I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Divine Chocolate: Ads with a Vision

When I was on my year of doctoral fieldwork, after eight months on the cocoa farms of Asia-Pacific and Ghana, I traveled to London to study the consumer end of the chocolate trade. Having done some work with Kuapa Kokoo cooperative in Ghana, which owns nearly half shares in Divine Chocolate in Britain, I arranged to meet with Sophi Tranchell, Divine's Managing Director.

We met in the conference room for our interview. Around the room, tacked up on the walls and resting on easels, were the most intriguing photographs of cocoa farmers I had ever seen. Quite unlike typical portrayals of farmers in Britain or the US, which show poor but hardworking men and women growing cocoa, the women gracing Divine's conference room walls were attractive fashionistas, wearing glamorous outfits and standing confidently in sassy poses. In their hands, they were holding pieces of chocolate.

My eyes locked on these images. Never before had I seen a cocoa farmer - much less a female cocoa farmer - depicted as a sophisticated cosmopolitan, enjoying a luxurious piece of chocolate. In Western media, it is the norm to portray African farmers as people in need of help, whose material poverty seems like their single enduring, defining feature. Not so with these images.

I asked Sophi where the posters had come from, and she explained that they were a part of an advertising campaign that had, at the time, just begun in British newspapers, including The Guardian, and women's magazines, such as Elle and OK! In Ghana, I had seen that West African women are highly regarded for their fashion sensibility, business acumen, and market prominence. I welcomed these ads, which showed that reality. Right away, I wanted to take the posters home, to explore and analyze this representation of African farmers as luxury consumers and fashionable business owners.

Sophi did send me back to my flat with a stack of the ads, and for many months afterwards I pored over them, crafting a chapter of my dissertation based on their intrigue. Then I defended, stowed my dissertation away, and did not look at the images, my favorite data from my fieldwork, for some time.

Just last week, my latest thoughts on these images were published in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, in an article entitled: "Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements." The abstract is below. It was a joy to see this work in print! I hope you will take a moment to check it out. The wonderful images -- and all that they represent about the women of Ghana's cocoa industry -- are thought-provoking indeed.

Journal of African Cultural Studies

This article concerns a beguiling set of advertisements for Divine Chocolate that feature women
cocoa farmers from Ghana, which recently appeared in British magazines and newspapers. In
contrast to representations of African women as exotic icons of ‘traditional’ cultures or leaders
of progressive development schemes, the Divine advertisements depict farmers as
cosmopolitan consumers of luxury goods and owners of the chocolate company. By
representing these Ghanaian women as glamorous business owners, the images invite
viewers to see them as potent actors in transnational exchanges of cocoa and chocolate, and
as beneficiaries of these exchanges, in contrast to analyses that focus on market exploitation
by the nation state or corporate actors. The images pose a challenge to narratives that cast
Africa as continually on the losing side of harmful binaries – primitive/civilized, traditional/
modern – and in an eternal developmental lag. Instead, they offer an alluring female figure
that envisions and promotes Africa’s roles in industrial production and luxury consumption.
Through a complex rendering of Ghanaian women farmers as attractive, socially mobile
beneficiaries of their own development efforts, the adverts invite connections among people
who grow, sell, and consume luxuries like chocolate, across a visual gulf that is often too
vast to bridge.

Monday, April 2, 2012

First attempt at mendiants, partial success

I have had it in my plans for some time now to make a batch of homemade mendiants, to give away to my friends and thus increase their earthly joy.

First, I commissioned the vessels. My friend Ken made them by hand from single pieces of scrap wood.

Then, I decided which friends would get chocolates. Obviously Kerry now knows that she is among the fortunate.

I stopped in Lake Forest Park on my way home from teaching in Bothell one afternoon, and picked up decorations from my friend Bill Fredericks, the Chocolate Man.

Mendiants (French for "beggar") have pretty little bits of edible decor on them. I got white chocolate curls, cocoa nibs, Crispearls (by Callebaut), crumbled biscuit flakes, and Himalayan pink salt. Also dried cranberries and mango, which I thought would add nice color. Then I chose the chocolate.

I used some of my supply of Fortunato #4, the lost chocolate of Peru, sourced by my friend Dan Pearson at Maranon Chocolate. It's a 68%, delicately flavored, fragile dark.

Many weeks passed. First I was going to make Valentine's chocolates, but then I had to move into a new apartment. Then I thought I would make vernal equinox chocolates, but I had to unpack all my boxes in the new apartment. Over the weekend I suddenly realized that I had two waking hours not sailing/running/climbing/diving/teaching/bus-riding/writing, and I thought, aha! It's time to make the chocolates.

It was my first attempt outside the Callebaut Chocolate Academy to make such marvels, unaided. I tempered the chocolate, using Callebaut's revolutionary crystallized cocoa butter, Mycryo (awkward word for what is actually an attractive, handy product), so that my mendiants would be nice and shiny. I did my parchment test - et voila, it set nicely! Then I filled a piping bag with the tempered chocolate and began piping out my circles.

The first few came out looking almost like mendiants.

They were nearly circular, and the decorations vaguely representative of the artful designs I had imagined for my creations.

Then I began to realize that making mendiants at the Callebaut Academy, where I had expensive warming pans (to keep the tempered chocolate in temper), all necessary supplies, and a partner to help if need be, resulted in somewhat more attractive formations than those I could achieve by myself in my railroad-style kitchen with almost no professional gear. My mendiants became increasingly blob-like and misshapen.

I also recalled at this point that mendiants set extremely quickly, so piping even half a dozen in a row meant that the first ones were already starting to get solid by the time I got around to decorating them, so my pretty little bits starting rolling right off. Realizing this, I tried to smash handfuls of decor onto those that were setting most quickly.

Also, the tip of the piping bag became increasingly blocked with chocolate, which was thickening apace.

Desperate, I piped the remaining, setting chocolate out of the bag onto the parchment paper, never mind that it looked like brown toothpaste. I even decorated the alien-like blobs.

In the end, I've had to layer the moderately attractive chocolates on top of the hideous ones, but at least the handmade bowls are full. And they taste nice too (the chocolates, not the bowls).

Check in again on Wednesday, April 4, when I'll be conversing about chocolate on the Halli Casser Jayne show, 3-4pm ET.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Success at the UW Bothell Chocolate Festival!

Every year at UW Bothell, I teach a class called Chocolate: A Global Inquiry. It's the only undergraduate class devoted to chocolate, and I use this food as a focus for teaching everything from global political economy to history to business management and advertising. Normally, I end the class with a fifty-question multiple-choice final examination, but this year I decided to do something different: a chocolate festival.

My 38 students prepared for the entire 10-week quarter, learning about this industry and its trade. We studied industrial history, manufacture, issues of slave labor, chocolate advertisements, and even literature and film -- and by the end, I had 38 chocolate experts who were ready to be ambassadors for this food.

To prepare for the festival, each student found a single-origin chocolate and created a full flavor profile, an advertisement, and a poster. They brought all these things to our classroom yesterday morning and we set up the room festival-style, with colorful posters on display and sample trays. The UW Bothell photographer arrived with his camera. We put on a CD called Music from the Chocolate Lands by Putamayo, pushed play on a slideshow of cocoa-farm-to-chocolate-factory photos, and then we opened our doors.

Poster for Dandelion Colombia 70%
I really did not know what to expect after that. I had never held a chocolate festival as part of my class, and our advertising was limited to a poster created by one of my students and a few emails to the campus listserv. We also started at the early hour of 9am (typically by this time of day I have already eaten a handful of chocolate, but I realize that not everybody does this). I was nervous: What if there wasn't enough chocolate? What if there was too much chocolate? What if nobody came, and my students sat there by themselves, awkwardly, behind their lonely tables for the entire class period?

My favorite poster
Well. As soon as we opened the doors, they came. Faculty, staff, students, librarians, friends -- everybody. Within moments the room was packed, and visitors kept pouring in. I stayed by the door, greeting new arrivals and pointing out the different world regions on display. We'd arranged the room by bean origin -- Africa, Asia-Pacific, Central America and the Caribbean, and South America. Over 40 chocolates in all, representing all the major growing regions.

Full festival
Unknown to my students, I had set up a basket near the door with different chocolate questions on little slips of paper, and encouraged festival-goers to take one and ask the question to the students. I thought it would encourage visitors and students to interact beyond the sampling, and bring an educational component to the festival in line with the class itself.

Mayan temple with Mexico chocolate
Let me say, I have never been more proud of a class! Dozens of people stopped to tell me that every student had expertly answered the questions, and that they learned so much about chocolate. Students led visitors like true connoisseurs through the flavor profiles of their bars ("This chocolate will give you hints of cinnamon and coconut"; "And wait for the notes of banana at the finish!") and explained everything from slave labor to the difference between white, milk, and dark. Festival-goers  left with huge smiles and handfuls of samples for colleagues who could not leave their desks or classrooms.

As I ushered out the last visitors, just in time for the next class (on computer science, I think) to come in, we had a well deserved round of applause and packed up the little leftover chocolate. I don't think I have ever been so gratified by a final project. All of my students in this class are first years, and they showed themselves to be chocolate experts and enthusiasts of the highest caliber. My thanks to them for making the first annual UW Bothell Chocolate Festival a smashing success. Look for us again in 2013!

Model cocoa tree with Amano chocolate

Friday, February 10, 2012

(Dr.) Chocolate in the news

Valentine's Day approaches, so chocolate is in the news more than usual. Impeccable UW news reporter Molly McElroy has written an article about my chocolate work. Check it out!

'Dr. Chocolate' seeks world's best chocolate

And of course do your Valentine's shopping this weekend with the artisans who are making a difference in this chocolate world. My favorites, as always, include Amano, Dandelion, Fresco, and Rogue, and you can order from all of them online. You will be SO HAPPY you did -- and so will the lucky loved ones who get to eat your Valentine's Day presents!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Making chocolate at Callebaut

From Antarctica, to New York, Seattle, and now Chicago! I have traveled many miles in the last few weeks, but this most recent stop has been one of my favorites. For the past few days here in the Windy City, I've gotten to do something that I hardly ever get to do: make chocolate.

I've been at the Callebaut Chocolate Academy, where I created many chocolate wonders.
The first day felt like I was on Iron Chef. We table-tempered chocolate by hand, and then had to keep it crystallized all day while doing other projects. It was a lot of running back and forth, heating up the chocolate, stirring, panicking, and re-crystallizing (three times!) when it went out of temper. Stressful!

Most of the bonbons took several days to prepare, so one day it was measuring out ingredients, another it was pouring chocolate into the molds and making ganache, another filling and sealing and decorating. So much work goes into making one little truffle - I now have a much better understanding of why the things can cost several dollars apiece.

I also ate a lot less chocolate than I thought I would. There's just no time! Temptation abounds, but not a moment to spare for tasting. Here's some of what I did:

Pouring crystallized dark chocolate
into the melter - a wonderful invention that
keeps the chocolate in temper for hours

Test strips. If the chocolate sets within a few minutes
and develops a nice shine, it's properly crystallized
Cocoa-pod molds filled with dark chocolate
Horror! Fat bloom on the chocolate cocoa pod. I
thought it looked very realistic, the bloom mimicking
the diseased pods I have seen on trees around the world.
Callebaut's Crakine ganache in the guitar,
which slices it up into squares
Squares of ganache ready for dipping
Piped dark chocolate and whiskey ganache. You
can see from the blobby shapes that not everyone
had the piping quite down.
Whiskey truffles, dusted in cocoa powder

Passionfruit ganache in white chocolate shells
Melted white chocolate, poured on to make a seal
Chocolate lollipops!
My second cocoa pod mold came out perfect
and shiny, along with bars and mendiants
Many bonbons - dark, milk, white
Mendiants and lollipops

Dr. Chocolate's Chocolates

With Kurt, my kitchen partner
The kitchen team,
with Chef Amanda and Chef Celine

Friday, January 6, 2012

Continents complete

Of course I ate some chocolate at the bottom of the world. I had to bring my own, because there are no retail outlets for chocolate in Antarctica.

I brought Dandelion's Venezuela bar - one of the best, in my opinion. Check out their blog pic of me and their chocolate:


Taken at Port Lockroy, Gentoo penguins in the background.

I have now eaten chocolate on all seven continents - life goal, check!