Earlier this month we posted part one of my interview with Carla D. Martin, “Professor of Chocolate” and Lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. In part one we talked about the meaning of “craft chocolate” in North America, both to the producer and the consumer. In this post I asked Carla to talk about what I consider to be two of the most interesting aspects of food production — terroir and cost.
(Rob) Let’s talk about chocolate terroir – can you really taste a place?
(Carla) Definitely. There’s a lot of useful debate around the concept of terroir in chocolate – e.g. are you tasting genetics or place? – that will likely push these concepts further over the next several years as research into heirloom cacao improves. To put it simply, there are many complicating variables – climate, soil type, bean variety, post-harvest conditions, chocolate manufacturing, etc. – that play into the expression of flavor from a variety of cacao of a certain origin. Right now, I would recommend explore this with some of the bars made from cacao from the Akesson farm in Madagascar, such as the Dick Taylor, Patric, Ritual, and Rogue selections marked “Madagascar” or “Sambirano.” Another great cacao to try is from Vicente Norero’s farm in Ecuador, comparing the taste of bars marked “Balao” or “Camino Verde”. These bars are all made from a mix of varieties of high quality cacao grown on the same farms, and will allow you to explore the different expressions of cacao from the Sambirano Valley of Madagascar – fruity plums, berries, jam, citrus, raisins – and of the Balao region of Ecuador – floral, green, herbal, nutty, woody. If you’re able to get your hands on one of Toronto-based Soma Chocolate’s Little Big Man bars, you can even try the two origins blended together – it’s bold and punchy and fun. And of course you can experiment with lots of other types of tastings to get to better know chocolate and the concept of terroir.
(Rob) You briefly mentioned fair trade last time, what about the costs of production globally? Some of these craft chocolate bars are definitely on the pricier side, can you talk a little bit about cacao pricing and the global production process, both for farmers and for chocolatiers?
(Carla) In teaching about chocolate, I’ve encountered a lot of mixed reactions to the comparatively higher costs of craft chocolate. I would say that, if anything, when we consider issues of labor rights and ethics, chocolate as we know it is considerably underpriced. By the end of the semester studying chocolate, the majority of my students agree that something’s gotta give, and we simply have to adjust to paying more for cacao and chocolate.
Some quick facts about all of this: Of those who profit from the cacao-chocolate supply chain, farmers typically get the smallest percentage, roughly 3-6% of the pie depending on how you measure it. This is really low and does not adequately compensate farmers for their work on such a labor intensive crop. The majority of cocoa farmers operate small scale farms and exist in a fragile economic state. This is especially true of farmers in West Africa, where approximately 75% of the world’s cacao is currently grown. Poverty in cacao production disproportionately affects women and children – many of whom are living well below the poverty threshold. Cocoa is sold as a commodity, priced by weight. Farmers are not compensated for their labor, but for their crop yield, and a combination of the lack of access to education and funds to invest in proper farming techniques and the effects of plant disease and climate change limit farmers’ ability to increase production. Big Chocolate’s industry solutions are presently focused on what they dub “sustainability” – a euphemism for profitability through increased yields – as ways to increase farmer livelihoods and encourage young people, who are quitting farming out of common sense self-preservation, to continue the tradition. Fair trade structures are limited in their ability to alter the course of this system, though they were never designed to operate alone, as they often are forced to do. Direct trade, like that currently practiced by Taza Chocolate, has much promise, but as the people there readily explain, it is intensely complex and still small in scope. Vertically integrated cacao-chocolate production, where chocolate is produced in the country of cacao origin, as seen in companies like El Rey, Madre, Lonohana, Claudio Corallo, and Madécasse, also deserves greater support and attention.
I like to tell my students that the market is saturated with impulse-buy chocolate products that are cheap because they can be, because we designed them to be that way. These products contain little chocolate to begin with, their ingredients and manufacturing benefit from economies of scale, and they are part of a legacy of the exploitation and devaluation of labor and unequal post-colonial trade agreements. Suffice it to say that cacao pricing as it exists today has far too little to do with ethics and quality and far too much to do with making a buck for the already-wealthy.
The North American craft chocolate market, too, is part of this legacy, as we all are, but it is much too small to significantly alter the overall state of the industry at present. Nevertheless, craft chocolate is a part of the incremental change necessary toward bettering this system.
And, to bring it all back to the quality of the products, consider the case of the Rogue Chocolatier Porcelana 80% bar. This is a truly unique chocolate bar, made from rare, high quality, expensive Venezuelan cacao – outlandishly costly per ton when compared to the commodity price of cacao, but outlandishly special, too. According to those who have followed chocolate much longer than I have, there was one other 80% Porcelana bar in the past 20 years or so, from Italy’s Domori. So this is almost certainly a one-time bar; try it now or forever hold your peace. Formaggio Kitchen retails this bar for $18.95; it is one of the priciest on the market. But this is an exceptional chocolate bar that you can savor over the course of a week or even longer if you want to. You can stock up on it and return to it time and again. I’ve got several in my stash and have enjoyed tasting its nutty, tahini-like quality then being surprised by its creamy, peachy notes on numerous occasions already. Giving this bar as a gift and seeing a friend’s face light up at the experience is a blast. If this were a bottle of wine with a similar story behind it, what would it go for? $80 dollars? $180 dollars? $1800 dollars? Who knows, but the point is that there are many reasons a Rogue Porcelana bar should cost a lot more than a Hershey’s Special Dark, currently going for $2.19 at CVS.
Stay tuned for part three of my interview with Carla D. Martin! In the meantime, you can catch up on part one, stay up-to-date on the latest chocolate-world happenings on Carla’s blog, and follow new updates to our chocolate selection with our newsletters.
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the blog manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.