DEAR FELLOW INTREPID CRAFT CHOCOLATE LOVERS
If I may be so bold; I know a little bit about you. You are not content with the norm. You know about and care about where your food comes from. You have done, or are doing your research. You tend to be inquisitive; audacious even. Why, you have an adventurer’s heart, you chocolate thrill-seeker, you! You likely know all about the long journey this cacao has been on. The genetics, the terrior, the farmers care and attention. The worry. The harvest, the fermenting, the drying. All to be done with meticulous care if the beans are to go to a craft chocolate maker. Then bagging, and oh the shipping! Did my beans make it to the boat? Did they stay dry? Did they get stacked next to petroleum products? Did they get sprayed? Did they get left in the sun to rot? Oy! Then, clearing of Customs. Um. Did you wonder why your chocolate maker hugs those sacks of cacao? Because they are a danged miracle, that’s why! Then testing, then cleaning, then sorting, then roasting, then cracking and then winnowing! Every step critical to flavor. Into the melanguer to grind for days. Getting into the perfect micron zone, but not so much that it drives off flavor. To the conch to mellow and meld, maybe for hours, maybe for days, maybe not at all - it depends! Then, to age or not to age? That is another question - it depends! These amazing, unique little cocoa beans — genetics all so different! They each have a story to tell and we’ve got to let them tell it. Then on to the tempering, molding and packaging. Yup, these beans have come a long way baby, and not just in distance.
IT'S A LONG, LONG WAY TO TIPPERARY
But what I really want to say, what I really want for you, is to know the journey these little beans have been on so that you can stop. And appreciate. Slowly. Slowly. Soak in the appreciation. It is truly a miracle and a marvel that we can taste these heirloom beans so very far away from their origin. That heirloom beans still exist in small tropical pockets, in the hands of farmers who care enough to save them, is wondrous. Because as we all know, it would be so much easier and more lucrative to grow industrial flavorless beans. So Gods bless the cacao farmers who go the extra mile and who tend the precious heirloom cacao. Otherwise, we never would have known what those ancient Mesoamerican elite were tasting. And maybe we still don’t know for sure - but one thing we do know … it was precious enough for the Kokopelli-esque long distance trade merchants to walk thousands of miles with a backpack full of cacao from equatorial lands, through all the dangers and strangers, to sell/trade as far away as to the Chacoans of Pueblo Bonita. I’ll just wait here while you absorb the full impact of that. That would be like the Brinks Security man walking from Fort Knox, Kentucky to Sacramento, California, with a backpack full of money. His only security and protection being quick wit and storytelling. The logistics of that feat is mind-boggling. Maybe they set it up like the Pony Express? A small illustration as to the value and importance of cacao before it went industrial. Nowadays, we wouldn't even walk a mile for what passes as chocolate, let alone 2000 miles. Must have been some pretty good stuff.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY "CUSTOM, CRAFT CHOCOLATE"?
For hundreds of years, the way people would buy their chocolate was to go down to their local chocolate maker and pick out their favorite cocoa beans. The chocolate maker would then keep the customers personal recipe on file … whether they preferred a blend or single origin; what level of roast they liked; what level of sweetness; what level of refinement; if they wanted it in bars, in pieces, in blocks or pressed into cocoa powder and cocoa butter or with additions like vanilla or cinnamon. Now that is my kind of shopping local! You should be able to go to your butcher, baker and choc-o-late maker and they should be able to answer any question you have about sourcing, origins, shipping, processing, growing, harvesting. My favorite example of this is Mama’s Fish House in Maui. At Mama’s they tell you WHO caught your fish, WHERE they caught it, HOW they caught it and WHEN they caught it. It brings a deep appreciation and understanding of how that fish came to be on your dinner plate.
WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
Heirloom and Fine Flavor beans represent a tiny percentage of all the cocoa beans grown today. They are in danger of becoming extinct and hybridized into something unrecognizable. Farmers are paid per weight so why would they go to the extra trouble to grow a picky Heirloom? They can get up to 4 times the volume and weight with industrial beans. It would be a real shame on so many levels to lose Heirloom and Fine Flavor Cacao. For one, tasteless industrial beans are grown as a mono-crop which means the Rain Forest is bulldozed and the industrial hybrid cacao then planted in rows in full sun and which require loads of fertilizers and pesticides. Heirloom and Fine Flavor Cacao is best grown Cabruca style and is happiest as a jungle understory tree amongst a diverse forest and with thick cool mulch on its feet, plenty of shade from Madre de Cacao overhead and a big, healthy midge population for pollination. So its the classic story of the tortise and the hare. Industrial farms versus smallholders. Somewhere along the way, we humans traded flavor and quality for cheap and tasteless. And now, most people don't have a clue what chocolate used to taste like. There is some middle ground though. These are not black and white issues but many shades of brown. Many farmers carefully consider genetics and plant amongst other species not only making the cacao happier but also being able to yield other crops between cacao harvests. And you wouldn't use precious heirloom beans to make commerical candy bars. It's like the difference between one of those huge, tasteless supermarket tomatos compared with an heirloom you grew in your own summer garden that bursts with flavor and squirts all over the place. I think it is important to know what real chocolate tastes like. I want to know why cacao was sacred and used in every life (and death) ceremony, why wars were fought over it, why it was used as money and tax/tribute, why it was offered on the altars to the Gods and why it accompanied kings into the afterlife. I think we should not lose the chocolate and cacao of the ancestors. And it's not too late to save Heirloom Cacao. But you have to know about it first! Because it is ultimately YOU that will end up saving Heirloom Cacao with your interest and demand. Farmers and processors will notice that it is important to people. And yup, it's gonna cost more than "grocery store" mass produced "chocolate".
Susan Fitch is the Master Chocolate Maker and teller of stories at the Cocoa Forge. Besides making chocolate, Sue is a dog-lover, a sea breeze savor-er and an unconventional Virgo following the lead of Theobroma in the most unconventional and ever-changing second career one could imagine. Cheers!
The slowest food of all...
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