few weeks ago, Seventy% was invited to Nicaragua to give two Slow Chocolate workshops to a group of farmers, producers and other representatives from the cacao world. We had the great pleasure in meeting Carlos Mann, founder of Momotombo Chocolate and one of the most promising artisan chocolate makers in Central America.
“Our first recipe was a simple roasted peanut chocolate. And, the first one that made me proud was our cashew and aged rum variety,” says Carlos Mann passionately, admitting that making chocolate had not been his ambition in the first place. So, how did his journey begin?
It started years ago, during his days in California. As a former illustrator, who spent some time in San Francisco working at a video game studio, he quickly became a foodie just by living in the Mission District, searching every corner of the neighbourhood for tasty bites.
The Mission is the old Mexican quarter of the city where almost every Latin American country has some culinary representation. Mexican, Brazilian, Cuban, Peruvian, Salvadorian, Argentinean food and even Nicaraguan food is available and that was something that strongly inspired Carlos. ‘I started cooking some of the food I tasted in the streets and restaurants all around the city. For the first time in my life, I also went to museums, taking in the so-called fine art of the world and getting tuned in to the underground art scene of San Francisco,” he explains.
Food and art. The perfect combination Carlos needed in order to evolve and found Momotombo Chocolates some years later.
The flavours of Nicaraguan food
The food and smell of his childhood are still fresh in his mind. He recalls what a superb cook his grandmother was and what a sugar freak he was. “I had seven cavities by the time I was six. All from stealing and eating her cakes, pies and sweets.”
What was your favourite dish she prepared for you?
“Farmer’s lasagna (lasagna campesina) made with tortillas instead of pasta, cream infused with green chiles (instead of tomatoes) and shredded white wine chicken. She also cooked amazing soups, such as our speciality soup in Nicaragua, “sopa criolla.”
However, Carlos tells us a story that could be seen as a premonition of Momotombo Chocolate.
In the 1920’s, his great grandfather arrived from Italy to open the first candy and chocolate factory in Nicaragua. “In a typical Nicaraguan drama, he fathered my grandfather Octavio out of wedlock with a native woman. He did not recognise him formally as his son. So our family did not carry on a relationship with him or his other children. I don’t know much about him, but it’s my understanding that none of his legitimate children had interest in the trade and that his candy business eventually shut down,” he says.
After years living in California and spending a year in India, Carlos decided to go back to Nicaragua. Perhaps, the craving for his grandmother’s dishes and the link to his Italian ancestry were too intrinsically linked. Intuitively, he needed to continue his culinary journey back in his native country.
“I started having extremely vivid dreams of cacao”
“I think chocolate began to work its effect on me. In late 2004, I was bombarded by images of cacao. Every book I looked at seemed to have references of cacao. Traveling around Nicaragua I came across artisan chocolates that amazed me. I started having extremely vivid dreams of cacao.
I went to the market, bought myself a Clay Comal (for toasting cacao) and ten pounds of unfermented market cacao. I roasted it and started eating cacao.”
Carlos started writing down many recipes that he wanted to try. With the help of his friend Sonia, he began in earnest.
Evolution from fresh to refined chocolate
His recipes were coming along nicely and he now had some guidelines for an original recipe. It required minimal processing and could be produced in any farm or home in Nicaragua with locally available technology. It had to be fresh and un-tempered. And finally, Carlos needed to use natural local ingredients for flavouring: fruits, nuts, spices, herbs, seeds and flowers.
He would go to the market and stand in line with all the ladies waiting to hire the corn mill to make dough for “tortillas”. When his turn came, he and Sonia washed the mill before running his cacao through it. “That is how we got our cacao liquor for the first 18 months we made chocolate,” he explains.
At that time, he stubbornly decided that if he couldn’t figure out how to make good chocolate with the unfermented cacao from the market, he wouldn’t even bother trying to get hold of -fermented cacao. So for the first year and half, he only made chocolate with unfermented cacao. “I just didn’t worry about it. All our recipes had to be designed to tame that wild flavour.”
After a couple months, he made a chocolate that fit the image of what he had in mind. They called it fresh chocolate. “It is essentially an un-tempered dark milk chocolate. It is full of moisture and so mixes well with fresh ingredients such as fruits,” he adds.
About three years ago, the Nicaragua government recognized it as a new form of chocolate by including it in the national food codex as “Fresh Chocolate” (Chocolate Fresco).
Nowadays, Momotombo produces eight varieties of refined bars, from dark milk to 70% dark chocolate. Some of them contain hand peeled cacao beans, others contain cashew nuts, coconut, sesame seeds, peanuts or dried banana (all endemic products of Nicaragua). The company also produces 70% baking chocolate blocks.
“The flavour of our chocolate bars really change constantly all year round. We produce micro batches and we produce varieties on a whim or according to the seasons. We simply buy what’s interesting or seems appropriate at the time. Sometimes we make bars that are fruity, sometimes nutty, sometimes something else. It’s just like buying good ingredients for a great meal,” explains Carlos.
Nicaraguan cacao has delicate hazelnut, tobacco, rum and coffee notes. Carlos buys directly from farms that have a high overall level of criollo flavours in their cacao as well as from some than have more acidic fruity flavours derived from wilder varietals.
In 2006, he founded Momotombo Chocolate. Its name comes from the volcano that stands on the shore of Lake Managua. Thirteen women work at the chocolate factory that has become an icon of artisan chocolatiers in Nicaragua. Momotombo has three shops in Managua and periodically ships its truffles to Palo Alto and Brooklyn.
Carlos explains that even though it is a challenge making chocolate in Managua, due to the tropical heat, a limited supply of chocolate equipment and petty corruption, it is still incredibly interesting and exciting making chocolate in Nicaragua. “The ingredients available here are any chef’s dream!”
And what is your dream?
I want to bring back the old, almost-forgotten recipes and techniques of cacao transformation and production used in Nicaragua.
And I want to see my country harness the power of cacao to transform itself into a nation of chocolate makers and expert cacao cultivators. Chocolate is a fitting, proper means of reversing poverty.