts of your tongue to get the most out of the flavor, and exhale through your nose so you pick up the nuances through your sense of smell. Also be aware of the finish. How long does the flavor last after you swallow it? You’ll find you need much less of good chocolate to satisfy you than you would if you were eating a sugar and additive packed candy bar. Next time you are at a good gourmet store, look at the chocolate shelf, notice the single origin and organic chocolates and give yourself a treat. Warning: once you start down this road there may be no going back.

Terry August, 323/466-7654,

Take a Seat at the Table

Take A Seat At The Table
Part of the Continuing Series: The Art of Appreciation

Do you ever have one of those rambling conversations? You know the kind that starts with one topic then links to another, then allows you to jump to another place entirely, miles away from where you began? I have those kind of thoughts in my head all the time. As a matter of fact I just had one, lucky you, that I’m going to share. It reminds me of my travels, starting in one area and then being guided by something that catches our eye – an interesting storefront perhaps – and off we go down a street not on our map.

My mental journey today started simply enough by reading my friend Camerone’s blog This entry, The Valet, told the tale of driving her son to school while wearing her pajamas, and of course the potential for disaster. This instantly brought up memories of a friend who had a horrible “pajamas out of bounds” experience (hereafter named PJOB), and my own PJOB with my daughter while in Mont. St. Michel, France.

I won’t go into the details of it all, but suffice it to say we did not expect bright floodlights and hordes of tourists when we slipped out of our hotel room on a quiet alley wearing our pajamas and a coat, certain that the whole village was dark and asleep by now. We had meant to go out to the parking lot outside the walls of this cars prohibited village after dinner to view this national treasure rising from the sea with its abbey perched atop, lit up and twinkling like a Christmas tree. Alas, we forgot until we were climbing into bed. We decided to make a run for it. Our coats were donned mainly to steel us against the wind, and a feeble attempt to hide our plaid pajamas. The lights were blinding, the tourists aghast, and we were laughing. Who knew that nightly viewing was so popular that they had after sundown tours that brought hundreds of people to this tiny hamlet.

As I reminisced I thought that I bet almost everyone has a story of being caught in P.J.s (PJOB), dressed badly, or just being caught in a moment of fashion indiscretion. You know, the moments when you feel you have to explain yourself and why you happened to have your stained sweat pants and ill fitting Class of 85 reunion shirt on, and of course sans any makeup. I swear the only time I run into people I know is when I am dressed in similar fashion and run out late at night to quickly get one thing.
Happens to everyone (I imagine).

Mulling this over, I jumped to a conversation I had with a woman at a gathering a week ago. We were discussing how all of us on this planet are probably more the same than we are different. She had experience working with people in the Middle East and noted the similarities between warring factions and believed if they just sat down and ate a meal together and talked they would find out how much they have in common. Isn’t that true?

Take a look at most religions on this planet. Aren’t there many common goals? The Golden Rule, a version thereof, is something embraced by all sane people. We may worship differently, but basic tenets such as: treat others well, help others, love your children, live an honest life are all common threads. I’m not talking about the minority of radicals who think it is okay to kill another for religion. They have a whole other purpose in mind.

At this point in my mental wanderings I make another turn and end up on a different street and as I walk down it I am thinking about sitting people down to a meal and having them talk. Sharing food and conversation is part of just about every religion, culture, or pleasurable activity on the planet. The food may vary, the reason for celebration can change, but the breaking of bread is a common thread among cultures.

An Italian woman was in my shop the other day and she was telling us of the custom in her region of Liguria of eating goat for the holidays. I saw the smile on her face and the light in her eyes and could see the memories of previous holidays parade past. Whether the occasion is a Jewish Seder, Christmas Dinner, Fourth of July picnic, Id-al-Fitr (feast after Ramadan), Day of the Dead celebration, a wake, or just a birthday party- food is an integral part of the festivities as is enjoying the pleasures of the table and of each other.

It is no wonder that I joined Slow Food USA. I resonated with their belief in returning to the pleasures of the table(have I turned another corner on this conversation?). This isn’t to trivialize all that Slow Food does to make sure food is good, clean and fair. But the image of all of us coming to the table, together, was enough for me to join.

As I took my walk yesterday, clearing my head of the daily bad news I ingest , wondering how we were going to keep our business together and other gloomy thoughts, I looked back to when my husband and I were first married, 30 years ago. We didn’t have a lot of money. Entertainment consisted of friends coming over, bringing some food, playing cards, talking, laughing and of course, eating. They were great times.

Maybe we all need to return to simpler pleasures. Talk to friends and neighbors thus forming stronger connections, sit around a table eating fresh foods from the farmer’s market, everyone contributing something, offering comfort and conversation, maybe open a board game. Have fun finding all those things that we do have in common, the bonds that tie us together, and raise a glass in a toast to all that is good in humanity.