Category Archives: Cacao production

Ebola and chocolate: a recipe for disaster?

Choice items from a local greenmarket include Castronovo Chocolate's latest bars

Choice items from a local greenmarket include Castronovo Chocolate’s latest bars

As if there weren’t already enough threats to the world’s chocolate supply, there could be one more: the Ebola virus.

Politico published an article last week detailing how the disease could affect the upcoming harvest. With borders shutting down between those African nations that have yet to experience an outbreak, and those with a massive problem, workers will not be able to move from place to place to harvest beans. Ghana and Ivory Coast, two of the world’s top cacao-producing nations, get their workers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – three nations experiencing the worst of the Ebola crisis. While the cacao beans mean money, Ebola means death, and stopping the spread of the disease has meant taking the drastic measure of closing national borders.

What does this mean to the chocolate-consuming public? Higher prices, of course. But the industry is responding with monetary donations from members of the World Cocoa Foundation to get medical aid to those countries fighting to stop the spread of Ebola. Chocolate makers with processing plants in Africa are also training their workers on how to avoid getting sick in the first place, and hoping that an educated workforce will be a healthy workforce.

But this isn’t just about chocolate. The fear, superstition and lack of sanitation that is helping to spread Ebola is also fueling the failure of other food crops as well. A sick population cannot farm anything, let alone cacao beans. That could mean starvation on top of disease. And that could make the chocolate shortage seem minor by comparison.


A few to review:

Castronovo Chocolate, a bronze medal winner at the International Chocolate Awards this weekend, has two new bars: Nicaragua Dark Milk with Fleur de Sel (60% Trinitario Cacao) and a White Chocolate with Lemon Oil and Lemon Sea Salt. The Dark Milk tastes darker than 60%, but not in a bitter way. The salt tone is prominent, but neither overwhelming nor gritty. I admit to a prejudice against white chocolate on principle, but theirs is a pleasant surprise. There’s not much sweetness, and more of a tangy lemon peel effect to the bar. The salt is much farther in the background in this bar, and the overall taste is like a small shot of lemon meringue pie without the goopy, sticky mess.

Varlhona Jivara 40%: buttery, milky and smooth, this is yet another reason why this manufacturer’s product should be on everyone’s taste test list.

Mast Brothers 73% Dark Chocolate with Almonds: A thin bar with big, chunky almonds. Woodsy and crunchy with a sharp citrus aftertaste.

Bodrato Dark 64%: The first of the two dozen bars I purchased on a recent trip to Chicago. It’s a show-off, packaged in clear wrapping. On the sweet side, with plum and raisin overtones. Very good eating, with good snap and shine.


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Chocolate Prices, Demand Rise; What’s Your Solution?

Will the quality chocolate fade away, or just become part of the good life for a very few?

Will the quality chocolate fade away, or just become part of the good life for a very few?

A recent article in the New York Times sounded the alarm once again: we like our fine chocolate, and we are paying the price.

Cacao and chocolate prices are expected to rise dramatically this year. In the U.S., consumers can expect to see a 45 percent increase, British consumers will likely see a 25 percent increase

Part of the problem is sheer demand, especially for dark chocolate. Over the years, the proliferation of better-quality chocolate has sensitized our tastes, if not our wallets, to the idea that having the best is worth a little more money, because it takes less consumption to really enjoy fine chocolate. And of course, there is the health data on why a little dark chocolate a day helps keep the health blues away. Emerging markets in China and India, where chocolate consumption has typically been among the lowest in the world, are bringing pressure to chocolate makers already stressed by smaller supplies due to poor weather conditions and a lack of needed investment in cacao-growing nations, which exist in a finite number within just ten degrees of the Equator.

And the making of fine chocolate is an ever-changing art. Creators cannot offer the same truffles and pralines year after year. New flavors must be brought into play, with the understanding that each market has its preferences and tastes. Additional ingredients cost money; small-batch chocolates are already expensive to produce, and no chocolate maker worthy of the artisan label is going to use anything but the finest fruits, nuts, alcohol bases, flowers, spices, coffee, tea and herbs.

What do we do? Buy now and hoard? Consume less? Buy bars and specialties when you travel, at their source, and bring them home? Personally, I’ve done all of the above. Then again, I paid about US$ 45 for two bars of Bonnat from a local shop that stocks French specialty foods. There is always that fourth option: spending the money and doing without something else.


And speaking of recent buys:

Camino Fair Trade 70%: Swiss-made, kosher and organic. Also very chewy, tangy-citrus to the point of tropical in flavor. And while the snap and shine aren’t especially good, at least the classic organic metallic flavor is missing.

Soma Black Science Equator 67%: Buttery, vanilla, dairy. Not bittersweet, but not remotely like any milk chocolate you’ve ever had. I’ve said this before with other bars from the artisan Canadian company: I’d happily go back to Toronto for more of everything they make.


Cacao In Space And A Taste of Toronto

The antique grinding wheel at Soma Chocolate in Toronto.

The antique grinding wheel at Soma Chocolate in Toronto.

Have you heard the one about the chocolate bar hitching a ride to the moon?

OK, it’s not going quite that far. But just to show you that even the very best must be enjoyed in the very farthest reaches of the known and populated universe, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have contracted with NASA to restock the International Space Station with a package of treats put together by Douglas Hurley, the husband of one of the space station’s residents, Karen Nyberg. That package will include chocolate. This is the maiden voyage for Orbital Sciences; let’s hope the company keeps up the good work. No word on the brand of chocolate being delivered, but when you are far from home and choices, is it true that any chocolate is good chocolate?

And from my latest tastings: Toronto’s version of sin in a civilized place: Soma Chocolate. Soma has two locations in the city, and to walk into the Distillery District location, and observe the antique grinding wheels at work, watch the tempering and dipping and forming of bars, pralines and truffles is to observe expertise meeting exquisite and both of them having a damned good time. With flavoring elements ranging from Douglas fir and bergamot to whiskey and Poprocks, you will enjoy buying, trying and following them on Facebook to see what’s coming out next.

Here are my thoughts on two of the six bars I bought:

Soma Black Science 70% Criollo: A hint of both raisin and coffee in this slightly bitter bar. A square or two is enough to satisfy; it has great balance, and it’s very smooth.

Black Science 70% Trinidad: The same percentage as the Criollo, but smokier, with more of a citrus finish. This bar is easier eating; you could go through half of it easily and not feel overwhelmed.


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Can High Technology and High Purpose Make Good Chocolate?

Part of the menu at the TCHO tasting room in S...

Part of the menu at the TCHO tasting room in San Francisco, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Corby Kummer wrote a fascinating article about chocolate science in last week’s MIT Technology Review. The piece discusses how TCHO, an American chocolate maker, is working with small cacao farmers to not only produce high quality batches of beans, but to convert those beans to chocolate in on-site “sample labs” so that the farmers can actually taste their own product; something that rarely happens in the poor countries where most cacao is grown. TCHO provides the equipment to stock these labs, from roasters to computer software, so farmers can produce, taste and share notes with other growers worldwide.


Kummer goes on to explain that TCHO is taking the process further by revolutionizing the way they label their finished products.No more complicated percentages, varietal labeling or terroir terminology that makes a square of chocolate sound more like an expensive wine. TCHO is using “normal” words, like “bright,” “fruity” and “floral” to describe their chocolates. And they are selling them at “normal” places, like Starbucks and Whole Foods, rather than gourmet shops. It’s boutique on a big scale; it’s Third World growers getting First-World technology – and then turning it around to help each other. And of course, TCHO benefits: their chocolate is Fair Trade, organic and more important, they get exactly what they want by using these labs: chocolate their way, with instant feedback from growers who can let them know about local weather and soil conditions, and gain a better understanding of why cacao beans taste different, even when harvested from the same plantation.




And speaking of combinations, I have three reviews for you: one from my Toronto stash and two local (to me) bars:


Alter Eco Dark 47% Organic Fair Trade: This bar is literally all over the place. Peruvian beans, processed in Switzerland and distributed by a company based in San Francisco. But the important thing: no metallic tang so common in organic bars. It’s actually quite smooth, creamy and milky.


And from the Castronovos: Nicaragua 72% and Batch 150 Blend 70% Criollo: Yes, they’ve done it again. I wondered if and when Denise and Jim would run out of subtlety and nuance in their bars. They haven’t with either of these. The Nicaragua has a slightly fruity undertone, but it’s the nuttiness that stands out. The label promises walnuts, and the flavor is so dense, you think you’re going to bite down on shells. The Batch 150 is a mix of Peruvian and Venezuelan beans with a more pronounced berry flavor and tang. The chocolate flavor in both bars is deep and balanced.





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What’s New and Trending in Chocolate

I admit I’m not a regular reader of Confectionary News. The international publication, part of the William Reed Business Media group and based in the United Kingdom, covers the world of sweets and candy worldwide on a daily basis, and much of their content is technically beyond my understanding or outside my relatively localized interests. But a recent article on up-and-coming trends in chocolate caught my attention.

Lu Anne Williams of Innova Market Insights recently presented a seminar on what’s next for chocolate consumers of the world. Some of it will sound familiar to you, but some of it will be new:

  • “Pure” is the new “natural,” with shorter lists of ingredients (I’ve got a chocolate review to follow that fits this perfectly).
  • “Green” goes with chocolate, meaning that Fair Trade, organic and Rainforest Alliance certifications will become more sought-after, for both ethical and economic reasons.
  • Location matters, not just in terms of country of cacao origin, but which specific plantation.
  • We may be getting older, but we still want our chocolate: as the senior population booms, chocolate manufacturers are paying attention to the wants and needs of the older consumers, in terms of fat, calories and nutritional value of their product.
  • Antioxidants any tasty way we can: dark chocolate, which contains a high level of antioxidants, is seen more and more as a viable part of a healthy diet, particularly for women seeking any means possible to stay young-looking.
  • Want a little protein with your chocolate: as the worldwide need for protein grows with the populations, chocolate makers are looking for new ways to use their products: in bars, cereals and other combinations.

There is likely no end to the way you can use and combine chocolate with other foods; even the choco-purists among us will usually concede to enjoying a good trail mix with dark chocolate, freshly roasted nuts and good-quality dried fruit.

I’m happy to say that my trip to New York last year proved that there are plenty of niche manufacturers, happy to make tiny batches of bars in a few varieties and sell them in limited quantities. I’m chasing down a few of those now; in the meantime, here’s two more reviews from my stash:

  • República del Cacao 75% Los Rios Single Origin: definitely a bar to savor, with citrus and floral notes from the start, and sweet notes on the end. It’s a rich bar that you can enjoy eating all of, but not at one sitting. That would spoil the fun.
  • Patric Madagascar 75%: an American-made bar, (the company is based in Columbia, MO), this bar isn’t divided into squares. Rather, it’s a single pour with owner Patric McClure’s name cut into it. A work of art to look at and to eat. This is the epitome of simple in its ingredients (cacao, cane sugar and cocoa butter), yet complex in taste. Winy, floral, slightly nutty. I wish Patric was in my kitchen, making these bars for me every day.

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Melting Icebergs and Disappearing Chocolate: Climate Change Unleashed

As if the loss of the polar ice caps, the change in the level of the seas and wilder weather wasn’t enough, there’s a new reason to fear climate change: there could be less chocolate in the world.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture released a report several months ago predicting that the cocoa-growing regions of the world will change for the worse by the year 2050 if climate change continues unchecked.

The problem, according to the report, is that cocoa needs very specific temperature and altitude requirements for optimal growth. The increase in air temperatures at lower altitudes will mean farmers will have to compensate by moving to higher and cooler places to grow the same product. Some will be able to do that, but the fear is that many will simply remain where their ancestral roots are and choose to grow other crops.

Peter Gleick, CEO of the Pacific Institute and a MacArthur Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, wrote a sort-of serious letter addressed to those in climate change denial. He pointed out that no crop can take the place of chocolate, and if all the science presented thus far could not convince them that the world was in for a catastrophic weather shake-upl, then the loss of chocolate should certainly be a cocoa clarion call to action. 

What’s the upshot of all this? Do we stop driving, cease using aerosol spray cans, recycle every bit of plastic, paper and glass and enact a massive shutdown of major manufacturing, all in an effort to save the beans? Even the true choco-fanatics would say none of this is likely. But many millions of us each doing a little more could make a difference in slowing climate change. Check out these sites to learn more about saving the planet and keeping the cocoa: The  , The Nature Conservancy, Reuters Environmental Forum  and The World Wildlife Fund.


And while you work on saving the environment, here are some of the chocolates I bought on my NYC trip:

  • La Maison du Chocolat Pariguan Noir Fleuri et Acidulé: I stopped in this branch of the fabled chocolate chain on a rainy day during our trip. The store’s chocolate-brown interior is rich, hushed and perfect for coffee and dessert, and the staff is very well-versed in all their products, and quite generous with samples. This is a thick, bitter bar with both the floral and citrus notes of the name, but you don’t get those right away. This is not a bar you can eat more than a bite or two of at a time, but you really don’t need to; a little goes a long way.
  • Dolfin Noir 70%: It’s good to be Belgian, and while I found this bar to be a little on the sugary/grainy side, I admit I still enjoyed it.
  • Chocolat Bonnat Hacienda el Rosario “Venezuela”: Smooth, bitter, tangy and breaks apart into tiny squares; a good thing. This is a bar you could keep eating, if not for the ability to break off a little bit at a time.

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Bill Gates: Chocoholic – Who Knew?

Well, he could be.

In a link to his annual letter posted on the World Cocoa Foundation’s website, Gates discusses the worst of bad situations: agriculture in poor countries that cannot sustain life and health. He discusses the one billion people, many of them farmers, living on the brink of starvation, and the fact that tight budgets around the world may leave many of these people to live – and die – in these conditions.

Gates is not completely pessimistic. He acknowledges the strides made in cutting extreme poverty over the years, and cites the ground-level heroes, out in the fields, labs and classrooms, working in the worst conditions to ensure a turnaround. He understands that global poverty was worse when he was young, and changes in farming methods, new seed varieties, new drugs and vaccines and better health care have not only changed the standards of living worldwide, they have saved many lives.

Gates’ goal is to have the readers of his letter make a simple choice: continue to support the poorest people and help them gain self-sufficiency, because everyone benefits. Gates also wants to make agricultural innovation and research a priority. A majority of the world’s population must spend so much time gathering food, and so many poor families either depend completely on food they grow and sell, or spend a great percentage of their income buying food, that moving new agricultural ideas forward has to be important.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation annual letter is lengthy, with photos, charts and statistics, but it is quite readable. The letter discusses other aspects of the Foundation and its work with world governments in schools, public health care and family planning. It is more compelling storytelling than dull numerical reporting, as it introduces you to individuals the Gateses met in their travels. And it is a call to action for everyone, not just the billionaires with bucks to leave behind. Support large and small matters, just like farmers large and small matter. And where chocolate is concerned, many of the world’s cacao farmers are located in the very areas Gates’ foundation is assisting.

So maybe Bill and Melinda Gates aren’t chocoholics after all. But they’re certainly trying to help those of us who are.

And if you need some help with chocolate choices, I have a few more:

  • Wawel 90%: No joke, you can actually eat this Polish-made bar and enjoy it. It’s not as bitter as you would imagine; it has a very woody, mossy background. I never tried baking with it, in place of unsweetened chocolate, but I would certainly consider it.
  • Elite Bittersweet: A bar from Israel, it had no cocoa percentage listed, but it was on the sweeter side. Also very fruity and somewhat tangy.
  • Amano Chuao 70% Reserve Dark: It’s from Utah. I had no idea there was chocolate made in Utah, and I would consider traveling there if I had to in order to get more of this bar. Perfect sweet versus bitter balance, slightly mossy, and no sugar crunch at all.  


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