Thursday, April 27, 2006

Fair Trade? Fair Question...

Because the Bay Area is a wonderful place with lots of concerned citizens, we field quite a few questions about issues of Fair Trade and just general social and environmental equity in chocolate production, and I thought I'd take a few moments here to lay out some of those issues for our online friends.

Fair Trade Certification
FT certification is a wonderful tool for the modern consumer, (see: TransFair, for example), and Fair Trade certified chocolate certainly is available at Bittersweet, although not in the numbers some would like. Why is that? Well, FT certifying bodies generally will only work with groups (collectives & cooperatives), and most folks don't realize that the cost for these certification processes can be a significant burden. If you're a small family cacao grower (the global average size of a cacao plantation is less than 5 hectares, so the vast majority of growers are small and independent), you're simply not likely to have the organizational or financial means to bring in and work with a certifying body. Some of the best, most sought-after cacao in the world (i.e. some of the highest-priced raw material there is) doesn't come from cooperatives, but from small family farms that will probably never participate in the FT process. Does this mean that trade with those growers is inherently unfair? Certainly not. The short answer: non-Fair Trade certified simply isn't the same as unfair trade.
For some more information on FT certified cooperatives in the world of cacao, check out these in Ghana and the Dominican Republic for reference.

Use Your Consumer Power Wisely
So buying FT chocolate is terrific, but the variety in the marketplace at this time isn't that great. What do you do if you still want your consumer power to support the positive side of the chocolate industry? Well, in our opinion, you should shop at Bittersweet :-) This may seem self-serving, but it's a real answer: The vast majority of the problems with social and ecological equity in the world of cacao production occur in the areas of West Africa that provide 90% or so of world cacao to the mass market confection industry. This is the cacao that is rushed to market in order to support hand-to-mouth, unsustainable agricultural practices in places like Cote d'Ivoire, where the cacao market is a race to the bottom and low price is the final and only factor. (See this report for more information on cacao production in West Africa.)
The chocolate producers we use and market at Bittersweet compete for the top 8-10% of the world's so-called 'flavor cacaos', and the growers of those select crops are often achieving 3-4 times the global commodity price for cacao, thereby providing themselves and their families with a sustainable living. These growers also often have multi-year contracts with chocolatiers, and get the benefit of those companies' expertise and assistance in areas like organic growing practices, sustainable agriculture, fermentation, crop health and the like. For an interesting (and contentious) discussion on this topic, check out this thread at (Full disclosure: one of the Bittersweet team is a participant in that online discussion...)

All of us at Bittersweet want chocolate that we can enjoy thoroughly, and that means knowing that it was produced in a dignified and quality way, from grower all the way to chocolatier. We wouldn't have it any other way. Please don't hesitate to keep the questions coming!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bittersweet Birthday Box

Now that's alliteration! We're now putting together astrological birthday collections for that special someone: 3 bars chosen to suit the current sign, as well as tasting notes explaining the selection. All wrapped up in one of our beautiful new wooden boxes--it's the perfect birthday gift for the chocolate lover in your life.

Come in to your local Bittersweet to pick one up today!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Don't just take our word for it

There are some marvelously talented food writers lurking out there in the blogoverse, and some of them have given us some nice mentions! Here's a quick list of links for all you foodistas to see what other folks have to say about Bittersweet:
Dessert First
Culinary Muse
Confessions of a Restaurant Whore
Food Musings
Fac me cocleario vomere!

We've recently included links to the Yelp reviews for both Bittersweet stores in the right nav, so check those out as well if you're interested.

Cheers to all you chocolate writers & lovers out there--hope to see you soon!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Valrhona Ampamakia 2005

We had the chance to take a few minutes today and sample the Valrhona 2005 Ampamakia bar--one of Valrhona's 2005 "Chocolats de Domain." The bar has the texture and quality snap that we expect of Valrhona, and a lovely, almost reddish color. The aroma was lightly spicy, with a touch of earthy, woody accents.

On tasting, we encountered a light citrus and raspberry flavor that seemed reminiscent of the Cluizel Mangaro Noir, which isn't surprising given the similarities in Sambirano origin and overall cacao content. The finish was quite creamy with a subtle cocoa undertone and light acidity.

Overall, our only complaint was that the chocolate seemed slightly sweeter than it really needed to be...we all wished that Valrhona had considered a slightly higher percentage for this bar, but that may just represent a darker-than-average preference among the Bittersweet staff :-) All in all, this is quite a nice addition to the overall palate of Malagasy chocolates on the market, and would certainly make a welcome addition to most any tasting.
Valrhona 2005 Ampamakia
64%, Sambirano Valley, Madagascar
75 grams

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Cauliflory, how we love you

Theobroma Cacao is a cauliflorous tree, one of a family of mostly tropical flowering trees whose flowers and fruit spring directly from the trunk or branch, rather than the usual shoots, branching points or new growth. Cauliflorous trees tend to flower profusely, and periodically one tree in a Cacao orchard will get stuck in a period of "wild flower", in which it continuously flowers without producing fruit. Here's one we saw recently in this condition:

Strange, huh? So just how did this evolutionary pathway get started, anyway? Well, in T. Cacao's case, the tree is dependent on fruit-eating animals (frugivores) to distribute its seed, as Cacao pods will not drop on their own when ripe. That being the case, it's in the tree's interest to make sure that fruit is readily accessible from low elevations, and cauliflory is a good strategy for achieving that goal.

There are a few other cauliflorous trees that you might know as well, including: Jackfruit, Papaya, Breadfruit, and Carob.

Check here for some additional really strange cauliflorous trees and other intriguing info on the subject.