Some time back, I made the decision to put my blog and some other regular writing on hiatus while I worked on another project that was important to me: Cocoa, my book on the geopolitics of the cocoa and chocolate industries, for the Polity “Resources” series. It took me two full years to go from proposal to publication—a gratifying process, and one that required nearly all of my professional energy and dedication.
And now … voila! Cocoa will be released in just a few days in the UK, on February 2, and in the US on March 9. If you would like to pre-order, please take advantage of the 50% discount generously made available by Polity: enter code PY928 at checkout when ordering directly from Wiley.
One of the nicest parts about finishing Cocoa is, of course, that I can now share it with audiences. Below is a list of author events that I have upcoming in the UK and US. I will add further events soon for Accra, where I am relocating shortly from Hertfordshire. Later in 2018, I will have additional events in the US and UK.
I hope to see you at an event soon. Please note that while not all tastings are noted here, there WILL be chocolate all events!
1 February, 7pm: Launch event! Chocolate Museum, London
in partnership with Divine Chocolate
6 February, 6:30pm St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University, Oxford
with a tasting of Divine Chocolate
Somehow, even though Valentine’s Day is just one chocolate-focused day in the year, the number of “chocolate engagements” (so to speak) around that holiday seems to reproduce and multiply to fill a whole month or more. This year was no exception, and I spent February and indeed March very busy with chocolate.
Everything was a highlight! My dear friend and chocolate colleague, Bill Fredericks, also known as Chocolate Man, and I were invited back to give a second talk and tasting event for The Whole U. The Whole U is UW’s initiative to “foster community, promote holistic wellness, and share the great perks available to UW faculty and staff,” which I guess makes Bill and me a “great perk!”
Last year, we began our talk for The Whole U in the Hub on Seattle campus. We had just reached the chocolate tasting portion when the fire alarm went off! Bill and I looked at each other incredulously, and then everyone leapt up to grab all the chocolate and file out of the building. With our hundred or so attendees, we gathered outside in the rain, everyone sheltering their small paper cups full of chocolate from getting soaked. It was comical to stand there in the downpour, with people crowding around us to ask which chocolate was which, and what flavor notes they could expect from each. Eventually, we were allowed back inside to gather up our things, and learned that the alarm had been set off by a burnt bag of popcorn in a microwave . . .
This year, we returned, triumphant, to complete the whole talk and tasting with no building evacuation. It was a very enjoyable event!
I returned to Seattle campus the following week to give another talk, this time solo, for the UW Libraries InForum series. I had been truly delighted to receive an invitation to present to this regular gathering of UW librarians. I have been part of UW, as a grad student and as faculty, since 2001. Over nearly sixteen years, the UW library system has felt like nothing so much as a friend—both the vast collection of books (which I love), and the talented, generous librarians themselves. It has been a great source of comfort to me over the years to know that literally any piece of information I wanted, for research or even leisure reading, I could find at UW libraries. I certainly would not have accomplished the research and scholarship that I have without them, so it was a real pleasure to give back in even a small way and host a research talk for the librarians group.
My event, “From Tree to Taste: A Journey from Cocoa to Chocolate,” included a tasting component. I must once again laud the librarians who attended for their diligence in sorting the “data” that I provided on their plates, and for their excellent forbearance as I made them wait to taste that “data,” as I explicated the many features of the chocolate trade.
In addition to my book manuscript work, I had two other writing opportunities around Valentine’s Day. As I wrote in my last post, it was my great pleasure to contribute a guest post for San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate blog. The tireless and talented Molly Gore solicited and brilliantly edited my post, for which I am so grateful. “Why I teach my students about chocolate” is about my pioneering UW Bothell class—the first university class in the country devoted entirely to chocolate.
I also collaborated with Curtis Vreeland, confectionary industry expert and principal of Vreeland & Associates, to write an article on “artisanry” in the craft chocolate industry, which is due out shortly. I look forward to sharing that piece just as soon as it is published.
And then, after all that, I went on holiday! I was very glad to have time with my family in New York and also with my boyfriend’s family in South Africa. I arrived back in the US on Monday, and dove straight back into chocolate work. From San Francisco airport, I drove up to Moshin Vineyards in Sonoma County, where I hosted an absolutely delightful wine and chocolate pairing event. Somehow the jet lag had not yet hit after 36+ straight hours of travel from Cape Town, and it was a real pleasure to talk and taste chocolate (including Dandelion Madagascar, Dick Taylor Madagascar, and Trader Joe’s Ecuador) with the guests.
The pairing event kicked off my week here in Sonoma, as writer-in-residence at Moshin Vineyards. My grateful thanks to Marcy Gordon and Writing Between the Vines for supporting this extremely productive, rejuvenating time here at the vineyard. I have been hard at work on a processing chapter for my book Cocoa, for Polity Press. It is further along than I had even hoped it would be. I feel so fortunate to have spent a week focused completely on writing in such a stunning and peaceful environment.
Finally, my thanks to Julia Lander for re-integrating me into the world of human conversation yesterday evening, after my week of solitude with words, and the exceptional tasting of Moshin wines! Till next time, happy spring to all.
This week, I wrote a guest blog post for Dandelion Chocolate. The topic is my UW Bothell class Chocolate: A Global Inquiry. When I started teaching it in 2010, it was the first university class in the country (maybe world?) devoted entirely to chocolate.
Enjoy, and thank you, Dandelion, for the opportunity to write for your blog!
This past Valentine’s weekend, I enjoyed a brief visit to London. For a trip that was short on time, it was profound for me as a researcher. In the midst now of writing the volume Cocoa for the Polity Press Resources series, I am thinking too of the fact that the few words of thanks that appear in every book’s “Acknowledgements” section never do justice to the contributions of those thanked individuals. So it’s nice to have a blog, where I can say “thank you” in at least a few more words.
My meeting this past week with Sophi Tranchell (Managing Director) and Charlotte Borger (Communications Director) at Divine Chocolate was inspirational, thought-provoking, and a true pleasure. While incredibly helpful for my current research, I realized that our conversation built upon a much longer history of support and encouragement from Divine in my work, which has shaped me as a scholar.
My first encounter with the company was as a doctoral candidate. In 2005, I spent a year in the field, moving slowly westward from Seattle, through Asia-Pacific growing regions and Asian and Middle Eastern consumer hotspots, until I reached my main research area: Ghana. One of my goals there was to conduct fieldwork with Kuapa Kokoo, the Fairtrade-certified cooperative, which supplies cocoa for Divine Chocolate.
My years of preparation as a PhD student had provided an idea of what research would entail. I spent months developing survey tools, having those vetted by professors and the UW Human Subjects committee, and double checking my hypotheses against those of learned scholars. My committee members—the professors who guided me through my PhD—had all talked me through the process multiple times, encouraging me to be open to challenges as well as discoveries. But I had to live that myself before I could recognize the wisdom of what they were saying.
I can’t remember exactly what was going through my mind at the time, and perhaps I have blocked out the more embarrassing details of my “green-ness” as a researcher. But I know I imagined that research would be simply there for the taking. That farmers would be ready, able, and willing to share their expertise and experiences with me, a stranger who wanted to understand and write about their labor.
This was despite having spent years studying feminist and development studies critiques of “traditional” research protocols. These critiques make it plain that the scenario of a “knowledge producer” arriving in a foreign context and immediately comprehending cultural, social, economic, and political norms well enough to conduct meaningful inquiry was, frankly, delusional.
While intellectually I understood that, it didn’t always guide my expectations when it came to getting the work done. Though I had lived in West Africa prior to my doctoral fieldwork, I’d barely been on a farm. My ideas about what I would find in Ghana’s cocoa industry had almost no basis in lived experience. This is all a long way of saying that when I turned up in Ghana, I had little idea how to proceed.
It turns out that research requires help. I needed to find people who were immersed in Ghana and in cocoa, and who were not just able but willing to provide assistance. This assistance was basically everything, from trucks to drive around in, to cultural interpreters who could explain to me what I was seeing in the field. I realized this (almost) right away, and set out to find such help. Happily, I did find it, and one of the first people to open a door for me was Sophi Tranchell.
One moment I do remember distinctly: sitting in a sodden, flooded guesthouse room in Kumasi after a heavy rain, talking on my cellphone to Sophi in London. She talked through my research questions with me, offered critiques and advice, and suggested other resources that would help me understand the environment I was in. It was my first conversation after arriving in Ghana that gave me hope I might actually be able to complete my project. It laid the first stone on a path that I finally realized I had to pave myself: the road to research was not ready-made and waiting for me to walk down it. Crucially, Sophi also made the necessary introductions for me to Kuapa Kokoo, and from there, I was able to get properly to cocoa farms.
We met in person when I arrived in London later that year, continuing my fieldwork in the chocolate consumer context of Britain. Sophi and I sat in the Divine conference room, as we did again this past Monday, talking through my research in Ghana. I noticed on the walls a series of advertisements for Divine Chocolate, featuring women farmers from Kuapa Kokoo. That turned out to be another watershed moment for me as a scholar of this industry. Captivated by the powerful images of women farmers holding pieces of chocolate in their hands, I asked Sophi to tell me more about them. I went on to write a chapter about those images in my dissertation, and in 2012 to publish an article about them in the Journal of African Cultural Studies. I have taught about those images in my classes too, for more than a decade now.
After earning my PhD, when I had become faculty at the University of Washington, I undertook another research project with Divine. This time, I studied the impacts of Fairtrade programs, especially women’s groups, among Kuapa Kokoo farmer societies. It was revelatory to return to the place where I had done my doctoral fieldwork. This time, I went to Ghana with a new preparedness: that of knowing that I did not know what I would find. It was indeed a strength to now be familiar—intimate, even—with my research context, having spent so much time there already; this helped me develop better research tools. But it was an even greater strength to recognize that I was there to learn. My return allowed me to see once again the power of humility, of letting the context shape my knowledge, rather than imposing my ideas upon it.
And now, my most recent research has once again benefited from the generosity and expertise of the people at Divine Chocolate. Sophi and Charlotte have vast knowledge of this industry, and are incredibly articulate of that knowledge. My conversation with them not only forwarded my understanding, it raised my expectations of myself for the book I am writing. In my nearly fifteen years of studying this industry, I am so grateful once again for the allies and guides who have pointed the way forward. So thank you, Divine.
I had the pleasure on Thursday evening of attending what I realized afterwards was my first ever official bar launch. Though I’ve been studying and working in chocolate for much more than a decade, I’d never been to a new chocolate launch before. And if there are more in my future, the jcoco arabica cherry espresso launch certainly set a high standard for taste and elegance.
But the launch event was for a bar by jcoco, which is Seattle Chocolates’ line of American couture chocolate. The arabica cherry espresso bar is the first-to-market chocolate infused with CoffeeFlour, and we were there to learn what that meant. I do keep an eye on the coffee market, at least from time to time. As primary agricultural commodities, cocoa and coffee share some economic aspects, and it can be useful to compare them. But I don’t follow coffee closely, so I was intrigued to learn about CoffeeFlour. Dan Belliveau, formerly with Starbucks and the innovator behind CoffeeFlour, explained it quite nicely, and I’ll do my best to re-explain here, though using an analogy I do understand (cocoa!).
Just as chocolate is made from the seed of the cocoa tree, so too is coffee, the drinkable product, made with the seed of the coffee plant. Also as with cocoa, the coffee fruit itself is not the focus; we’re only interested in the seed. Coffee does diverge a bit from cocoa here, because its fruit is a little more substantial than that found within a cocoa pod. Coffee fruits look like cherries, and are referred to as such. The fleshy fruit of those cherries is removed to get at the bean inside, and then, to my understanding, becomes exclusively a waste product. CoffeeFlour is doing its best to change that, by making a usable product from that fruit. What they are making is flour.
Chefs around the world have been experimenting with this flour. I read, for example, about the launch of CoffeeFlour bagels in Japan, at Bagel & Bagel, a large chain. Those bagels even have chocolate chips in them! But while it is interesting to read about food innovations, it is even better to taste them. We were quite privileged at the jcoco bar launch to be in the good hands of Chef Jason Wilson (of the former Crush restaurant, which is now a CoffeeFlour lab), who did an extraordinary job in treating us to his CoffeeFlour cooking innovations. I was greeted at the door with a Bacardi rum cocktail infused with jcoco chocolate and CoffeeFlour, and then my gaze fell upon a vast spread of foods, most of them espresso in color, that were all made using CoffeeFlour. Certainly, if the goal was to demonstrate its range and culinary flexibility, Chef Wilson succeeded marvelously.
We had olive fritters with CoffeeFlour ricotta, arabica cherry espresso, and quinoa. There was a pork tostada with arabica cherry espresso mole and salsa fresca. A hit of the evening, from what I overheard in conversations throughout the small dining room, was the arabica cherry espresso glazed beef short rib, bleu cheese, and cauliflower fritter.
It is quite challenging to eat and talk at the same time (or even to eat and listen), and I had a lot of technical questions for Dan Belliveau. But I had already been sorry not to be able to help myself to seconds of the savories, so when we got to the arabica cherry espresso and CoffeeFlour brownie sundae with salted peanut butter and caramel ice cream, I abandoned decorum and ate a whole second sundae while standing at the bar talking with Dan, asking questions through my mouthfuls.
I had a lot of questions because, quite frankly, when you study an agricultural commodity for a long time, you get used to a sameness in the structure of trade, a consistency around what we can accomplish, for better or worse, within a giant and static system. It is rare to encounter innovation on a large scale—such as finding a new food use for a substantial harvest by-product. As wasteful as we may be at this stage in our evolution, humans have demonstrated the capability in our collective past to make extremely efficient use of the edibles that nature provides. So to realize that no one before had thought to make something out of the coffee cherry on an industrial scale, to commercialize it and put it to a range of food uses, was quite surprising and intriguing to me.
One of those uses, of course, is to infuse CoffeeFlour into chocolate, which was the reason behind the launch. jcoco has infused CoffeeFlour and espresso into their arabica cherry espresso bar, and it’s the first chocolate to do anything of the kind.
That one is available now to buy. At the launch, however, we were treated to a different tasting as well. We first sampled the base 60% Seattle Chocolates chocolate. Then, we tasted three more bars, all with the same base chocolate, each infused with CoffeeFlour from a different origin: Vietnam, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
Because I have long been used to tasting single origin chocolate for its varied flavor profiles, it didn’t strike me as significant at first when I tasted distinct flavor differences among the bars. But then I realized that, because it was the same chocolate base, the flavor differences were coming from the CoffeeFlour. I was tasting the fruit of the coffee plant. It expresses terroir, too! This felt astonishing to me, but it oughtn’t have. I mean, different apples have different flavors; so do actual cherries. Maybe it was because I have no firsthand experience with coffee cherries—I’ve never held one, never tasted one. But in those chocolate bars, I suddenly became intimate with this fruit. It was a new and unexpected food learning experience for me.
Thanks so much for having me at your lovely launch event, Jean Thompson, Chef Wilson, and Dan Belliveau. I look forward to watching the story of CoffeeFlour further unfold.
A few weeks ago, I had a super fun time talking with Ruby de Luna of KUOW, Seattle’s NPR affiliate, for a Local Wonder segment. This program has a cool format: listeners submit questions about the Seattle area, and then local experts answer them. Listener Beth Ann Johnson had submitted the question, “Why does Seattle have such a large local chocolate industry?” and it was my great pleasure to be one of the folks Ruby interviewed to answer it. You can read and listen to the story here.
I love the final piece, especially the parts where we walk around Bartells drugstore on the Ave and check out the chocolates. (Meanwhile, friends from afar have called me with requests for Forte Chocolates, after hearing founder Karen Neugebauer talk about her confections.) I also asked Ruby if I might share some of our discussion that didn’t make it into the final cut, purely because of time limitations. Ruby agreed, so this week and likely for the next few, I’ll write about the other things we discussed. Ruby’s questions were very thought-provoking for me, and prompted reflection on the unique position that Seattle occupies in the chocolate world.
We discussed many things, one of which of course was that we have a critical mass of highly visible chocolate companies in this area, all of which serve, as it were, our different chocolate “needs.” Among these are Theo Chocolate, the first company to sell chocolate certified both fair trade and organic in the country. Then there is Seattle Chocolates, whose innovations around inclusions, among other things, have an especially Pacific Northwest flavor to them. Fran’s Chocolates has been a pioneer in the confectionery realm, particularly with their now iconic sea-salted caramels. And Dilettante Chocolates Mocha Cafés have helped foster a delicious and chocolate-based dessert culture in this city.
But there are other chocolate epicenters too, where leaders have been shaping the industry in Seattle and beyond. I want to highlight some of them—people and companies that have been influential in my own thinking and research, and elevated our city’s chocolate savvy in meaningful ways.
First up is Lauren Adler, whose Chocolopolis shop in upper Queen Anne has been at the vanguard of chocolate education since it opened in 2008. When I first walked into Lauren’s shop, I was stunned and delighted to see that she had arranged her selection of bars in such a way that chocolate education was inevitable and immediate. Because the origins of chocolate—that is, cocoa beans—are still little discussed (and even less so when Chocolopolis opened its doors), I have often found that people are surprised to learn that where the cocoa comes from matters to the finished product. While many things contribute to flavor, country of origin is a big one: a bar from Madagascar, to take a now-classic example, tastes very different to one from Ecuador. The former’s bright, high fruit notes can make a sharp contrast to the latter’s flowery tones, especially those made using Ecuador’s prized Nacional beans.
Chocolopolis sets the stage for this learning the moment a customer walks in the door, because Lauren arranges her carefully curated selection by country of origin of the beans. I know of no other shop that does this, and the visual arrangement means that shoppers are immediately aware that country of origin is meaningful. Regulars no doubt quickly learn which origins they prefer, and that is already a tremendous insight into the chocolate process.
And all this does not even get to, of course, the stunning line of Chocolopolis’s own confections and bars, which are right there alongside the geography shelves.
Lauren also has some of the highest standards in this industry for the products she will sell. Her process for selecting bars is rigorous, systematic, and inclusive of her staff. This is a tougher job than you might think, as the craft chocolate industry has grown exponentially in recent years, and determining what is technically superior from what is simply novel is no mean feat. But knowing a little about Lauren’s selection process, I feel confident in saying that no bar reaches Chocolopolis shelves without demonstrating a mark of technical excellence. This does not mean that the bars all reflect the staff’s or Lauren’s flavor preferences; it means that they are well crafted, and that we can trust the skill of the maker. Among the explosion of new bars on the craft market, this is the place to go to find the truly exceptional.
Chocolopolis also holds regular educational events, including tastings, happy hours, meet-the-maker evenings, a frequent bar club, and lectures (some of which I have had the honor of hosting). The staff members are among the most educated and knowledgeable in chocolate retail (and I do a lot of undercover questioning at shops around the country). They understand products and process, and can speak knowledgeably to the whole product range. Together, all of this means that Chocolopolis is not only selling chocolate; it provides a place where people can go to learn.
The website offers more resources that help shape a chocolate-educated consumer population. There are details about origin countries and why Lauren chose to arrange her bars geographically. There are also write-ups about the different makers and companies whose products line the shelves, which makes for a nicely curated selection of information about the craft industry. Lauren also maintains an excellent blog as well as a list of chocolate books.
Very few cities can boast this kind of site of chocolate learning: a place where you can stop in at any time, talk to someone knowledgeable about chocolate, and walk away with not only a bar that suits your preferences, but likely some new piece of information about chocolate origins or process. I personally have turned to Lauren many times over the years, with questions about American craft chocolate, and have always been enlightened by her knowledge. As a researcher of both cocoa and chocolate, it’s a boon to me that Lauren Adler and Chocolopolis are right here in my neighborhood, among the leaders in chocolate education in a fast-changing chocolate world.
The five days from last Thursday through Monday were among the most energizing and productive for my chocolate research and learning, ever. When I last blogged on Friday, I was in the midst of observing the excellent work of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute at its first US-based Cacao Grader Intensive workshop. It was a real pleasure to witness the training program, which is part of the Institute’s broader work to generate and share cocoa evaluation methods. Carla Martin (Harvard University), the institute’s co-founder (along with Colin Gasko, Rogue Chocolatier), kindly took the time to talk with me afterwards, and shared her vision for the FCCI. As the craft expands in new directions, discussions around what makes “quality” chocolate have become more prominent both within the industry and beyond. Carla and Colin are creating incredibly thoughtful, evidence-based approaches to developing a common, workable vocabulary around quality for this industry.
Among the many things that impressed me from our conversation is the FCCI’s strong grounding in information-gathering and sharing amongst many industry stakeholders. Carla described a variety of ways that the FCCI is amassing much-needed data around how to evaluate cocoa quality, and these methods involve near constant feedback loops. The instruments seem to me very sensitive to context specificity, while at the same time paving the way for people to talk meaningfully with one another about cocoa quality across a wide variety of industry positions, from farmers to importers to makers. As conversations in craft circles can slide easily into debates over flavor and quality “rankings” based on personal preference or anecdote (to be clear, those are my words, not Carla’s or Colin’s), the FCCI’s thoughtful, data-driven, and in many ways egalitarian approach is most welcome. I truly look forward to seeing their programming expand, and to the impact it will no doubt have on quality assessment across our chocolate world.
And after that impressive showing, there was even more at the FCIA events. This year, the Fine Chocolate Industry Association celebrated its largest ever attendance at the conference. It was an honor to host a Table Talk, on my recent research into chocolate artisanry. I was delighted to have pretty much a full house for the talk and humbled by the level of interest in this work—about how we can define artisan in a rigorous way, and use data to understand how consumers make sense of it. I shared some of my findings at the talk, and was grateful for the insights of industry experts into defining and applying “artisan” during our discussion. My publication on this work is forthcoming, and I look forward to sharing it soon—even more now after a successful talk at the FCIA. Many thanks again to Pam Williams (FCIA President) and Karen Bryant (FCIA Executive Director) for all their work organizing such a wide-ranging and thought-provoking education program, and for having me to be a part of it. I already look forward to the FCIA east coast gathering, coming this June to New York.
The Dandelion Chocolate brunch, the morning following the FCIA conference, was probably the most concentrated gathering of chocolate folks I have ever experienced. It was not possible to turn in any direction without running into someone who has made, or is making, some notable contribution to the industry. Just as memorably, I was never more than six inches from some nice brunch-y treat. All I needed to do was reach out my hand and, voila: something delicious to eat or drink (the thickly rich European-style hot chocolate was the winner for me). I was particularly happy to finally meet in person Bertil Akesson, of Akesson’s Single Estate Chocolate whose work in Madagascar cocoa I have talked about for many years in my teaching and presentations.
I was also very glad to have had the chance over the long weekend for several conversations with Jessica Ferrero, of Bar Cacao. While we correspond over email, meeting in person can make possible the kinds of thought-provoking conversations that don’t necessarily grow out of message exchanges. As I presented and talked through my analysis of the term “artisan” for the chocolate industry, Jessica shared her thinking around other terms, particularly “bean to bar,” and made me realize that these deserve our scrutiny as well. I am hopeful (hint, hint) that Jessica will write a posting soon with her thoughts on this, as they were enlightening to me. I’m also thankful to have been able to attend Jessica’s Bar Cacao tasting event, with Chloe Doutre-Roussel (Chloe Chocolat). The chance to hear Chloe speak is never one to miss, and her deep knowledge of flavor and tasting methods is always a source of inspiration.
The Fancy Food Show was a final highlight, though I did not get to spend quite as much time there as it takes to visit all six thousand booths. Instead, I joined a small roving group of chocolate people, including Sunita de Tourreil of The Chocolate Garage and Seneca Klassen of Lonohana Hawaiian Estate Chocolate, to hang out and taste samples at the A Priori specialty food booth and then the Crio Bru table. I am particularly grateful to Matt Caputo for the enlightening conversation at A Priori, to Bertil for a taste of his 100% bar, and to Cassandra Durtschi for the marvelous cup of Crio Bru Ecuador Light Roast cocoa drink. As I explained to Cassandra, with their lovely product I might at last fill the morning-hot-drink gap in my life. As a person who doesn’t drink coffee (likely the only one in Seattle), I have often longed to clutch a mug of hot drink in my cold hands on the dark, rainy mornings, and now that yawning chasm of desire can be filled. A million thanks!