Interview 006: Simran Sethi
For The Chocolate Bar's sixth interview we talked with Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, which has been published internationally and received worldwide critical acclaim. More recently Simran has created and presented The Slow Melt: A Podcast About Chocolate - an essential listen for anyone with an interest in chocolate and the most comprehensive documentation of the current state of the chocolate industry.
Here in New Zealand people regularly reference or discuss ‘Bread, Wine, Chocolate’ and most serious foodies have an awareness of it. When you were working on the book did you expect it to be so far reaching?
I did not – and I am so happy to hear that people know of the book and it resonates! Of course, an author dreams of a big reach but one can never know. I am happy to report the book has been published in North America, as well as Australia and New Zealand, the U.K. and India—and has been translated into Italian and Korean.
Your book contains some worrying but also inspiring information about the need to protect rare and diverse varietals of cacao (amongst other things). In the two years since it was published, have you seen any development with that situation?
There have been ongoing discussions in the conservation community about recognizing quality (what we call flavour) within the strategy on preserving cacao. Backup collections typically store varieties that have disease resistance and can offer higher yields. This approach asks that the aroma and taste of cacao also be recognized as valuable and worthy of preservation. There has also been an increased focus on rewarding diversity in cacao through the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and on celebrating the efforts of producers through the Cocoa of Excellence Programme.
On the maker side, the growing focus on highlighting origin and farmers is heartening to me. Some makers have been doing this since their inception, of course, but I think growing consumer consciousness around terroir is helping feed this expansion.
What inspired you to create The Slow Melt?
I spent five years on six continents doing research for my book where I explored agricultural biodiversity through the lens of flavour and stories of bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer, but my greatest love was and is chocolate. The first draft of the chocolate chapter of the book was about 150 pages long. Obviously a lot of that information was edited down but my drive to share it never waned. I wanted others to experience what I had learned from extraordinary people like Darin Sukha and his colleagues at the Cocoa Research Centre (who taught me about sensory analysis and chocolate making); farmers in places like Ecuador, Trinidad and Papua New Guinea; and chocolate purveyors including Aubrey Lindley from Cacao Portland.
Learning more about the substance I have loved for my whole life has made me appreciate it all the more. Chocolate is stable at room temperature but melts when we touch and taste it. That, to me, implies relationship. That’s what I want to convey and forge—a deeper relationship with chocolate. So, about one year ago, I started to visualize what the podcast could be. We started in earnest last December, launched in late January and are now in the middle of our second season, which we call the Makers Series. It’s a nine-episode series where we speak directly with chocolate makers, learn their stories, and taste one of their signature bars directly with them.
I am so grateful to those who have come on the show to share their insights. We have heard directly from farmers, NGOs, industry advocates, economists, scientists, bean brokers, chocolate makers and purveyors from six continents on subjects ranging from “the high price of cheap chocolate” to the impacts of sound and our other senses on the flavor of chocolate to a deep dive on actually trying to understand what craft chocolate is (there is NO clear definition which I also write about here).
The show reaches over 75,000 listeners in 82 countries and has been recommended by National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. My goals are to help people understand that chocolate comes from the seeds of a fruit and should not only be thought of as an industrial product with a uniform taste, and to highlight the many people behind the bar—especially farmers.
The $100 billion chocolate and confectionary industry is built on the labor of 6 million smallholder farmers who reside in a thin Equatorial belt encompassing Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia and depend on cocoa as a cash crop. They are part of the roughly 50 million people who rely on cocoa for their livelihoods and have been dramatically impacted by price volatility and oversupply in the commodity cocoa market. Prices have plummeted by 30 percent in the last year alone, reaching historic lows and severely compromising producers who cultivate the crop. I want chocolate lovers to understand these challenges so we can be part of solving them.
You obviously have a love of all foods but it seems chocolate has become your main focus right now. What is it about chocolate that particularly interests you?
As I write in the book and explain on the podcast (in the “Be Still My Heart” episode), chocolate has been my constant companion. It has been my every birthday cake, it was my wedding cake—and it helped me get through my divorce. I was absolutely stunned the first time I entered into a forest where cacao was grown. I couldn’t recognize it. The transformation the seed undergoes to become cocoa and chocolate is so extraordinary, it still enchants me. And knowing more about the people who are growing and harvesting the crop… most are not rich people. In fact, they are quite poor. To paraphrase a coffee expert I interviewed for the book, I do not want my joy to come at someone else’s expense. As a journalist, I feel it’s my responsibility to not only celebrate chocolate but shed light on the processes and challenges behind this food I consume every day.
The new Makers Series of The Slow Melt has been fantastic. How did you decide which chocolate makers to include in the series?
Thank you! I first want to thank my colleague Katie Ranke who not only edits the Makers Series but came up with the terrific idea to taste chocolate with the makers. She is brilliant.
I chose makers by, first, compiling my own list. Then, I reached out to three women in chocolate whom I know and admire—Jessica Ferraro from Bar Cacao, Lauren Adler from Chocolopolis, and Valerie Beck from Chocolate Uplift and asked for their lists. And then, I merged and winnowed and came up with the final nine. At the end of the day, I wanted to choose makers who were large(r) and small, who came from all over the world, and who represented the continuum of makers from seasoned to new. And I knew, as the creator and host of the show, I had to be able to stand behind all of them. These are bars I truly appreciate.
Chocolopolis in the U.S. and Bean Bar You in Australia are stocking every chocolate in the series as part of a Slow Melt subscription box so listeners can taste alongside the makers and me. I am very happy I was able to introduce Lauren to Cailo (from Australia) and Cacao Hunters (from Colombia).
How has working on The Slow Melt affected your appreciation of chocolate?
I not only host and content produce the podcast but I write and present about chocolate so it’s always at the forefront of my mind. (This story on chocolate made at origin is one of my favourites.) I have chocolate that I consume with focused attention for work, and chocolate I taste kind of mindlessly. Sometimes they are the same chocolates that I just approach in different ways.
I think The Slow Melt has forced me to double-down and check my motives. The programme takes a lot more time and resources than I anticipated. I have depleted my savings to do it and constantly have to ask myself if this is the best use of my time and energy. The answer is still “yes” but I truly hope we’ll get more support for this venture.
What are some of your favourite chocolates that you’ve recently tasted?
I am so excited for listeners to hear from Bryan Graham of Fruition Chocolate on our upcoming show. The bar he created to support education and art enrichment program for impoverished youth in Saylla, Peru is one of the very best inclusion bars I have ever tasted. It has these peaks of taste, texture, and aroma that I find really compelling. I am also excited about some of the makers I have met in Italy. (I came here for my book tour and stayed.) Guido Castagna’s commitment to cocoa and the exploration of flavour is wonderful. And, both these men are great people. Shawn Askinosie talks about this in our episode on Askinosie (one of my favourite interviews in the Makers Series): intention matters. I, like Shawn, believe kindness and compassion are an integral part of both sustainability and deliciousness.
What can we expect for the future of The Slow Melt?
I hope a lot more shows! We’re currently seeking sponsors and are always grateful for donations. I have actually already mapped out the next three seasons of the show because I am that enthusiastic and hopeful.
What would also be great is if people would take a minute (actually, it takes less than a minute) to vote for us in the Saveur magazine competition. We are in the running for Best Food Podcast and that nod would go a long way in terms of attention and support. All you have to do is scroll down, find “Best Food Podcast” and click on “The Slow Melt.”
Thank you so much to Simran Sethi for taking the time for this interview. If you're in New Zealand you can buy 'Bread, Wine, Chocolate' from Unity Books and if you haven't already, be sure to have a listen to The Slow Melt.