Thanks to Valentine’s day, though, February is a perfect time to consider chocolate.
Chocolate is exquisite, decadent, a great gift and the ideal self-indulgence. Even the botanical name of the cacao tree “Theobroma” is a Greek word meaning “food of the gods.” Whether you slowly savor every bite or gobble it down without a second thought, it’s hard to deny the power of chocolate.
However, just as with most foods we consume, we rarely stop to consider the journey and how that chocolate came to be.
A customer with a home on the island of Grenada recently shared with us the following first-hand account of how cacao beans are processed by a small, local cacao farmer he is acquainted with.
It all begins with the hand-harvesting of seed pods from the cacao tree, a medium-sized evergreen native to tropical portions of the Americas. Next the pods are split open and the seeds are laid out on a tarp to ferment and dry in the sunshine. Once they are properly dried, the farmer waits for an appropriately windy day, then shuffles and agitates them while any remaining chaff blows away.
The fermented cacao seeds are then ground into paste and hand-rolled into small balls. The farmer and his family eat this raw chocolate throughout the year, but less as a foodstuff than as an edible supplement that supports their good health.
The health benefits have been known to Mesoamericans for centuries and today’s scientists agree that dark chocolate — the chocolate that contains the highest percentage of cacao — is an antioxidant powerhouse that among other things boosts the immune system and helps to lower blood pressure.
While most commercially grown cacao is dried and fermented on a large scale, the crop still must be harvested by hand, pods are typically split by hand with a machete, and sunlight is still the preferred method for drying the beans.
This high level of hand labor is why many consumers search out Fair Trade chocolate, such as that produced by Theo Chocolate in Seattle, the only “bean to bar” Fair Trade, organic chocolate maker in the United States.
Fair Trade was conceived in the 1940s and has grown into a certification agency with a set of standards that ensure fair labor practices for products such as chocolate typically produced by marginalized workers in developing countries.
The standards include environmentally sustainable operation, production without child workers or forced labor, fair wages, the ability to unionize and access to decent housing.
Producers must also maintain adequate workplace health and safety standards.
Yvonne Yokota, one of Sequim’s best-known chocolatiers, keeps several factors in mind when choosing the chocolate she uses to craft her treats. First, she looks for chocolate produced on plantations that are growing cacao trees with little or no pesticides. Organic certification is one assurance, but many small plantations cannot afford the certification and thus there is chocolate out there produced in an environmentally responsible way without the USDA organic label.
It’s not always possible to research every detail of a chocolate’s origin, so Yvonne tries to use chocolate made with finer, more expensive cacao beans from a cultivar of the cacao tree that requires shade to thrive and therefore does not lend itself well to large open plantations where pesticides are readily applied. Knowing that the cacao farmers are paid a fair wage for their hard labor is another important consideration for Yvonne.
Jim Queen of Chocolate Serenade, another of our fabulous local chocolatiers, specializes in Belgian chocolates. Flavor is his top priority and he uses a variety of chocolate ranging from dark to milk.
Jim only uses high-quality, pure chocolate when making truffles because the chocolate needs to be tempered with heat. The tempering process uses heat to re-align the molecules in the chocolate so that the finished product is stronger (snaps in your mouth), shinier (looks pretty), and melts at a slightly higher point (not on your fingers).
Jim says that matching the taste and texture of shell with the center of a truffle is the key to making a perfect chocolate.
With two local producers of truffles and other things deliciously chocolate, one should have no trouble finding a perfect chocolate treat.
Try putting “eat chocolate” at the top of your to-do list today; at least you’ll be sure to get one thing done!
Mark Ozias and Lisa Boulware are owners of The Red Rooster Grocery. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.