Not many people get to study food for a living, but even fewer study chocolate. Carla D. Martin, a Lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and “Professor of Chocolate,” studies social issues in the cacao and chocolate industry, from production and processing to personal consumption. She has also co-taught our class on chocolate here at Formaggio Kitchen, and stops by regularly for her favorite bars.
The world of chocolate, and North American craft chocolate in particular, has exploded in the last few decades. Building off of the rising popularity of fair trade and single origin products in the 1970s and 1980s, the French companies Bonnat, Valrhona, and Cluizel were the first to introduce single origin chocolate, bringing the concept of terroir formally to the world of chocolate consumption. Today, the number of artisanal, single-origin chocolatiers has skyrocketed, with our selection of around ten different producers making up just a small sampling of U.S. craft chocolates. When I first started trying the chocolates in our selection, I found defining craft chocolate, let alone picking a bar, pretty overwhelming. As part of my personal education efforts I sat down with Carla to talk about her views on the exciting world of North American craft chocolate, and what it all really means for chocolate lovers!
(Rob) How did you get into chocolate?
(Carla) I’ve had a love for chocolate since childhood. I was raised in a hippie household where we didn’t eat a lot of added sugar, so perhaps it was a form of youthful rebellion to eat chocolate at every opportunity. My best friend from childhood worked at L.A. Burdick Chocolates for several years, and one of my absolute favorite things to do was to go and visit her and share in the spoils. Eventually I made an intellectual turn towards social anthropology and African and African American Studies, first in my time as an undergraduate, then living abroad as a researcher, and eventually going on to graduate school. In 2005 or so I encountered – actually at Formaggio, thanks to the thoughtful curation of then-chocolate buyer Emily Shartin – chocolate bars made with cacao from São Tomé and Príncipe that were totally unique and, given that my research at the time was focused on Cabo Verde and Lusophone Africa, I became fascinated with the story of that chocolate. How did the cacao get there? Who grew it? What were their lives like? How did the chocolate find its way to Cambridge, MA? It was then that the connections among the history of slavery and capitalism, colonial and post-colonial world agriculture, and cacao and chocolate stood out to me.
(Rob) So, North American craft chocolate. What exactly is it, and why is it getting so big right now?
(Carla) We are at a moment that those who follow chocolate closely meet with equal parts excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, there is this historically important romance around the ideas of craft production and fair relationships with commodity producers. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, craft chocolate in the US grew slowly but steadily – with companies like Taza Chocolate, Patric Chocolate, and Rogue Chocolatier taking the lead. Even today, these chocolate makers are doing something that is simultaneously retro and new, in terms of how they are choosing and acquiring beans, manufacturing chocolate, and cultivating an audience for their products. Also around this time of craft chocolate expansion, there came the publication of two absolute must-read texts on chocolate – Sophie and Michael D. Coe’s The True History of Chocolate (1996) and Maricel Presilla’s The New Taste of Chocolate (2001) that put centuries of chocolate learning into book form.
Thanks to the work of U.S. pioneers in craft chocolate production, I’ve come to really appreciate this style of chocolate making, which is quite different from industrially produced chocolate sold at commercial scale. Most industrial chocolate, like that from the “Big Five” (Hershey’s, Nestlé, Ferrero, Cadbury, and Mars), is actually chocolate-flavored sugar-fat with milk, plus whatever else holds it together and keeps it from rotting next to the cash register. This doesn’t stop me from enjoying a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but a quick look at the ingredients makes it clear that chocolate is not the key ingredient that I’m craving when I grab one.
North American craft chocolate, on the other hand, is really about the cacao. This is an overgeneralization, but at least it’s true of the good stuff – the beans selected tend to be naturally flavorful and have been handled well post-harvest then lightly roasted. The chocolate is made with only two or three ingredients (chocolate liquor and sugar, sometimes also cocoa butter). A great deal of effort goes into the bar’s production, packaging, and presentation. The best bars let the cacao sing or creatively pair and blend flavors, rather than extracting or forcing out flavor. To say this is not easy to do is an understatement. I’ve come to love the different experiences that you can get from these craft chocolate bars and the nostalgia that you feel when the last bars of a small batch are gone and all that’s left are your memories of the experience. This is the exciting part of craft chocolate.
Today, there are well over 100 craft chocolate producers in North America – approaching 150 now. The trepidation in relation to contemporary craft chocolate comes, though, in that many of these producers are not yet producing what they could be producing – excellent chocolate. There is an enormous learning curve that requires careful study, both of historical texts that shed light on some of the chocolate making knowledge that we’ve forgotten due to industrialization, and of scientific texts that offer insight into flavor, texture, scent, and more. We still know very little about chocolate compared to what we know about coffee or wine. There are so many different pieces of the puzzle that to become expert in all of them takes many years. This is an expensive, challenging, frustrating, impossible, amazing craft, and to do it well, you have to work really hard for a long time.
(Rob) Knowing that, how do you identify a good craft chocolatier?
(Carla) I tend to be drawn to the stories behind chocolate – as an anthropologist I love the human side of things. The best craft chocolate makers, like the best in any field, are those who keep trying to learn more about what they are doing. When you talk to a chocolate maker like Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier, you learn that he is constantly tinkering with his process, sorting through beans by hand pulling out any that are subpar, often at significant loss, geeking out on machinery, practicing with test batches, and experimenting with molding techniques. The same goes for Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate, who is currently running his business while working toward a graduate degree in food science, in search of answers to some of the questions he has developed about flavor over the years. Dustin Taylor and Adam Dick, the founders of Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, tweeted out a year or so ago that they scrapped a big batch of their chocolate, at high cost, because they realized it didn’t meet muster and couldn’t justify selling it. The level of attention, perfectionism, and integrity that goes into making the best craft chocolate – well, it leaves me gobsmacked.
There are a lot of critiques of today’s increasingly saturated North American craft chocolate market. One key critique is that too many products on the market are more about the aesthetic than about the quality of the chocolate. No amount of pretty packaging or clever branding can disguise the way that your mouth puckers when chocolate is too astringent, or erase the lingering burnt aftertaste from over-roasted beans.
The main thing I recommend to people beginning to explore craft chocolate is to cultivate a healthy skepticism – ask a lot of questions about the product and be pleasantly suspicious of the answers you get because, from having studied the industry, it’s clear to me that misinformation is too often the norm. So be skeptical, find makers and retailers who you trust – get to know Formaggio’s inimitable chocolate buyer Julia Hallman, for example – and keep trying to learn more.
This post is part one of three detailing my interview with Carla D. Martin. Stay tuned for parts two and three in the coming weeks! In the meantime, you can check out Carla’s blog for news on the latest chocolate-world happenings, and sign up for our newsletters to follow updates to our chocolate selection.
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the blog manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.