Loco for cocoa: Artisanal chocolate looks to Mesoamerican roots in Nicaragua

Artisanal chocolate is taking off, with many small chocolatiers taking production back to the basics.

The first time Carlos Mann mixed a batch of his own chocolate, he knew he was loco over cocoa. Thus was born Momotombo Chocolate, an artisanal chocolate house with a twist: It makes high-end chocolate in the Mesoamerican heart of the cacao bean with the freshest of ingredients and without any industrial machinery.

“Just a pot, a fire, and a spoon,” Mann said.

Mann and dozens of other small chocolate makers around the world wager that artisanal chocolate is on the cusp of taking off. Comparisons with gourmet coffee, craft beer, and high-end wine abound.

“It’s really starting to explode.... Every week, I hear about a new bean-to-bar chocolate maker,” said Nat Bletter, an ethnobotanist and the “flavormeister” at Madre Chocolate, an artisanal maker with a shop in Kailua, Hawaii.

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Small chocolatiers say they’re taking production back to its roots, often buying cacao beans from a single source – say, Madagascar or Venezuela – keeping the cacao content high, limiting other ingredients, and distancing themselves from the behemoths of industrial chocolate.

Momotombo Chocolate – named for a towering, cone-shaped volcano on the shores of Nicaragua’s Lake Managua – sprouted near the ancient roots of chocolate. The cacao tree is endemic to the Amazon basin but moved up thousands of years ago to Mesoamerica, the region that stretches from central Mexico through most of Central America. The Aztecs used the cacao tree as a representation of the universe.

“Nicaragua is one of the last great places in the world for rare cacao hunters,” Mann said. “Within Nicaragua, I could lay out 10 different beans that have 10 different aromatic notes.”

Cacao, of course, was hijacked so successfully that many consumers associate chocolate with Belgium, Switzerland, and Hershey, Pa., rather than Mesoamerica.

Yet as recently as a century and a half ago, villagers in outlying areas of Nicaragua still traded the cacao bean, the fatty seed that grows in a pod from the trunk of the cacao tree, as currency.

Local varieties of cacao have a soft, nutty flavor that’s distinct from the acidity and bitterness of beans found in parts of Africa and Asia.

Mann, an illustrator, returned from San Francisco to his native Nicaragua nearly a decade ago and grew captivated by the cacao beans he saw at the market. He bought a sack and tried his hand at roasting and making chocolate.

“It took me four months,” he recalled. “It really was trial and error. I just wanted to know: Can I make a chocolate that truly is gourmet but is machine-free?”

He finally hit on the right combination – “We use cacao, sugar, milk, honey. That’s it. That’s for our fresh chocolate” – and began to package it.

“I grabbed a cooler, filled it with chocolate and went around to a dozen shops around Managua offering my chocolate,” Mann said. A near-cult following emerged.

“People would knock on my door late at night saying, ‘Hey, do you have some chocolate?’ ” he recalled.

It’s an experience shared by the artisanal chocolate makers who are popping up across the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and even the Middle East.

“We call it the real chocolate revolution,” said Todd Masonis, a co-owner of Dandelion Chocolate, an artisanal company in San Francisco’s Mission District that takes single-origin cacao beans and turns them into chocolate.

Discriminating consumers are catching on to the unique flavors.

“People started to understand that there is more to chocolate, and that it has as much depth and complexity as wine,” Masonis said.

Artisanal chocolatiers hunt for unusual varieties, roast them delicately and coax the flavor to the max rather than seek consistency from high-yielding, low-cost cacao plantations.

If words falter in describing distinct artisanal chocolates, that may be fitting given that the scientific name of the tree is Theobroma cacao, “food of the gods.”

As an ethnobotanist, Bletter has studied the chemical properties of the cacao bean and come away impressed by its complex chemical melange.

“It’s got a huge number of antioxidants, beneficial fats in the butter and psychoactive compounds including stimulants,” Bletter said. “It’s actually this complex cocktail . . . that makes us feel happy and awake” by eating chocolate.

Advocates suggest that consumers let artisanal chocolate melt in their mouths and savor it to notice the tastes of the beans.

“Eating your chocolate in a different way will change the flavor and prolong the experience,” said Conrad Miller, a self-described “cacao-ist” and high-end purveyor at Chocolate Earth, a shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. “People eat chocolate too quickly now. That is part of the problem.”

RELATED: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

True chocophiles say the taste of different cacao beans can be dramatic, depending on soil, rainfall and the type of fermentation used before roasting.

“Venezuelan beans have an incredible spicy flavor, like cinnamon or nutmeg,” Bletter said. “Even in Hawaii, there is an amazing difference even from one side of the island to the other. . . . There’s also Indonesian, which is hazelnutty. They do a very short ferment there.”

“Just like they talk about terroir in wines, there’s terroir in chocolate,” he said, referring to the notion that geography plays a role in flavor.

“People want to know where the chocolate is coming from,” Mann echoed, adding that in his case he buys directly from specific farmers. Everything else about the business is local, too, including the elegant cigar-style boxes that contain some of his chocolates.

Like many artisanal chocolate makers, Mann handcrafts not only plain milk and dark chocolate but also varieties with raisins, rum, organic cashews and bananas, coffee, caramel and coconut. What he shuns are the usual ingredients of industrial producers, such as lecithin and vanilla.

Because he and his 16 female employees produce only about 1,500 pounds of chocolate a month, mostly for the domestic market, they take special orders.

“Anybody can come here and say, ‘I want my chocolate a little more fruity,’ or ‘My dad likes tequila. Can you make it?’ ” Mann said.

Artisanal chocolatiers venture increasingly into unusual flavorings. Madre Chocolate in Hawaii sells passion fruit and chipotle bars, while Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago offers a chocolate bar with hickory-smoked bacon. A boutique in New York’s Soho neighborhood, Xocolatti, sells a rose cardamom truffle and bars with saffron nut chikki flavor.

“It’s controversial in some ways,” Miller said, noting that some contest judges think that even the addition of vanilla qualifies as a flavored bar. “I am fairly agnostic. I understand that there are wonderful pairings to chocolate.”

Momotombo has snagged its share of awards. At the International Chocolate Salon last year in San Francisco, it won three gold awards. A year earlier, Mann won a silver medal at the Fall Luxury Chocolate Salon for his dark chocolate bar.

“The awards matter on a spiritual level,” he said, “because Nicaragua has this great cacao tradition that has been neglected and stepped on. It’s a vindication of sorts.”

“We really see ourselves as part of the renaissance movement that’s happening in gourmet chocolate all over the Americas,” Mann said.

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