Chefs discovering the secrets of cacao
Montreal — Eleven North American pastry chefs were whisked away by Cacao Barry this summer to one of the most unique and respected cocoa plantations in Dominican Republic; Hacienda La Esmeralda. Cacao Barry buys beans from Hacienda La Esmeralda to produce Cacao Barry's chocolate La Esmeralda 74% cocoa.
The goal? To better understand the origin of the cocoa bean, a commonly used ingredient in their respective kitchens. The result? A once in a lifetime sensory experience that provided a 360 view of the bean to bar experience over a five day trip to San Francisco de Macoris.
For Auberge du Pommier executive chef, Malcolm Campbell, a firsthand look at the entire process was the main reason he jumped at the opportunity. "I was really interested in seeing the transformation from raw to processed and learn about the biology of the cacao tree and the ecosystem in which it's grown and harvested. I wanted a chance to use all my senses as an experience, to be able to stand and touch the tree, taste the cacao pulp, smell the forest floor, hear the sounds of the plantation and see the light cascading through the canopy...I wanted to see the country not from a resort aspect but from a real perspective."
The plantation was founded by Sr. Hector Rizek 40 years ago with three generations of the Rizek family carrying on his legacy today, operating a total of 20 farms. According to the vice president of strategy and business development, Massimiliano Wax, La Esmeralda is one of the most important satellite units in the Rizek business, and it is important for the family to educate chefs along with the 5,000 annual tourists about the path of cocoa.
"Our society sees chickens as parts, not as a living animals. The same goes for chocolate, you have no idea where it comes from. This is very sad and we are fighting against it. We want to build knowledge and connection with roots," said Wax.
That's exactly what they set out to do when Wax and his partner warmly greeted the chefs at the plantation gates upon arrival. As they led the chefs down a path of dark deep soil and vibrant fruit trees, the chefs found themselves inside the family-farm with countless organically grown cocoa trees standing tall, decorated by colourful pods in various ripening stages and beautiful white cocoa flowers. At La Esmeralda, you won't find automated machines plowing through the land but instead, hard-working individuals armed with nothing but a pole and machete harvesting cocoa pods by hand. Phones and cameras were quickly drawn from backpacks to capture these extraordinary sights.
During the tour, the chefs experienced an intimate lesson on La Esmeralda's cocoa farming process, beginning with the planting and fermenting stages. Pods were cracked open so that the chefs had an opportunity to taste the layer of sweet edible pulp around each cocoa bean. This allowed the chefs to experience the diverse flavours of the fruit, which they later came to understand as flavours derived from unique clones.
"We tailor make the cocoa and this is rare because the means to do so involves a lot of research and development, but we think that today's consumer deserves to know what's going on. How is cocoa made? Who is making it? Where does it come from? Who is making money from it? And most of all, what am I eating? Am I eating a commodity or an ingredient? This is our frame of mind," said Wax.
Sarah Rizek has been a part of the family business since she was a little girl growing up on the family farm and for her, providing an intimate experience for chefs and a customized product for partners are just a couple reasons why the La Esmeralda has been leading the way in cocoa production. "We look for people who want to do the same things with the same ethics as us. We don't make anything with a bad partner. Our product is elevated with people who can create the best with it," said Rizek.
The next day, the chefs spent the day at the training centre CE.T.I.CO to learn more about the fermenting and drying stages. From there, local chefs were invited to compete in a food challenge along with the 11 North American chefs in a chocolate workshop. They were tasked to create a unique dish by using the farm's terroir and of course, cocoa, as inspiration in three different teams: sweet, savoury and dessert.
On the sweet side was Succulent Chocolates owner Sandra Abballe; Gouter owner Rodney Alleguede; and Norman Love Confections confectioner Brittany Mateika, who created decadent bonbons with passion fruit caramel, banana ganache, and nougatine.
On the savoury team was O&B culinary stylist Paul Brans, Langdon Hall executive chef Jason Bangerter; CXBO executive chef Brandon Olsen; and Chase Group executive chef Jennifer Dewasha, who made a coal roasted pork in banana leaf and foraged cocoa pods with a jungle fruit salsa.
And on the dessert team was Auberge du Pommier executive chef Malcolm Campbell; Ritz Carlton pastry chef Gael Moutet; STUBBE's Chocolate owner Daniel Stubbe; and Thobors Patisserie owner Sylvie Thobor, who executed cacao pods with chocolate ganache, passion fruit chocolate mousse, mango, with chocolate and cacao flowers.
All three teams rose to the challenge and walked away victorious with judges declaring every participant a winner. There was a widespread feeling of comradery and excitement amongst the group not just throughout the competition but the entire experience on the plantation as the visit quickly came to an end.
"This was such a great way to spend some time with other chocolatiers. La Esmeralda has adapted the industrial way but still maintaining the artisanal side of it which is so great. The people involved believe in the product, their team and everything they do. I have a deeper appreciation for chocolate, for this wonderful product that we eat. There's a lot that goes into it and that's something that needs to be cherished," said Olsen.
For Bangerter, the enthusiasm and knowledge he found on the plantation will surely be shared with his team at Langdon Hall.
"This just helps add to the story of our own Langdon Hall Or'Noir chocolates. The stories add a heightened level of magical whimsy to the dining experience and educates guests more about the bean to bar process. A higher level of training and understanding of the process now can be tough to our pastry team as well! You may even see a cacao coal roasted banana leaf wrapped pork loin with mango BBQ sauce and jungle fruit salsa on the menu soon. It is all very exciting!"
Before the chefs bid the plantation adieu, the Rizek family and their hospitable team organized an authentic whole pork roast party that saw the chefs enjoying the fruits of their collective labour.
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