For my latest interview I caught up with Gabe Davidson from Wellington Chocolate Factory. Gabe has been a big influence on what I do at The Chocolate Bar, having introduced me to the world of craft chocolate back in 2012. Wellington Chocolate Factory's voyage to Papua New Guinea in 2015 was an eye-opener in terms of Pacific Islands cacao, and perhaps the first little spark of inspiration that led to me creating the Exclusive Pacific Chocolate Box. Gabe and his team created a stunning Solomon Islands bar for the box, so it was good to catch up with him and learn more about the life of a craft chocolate maker in the South Pacific.
What sparked your interest in making bean-to-bar chocolate?
I have a long history in the specialty coffee and drinking chocolate scene, so when I discovered that chocolate, like coffee and wine, can have so many different flavours, I was hooked. I swapped coffee beans for cocoa beans and never looked back.
You were one of the first craft chocolate makers in New Zealand, back when nobody had heard of it. Do you feel a growing public interest in small-batch and high quality chocolate?
Absolutely. Together with half a dozen or so craft chocolate makers who have opened since we started back in 2010, we have collectively been working hard to educate people on the many flavours and origins of good chocolate. I see a steady stream of people coming into our factory for tours and tasting their first cocoa bean. It's a really exciting time for our industry and I feel privileged to be able to share what we learn with a wider audience.
Your Bougainville voyage - back in 2015 - really got me thinking about Pacific Islands cacao. What inspired you to take on a project like that?
It started when I visited James Rutana in Bougainville and was talking to him about how the cocoa industry and agriculture in general is a great alternative to mining in the region. James planted his first cocoa tree in 1948 and has been a champion of the industry ever since. The trouble was that farmers were barely making a living selling cocoa to the large players at a low price. I was really impressed by the quality of his beans and joked about the fact that the only way we could have direct trade is if we learned to sail and pick up the beans ourselves. Fast forward a few months and we ended up back there on a traditional waka, transporting our first ton of beans into Wellington harbour. A supposed six week voyage ended up taking three months due to weather and a few hiccups - but we made it! An incredible life changing experience, the first time goods have been exchanged traditionally like this in 250 years.
What are some of the benefits of sourcing cacao from the Pacific Islands?
I see so many great benefits of sourcing beans from our Pacific neighbours. Paying a fair price for quality beans can improve the livelihoods of farmers and their families. The quality of their beans is good and often with a few small changes in the way the beans are fermented and dried we are getting some world class cocoa to make chocolate with, and showcase the quality of this region with chocolate lovers around the world.
You’ve created a limited release Solomon Islands bar for our Exclusive Pacific Chocolate Box. How did you go about sourcing those beans?
Every year we have the privilege of being invited to judge at the Solomon Islands Chocolate Festival. Here we have the opportunity to grade 150 or so samples of beans for farmers throughout the Solomons. Our choice of beans was from the 2018 winner.
What are some of the benefits of trading directly with farmers?
One of the best parts of our job as chocolate makers is getting to visit farmers around the world. Here we get to build a long lasting relationship and get a greater understanding of life in the cocoa industry and the opportunity to sample some incredible cocoa which may not be available though traditional channels.
Do you have a favourite bean to work with? If so, why?
That's a hard one! There are so many different types and flavours out there. I have enjoyed using Vanuatu beans, the chocolate often shared floral and other characteristics that remind me of Trinidad and Tobago beans, and as I found out later, a lot of the Vanuatu cocoa trees have their ancestry traced back to there.
You guys have some incredible wrapper artwork. If you could commission any artist in the world to create a wrapper, who would it be?
If I could resurrect someone I think it would be Keith Haring! I'm also really enjoying the work of Revok at the moment.
Are there any other chocolate makers who you find particularly inspiring?
I discovered craft chocolate through Dandelion in San Fransisco. I could not believe that a simple two-ingredient chocolate from Madagascar beans could taste like strawberry flavour had been added!
What’s your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?
I like that we get to work in an industry where we sell something which simply makes people happy and can do so while knowing every link in the chain of what we create is a force for good.
Thanks so much to Gabe for taking the time for this interview. If you'd like to learn more about Pacific Islands cacao and chocolate, be sure to grab yourself an Exclusive Pacific Chocolate Box!