I don't claim to know too much about Tanzania. Much of what I do know actually has next to nothing much to do with food. I did study it a lot when I was in school—I remember reading about Julius K. Nyerere and his creative leadership of an emerging third-world country in the post-colonial era. And I also remember from Anthro 101 that Tanzania has the history of being home to some of the oldest fossil remains of pre-humans and all that good stuff. Then there's also the strange but true fact that like one out of ten folks that I told I'd been to Tunisia last year later seemed to ask me, "How did you like Tanzania?" But now ... thanks to the world's most passionate, highly talented, chocolate-making Missouri-based ex-attorney, Tanzania can now constructively go onto my mental map as a source of superior cacao beans.
I've been pretty high on most all the chocolate bars that Shawn Askinosie is making for a long time now, and this new one fills that same bill. The story behind the bar is actually as good as the chocolate. "It's literally a bunch of high school kids that we assigned a project to figure out what country of origin we should use for our next bar," Shawn told me. Askinosie was already working with growers in Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines, and this was to decide what country would be added to the list this last year. "The class was actually also sponsored by Drury University," Shawn shared with me. "The students met once a week for a year to research and then decide on a new country of origin. Once they picked the country we raised money for the travel. I told them from the beginning that we weren't just going to go there to travel, but that we were going to do something good for the people there too. We raised about $70,000 to pay for the travel and to dig a deep-water well for the village."
"The cacao is very good," Shawn continued. "It's all organic. It's not a traditional African flavor though. There's really not a big cocoa history in Tanzania. The cacao . . . from what I hear it came through the Congo from the Belgians. It's only been there a hundred years or less. But there's never been a big tradition of cacao. The farmers really weren't even familiar with its intended end use. But we did all this training to help them, all of it translated into Swahili. I worked with them on moisture content, fermenting, etc. This work has made more of a difference for the growers than we have in any other country we've worked with.
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"There are a lot of small growers there, but there are really only three cacao buyers in the country," he continued. Speaking kind of quickly as Shawn is wont to do, he went on: "They'd been buying it all for commercial use in Europe and quality was never a focus for them. The moisture content's been really high and so this was a real experiment and a huge risk for us. You don't know if they can ferment and dry it well because they've never worked that way before. That's a real problem all over the world—the farmers are under such an economic pinch that they don't dry and ferment properly because the big buyer's don't care. Even with extra money being paid it's still hard to convince people to focus on quality. I paid about $1000 a metric ton more than they were used to getting. That was the highest price that any farmer group has ever been paid for cacao in Tanzania. The farmers opened a bank account to put the money into. Other people heard about the bank account and it created all sorts of problems."
"What happened?" I wondered for fairly obvious reasons. It seemed as if it should have been something to celebrate. "All the other farmers—the ones we weren't working with—were telling the buyers that the price we'd paid was what they wanted too, even though what they were growing wasn't anywhere near as good. And in response to that, the other buyers went to the government and complained about the high price we were paying since it was causing all these problems." It's not easy doing something out of the ordinary!
I can't honestly say I'd ever tasted Tanzanian cacao before this, but I think the chocolate has a pretty different flavor profile than all the others we've got. It has a cacao content of 72 percent (plus 3 percent cocoa butter that they make themselves in Missouri). It's a bit lighter and less astringent than the other Askinosie bars. Don't get me wrong—I like that astringency; it's like what you get with a nice big red wine. But this bar's a bit lighter, slightly softer in flavor than most of Shawn's other others. More like maybe a good Rioja.
I don't want to over-poeticize it, but after a brief survey of chocolate lovers around the Zingerman's Community of Businesses I've assembled a pretty fair list of adjectives. It's definitely more cocoa-y than most of the other dark chocolate bars, with a slight hint of cinnamon and less of some other specific spice that I can't put my finger on. Shawn says it has "hints of tobacco" but I quit smoking so long ago I can't really remember what that means. It's definitely kind of creamy on the tongue. Allen, the coffee man, is adamant that he tastes banana, and I agree.
The main thing is, it's complex and well balanced, with a nice finish and it really doesn't taste like any other chocolate I've had. All of which, I'd say, makes it well worth checking out. Without getting too simple on you, it's just sort of downright delicious. Mouthwatering. Clean finish. Makes me want to eat more every time I taste it. Plus we can help put Tanzania on the culinary map in the process!
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