Slow Food

A better, cleaner and fairer world begins with what we put on our plates – and our daily choices determine the future of the environment, economy and society. – Slow Food USA

It’s hard to disagree with that statement. The slow food movement also purports that “the future of food is the future of the planet.” Again, I couldn’t agree more.

The slow food movement originated in Italy in 1986 when Carlo Petrini led a protest against a McDonald’s opening in Rome. The philosophy is “good, clean, and fair food,” as defined by the slow food international website:

  • GOOD: quality, flavorsome and healthy food
  • CLEAN: production that does not harm the environment
  • FAIR: accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers

Boiled down to its roots, the slow food movement encourages us to connect more with our food, be more intentional about its origin and how it arrives at our lips through preserving tradition and providing a “taste education.”

The movement has remained mostly in the sphere of counterculture, though its popularity is growing. In 2008, Woddy Tasch published Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered and opened the nonprofit Slow Money to support the efforts of small-scale and local food enterprises. In 2014, Slow Money has grown to nearly 1000 participants in their annual event and the organization has invested over $35 million in more than 300 small food enterprises since 2010. Slow food movement as a whole now has over 80,000 members internationally, including food community  producers, cooks, and academics, according to the 2013 Slow Food Almanac.

What does this have to do with chocolate? I’d like to think of Root Chocolate as slow chocolate. Our chocolate is high quality, flavorsome, and contains only natural ingredients of cacao and sugar. Our chocolate is clean in that besides the ecological footprint of transporting the beans from where they grow near the equator to our apartment in the Bay Area, we try to reduce the environmental impact in all other ways, from the farm to the bar. And finally fair – we are highly sensitive to paying an appropriate price for the beans so that the cacao farmers earn a living wage. Granted, we’re not selling any chocolate at the moment, but when we do, feel free to remind me of this post, so we make sure it is accessible to those who want it!

Slow food has been integrating itself into my life for the past few years, and I’m enjoying its effect immensely. Richard and I received a dehydrator and a jarring kit for our wedding, both of which we’ve put to great use. Richard’s dehydrator has produced a variety of interesting jerkys and my jarring kit has resulted in cranberry sauce and apple sauce, which are wonderful gifts for friends and coworkers. What’s more thoughtful than homemade food, particularly something that hasn’t come from a kitchen since corporations decided they could take over that process for us. We’ve also successfully made cheese – both queso fresco (my personal favorite) and paneer, which went into the most delicious (and complicated) Indian dishes we’ve ever made from scratch. And finally, our favorite kitchen gadget, the Nutribullet, has provided us a variety of slow-cooked options, such as homemade hummus, juices, and nut butters like peanut and almond.

Jars of slow food - cranberry sauce, apple sauce

According to Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, which I’m absolutely loving reading, “cooking from scratch” has recently been re-defined as anytime a person interacts with their food at all, which constitutes as little as spreading mayonnaise on bread or heating a can of soup. That’s substantially different from my grandma’s homemade sugo and gnocchi, which could take half a day to prepare. You may lament that half a day of cooking would prevent you from doing so many other things, but that’s part of the problem – cooking in community is an amazing experience that we’re starting to lose as a culture.

Making chocolate together with Matt and Malenca last month, and even when it’s just me and Richard, constitutes a challenge to be conquered together. And the pleasure of enjoying a meal or in our case, a bar of chocolate, after laboring over it as a group, is immeasurable.

I challenge my readers to cook something from scratch with a loved one (or many!) and share your experience in the comments below!

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What do genetics have to do with it?

There are a lot of factors working together to create fine flavor chocolate. We have learned that the very DNA of the cocoa beans is one of those factors. In an attempt to educate myself on the chocolate industry, I’m reading the amazingly interesting, important, and thorough book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate, by Pam Williams and Jim Eber. The book covers four essential parts of the chocolate production process: the genetics, the farmers, customer education, and finally the art of the Chocolatier.

I certainly do not purport to know as much as the experienced authors on this matter, but I am eager to bring the concept of genetics to the lay people in this picture, particularly the consumers of chocolate.

Let’s do a quick refresher on the definition of genetics in the first place. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, genetics is a branch of biology that deals with the heredity and variation of organisms. In other words, genes are the root of the wide diversity of life on our planet. And they are passed down through generations.

In the case of Theobroma cacao, the tree that means “food of the gods ” in Latin, and produces cocoa pods that house the cocoa beans that give way to chocolate as we know it, there is a wide variation within the species. However, a few factors are contributing to a homogenization of the genetics. First of all, the tree’s tendency to be promiscuous (pollinate with any other Theobroma cacao in the vicinity regardless of genetic similarity) dilutes the gene pool by melding the DNA of various phenotypes (physical expressions of genetic combinations) into one plant, and even one cocoa pod. Because of this trait, cocoa beans can have drastically different genetics even within the same cocoa pod!

Secondly, certain variations of the tree are particularly prone to disease, especially the traditional classification, Criollo. I’ll go into that more in another post.

Finally, decades of increasing demand has spurred farmers and chocolate manufacturers to experiment with genetically modified versions of Theobroma cacao that are more resistant to disease and produce larger and heartier cocoa pods. In other words, these variations are now able to survive many of the threats facing Theobroma cacao, which is good news, but they are also not bred for their flavor.

Still, Theobroma cacao has traditionally been separated into two classifications: Criollo, known for its fine flavor and Latin American roots, and Forestero, considered of lower flavor value and traditionally found in Africa. A third type, Trinitario, named for where it was genetically crossbred between Criollo and Forestero in Trinidad & Tobago, is often included in the list of traditional classifications.

However, there is much debate as to the true division of classifications of cocoa. The International Cacao Germplasm Database genotyped 1,241 samples and proposed a “new classification of cacao germplasm into 10 major clusters, or groups: Marañón, Curaray, Crillo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional, and Guiana.” Meanwhile, C-Spot, an incredible resource on chocolate, identifies 9 primary strains of cacao, in addition to a myriad of cultivar strains. C-Spot also describes the flavor implications of each of the 9 primary strains, ranging from the earthen flavor of Amazon to acidic “strawberries and cream” of Criollo.

“Why do we care?” you may ask. Yes, the genetics of the tree contributes to the flavor of the eventual chocolate. And yes, there is something to be said for preserving biodiversity, as the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative intends to do. But the bottom line of why I care is because the origin of my food matters to me. Similar to the local food movement and the organic food movement, tracking the unadulterated genetics of cacao is an exercise is purity, sustainability, and an effort to return to a simpler time.

Why do you care about the genetics of your food? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.