If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that Dr. Nat Bletter was born and raised in Hawaii, or at least the west coast of the United States. He’s a particular kind of laid back that I typically associate with surfers, which is why I was so surprised to learn he’s actually from New York. (I mean this in the nicest possible way. I mean no offense to New Yorkers. Or surfers.)
I’ll sum up Nat thusly: we were both in San Francisco this January for the Good Food Awards and the Fancy Food Show. The night of the Good Food Awards ceremony, he emerged from the Ferry Building wearing a blue toque that made him look like an inverse Smurf. I was chatting with some chocolate folks. He leaned in close and asked, “Want to try something?” The next thing I knew, we were leaning over his backpack while he dug a pocketknife into a jar of something chocolatey. It was a test jar of Madre’s Cinnamon Daddy Mactella—according to the website, “a vegan chocolate macadamia nut spread made with Hawaiian ingredients.” It wasn’t long before everyone in our group had tasted the spread. After all, what’s a little secret among friends? I interviewed Nat at the 2012 Northwest Chocolate Festival. Here’s what we talked about.
What is Madre Chocolate known for?
We make chocolate, bean to bar, sometimes even pod to bar, from both Hawaiian cacao and from Latin American cacao. We try to connect the recipes to the origins of the cacao. So when we’re using Hawaiian cacao we incorporate ingredients like passionfruit, ginger, coconut, wild pink peppercorn, and smoked salt. And when we’re making chocolate from Latin American cacao we make it with ingredients that are from traditional recipes from Central America, like chipotle, allspice, amaranth or hibiscus, or even rare spices that haven’t really gotten out of Mexico like rosita de cacao. We to try to reintroduce people to the origins of chocolate. When we started, we thought it was kind of a crime that there was no chocolate you could buy in the states that was made from cacao from the origins of chocolate. That would be like saying you couldn’t buy coffee from Ethiopia, or tea from China or kimchee from Korea.
How did you come to chocolate?
By accident. Or foolishness, perhaps I should say. When I was in grad school studying ethnobotany, my classmate, who’s a Mayan archaeologist, asked me to write a chapter in her book on chocolate in the Americas. She wanted me to write about the traditional uses of cacao in South America, where I was doing most of my research on medicinal plants. I tried to fend her off for about a year and half, saying, “I like chocolate but I don’t know anything about it academically.” And she kept pushing me and finally my advisor said, “’I’ll help you. We’ll do it, we’ll figure it out.” And then I got really deep into it and started researching it a lot. And in 2006 that book came out and all my friends said, “It’s cool you wrote a book, but we don’t really care. Can you make us chocolate? That’s the important thing.” I had debated going to cooking school versus going to grad school and decided I liked the hours of grad school better. And I was like, “Hey, this is a way to bring back my interest in food and cooking.” I started experimenting at home in New York just with a coffee grinder, a food processor and some cacao nibs that I got at a local health food store. Everyone liked the results and said, “make more.” So I did, and got up to making 300-something bars for the holidays at home in my kitchen and they all sold out. That was about 6 years ago . And Madre, with Dave Elliott and I, started 2 years ago .
How did you two meet?
We met because I’m an ethnobotanist and he’s an ethnobotanist-in-law. His wife is an ethnobotanist. He was living in Oaxaca, Mexico, with his wife. She was doing research on wild orchids—their collection and sale and markets—and every time he went to Oaxaca from Hawaii, I’d say, “Can you find me this really weird flower? You go to this market and go into the basement and say the secret password and maybe they’ll know where you can get some rosita de cacao flowers that I really want to incorporate into some chocolate recipes.” After a year of me sending him on these wild goose chases, he sent me an email. I was doing research in Thailand on ethnobotany, and he was living in Oaxaca. The email said something like, “You know, I thought that when was going to Oaxaca to live that I’d be going to the mecca of chocolate. You hear so much about it—that the chocolate guy lives on every corner, that it’s going to be so awesome. And it’s awesome for drinking chocolate but not for eating chocolate because that’s not a tradition they have.” For a few months he tried to fool himself and pretend he enjoyed eating the chocolate that was meant for drinking chocolate, but then he gave up. He wrote me another email that said, “Hey, do you want to start a chocolate company in Oaxaca?” [And I said] yes…that’s exactly what I had wanted to do for the last 3 years, actually. So we started making recipes. He drove up to Seattle, and he bought a bunch of grinders and beans and tempering machines, brought them back down to Oaxaca with him and he started experimenting with all the recipes I sent him. We met up in Veracruz and travelled down to the country to Tabasco looking at cacao farms, traditional chocolate drinks and their additives. We also went to Chiapas together to look at other cacao farms and pull out some of these amazing recipes that they have, from people that have been making chocolate for thousands of years. You’d think they probably have some good flavour combinations worked out already. So that’s what we tried to translate into bars.
What’s the best part of your job?
Seeing smiles on people’s faces when they eat our chocolate, definitely. Having a lot of spare chocolate around to nibble on, although I do have to buy a lot of other people’s chocolate so I don’t eat all of our chocolate we make—because then we’d have no money. [laughs]
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
To explain to most consumers why it actually makes more sense that a chocolate bar is priced around $8 to $12, rather than the $1.50 they’re used to paying for a Hershey’s bar. That’s a big reason we incorporated a lot of education. We’re always teaching bean-to-bar chocolate-making classes, chocolate tastings. We’re leading cacao farm tours and chocolate factory tours to show people all the stages that it has to go through. If you want to make really good chocolate and you want to make sure people get paid well for it, and so we try to help them see why it really costs that much.
What would you do if you weren’t making chocolate?
I’d definitely be an ethnobotany professor somewhere, doing research in South America or Southeast Asia on medicinal plants.