February 2011

Before our food editor, Bill Addison, jetted off to Trinidad and Tobago last fall to tag along with local chocolatier Kristen Hard, what I knew about chocolate consisted of two indisputable facts: One, an open bag of Toll House chocolate chips in my house is not long for this world, and two, that same stuff could kill my dogs. (Seriously. Dark chocolate contains high levels of theobromine, a compound that dogs can’t metabolize; the same stuff in fine dark chocolate that gets your heart racing could stop your best friend’s.)
What I didn’t know was that chocolate, thanks to the passionate efforts of people like Hard, is finally taking its place in the artisanal movement in America. What were predictable staples of daily life barely a generation ago—cheap coffee, boring bread, bland beer—have taken on new vitality, thanks to the efforts of small-batch producers who are returning to traditional methods and quality ingredients. Today (if you want to pay for it), you can get your bacon from a charcuterie—and not off a grocery store shelf, where it’s wrapped in plastic and doused in nitrites.
Chocolate poses a particular challenge. First, the process of turning a cacao bean into a truffle is dazzlingly complex (page 73). But the real problem, as Hard has learned, is finding the right bean to begin with, and making sure that supply isn’t cut off. The fact is, as America refines its taste for exquisite chocolate, poorly paid cacao farmers—clustered near the Earth’s equator—are abandoning their crops, while huge conglomerates buy up what’s left. Meanwhile, unrest in cacao-growing countries such as Ivory Coast are putting further strain on the industry. The result is that the price of cacao (or cocoa, as most of us know it) is at its highest level in three decades.
Bill’s story outlines the forces arrayed against Hard as she works to expand her business in Atlanta. And we should all be rooting for her. Because what I’ve also learned about dark chocolate is how good it is for you. Dark chocolate suppresses coughs, reduces inflammation, and increases blood flow to the brain, which, in one British study, led subjects to improve their math. This explains why I’ve been uncannily accurate in counting up the number of calories we’ve consumed in putting together our Sweets package.
On second thought, who needs math?
Contact Steve Fennessy at sfennessy@atlantamag.emmis.com