For my latest interview I caught up with Luisa Abram, whose beautiful chocolate is featured in this month's subscription boxes. Luisa is based in São Paulo, Brazil, and she set up her family-run business in 2015. Throughout her study of gastronomy at the Anhembi Morumbi University, Luisa made regular trips to the Amazon Rainforest, during which time she developed a fascination with wild, heirloom cacao. All of Luisa’s chocolate is made with cacao found growing in the wild along the Amazon river plate, and she works with a variety of riverside communities to help discover, gather and ferment the cacao in very small batches. I thought it would be good to find out more about this incredible chocolate project, and I'm sure you'll enjoy sharing in Luisa's ebullient passion...
What is your background and what led to you becoming a chocolate maker?
I went to culinary school and I always loved making food, especially pastry. When I was finishing my degree my dad gave me a book about molecular desserts! Chocolate was in the first pages and so I fell in love! I had no idea prior to the book that you could make chocolate at home, so I went to do a bit of research on cacao. My first instinct was to import cacao from Ecuador, but I soon discovered that Brazil does not allow cacao from abroad to enter the country (because of a history with witches broom, a fungi that destroyed cacao production back on the late 90s). So then I found out that the Amazon rainforest was the birthplace for the cacao tree and I went to look for wild cacao. After months of research we finally got in touch with a cooperative in the state of Acre, close to the border with Peru. It was always a dream to go to the Amazon and when I arrived, I knew it was the right place to be!
Who runs the business with you and what are their roles?
All my family! My Sister works in the Sales and Administrative department, my mom works in a multinational company during the day and at night she comes to the factory and takes care of the orders. My dad also has a day job in the financial market and at night does our finance and also helps with machinery, and I'm in charge of the production.
How do you decide which cacao to source and where to source it?
We only work with wild cacao from the Amazon Forest. First of all, we look for the riverside families who are willing to follow our fermentation protocols, then we analyse the density of cacao trees in the area, to see if this will have a positive impact on the communities that will harvest the wild cacao. If there isn’t enough density, it doesn’t make sense to harvest for either side, given the difficulties of getting to those trees within the forest. Then we harvest a test batch and make chocolate with it to see if the taste is interesting, and assess the terroir. After that, if the cacao makes good chocolate, we go back to the forest and collect DNA samples to send to a laboratory in Washington DC, to analyse the data to see which family the cacao belongs to, if it is a brand new varietal, etc...
What interests you about wild cacao?
I can say that everything about it interests me!! When you have the biggest forest in the world being the birthplace of cacao, it just makes more sense to do something new!
Also, Brazil is so big that we have a really diverse culture throughout its regions. I’m always eager to learn about new ways, and the Amazonian culture is one of a kind! Working with nature and the preservation of it is great! And the most amazing part of it is to see the impact of my work in the wellbeing of the riverside families. I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to work side by side with people with a completely different reality than mine, in the city of São Paulo. And with the result being chocolate - it’s just the icing on top!
Is there a big following for bean-to-bar craft chocolate in Brazil?
We would not call it big yet here in Brazil, but since 2014 we’ve been seeing very expressive growing rates. As a consequence of this growth, we now have strong tree and bean-to-bar associations, and a women’s group with over 100 members.
How does your location influence the chocolate that you make?
Being in a country of cacao origin, which contains a vast area of the Amazon Forest, gives me numerous opportunities to create and use local ingredients. The cacao extracted around the margins of different rivers and regions have distinct terroir and can give chocolate with particular tastes and flavours. Ingredients like cupuaçu, açai and Brazil nuts can be added to give wonderful inclusion bars.
Cupuaçu is widely known in the Northern region of Brazil. You find it in the Amazon and in the states on its borders. It is used to make sweets, jams, desserts and juices, as well as added to chocolate in bars, bonbons, dragees and truffles.
What are some of the biggest challenges in your work?
We only work with wild cacao, so getting the beans out of the Amazon is a real challenge. We have to find the right partners that care about the fermentation and drying of the beans, the way we taught them. That means we have to go every year to all the origins to make sure everything is being done in the right way.
How has COVID19 affected your business?
COVID had a major impact on flights and our biggest customer is in the US, so getting the chocolate shipped was a big challenge. Also, visiting the communities was difficult and we had to increase the price of the cacao because everything had price adjustment. Our clients before COVID used to be markets and small specialty food stores, but we saw a shift with COVID and our website became a major part of our revenue. Customers started purchasing directly from us!
What’s your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?
Everything! Going to the forest, fermenting the cacao, making the chocolate. Seeing how cacao and chocolate can make a difference in the life of many people. Creating new flavours and making people happy.
Thanks so much to Luisa for taking the time for this interview, and for sharing these beautiful photos with us.