By Michael Laiskonis — Creative Director
Last month, the ICE Chocolate Lab launched Roots of Cacao, its first day-long symposium dedicated to all things chocolate. Through a series of talks, demonstrations, tastings and panel discussions, the program gathered more than a dozen chocolate makers, pastry chefs, industry insiders and historians to share their expertise with a packed room of nearly 100 attendees. Weeks later, I feel I am still soaking in all of the knowledge and insight shared in each intensive session, but a few thoughts still remain top of mind — ideas that I hope to address further at our next symposium.
Leading the technical side of the day’s conversation with his talk, “How Chocolate Gets Its Taste,” Clay Gordon, publisher of TheChocolateLife.com, broadly laid out the basic processing steps of chocolate from raw bean to finished bar, with a special focus on the complex building blocks of its flavor. Gordon proposed that over 750 individual chemical compounds contribute to chocolate’s typical flavor, reinforcing the notion that no single compound is responsible for chocolate’s complexity. It is thus the sum of many parts that gives each chocolate its character. Citing a study where researchers attempted to identify these individual components and theoretically reconstruct chocolate flavor, some surprising discoveries were made — the same compounds responsible for the aroma of peaches, cooked cabbage, cucumbers and even human sweat are all part of the mysterious stew that is chocolate. While the chocolate maker certainly brings much to the table, the development of these notes begins before the beans ever reach the factory. Genetics and post-harvest processes contribute significantly, and Gordon suggested that the microbiology responsible for fermentation may be the key driver of the terroir, or sense of place, that makes each growing origin unique. As a chocolate maker and educator, I’m inspired to better understand fermentation and its direct impact on flavor.
Our panel on sourcing and sustainability featured a wide range of perspectives, from manufacturing and supply chain to policy. Expertly moderated by Harvard lecturer Carla D. Martin, the discussion focused on the ethical, economic and environmental questions facing the industry. To put those issues in context, it is important to remember that the vast majority of cacao beans are produced by small farms typically only a few acres in size, and these farmers at the bottom of the supply chain see the smallest share in the price of a finished chocolate bar. One solution to this problem being pursued by panelist Tim McCollum, founder of Madécasse, is to significantly shorten that supply chain by working directly with farmers and building manufacturing facilities at the origin — Madagascar. Paying premiums for higher quality beans and creating a finished product of higher value at the source benefits not only the farmer but the greater local economy as well. From Mexico, the “cradle” of ancient cacao cultivation, ICE alum Jose Lopez Ganem shared his experience working on projects that seek to promote Mexican cacao by isolating the precise genetics and flavor profiles these heirloom beans offer; preserving and promoting these aspects of quality may reinvigorate farming in the region while also providing makers with unique high-quality beans. It proved extremely insightful to have World Cocoa Foundation president Rick Scobey join our discussion, as someone who navigates the world of so-called “big chocolate,” which relies heavily on cacao supplied by West Africa. Though craft chocolate makers typically ignore the “bulk” or “commodity” beans being grown, the sustainability issues on the table affect hundreds of thousands of farmers in countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana, who collectively produce nearly 75% of the world’s supply. The voice of the actual farmer is often missing from these discussions, and I’m already thinking of ways to include that perspective in next year’s symposium.
In between the demonstrations and panel discussions, guests were treated to several tastes from our chocolate maker presenters: Raaka, Dalloway, Cacao Prieto and Madécasse. Special guest Christopher Curtin, from Éclat near Philadelphia, shared his refined work, as did Marc Aumont from Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate in NYC. Most surprising was a special juice tasting from Repurposed Pod — made from fresh cacao pulp pressed in Ecuador, the juice had a bright flavor redolent of lychee, passion fruit and banana. Later, the juice was also featured in a bourbon-based cocktail. Given our lack of a regular supply of fresh pods, I’m particularly excited about the potential of this juice as a teaching tool.
A common thread that emerged throughout many of the presentations was the unsung role of women in chocolate. Historian and author Maricel Presilla highlighted the evolution of chocolate drinks through regional variations and innovations driven by women producers across Latin America — an idea echoed by Roger Rodriguez’s story of a sartorial hot chocolate lesson in the Dominican Republic that inspired his chocolate-making approach at Cacao Prieto. The reliance on women’s labor on smallholder farms in many parts of Madagascar and other cocoa growing regions was underscored by Tim McCollum, and our sustainability panel also addressed the rise of woman-run farmer cooperatives. I was excited to include up-and-coming Brooklyn chocolate makers Sara and Kelechi from Dalloway on our “craft” chocolate panel, who shared insights on their business and process. The subject of gender-driven marketing methods in chocolate advertising that tend to target women was raised during one of many open question-and-answer sessions. For our next symposium, we’re considering how we might grow the dialog on gender and other cultural issues — from producers to makers to consumers — in the world of chocolate.
The title, Roots of Cacao, evokes not only the rich cultural history of chocolate, but the entire chain of creation: the growers and origins responsible for supplying their precious harvests, as well as the makers and their processes. As much as chocolate reflects tradition, its evolution is also dependent upon innovation. While we ponder the complex path that chocolate has taken, we must also address the opportunities and obligations to foster a sustainable future. It has always been my goal to expand the reach of the chocolate making program in ICE’s Chocolate Lab beyond its four walls to include all of these conversations and the industry’s many facets. I’m grateful to all of our expert presenters and the diverse group of attendees for making the day a success — and I can’t wait to start organizing our next session!
Ready to study the pastry arts with Chef Michael? Click here for information on ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.