The holidays, in chocolate: Part II, Austria

Perhaps no country has impressed its holiday chocolate so indelibly on my mind as Austria. It was a decade ago that I visited, but I remember the experience clearly, mainly for its several horrors. They weren’t the kind of horrors that made me dislike Austria. On the contrary, I’ve thought often of returning. It’s more that the things I saw there were so hideous, they have left me with a dark and profound fascination with Holiday Austria, including its chocolate.

I visited Austria in early December and the Christmas season was vibrant. My friend Michelle, whom I was visiting, brought me on a multi-city tour of the Christmas markets, which are a seasonal highlight. Market stalls filled every town square, selling pretzel-like pastries and hand-carved wooden things, woolen sweaters and Lederhosen. Everywhere we went, trees and stately buildings were dressed fancily in strings of lights, and there was always glow-wine and deep-fried Emmentaler cheese.

There was also a relentless, freezing, soaking downpour that pursued us around the country. From Graz to Vienna, we dashed from stall to stall in Christmas markets, standing for a few frozen moments pressed up against the table of wares, endeavoring in vain to stay dry beneath the small flap of awning, like goats. Our respite was hot chocolate. Lured in by the glow that spilled out onto wet streets from Austria’s million cafés, we drank dozens of mugs, served on silver platters with tiny spoons and a cube of sugar.

After one such café visit, Michelle and I saw a break in the rain and ventured back out into the night. While we’d been sipping chocolate and eating Sachertorte, the townspeople had turned out in great numbers to line the windy cobbled street, and we soon saw the reason why: a Christmas parade.

Of course we stayed to watch, despite the bitter cold, and it was a lovely parade. Then at the end-where, say, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Santa Claus would appear, driving his sleigh-a horned devil emerged from the darkness. The figure lurched and lunged at the children, who screamed and fled. We watched, transfixed, as he began to pelt them with balls of ice. Parents laughed and smiled. Michelle and I instinctively moved closer together as the figure approached us, swinging a vicious whip low along the ground, leering.

09 krampus

It was Krampus. I had never heard of such a person, but he is part of European Christmas lore. The devil to Nicholas’s saint, his job is to punish naughty children, the ones who don’t deserve gifts. In some accounts, he leaves them coal. In others, he drags children off to Hell, or simply eats them. Wikipedia has a fantastic image from an early twentieth-century greeting card that pretty much sums up the experience of a visit from Krampus:

09 Gruss_vom_Krampus

That was my first enlightening moment regarding Austrian holiday cheer. The second was when we did our stocking stuffer shopping, for Mozart kugel.

It was not possible to step into a shop in Christmastime Austria without encountering a kugel. This was especially the case in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace (No. 9 Getreidegasse)–for the kugel are named after the famous composer. They are a three-layer confection: a heart of pistachio marzipan, surrounded by nougat, enrobed in chocolate. Mozart kugel means “Mozart balls” and of course it is only too tempting (in English, anyway) to add the possessive to “Mozart,” and give the confection a new layer.

Historically, the Mozart kugel are award winning and beloved. Competition over which brand is the “real” kugel is fierce. The Austrians are wild for them, if supply is any judge. Accordingly, I bought many boxes of Mozart kugel, to distribute back home as gifts. Back in our guesthouse, having never known a kugel, Michelle and I dissected one. Inside, we saw a hideous thing:


09 kugel

I mean, really! Green, surrounded by a paste the color of some human flesh? Visually, the inside of the kugel was a shock. Nevertheless, we tasted one. And here I have to say something that I genuinely do not wish to say about any chocolate, least of all one that seems to be the confectionary heart of an entire country’s holiday spirit: I did not like the kugel. I think this was mainly due to the marzipan, which I don’t fancy, even when it’s not pea-green. Or maybe I was simply too old by then, and had missed a crucial Mozart kugel imprint period. Or maybe I just chose a lesser brand. Who knows. I would seriously like to return to Holiday Austria and taste them again to see if our relationship improves.

But for now, I am glad to be going to a place where there will almost certainly be no Mozart kugel: Nigeria. I will look for holiday chocolate there, and report back next week on the treasures that I find.

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.

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.