A wind-powered schooner glides into New York harbour transporting Dominican Republic cacao beans to a small chocolate company in NYC’s too-hip Williamsburg.
It’s an alluring image that along with the company’s singular ethical vision, the exquisite chocolate wrappers, and the owners’ Civil War-era beards, shapes the Mast Brothers story – one of contemporary urban artisanship in food.
In New Zealand, as in other western nations, there is growing interest in where food comes from, in smaller-scale production and in handcrafted methods. This has spurred new makers in every sphere of food and drink.
Artisan chocolate-makers believe the next step in our chocolate evolution is appreciating varietals of cacao beans and where they’ve come from – applying the same principles of ‘terroir’ used with wine, and increasingly, olive oil, beer and coffee.
This involves rigorous bean sourcing and selection (world cacao supply is dominated by the inferior-tasting but easily-grown forestero, or rough hybrids). In an industry where exploitation of poor nations’ labour has been rife, very often it’s also about having a more direct and fair relationship with the growers.
For the Mast Brothers this means travelling to collect cacao from particular plantations where the purity of the bean is verified and they can deal with farmers and workers.
During the early industrial history of chocolate there was a tradition of identifying varieties and particular regions of cacao origins, according to The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel E. Presilla. But as the price of chocolate came down at the end of the 19th Century, so did the overall quality of the cacao supply, and origins faded into anonymity.
The start of artisan bean-to-bar chocolate in New Zealand
In New Zealand there are only a handful of small producers who import beans themselves to produce chocolate. (And there’s one big one – Whittaker’s. Which is pretty good for a major supermarket brand, but they have a totally different approach to sourcing, as demanded by their scale and price point).
The artisan chocolate sector in New Zealand mainly consists of chocolatiers crafting imported couverture – and making some amazingly inventive products. But it’s very different to what the artisan chocolate-makers are trying to do.
Alison Holland, co-founder of White Rabbit Cacao in central Otago, says when they began their company three and a half years ago, there was no one else doing bean-to-bar apart from Whittaker’s.
“We wanted to highlight the flavour of individual origins. This starts with bean selection and goes right through the chocolate-making process.”
A lot of the drive behind the bean-to-bar movement comes from the extreme variety in cacao bean quality, and the passion to highlight complex flavours – just as with grapes in the wine industry. The White Rabbit founders have a background in wine.
For consumers, Holland says the benefits are, “flavour, individuality and the ability to see all that the cacao bean can actually be.”
From their experience of selling White Rabbit products at farmers’ markets, the willingness to learn is there: “There is a great deal of interest in artisan food production generally and this flows into bean-to-bar chocolate. People are genuinely interested and willing to purchase once they are aware of what we are trying to achieve.”
Our tastebuds have been gearing for change with the trend towards darker, more complex, less sweet chocolate. Health messages support this, particularly with regard to antioxidants.
Think about when Cadbury Energy bar was the default ‘dark’ chocolate option in New Zealand. Taste it now, as I did after a 15-year gap – and shudder. The sweetness!
Artisan chocolate is more expensive, but the argument is, you need less of it. Instead of sharing a 200g block of high-sugar chocolate, you share 50-80g of a relatively low-sugar dark chocolate and appreciate where it’s come from.
Another new bean-to-bar manufacturer is Rochelle Harrison, of RQute in Wellington. She had worked as a pastry chef for 17 years when she began experimenting with chocolate-making herself.
“Every pastry chef wants to have access to the best chocolate they can. By making it myself I have the satisfaction of having full control over the sourcing and production process, and the final flavour.”
Chocolate is a technically challenging food to produce with many mechanical steps. It cost her about $4000 and considerable research to source and set up the machinery. She even built the willow machine, which separates the beans from the husks, with her father.
Harrison is currently experimenting with a range of beans as well as with different sugars (such as coconut sugar which has a lower GI than cane sugar) – a freedom she says only bean-to-bar can give her.
Thank you to Jo Coffey from L’Affaire au Chocolat who ran a chocolate tasting at the New Zealand Food Bloggers Association conference which gave me the idea for a story on bean-to-bar chocolate making in New Zealand.