Sunday, September 06, 2009

Virginian Chocolate

In July, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists engaged in an ongoing debate on the Association for the Study of Food and Society listserv about the definitions of and differences between the words criolla and criollo. One respondent argued that both are (differently gendered) versions of the same adjective derived from the Portuguese Brazilian crioulo, and someone else surmised that "criollo in general refers to someone born in the Western Hemisphere to parents who came from Spain" while "criolla refers to grapes (aka 'mission grapes') brought to California (and other places in the Western Hemisphere) by the Spanish in the 16th century and planted there for the purpose of wine-making." My own contribution to the conversation was that

As high-end chocolate becomes more mainstream, marketers like to draw attention to criollo cacao beans (as opposed to forastero and trinitario beans, though, as several people have already mentioned, cacao plants are naturally genetically intermixed) as the "purest" and "finest" cacao--that is certainly an oversimplification. A couple of facts that challenge/complicate that characterization: 1. Juan C. Motamayor has actually proposed that there are ten rather than three "genetic clusters" of cacao, in his paper "Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma cacao L)" (, and 2. My own experience in rural Guatemala was that people used the term to refer to cacao that came from trees that were wild and that they believed to be of inferior quality (whether that cacao would turn out to be genetically "criollo" is not clear to me), as opposed to "hibridos," known hybrids (often introduced in the 1940s or 50s, I believe, by the United Fruit Company) that they understood to be superior.

Implicit in my argument is is the assumption that the word the chocolate industry is concerned with is criollo, not criolla.

Brothers Tim and Matt Gearhart either disagree or are misinformed. Quite possibly, they simply don't care about semantics. The signature bon bon at their Gearhart's chocolate shop in Charlottesville, VA, is the "Criolla": a ganache of El Rey couverture and Shenandoah cream, combined with cacao nibs. The Gearharts treat chocolate the way that winemakers in the Jeffersonian stomping ground of the "Monticello Region" that surrounds Charlottesville treat grapes--they turn out a good product without self-consciousness or pretension.

In addition to the Criolla, former Marine cook Tim Gearhart makes fifteen other confections (Matt handles the business end), including maple pecan candies, an earl grey bon bon I'd like to make another trip for, and an orange-, cinnamon-, and ancho chile-infused ganache that borrows a lot of its flavor from the Green & Black's Maya Gold bar. The second Gearhart's location is scheduled to open in Richmond later this month.


Anonymous Michael Szyliowicz said...

I really enjoyed this post, especially when differentiating between criollo and criolla. Also, the next time I’m in Charlottesville, I’ll plan to stop by this unique chocolate shop.

2:56 PM GMT-5  

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