At a recent seminar sponsored by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, one of Cuna de Piedra’s founders, Enrique Pérez, described the brand’s somewhat inauspicious product launch at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in November 2019. The brand had just been conceived of in March of that same year, and the team behind Cuna de Piedra had only received the wrappers for their bean-to-bar chocolates the night before the event. Pérez was already unsure that the brand’s value would resonate with U.S. consumers, consisting mainly of single origin, 2-ingredient, Mexican dark chocolate: “we don’t have creamy chocolate; we don’t have chocolate and hazelnut, etc.” he says.
When the team initially found that not a lot of people at the festival seemed interested in trying their samples, they thought their fears might be confirmed, if it weren’t for one lady who expressed a lot of enthusiasm for what they were doing and wanted to taste. Pérez describes her reaction: “‘You know what? This is incredible and I love it,’ she said, “but I cannot taste the Tabasco…’”
“People weren’t trying our samples,” Pérez explains, “because they saw the word Tabasco and thought, ‘hot sauce.’’ Five of seven of Cuna de Piedra’s chocolate bars (at the time) had the word Tabasco on them, as the cacao beans are sourced from the Mexican state of Tabasco. “After that we started saying out loud every 5 minutes, ‘this is cacao from Tabasco, not with Tabasco,’” and eventually a crowd gathered.
While it might have seemed inauspicious at the time, it is actually a fitting launch for Cuna de Piedra, as it highlights precisely the challenge that the brand was built to overcome: a misperception of what it means to be hecho en México.
CHOCOLATE WITH A MISSION FOR MEXICO
“We wanted to create something that was an homage to our land, to our people, to our biodiversity, and to Mexican cacao,” Pérez says. His particular lens was that of a food consultant, who had years of experience working with brands and producers on matters of innovation, quality, and safety. One thing that struck him as a matter in need of serious rebranding was the idea, both inside and outside of Mexico, that Mexican-made products were not naturally of high quality.
He cited a 2016 study conducted by public brand strategy firm Vianovo on the “Perception of Mexico’s Brand in the U.S.,” that found that not only did U.S. consumers not have a high degree of confidence in Mexican products but that its overall perception of Mexico was one rooted in crime and corruption. Perez, who partnered with designer and brand strategy developer Vicky González, wanted to make a difference, even if on a small scale, and create something that Mexicans could be proud of.
“We wanted to create a remarkable product that was not only delicious, but that also had an outstanding design,” says Pérez. “Even in Mexico, people place a higher value in products that come from outside the country, because they are considered to be of a higher quality and more worth spending money on.”
Along with González, they recruited Jorge Llanderal, a former tech worker turned chocolatier, whose family business Chocosolutions provides chocolate supplies and equipment to restaurants, who would help produce the first, Mexican-made, bean-to-bar chocolates for Cuna de Piedra.
Part of Pérez and González’s original mission was also to create a brand that had “human sense,” that raised the quality of life for everyone involved in the making of their chocolate, beginning with the cacao farmers themselves. Doing so meant removing the distribution piece that exists between the cacao farmers and the chocolatiers, partnering directly with growers, and paying them above market price for their cacao beans.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history and culture related to cacao,” says Pérez. “So we envisioned a brand to make 100% Mexican chocolate with Mexican cacao.” This also meant going to the source: a small region called Soconusco in the state of Chiapas, believed to be the birthplace of cacao in Mexico, from which the practice of making chocolate spread. In addition to a Cooperativa Rayan in Soconusco, Cuna de Piedra sources cacao from several growers and cooperatives from numerous Mexican states including Tabasco and Oaxaca
A STORY OF MEXICO
In addition to its collection of various Mexican dark chocolate bars, the Cuna de Piedra team also wanted to bring light to other important aspects of Mexico’s culture and gastronomy, especially heirloom crops. Read more by clicking here.>>
International Women’s Day has come and gone, but we don’t just celebrate women one day a year. We continually recognize them as essential in the cocoa value chain and chocolate industry.
Women play a critical role in small-scale farming, whether they are formally recognized as doing so or not. According to Oxfam, approximately 80% of the world’s food is produced by small-scale farming, with women comprising an average of 43% of this agricultural labor. Yet women often face multiple challenges and barriers, including less access to land and capital, and juggling food production with the extensive unpaid work they do caring for their homes and families. If you’re looking to support women producers in the cacao value chain, here are some of the organizations that are working hardest on ensuring inclusivity, market access, and leadership opportunities for the women producers in their networks.
Semuliki Forest, Uganda: 51% of the producer network are women, and there are many women in leadership positions across the company operations
PISA, Haiti: 43% of the producer network are women, and it is a women-led organization (Aline Etlicher, general manager, and Fenise Pierre Antoine, cocoa post-harvest manager)
ABOCFA, Ghana: 27% of the producer network are women, and 2 women (Sarah Larweh and Janet Aframea pictured above) sit on the ABOCFA executive board
Lachuá, Guatemala: 25% of the producer network are women, and 6 women sit on the leadership boards of the Lachuá associations
Tumaco, Colombia: 26% of the producer network are women
Please meet Shirat Nansubuga (first, above), Accounts Assistant at Latitude Craft Chocolate, our partner in Uganda who provides us with the delicious Semuliki Forest beans! When asked what she likes most about working with cacao, Shirat shared this: “It’s interesting to see the whole process – from sourcing cacao directly from farmers at our dedicated collection points, to the fermentation process in our production facility, and reaching the final export stage. Working with a company like Latitude that gives back, helping these communities by buying fresh cacao directly from them and giving the best rate, makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger which is a great feeling.”
In the second photo above, we have Fenise, the fermentation and drying manager (on right), and Aline, general manager (on left). Fenise and Aline have worked together since PISA’s first harvest in March 2014. These women are making their mark and leaving a strong legacy in Haiti’s cacao production.
These ladies are leading the charge in cacao production in the Tumaco region of Colombia. The first photo is of Doña Blanca Vivera. She is part of the Cortepaz association in Tumaco and has been a cacao producer her entire life. Her love for cacao doesn’t stop there! She also makes chocolate in her home and says that cacao is her favorite tree and fruit. Second is a photo of Maria Josefa. She is in charge of purchasing management, fermentation management, drying oversight and lot tracking at the Cortepaz association.
Last week, our team visited Esmeraldas. Raul invited us to his finca. He’s the former president of the UOPROCAE cacao Co-operative. His farm is about 4 hectares of jungle, reached by a bumpy road lined with emerald cow pastures and glassy ponds. I sat in the back of the truck with Jenny, watching snowy egrets, bright yellow birds with names unknown to me, and kingfishers take to the air as we rumbled down the track.
A small gaggle of cattle caused a minor traffic jam, but soon enough we reached the finca.
Raul walked us through a diverse jungle of banana trees, mamey, laurel (not the european one), mango, avocado, breadfruit, guava, mandarin, grapefruit, lime, lemon, and others whose names I’ve already lost, and, of course, cacao.
Taking his machete in hand, he sliced a cacao pod neatly off the tree and carefully cut it open to reveal the pulp that covered about fifty seeds within. Over and over, he repeated the process, pointing out different trees and naming the varieties – Trinitrario, Forastero, and Criollo. They all represented, though always with Nacional lineage.
He drew our attention to subtle differences in flavor between the yellow Nacional Forastero and the red Trinitario. I stumbled along after him, I wondered:
What did he use to maintain the soil so healthy? To which he replied – cacao pods, leaf fall, and home-made organic fertilizer.
Which trees grow well next to cacao? He kindly smiled and said – The small tropical tree of guava fixes nitrogen, while banana trees provide shade, and citrus trees share nutrients inside the underground.
As we walked around the finca, some of his neighbors and family were harvesting avocados together. Raul shared that the community tends to get together on a neighbor’s farm to do a minga (shared work project). The host, after the group has finished a large task, like harvesting bananas or building a chicken coop or digging an irrigation/drainage canal, provides food and beverages for the assembled workers. Part of a far-reaching reciprocal understanding of communal life is that the next month the host of that project will help out on someone else’s farm.
After we had walked to the far edge of his land, abutted to a national forest preserve, we heard the gradual crescendo of the downpour breaking above. The foliage was so thick it took a while to register, but Raul and Luis hacked off banana leaves with nonchalance and distributed them as umbrellas.
The chickens that had been roaming in our wake dashed back to their coop, to which we followed in single-file.
The care and attention that Raul and all of UOPROCAE’s farmers bring to bear on their farms – the biodiversity and community coherence – are the vital genesis of our process. We believe that, through our diligent and passionate transformation of cacao into Conexión Chocolate, our bars, couverture, derivatives and snacks can give flavorful expression to our producers’ labor of love.
The power and privilege that comes with knowledge is often a double-edged sword. Take chocolate. A seemingly innocent pleasure, a flavorful experience that can transport you, deliver joy, with just a bite. Until you realize that a lot of chocolate is created by people destroying the environment and using slave labor, and then that innocent pleasure becomes anything but.
Deforestation is endemic in regions that cultivate cocoa trees; forests are razed to plant cocoa farms. And production continues to grow—between 2000 and 2014, global production increased 32%, but the land-use footprint increased 37%; about 1% of forest loss between 1988 and 2008 has been attributed to cocoa production. In 2017, 24 leading chocolate producers pledged to commit to stop deforestation, but only a few companies—including Hershey’s—have taken steps to do so. Callebaut claims it will be deforestation-free in 2025.
Two decades ago, major chocolate manufacturers promised to eradicate immoral labor practices. But according to a recent report from the U.S. Labor Department, more than 1.56 million children are engaged in hazardous work on cocoa farms in the Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana alone, countries that produce 60% of the world’s cocoa supply annually. And despite their statements, Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé have publicly admitted that they simply could not guarantee that their chocolate chain was free from environmental abuse or child labor. (Each company could trace less than half of their cocoa; the vast majority was virtually untraceable).
While larger cocoa companies seem unable—or a cynic might say, unwilling—to document their chain of production, the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) has made it its mission to do just that. The HCP is focused on protecting communities in which cocoa is grown, and the children and adults who live there from abusive labor practices. How? By systematically tracing chocolate through its genetic code.
INTERVIEW WITH ANNE ZACZEK OF HCP
We sat down with Anne Zaczek, executive director at the HCP, to learn more about the challenges facing the industry, and chocolate lovers who want to support ethically sourced chocolate. Read on for a deep dive into the building of the HCP, its evolution, progress, and future.
The HCP was launched in 2012 in partnership with the USDA and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. What inspired its launch, and where does the funding come from?
The idea came from a conversation that Dan Pearson, HCP Founding Member and Pam Williams, HCP Past-President and Founding Member had with Lyndel Meinhardt, USDA-ARS in the middle of an FCIA meeting in 2010. Lyndel mentioned that the USDA-ARS had the ability to determine the DNA of any cacao tree and was using that for breeding program purposes focused on pod yield and disease resistance. Those programs, however, had never really considered the DNA of cacao, as it relates to the bean’s flavor. The idea of matching DNA to flavor was believed to have many positive implications for fine flavor cacao farmers in differentiating and preserving the biodiversity of their beans. The concept from there grew into what is the HCP today.
Initial funding for the HCP came from our Founding Circle members, a list can be found on the Donate page of our website. We are a registered 501c3 non-profit organization and are funded mainly by donations and a few grant programs that support our research and preservation efforts.
How has it evolved in a decade?
2022 is our 10-year anniversary of the HCP. It has evolved from a mere concept to a registered organization with a board made up of leading fine chocolate industry members from across all sectors of the industry.
We started with identifying Heirloom designees, first named in 2014. Today we have identified 16 designees located around the world. In 2017 we started our first nursery programs to support our designees with their preservation efforts. In 2020 the HCP board voted to add “discover” to our mission, to not only identify and preserve heirloom cacao varieties, but actively engage in the locating and cataloging of unique, vital, unrecognized fine flavor cacao varieties that are under the threat of extinction.
Looking ahead, in 2022 we will be releasing a Review of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements, which is a report the first of its kind. It is a comprehensive report that compiles all previous literature of historical and contemporary movements, and expeditions of cacao research to identify gaps in previous discovery efforts. Based on this report, we will conduct expeditions to locations where cacao is believed to have originated to discover rare cacao genetic clusters, and flavor profiles that have not been recorded and are under threat of vanishing forever.
How does the sourcing via genetic code work exactly?
In the early years of HCP, the genetics had to be retrieved from the leaf of the plant. In recent years, USDA-ARS has access to technology where the genetics can be sourced directly from the shell of the beans submitted during the HCP submission process. When beans are submitted to the HCP for organoleptic analysis by our internationally acclaimed tasting panel, beans are also sent to USDA-ARS to conduct the genetic analysis.
What is the USDA’s role?
The idea for the HCP emerged in 2010 when Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) representatives met with the USDA-ARS, which thought its lab could help the FCIA identify fine flavor cacao using the samples in the existing worldwide database. There was a shared concern that cacao preservation programs were focused on yield and disease resistance, not taking the importance of flavor into account. This led to instant action: in December 2011, the FCIA established a specific cooperative agreement with the USDA-ARS. Today, the USDA-ARS plays a key role in profiling the genetic flavor components of the bean samples we receive.
Has the problem of cacao sustainability gotten slightly better or worse in recent years?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people turned to chocolate as a means to cope, and have something comforting in troubling times. This resulted in a surge in consumerism, and not necessarily by informed consumers. The other side of this, is that some consumers did have more time to pay more attention to what exactly they are consuming. They had time to answer questions like, “What does FairTrade actually mean,” and “What is a true bean to bar?”
The sustainability of cacao is always in question, and thus the efforts to adhere to the mission of the HCP are ever important.
What are your biggest concerns and why in terms of creating this source line?
A big contributing factor to growth in sustainability aside from consumer education is consumer action. One of our biggest concerns is climate change. As temperatures rise in sub-tropical climates, the cacao no longer has a natural habitat where it can grow, thus leaving farmers who live by what we refer to as sustainability without crops. The livelihood of our farmers and their communities is a critical part of what we seek to protect. Being that cacao is amongst the top ten commodities in the world, we must ensure a secure environment for those who grow it.
How many farmers do you partner with, where are they located — and how many acres / trees are there? Any plans to onboard other farmers?
All of our Heirloom Farmers (i.e. Heirloom designees) have gone through our Submission process in order to become designated. We currently have 16 Heirloom Designees from around the world. Any interested cacao farmer from around the world can submit an application and bean sample to the HCP. It is a rolling submission, and there is no cost to submission.
The samples are received by the HCP lab at Guittard where we anonymously and uniformly process the samples into chocolate and liquor and send these samples out to a tasting panel for analysis.
Our tasting panel is a 9-member internationally acclaimed tasting panel, they conduct their analysis and determine if the submission is deemed Heirloom or not. Our submission process is based solely on the flavor analysis, however, before the designation is awarded a genetic analysis and site visit must be completed to confirm the designation.
More and more consumers of everything want to know where their chicken, kale, clothes come from. For one ingredient wonders, it’s easier. But for items like chocolate, it’s quite difficult. What are, simply put, the challenges of truly understanding where a bar of chocolate comes from?
There is a lot of greenwashing out there. It is important for the consumer to weed through it and do some of their own research, pay attention to where the beans are being sourced from, again, does the packaging list the specific farm the beans are coming from?
On each of the Heirloom Designees profiles on our website, we have listed the chocolatiers, makers and retailers that sell chocolate made from their Heirloom designated beans. For example: the farmers of Chuno variety in San Jose de Bocay, Nicaragua are the HCPs 12th designation (HCP #12) – On our website, you can find a list of the farmers of those beans, and a list of retailers that sell bars made from their heirloom designated cacao.
From what you can see, how much of the chocolate market is currently traceable or being traced?
This data will vary by companies. If there is direct trade, it’s noted that up to 95% of the cacao is traceable. The sale and traceability of cacao is also broken down into tiers. A lower tier buyer or cacao farm could have as little as 24% traceability.
What should consumers know? What labels should they look for to know a chocolate is safe?
With chocolate, (much like wine) flavor not only comes from the beans and genetics themselves, but from the terroir, fermentation and roasting practices. All regions have exquisite unique flavors ready to be discovered and enjoyed, it is important to pay attention to the origin noted on the packaging (does it state the farm the beans were sourced from?) And, it is important to look at the ingredients. We have set up a page on our site Buy Heirloom Chocolate where we have listed and mapped all chocolatiers, chocolate makers and retailers that sell chocolate made from Heirloom designated beans.
WHAT DO FARMERS THINK?
The HCP works with a network of farmers, so we reached out for testimonials on the partnership and progress. Here’s what they said about the HCP Nursery Projects:
“It is evident that this project will create an opportunity for smallholder farmers to increase farm plots by using the seedlings from the HCP and establish the longevity, effectiveness and sustainability of this imitative.” – Maya Mountain Cacao, HCP #7
“The young trees and the data we collect in the years to come will be important in terms of propagating valuable cacao. But, there is an intangible benefit to our association with the HCP – the network of relationships that have been developed.” – Secret, Finca Terciapelo, HCP #6
“Working with HCP has meant a contribution to the preservation and recognition of fine flavor Nacional cacao. We are learning about the genetics of our cacao and generating a technical selection process with HCP, which will protect our special trees for future generations. It is in the interest of the Asociación Nueva Esperanza to continue working with HCP to protect our cocoa and improve its productivity in an ecologically healthy environment, for the benefit of our families and focus on the production of high-quality raw materials or chocolates.”
Yamile Roldán, ASOANE President and Francisco Monserrate, ASOANE Vice President – HCP #6
The HCP “Establishes credibility for farms that grow heirloom cacao, and also generates publicity and awareness for heirloom cacao in general.” Jerry , To’ak Chocolate, HCP #9
ETHICAL CHOCOLATE BUYING GUIDE
Chocolate can be produced ethically. There are chocolates whose ethics match the vertiginous high of the flavor-packed experience it delivers, made from chocolate sourced from the cocoa farmers in the HCP network. To find them, head to the HCP site to find US retailers and international retailers, then you’ll need to find the specific chocolate made with HCP chocolate on their site.
Another way to indulge in ethical chocolate and support HCP? Adopt a cacao tree and receive information about the farm and chocolate bars too.
Would you be surprised if I told you that in many Asian countries, it’s common for the woman to give gifts to someone she loves on Valentine’s Day (February 14th) and one month later, the man is supposed to return a gift to her on White Valentine’s Day (March 14th)? This phenomenon originated in Japan, and has since spread to many other Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan. There are specific chocolates for men to purchase, which will convey the nature of the giver-recipient relationship.
Giri chocolates, also known as Obligatory chocolates, are typically presented in a square box and are given as a courtesy gift to acquaintances, friends, and colleagues. While Honmei chocolate, known as true love chocolate, comes in heart-shaped boxes, and is only given to romantic interests.
Let’s spread love in the month of Love. This colorful love box by And Sons Chocolatiers is the perfect gift to acquaintances, friends, and colleagues. These bonbons look so delicious I wouldn’t mind receiving them as a return gift.
What is Valentine’s Day without roses? This Beauty Bar Chocolate by The Chocolate Enthusiast is a great gift to show the receiver that you care for her as the ingredients used in this bar are carefully chosen to support heart health and emotional well-being.
So, which chocolates are you going to get?
If you would like to learn more about chocolate, its origins and a group of amazing chocolatiers, be sure to check out our website here at MakeMineFine.com. Also, learn more at finechocolateindustry.org.
The Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) is the only organization focused 100% on supporting fine chocolate professionals. We promote the artistry and craftsmanship of the chocolate professional, focused on producing superior products made from premium chocolate and natural ingredients. We believe in using best practices in cacao processing and chocolate production; as well as transparent labeling and marketing practices.
Since winter is the perfect season for chocolate beverages, we are focusing on two chefs who have a special talent for all things chocolate. Chef Donald Wressel and Chef Josh Johnson of Guittard Chocolate have shared some chocolate beverage recipes that provide a unique spin on something traditional to showcase their expertise. Check out their distinctive takes on hot cocoa on our Instagram feed, @makeminefine.
Chef Donald Wressel found passion for cooking at a very young age, and grew his life around it. He began his journey at Washington State in the Chef Culinary Program, and worked in multiple locations on both the east and west coast before settling down with Four Seasons Restaurants for almost twenty years. In 1986, he began working for the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, quickly making his way up to executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills location. He remembers these times as his noteworthy learning years.
Chef Wressel’s commitment to excellence led him to participating in worldwide pastry competitions resulting in multiple awards and medals for his talent. Donald joined Guittard Chocolate in 2006 as their corporate pastry chef, and to this day continues to create new and stunning recipes that are incomparable. He continues to master his craft while teaching others as well with his “Guest Chef Series” classes at the Guittard Chocolate Studio in Los Angeles.
Another chef we’d like to highlight is Chef Josh Johnson. Chef Johnson’s love for chocolate began as a teenager working at his uncle’s pastry shop. He moved on to working at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, where he gained more experience alongside world-renowned pastry chefs. Josh ventured into many different pastry positions before opening Cocoa Bean Fine Desserts, his own shop in Geneva, Illinois. He soon became a teacher as a pastry chef instructor at The French Pastry School of Chicago. He was thrilled to be given the opportunity to teach others his craft, the way he was taught by so many chefs throughout his life as well. He now works as a pastry chef for the Guittard Chocolate Company, where he combines all of his knowledge and skill to bring new ideas and creations to the table.
We invite you to learn more about chefs and chocolatiers like these on our website, finechocolateindustry.org. The Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) is the only organization focused 100% on supporting fine chocolate professionals. We promote the artistry and craftsmanship of the chocolate professional, focused on producing superior products made from premium chocolate and natural ingredients. We believe in using best practices in cacao processing and chocolate production; as well as transparent labeling and marketing practices.