Chocolate With a Conscience

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In terms of helping make the world around him a better place, one man's efforts come to mind. On the islands of Principe and Sao Tome off the coast of Guinea in West Africa, Claudio Corallo is producing some of the most interesting chocolate I've tasted in a long time.

I'm not going to tell you that it's the best in the world. By technical chocolate standards, this one probably falls way off the mark; like the folks at Plantations chocolates in Ecuador, the Bonajuto family on the island of Sicily, and others of our favorite producers around the world, Claudio is doing things his own way, not the way the rest of the chocolate world would have it done. What I will tell you is that it's unquestionably one of my favorites right now--it's my top choice in terms of flavor for its balance, complexity, and really nicely clean finish. And the fact that he's doing such good work to make it happen only makes me all the more supportive of his efforts.

Claudio went down to Sao Tome a few decades ago to contribute something positive to one of the poorer places in Africa. He's grown coffee and then cacao, working to help create a positive life for the people on the island. And in the last five years he's been turning those efforts into what I think is some of the most flavorful chocolate around.

Claudio is unique in my experience in the chocolate world because he thinks of himself as a farmer first. He goes out in the fields every day--the soil and the plants are where it all starts.

He's one of the only people in the world who's doing every step of the work, all the way through from growing to fermentation to grinding, mixing and making the finished chocolate. Claudio is unique in my experience in the chocolate world because he truly thinks of himself as a farmer first. He goes out in the fields every day--the soil and the plants are where it all starts.

As with any great food or wine, the reality is that there's a whole lot of not very glamorous attention to detail and day-to-day, rather drudgerous work, that goes into making it what it is. Claudio's chocolate is as good as it is only because he's so passionately driven to both design and execute the work at extremely high levels of quality and in his own innovative ways. Here are a few of the things he's doing that are making the chocolate so darned delicious:

    • Claudio is working with an ancient strain of cacao, brought to the islands by the Portuguese from Brazil in 1822.

    • To attain the high standards he's looking for, Claudio has designed and built his own fermentation bins and drying platform.

    • In line with what I was saying about unorthodox (in a good way!) behaviors, Claudio has added a couple of special steps to the chocolate making process, believing them to be essential to the quality of the finished product.

    • Claudio is a hands-on cacao grower. He ventures out into the fields every day, pruning the trees and trimming away any vegetation that might threaten the growth of his cacao.

    • Harvesting the cacao is taken very seriously. Unlike some crops, cacao pods ripen at different times even on the same plant. So a couple times a week Claudio and his crew walk the entire plantation in order to find the pods that are ready to be harvested, take those off and leave the rest to re-checked on their next round.

    • Claudio has his workers open the cacao pods using sticks rather than the machetes that are the norm in the industry. He believes that the machete is harder to control and if you strike too hard you can actually slice into the fruit and seeds inside the pod, slightly damaging them. Even one damaged seed can affect the chocolate-making process by fermenting badly and contributing an off taste to the finished chocolate.

    • All the cacao beans are hand-peeled because he wants them to remove the germ--the extra bitter part of the bean. Claudio doesn't want that bitterness in his chocolate. Does it make a difference? Chloe Doutre-Roussel, who I think is one of the world's most knowledgeable chocolate experts, is sure that it does.

    • Claudio's wife Bettina is in charge of roasting the cacao beans. Instead of just setting the clock to "230 degrees for 14 minutes" and letting the beans roast, she works like a master coffee roaster, taking into account that each batch is different and requires slightly different roasting times and temperatures.

    • The conching process--where producers run steel rollers through the ground chocolate mass for days to smooth its texture to the requisite silkiness we've all come to expect--has been left out altogether. Claudio is convinced that it detracts from the complex flavors of the cacao and he's decided to skip it altogether. He also leaves out vanilla and the soy lecithin which is still used as a (natural) stabilizer by most chocolatiers.

For the last few years we've been able to get some Claudio's cacao in the form of a bar he co-produced with the folks at Pralus in France. Now we're even more excited because what we're getting is being produced for the first time by Claudio and company right on Sao Tome--a first for the island and a really positive step in building a sustainable business and added jobs to go with the sustainably grown cacao itself. As always Claudio is adamant about creating a positive work setting and doing the right thing for the environment as well as the cacao. Like I said, I think he's an excellent example of working to make the world around him--economically, environmentally and chocolatementally--a better place for all of us.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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