Eco Cocoa: Sweet or Loco?

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Last Thursday evening, February 10, as a sweet precursor to the Valentine’s Day ahead, the Global Cocoa Project, courtesy of its parent initiative, the Global Giving Circle, as well as from Calgary Brown producing the event for Hub Bay Area (in SoMa within the San Francisco Chronicle building), brought to our watering mouths a taste of what kind of chocolate can result from a fairly produced and traded bean. “Explore the World of Chocolate,” at $25 a person pre-sale, was a really heartfelt way to send the holiday’s love to farmers benefiting from the funds Project Hope and Fairness was collecting on their behalf.

Roughly 20 or so chocolate companies piled bite-sized chunks on tables throughout the tasting areas, which ranged from scattered red-foil hearts (Sweet Earth Chocolates dark chocolate with a truffle-like cherry chipotle filling) to tiny bricks of crunchy sweetness (Alter Eco Fair Trade’s 61% dark chocolate with quinoa crisps). Rounding out the cocoa-heavy nibbles were various wine, tea and milk artisans who fall somewhere in the organic-local-micro spectrum including Artesa Winery, Numi Organic Tea and Straus Family Creamerythe latter being a nice, smooth basic treat to rinse down the cocoa powders gradually accumulating on our palates.

It’s something you’ve always wanted to do in your most eco-friendly and fairly traded of corner family grocery stores: Try all the most quality, but cost-prohibitive, varieties of gourmet chocolates adorned in the finest glossy (or biodegradable) packaging and pick a few new favorites.

So how likely is it that Americans, ney, San Franciscans even, will stretch themselves to try these morally superior luxuries that will help elevate the living and working conditions of mostly African and South American cocoa bean farmers, 90% of whom live below the poverty line, according to one of the night’s emcees? ………. Hopefully a bit. Though truthfully, the direct appeal to urban foodies and weekend philanthropists will most likely occur by selling the companies’ most unusual taste points and their distribution exclusivity.

Take, for example, the night’s winner for me, Amano Artisan Chocolate, whose Venezuelan-sourced Ocumare (70% cacao dark) melted like rose, earth, floral and hay tastes in subtle succession, so much so that I stopped and closed my eyes while it melted, much like I did during the dessert tasting at the French Laundry. This find was even more remarkable, considering I had recently dubbed TCHO, San Francisco’s local barmaker, my latest favorite chocolate with its minimally blended but perfectionist takes on the Fruity, Citrus, Nutty and Chocolatey strains in each region’s bean-that-becomes-bar. Now, compared to Amano, TCHO is riding shotgun second … though don’t do yourself the disservice of skipping TCHO’s Citrus with its 68% Peruvian Cacao that tangs and zips into your salivary glands in the back of your tongue, deep within your jaw. Wow what a jolt!

In a somewhat informal laundry list of my favorites from the night, here are the rest of my tasting notes, in cascading order of importance:

  • Kallari Chocolate Specifically, an 85% dark Equadorian chocolate corner that rippled with earthy, mossy layers that finished like wheat. Amazing and lingering on the palate.
  • El Ceibo Adorned in a beautiful, classic cream sleeve with subtle foils stood their tagline, “Our land. Our trees. Our chocolate.” Certainly, Bolivia is no stranger to resource struggles with its tangles over water with the World Bank. Its political statement is bold, but its jacket belies the sweet, ricey and potent taste below of one 60% dark “chocolate + coffee” bar it showcased. Eating a chocolate-covered sugar cone would be its closest (albeit, subpar) American taste parallel. Though its dynamite selection was the 77% Dark Chocolate Cocoa Nibs and Uyuni Salt, which clearly defined its perfection through the taste combinations of crunch with melt, and salt with aromatically sweet. A five-star chocolate.
  • Pacari Ecuadorian Organic Chocolate Its 60% dark chocolate with Merkén, “a spice traditionally used by the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile,” according to its website and its onsite representative, satisfied the spicy, intense senses while not managing to be hot. “It’s almost like a cumin,” said the woman at the Pacari table. It was, even if just a bit more strange and woodsy. Of course I loved it.
  • Madécasse Madagascar It takes a bit more to make a milk chocolate stand up next to its more robust competition in the dark-chocolate categories, but their 44% Milk Chocolate was a very crackly, not-too-sweet bit of caramelly Grape Nuts felt like bran-heaven in my mouth toward the end of the sampling, which is saying a lot if you’d had a belly as full as mine was with liquid cocoa samples.

And it wouldn’t be fair to leave without a word or two about the refreshing beverage pairings available around the ambient Hub:

  • Artesa Winery – Perfection as usual, their 2009 Chardonnay, which is out in stores now, foiled easily against the bitter, powdery tastes of the night’s cocoas with its light, honeysuckle-and-lemon flooded clarity. Its recent 90-point rating in Wine Spectator is easily conceivable.
  • Numi Organic Tea – Showcasing its cold, bottled teas, its many varieties of puehr (or pu-ehr, as it’s usually spelled elsewhere) went down like ice water from a rainforest canopy, full of antioxidants that even rooibos and kombucha can’t measure up to.
  • Straus Family Creamery – Though it had mini-scoops of chocolate ice cream available, I poured myself a creamy shotglass full of whole milk and marveled at its perfection. It really tastes farmy in that sweet, nostalgic kind of way.

After the event, I added as many of the 20-plus chocolatiers to my Facebook pages as were available for bookmarking. I even e-mailed a few of the companies I couldn’t find, and suggested they start a page to spread the word via social media. It’s clear that the Fair Trade cocoa industry, like the coffee and tea industries that came before it, is still in somewhat of a developmental stage, battling giants like Hershey who ostensibly don’t go about their sourcing and compensation practices as dutifully as these small pioneers of chocochivalry.

But at anywhere from $4-7 on average per one of these bars, it crazy to ask people to: 1. Pay more  2. Eat less or  3. *gasp* Do both?!

If history is any indicator of what could happen with this segment of degustation, I pray the tides continue to shift in the “consume less, expect better” direction these faithful few have begun to trek.

Image credit: lolay via Flickr under a CC license

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