Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Traceability of Chocolate

This was my Willie Wonka weekend. It was sort of unintentional. In the latest edition of Edible Manhattan I noticed that the chocolatiers at Vere opened their "factory" up every Friday from 12-6 for the public to explore. It's an amazing place on the 6th floor of a turn of the century building at 12 west 27th St (just a heads up: I was told that this past Friday was the last day they will be open until end of Summer, so if you decide you'd like to check it out you'll have to wait until September).

The elevator doors open onto a full floor, stainless steel and glass, high tech, industrial showroom and kitchen that just sparkles. Walls of glass separate the different sections so that, even though there are dividers, everything is open and visible. There are no secrets here. A vivid, alive green is the only color in the space and it's used sparsely, but to great affect. In the back, green napkins had been set up alongside identical green plates, next to Champagne flutes. The place looked like it was set up for a party that no one had shown up for.

For the first two minutes I was able to browse the selection of goods for sale and chat with the lovely owner, Kathy, but just as we got into the story of Vere in came a tour group. Champagne was opened and the table which I had noticed upon arriving, set up with a selection of small chocolate tastings, was being intensely discussed. I felt a little uncomfortable crashing this party so I chose a few products and made my way to the cashier, only problem being that the single person in this vast space who actually worked there was Kathy herself, who was now holding forth telling this group of chocolate gourmands about how it was she created Vere and what made her chocolates special. The thing that caught my ear as I listened to her speak was the word "traceability."

After years of food scares - tainted spinach this week, deep fried rat with my peanuts another - the world of concerned foodies has taken it upon themselves to focus on the entire history of a given product. It's not sufficient to say cocoa beans; now, in order to have real traceability you need to know that the beans, in this instance, are from Ecuador, some of them are processed there into paste and then shipped, but other beans are imported directly and roasted here. I believe Vere and Mast Brothers are the only two companies roasting their own coca beans here in town and it would seem Mast Brothers is even more obsessed with doing so than is Vere.

You also need to know that they are organically and shade grown fairly, that the farmers and the buyers have an equinimitable relationship and that everyone leaves the deal happy and properly compensated. Without going into any more detail I think you get the picture. Every step of a piece of chocolate can be specifically identified. It's not just chocolate either. Many artisanal food types are doing this. It's no longer OK to buy flour that comes from grains from either the US, Canada or Russia. First of all those are big countries, so where in those countries are they from? What kind of grain is used? How was it ground? Etc.

Now it's easy to see how all of this would give Anthony Bourdain, the Rush Limbaugh of food (see my posting "Michelle Obama's Victory Garden, posted 3/27/2009), a headache. The point, as I see it, is simply to be able to trace back the history of any given food product, so that things like tainted peanuts happen less often. It means that the people who are involved in making food products, whether they be chocolate or whole wheat flour, are really involved and really care about their product. Also, because they are small producers, they have more control of their products than a large manufacturer, who is mostly concerned with high profit and nothing else, and can actually achieve "traceability."

Michael Pollen talks about this in his seminal work "The Omnivores Dilemma." Our food is so often from hyperindustrialized corporations lacking any sense of the personal, of what connects the source of food to the consumer of it. Traceability takes our relationship to food back to its origin, making it personal again. It helps us to reclaim what we eat from corporations, once again placing it in the hands of farmers and cooks and small business people who care, have an idea about how to make a really good chocolate bar, and aren't just interested in making millions.

In the instance of Kathy at Vere, she wanted to create a chocolate bar for a friend of her's who was diabetic. Vere's chocolate is very creamy and intense but it is not sweet. Sugar is used minimally and in some instances, like her chocolate bars, this works wonderfully, in some of her other products like her Coconut Clusters I was hoping for something sweeter. That is as much about expectations and a life time of eating sweets then it is a criticism. I admire greatly what she is doing and encourage you to learn more about this amazing endeavor on her web site and to do a taste test of your own.

The Mast Brothers aesthetic could not be more different. In a store front factory in Williamsburg at 105A N3rd Street it's all old world, turn of the century, exposed brick primitive (see picture below). Housed in a 100 year old factory building the shop looks like it has been there for a hundred years (well except for some of the very high tech equipment sitting in the back). They are the only bean to bar chocolate makers in New York and one of the few in the country. I had a lovely chat with the one of the brothers, Michael.

Like Vere, most of their chocolate, with I believe one exception, is 70% cocoa content or higher. In re-reading their site I was surprised to see the word organic/shade grown/fair trade doesn't seem to appear anywhere (for what it's worth). They do buy from local farmers and co-ops and obviously have a personal relationship with them. As a side note I understand that it is expensive to get organic certification and trust that these worthy gentlemen are concerned with the well being of the farmers from whom they buy. It's always a good sign when the guys making the chocolate go visit and get to know the people growing the cocoa beans they use.

Rick Mast has had extensive food training and it shows. The chocolates of their's I have tasted are amazing: flavorful, rich, and satisfying. My favorite is the sea salt and almond, but the plain sea salt is pretty fine too! Their website lists the stores that sell their goods, but if you can make it to Williamsburg on the weekend, the factory is open Saturday and Sunday and well worth the trip.

In these particularly tough economic times I am keenly aware of the fact that I've just written an article about two chocolate makers whose products are expensive. Vere's chocolate bars are $5 on line and Mast Brothers are $7 if you buy from them, but as much as $9.50 in stores. The only conclusion I can come to here is that for the time being maybe it wouldn't be so bad to only buy fine chocolate as a treat occasionally as opposed to buying cheaper chocolates more often. My other mantra is simply that the more the people who can afford to support these people do, the lower the price will become. We've been "spoiled" (and made sick and fat) by mass produced high fructose candy for decades and now expect the same mass accessibility to quality goods and flinch at the price. It's a conundrum, but maybe what we have to do is re-think our priorities?

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