Artisanal chocolate hits sweet spot at its Mesoamerican roots

McClatchy Newspapers

MANAGUA, Nicaragua

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.

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 and began to package it. “We use cacao, sugar, milk, honey. That’s it. That’s for our fresh chocolate.”

“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.

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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