Over the passed few weeks, my world has been slightly off kilter thanks to the singular word that any lover of food dreads: diet. A necessary evil, obviously, but every time I make the effort, I’m reminded of where my food allegiances lie. While I am an über fan of the savory, when the chips are down, the easiest fix I can find that will keep me out of the clock tower is a simple square of chocolate. No more. No less.
Chocolate can be found everywhere these days. For a quarter, you can get a handful of the candy-coated variety. A little more will get you a full bar. But, does checkout-line chocolate tell the whole story? Think of the work that goes in to chocolate from start to finish, or as Pam Williams and Jim Eber refer to it in their book Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolates, “gene-to-bonbon”. It’s easy to forget the hours of time, effort and money that goes in to producing chocolate regardless of its final form. A few months back I had a chance to speak with writer Jim Eber about where the idea for Raising the Bar came from, what the approach to writing it was, and some of the stories that really hammered home the need for more education on what the making of chocolate really involves.
Foodie Journal: Tell me a little bit about where the idea for Raising the Bar came from.
Jim Eber: The idea was purely Pam’s, who has been in some form of the chocolate business for more than two decades. She has a school, Ecole Chocolat, in which she does classes for people who want to get involved in chocolate making and manufacture at any kind of level. Whether it’s a chocolatier, or whether it is someone who wants to go back to the very beginning, literally go down to the bean and go down to Ecuador, or go down to places in Latin America and see what it is like.
The school celebrated its 10th anniversary in January. Pam thought about all kinds of things that she wanted to do, and she realized that the single biggest thing she could do for herself and the industry that she loves would be to write something that would explain to people what the future of fine chocolate might be.
She could have done a party. She could have done any kind of huge blowout thing. She could have done a big PR campaign but what she’d rather do is put a stake in the ground for flavor because that’s where her future is tied to and those are the people that she loves. She started thinking about this at then end of 2010, beginning of 2011, and I came on board with her in June of 2011 to be her writer. She’s the guiding light and she tasked me with putting this together.
FJ: The title of the first chapter was my absolute favorite, “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine.” That sure is a pretty easy way to catch a readers attention right away!
JE: It’s funny because that’s exactly it. This is written for people who love chocolate, and either need or want to know more, or are in this business and want to help people understand what they do. At the very beginning I was thinking, “How do I get people to read about the genetics of chocolate?” when even people in this business, their eyes start to glaze over when you start talking about it. So “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine” was just the way to point to that.
FJ: It’s a really cool idea, starting at such a base level. How did you approach the interactions with the different people that do this for a living?
JE: That’s a good question. We played with a lot of possibilities. As craft chocolate and manufacture has taken off, the expression “bean-to-bar” has become fairly common right now. Pam and I realized that bean-to-bar is a perfectly logical progression. You start with a bean, you end with a bar, even if the bar is meant for consumers or meant for chefs or chocolatiers to melt down and start doing their own craft.
When we were thinking about that, we said, “Wait, all that’s missing is the very beginning and the very end,” so we decided that gene-to-bonbon … or in Belgium it’s praline, or what we would call in the United States, chocolates. We decided gene-to-bonbon was the way to approach it and we tried coming at it in different ways, like by working our way back. Get back to the center, to the gene, but we said, “You know what? It starts on the ground.” That’s where the deepest lack of awareness is for people who are eating chocolate.
Many people don’t even think of it as a food, let alone something that starts out growing on a tree. We decided to start with the genetics. That was a big challenge because also, it’s the least yummy. You can’t taste the gene. That’s how we decided to approach it, and the real challenge was, “How do we keep people’s interest in the first quarter of the book if we move linearly from there?”
FJ: You mentioned how many different people that you had the opportunity to interview and talk to in writing the book. Is there a particular story from the book that you working on?
JE: Can I pick two?
FJ: Yes, absolutely!
JE: I think they cover the two extremes of what we really want to say. For all the problems that are going in the world of chocolate, for all the things that threaten flavor, the single most important thing to help keep the world of fine flavor growing, and the growth of appreciation and making it like the appreciation of wine or craft beer, is education. It’s the education of the consumer to help them appreciate the differences, and not to denigrate candy. It is simply essential that people understand where chocolate comes from. To that end, there’s one hurdle that people think is education, but it’s not, and it actually comes from a story you see in the first 20, 30 pages of the book. The first story about education has to do with the farmers.
When Brett Beach went to sample that tree in Madagascar, when that “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine” story, when he was taking it out there … we’re talking about farmers in Madagascar. We’re talking about a culture that is not literate. There is not a high literacy rate, and there is not a particularly high standard of living. We are talking about people who, nice as they can be, they’re just not an industrialized nation by any way.
Understanding what genetics are isn’t going to necessarily click, considering that Brett, himself, barely could articulate it in English, let alone Malagasy. When Brett told the farmer what they were looking for, the farmer walked right up to a tree and marked it. That tree was pure ancient Criollo. That tree was right on. It was something that was thought to not exist. They knew that it could, but it was thought not to. It was rediscovered that day. It was thought to be extinct, but he farmer knew exactly what it was.
Education for farmers is about helping them take that knowledge and get the best price they possibly can for their chocolate, helping them with systems that will improve their lives and be a win-win-win for everyone. It only works if you connect it to the second story, which is at the end of part two.
That was a story that Art Pollard told me. Art is Amano Chocolate; he’s out of Utah, has been open for five years, and is a part of the boom of craft manufacturers in the United States. He produces dynamite chocolate, by everyone’s accounts. He has been a mentor to some of the younger people in the business. He tells a story at the in a section at near the end of the book called, “’Cheap Chocolate’ should be an oxymoron.”
There’s no better emphasis than that, than Art Pollard talking about being at a food show with his chocolate early on in his work. A guy came up to him at a hotdog cart and said, “I really liked your chocolate, man. I’d like to buy some. How much is it?” He talked about the wholesale price was for his chocolate to go in there was $15 a pound. This guy said, “Oh my God. I won’t pay more than three.” Art looked at him and said, “I can’t even buy beans for three dollars a pound.” A bean is nothing. Have you tasted an unroasted cacao bean, Reuben?
FJ: Yeah, once. Not something to make regular practice of! Like unsweetened cocoa powder. Very bitter.
JE: Exactly. That’s not chocolate. It’s a bean. There are ten steps before it’s a chocolate bar. Yet this person wouldn’t pay more than three dollars. That story just indicated to me like, “Really? Really? Three dollars a pound is what you’ll pay for that chocolate?” Given the amount of labor and given what goes in to it? So, helping really educate, at both ends of the spectrum is really important, and something I think the stories in this book can do. There is great chocolate being made, and that needs to be appreciated. Once that appreciation starts to develop, then people will see that quality is worth paying more money for. At every level.
You can find out more about Pam Williams and Jim Eber, as well as additional information about Raising the Bar on the Ecole Chocolat website.