Chocolate, from Bean to Bar

Miriam Ramos is pint-sized, but she packs a punch.

“I used to have a boyfriend as tall as you,” says Miriam Ramos, the General Manager of the Wellington Chocolate Factory, as she greets me in the foyer of the WCF chocolate wonderland. If there’s something enchanting about chocolate factories in general, the pint-sized Ramos is leveraging that spell. A Frida Kahlo locket hangs around her neck, there’s a maroon apron over her shoulders, and her lips are adorned in bright red lipstick, a contrast to skin the color of dry earth. Her brown eyes are bright, lively, quick.

Charming as she is, Ramos also immediately commands respect. She speaks quickly, authoritatively and with no wasted words. She’s from Mexico City, but spent much of her childhood in Veracruz, where her grandfather owned plantations. She’s got a fearlessness in her — it brings to mind the Tehuantepec of southern Mexico, a matriarchal culture where women fill many traditional male roles. WCF doesn’t do Fair Trade. WCF works bean to bar. When Ramos tells me there’s no such thing as dark chocolate, I believe her. And behind her petite shoulders, a handful of girls work silently, going through the routine of creating pristine chocolates. Ramos, along with WCF owners and founders Rochelle Harrison and Gabe Davidson, keep a tight ship.

New Zealanders hold a pride that comes from isolation. In America, you see the same in the culture of the Northwest — Seattle, Portland. The lack of nearby neighbors leads to both a freedom to create an independent culture and the necessity to do things well to survive. It’s all and only on you. There’s no one else to blame. In New Zealand, this kind of individualistic pride, isolation from others, and relative smallness of country, allows the freedom to create norms that aren’t possible in other places. For Ramos, this means the WCF chocolate can be done exactly the way they want.

She doesn’t do Fair Trade. She works bean to bar. When she tells me there’s no such thing as dark chocolate, I believe her.

Bean to bar is an approach to chocolate that works with the cocoa as a whole food. Most chocolatiers are working with chocolate liquor (or cocoa mass), which they “conch,” or blend with other ingredients, and then temper (the process of cooling and warming the chocolate to create even crystallization) and make into bars. That takes more than half the process away. Before bean-to-bar chocolatiers get their chocolate liquor, they must roast the pods, crack them, winnow and then grind. The shortcut of starting with the cocoa mass relies on other people roasting your cocoa, and at that point you’re dealing with a good that’s been treated independent of a chocolatier’s vision, rather than that chocolatier starting with a raw product and working toward their own creation.

Wellington-Chocolate-Gear-Patrol-Ambiance

With direct trade, instead of Fair Trade, WCF works directly with cocoa farmers, so they doesn’t rely on a third-party system to ensure the quality. And at their level of production, the small batches that farmers harvest are enough to supply the system. It might be hard to scale, but Wellington Chocolate Factory isn’t aspiring to be a behemoth industry. WCF also doesn’t trust the Fair Trade world, which often gives back to the communities in ways that certain farmers don’t deem necessary — a Fair Trade contract may fund a bridge for a co-op of farmers, but what a farmer may really need is a well. Direct trade trumps that process, while still getting a farmer a fair price.

WCF pulls from a variety of direct-trade sources — farmers harvesting cocoa trees in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Madagascar, Peru and Papa New Guinea. They get the pods shipped to New Zealand, and then work with the whole food — the pod is only de-husked and sanitized before it’s shipped. WCF gives the cocoa a light roast (thus, no such thing as “dark” chocolate — it’s all coming from a “light” roast), which Ramos equates to cooking the cacao medium rare. By working directly with the pods, WCF’s able to control the roast, an essential part of the process.

Then they crack open the pod and removes the cacao nibs. Ramos grandfather, who used to have cocoa trees on his property in Vera Cruz, would eat these cacao “superfoods,” and Ramos claims their antibacterial qualities and surplus of iron make them wonderful for teeth. “He used to chew them,” she says, handing over a pod, “and he had perfect teeth.”

With direct trade, instead of Fair Trade, WCF works directly with cocoa farmers, so they doesn’t rely on a third-party system to ensure the quality.

WCF then takes the cacao nibs, runs a stone grinder over them, similar to extracting olive oil, and tempers it, melts it down, and makes chocolate bars. The bars are wrapped by hand in the factory and they feature the designs of local artists, like Gina Kiel. WCF’s process, from start to finish, is meticulous and fully controlled.

On a high table, Ramos lays out a few bars, WCF’s final product, and dishes with bite-size pieces for each. The Peru Norandmo — she places a piece on her tongue — has flavors of apricots and honey. The Dominican Republic has earthy tones with hints of marmalade. All the complexities of the chocolate, like a fine, single-origin coffee, a pure bourbon, or a raw honey, come together in one balanced, pleasing morsel. Each bar tells a story of place, soil and plant — but, perhaps more than that, it also demonstrates in one single rectangle the passion of a small crew’s dedication to craft.

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