For the Love of Chocolate

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 trees

Cacao Trees

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.

 

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Cacao Pods



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.

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Fermentation of Cacao Beans in Ecuador

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.dict-taylor

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.sea salt and caramel

 


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.

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Chocolate Decadence:  Everything is made by responsible producers

 

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A Day on the Farms

We got to see baby Water Buffalo! That may not be enough reason for you to get up in the early morning fog and hop on a van that promises to take you to three farmstead creameries, but that was enough incentive for me. Luckily Wally, my partner in adventure and my husband of 35 years, will jump on any bus that holds the promise of fresh Water Buffalo Mozzarella.

water buffalo at Ramini Mozzareally

Water Buffalo at Ramini Mozzarella

The tour was part of the California Artisan Cheese  Festival that is held in Petaluma each spring. We chose this one because each creamery had animals on property (so we got to see baby animals), each had different animals, and all were family run.

 

First up: new kid on the farm Ramini Mozzarella.

Milking Barn and Cheese Room

Milking Barn and Cheese Room

One of only two small Water Buffalo farms in Northern California, Ramini is determined to duplicate his Italian ancestors steps in making top quality Mozzarella de Bufala. Listening to him enthuse as he speaks of his herd – 36 buffalo with only 10 milking currently- and the process of milking and making the cheese all in one day you know this is truly a passion. Why else would you spend all day milking your buffalo, hand making the cheese, and taking exceptional care of all your animals? It is one loooong day.

 

IMG_4398But his pride is evident, as is the taste, as we sample a plate of his cheese with tomatoes and basil. It doesn’t get any fresher than this.
Some facts about Water Buffalo Farming and the Cheese: The milk is about 10% fat, three times the fat of cow milk. His babies stay with the mom for about a week, then go down to nursing once a day, but they will naturally start eating grass after about 3 days and will be on full grass after a month. He keeps them with the moms during the day, they both do better as a result.

Second: Valley Ford Cheese Company, they’ve been a dairy farm for over 90 years.

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Valley Ford

The Cheese Company was started in 2008 but the roots to this dairy go back to 1918 when Pietro and Maria Bianchi bought 640 acres for dairy farming.   It has stayed in the family all these years and its primary business is still to sell milk, with Clover Stornetta being one of their clients.   Pietro’s granddaughter, Karen Bianchi Moreda, who had been working with the dairy most of her life decided she wanted to try her hand at artisan cheese making as well.   Leaning on her family’s Northern Italian heritage, but using the terroir of Northern California, she fashioned Highway One, a semi hard Fontina style cheese with grassy notes, and Estero Gold, a harder cheese with a nuttiness like Asiago, that develops and crystalizes as it ages.   She sells the Estero Gold at 6 months and 18 months. She now has a 12 month Estero Gold that we love, but sadly it isn’t on the open market just yet. But we are standing by.

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Valley Ford Cheesemaker, Joe Moreda, giving us a peek of his test batch of gorgonzola

 

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Calf at Valley Ford

 

Third: Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese, an irrepressible couple who, in addition to running a cow dairy, decided to make goat cheese so Bonnie, the wife, could keep all of her goats. All 160 of them!  Bonnie and Don have been married for 49 years, their enthusiasm for their goats and their cheese provided laughter and inspiration.

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Bonnie DeBernardi

Ah, I’ve heard this story before. It could almost be the beginning of a joke: A woman buys a few goats…kind of like, “a man walks into a bar…” or “there was a priest, a rabbi and a minister.” This time the woman is Bonnie DeBernardi and she buys 2 cute Nubian goats (those with the bunny like floppy ears) for her grandkids to play with. That was back in the 1990s. Now she has 160 goats which she tends personally while her husband Don makes goat cheese three times a week. This is in addition to running a dairy farm. Those goats, so cute, so alluring. And thank goodness! The cheese Don is making is delicious.

Don DiBernardi

Don DeBernardi

Like many farmers we’ve met in Northern California Don is of Swiss and Italian Heritage. He decided he wanted to do what his Granddad did, so off her went to study cheese making with relatives in Switzerland. He also had an expert come in and help him after his first few batches had gone wrong. He has the smallest cheese making room I’ve ever seen and a small shed that acts as his aging room. At the age of 70 he still finds joy in each batch and expresses wonder at each one, somewhat amazed by it all. After tasting his goat brie and his 6 month semi hard goat cheese I was amazed too. I hope to have his cheese at Fancifull soon. Right now he is only selling in Northern California, but if I have my way, I’ll get a wheel or two down here as well.

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Baby goats

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Mom and Baby

I relish the opportunity to visit these farms firsthand. One gets to smell the air, meet the animals and get a true view of what it takes to bring a cheese to market. This isn’t something you do because you have nothing better to do.

The word passion comes to mind often as I talk with these artisans. I look it up and see it comes from Latin, Pati which means “suffer.” Now that is interesting. I don’t think any of these people would say they suffer, but they do work long hours, are slaves to their animals, and will throw out a whole batch of cheese they have worked on for months if it isn’t right. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

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A goofy looking one, but persistent in getting attention

I want this one

I want this one

Artisanal Cheese Definitions

There is much talk of Artisan food in the world right now, we wanted to take a moment and clear up a few terms .

Artisan: Made by hand by traditional methods. A person is there during every part of the process, checking each stage. Artisan Cheese will more reflect the environment and the differences in milk from season to season. Craftsman is a synonym. A skilled person is at the helm.

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Farmstead cheese from these goats at Fat Toad Farm

Farmstead: The animals are on the property where the cheese is being made. The cheese makers have a farm and make the cheese there. Not all artisan cheese is farmstead, Cowgirl Creamery, for instance, gets their milk from Strauss Organic Dairy.

Commercial: As the name implies commercial cheese is made in large batches. It may not have the variations of an artisan cheese but some of it can be quite good. Rembrandt Gouda is one example of a popular commercial cheese. Fromage Affinois is another. It depends on the company and the care and pride they take in their product. And of course, it always comes down to taste.

Industrial Cheese: This is larger than just commercial. There is one company in California that makes 2.4 million pounds of cheese a day. No one sees the milk, it is piped in, pasteurized, put in a tank, buttons are pushed, cheese comes out. This is often sent to restaurants, pizza parlors, food service and used for private label.

Processed Cheese Food: Has a minimum of 51% dairy product by final weight – meaning milk or whey. And it may contain one or more optional ingredients. Whereas there are some spreads that are okay, many add oils, chemicals and artificial flavors to make them shelf stable for years.

At Fancifull great care is taken in selecting the cheese we carry in the shop and design into our Gift Baskets. We take pride in the research we do regarding the food on our shelves and are committed to bringing you the best in a variety of price ranges.

Hand Flipping the curds at Beecher's in Seattle

Hand Flipping the curds at Beecher’s in Seattle

Goat Cheese being drained

Goat Cheese being drained