Sunday, 18 March 2012

Bean-to-Bar: An Interview with a Caribbean Organic Chocolate-Maker

A Selection of Caribeans Chocolates at the Feria Verde, Costa Rica

I have recently been attending the weekly Feria Verde Farmer’s Market (a.k.a. Green Market) in San José, Costa Rica. This market is full of farmers selling their agrochemical-free fruits. The market also provides a space for people who process raw food materials and sell unique food products. One of these products is chocolate. 

My love for chocolate inspired me to talk with Paul Johnson, who runs a business - Caribeans - that brings locally-sourced, organic, and fair-trade chocolate from his farm in the Caribbean to San José. In fact, Paul not only travels from his farm to bring us chocolate, but he travels all over the country working with Indigenous peoples to obtain a chocolate bar's main ingredient, cacao beans. But, instead of hearing it all from me, I’ll let Paul tell you about these experiences through our brief Q & A (all quotations are Paul's).

1) Many of us who are not in the chocolate business have little to no idea where the cacao beans in our chocolate come from. Your business is unique in that you are one of only a few bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Could you explain what it means when chocolate is produced from bean-to-bar?

"Caribeans gets the cocoa bean directly from the local producers who have prepared the beans by fermenting and drying them. Once the beans are in the “chocolate creation lab” we process them from the bean to the chocolate bar all in one location." 

Paul also explained that chocolate-makers fall into two or three categories: 1) bean-to-bar, 2) tree-to-bar, and 3) chocolatier (someone who makes chocolate bars from chocolate that has already been processed). Caribeans is both bean-to-bar as well as tree-to-bar.

A Cacao Tree in the Costa Rican Caribbean

A Cacao Fruit (the cacao beans are found inside the fruit)

2) When I first saw your chocolate at the market, I noticed that on each individual chocolate bar you include the names of the towns where the chocolate beans came from. For example, I tried chocolate from two Indigenous communities, one Ngöbe and one Bribri. Could you elaborate on why having the names of these communities on your chocolate is important?

Paul discussed that providing the consumer with the names of the chocolate sources directly on the product is consistent with the Caribeans fair-trade production philosophy

On a personal note, knowing which communities are involved in organic production was what drew my attention to Paul's chocolate; eating chocolate became more of a cultural experience and I began to appreciate just how much work goes into making such a specialty product. 

Paul shared some other important observations, observations that would be impossible without establishing direct relationships with Indigenous cacao producers. 

As Paul mentioned, "Caribeans has noticed a couple of important things in the cacao and chocolate markets. First we have seen that many cacao producers do not know how to ferment or dry their beans and give away value when they sell the beans as wet raw fruit. As a result of learning this we have started to teach a few producers how to properly ferment and dry their beans and guarantee the best price to the growers if they use our recommendations. 

Another thing we have noticed is that most producers have never tasted chocolate made from their cacao. Because we keep their cacao separate from any other farms or areas, we are able to make chocolate from very narrow origins. This is treating chocolate much more like wine than candy. Tour guests can taste chocolate from several farms and experience the incredible range of flavors that only cacao and sugar produce."

Notice the Names of the Towns where your Chocolate Comes From (Ngöbe and Kachabri)

3) I tried two dark chocolate bars (Ngöbe and Kachabri) made by Caribeans and although they had the same ingredients their flavours were quite different. Was this just me? Or, like coffee beans, does the flavour of the chocolate bean change with location and cacao farming techniques?

Paul shared that many factors can affect the end flavor of chocolate, including 1) the cacao growing conditions, 2) the variety of the cacao plant, and 3) the cacao harvesting, fermenting, and drying methods. Paul explained that most of these factors play a role in cacao flavour before the chocolate-maker even gets to look at the beans.   

Interestingly, Paul mentioned that, "...since Caribeans makes chocolate right here in Costa Rica we can often influence the flavor of the chocolate earlier than our fellow chocolate makers in North America or Europe. We hope that through this close contact and the chocolate feedback, we will make some of the best chocolate ever made."

Lastly, I asked Paul if he eats only organic, fair-trade chocolate and if he would share any similar life choices. 

Paul laughed and told me that when it comes to chocolate, he almost only eats what he makes himself. He stressed that fair trade, direct trade, locally produced, and organic are all on his list of values before making a purchase. He explained that chocolate is one way he can make a difference and promote more ethical production and consumption in his area. 

Readers, please feel free to share your experiences with locally-sourced, organic, and/or fair-trade chocolate here on the blog; if you have any questions, please post them and I'll see if myself or Paul can get you an answer.

Thank you again to Paul. I invite you to learn more about Paul's chocolate-making on his site or with him in person at Caribeans!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Want to make sure the seafood you eat is sustainable but don’t know how to get the information you need to do so? You just have to remember two questions: "Where did the fish come from?" and "How was it harvested?"

I was recently inspired by a reader’s comment on a blog on sustainable fishing. This reader brought my attention to a Vancouver Chef, Rob Clark, who takes cooking sustainably seriously. If you are interested, you can hear him talk more about his philosophy at this link. I appreciated Rob’s tips on eating sustainably when dining out. First, Rob recommends carrying your portable SeaChoice Seafood Guide (or similar guide in your region) to determine which menu items are ocean-friendly. And, to make the best use of this guide, it is important to ask your server two simple questions: "Where did the fish come from?" and "How was it harvested?"

Simple enough in theory, but most of us may need a little encouraging to ask these questions when we are eating out with friends, on a date, or on a business lunch. So, what can we do to ensure that these questions become second nature? It helps to have chefs like Rob speaking out to remind us why the answers are important. The rest, I’m convinced, will come with a little practice. I still remember how long it took before I reliably remembered to separate garbage into recyclable units rather than throwing it all into the same bin. Twenty years ago, there were many people tossing their garbage directly onto the streets – how many of us would think about doing that now?

The more we repeat the two important questions in restaurants, at the supermarket, or even at the fishing dock, the more they will become part of our daily routines. It may also put a little more pressure on vendors to offer sustainable seafood options. In Rob’s questions, you could even replace the word “fish” with “chicken”, “eggs”, or the vegetable of your choice. In my experience, some vendors have an answer ready and others will be confused by your questions. Either way, in the process, you’ll quickly discover more about your food and food producers, and you will likely educate others along the way.