Sunday, October 21, 2012

Discovering Danta Chocolate: Guatemala to Belgium to Holland

"Discovery" is a tough word. It gives voice to the magnetic human urge to go it alone and do something previously unimagined. Artists discover things. So do cooks. So do travelers. It is also evidence of a deeply flawed human sense of entitlement and importance. Many of us who declare things new————maybe we're bloggers, or Hollywood agents, or historic or contemporary colonists——hope to profit from our discoveries.

This chocolate travel story is a tiny, excited, anxious tale of discovery.

In 2008, my Dutch friend Bette and I sat down for drinks at one of Antigua, Guatemala's, many expat bars with a man named Carlos Eichenberger. Carlos is native of Guatemala City with access to both the agricultural products of Central America and the markets that consume them in the United States and beyond. He was just putting together a new bean-to-bar company called Danta Chocolate, drawing on Mayan glyphs for his logo and calling on an indigenous tapir-like animal as the company's namesake.

Carlos was intrigued by the explosion of micro-chocolate factories globally and saw an opportunity. Something else that no doubt compelled Carlos was the question of why Guatemala, the fertile Mesoamerican birthplace of chocolate, is largely irrelevant to today's international chocolate industry. Of course, we all need to understand a little bit about agriculture, a little bit about geography and demography, a lot about about the different contexts of chocolate consumption in the developing and developed world, and even more about centuries of economic and political history, to even begin answering that question.

Beautiful and vibrant Bette, who tells me that there is a new a chocolate museum in Antigua, has been quietly and organically answering these kinds of global questions by living in Guatemala for the past nine years. "I went to Guatemala because of the Mayan calendar," she told me over coffee in another friend's kitchen hear Oosterpark. "But I saw that to understand this I had to live there and work there—it was not fair to stay for just four months."  Bette and I were both in Amsterdam last week, me to attend the social-media-friendly Origin Chocolate Event and Bette to spend an intensive day teaching theater and dance to school children as part of the Theater Projecten Bureau.

While Bette was busy adapting Pirates of the Caribbean to the northern European stage I found my way along Linneausstraad to the Royal Tropical Institute, a scenic and topical setting for a chocolate show, since it was the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus who attached the name Theobroma to the Mayan word cacao, thus cataloging chocolate in the European consciousness.  The chocolate event was a heart-warming fledgling operation: schedules got screwed up, overhead projectors didn't work, artisan chocolate makers like Vincent Marou from Marou Chocolate in Vietnam and Santiago Peralta from Pacari in Ecuador helped each other distribute samples.  The organizers (chocolate distributor Erik Sauër, perfume expert Caroline Lubbers, and part-time chocolate fanatic Vera Hofman) invited professionals in the food industry and members of the public to consider (and consider changing) Holland's contradictory role in global chocolate production.  The Netherlands is the world's largest processor of cocoa powder but is home to only two tiny artisan chocolate makers (Metropolitan was the one represented at the event).

Wandering around the tropical building, I overheard the words between a chocolatier and an eager customer "chocolate in Guatemala." Wait!————I thought with a surge of excitement and even a rush of jealousy————that's my story. I made my way to the front of the queue and discovered the high voltage Belgian chocolatier Geert Vercruysse presenting an entire range of ganache-filled bon bons highlighting the chocolate of small artisan producers around the world including———in addition to Marou, Pacari, Dick Taylor, and Taza————Danta chocolate from Guatemala! Vercruysse's Danta bon bons—made of nothing but Carlos Eichenberger's chocolate mixed with sweet cream—tasted like cherries dipped in caramel. The cacao came from a farm on Guatemala's Pacfic coast called Las Acacias, an old family finca on a swath of land near once dominated by the United Fruit company, which I had also visited in 2008.

It was through Bette, speaking Dutch and asking questions at the local premiere of Kum Kum Bavnani's documentary Nothing Like Chocolate (another window into chocolate-making in the Americas), that I found out that Erik Sauër and his El Sauco company are working to import Danta Chocolate to Europe. "We need to improve his packaging," Erik said, "but his chocolate could be one of the best in the world."

The best in the world. A new discovery made. I can't say who ultimately discovered whom in this story. But this is a story to tell: Guatemalan cacao becomes Belgian chocolate.

(Starting in November new Danta bars, made from organic cacao grown in Guatemala's neighboring country of Nicaragua, should be available at Chocolatl in Amsterdam.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oy, best in the world?

Carlos does his best with what he has got to work with.

The cacao of Guatemala in general & Acasias in particular is fraught, the great relics of the ancient groves having been abandoned or destroyed.

It is an origin in need of rejuvenation. Let's hope that happens.

9:14 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Geert Vercruysse said...

Thank Emily for the kind words you mentioned on the chocolates made with the Las Acacias of Danta. Carlos was at my shop and labo for several days and we have beeing working with his chocolate and beeing creative in pastry and truffels-chocolates. The taste of the couverture was explosive and so wonderfull of nice intens natural flavors. From the first moment I contacted Carlos I saw the passion in his work and could read the story in his eyes. This is the reason I like to create fine bonbons not only with Las Acacias but also his other chocolate. The packaging is nice and for me there's nothing needed to be changed, this is Carlos and Danta!

8:58 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What M. Geert is saying makes some sense because the harsh chemical compounds that are found in Guatemalan cacao that make it objectionable in an eating bar are the very ones that can cut through a ganache for more presence compared to a delicate cacao. Thank you for bringing this up.

4:38 PM GMT-5  

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