Before anyone even tasted it, there was considerable buzz surrounding the release of the limited edition Good & Evil chocolate bar this fall from Christopher Curtin’s Éclat Chocolate. Much of this was because Curtin’s two partners in the project were globetrotting culinary TV star Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert, owner of the renowned Le Bernardin in New York City. (The chocolate represents the “good” in food loved by Ripert, while bad-boy Bourdain embraces the “evil” of the nibs.)
But there was also buzz surrounding the price tag, which stunned many in the media: $18 for 2.6 ounces. $18?! For a chocolate bar? Even the well-heeled patrons of Ripert’s Le Bernadin had to have some sticker shock. After all, few, if any, bars on the market – even the fine flavor ones some of them might know — matched that price. Everyone from Time to the Philadelphia Enquirer to Eater.com posed some version of this question: Was this a case of marketing and paying for the names on the bar more than quality, craftsmanship, and flavor?
Those of us in the FCIA and at the HCP already knew the answer that the media soon arrived at too: Like the finest bottles of wine, this bar was worth it.
In this case the 72% cacao in Good & Evil came from some Pure Nacional cacao from Peru, a bean once thought to be extinct until re-discovered by one of the HCP founders, Dan Pearson. His story has been told before but to refresh your memory: In 2009, the USDA-ARS tested a sample of the pure white beans that Dan and his partner, Brian Horsley, had stumbled upon on the Fortunato Farm in the Marañón Canyon of Peru. Dr. Lyndel Meinhardt compared them to the existing genetic database and confirmed that the beans were Pure Nacional cacaoundefineda variety thought to have disappeared in 1919.
In January 2011, a New York Times food writer tasted Marañón’s chocolate and started writing a great review when she became as interested in his discovery as the chocolate. The result was the first national newspaper story to link flavor and genetics for consumers. Lyndel was quoted in the article explaining how Marañón’s white beans were genetic mutations that happen when trees are left undisturbed for hundreds of years. In April 2012, Ripert and Curtin traveled to the Marañón Canyon and hand-selected the best beans for the Good & Evil bar — no small feat that required two plane rides, some rough roads, and a car accident involving a local dog to make it to where the beans are grown and hand sorted….
That’s how the story of Good & Evil begins and continues on the bar’s wrapper and in videos with Bourdain and Ripert. For those of us in the fine flavor world, it is a familiar tale. But with Ripert and Bourdain telling it, the hope is not just that this bar will sell but that it will help sell more fine flavor bars to consumers willing to pay the price and are pay attention to something they just do not think about all that often: Chocolate grows on trees.
“We” in the FCIA all know we must savor the amazing cacaos we have and try to appreciate how precious they are, how very labor intensive it all is, and how difficult it is to make money for the farmer and even ourselves. We need more people to say, “This is worth it,” especially when the beans are such high quality and have been processed beautifully and fairly compensate the people responsible for growing and handling those beans long before the chocolate making begins. If Ripert and Bourdain’s celebrity enhances the star power of those beans and helps this happen for farmers, great!
Cheap chocolate should be an oxymoron for ALL creations from candy to Criollo, but most consumers flinch at expensive fine chocolate (even those that do not flinch at expensive fine wine). They think of it as candy. They do not see all the work being done from the ground up. Bars like Good & Evil help immensely in this regard. We need people to support the fine chocolate industry and vote with their taste buds. We don’t just want them to pay more — we want them to see the value in supporting artisan and traditional chocolate makers as they find new and direct ways to work with the farmers to make growing and manufacturing fine flavor cacao a financial success.
This is one of the goals of Good & Evil and the HCP.
THE HCP DESIGNATES NEW HEIRLOOM CACAOS
IN COSTA RICA & BELIZE
January 2015 – The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative (HCP) is delighted to announce that the cacao trees of Terciopelo, Coto Brus, Costa Rica and Maya Mountain Cacao Ltd. Farmer Network Villages of San Antonio, Santa Cruz, Santa Elena, and Pueblo Viejo in Belize, both provided by Daniel O’Doherty of Cacao Services, Inc. (the former with Jim Carouba and the Terciopelo Farmers), have been designated HEIRLOOM. They become, respectively, the sixth and seventh HCP Heirloom designations made since the 2014 inaugural Heirlooms and the first from Costa Rica and Belize. Heirloom cacao has previously been designated in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Hawaii.
The HCP’s International Tasting Panel loved the smooth, clean finish of the Costa Rican sample, the way the fruits persisted until the end, and the intensity of the chocolate flavor given the mild aroma and light color. The Panelists found the flavor of the liquor and chocolate made from the Belize beans to be dramatic: well balanced and smooth yet surprisingly complex with all the flavor notes maintaining their distinctiveness but not overpowering each other. Specific notes can be found on our Heirloom Designees page.
“Flavorless high-yielding trees are not the only option in the fight against the global degradation of cacao,” says Gary Guittard, President of the Guittard Chocolate Company. “Numerous specialty chocolate manufacturers and chocolatiers whose livelihood depends on fine-flavored cocoa have come together to work with local farmers on every continent to preserve heirloom cacao. That’s what the HCP supports.”
Click here for a PDF
About the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative (HCP)
The best chocolate in the world starts with the finest cacao but that cacao is poised for extinction. As the industry continues to replace fine flavor cacao trees with bland hybrids and clones, a world of boring monochromatic chocolate dominates. The HCP (www.finechocolateindustry.org/hcp) seeks to protect, preserve, and propagate the finest, richest, most complex forms in the chocolate universe for future generations. Launched by the FCIA in 2012, the HCP offers a new way to find these diamonds of cacao by connecting their flavor traits to their genetics, rewarding their growers, and working with world’s foremost flavor experts and geneticists to save Heirloom cacao from extinction.
A completely self-funded initiative, the HCP is not another certification or awards program. It is a not-for-profit collaboration between the FCIA and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS), and the HCP’s Heirloom designations are its first steps to realizing its mission:
Throughout its process, the HCP follows a strict set of protocols, all of which are publicly available in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. The HCP Lab at Guittard Chocolate, the oldest family-owned chocolate company in the US, blindly processes all submissions for an acclaimed international Tasting Panel of chocolate specialists. A detailed report is then provided to the applicant and the USDA/ARS performs a site visit and genetic analysis to both map the DNA of the trees and preserve them in the database for the future. Everything is provided to the growers who, with the support of the HCP, can use the designation to achieve better prices than they would growing ordinary or bulk cacao.
Taken together, the HCP is about three P’s in Pod: People, Planet, and Prosperity. It goes from gene-to-bar and unwraps the possibilities for the millions worldwide who believe that life without the very best chocolate is no life at all.
About the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA)
The FCIA (www.finechocolateindustry.org) was founded in 2007 by an international group of chocolate professionals who came together in support of the art of fine chocolate making. Recognizing the tremendous consumer interest and growth in the fine chocolate segment of the chocolate industry, the FCIA provides a collective voice of quality and innovation that promotes fine chocolate making practices from blossom to bonbon and bar. A non-profit organization, the FCIA supports the development and innovation of the fine chocolate industry and best practices through: Identifying industry standards for cacao growing, bar and confection production, and the use of quality ingredients; Communicating with consumers, the media, and legislators regarding issues in growing, production and consumption of fine chocolate; Educating chocolate professionals on fine chocolate best practices, ingredients and techniques.
Getting Started: How the Re-Discovery of Ancient Cocoa in Madagascar Became an Impetus for the HCP — And How We Got Those Samples in the First PlaceIn early October, Madécasse Chocolate Company announced to a packed house in New York City the results of the cacao tree samples taken in Madagascar by one of the company’s founders, Brett Beach–results which became an impetus for the founding of the HCP. And those results were surely dramatic enough to warrant a standing-room-only crowd: the first pure Ancient Criollo the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) had ever put in its database as well as genetically pure Amelonado and several trees in the Trinitario cluster. The findings ensure that these cacao trees–widely considered to produce legendary, fine flavor beans–can now be preserved and grown for future generations, benefiting farmers, the environment, and chocolate lovers alike. (Below and actual picture of one of the rare trees courtesy of Madécasse.)
The story of how those samples came to be collected opens the new book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate, from FCIA and HCP co-founder Pam Williams of Ecole Chocolat and Jim Eber, the HCP Director of Administration and Communication. They have allowed us to excerpt part of that opening below as this month’s feature article.
Excerpt from Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate by Pam Williams and Jim Eber (Wilmor Publishing, October 2012)
Twenty Pounds of Cocaine… That’s what the white powder on Brett Beach’s desk looked like: twenty pounds of cocaine. Of course, he knew it couldn’t be cocaine. Dr. Dapeng Zhang wouldn’t ask him to transport twenty pounds of cocaine halfway around the world to Madagascar . . . would he? Sure, Dr. Zhang had never said what Brett would pack and transport the samples in, but UPS, not the FBI, had delivered the package to his San Francisco office. It sure did look like cocaine, though. Then there was the matter of the six-by-nine-inch plastic bags for holding the powder and samples. Isn’t that how cocaine gets packaged? What would the customs officials in Africa think? Of course, cocaine usually travels into the United States…
“This is so bad,” Brett thought. “I’m going to show up in a country that had a coup for two years carrying twenty pounds of white powder I can’t completely explain.” In the movie version of his life, this would be the moment things go terribly, horribly wrong.
A call to Dr. Zhang explained the sampling procedure, but Brett still had plenty of time to think about what could happen: The trip to Madagascar from San Francisco is one of the longest trips in the world–a flight to Washington, DC, another flight to Dakar, a connecting flight to Johannesburg, and finally, a puddle jumper to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. Twenty-six hours of flying over two days–which Brett likens to a bad college hangover multiplied by five but without any of the fun.
And that’s just the first part of the trip. To get to the sampling area, Brett would then fly north to an island off of Madagascar and haggle with the locals (all of them trying to charge him more because he is foreign and has a bag he’d prefer not to open) to take him back on a boat to the mainland. Back on the mainland, he’d take a taxi into Ambanja, a town not unlike the Wild West: one bank, one post office, and Western Union. From Ambanja, the end is in sight–just a long hike through the world’s most densely populated jungle of endemic plants and animals to get samples of one of the most treasured and increasingly rare substances in the world.
If you think all this sounds less like a story about on chocolate and more like a treatment for a movie in which an evil genius hunts the jungle for a rare ingredient to fuel his plot to bring the world to its knees, you’re right. But it’s not. For the record, Brett Beach is not an unsuspecting drug courier; he is a partner in Madécasse Chocolate. Dr. Zhang is not Dr. Evil; he is the lead research geneticist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and its Sustainable Perennial Crops Laboratory. Neither Brett nor Dr. Zhang is chasing world domination; they’re chasing flavor, specifically the DNA of cacao trees and the origin of the finest chocolate in the world–chocolate that has absolutely brought more than a few of us to our knees. And the future of that chocolate has a lot to do with the leaves Brett and a few farmers in Madagascar put in that white powder.
And no, that white powder was not cocaine; this is a story about cacao not coca–think FCIA (Fine Chocolate Industry Association), not CIA. But also think CSI: that white powder in question is a drying agent–a silica gel–forty grams of which are added to a plastic bag along with a fresh leaf from a cacao tree. The silica agent removes all of the moisture from the leaf within twelve hours, thus protecting the DNA from degrading before it reaches the lab. In that hot, sticky jungle of Madagascar in early 2011, Brett Beach was pursuing genotypic identification and its connection to fine flavor cacao. He was gathering samples on behalf of the FCIA and the USDA-ARS to help map that world of cacao flavor.
Millions and millions of us speak the “language” of chocolate and 6.5 million farmers–many for generations–make their living growing cacao, the genetics of cacao is like a modern dialect few can speak yet. It is undoubtedly an essential part of the future, but understanding and processing the torrent of information and the possibilities it offers is overwhelming and, honestly, never going to make you drool with anticipation the way unwrapping a bar or opening a box of bonbons will.
And if you think explaining this process is challenging in the space of a book, imagine doing it in Madagascar. Not easy, even if like Brett Beach you speak Malagasy, thanks to six years in the Peace Corps and international development projects. He had to explain not just the sampling, but why genotyping flavor matters for the future, and how it is going to bring value back to the farmers. “The farmers got it as much as I could convey it,” Brett says. “This is a challenging and abstract subject to distill, let alone translate to farmers, especially if you don’t have much of a clue what genetics is in English.”
Simply put, genotyping and understanding the genetics of fine flavor cacao will lead us to anticipate and better appreciate that fine flavor. But explaining genotyping and the genetics of fine flavor cacao–making them interesting or at least top of mind so that people who have a stake in the future of fine flavor cacao buy into their importance for their beans, businesses, and customers in the–is a process.
That’s the challenge for the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative in general. It is one thing to know where the world’s finest flavor beans are, tie their flavor to their genetics, and use that information to improve and help ensure fine flavor cacao quality and diversity, and preserve, protect, and propagate fine flavor beans for future generations. But it also has to be important to the day-to-day lives of growers, traders, chocolate makers, manufacturers, chocolatiers, and consumers.