THE THREAT OF CENTRALISATION
Organic chocolate company Green & Blacks were seeking both high quality and organically
produced cocoa when they first approached the Mayan cocoa farmers of Belize in 1993. Green &
Blacks incentivised the growers to tear out the stock of Forastero (a variety that the Hershey
corporation convinced them to plant) and re-plant the native Criollo species. They also offered a
five-year contract for the organically grown beans at a guaranteed price of USD$1.75 per pound.
The quality of Belize cocoa improved to become the best in the region, because growers were
assured a return on the required investment of money and time. The added income also allowed
farmers to send their children to school — high school enrolment increased from 10% of the
community’s children to 70%.
Cacao blanco de Piura
However the Green & Blacks story did not end there. In 2005, amidst a wave of acquisitions
and takeovers of small organics companies by multinational food manufacturers, Green & Blacks
was bought by Cadburys. Each year since, the organic chocolate company have pressured the
Mayan growers in Belize to increase their yields in order to meet the growing demand, an increase
they cannot sustain if they are to continue with their traditional methods of farming. Following the
acquisition of Green & Blacks by Cadbury, the American chocolate giant Hershey bought organic
chocolate company Dagoba. These acquisitions pose a great threat the to the premium chocolate
movement. If large corporations move in and attempt to drive prices down, as was seen in across
the organics movement in the last decade, then premium chocolate will not be able to maintain
their high level of quality, or the new trade links that benefit growers.
As sociologist David Harvey explains “we still live, in the West, in a society where production
for profit remains the basic organizing principle of economic life.” Regardless of their passion for
quality and social values, to exist, a chocolate company must make a profit. This means consumers
must be willing to pay the high price of premium chocolate. Due to its artisanal nature, this kind of
chocolate will never be able to compete with industrial chocolate on price. Consumers can pay up to
eight times as much for a premium bar than they might for a mass-produced equivalent and the
cost to the producer begins with the very first step: the price they pay for quality beans. Alex
Whitmore notes that Taza pay a USD$1500 premium per metric tonne above the New York Board
of Trade price and USD$250 above Fair Trade. The beans they import arrive in small shipments of
jute bags, a more expensive method of transport than bulk container shipping and flat storage, and
their inability to warehouse their ingredients means they must pay the current market price for
sugar, which can vary enormously week to week.iv Their processes are labour intensive and slow,
and their production output is limited by the size of the machinery. In order to remain profitable, premium chocolate producers must be able to cover these costs, and make a margin above them. In order to persuade consumers to pay this high price, they must first be convinced of premium chocolate’s value.
CONNOISSEURSHIP AND AUTHENTICITY
He may be a fondeur and not a bean-to-bar producer, but Linxe is still a very important figure
in the premium chocolate movement. He was a driving force behind the creation of Le Guide du
Chocolat, the Michelin Guide of chocolate, first published in 1981. Anthropologist Susan Terrio
states that this was the first publication to use the language of wine appreciation in order to codify
chocolate consumption. “An explicit goal was to extend the oenological model and to provide the
public with ‘a more detailed, precise, and refined chocolate vocabulary.’”
Linxe’s efforts were rewarded — today a growing group of chocolate connoisseurs, including
producers, journalists and chocolate aficionados, use this borrowed vocabulary in a lively discourse
of chocolate. They discuss bean varieties, growing conditions, plantation and country of origin with
terms such as “grand cru”, “vintage” and “terroir”. They also consider the decisions a chocolatier
makes and how those choices impact on the final product, in the same way as wine connoisseurs
discuss how a winemaker may produce a distinctive wine.
These discussions are happening across a wide range of media. In the last decade, several
chocolate connoisseurs have published books including Chloe Doutre-Roussel, the former chocolate
buyer for Fortnum and Mason, Clay Gordon, the founder of chocolate review website
chocophile.com, and Chantal Coady, owner of Rococo chocolate store and founding member of the
UK’s Chocolate Society. Dozens of chocolate review websites have created a virtual
neighbourhood for chocolate enthusiasts who have a forum to discuss all manner of chocolate
topics from taste, to production, to the sourcing of equipment for chocolate manufacturing.
Clay Gordon claims that “appreciation of the chocolate-making process is as invaluable to a
chocolate lover’s enjoyment as an understanding of the winemaking process is to a wine connoisseur,” and many in the premium chocolate industry are offering consumers first hand experience of the process. In my time with Silvio Bessone two separate groups visited his workshop. He gave each group an overview of his chocolate making process and the choices he makes at each stage. The tour included a tasting of selected products to understand better how those choices impacted on the chocolate. Taza chocolatier Alex Whitmore leads tours to the plantations with whom they have Direct Trade relationships to teach consumers about cocoa cultivation.
There are also online videos, such as the popular short film on the process at the Mast Brothers
workshop in Brooklyn, and articles detailing the day in the life of a famous chocolatier.
These tours, books, websites and other media are a platform for the connoisseur, something
Robert Linxe recognised as crucial to the continued success of his industry. Using wine vocabulary
to discuss bean varieties, growing conditions and geographical characteristics, connoisseurs create a
powerful association between chocolate and nature. Additionally connoisseurs highlight the
passion, dedication and sincerity of the chocolatier, and thereby distinguish the chocolate artisan’s product from the anonymously produced industrial version. According to Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann, these are the qualities associated with an “authentic” framing of a food product. Based on their thorough analysis of gourmet food writing, they list these qualities as: “creation by hand rather than by industrial processes; local settings and anticommercialism; sincere expression distant from calculation or strategy; honesty, integrity, or dedication to core principles; and closeness to nature combined with distance from institutionalized power sources.”
next time: THE VALUE OF PREMIUM CHOCOLATE
Thanks to my friend Susan Hoban who shared this Final Thesis: Master of Food Culture and Communication