Chocolate-struck at FCIA Weekend Activities

We started the year off right with some serious chocolate schmoozing!

This past weekend, San Francisco hosted the FCIA Winter Event, the Good Food Awards and the Winter Fancy Food Show. Quick congratulations to the following chocolate companies for their big wins in the Good Food Awards:

While we did not attend any of the official events this weekend, we were present at two more intimate gatherings of chocolate makers. We feel very fortunate to be friends of Dandelion and were able to attend both an informal chocolate-makers’ meet-up on Friday night, hosted at Four Barrel Coffee, and the post-FCIA brunch Sunday morning.

At the Friday night event, I arrived a little late, but in plenty of time to hear some great tidbits from the experts. It was packed with people sitting high on bags of coffee, on the floor, and anywhere there was space. When someone asked how to work with cocoa farmers, I was excited to hear some of the panelists expand on my favorite topic! Greg from Dandelion talked about wanting the farmers to be as excited about their product as he is, and expecting to not just buy something but to also build something together. Jesse, sourcer of Cacao Vivo talked about the importance of transparency, direct trade, and feedback. In the meantime, Hugo Hermelink, a cocoa farmer from Costa Rica, spoke up about the financial troubles of running a cacao operation. I met many of the Dandelion staff members, people from Raaka, indi, and Videri, among others.

Chocolate-maker meet-up at Four Barrel

Chocolate-maker meet-up at Four Barrel

Sunday morning, with an even larger group, I was almost starstruck (chocolate-struck?) at the names of people in the room. Some had written books or articles I have poured over. Others make amazing chocolate or source beans from ethically responsible co-ops or connect chocolate-makers to beans or educate the public about the bean-to-bar industry. It was amazing to meet Steve De Vries of De Vries Chocolate, Sunita of The Chocolate Garage, Jose of Mindo Chocolate in Ecuador/Michigan and his cacao farmer friend of an Ecuadorian co-op, Clay Gordon of The Chocolate Life (see posts on our previous phone interview on “living the chocolate life” and on making chocolate at home), Brian of Northwest Chocolate Festival, Adam and Matthew of Mutari Hot Chocolate (locals in Santa Cruz!), as well as many many others.

We also got to connect with old friends – Dave and Corey of Letterpress Chocolate, Eli of Bisou, Greg of Dandelion, and Brian of Endorfin, among others. Check out Dandelion’s picture of the event in their Valencia Cafe.

It was such an adventure to learn from these experts and hear suggestions for our own chocolate activities. We’re looking forward to trying a few new experiments in the near future. Keep an eye out for more fun in the world of Root Chocolate!

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Siriana Cacao

About a month ago, Piper reached out to me through The Chocolate Life. (Have I mentioned how much I appreciate the connections I’ve made to the local and online chocolate-making community?) She let me know that a dear friend of hers moved to Costa Rica this year, purchased some land and began farming. His plot is surrounded by farmers who having been doing the same for hundreds of years. His goal was two fold, to save the land from developers (tourists attractions), and to help other farmers move their beans at good prices.

That caught my attention. Saving the land, working together with farmers to promote their economic well-being… I was sold. And I’m glad I was!

Piper told me that “the cacao is grown in Matina conton in the Talamanca region of Costa Rica. The trees are indigenous to the area, so these are considered Fine beans. All the practices are organic and sustainable. The beans have been fermented, and sundried and are considered Raw. They are considered one of the best tasting beans in the world by the ICCO and the Tasting salons in Paris. And this year, they had a good spring harvest and the fall harvest will be incredible because of the rains (they thought El’nino would cause a drought). It should be a vintage year.”

Well, we purchased a 2 lb sample from Piper through Siriana Cacao, and made a new batch of chocolate this week. We have a few new tools that helped us along in the process, and the result was both delicious and fun!

Siriana Cacao cut test

First of all, we did a cut test on the beans and they looked a little purple but overall flaky and dark and good! I’ll go into the details of cut testing in another post, but suffice it to say for now that it means they were fermented well – not too much and not too little. Goldie-locks, style.Champion Juicer, modified

Then, after a solid 5 minutes at 400 degrees and 20 minutes at 250 in the oven, we pulled out our first new tool, the Champion Juicer! Chocolate Alchemy sells this for $265, but we found a refurbished one on Ebay for $99. This tool serves as both cracker of beans and later as a way to create the first crude liquor before setting the Premier Wonder Grinder to work. Ours is a littler older than we expected, so we don’t quite trust it to create the liquor. For cracking, though, (and with a few creative modifications to keep our kitchen relatively clean) it was amazing!

wide winnowing basket

We then tried another interesting tool for winnowing – the wider, shallower basket, thanks to a suggestion on our Winnowing Woes post. It worked marginally better at first, then the nibs started flying away along with the husks. So, we returned to the large bin method. We ended up with a 76% yield from full beans to winnowed nibs. We recently learned that a perfect winnowing process would result in a 88% yield, but that almost doesn’t exist in the industry. So, we’re still working on a solution for this portion of the process.

We heated the beans and stone grinder in advance, at the suggestion of some local chocolate-makers, and left the chocolate refining & conching for 24 hours in the wonder grinder this time. The result was beautifully dark (70% again) rich chocolate.

infrared thermometer

Once again, we struggled with the tempering process, though this time we had some extra help in the form of an infrared thermometer as well as a food thermometer. Our first attempt at tempering did not pass the paper test, so we left it overnight and remelted the next day to try again. The second attempt wasn’t perfect, either, but we think it was closer that it has been in the past. There’s still some bloom on some of the bars, but the largest one is beautifully smooth and shiny!

Siriana chocolateSiriana chocolate flakes

The result, 813 grams of delicious Siriana chocolate. Richard’s new favorite part are the flakes or shards that come off the tempering table when we’re done. And I’m actually enjoying our ice cube tray molds, even more than the official bar molds we bought online!

Thank you, Piper!

Why does supply chain matter?

For my loyal followers who received a draft of this post in your emails on Thursday, I apologize – that was not the final version. WordPress glitch! Here’s the official final post:

That shirt you’re wearing right now – do you know which country the fibers came from, where they were processed into cloth, or who stitched them together before arriving at your favorite clothing store? Do you know how much the farmer receives for the cotton he grows, what impact the transportation of the materials and then the finished product had on the environment, or whether the entire system is sustainable?

I don’t mean to make you feel guilty and I certainly am not an expert on clothing sourcing. That said, I do think it’s worth considering the path our stuff takes before it arrives on our doorstep, on our skin, or in our mouth. And I wouldn’t even consider mine a new or radical point of view. The Story of Stuff came out more than 5 years ago and the story translates to food through documentaries like Food, Inc., FRESH, and Forks over Knives, as well as the many masterpieces of Michael Pollan.

“How does this relate to your chocolate?” you might ask. Fair question. This question goes to the name I’ve given this website – Root Chocolate. That name was meant to bring to mind two roots: the simplified process of making chocolate from its core ingredients, and the idea that chocolate doesn’t arrive in this world as a whole. It touches many lives, environments, and even countries along the way as it transforms from Theobroma cacao to the bar you bring home. In fact, the documentary, Black Gold brings the supply chain issue to the coffee fields that often sit adjacent to the cocoa farms we’ll discuss in future posts. And as part of my personal mission, I intend to bring awareness to chocolate-lovers everywhere about the path that the components of your chocolate take before they end up following a sip of wine down your throat after dinner. Just on Friday the S.F. Gate published an article on the implications of slave trade on cocoa beans!

There will be many articles to come on the process of farming the cacao pods, fermenting and drying the beans, shipping them to a manufacturer (no matter how small or large scale), and then the process of processing the beans into an edible chocolate creation. Supply chain has environmental, socio-economic, and systemic implications. Today, though, I want to focus on my personal connection to supply chain, which falls mostly into the socio-economic realm.

In college, I spent a semester in Brazil with the School for International Training, which turned into a much more than a typical study abroad experience for me. My focus of the semester was to conduct independent research on my topic of choice – contemporary slavery. It is a difficult concept to grasp that slaves still exist when we are taught as early as elementary school that the United States of America abolished slavery in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment. Worldwide, slavery lasted slightly longer, and Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to terminate the classic system of slavery with the Áurea Law in 1888.

brasilMaranhao

However, I spent the fall of 2006 in Açailândia, Maranhão in the Northeast of Brazil, where I conducted field research consisting of observations and interviews with former slaves and those struggling to help them, which illuminated the system of exploitation, a system that I once believed had died out long before I was born. The memories that still ring clearest in my mind from that semester are the interviews I held with former slaves, who had worked in coal fields and lumber yards without pay. This subject consumed me for the next year and a half and led me to publish a book on my findings, Contemporary Slavery in the Northeast of Brazil: The Social and Economic Manifestations of Coloniality. You can read the initial (unpolished) report I produced at the end of my semester here.

Now, as a result of my experience on the ground with individuals exploited at the bottom of the supply chain, I pay special attention to the sources of my stuff and my food. It’s not easy, but those companies with transparent supply chains are the ones with less to hide. Resources are now available that show exactly that:

We may not be able to trace the origin of every product in our lives, but it’s worth a try. So, let’s all do our part to source our food and stuff responsibly and pay attention to where it’s coming from, cocoa beans included!

Around the world

We quickly realized that not all cocoa beans are created equal. A bad batch of beans from a small market in San Francisco set us straight. Our chocolate turned out bitter and left our mouth feeling dry. We realized that, like coffee, the origin of the beans plays an important part in the flavor of the chocolate. We’ve since learned much more about the importance of the origin, growing environment, and genetics of the cocoa beans.

In the meantime, we decided to try sourcing guaranteed high quality beans. We did some research and discovered Chocolate Alchemy, an incredibly informative website run by John Nanci in Oregon, who is an expert on all things homemade chocolate. His posts and suggestions have taught us a lot about making chocolate at home! We discovered that he also sells cocoa beans. I ordered a sampler pack, requesting beans from Latin America, and was pleased to received four bags of beans within about a week!

  • Dominican Republic, Conacado Co-op Organic, Fair Trade, 2013
  • Nicaragua, Trinitario, Certified Organic, 2012
  • Peru, Criollo, Fair Trade, Organic Certified
  • Bolivia, Criollo/Trinitario, Certified Organic, 2012-2013

These varieties revolutionized our chocolate-making process! We made four different batches as well as one of the beans from San Francisco and invited friends over to taste them. There was no grant winner of the night. In fact, the Peruvian chocolate tied with the one we made from the San Francisco market for first place, with Bolivia and Nicaragua close behind. Here are their thoughts:

  • Dominican Republic
    • very fruity
    • a little like a deep halavah
    • too fruity for me
    • tastes like Nestle Tollhouse
    • super fruity, not my favorite
    • cherries
    • thicker
    • Chocolate Alchemist description: A soft earthy flavor with full roasting. Malt, biscuit and marmalade aromas
  • Nicaragua
    • mellow, a little bitter
    • bitter taste, sets on late. great!
    • love
    • ok but not great
    • third favorite
    • deep, buttery, rich, decadent
    • I like this!
    • Chocolate Alchemist description: Nuts, medjool dates, molasses and interesting tobacco
  • Peru
    • fudgy, sandy, a little gross
    • Awesome! Great deep flavor, not too bitter
    • second favorite
    • love the taste, sandy texture
    • tastes the most basic with a little zestiness
    • good start, bad finish
    • Chocolate Alchemist description: A light balanced cocoa bean with notes of soft tropical fruits and nuts… don’t over roast
  • Bolivia
    • a little soapy, coconut butter?
    • lighter and sweeter
    • didn’t love the base flavor
    • didn’t like
    • tasted more like butter than chocolate
    • smoky
    • paint
    • Chocolate Alchemist description: Toffee, blueberry and butter. What chocolate should taste like.
  • San Francisco market
    • getting a bit of coffee flavor. reminds me of a brownie
    • too bitter
    • favorite
    • quite good but bitter
    • straight forward, has the least deviance from traditional dark chocolate
    • coffee

I’ll go more into the importance of sourcing beans directly from farmers in another post, but I’m very glad we were able to taste this variety of chocolates from such different sources. I’m also grateful we stumbled across the Chocolate Alchemist and his expertise on the subject!

Making chocolate for the first time

Earlier this year, Richard and I made chocolate from scratch for the first time. At the time, we had no idea that this process would become an integral part of our lives. At the time, we were pretending to be scientists with a bag of cocoa beans.

Allow me to start from the beginning. Over July 4th weekend in 2013, Richard and I drove from home in the San Francisco Bay Area, down to Los Angeles to visit with friends. One of our first stops in the city of angels was the Grand Central Market, where we began the search for homemade mole. Ever since my summer abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, with Adelante Abroad, I’ve been a huge fan of mole, the traditional southern Mexican chocolaty-chili sauce, originating in Puebla. And it’s just not the same when it comes in a jar from the grocery store. What better place to find it than a mostly Latino market?

I loved chatting with the women running the stands in the market about where mole came from and its journey to the US. As you may experience if you have learned a second language, anything is more fun when discussed in that language. For me, that language is Spanish. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking about my one of my favorite foods or paint drying, I enjoy the challenge of identifying the right words and grammar to communicate.

Anyway, we found a wide range of moles, each one more delicious than the one before. Even more exciting than the mole, and more relevant to the rest of this blog, were the cocoa beans we discovered at the same stall. The small brown beans looked like smooth, rounded almonds, but smelled like musky chocolate. With a surge of adventurousness and just the right mix of uncertainty and challenge, we picked up a kilo of the beans and brought them back to the Bay Area with us.

After watching a few how-to videos, including our favorite which included such scientific precision we felt totally confident making an attempt ourselves, we got started with our first chocolate creation. I’ll go into the details of how to make chocolate at home in another post, but let’s just say that it was so much easier than we expected! Granted, our result didn’t taste like the perfection found in bars made from fine flavor chocolate gurus like Tcho, Guittard, or Dandelion Chocolate. Ours was more grainy, bitter, and didn’t quite snap into pieces like professionally-made chocolate. That said, our homemade chocolate tasted somewhat like what we had previously known as chocolate!

Our revelation was complete when friends tasted our first batch and actually liked it. Now, we think they may have been exaggerating their affinity for our “interesting” chocolate, since they’ve since informed us of how much our chocolate has improved since that first batch, but as entrepreneurs with our inflated sense of optimism and self-efficacy, we believed their initial enthusiasm. And that has propelled us forward.

Now, we make chocolate multiple times a week and are constantly improving our recipe, strategy, and sources. Keep reading to learn about our new ideas, our failures, and our adventures into the roots of the chocolate – the beans, the farmers, and the process.

I promise to be open and honest as we learn, fail, and try again. And I promise to share our intentions, struggles, and successes. Join us on our chocolate journey, taking us back to the roots of chocolate, where the beans, the farmers, and every step of the process matters. To stay up to date, follow us through WordPress, let us know what you think by commenting on a post, or send us a note on our Contact page.