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  • 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. 

    simran sethi interview 

    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.

    simran sethi the slow melt bread wine chocolate

    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.”

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    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

  • Flavoured Bars

    bean-to-bar craft chocolate

    Last week Hogarth Craft Chocolate released their new Rose & Vanilla Tea bar and it's an absolute beauty. They've used their Madagascan single origin chocolate for this bar and the bright raspberries notes of the cacao intermingle perfectly with rose and vanilla.

    This reminded us of how much we love it when chocolate makers use added flavours or inclusions that work in harmony with the notes of the cacao. Here's a few other bars that do this very well...

    Dick Taylor - Black Fig

    This bar is made with the same Madagascan cacao as the Hogarth bar (Akesson Estate) but Dick Taylor bring out slightly deeper notes of raisin and prune with a touch of citrus. As you can imagine, the organic dried fig sprinkled on top mingles perfectly with these flavours.

    Marou - Ben Tre Coconut Milk

    Unlike a lot of other bars made with coconut milk, this bar tastes of so much more than coconut. The cacao from the Ben Tre region of Vietnam has incredible tropical fruit notes and the coconut milk seems to intensify these flavours. At first you taste coconut but then you're taken on an adventure into a land of mangoes, papaya, guava and more.

    Chocolate Tree - Whisky Nibs

    It's not surprising that our favourite whisky chocolate is made by a Scottish chocolate maker. This bar uses single origin Peruvian chocolate with a deeply nutty and oaky taste. Added to this chocolate are cacao nibs that have been soaked in Laphroaig single malt whisky, giving it a beautiful peaty aftertaste.

  • Drinking Chocolate

    craft drinking chocolate

    A few or our customers have been asking why the drinking chocolate that we sell is so much more delicious than your average hot chocolate, so permit me to explain...

    It’s not just about the quality being higher - it’s a completely different process. Mainstream drinking chocolate is made from intensively farmed Forastero cacao, usually coming out of West Africa or Indonesia. Lower quality cacao beans that are not deemed good enough to make chocolate with are separated and sent to a press - a machine that extracts the fat (cocoa butter) from the cacao. The leftover solids are then ground up into pure cocoa powder, which is mixed with lots of sugar (and usually a few other unnecessary ingredients) to make drinking chocolate.

    By comparison, the drinking chocolate that we sell is made from rare and high quality cacao - currently organic Criollo from Peru and organic Trinitario from the Dominican Republic. The finest beans are selected by the chocolate makers and they go through the same process as the chocolate that gets turned into bars - the whole nibs are ground and there is no separation of fats and solids. The finished chocolate then gets ground into a powder that we sell in bags or serve as hot chocolate at the Underground Market.

    Currently we sell the Hogarth Craft Chocolate Peru 66% and Dominican Republic 75%, plus we recently added the Wellington Chocolate Factory Salted Caramel. All of these drinking chocolates are made with exactly the same chocolate that goes into the finished bars, only ground into a powder instead.

  • Academy of Chocolate Awards 2017

    academy of chocolate awards 2017

    Last night the results of the prestigious Academy of Chocolate Awards were announced and we were delighted to discover that eleven of the bars that we currently stock won awards.

    Most exciting for us was the fact that Hogarth Craft Chocolate picked up two silvers for their Haiti and Peru bars and a GOLD for their Gianduia. It's amazing to see New Zealand being put so firmly on the craft chocolate map.

    Congratulations to all the winners and of course to the farmers who work so hard to produce the beautiful cacao.

    Here's a rundown of the winning bars that we stock...

    Hogarth Gianduia - Gold

    Hogarth Peru 66% - Silver

    Hogarth Haiti 68% - Silver

    Marou Ben Tre Coconut Milk - Silver

    Chocolate Tree Madagascar Ambanja - Silver

    Chocolate Tree Whisky Nibs - Silver

    Sirene Kokoa Kamili (part of the Ecuador/Tanzania duo pack) - Silver

    Original Beans Cusco Chuncho 100% - Silver

    Dick Taylor Belize, Toledo - Bronze

    Map Chocolate Meteor Shower - Bronze

    Zotter Labooko Peru Barranquita - Bronze

     

  • Hogarth Craft Chocolate - Matasawalevu

    Hogarth craft chocolate fiji

    Have you tried the new Hogarth Craft Chocolate Fiji bar yet? If not then you're in for a treat!

    This is the first bar in our collection to be made from Amelonado cacao, which is a subspecies of Forastero, the most commonly grown cacao in the world. You don't tend to see Forastero used in craft chocolate very often as it is generally considered to offer less interesting and fine flavours, compared to other cacao varieties like Trinitario or Criollo. But this bar is a great example of how there is no golden rule for these things - you can have beautiful Forastero and you can have crap Forastero, just like you can excellent or poor sauvignon blanc.

    Splitting cacao into these core species and trying to identify quality or flavours this way is a little outdated and simplistic. Really it comes down each specific plantation and situation - the climate, the region, the terroir, the fermentation and drying methods, the particular harvest, etc etc. This bar is a great example of how incredible Forastero can be when it reaches its full potential and is properly cared for.

    This is why we love craft chocolate. Instead of one 'chocolatey' taste there are a million possibilities for flavour and a huge range of factors that affect every single bean. It's endless and fascinating.

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