Oh, Chocolate! how much we love you. We need you for every celebration, we want you crisp, shiny, but above all ethical. Europeans consume a staggering among of chocolate. Brits consume on average 15 pounds per person, per year, just behind the Irish, the Germans, and of course the Swiss who top the league table.
But it wasn’t love at first bite. This story starts over 3 000 years ago with the Olmecs who lived along the Gulf of Mexico, though it took another 1 500 years, for the first Europeans to have their first taste of cocoa. Christopher Columbus and his crew thought very little of ‘these strange almonds’ which they found ‘too bitter and too spicy’. Another 300 years passed before the Swedish botanist Linnaeus gave the tree a Latin name: Theobroma Cacao, ‘Food of the Gods’.
The price of beans
By nature of its geography, cocoa grows in extremely poor countries. Sixty per cent of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, mostly in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire where farmers earn on average 74p a day, women even less. It is not unusual to read stories of child-labour and slavery. In her book, ‘Rococo: Mastering the Art of Chocolate’, Chantal Coady who was awarded an OBE by the Queen for “Services to Chocolate Making” expresses her concerns: “Most cocoa farmers are over 70 and the young are moving to the cities. Unless we pay the real price for cocoa, we may have no chocolate in 10 years time.”
Quality and sustainability, integral components of honourable sourcing, go a long way but more is required to face modern multi-faceted challenges. Contemporary brands are working hard at developing a new kind of relationship with cacao farmers. Leading company Guittard Chocolate, in the business since the mid-1800s noted that most cocoa farmers have never tasted the chocolate that is made from their beans, nor have they had the opportunity to try the differences among the varieties of their country’s cocoa.
An observation which gave birth to Flavour Labs in Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Indonesia.
As this is happening, crops face a new danger, “Climate change threatens many of our favourite foods, but perhaps none quite as beloved by so many as chocolate” says Joseph Cameron Booth, UK lead at Rainforest Alliance.
“Many companies, therefore are now turning to certified sourcing as a critical element of their sustainable supply chain initiatives, since certification offers a level of transparency and stakeholder involvement that few other systems do. In the Rainforest Alliance certification program, farms are taught to use all pillars of sustainability—social, economic, and environmental. For example, farmers must work to protect endangered species habitat and forest areas, provide workers with decent wages, and respect the rights of the land and people around them.” he explains. These collaborative initiatives are not unique, Divine Chocolate, Fairtrade company, which recently opted to grow its vegan range, is 45% owned by cocoa farmers.
Good things come in sustainable packages
The increased awareness of the damaging effects of plastic has led the public to regard packaging not only as litter but as a menace against our environment. Handmade and ethically sourced is not enough to satisfy the demanding high-end shoppers, brands need to be at the forefront of the green movement too.
Some chocolatiers are ahead with their packing policies. Luxury entrepreneur of the year 2018, Amelia Rope sold her chocolates in biodegradable plastic bags. Family-run chocolate maker Seed and Bean, a brand with impressive ethical credentials was the first in the UK to move to fully recyclable paper wrapping and compostable foil. A move which made complete business sense and saw the brand’s turnover increased 400%. A little TLC goes a long way.
Savour the Flavour
There is no doubt, good quality chocolate always tastes better. Sixty per cent cocoa content is a minimum to look for in fine dark chocolate. The bad news is that chocolate like its ethicality is complex; the good news is, practice is the key to identify quality chocolate. Be warned though, this is not a license to scoff as much chocolate as possible in one go.
Let’s leave the last word to Jennifer Earle who runs Chocolate Ecstasy Tours https://www.chocolateecstasytours.com and is an authority in chocolate. She says, ‘The difference between good quality and lesser quality chocolate is primarily in the lack of bitterness you'll experience from better chocolate. The flavour will also last longer and most importantly will finish with a pleasant and clean "chocolate" taste rather than just sweetness’.
Words: Solange Berchemin