A month and more of 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!”

4

8
Photos courtesy of Quinn Russell Brown, The Whole U

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 . . .

7
Photo courtesy of Quinn Russell Brown, The Whole U

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 the talks, I also appeared on two NPR affiliate radio broadcasts. I always enjoy doing radio interviews, and I particularly appreciated the insightful questions of both my recent interviewers. For KUOW’s Local Wonder program, I spoke with Ruby de Luna to answer the listener question, “Why does Seattle have such a large local chocolate industry?” For KCUR, of Kansas City, MO, I appeared on Suzanne Hogan’s segment, “For a Missouri ‘bean to bar’ chocolate maker, it’s not just about the candy.

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.

File Apr 01, 8 57 56 AM

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Why I teach my students about chocolate: My guest blog for Dandelion

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!

Read my guest blog post here: “Why I teach my students about chocolate

The World of Seattle Chocolate, Part I: Chocolopolis

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.

champions box
Champions Box of award-winning Chocolopolis confections, photo by Scott DFW, @dallasfoodorg

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.

A Bay Area Long Chocolate Weekend

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!

Dr. Chocolate’s Own News Roundup

This week, my own chocolate news roundup. It’s a busy weekend for US chocolate, on top of other recent chocolate developments for me. I am in San Francisco, for the winter Fine Chocolate Industry Association conference, and all the exciting events that pop up around FCIA time. It’s like an early chocolate spring.

This year, the FCIA weekend is well-timed for my own work. The gathering of makers and industry experts in the Bay Area has given me opportunity to launch research for my new book! I have contracted with Polity Press to write the volume Cocoa, for their fantastic Resources series. I love these books:

There are about ten published titles already, with more in the works (including, now, my own). Each book in the series focuses on one commodity, and gives an accessibly written, yet detailed and contemporary account of the global political economy of that resource. University students use these books widely, but so do general readers who are interested in that particular good. I am, quite frankly, delighted to be author for the Cocoa volume, and have dived straight into the work.

Already, people with deep knowledge of the cocoa and chocolate industries have generously given of their time, which has been such a motivating start to the book-writing process. I’ve been interviewing practically from the moment I stepped off the plane here in San Francisco, and can see chapters coming into clearer focus as a result.

I’m also giving my own talks this weekend, and began yesterday evening with an event at The Chocolate Garage. I’ve known the Garage founder, Sunita de Tourreil, for some years now, and have always wanted to do an event at her unique chocolate space in Palo Alto. As Sunita describes it, “The Chocolate Garage is both an idea or a place. The idea is that you can shape the future by choosing what you love.”

The place is an actual garage, near to downtown Palo Alto, and it’s filled with the selection of chocolate bars that Sunita curates, very carefully, which meet her high and thoughtful benchmarks for both flavor and ethics. While currently open on Saturday mornings to anyone who wants to come by and check out the selection, The Chocolate Garage mainly operates on a membership model. Sunita has fostered a community of people who come together around a shared motivation to pursue, in all possible meanings of the term, better chocolate.

Given the high level of “chocolate education” among Garage members, I decided to do a bit of a provocative talk around the imagery used to advertise chocolate, which mostly appears on bar wrappers. It was a full house, and I am so appreciative to every Garage member who stayed for two full hours (or more!) to engage in discussion of issues that are very close to my heart. Thank you to Sunita for hosting me, and to all the very thoughtful chocolate lovers who made the evening an educational one for me too.

Today, I have the pleasure of observing the Cacao Grader Intensive workshop, of the recently launched Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. Institute founders Carla Martin (Harvard University) and Colin Gasko (Rogue Chocolatier) are on hand, leading attendees through tasting methods and more, as are Jamin Haddox (Certified Coffee Q Grader) and Chloe Doutre-Roussel (Chloe Chocolat). More on this to come. For now, it’s tremendously exciting to see a room full of people focusing with studiousness and care on the art and science of tasting. Before my eyes, the FCCI through its Grader Intensive is expanding the horizons of how we evaluate and appreciate cocoa and chocolate.

Up next tomorrow: the Fine Chocolate Industry Association day of events. I am very much looking forward to my Table Talk on the meaning of the word “artisan” in the chocolate industry today, based on my recent research. And then the Fancy Food show, along with more chocolate events, research, presenting, interviewing, and writing as the weekend unfolds. If you haven’t been to an east coast or west coast FCIA weekend, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best gatherings of chocolate nerds around!

Mast Brothers scandal: A news roundup

As much as I have been following the revelations regarding the Mast Brothers and their bean to bar practices, I wasn’t sure I had read it all. So now that the dust has settled a bit, I thought I would do a roundup. No doubt we have not yet heard the last of the “scandal,” but it seems a good moment to make an archive of stories; there certainly have been plenty.

As several reports have noted, craft chocolate makers and industry experts have long been open, at least among themselves, about their dim view of Mast Brothers chocolate. I’m not sure that the brothers themselves ever heard this, though, before the recent flurry of press. In a community that is remarkable for its openness and dialogue, Rick and Michael Mast have never been very participatory. When they first opened in New York, I used to try to arrange for a factory tour and meeting whenever I was in my hometown, hoping for insights for whatever research project I was working on at the time. But while other makers opened their doors freely, excited to show their factories and share chocolate, I never could reach a human being to talk to at Mast Brothers, much less meet them. I gave up some years ago, even though as Director of Education for the Northwest Chocolate Festival (2010-2013), I would have been delighted to have the Mast brothers give lectures or host an exhibitor booth.

It also seems to me rather icy that the brothers have (as of January 8, 2016), 6,973 Twitter followers, but follow no one themselves. Nearly every craft chocolate maker I know has expressed the utility of social media in creating and maintaining community ties. Many are active on Twitter and Instagram, and follow one another. It’s an important way of keeping up with developments around products and process, and to participate in the dialogues that help shape everything from industry ethics to events. For the Mast brothers to stay removed from that discussion is perhaps their way of preserving time for other work and personal priorities. It is also possible that they never felt participation was a professional necessity, given their commercial success. But perhaps too they hadn’t a meaningful contribution to make to the dialogue, and so kept out of it.

In any case, the open secret that was once confined to chocolate nerd circles busted wide open in late 2015. The first major report had come earlier, in March, by Megan Giller in Slate: “Chocolate Experts Hate Mast Brothers.” In this excellent and ultimately foundational piece, Giller revealed the craft industry’s distaste for Mast Brothers chocolate, and the fact that prominent retailers around the country—led by people who taste virtually every new bar on the market—refuse to carry the brand, citing various aspects of technical impoverishment in the bars (“chalky,” “tasted stale or moldy”).

While no doubt a revelation to many readers at the time, the story did quiet down for a while—only to be revived in a much huger fashion. Between December 7-16, 2015, the blog Dallasfood.org released a four-part series that ignited the recent storm. These posts went beyond Giller’s report that Mast Brothers chocolate is just not very good. They made the serious allegation that the brothers, who claimed to have been bean to bar makers from the start, had in fact re-purposed chocolate made by others (known as couverture).

This is a common practice, and no one disputes its necessity for certain business models. Making chocolate from beans is a capital intensive process, and requires all sorts of machinery and expertise, acquisition of which simply does not make sense for many businesses. Many chocolate bars have thus been melted down, recombined, and branded by “melters,” as they are often known, who do not start from the bean.

It amounts to heresy within the industry to claim that you are a bean to bar maker, doing all that hard work to produce chocolate, when actually you aren’t. Debates have raged before, when companies have been accused of making chocolate from semi-finished products, while claiming otherwise in their marketing. But these remained, for the most part, hearsay within chocolate circles. The Dallasfood.org reports, in contrast, included numerous testimonies by industry experts, spanning years of interactions with the Mast brothers and their products. All pointed out inconsistencies in Mast Brothers chocolate and supported the allegation of false advertising. Given the range of evidence—and no doubt too because of the brothers’ commercial success, which is often disparagingly linked to their supreme hipster image—this accusation went viral.

The day after the fourth Dallasfood.org installment came out, December 17, Quartz published, “How the Mast Brothers fooled the world into paying $10 a bar for crappy hipster chocolate.” Author Deena Shanker noted that Quartz had independently verified many of the claims made in the Dallasfood.org series. The article further delved into the importance of hipster imagery to the Mast brand, and its worldwide expansion. By then deluged with press inquiries, the company’s public relations agency had provided a statement to Quartz, refuting the allegations. This included the spectacular line, “We love making chocolate, and we have the audacity to think that we are pretty good at it too.”

Giller picked up on the story once again. The next day, December 18, 2015, she published a follow-up article in Slate, “Why Chocolate Experts Think the Mast Brothers are Frauds.” This further publicized the Dallasfood.org allegations, and included a quote from Mast Brothers public relations representative, Tim Monaghan: “We completely refute all of the allegations—which are unfounded and factually incorrect.”

The same day, Vanity Fair ran, “Celebrity Hipster Chocolatiers Reportedly Sold Remelted Commercial Chocolate,” by Tina Nguyen. Reporting language became even stronger: “The Mast brothers face allegations that their $10 chocolate was an artisanal lie.” Vanity Fair also smartly recognized its own previous celebratory coverage of the company. A standout here for me was the image reprinted from DallasFoodOrg Tumblr (from Twitter) of the brothers, sans their too-often-mentioned beards, looking adolescent and cocky.

01 mast debearded

Around this time, the brothers admitted, at least partly, to some basis to the allegations. Rick Mast acknowledged to The New York Times that he and his brother did use couverture in early experimentation, as they worked out their bean to bar process. This came to light on December 20, 2015, in “Unwrapping the Mythos of Mast Brothers Chocolate in Brooklyn,” by Sarah Maslin Nir. The admittance seemed to fuel the journalistic storm even further. Grub Street’s Alan Sytsma titled his December 21 article, “Mast Brothers Admit to ‘Remelting’ Industrial Chocolate in Their Early Days.” On December 29, Food & Beverage followed with: “Mast Brothers ‘remelting’ stirs debate over high-end chocolate,” by Adam Samson.

The best title, in my opinion, came a few days later: “Are You A Sucker If You Like Mast Brothers Chocolate?” headlining Dan Pashman’s take for NPR. CNBC followed with a nicely dramatic warning in, “Inside the Mast Brothers chocolate drama,” on December 31, 2015. The subtitle of this piece by Heesun Wee was, “Hipster code unwrapped: ‘Artisan’ pitch better be ‘authentic,’ or else!”

Or else is right. By January 5, 2016, it seemed to be accepted fact that the Mast brothers had lied, their fraudulence already a part of craft chocolate’s historical record. Simran Sethi (author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love) and Clay Gordon (consultant and author of Discover Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate, who had also been quoted in earlier reportage) collaborated on an article for the Huffington Post, “Peak Mast Brothers (It Was Never About the Beards),” based on a series of conversations about the laborious bean to bar process. By providing greater detail on the how-to of chocolate making, this piece underscored the gravity of misleading consumers that a company is bean to bar, when it isn’t.

And then yesterday, January 7, 2016, came the nail in the coffin: “DC’s New Chocolate Company Is What the Mast Brothers Wanted to Be.” Matt Blitz’s piece about Harper Macaw (formerly Concept C) used the Mast Brothers “embarrassment,” as he called it, as a foil for the hard work that Sarah and Colin Harman, the company’s founders, do to really make bean to bar chocolate.

And so, in a few short weeks, the bearded men have moved from prominent to piteous. While many in the industry have expressed justified anger that a company could be so successful, and at the same time so misleading, while plenty of honest bean to bar makers struggle to sell, I think the whole scandal has a net value. Such widespread and excellent coverage, in my opinion, only elevates public dialogue about the craft chocolate industry. Readers of the above articles no doubt gained a new sense of what it takes to make chocolate. Perhaps they are now in a position to ask more pointed questions when they fork over $10 for a bar. In the end, Mast Brothers likely did an unwitting favor for the industry, and we should thank those reporters—starting with Dallasfood.org—who took the time to bring it all to light.

The holidays, in chocolate: Part III, Nigeria

I’m not sure I did have high hopes for a robust holiday chocolate showing in Nigeria. But since I’m here, I thought I would have a look. I have lived in West Africa on and off since my twenties, and while I have usually been able to find chocolate here—perhaps with more variety and elegance in the former French colonies than British ones—it doesn’t transform the holiday retail landscape as it might in North America or Europe. There is more than usual, and more prominently displayed, but still not too much different to other times of the year.

10 display
Holiday chocolate display at Cameron Road shop, Ikoyi, Lagos

Thinking to supplement my research findings of the past week with some internet searching, I Googled “Nigeria chocolate Christmas.” It returned results for “Nigella chocolate Christmas”: all of them Nigella Lawson holiday chocolate fruit cake recipes.

Switching the order of search terms helped a little: “Nigeria Christmas chocolate” returned “10 gift ideas for your girlfriend at Christmas” from the Premium Times. A personally curated chocolate hamper topped the list (10 was a portrait of herself). Ventures Africa listed chocolate cake as one of the five best online Christmas deals in Nigeria, though it made an odd bedfellow with a 16GB iPhone 5, Nikon D90 camera, and Microsoft Surface. (Even odder, the fifth suggestion was the book Why Nations Fail by MIT and Harvard professors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. I found this strange because, despite persistent state-disrupting violence by Boko Haram in the north, Nigeria is doing well on the democracy front. Earlier this year, the country celebrated an unprecedented peaceful handover of power when the incumbent head of state, Goodluck Jonathan, lost the presidential election and ceded gracefully to Muhammudu Buhari.)

But while Google may prefer Nigella Lawson to Nigeria when it comes to chocolate searching, chocolates are a gift-giving tradition in this part of the world. Christmas aside, there are certain moments when only chocolate will do, as my boyfriend learned when he started his contract here in Lagos last year. Upon arriving at work on his first day, his assistant greeted him politely by asking, “Where is the chocolate?”

Apparently, it is custom for people traveling in from abroad to bring chocolates as gifts for their colleagues. Not sharing this token of one’s time overseas was a minor, though still grave, cultural offense. I was on my way to Nigeria too at the time, and still en route. After a quick phone call to strategize, I ran through the duty-free shops of Heathrow, gathering bags of bite-size Cadbury bars. These were subsequently parceled out to every one of my boyfriend’s co-workers by his assistant, and much appreciated by all.

I am convinced this wasn’t so much about the chocolate itself. There isn’t a strong sweets culture in West Africa, and in any case it is difficult to maintain a cool chain to distribute chocolate widely throughout the region, so it’s not an everyday luxury here. Chocolate’s function in Nigeria may be less about particular love for it as a food than as a modest but meaningful way of saying, “I care.” It could as easily have been a pencil. When I was working at Port Lockroy in Antarctica and it was my turn to serve in the museum gift shop, I sold pencils by the fistful to Japanese visitors—hundreds and hundreds of them. Every Japanese tourist brought back a pencil for literally every co-worker they had. It seems the same for chocolate here: “I bring to you a small piece of my time away, in a different part of this world.”

To find out if I would have done better to bring pencils than Divine bars, I casually asked my driver, Olivier, if people thought chocolate was a good holiday present here. His reply was one I have heard in Nigeria before: “People appreciate any gift that comes from your heart.” I hope Olivier actually does like the milk chocolate and dark with raspberry varieties that I brought as part of his Christmas gift, but I think the sentiment is more important. I guess that is one of the human universals we ought to remember, anyway, this time of year.

Having said that, Nigeria is not without its extravagant holiday chocolate expressions. I love the Christmas season in Lagos, where banks and telecoms companies string this megalopolis with an abundance of twinkling lights, sometimes with ads embedded in the bulbs (“Airtel: Always on”). Here and there, the OTT displays that mark the giant clumps of wealth around Lagos take a chocolate form. Shopping in my neighborhood grocery store for bottled water and yoghurt this afternoon, I saw this:

10 lindor

I wasn’t sure it was real, or else I would have bought it to eat (over several hours, obviously). But I didn’t like to take the chance, so instead I continue with my Lagos staple of Lindt Excellence A Touch of Sea Salt and now, awesomely, Coconut Intense. I hope that you are enjoying chocolate so nice as well. Till next time, happy holidays.