It’s September, and you know what that means: it’s time for the Northwest Chocolate Festival. It takes place September 21 and 22 in Seattle. If you’re in the neighbourhood, it’s well worth your while to check it out.
In celebration, I thought I’d do a double whammy this week, highlighting the team at Madre Chocolate today and Thursday. I caught up with them at the 2012 Northwest Chocolate Festival.
One of the first questions I ask in my workshops is, “where does chocolate come from?” Answers range from blank stares to “cocoa powder” (my response is: “where does cocoa powder come from?” which usually elicits a blank stare). Increasingly, though, people will say “from a tree” or “from Mexico” or, if it’s a smartass who’s been to one of my workshops before, “from the cocoa belt.”
The cocoa belt is the region 20 degrees above and below the equator where Theobroma cacao grows. Theobroma cacao bears ridged, football-shaped pods that contain 20 to 40 seeds inside, covered in slimy white mucilage, that can be transformed into chocolate. For the most part, the cocoa belt includes countries that seem far away: the Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Ecuador, Peru. But there’s one cocoa-growing region that feels closer to home, at least for North Americans: Hawaii.
Dave Elliot and Nat Bletter are the co-founders behind Madre Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate company based in Hawaii. They work with farmers on the archipelago to make chocolate that is grown and made in the USA. As a Canadian, I can’t say stake claim to the patriotic pride that this seems to rouse in Americans, but I will give you this: Madre’s chocolate is pretty darn delicious. And Dave is one of the smiliest people I’ve ever met.
Here’s what Dave and I talked about at the 2012 Northwest Chocolate Festival.
Tell me about Madre Chocolate.
In 2010, the idea was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Honolulu, Hawaii, in parallel with Nat Bletter (the flavormeister) and me, the other co-founder. And we started selling chocolate in January 2011.
How did you come to chocolate?
Well, it all started in the Amazon rainforest. Not just for the cacao plant, where it’s from, but in some ways for Nat and myself. We both did a lot of travelling. I did environmental conservation and indigenous rights advocacy in Ecuador in the Amazon, and ended up working there. I also worked on the coast in Ecuador, in the rainforest areas where cacao is produced.
I became fascinated by cacao’s long commodity chain that distances this product, which is treasured around the world, from its origins—the people that grow it, and the cultural and environmental milieu where the cacao is grown. And I got interested in how I could continue to work with rural communities in a way that would benefit them but so that I could also pursue my own dreams. That was, for me, where the idea of Madre Chocolate first started.
What’s the best part of your job?
Making chocolate…getting to roast and make chocolate on a daily and weekly basis. The aromas, working with the flavours of the beans, that’s the part that puts a smile on my face.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Other than the little challenges of tempering and things like that, I would say the biggest challenge is all the different hats we have to wear, which is also fortunately one of the really fun and exciting parts of the job. We get to be our own chocolate maker, our own bookkeeper, our own PR rep, our own sales and marketing rep, our own business development strategists, as well as become agronomists and work with growers and look for ways to improve what they’re doing.
Right now, a big part of our operation in Hawaii is figuring out how to take Hawaiian cacao production to the next level. And working on fermentation. All the learning that gets involved with that, I think, is actually what keeps our passion engine running. Having to constantly learn new things, because otherwise we’d be bored and would have moved onto something else.
What would you do if you weren’t making chocolate?
Probably still be running around in the rainforest, making maps. That’s what I was doing: helping indigenous communities map their ancestral lands so they could establish land right claims. I really loved that work. I would go back to that.