The Story of Chocolate
Anyone who knows me well knows that I LOVE chocolate. As a kid, after finishing trick-or-treating on halloween night, I used to count all of my candy to make sure that no one would ever take any of it without asking. And chocolate was the most precious of all… so if anyone took some of my halloween chocolate without permission, let me just tell you—it was not pretty. As I think back on it, I’m now realizing that I probably didn’t really appreciate the chocolate itself, but more likely, the sugar boost that it gave me (and getting free candy)!
Once I started learning more about environmental sustainability, I drastically changed my habits. I tried and practiced nearly everything you could think of to live more sustainably in our urban society. But chocolate was one of the hardest habits for me to break. I craved chocolate often (especially at that time of the month). I was a sucker for those big Dairy Milk chocolate bars.
My body was craving both the sugar that it was packed with and that melt-in-your-mouth effect of a milky chocolate bar. However, after learning so much about the chocolate industry it didn’t feel right eating these chocolate bars anymore. And besides, it never made me feel that great—neither physically nor mentally (at least not the whole bar). So I experimented a little and tried different ethical/healthier chocolates. Over time, I started to make a better habit out of it. Of course, It wasn’t the same as eating Dairy Milk, but after I ate a small amount of those more rich chocolates, both my belly and mind were happy with my decision. And for the days that I do still crave sugar, I work on letting myself have a little of what I want, by practicing mindful eating. I am always learning new ways to listen to my cravings and give my body what it needs. I make a conscious effort to not ignore my cravings, but rather accept them and let myself eat what my body wants, at a healthy amount; all the while voting with my dollar through the food I eat.
Clearly, chocolate has been a big internal battle I have had with myself over the past few years. But it was not until just this summer, after building a wonderful friendship with the incredible business owner of Chocolat Voyageur, that I really started to appreciate the work and thought that goes into her delicious ethical chocolates (as well as many other small scale chocolatiers). Over time, I learned so much about her chocolate and the work that she as a single business owner puts into this ethical delicacy. I know this may sound like a little advertisement, but seriously, I couldn’t love this business any more. But enough of my story, let's cut to the chase and talk about the story of chocolate.
The way that many of us talk about chocolate today makes it feel as if it is a precious, treasurous, praised commodity. Well, it actually once was—cacao that is. The history of the processing of cacao goes way back to central America, its native land, where it is believed that the Mayans used it to make a chocolate drink as a form of celebration. These unique beans were even used as a way of currency in the Aztecs culture. Chocolate has always been a big deal. But the processing of cacao beans has changed drastically.
Now, we can find big brand chocolate bars in every gas station, many retail stores, grocery stores and even pharmacies. Chocolate is everywhere; and extremely accessible. Dominique let me in on a very interesting fact about these chocolates: many of them are not considered chocolate bars, but rather candy bars. What is the difference? For it to be considered a chocolate bar, there must be a certain percentage of cacao in the bar—more than 20%. A lot of so-called “chocolate bars” (you now know them as candy bars), today are not even enough percentage of cacao to be considered chocolate. So essentially it is chocolate flavoured sugar and oils.
So how is real quality chocolate made? The making of chocolate is a big process! Just as wines can differ from grape to grape, dry to sweet, and a variety of different flavours based on the way it was prepared, chocolate has a similar go about. Every step of the process is crucial. You can have fruity or nutty tasting chocolate, based on the bean, and the steps of the process. So what does the process look like? After a long meaningful chat with Dominique from Chocolat Voyageur, here is what her process looks like:
Sort the Beans:
All beans are sorted through before they are used to make the chocolate. This is to make sure that all the beans are fresh and of high quality. Any bean that is cracked from its shell and exposed to the elements, that may have holes in the shell which may show signs of insects, or any signs of mold are discarded. Even one small cacao bean can totally spoil a whole batch of chocolate.
The good beans are put into the oven and are roasted to desired time, from a light to a dark roast
Crack the husks/shell of the bean off. This can be a very time consuming part of the process!
Remove the shell through suctioning equipment. The weight of the bean falls while the shells are sucked into another chamber. This separates the shell from the cacao nibs.
Physically look through the nibs, to ensure there are no pieces of shell left in the batch.
Press and make a cocoa liquor. This releases the fat and turns it into a soft gooey texture. This is where you get that yummy goo of chocolate. Put in the chocolate processor. Refine the cacao nibs.
This is the stage where there is a developing flavour. The continual rotation develops flavour compounds. Any other ingredients have been added by now, such as the cacao butter and maple sugar.
And there you have it! Depending on the chocolate being made, there may be a few extra steps after this!
This process is a pretty big deal. And on top of all this magical combination of art, cuisine and science, chocolatiers like Dominique actually know where her beans come from, as she buys them Direct Trade. As you may have learned from the last article, supporting Direct Trade products is one of the best routes to take! Farmers tend to have more agency into what they can and can’t do with their beans, prices, and farming techniques. They are given more space to be both creative and earn a living wage. Whereas in big industrialized common “chocolate candy bars” CEOs seldom know where half their beans are coming from and it is the CEOs that set the standards, with little freedom and voice coming from the actual producers.
You may be wondering “Why would farmers even think about selling their chocolate to brands that treat them so poorly? Why would they settle for such treatment?” I’ve had this same thought before. And that’s a very complex answer. Farmers that sell their products to these big companies are given long contracts with the security of knowing that they will be getting paid something for a long time. In countries where poverty is more heavily experienced (which happens to be primarily in the global south in which cacao grows) workers need to find ways to make money in order to feed their families and stay alive—even if that means they work long hours, in direct contact with pesticides, and with little workers rights. But there is much more to it than just that, a lot more factors that are at play. Bt I will touch on that another day.
What I want to emphasize is that small batch chocolatiers put a lot of time, effort, money and thought into how they make their chocolate and where they buy their beans. In a world full of convenience and discounts/deals, we as individuals need to reevaluate the deals that we see in our big box stores. We must work to change our ways little by little to help others in the world live a healthier, and more just life. “I will pay a little bit more because I want to make sure that people live well.” says Dominique Chartrand. “Here in Canada, we’re used to not paying a lot for our food”. She added. But we need to shift our thinking, and for those of us who are in the position in where we can afford to do so, we must start taking action, and supporting what is right in the world. Supporting quality over quantity, and finding meaning in that. “It’s not about quantity but rather quality. And that lies in our education, and what we know.”
After Dominique had explained so much to me about chocolate, we started wrapping up our conversation to reflect onto the bigger picture—what it all means to her. “I feel I am actively helping a sector of our food and our population live better. For me it’s about being a part of the solution”. With all of the injustices that still exist in the world, Dominique is able to make a difference by supporting small farmers, all the while expressing her creative side, “My appreciation for it and my joy for what I do with it makes me feel much better” She added.
“What matters to you? I think that is a big discussion.”
Let's be a part of the solution.
You can also find a really interesting video here of the harvesting of cacao to the making of chocolate