Another day, another train to and fro Manchester…
But there was one further event I felt I couldn’t miss: Pacari chocolate at Melt. Pacari is an Ecuadorean producer who does it all: growing, processing, manufacture, in Ecuador. It’s a nice way of keeping chocolate profits in country of origin and, I think helps to build local expertise which could mean both more of these ventures and better overall cacao, as the growers benefit from direct feedback and understanding of what they’re producing.
Santiago gave a talk that really gives hope for the future. He’s got what I think is exactly the right attitude and strategy for chocolate production. In a word, obsess. Pacari looks at bean types, fermentation styles, drying methods, roasting times (or indeed if there should even be a roast), conching times, you name it. They experiment with everything, perfect everything. This is the way chocolate should be done; not only does it help them zero in on an ideal process from bean to bar, while they’re doing it they’re learning how the various factors interact, probably finding out things that the industry doesn’t even know. I’m particularly impressed at their bean selection methods: they’re isolating the trees that produce the best-tasting and best-producing, most disease-resistant beans. This is how you build an industry, and how you set the stage for generations of quality cocoa production. I think this is an ideal model for countries like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, where the quality is there but local infrastructure is sparse, farming knowledge and skills vary wildly, and indigenous production minimal. It’s thinking into the future as well as the present.
Pacari really engage with the communities they work with, encouraging development, education, long-term infrastructure improvement. Just one example: after a surprising discovery determined that many communities were spending money and effort, as well as unintentionally endangering childern, to bring batteries in for the season, they created a programme that gives the farmers access to solar-powered torches, saving all that expense and danger on toxic, non-degradable batteries. I suspect this is an important aspect of local production that pays unexpected dividends: because the manufacturers are so much closer to the farmers, and embedded in the same overall culture, they can see and understand the issues farmers face on the ground.
That Pacari is organic is yet another feather in their cap, and because of their research methods I think they’re also at the leading edge of developing cacaos that are viable in organic production. Too often organic faces the tradeoff between iffy quality and microscopic yields. Santiago’s philosophy on organic production is even more enlightened: from his point of view, he said he couldn’t imagine endangering the life and health of the farmers by exposing them to poisonous chemicals. It really puts into perspective the reality that so many companies are doing organic mostly for the market position rather than the social benefits, in much the same way that many consumers buy organic more for their own potential benefit than to benefit the wider world. Not that there’s anything wrong with this: indeed, every time a consumer or producer makes an organic choice many people benefit. But we can also take heart in what it means to the farmers upstream from the products that grace our shop shelves, and spare a thought for them as well as us.
The chocolate itself is a quantum leap above what most country-of-origin producers achieve. There’s still room for improvement: tasting a whole bar in either the Manabi or Los Rios reveals an ashiness in the finish that didn’t come through in the obviously smaller samples we tried at the event itself. There the chocolates seemed very nicely interpreted with lots of upfront fruitiness. A shorter roasting time might be in order. In fact, perhaps no roast is the ideal. The raw 70% bar was simply fantastic, either in the small sample or as a full bar. This is nothing at all like the “typical” raw chocolate, usually crudely processed to emphasize its “rustic” nature, often not made with the best beans, frequently packed with other unusual ingredients that mask the chocolate taste and turn it into a confection rather than a chocolate bar. No, Pacari’s is a full-fledged classic chocolate bar, the only difference being that it’s unroasted. Not only is it a spectacular achievement in its own right, it competes with Pralus for the title of best organic bar on the market, and with Domori for the best organic bar ever (Domori’s Chacao is still a chocolate much lamented since its disappearance).
Pacari also enrobe various things: the winner is the chocolate-covered banana bits. Why do so few people combine chocolate and bananas (a natural combination if ever there was one)? It doesn’t seem to find favour with good chocolatiers. Pacari’s got an addictive, irresistible snacking food with this one.
Melt also got in to the act, offering a Pacari Manabi chocolate truffle. It’s interesting what different chocolates can do. This truffle had a flavour very reminiscent of creme fraiche, along with earthy characteristics that avoided being flat and dull. Texture was good if quite fluid. Might Melt venture to produce a Pacari raw chocolate truffle? You could do it by very gently melting the chocolate over absolute minimum heat, then stirring in cream matched in temperature. It would require some careful work, but I for one would be very interested in it.
As for Pacari, overall, a firm with a total vision.