This article was written by Diani Urbani de la Paz and was originally published in The Peninsula Daily News on February 5, 2020.
I SLIDE OPEN the door and enter the sanctuary. A fragrance says buenos dias: a scent from Ecuador. Canopied forest. Green river valley. Yet here I stand in wintry Port Townsend, in a building that was once a blacksmith’s forge, where a woman is going after her dream.
“I follow the beat of my inner drummer,” said Susan Fitch, founder of the Cocoa Forge, her self-described “microscopic” Monroe Street chocolate factory near the Northwest Maritime Center.
“Are you feeling courageous?” she asked.
In fact I feel a little drunk on the aforementioned aroma.
But I straighten up and do my job: tasting a warm sample, in a teensy cup, of dark chocolate made a few feet from where we are.
Turns out the difference between mass-produced chocolate and what I’m tasting — the Forge’s Fortaleza — suggests the contrast between your $3.99 wine and your $100 bottle of French Champagne.
For Fitch, it all began years ago with a question: What ever happened to chocolate’s flavors?
It’s gotten so waxy and boring.
Her answer came from an unlikely spot.
A student of herbalism, folklore and botanical mythology, Fitch grew heirloom roses and used cocoa bean husks as mulch.
One day the scents of roses and cacao, like two cupped hands, wafted up into an epiphany.
Off she went on a quest for heirloom cacao beans.
There being no coco university, Fitch went to the rainforests where the fruit, and yes it’s a fruit, flourishes.
Cacao’s “happy place,” she said, is in the shade, also called the madre de cacao.
Then, on the equatorial farms, she received her education in post-harvest phenomena, the techniques that distinguish deeply delicious chocolate.
Here is the ultimate slow food, Fitch added, because of many steps: fermentation, drying, roasting, winnowing, stone-grinding, tempering and, at last, languorous tasting.
Fitch tells me how she chooses heirloom cacaos, which are less than 1 percent of the beans grown in the world, as well as fine or flavor beans, 5 to 7 percent of the global harvest.
In her factory, they become chocolate without emulsifiers and overfiltering.
“This is me trying to get out of their way,” Fitch said, “to showcase these individuals and their flavors.”
Her individuals are dark and milk chocolates with anywhere from 60 to 80 percent cacao.
So this is no confection.
It’s more like a mindfulness exercise.
Taste a food this complex, and your brain awakens.
You marvel at the nuances that a moment before, you didn’t know were possible.
When talking about this, Fitch’s face glows.
Her words are leavened with firsthand knowledge.
Yet building a bean-to-bar, as she calls it, chocolate business is far from a trip to the candy store.
The Cocoa Forge’s bars run as much as $14. Which, after all, is equivalent to a nice bottle of wine.
Still, Fitch faces an uphill climb.
I admire the way she’s going about it.
In her marketing, this entrepreneur has not employed those ubiquitous tools called Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Sure, they might be effective, but Fitch instinctively focuses instead on the core experience.
In the tasting room and on thecocoaforge.com, a tour of the chocolate biosphere beckons, reminding us of the dazzling planet we live on, from Oceania to Mesoamerica to Bali to the Caribbean to Africa.
Then there’s a tantalizing page about shipping cacao by sail, aboard the under-construction Ceiba.
“I wanted a community-based business, so I could do this,” she tells me, “this” being time in her little tasting room, learning about the world’s flavors.
“Come back,” she said by way of farewell, “and taste more.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.
Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month.
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!