Cocoa from the Roots: An Origin Story

This is an article by guest writer Dr. Siouxsie Cooper: 

An evening of chocolate, food, wine, and delightful company in late October, Plainfield, Vermont.  The staff of Nutty Steph’s assembled at Jaqueyn and Rauli’s house for delicious food, wine and a talk by our chocolate supplier, Mark Harmon.  The presentation of Mark’s chocolate exporting business, Mesocacao, was absorbing. He gave us a new sense of the lengths of research, development and processing of bean needed to produce the chocolate we make our bars and confection from. Mesocacao sources and processes high quality chocolate made from sustainably grown Central American cacao.  The emphasis of his value-driven company on seeking out sustainable farming not only ensures the high quality of product that we buy but also the fair prices he pays the farmer. It is a win-win situation for the chocolate consumer and the grower, ensuring a strong and sustainable economy for independent cocoa growers and premium quality for artisan chocolatiers in the United States, like Nutty Steph’s.

We were enraptured with Mark’s stories of travels into the jungles, meeting farmers, the skilled team of cocoa bean identifiers, fermenters, driers, roasters, conch operators and finishers of the chocolate. Nutty Steph’s buy the chocolate in button form, and then we temper it and mix various ingredients to make our numerous confections.  It was an education learning about the program of selecting the plants, growing, picking, fermenting and drying, roasting and conching the bean before it becomes chocolate. The illustrations given by Mark included images of beans that were too dry to ones that were not dry enough, ones that had been over fermented, were fermented to the right consistency and so on.  

It was fascinating to hear how he started his company and the long term purpose of the company, centered around his mission to maintain and build good relationships with cocoa growers in Central America.  He discussed the economics of growing, processing and supplying the US market for chocolate, and the small but effective methods used by his company to build long term benefits for these farmers and their communities.  An added bonus to all his work out in the field was the amazing chocolate education he was passing onto us, the artisans of Nutty Steph’s using the fruits of his adventure. Like a good wine, the flavors of the earth and other plants growing close to the cocoa plant influence and add to the flavors of the chocolate.  This fact gives a whole new perspective on the benefits of diverse farming methods and how we, as consumers of chocolate, need to consider the land and it’s richness and the biodiversity of our cacao growing regions. There are over 400 types of cocoa trees in the world, and this affects the taste and nutritional value of the chocolate we eat. The chocolate from Central America has fruit tones, tobacco, earthy, fiery and other flavors from the plants that grow nearby.

It made us very aware of the valuable chain of production we belong to, one that starts at the very beginning of producing the bean, on the land, to employing people with key tacit knowledge about how to ferment the bean, for how long and the tactile feel of a well fermented bean which then is dried – by air and sun – to enhance and bring forward those tropical flavors and rich chocolate notes to our special chocolate at Nutty Steph’s. It is a good feeling, as a team, to be able to stand up for living wages for chocolate farmers, to keep cocoa bean processing knowledge alive and deliver to our customers the best quality and most ethically sourced chocolate to our ever expanding chocolate fans and friends.

Mark’s mission has not been without difficulties and one of his driving forces was the untimely death of one of his sons.  He wanted to make the world a better place in his memory. The chocolate industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, not without many shady and unsavoury practices.  Mark’s work, by comparison to the chocolate giants, is small in scale. But as the famous alternative economist and environmentalist Schmacher states “Small is beautiful”.  Likewise Nutty Steph’s is a small artisan producer of quality chocolate in Vermont, nowhere near the scale of production and revenue of the huge corporate have chocolate producers.  We make our waves, small beautiful chocolate waves in the high seas of chocolate commerce. Come along to our store in Middlesex and taste test some of the various percentages of dark chocolate we buy from Mark, see if your palate can taste the various subtle flavor tones of our superb source product.