A story of female empowerment in the chocolate industry

For International Women’s Day 2020, I would love to share with you a story of true female empowerment in the cocoa industry.

Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates, makes chocolate using cocoa beans sourced directly from farmers around the world. Luisa is currently the only bean-to-bar chocolate maker based in Nottingham.

She has won several prestigious awards including a Gold from the Academy of Chocolate for her 92% Philippines, and two Bronze Awards for her Makira and Madagascan bars. These awards confirm the fine quality of her chocolate, which is fundamentally different in taste and ethos to mass-produced confectionery.

Everything Luisa makes is vegan, gluten-free, and made without refined sugar (with no compromise on taste), making her products a healthy, ethical alternative to mass-produced confectionery. Luisa says: “Not only do we make dark chocolate, but have also recently launched ‘casholate’, a delicious alternative to milk chocolate, using cashew nuts to give a creamy taste, as well as a range of truffles.”

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We asked Luisa to tell us a bit about herself, how she got into chocolate making.

“I started learning how to make ‘bean-to bar’ chocolate in 2017. This was after a year or two of making healthier chocolate treats from my kitchen and selling them at local small producer markets. At the time I was a teacher of Textiles, Art and Food, and I’d always had a love and appreciation of chocolate.

My emphasis now is on producing delicious high quality dark chocolate using directly sourced beans. We work directly with our farmers and monitor the crop to ensure quality.

We also pay them a direct trade price more than two and a half times the average farm gate price, which we believe reflects the true value of the cocoa beans and is a better than fair deal for the farmers.

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Could you tell us about your experiences in Colombia?

Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates is the commercial partner on an Innovate UK project to understand the importance of fermentation in the chocolate process, and to identify the microbes present during that fermentation. The project runs over three different crop cycles, and this enables us to identify any improvements in the taste of chocolate arising from the scientific data and the related changes in the fermentation process.

Going out to meet the farmers – Martha Castillo, Carmen Erazo and Yanira Linero, was incredible. I saw the beautiful valleys in which the cocoa pods are grown, and we shared stories about our families, our children and, of course, our harmonious love of cacao, which is the central connection of how our paths would be drawn together to create a beautiful journey of women in chocolate. It was such an exciting moment to be presented with three huge sacks of cocoa from the female cacao farmers, and I could not wait to start the chocolate-making process, turning this creation from bean-to-bar.

We are building a solid partnership with them. They are benefiting from feedback from scientists at the University of Nottingham, aswell as getting paid more than three times the Fairtrade price, and improved beans thanks to the project.

Building a close rapport with the female farmers has enriched my practical knowledge, and seeing the vital positive change farming cacao, and being paid a better-than-fair price for their beans, has made to the lives of each farmer, was the chance of a lifetime. “

Wow, what an amazing project this must be to be a part of. I can’t wait to try the chocolate that came from Martha, Carmen and Yanira’s beans (I have ordered some, so watch this space!).

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Coca to Cocoa – Colombian Chocolate

Colombia is known across the world for its fantastic coffee, but it is less well known that Colombia also produces some of the world’s finest chocolate – 95% of Colombia’s cacao exports are considered “Fine Flavour” by the International Cocoa Organisation!

The regions of Arhuaca, Santander, Tumaco, and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are regularly producing prize-winning cacao, so I think it’s high time that the country got the recognition it deserves.

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Until relatively recently, Colombia’s cacao production has been predominantly meeting their own demand for drinking chocolate. They became completely self-sufficient in cacao in the 1980s. Most of the cacao is grown is grown in the Choco department on the Pacific coast which is largely Afro-Colombian.

Although production has increased by tens of thousands of tonnes in recent years, they still don’t export a massive amount in comparison to other cacao growing countries. This is largely due to internal conflict which has affected the country for decades, fuelled by the cocaine industry.

The Colombian government has provided incentives and subsidies to farmers who are voluntarily giving up farming coca in favour of cacao. High demand and high international prices for cacao are making it a worthwhile move for the farmers.

This programme was part of a 2016 peace treaty, ending half a century of war between the government and the revolutionary armed forces which controlled the cocaine business. More than 80,000 farmers signed the treaty, which was created by the former President. His successor, however, has shown less enthusiasm for the terms of the agreement, leaving many farmers feeling forgotten.

Farming the illegal coca allowed the farmers to afford to put their children through school. Although despite the clear financial incentives, many are leaving due to fear of violence from drug trafficking groups.

Many Colombian farmers are in need of a sustainable alternative to coca, and there are a growing number of groups in the country involved in teaching local people how to cultivate cacao.

There are a small number of companies making fine chocolate at origin, such as ‘Cacao Hunters’ and ‘Tibitó’. They are not readily available to buy in the UK, with my main sources being out of stock of both brands at this time. But there are many other brands around the world making fine chocolate with Colombian cacao.

Colombian chocolate is known for it’s spiced cherry notes, and deep cacao flavour. In the interests of research (it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it) I have tasted a few of these bars. If you are interested in reading the tasting notes, you can click on the links below to take you to the individual post:

Willie’s Cacao – San Agustin 88%

Michael Cluizel – Plantation El Jardin 69%

I would say they make for a perfect winter chocolate. If you want to get your hands on any of the bars I tasted, you can purchase them online at either Cocoa Runners or the Chocolate Trading Company.

Sound and Ceremony – My First Cacao Ceremony

I have wanted to attend a cacao ceremony since I first heard about them several years ago. I’ve seen them advertised over the years, but have never been able to make it for one reason or another. Recently a Facebook event popped up for a Sound and Cacao Ceremony which was happening locally on the very next day! I was determined not to miss out this time, and so I roped in a babysitter and booked my ticket straight away.

I did a little bit of reading about cacao ceremonies, and I discovered that they are a type of Shamanic healing (one of the oldest holistic healing practices), which has been used by ancient cultures worldwide for centuries. But unlike some other Shamanic experiences, cacao ceremonies don’t have hallucinogenic or “out of body” effects. They are rooted in rebalancing the energies within us, and restoring good health.

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The description of this event was so compelling, it sounded absolutely wonderful. The post claimed that I would “Discover the deep heart-opening enrichment of cacao before surrendering into serenity with a guided meditation leading into the angelic healing sounds of alchemy crystal singing bowls”. Sounds irresistible doesn’t it?

The session was organised by Tansy, who runs meditation sessions at the venue, and Wendy from ‘Ananda Rising’. Wendy bought the crystal bowls and the cacao along.

When I first arrived at the yoga and meditation studio, I was struck by how hot it was inside the room (coming in from the cold January air), and then how peaceful the space was. The room was lit only by tea lights and candles dotted around. The yoga mats were positioned in a semi circle around some gorgeous glass bowls in an array of colours, and next to each mat was a glass of cacao.

I felt a little apprehensive, as I had never been to a group meditation session before and wasn’t sure what I would be asked to do! But as soon as Tansy began to talk in her super-soothing voice, I was able to relax. We started by closing our eyes while Tansy drew a card (she also does Tarot readings) which would set the intention for the evening. The card she drew was ‘insight’. She placed the card next to the candle in the centre of the room.

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Next, we slowly drank the warm cacao. It was quite a large glass, but fortunately it was not at all bitter as I had expected. It was smooth, and unsweetened. After the session, I was able to ask Wendy about her preparation of the cacao. She told me that she cooks the cacao for an hour, adds in her own special blend of Mexican spices and rose, and sings to it while it cooks.

Once we had finished our cacao, we lay down on our mats with our heads towards the centre of the room. Tansy began to guide us into meditation, slowly, gently into a deep state of relaxation. I was surprised at how easily I was able to drift off, while being simultaneously surprised that I didn’t fall asleep! At one point, Tansy said to imagine feeling your edges (or outline) disappear and I could literally feel myself melting into the room. During this part of the session I had some very clear visualisations which felt exciting and I wanted to stay in this space forever (like when you’ve just woken from an amazing dream)!

Very gently, Wendy began to play the crystal singing bowls. The sound was incredible, it was as if the sound was moving all around me, while a particular note gave a physical pulling sensation and one felt as though the sound was actually stroking my forehead. After what seemed like hours (I could have happily lay there all night), Wendy marked the end of this part of the session by chiming some soft bells quietly around the room.

Tansy then brought us back to the room step by step until we were all sitting up and rubbing our eyes. The general feeling in the room was “Wow, can we do it again?” I was glad of the heat, as after an hour and a half of lying on the ground I would have been freezing otherwise.

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We then chatted about our experiences, and I learnt that the bowls were crafted from gemstones and minerals, such as Ruby and Peridot. Wendy practices sound healing with people who are dealing with serious illness such as cancer, as sound therapy is so powerfully healing on a cellular level. She also works with those in their final moments of life. The bowls really do guide you towards a deep state of harmony, peace and bliss.

That evening I felt refreshed, invigorated, and absolutely wide awake (not surprising given the massive hit of cacao) but this feeling carried on throughout the next day also.

It certainly was a unique and beautiful evening. An experience not to be missed, and one which I hope to repeat again very soon.

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My New Year’s Resolution – Eat More Dark Chocolate!

A new year is upon us, resolutions have been made. Exercise more, go vegan, cut out the booze, eat more chocolate.

Yes, you heard me correctly. My resolution is to eat MORE dark chocolate. Much more!

MRP_1803Now obviously, being a chocolate taster / chocolate festival planner / chocolate educator, I am certainly coming from a pro-chocolate bias. However, on my journey to learn all I can about the all-powerful substance, I have learnt a lot about its health benefits, along with the benefits to the small chocolate makers business, the cacao farmer and the planet, in buying more of the good stuff (less of the bad).

What do I mean by the good stuff?

I’m referring to craft (or fine) chocolate. Chocolate which has been handmade in small batches by artisan makers who pay close attention to every step in the process. From sourcing the beans, to bringing out the distinctive flavours from each variety of bean.

Similar to craft beer, fine wine and speciality coffee, there’s no official definition of craft/fine chocolate. The way I define it is:

    1. It celebrates the diversity of the cacao origins and flavours from around the world.
    2. It prioritises ingredients of the highest quality.
    3. It respects and pays everyone in the supply chain fairly.
    4. It has an ingredients list which is minimal (ideally just cacao and sugar for a dark).

When you start to learn about chocolate, it’s impossible to ignore the fact the mass produced chocolate is, largely speaking, a blob of preservatives, additives and sugar. Cacao is far from the star ingredient. So instead of celebrating the diversity of the cacao bean, and taking us on a journey of exciting flavours, every bar is as predictable as the one before.

It’s not just the quality of the finished product that makes craft chocolate a much better choice. There’s also the ethical factors involved. In a nutshell:

Craft chocolate makers generally source their beans directly from the farmers or through a cacao farming co-operative. This means that the cacao farmers receive a fairer price for their labour – it may surprise you to learn that sometimes this can be 3 or 4 times higher than the Fairtrade price (or even higher).

Having this direct connection with the farmer also enables the chocolate maker to know for sure that ethical practices are in place on the farm.

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But, it’s not just for ethical reasons that I wish to buy and eat more dark chocolate in 2020. I also have science on my side! There is a ton of research out there telling us that cacao is unbelievably good for us… Here is just a snippet of what I found.

Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate (minimally 70% cacao, 30% organic cane sugar) is loaded with nutrients that can positively affect your health. It is proven to have positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity.

Chocolate is one of the few foods that taste awesome while providing significant health benefits. Made from the seed of the cocoa tree, it is one of the best sources of antioxidants on the planet!

Studies show that dark chocolate (not the aforementioned congealed blob)…

    1. Is nutritious – Quality dark chocolate is rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese and a few other minerals.
    2. Is a powerful source of antioxidants – A study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols and flavanols than any other fruits tested, which included blueberries and acai berries.
    3. May improve blood flow and lower blood pressure – The bioactive compounds in cocoa may improve blood flow and cause a small but statistically significant decrease in blood pressure.
    4. May reduce heart disease risk
    5. May protect your skin from the sun – flavonols can protect against sun damage, improve blood flow to the skin and increase skin density and hydration.
    6. Could improve brain function – Dark chocolate may improve the function of your brain. Flavonols have neuro-protective effects. In other words, problem-solving, memory and general cognition skills are kept sharp when we eat chocolate or drink cocoa. 
    7. May reduce diabetes risk – Eating a little dark chocolate every day reduces your insulin resistance, which means you’re less likely to develop diabetes.

I hope that this has given you just a few more reasons to buy and eat fine quality dark chocolate in 2020. If you would like some inspiration for bars to try, Cocoa Runners is a good place to start (www.cocoarunners.co.uk) or you can email me on hello@celebratecacao.co.uk.

Happy New Year!

Interview – Lisa from the Chocolate Tart

What got you interested in chocolate?

I had an event catering company. I was a recommended caterer in The Lord Chancellors Residence in The House of Lords, cooking events for the government, senior judiciary and charities.  I was honoured to be invited a number of times to cook for the Queen. On the first occasion Eton Mess was requested for her pudding. I made cylindrical, wafer thin chocolate cups to serve it in. So many of my chefs didn’t know how to temper chocolate which gives the fabulous shine and snappy structure to the chocolate  – and I wasn’t too good at it either!! So I started to research. I got quite obsessed and then the idea of sharing my knowledge with a chocolate school was born! Initially I imagined only teaching other chefs. But right from the beginning I had students who just loved chocolate or wanted an experience and a lovely memory!
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How long have you been running chocolate workshops?

I started The Chocolate Tart in 2007.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is meeting so many lovely people. Everyone coming into the workshop is celebrating something, having a treat or just simply “me time”. I get quiet groups, noisy groups, groups of total strangers who all have the love of chocolate or creativity in common! I love the mix and have made many good friends through my work.

You are running the Knackali making workshops? What are Knackali, and what skills will we learn?

Knackali are chocolate discs set on edible cocoa butter screen printed transfer paper. The pattern is embossed on the underside of the chocolate as it sets. The discs are decorated with a selection of toppings. We have everything from mini candies, crystallised flowers, fruit and nut. You will learn how to make these gorgeous little mouthfuls so that they look professional and are packaged for you to take home and show off to friends and family.
Lisa is running her popular Knackali making workshops throughout the festival this weekend. If you would like to book a space, click here to visit the booking page!