Monday, September 21, 2009

Bar of the Week: Valrhona 2002 Vintage Chuao

65% Dark Chocolate

Origin:  Chuao, Venezuela

Bean Type:  Criollo

Vintage: 2002

Take our word for it:  this is a bar you DO NOT want to miss.  This week we are featuring our limited stock of Valrhona's 2002 Vintage Chuao.  These very special bars come from one of the final batches of Chuao chocolate ever produced by Valrhona (Amedei is currently the only chocolate maker with a claim on the beans). 

Valrhona has recieved copious praise from experts and connoisseurs for this vintage in particular. Temper is impecable, coloring is deep and rich, aroma is intoxicating, and the flavor is wonderfully fruity and herbal, perfectly balanced with earthiness.  Come and taste this blast from the past because it won't be around forever! 

***The Valrhona 2002 Chuao will be sold at the special sale price of $10.00/bar from 9/21/09 to 9/27/09!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A First-Hand Account of Cacao in Madagascar

I recently received an interesting e-mail that I thought many of you would enjoy reading. Tim McCollum, one of the co-founders of Madecasse chocolate, was in Madagascar at the time he and I were corresponding via e-mail. I asked him how the political situation was at the time, and he sent me a first-person account from Madagascar. Tim gave me permission to reprint this article. Enjoy!

August 10, 2009
Hi Lauren,

My trip to Madagascar was amazing. I lived there for two years and have been back to visit several times. Now I have the chocolate project there, and still, almost at every step, Madagascar reveals something new and interesting.

The cacao situation is complex in terms of the system of farmers, sous-collectors, collectors and exporters. I can state with certainty that we are the only chocolate company working directly with farmers.  This is especially interesting considering that every top-tier chocolate maker sources cocoa from Madagascar. I've learned that even Fair Trade is a layered process with different ‘collectors’ along the value chain.

I never thought my language skills from the Peace Corps would come in handy in life beyond the Peace Corps, but I spent 3 days with our cooperative of 18 farmers. None of them really speak French, so being able to work in their native language makes all the difference in the world. They hadn't seen a vazaha (foreigner) in their village since 2001, and when I started speaking their dialect of Malagasy they about fell over.

Madécasse is changing their lives. I couldn’t have said that with confidence before this trip, but being on the ground was, for me, the highlight of this project so far. Before Madécasse, they were forced to sell wet cocoa to sous-collectors who showed up at their village with tractors, who then sold to collectors, who then sold to exporters, who eventually sell to chocolate manufacturers in the EU and the US. Now that we've installed fermentation and drying units for them, and provide technical training, they can sell Madécasse fully fermented and dried cocoa at 3x the price of wet cocoa. 3x the price.

They live 50km on a dirt road southeast of Ambanja. Ambanja is the main town in the region and the sort of capital of the Sambirano valley. There is one internet connection in Ambanja. We need to load the cocoa on an ox-drawn cart for the first leg 10 km, where a tractor meets the farmers to take it into Ambanja. In the wet season, the road is impossible even for an ox, so we’ll need to send a boat 50K upriver.

The quality of the cocoa is getting even better as our training with the farmers (and my own knowledge) continues to expand. The last batch had about 30% of ‘superior’ cocoa, which is the Madagascar cocoa with the red fruit flavor. This next batch should be made with 100% superior cocoa. It should be one of the truly best chocolates in the world, but I’ve been drinking strong Koolaid for 3 weeks and don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.

We also set up our label printing in Madagascar. It’s the first time they’ve ever printed labels for the U.S. market and I think they look pretty good. Just another step in our mission to add 100% of value in Madagascar.

Needless to say, thank you for your support in making all of this possible.  Having taken a special interest and being able to tell the story to your customers completes the chain that we start in that village 50km outside of Ambanja, on the other side of the world.  We don’t want any charity in the market, but the social mission is a big part of what we do.

As for the political situation, it won’t be resolved anytime soon.  The good news is that if what happened in Madagascar had happened in any other sub-Saharan country, the place would have fallen into civil war at one of any of half a dozen points over the past year. But even in the face of the worst of politics, the people of Madagascar have always been somehow peaceful with only occasional violence. The average Malagasy people, in my view, just don’t care enough to actually take up arms against each other.  Unfortunately, at times, the US Government has a black and white view of how they give aid. So the bad news is that all of the NGOs in Madagascar have lost funding and pulled out. There were a number of projects targeting the cocoa sector and working with farmers, but they’re now all gone.  Recently constructed buildings are completely abandoned. Lots of good intentions that turned into a large waste of money (again, my opinion). It kind of motivates Madécasse even more and further supports our gut feeling that real change needs to come through the private sector.

Talk soon,