Chocolate artisans: A view from France

For the better part of two years now, my research has been focused on deciphering the meaning of the word “artisan” in the realm of chocolate. Recently, I sent off an article with some of my findings for peer review. While that piece is pretty comprehensive for the US market, it did not include the comparative research I did on Europe. There is of course a long tradition of chocolate on the continent, and the differences between “artisan” there and “artisan” here are fascinating to me.

The book that revealed the most was Susan J. Terrio’s Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). When I started reading it, I had been thinking that a main difference between French and American chocolate artisans would be the type of training they received. With its history of powerful guilds and an expectation of apprenticeship inherent to many crafts and professions, I anticipated that formal chocolate training in France would be a lot more rigorous than it is here.

And so it was. But that wasn’t the only difference, or even the most interesting. For one thing, Terrio’s chocolate artisans are none of them bean to bar makers. Instead, they are confectioners – they make bon bons and truffles and candies. I found no evidence at all (in this book at least) of a twentieth century French history of artisan bean to bar making. In fact, Terrio makes a point that when French chocolate artisans claim to start with cocoa beans, the other ones laugh at them and say that it’s highly unlikely to be true. Their craft is confectionary, and the infrastructure for artisan bean to bar making just doesn’t seem to be in place. At least, it was not when Terrio did her fieldwork in the nineties, although that might be changing now.

I was most struck, however, by the social traditions around artisanry, and their inflexibility in Terrio’s account. The rules governing chocolate artisans are many, and these are deeply cultural as well as political and economic. Chocolate artisans in France work in “houses,” run by a master and populated with skilled workers, some of whom are family and some of whom are not. It’s very hierarchical and classed and rigid. The house owner has a social status to which even the most skilled worker does not aspire: once a laborer, always a laborer, it seems.

This is a stark contrast to the US chocolate market today, where pretty much anyone who wants to can enter the industry. Whatever vague hierarchies do exist here seem to be based either on the amount of startup capital available to founders, or their moment of entry into the market (roughly divided into the pioneers, a la Taza, Askinosie, Patric, Rogue, DeVries, Amano; what Jessica Ferraro of Bar Cacao calls “The Class of 2010”; and the many new makers that have emerged in the past two or three years). But certainly, there are no social barriers to becoming a chocolate artisan in the US, as there seem to be among Terrio’s group.

Even more interesting for me are the gender dynamics in France. These are, bluntly: men are artisans and women sell chocolate. Even when women are skilled workers in an artisan house – for example, in charge of tempering chocolate – house managers that Terrio interviewed could not bring themselves to call those women “artisans,” or even skilled workers. They were sort of not counted at all, when the house owner described his team. Skilled chocolate making was the preserve of men alone.

Women’s recognized role – most prominently for the wives and mothers of the house owner – is to serve customers in the shop. While the best among them demonstrate deep knowledge of the confections they sell, their role seems more one of managing social relations with shoppers. This means listening sympathetically to customers’ woes and celebrating their joys, knowing their confectionary likes and dislikes, and catering to a highly classed set of consumer desires while at the same time maintaining a humility appropriate to their own “lower” social standing. Frankly, it all sounds exhausting to me, much more taxing than even the work of making chocolate. But such is women’s role in the houses of chocolate artisans in France.

Our own artisan gender dynamic in the US seems a distant cousin of the social arrangement in France: among artisan chocolate companies founded by heterosexual couples here, more often than not the man is working the machines and the woman is in charge of brand development. But while that pattern is evident, there are also too many exceptions – women founding companies and making chocolate, bean to bar, themselves – to call it fixed.

Those were the differences that stood out most to me – there were many others, and Terrio treated the whole artisanal industry with much more depth and detail than I can do justice to here. Her book is worth a read, whether you’re into Euro-chocolate or not. For me, it was a useful foil. It helped me see, much more clearly, how our own chocolate artisans are shaping their industry, politically, economically, and socially, by comparing them to the incredibly rich, yet almost sadly entrenched, history of artisanry in France.


Because I have lived here, at least part-time, for the past fifteen years, my chocolate eye has been most closely trained on Seattle. In Seattle we have a big and famous bean to bar factory (Theo Chocolate), industry innovators who offer brilliant combinations of education and retail, like Lauren Adler and Bill Fredericks, and, of course, the country’s leading festival. A short road trip with my brother, though, reminded me that just to the south, another city rivals Seattle for chocolate energy and enthusiasm. In some notable ways, Portland even has an edge over us.

This summer, I updated my list of bean to bar chocolate makers in the US. I’ve got 137 such companies in there now, and I know that a few more have opened up since my most recent count in August. But while we seemingly add a new maker every few weeks or months in this country, a few chocolate epicenters have emerged and will likely remain. By state, California leads the pack, with at least twenty bean to bar makers from Los Angeles to Eureka (Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate). Oregon comes in second with at least twelve (and I believe a thirteenth was added recently; I’m researching it). The states of New York and Hawaii also have sizeable chocolate maker concentrations, with at least nine and seven companies respectively. But by city, Portland is the chocolate makers’ choice of home: there are more bean to bar companies there than in any other US city. (So long as we sever Brooklyn from the rest of NYC, which I guess they do there anyhow.)

A large part of this has to do, I believe, with the delight Portlanders take in craft goods. For his excellent account of the resurgence of artisanry in the US, Charles Heying chose Portland as his case study. Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy (Portland: Ooligan Press, 2010) takes us on a tour through the many industries that have embraced a craft scale and vision in Portland. Heying didn’t include a chapter on chocolate, perhaps because there wasn’t the same critical mass of makers while he was writing as there is now. But he does have a chapter on food, and certainly the sentiment of artisanal food production—small scale, intimate knowledge of provenance and process, priorities of seasonality and locality—has long been well established in Portland.

Indeed, the city has achieved iconic status for its embrace of an artisan aesthetic, as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein lovingly mock its hipster ethos in Portlandia. For a while—in Seattle, at least—it wasn’t possible to order chicken in a restaurant without someone quoting the skit, “Is the chicken local?” The diners in that scene won’t order a chicken dish until they read through a dossier of the chicken’s life history, learning that “Colin” was a “woodland raised chicken . . . fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts.” Questioning the server further, Brownstein’s character wants to know if Colin’s organic certification was issued by Portland itself, as if the standards of the USDA or Oregon Tilth labels are not stringent enough for this most sacrosanct requirement of food.

While the hyperbole of Portlandia is what makes it funny, its grains of truth also make the real-life city a really good place for chocolate. Craft infrastructure begets more craft infrastructure, and having a whole lot of people buying and selling foods and furniture and bicycles that they made themselves attracts an ever-more-like-minded crowd. And thus the craft chocolate scene in Portland has expanded more than in any other city, at least by my count.

If you are in Portland, I suggest you make time to check out at least one of its bean to bar makers: Cocanu, Mana Chocolate, Pitch Dark Chocolate, Ranger Chocolate Company, Stirs the Soul, Treehouse Chocolate Co., Woodblock Chocolate Manufactory, Wren Chocolate Makers, or the new one that may or may not exist! If you are in a hurry, like I was this morning, you can stop by Cacao DrinkChocolate. Not only does Cacao carry Portland’s finest, they curate a stunning selection of US and international craft chocolate, and have some of the best hot chocolate in the country. I drank a cup of their cinnamon-infused this morning as I drove back to Seattle, and was barely across the bridge when I wished I had ordered ten of them.

So there’s your next holiday plan: book a flight to Portland, Oregon, and the city will keep you busy in chocolate.

Serious Chocolate Study

The study of chocolate has become a serious thing. As the craft of making chocolate has grown dramatically (in the past few years especially; see my article earlier this week in The Conversation), so too have the possibilities for analyzing it. There are actually many chocolate-specific courses now; I’m not sure how many, but I will count them soon. Today, I am thinking more about how food has become an object of academic inquiry, and the possibilities that that has opened up for serious chocolate study.

When I started my PhD program in 2001, I didn’t write an application essay about my desire to study chocolate. At the time, that would have been preposterous. I’m sure the admissions committee would have smiled at the unknown me, delusional applicant, and added my essay to the pile of rejects on the floor.

In fact, that is exactly what happened a couple of years later, when, as a graduate student studying the unimpeachable topic of water provision to the rural poor in West Africa, I submitted an application for a coveted travel fellowship, and wrote in my essay that I planned to take a break from water and follow cocoa-chocolate trade routes around the world. The selection committee read my proposal and instantly placed my file at their feet with the rest of the “definite no’s.” Later, for whatever reason, they resurrected my idea from the floor and gave it another review. Tonight, more than a decade later, I will attend a fancy anniversary dinner for this fellowship—for in the end, I did win it, and traveled around the world with chocolate, and that changed the entire course of my personal and professional and academic life.

But at the time it was a strange thing, to take chocolate seriously, to immerse in it as something other than a “chocolate lover.” I was that, too, but what I really wanted was to understand this food profoundly.

When I shifted my doctoral studies away from water to chocolate, I knew I had found my lasting, fulfilling research focus. But it also meant spending years on the defensive. As a student in the department of Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies, there were already many reasons to feel I was at the bottom of the academic social—and economic—hierarchy. In social settings, it was usually enough to end a conversation to simply say I was in Gender Studies. If I added, “I study chocolate,” people giggled, disbelieving. Many of those conversations have now collapsed in my mind to a single, emblematic encounter with an entirely fictitious, yet extremely vivid, sweating, balding person who would say something like, “Ho, ho—women and chocolate, eh? That must be fun,” with a lecherous emphasis on “fun,” as if to imply wonderful scenarios that my doctoral fieldwork must surely entail (mostly it involved sweltering on cocoa farms and hunched over books at the library).

Of course, that didn’t really matter. Social awkwardness is a tiny price to pay for doing what one loves, and I knew that virtually everyone else I had met along the value chain—from farmers to factory workers to people selling chocolate bars—faced real adversity. My own work was a privilege in comparison, and in fact.

Today, though, it’s different and it’s better. We are socially smarter about food. In the US, we have begun to appreciate just how much food—chocolate included—shapes human relationships. It’s less awkward to discuss, and those embarrassed conversations I experienced as a grad student are now many fewer and further between. This has partly to do with the rise of foodie culture and the current star power of food on TV. It’s also because today’s numerous craft chocolate makers are engaged in dialogue with customers who are eager to learn, as I wrote last week. But it also has to do with academia, and the seriousness with which food is now taken there.

The first time I attended a seminar, from a visiting professor, on “food studies,” I genuinely wondered what sort of methods or insights the speaker would reveal—and I was studying a food myself. But I learned that scholars like Sidney Mintz (and really, at the time, it was pretty much just him) had begun to demonstrate that the study of food could encompass economic and political and cultural aspects, and indeed could be used to understand historical shifts in political economy and labor—as Mintz did in his phenomenal, prescient Sweetness and Power, which is about sugar.

And now Food Studies is widespread, and respected, and growing. There are, according to the Association for the Study of Food and Society, twenty-three institutions in the US where one can study food as part of a degree program (and many more abroad). Some of these are focused on culinary arts and food science, but a number are explicitly housed in the humanities and social sciences.

I’m particularly interested in the latter. For example, Boston University’s Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy, the Graduate Center Food Studies Concentration at CUNY, the Master of Arts in Food Studies at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, and the Dual Major in EcoGastronomy at the University of New Hampshire.

All of these are inter- or multi-disciplinary programs that encourage students to engage with food as a complex and meaningful object of inquiry—and one that also shapes us profoundly. Likely they are studying food systems and their importance to human culture, global politics, our relationship with nature, or structures of poverty and wealth. Food Studies courses are showing us, in great detail, that food is central to virtually every aspect of human existence—and my thanks to all who are undertaking that work. I’ll read your books, and your articles, and celebrate your new insights. And tonight, I look forward to talking all about the time when I traveled around the world with chocolate, and started on my own journey—life-lasting, I am sure—to take it seriously.

Reflections on a decade as Dr. Chocolate

In fact, it’s been both longer and shorter than a decade. I began my systematic, scholarly study of this food—chocolate—closer to fifteen years ago, as a graduate student. And the title Dr. Chocolate didn’t emerge until after I finished my PhD, in 2008. It was Steve DeVries who gave it to me, when I told him that I had studied the political, economic, and cultural life of chocolate for my doctoral dissertation. (Certainly it was not a name I’d have given to myself; as one bestowed upon me, though, I liked it and it’s stuck.)

But the past decade has seen dramatic changes in American craft chocolate, and I have been fortunate to witness them up close. Back in 2008, at the first Northwest Chocolate Festival in Portland, Oregon, I moderated the keynote panel and gave a talk, as did several of the craft makers who existed at that time. We were all spread out across venues around town, so I didn’t get to attend everything. But what I did see—I think back on it now and smile to myself. It seems so young, so green, although at the time it was absolutely cutting edge, for the US at least (the rest of the Americas, Europe—those were different stories).

Many of us were giving these tree-to-bar talks, showing audiences pictures of Theobroma cacao, and of the many machines that it takes to turn the fruit of that tree into chocolate. I showed my photos from West Africa, and Steve showed his from Central and South America, and I’m sure Mott Green, rest his dear soul, told us all stories about Grenada. Maybe he showed pictures too.

Many of our audience members were wow’ed to learn that cocoa grew on a tree. For my part, I was beyond excited to share that fact. I still felt awed at having seen the tree in person—if I’d been living in a genre during that time of fieldwork, it would have been magical realism. My first cocoa pod, a gorgeous, hefty ruby on Bob and Pam Cooper’s farm outside of Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, looked and felt like some fantastical creature, as if I had met a phoenix or a centaur.

Brian Cisneros, who founded the Northwest Chocolate Festival (and still serves as its Executive Director), wanted an event that focused on education as much as eating. In 2008, we could show pictures of trees, and that was new, and fresh, and wondrous for everyone involved. Education around chocolate had begun.

When the festival moved to Seattle in 2010, Brian invited me to serve as Education Director, a role I undertook for the next four events. During that time, the education segment grew, as the craft chocolate market began to take off, and by the end of my tenure it was the largest public education program on chocolate in the country. While I curated the program, I was too close to it to have any real sense of its change. It took until last weekend, attending the 2015 festival—my first opportunity to participate as observer and researcher, instead of giving and supporting talks—for the change to sink in.

And what change has come. A program that was once satisfied by tree-to-bar was now a collection of in-depth, serious inquiries into not only the value chain, but the many social, economic, and cultural aspects of chocolate (politics—including cultural politics of race, class, and gender—has yet to be addressed rigorously, in my assessment).

There was a whole panel on price. Price! That mandatory keyword, central to every speech on cocoa trade ethics (“We’re paying a fair price to our farmers”), but that no one ever specifies (“Really? How much?”). Seneca Klassen gave one of the most thoughtful talks I had the pleasure of attending, combining—somehow—botany, history, and political economy in discussing Lonohana Hawaiian Estate Chocolate. Audience members were riveted by Dr. Kathryn Sampeck’s detailed review of her archaeological work on chocolate drinking vessels, and what these tell us about the genealogy of the word “chocolate” and its historical cultural forms.

But it was not only the diversity and depth of the talks that struck me; audience knowledge did too. Surely, many attendees must have been new learners regarding chocolate. But an astonishing number were far advanced in their studies. At every talk I attended, people raised their hands during the Q&A, and ask beautifully knowledgeable questions. When makers were at the podium, they asked about machines—not, “What does a conch do?”, but questions about specific machine models and their comparative efficacy. They posed multiple inquiries regarding cocoa fermentation levels. They compared various cocoa harvests, experienced, apparently, through regular and systematic bar tastings. A class from Evergreen State College attended, and I saw the students scribbling furiously in notebooks throughout the weekend, nodding or shaking their heads when the speaker made a particularly profound comment about the industry: a new generation of chocolate experts in the making.

It is a gratifying thing, this height of awareness. Looking back on these years studying the industry, it gives me fresh energy and enthusiasm for looking ahead: as advanced as we have already become in our collective chocolate knowledge, I believe we have only just opened the door.