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Courtesy of Patric Chocolate/L.G. Patteron
Alan McClure's Patric Chocolate comes from cacao beans harvested at a single farm in the Sambirano Valley in Madagascar
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Courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate
Shawn Askinosie and his production manager, Kyle Malone, process chocolate in the factory at Springfield.
by Nina Furstenau
Turns out, Missouri is in the country’s chocolate belt—in fact, we’re the buckle. Of the approximately thirty chocolate makers (those who import the fermented and partially dried cacao beans, then roast and create chocolate) in the United States, two artisan companies are in Missouri: Patric Chocolate at Columbia and Askinosie Chocolate at Springfield.
The larger chocolate companies on the list (Swiss-owned Nestlé, Ghirardelli, Mars, and others) import quantities of cacao much different in scale and from differing sources than small-batch makers. In fact, artisan chocolate making in the United States is becoming a niche industry. In addition to the two in Missouri, five other bean-to-bar or bean-to-bonbon companies—DeVries Chocolate, Amano Artisan Chocolate, Taza, Rogue, and Theo—have developed in the past eighteen to twenty-four months in other states and are transforming how people view chocolate.
Tasting the chocolate made by Patric and Askinosie will make you a believer. When it comes to chocolate in Missouri, consider adjusting your palate to the real thing—undiluted with flavors like vanilla, excess sugar, and milk—and develop a taste for the three-thousand-year-old “gift of the gods” of the Olmec people who lived in the lowland forests of southern Mexico and are credited with the origin of processed chocolate, say Sophie and Michael Coe in The True History of Chocolate.
Of course, it was all artisan-made then, hand-cultivated, fermented, sundried, and made into a frothy, sometimes bitter, drink. It would not become sweet, solid, and eaten by the masses until the eighteenth century.
When and how chocolate is grown is important to artisan makers. Singleorigin cacao beans signal attention to flavor—the ingredient list typically has two items: cacao beans and sugar. There are no additions to camouflage taste. Heritage practices of sun-drying and natural fermentation, used by farmers, fortify chocolate with a flavor not found in mass-produced brands.
“The terroir unique to that place impacts flavor,” says Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate. Terroir is French for the encompassing terrain in which the cacao is grown, naturally fermented, and handled.
The microclimate of a single farm, its soil and weather, affects the cacao tree and ultimately the taste of a chocolate bar. Notes of fruit come from fermentation, Alan says, and sun-drying adds depth and reduces bitterness. Sometimes a certain nuttiness can be tasted. To get these flavors, he chooses one farm in the Sambirano Valley of Madagascar for his cacao.
The chocolate making of Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate (see February 2008 issue) at Springfield also has a way of shifting palates. His business philosophy, “Stake in the Outcome,” ties quality with price and profits that he shares directly with his sources in Mexico and Ecuador.
“It was quite an experience when I brought to the farmers chocolate bars made from their beans,” Shawn says. “They looked, studied it, broke off little pieces to taste. They were reverential.”
Shawn says the farms and people involved are 100 percent traceable. His packaging includes photographs of the farmers who grew the cacao, a map to the estate, and twine from bags of cacao that are tied onto chocolate packaging by a local Springfield women’s shelter.
It’s amazing that the chocolate indulgence comes from the pulp-surrounded seeds of the cocoa plant. The chocolate tree (Theobroma cacao) is not inspiring in itself: spindly, content to grow as understory, and with few exceptions, never found outside of a band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. Altitude and its consequent higher temperatures are also an issue; Theobroma cacao will not grow below 60 degrees fahrenheit. It needs year-round moisture. It’s delicate. And yet, the bean within the pod of the cacao tree had immense impact on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed in the healthy effects of cacao. To them xocolatl, (pronounced “shoco-latle”) or bitter water, was a marvel of nature. It made people feel awake, alert, and strong, yet created pleasant sleep and rest. It is reported that the Aztec ruler Montezuma consumed nearly fifty cups a day to build up resistance, maintain vigor, and fight fatigue. The ruler drank this chocolate in gold goblets that were then discarded and had storehouses brimming with beans, perhaps 960 million beans by the estimate of Sophie and Michael Coe.
The Aztecs also used cacao as currency and believed the cacao bean had magical properties. Privileged, wealthy citizens liberally imbibed, and the Aztecs also reserved the cacao drink for priests and soldiers. Others imbibed at the sacred events of birth, marriage, and death. Of course, the chocolate of the day was a drink and wasn’t mixed with sugar, but the peoples of Central and South America revered it for health, and vigor, something current science seems to be backing.
Recent studies link dark chocolate with the ability to lower blood pressure, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association and Dr. Dirk Taubert at the University of Cologne, Germany. It is also a potent antioxidant. Askinosie bars sourced from Mexico reach 629 Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) units per gram. His Ecuadorean bars reach 575 ORAC. By comparison, broccoli has an 8.9 ORAC rating and strawberries, 15 ORAC.
When most of us hear the word chocolate, we don’t think ORACs. We think Valentine’s Day hearts, chocolate Easter bunnies, or the ubiquitous candy bar. But there’s an alternative that just may be good for us. Rich, single-origin, small-batch dark chocolate has a rich past and an amazing taste and has flavored much of history. And it’s now in Missouri.