In honor of the fact that not only is it Thursday, but it’s the beginning of a new school year and the end of a chocolate era, today I’m sharing a throwback: the first academic paper I ever wrote on chocolate. This was submitted a little over 6 years ago, when I was doing a summer program at Stanford University, just a short bike ride or a long walk from The Chocolate Garage. A legend in the craft chocolate world, The Chocolate Garage saw many changes over its eight years.
Even after it’s final closing of the retail & tasting space last month, I know it’s just the end of a chapter and by no means the end of the book. The following is a snapshot of that chapter, as written through the lens of a teenager unknowingly discovering her life’s passion, and trying to convey its importance in one fell swoop.
Keep in mind that I wrote this when I was 16, and have made zero changes to any of the writing. Some of what I said was blatantly incorrect, but I hope it gives you a bit of insight into my own chocolate journey, and the pure fascination from which it started. The original prompt was from my Anthropology 101 professor, who asked us to write about something which created its own “sense of place.” I figured a chocolate shop fit that in more ways than one.
Pictures were added from my own collection for your enjoyment.
A Chocolate Innovation
Ever since I can remember, I have always loved chocolate. So of course, the first thing I did upon coming to California was look up where I could buy some nice chocolate, and what I found still amazes me. On Saturday mornings in the heart of downtown Palo Alto, any person who feels up to a taste of chocolate, a nice conversation, and good company can go to A Chocolate Innovation (Not its real name.).
All of the chocolate sold in this chocolate lovers’ dream store is made with free-trade cacao beans and more often than not, by the same workers who harvested the cocoa beans. The place has been around for 2 years now and has great reviews on Yelp, a website which lets the patrons review local businesses on a five star system
This chocolate place looks like it measures about 9 feet by 14 feet, and has light green and yellow walls, creating a very open space, open being a word you will read a lot, as it perfectly articulates the feel of the space. One side is almost completely open, with a door, window, and some paper flowers covering the rest of that wall, and a long mirror on an adjacent wall. In the center of the room is a circular white table on which the chocolate sits on trays, and glasses sit with water for between tastes, ready for anybody who happens to wander by and see the sign. Surrounding the table are two cushy armchairs, a long velvety couch, and a wooden bench, all of which invite said wanderer to sit down and listen to the owner talk about the different types of chocolate up for tasting today.
The owner always greets customers saying things like “Oh, hi! How are you?” or “Hey, it feels like it’s been ages! How have you been?” or even speaking French to a woman who comes in for the first time. This creates a very welcoming atmosphere and an open forum for patrons, resulting in many repeat customers and a nice homey vibe. While I was there, I saw two women meet for the first time, discuss the status of women’s rights as it is today, then exchange information, showing that not only is this place good for quickly making new friends, but it’s also good for networking with people and making new business connections in a stress-free way. The atmosphere simply allows for discussions about anything; during my time, I discussed, with complete strangers, college, jeans, gay marriage, and of course, chocolate.
The people who come often tend to help owner explain the chocolate, and this seems to be a result, again, of the atmosphere of the place, as created by the owner and the people she attracts with her lovely little shop.
After being there for a few hours, even I was able to explain to people the nuances of each bar up for tasting that day, down to explaining the roasting and harvesting process of chocolate making. Adding more still to the welcoming atmosphere of the place is a cabinet in the corner adjacent to the bench in which dozens of different chocolate bars sit, ready for sale, and a large board across from the door on which many chocolate wrappers are posted, giving a viewer an idea of the many varieties of chocolates tasted in the past.
Chocolate brands bought by this particular chocolate place range in price from around 6 to 30 dollars per bar, with most being between 9 and 13 dollars, depending on size, rarity, difficulty to make, and many other factors. Some of the bars are even made especially for this boutique, and those bars tend to go the quickest of any.
For repeat customers who, from my last several weeks of observation, seem to buy something every week they come, there is a program in which they can put money down, anywhere from $100-500 at a time, and every time they want to buy a bar, the cost is subtracted from their price. But there is also a small discount on each bar, usually 1 or 2 dollars, which saves these “Future Chocolate” members a lot of money in the long run.
Names for the brands of chocolate, because they are all made fresh and in small quantities at a time, are generally those of the makers, or of the place in which the chocolate is made. A large number of the makers actually make the chocolate in America, with beans shipped from around the world, but the bulk of these small-batch chocolate makers create the chocolate in the country in which the beans are from. These makers usually only have a few different types of chocolate, each with different additions or of different intensities, because they only have access to beans from their area, which all have the same flavor notes. American makers, however, usually have one bar representing each country from which they source their beans, although some will only make pure bars with no additions, while others only make bars with additions.
“Chocolat Bonnat” is a French brand which, like most American brands, uses beans from different parts of the world, and other such brands are “Patric,” “Potomac Chocolate,” and “Madre Chocolate,” which is a Hawaiian brand which only uses Hawaiian cocoa beans. “Madre Chocolate” only uses beans from one source, but they add in many different spices to create their many types of bars; Madre Chocolate tends to be on the more expensive side, though, because all of the chocolate has to ship from Hawaii, and the makers have to pay their workers a reasonable salary in conjunction with the cost of living in Hawaii [sic].
Some makers are very much purists, such as “Rogue Chocolatier” who only uses cocoa beans and pure cane sugar, relying solely upon the notes in the cocoa bean for the surge of flavor. “Rogue” is based in Missouri, and imports his cocoa beans from exotic places to make his signature bars, with names like “Rio Caribe (Venezuela),” “Sambirano (Madagascar),” and “Hispaniola (Dominican Republic),” but he doesn’t name the country of origin of his beans on the chocolates’ wrappers.
Many weeks, and specifically the week in which I went, the chocolate place will have certain bars that are exclusive to their place of business only, and these bars have any of a number of additions, including salt, cacao nibs, coffee beans, and tea leaves. There are only a certain number of these bars in existence, usually a few hundred, and they tend to go very quickly, often within the week.
The chocolate connoisseurs, who are usually Chocolate Futures members, will buy these bars more often, because they have taken note that this combination of flavors will not be made again, and they enjoy it. But everybody’s palate is different, and just like with wine, everybody tastes different notes in each chocolate bar, so each batch will appeal to different groups of tasters. Some prefer milk chocolate, although most prefer dark, so with the bars whose only ingredients are cocoa beans and cane sugar, different people, all with different taste buds, will taste different notes more prominently in each bar.
People more predisposed to sensing certain notes, like nutty or fruity flavors, in the roasted cocoa beans are more likely to like beans from certain areas, which tend to taste more like certain flavors. Like beans from Madagascar, which tend to taste very citrusy, or those from Trinidad & Tobago, which have a more complex fruitiness plus an appealing spiciness, such as cinnamon. But there are many factors in play affecting the different flavors of the cocoa beans from different regions. Some are evolution, the acidity of the soil, level of sunlight; each changes the flavor of the cocoa beans slowly. The way in which and the length of time for which the beans are roasted also makes a difference in the notes which come out.
To make the cocoa powder for the chocolate [sic], first the cocoa farmer has to harvest the cacao pods from the cacao trees, and then he or she smashes the pods in large batches and allows them to ferment like this for approximately a week. After fermentation, the beans are dried in the sun then roasted, which brings out the chocolate flavor, and after roasting, the beans are crushed, during which the cocoa butter is removed and the resulting powder is ground further, making cocoa powder. The different parts of the cacao tree are used in many different ways in their country of origin, mainly revolving around the cacao fruit, however.
Chocolate and cacao are a global phenomenon, not restricted to one race or gender, and have been around for millennia; some archaeologists have found evidence of chocolate-making dating back as far as 1400 or 1500 BC. It is believed to have started with the Olmec tribe, a society of people in Mexico who domesticated cacao trees and harvested their fruit for use in food products, mainly liquids. The Aztecs and Mayans, however, are widely known for their worship of cacao beans and chocolate as a product.
Most of the history of the cacao plant is situated in Central American countries, and mainly Mexico, because cacao beans need a tropical climate and grow best when they are around other species. At that time in history, before rapid global warming, Central America had the climate best for growing the cacao plant. Contemporarily, West African countries export approximately two thirds of all cacao beans, with the Ivory Coast being the biggest exporter of all the West African countries.
In-depth explanations in answer to any questions combined with accommodations for tasting other chocolate, often picked from the wall, forms a most lovely place to spend one’s Saturday morning. Welcoming patrons from all walks of life and facilitating talks about anything helps people automatically relate to one another in any way they can, continuing the circle of welcoming. I was there from 9am to 12:30pm, and in that time approximately 120 people came into the store, 70 being female and 50 being male; about 10 of them were children under 10, but the bulk was adults.
Of the customers who came in on this particular day, I did not notice any specific gender or ethnic preference for a certain type of chocolate, mainly because it was difficult to ascertain a person’s ethnic background without asking them, but also because the chocolate tasted on this particular Saturday was all of the dark variety. Most of the exclamations that morning were that the Triple Cacao chocolate tasted very fruity, and none were that any of the chocolate was unsatisfactory. While many of the day’s customers bought chocolate, the ones who always bought something and who were the most enthusiastic and open were the repeat customers, who comprised about a quarter of the patrons while I was there.
When I asked the owner if she had noticed, in her many months of being open to the public, whether there was any particular ethnicity which tended to be returning customers more often, she simply described the demographics of the Palo Alto area. She said that she has not noticed any particular ethnic group returning more often but rather that, just like Palo Alto, the patrons tend to be less African American and Latino, and more White and Asian American, with a slight skew towards females but a more even gender balance than one may have expected. People in the upper middle class and those who really value quality over quantity are the people who frequent this particular chocolate place.
In the affluent culture of Palo Alto, so close to Stanford University and the headquarters of Apple and Google, and the foodie-oriented culture of the bay area, the people who decide to wander into the chocolate place actually enjoy learning about the chocolate-making process, and the health benefits and origins of the chocolate. The concept of expensive and therefore very high quality chocolate, also appeals to this specific public because of the name-brand power, and the ability to say that you are helping farmers in developing countries just by visiting this store and keeping it afloat through patronage.
Palo Alto is a very liberal area, as proclaimed by its residents and those who visit it often, including me. But if one travels just a few miles away, past Redwood City or Los Gatos, the people and the area are more conservative and reserved, very different from the micro-chasm that is Silicon Valley. Being so full of technology-oriented intelligent people, hence the nickname Silicon Valley, has helped to create a special place. The coasts of America, it has been noted by many, are unique places and tend to be more liberal compared to the middle of the country, which as a whole, is conservative and more general and religious, less unique than the metropolitan area on the coasts. It is said that the three most unique cities in the United States are San Francisco, New York city, and Washington DC; all are cities on the coasts, and all are known for being liberal areas.
It helps the owner’s business that Saturday is the only day of the week that she is open to the public, because that is when most people are off of work and want to go out into the town, so it is more likely that some people would just wander in. The location in Palo Alto, which is close to home, and across from the long-standing Saturday farmer’s market is precisely the reason why the owner chose this place as her store’s location. People who really care about their health and the origin of their food is the correct demographic of people who are attracted to the farmer’s market directly across the street. Organically grown sustainable food is exactly what kind of food the owner sells, just in more intricate flavors than the fruits and vegetables for sale across the street.
It is this concept of the third space, according to the owner, that brings the people in her shop together. This place has a comfortable atmosphere but it is not your workplace or your home, but rather the place where the community lives as one. That was the idea that the owner has always strived towards in her formation of the shop; even in her decorations she has created an open space, small enough so that people have to talk to each other and big enough that they are able to. Keeping cacao trees alive and thriving helps preserve forest land in many countries, but for her, it all comes back to the cacao farmer. Because all of the chocolate she purchases is made in small batches and mostly on location in the country of origin, it can be called sustainable.
This sustainable chocolate is a value added product for the developing countries in which it is produced, and the other by-products of chocolate-making also act as value added products of these countries. Generating income for cacao farmers through this community chocolate shop not only betters the community of Palo Alto, but also communities around the world by increasing quality of life for the employees of the cacao plants in these countries. It makes the product much more expensive, but the item you pay for is no longer just chocolate, it is now the farmer’s income, and the postal workers’, and the woman who works to help all of these people whom she has never meet and will most likely never meet.
You as a consumer have now made an impact all over the world and helped more than just yourself.