Friday, January 18, 2008

20 varieties of Cacao

We carry more than twenty different flavours of cacao beans, although 90% of these beans come from one region of Chiapas Mexico, we have found that flavour profiles for the beans varies dramatically.

There are a number of variables to take into consideration.

1. We work with small producers, the largest of which has a less than 8 hectares of land in cacao production. The individual producers are responsable for their harvest, their fermentation, and their sun-drying. Many producers harvest and process the cacao differently, but all with the ideal of producing the best possible cacao. The orchards vary in soil make-up, types of shade giving trees. They can also vary significantly in terms of humidity and moisture, not to mention soil erosion, or in cross-pollination by midges.

2. The variety of cacao growing is an important factor. We have documented over 15 different varieties of cacao in the region, not to mention rare forms of albino cacao and cacao real from other regions we work with in Oaxaca. In the Lacandon jungle where we work, a percentage of the crop is definitely criollo, although the majority is made up of hybrids, trinitarios, and forasteros. One interesting characteristic is the wide range of variation amongst the pods due to the sexual reproduction and cross-pollination of the indigenous varieties of cacao with those that were brought to the region in the early 80's when re-settlement was occurring.

3. The time of the harvest and the amount of humidity in any given year affects the amount of pulp in the pod which can dramatically affect the fermentation process.

4. Some producers rather than harvesting all at once, will begin the harvest and let some pods sit for a week while they harvest all the rest. Provided that this is done in the shade of the jungle canopy, these pods sitting on the ground can help to develop the bean flavours in highly interesting ways.

5. Fermentation is necessary to kill the seed and to further develop the flavours. In this step the seed at first drinks in the juices from the fruity pulp hoping to find water for germination. However, as the seed drinks in these juices the whole mass of cacao rises in temperature due to the chemical reactions in the fermentation process to such a degree that the seed is killed, and the juices that it drank in are subtly transformed into flavour notes that await further development. If this is not done properly the cacao germinates and creates a very bitter pill indeed.

Depending upon the quantities of beans fermented, the ambient temperature, and the style of fermentation, and most importantly the degree to which they are mixed and the number of days of the fermentation, the process yields vastly different results. Even subtle factors such as whether it was fermented in the orchard or in the comunidad can affect the results of the fermentation.

Many growers use banana leaves to help with insulation, as well as with extra yeast that helps the fermentation process along.

6. Sundrying the cacao beans is obviously dependent upon the sun, therefore in the rare years that there is little sun during the harvest in Chiapas or Oaxaca, the beans can develop a different flavour. During this step it is important that the seeds are turned and agitated so that it is even, and some even suggest that better results can be obtained when the cacao is not subjected to intense sunlight.

7. The location in which the beans are stored, and the types of bags also have an effect on the cacao as it can absorb other odours or humidity, and if left exposed to the air in small quantities can even go a little bit stale.

There are still more factors that contribute to the flavour profiles of the beans. What we like to think is that as we discover and chart these flavour profiles, we become better able to help chocolatiers and food artisans to get the most out of their cacao beans, and to come up with an authentic chocolate creation that is truly theirs.

Many people talk about their favourite chocolate bars, but for me I am more of a cacao connoisseur. Even more than a tasty chocolate bar, I enjoy a well seasoned bean.

Drinking Chocolate Definition

Xocol-atl means bitter water in nahuatl. Traditionally chocolate was served as a cold drink, and it was considered the highest luxury for the mesoamerican peoples. Xocolatl was dearly valued by the ancients for they new that we are what we eat. It is not an accident that chocolate is known as the food of the gods, and that xocolatl was reserved as the highest pleasure or luxury- considered even more valuable and more useful than gold.

The froth on top of the chocolate drink, brought about by mixing, aerating, and the separating of cacao butter from the mixture, was and still is considered to be the best part of the drink.

Not only does a good chocolate drink taste wonderful, activate the taste buds and stimulate the sense of smell in a way that other drinks do not, it leaves you energized, feeling happy, and satisfied.

Drinking chocolate is differentiated from hot cocoa and other artificial drinks because it is made with whole cacao beans, and often times with shells as well. It is not over-refined, and it is still considered a whole food.

According to Oaxacan tradition, it is the shell that gives the drinking chocolate part of its froth, as well as part of its punch, since the shell is where much of the theobromae is held.

True drinking chocolates are more cacao than they are sugar, and are enjoyed bitter and strong as well as sweetened and finely flavoured.

Drinking chocolates can range in consistency from a truffle in a cup to a watery liquid that warms you up and keeps you going on a cold day.

For us the best drinking chocolates do not contain milk, although we do enjoy the occasional milk chocolate drink. For us the best chocolate drinks are frothy, served hot or served cold, served fresh, made with whole cacao beans and contain no added preservatives and no artificial flavours. Instead of milk we choose amaranth or corn or chia to thicken our cup, and instead of refined sugars we choose panela, agave nectar, or dehydrated organic cane sugar.

Finally, for us drinking chocolate, is about drinking chocolate together. It is about the spirit of conviviality that fills a room when people are drinking chocolate instead of beer or shots. It is akin to the chocolate houses of the 18th and 19th century, or the chocolate salons in France. Drinking chocolate is about breaking down the divide between artists and audience, producers and consumers, and more generally between strangers.

Drinking chocolate is the best way to get the virtues of a cacao that is not over-processed or overly diluted.

Our only recommendation is to use good water, to froth the chocolate with enthusiasm, and to serve the portions generously.

Some of our Favourite Drinking Chocolates:

-Vanilla Amaranth Chocolate
-Cinnamon Cappuccino Ciocolate
-Chili Bombas and Bullets
-Oaxaca Gold
-Local Mint
-Spicy Mayan
-Aztec Blood Chocolate

Amaranth: nutritious, delicious, and ecological

Amaranth is an amazing food. It contains more calcium than milk, more protein than soy, more iron than spinach, contains the important amino acid lysine which helps with brain and cell maintenance, is high in antioxidants, and is ninety-two percent digestible. The seed itself possesses a natural nutrient ring that protects the nutrients during milling or popping, and finally this wonderful gluten free seed is 92% digestible. In short it is a wonderful food source that when combined with other nutritious foods like cacao, sesame seed, corn, and chia can help to foster a balanced diet.

As a plant it is also quite amazing and ecological. Its roots penetrate the hard earth and promote water infiltration, its roots help to hold the soil along terraces or other inclined areas, and like a weed it helps to bring nutrients to the surface. Furthermore, it is self seeding and requires very little maintenance. Finally, as if this was not enough, the leaves of the amaranth plant are edible and highly nutritious containing more iron than spinach. From an aesthetic point of view amaranth makes a wonderful and attractive, not to mention edible, component in any urban or rural garden.

As chocolatiers who are deeply inspired and influenced by what the millenarian food traditions in Mexico we enjoy and celebrate amaranth as a food that can be blended with cacao, instead of milk to create wonderful thick, rich, and soothing chocolate drinks that are good for the mind, body, and soil.

It was during the time of the conquest that the Catholic Church banned the growth and use of amaranth in Mexico. They justified this by associating it with the Aztec blood rituals. However, the slight crimson hue of the amaranth, especially combined with cacao and perhaps with achiote and other ancient chocolate ingredients could have fueled these allegations. Instead the Europeans promoted the growth of wheat and other grains, and the amaranth and other traditional foods and food cultivation techniques developed in an intensive agricultural system were pushed to the margins, and kept alive in secret. In the case of amaranth, only last year we met members of one family from the highlands of central Mexico whose task it was to protect and conserve the amaranth seed during the time of its suppression by the Catholic Church and colonial powers. This same elderly woman, spoke to us of the name given to the treats made with amaranth near the Day of the Dead, and All Saints Day. They are called alegrias, and this is because there is something in the amaranth itself that the peoples of Mexico have long associated with a feeling of well-being or happiness. Perhaps it is the feeling of being well nourished, or perhaps it is the anti-oxidants, or perhaps it is some other element in the amaranth that gives it this property.

Amaranth was one of the four pillars of the Mesoamerican diet, and combined with beans, corn, and chia would have created a nutritious foundation for an advanced society. It is our belief, that the agricultural and culinary knowledge of Mexico is not that of an undeveloped or primitive culture, but the fruit of a highly advanced and wise civilization that learned to chart the passing of heavenly bodies long before the European calendars were refined. The wisdom embodied in these ancient cultivation techniques, be they polyculture milpas or floating chinampa gardens, the nixtamalization of corn or extensive terrace cropping are only some of the footprints and legacies left from a sophisticated culture that gave us the food of the gods.....cacao.

Nonetheless it is apparent that the abolishment of this important food was not only a crime against the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, but also a way of blinding the Western world to the virtues of this wondrous food crop. In Ontario today, amaranth is known as pigweed and is feed to pigs and rarely to humans. The proper machinery and techniques for its harvest are wanting, and although there is a growing market, it is uncertain how many years it will take before Southern Ontarians, and in particular farmers, realize the value and the virtues of this ancient seed. In terms of seeds, we are still searching for and experimenting with different seeds to try and discover which are the best varieties to grow in this climate for human consumption.

At ChocoSol, rather than combining our chocolate drinks with milk, we choose to use milled amaranth seed, which helps to thicken up the chocolate, compliment its nutritious and medicinal virtues, compliment the ecological way in which our cacao is grown, and compliment the cacao in terms of digestibility, for unlike milk which contains lactose, fats, and oxidants that block the medicinal and nutritional properties of cacao, amaranth synergizes and reinforces them and is highly digestible in itself..

To celebrate this warm cup of drinking chocolate we have created the vanilla amaranth chocolate drink that appeals to young and old alike, and is not too strong or bitter.

And to acknowledge the absurdity of the Catholic Church banning the use of amaranth claiming its usage in blood rituals, we have created Aztec Blood Chocolate, which also contains amaranth, vanilla, achiote, and sometimes chilies and other ancient spices and flowers.

In small batches we have also experimented with Choco-alegrias, that combine cacao, popped amaranth, sesame seed, organic honey, chia seeds, and a hint of sea-salt. These are treats that we choose to bring out near the day of the Dead.

Another popular chocolate combination is cacao, hemp seed, popped amaranth, dehydrated cane sugar, and a hint of sea salt. This recipe is known as Oaxaca Crunch because the proportions for this recipe were developed during our preliminary investigations with chocolate in Oaxaca 5 years ago.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What Is Horizontal Trade

Horizontal trade is a relationship between communities. There are many influences that help us to understand and describe horizontal trade, but basically it is a relationship based on friendship and mutual understanding. We work with the willing and with those who have initiative. We are not "helping" the poor Mexicans....rather through our work in civil society in Southern Mexico we found a way to move beyond being the recipients of the great gift of Mexican hospitality, to a type of reciprocal intercultural trade, that is mutually beneficial and more like a dialogue than a trade agreement. In activist terms horizontal trade is a form of direct trade or direct action. It is about working at the grassroots and looking to your left to find those who are seeking something similar and with whom you can form a link in the chains of social change based on solidarity, dignity, and ecology. Fair Trade is a step in the right direction, but to look at the history of that term, or the ways that large corporations have co-opted it and used it against community groups, small producers, or small business is to uncover its glaring contradictions. Horizontal trade is about being well rooted in your local place, and at the same time well connected to other groups that are rooted in their place. In this sense it is also described as trans-local trade, and is closely related to subsistence cultures and the act of cultivating the earth and regenerating the soils that we stand on. As Wendyl Berry wrote, "I stand for, what I stand on".

In this context of this emphasis on localization and addressing issues in our own backyards our ideas our recent work in urban agriculture, the regeneration of amaranth production in Ontario, or our emphasis on utilizing Ontario grown hem seed in our chocolate take on a new light.

Horizontal trade is a kind of relationship that is as old as culture, for as long as we can remember durable goods (spices, herbs, salt, silks, textiles, dyes, artifacts, maps, etc....) were traded across vast differences. It was only with the onset of the modern era that these products were converted into faceless commodities, and their true costs externalized onto the environment or vulnerable communities.

We strive to respect the ecology and the human scale of authentic relationships. We only deal in durable goods that have a story or symbolic value attached to them. We are importers of cacao and other goods, and yet we strive to keep food miles to a minimum by using bicycle trailers and pedal power for processing beans. Perhaps one day our dream of finding a sailing vessel that will work between the port in Toronto and the Veracruz will become a reality.

We know that global commerce generates all kinds of unsustainable absurdities. For us it does not make sense that cacao beans should be sold at exorbitant prices in Southern Ontario because they are scarce, nor should they be cheaper than food staples that are grown locally. They are not scarce, but yes they are a luxury that should be enjoyed ethically, in proportion, and with an eye to the chains of translation and trade that brought them to our fingertips. It does not make sense to us that the same producers growing the cacao beans cannot afford to buy one of the gourmet chocolate bars that they are processed into. Therefore, part of the internal logic of horizontal trade is accessibility, and non-alienation from the product. We believe in paying a fair price that is not dictated to us by wall street, but is the fruit of our relationships with growers and conscientious consumers.

As a social enterprise business we also promote simple chocolate making techniques and technologies so that this model can be shared with other producer communities who may have lots of initiative but only a little bit of capital. With only a hand grinder we have shown people how to make chocolate and to concoct recipes from locally available ingredients. Our learning philosophy is based on living as learning, and our workshops are best described as apprenticeship learning.