Big news just broke in the tiny world of California cheese. Swiss giant Emmi has just purchased Cowgirl Creamery. This, just months after they acquired Redwood Hill Farms, and a few years after the cheese world’s shocking purchase of Mary Keehn’s beloved Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog.
It’s not just small dairy producers, either. Specialty meat supplier Niman Ranch is now owned by Purdue of all companies, and Lagunitas Brewing is now owned by Heineken.
I have mixed feelings about all of this, which would lead to a much larger discussion about the pros and cons of artisan companies being taken over by huge conglomerates. I will focus on the Cowgirls, with whom I am much more familiar, and a little on Mary Keehn, who I also know in passing. Peggy and Sue are very nice people who care deeply about what they do and have built up a very successful local business that has expanded steadily over the past 20 years. They and Mary are largely responsible for putting the face of California cheese in the American marketplace as a whole. Mary’s story is a great one in which as a single mother, she decided to raise goats to produce more easily digestible milk for her children. She then started producing homemade cheeses from the excess milk, and built a cheesy empire from these humble beginnings. Most of you may be familiar with my opinions on the products made by these two companies. I think Humboldt Fog is a very good cheese. Great? Nope. Very good? Sure. We sell it proudly here in the shop. I think it’s a beautiful look to add to any cheese board; I think the flavors are consistently good; I love Mary’s story and she is a warm, kind person. I also believe that her Humboldt Fog is arguably the most important cheese produced in this country. Humboldt Fog sent a message to the Europhiles that we can also make stunning cheeses in this country. Now, some of the world’s greatest cheeses are made here in the USA (Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Winnimere, Rush Creek Reserve) and I’m not so sure that our artisan cheese movement would be where it is now without her pioneering efforts. When her company was bought by Emmi in 2010, my reaction was “Good for her!” It must have been like winning the lottery for her and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. I certainly noticed a drop off in quality after the change of ownership, but in Emmi’s defense, this was rectified very quickly and the quality is right back to where it always was.
Peggy and Sue (the Cowgirls) were very concerned about a dip in quality but after speaking with Mary, their feelings were put at ease. She assured them that nothing about production has changed. As for Emmi, they certainly have experience and they seem to know what to interfere with and what not to. They also agreed to keep Peggy and Sue on as President and Vice President of Cowgirl operations. The transition should be a smooth one. Now that Peggy and Sue are nearing retirement age, (good for them too) they also deserve this. I am less concerned about the direction of Cowgirl Creamery’s products for another reason though. I am not known as one to pull punches with my opinions. You may be aware that I do not sell anything produced by Cowgirl Creamery at Andrew’s Cheese Shop. I have nothing against them;
in fact, I quite like them and I think they run an outstanding operation. I find their products to be fun, but uninteresting and lacking in depth of flavor and complexity. They look pretty and with most of them being enriched products (triple-cremes), they have nice curb appeal and are tasty in the way that decent butter is tasty. I think the Cowgirs are great and make an excellent product for their demographic, I’m just not in their demographic, and I look for something else to sell in this shop. They make very good, beautiful cheeses that appeal to huge numbers of people who like the idea of a local product that is a huge crowd pleaser. If I were them, I would probably do the same. So, I’m not too concerned about a dip in quality for them, they know what they’re doing, they have a formula that works, and I can’t possibly imagine Emmi being so irresponsible as to make any significant changes.
Remember, Emmi was founded as a cooperative movement of farmers in Switzerland that was able to grow their resources by pooling together. They’re not corporate monsters and they produce some excellent products. Like almost everything, we have to look at things on an individual basis. It’s not intellectually fair to make sweeping claims before giving these companies a chance to show what they can do. Maybe they will run these companies into the ground in an effort to cut corners and slowly but consistently lower the quality of their products. I see no reason to believe that this is the case. I’m very happy that these passionate women seem to have had a bit of a financial windfall at this stage in their lives; they deserve that. Everyone in the American cheese industry owes them a debt. I’m glad they have been able to cash in.
A nameless food purveyor salesman visited the shop a while back to sample me on some charcuterie. I noticed the label on one of the packages said “uncured salami.” Strange, I have been in the food industry for quite a long time and I’m pretty sure that the definition of salami has the word “cured” in there somewhere. The word “uncured” was not in quotes either, like in soy “burger,” so I just had to ask. “What the hell is uncured salami?” said I in my most demure New Yorkese. He looked at me with all the fear of a child who promised to walk the dog and forgot. “That means that they don’t add nitrates to it” he said, quickly realizing that one of us seemed to know what he was talking about and it wasn’t him. “Soooo….? That doesn’t answer my question. Is it cured or not?” said I. “No,” he insisted, if they don’t use nitrates, it’s not cured.”
Now, I don’t have a reputation for letting things go and this went on for quite some time before I managed to convince this guy that the label is misleading and kind of stupid and if he’s trying to sell it, he might want to invest some time in figuring this out.
As soon as he left, I ran to the Google machine to figure this nonsense out for my own self. Could I have been mistaken? Is there a way to make salami without curing it? Nope. So wait a tic, uncured salami is cured?
What the hell? As far as I can tell, this is just as ridiculous as it sounds. It turns out that “uncured” salami is cured, just like they have been curing it for thousands of years. Encase it in enough acid or sugar and the outer surface area gets protected by a layer which protects the product from pathogens and the interior molecules break down like you cooked them with heat, thus “curing” the meat. This “uncured” nonsense is exactly that, nonsense. What they really mean is that the meat is absolutely, definitely, indubitably, 100% cured, but not with sodium nitrate or nitrite. That’s fine and the discussion whether or not those two ingredients are somehow healthier or unhealthier than more traditional curing agents like salt, sugar, celery powder, or vinegars, is a longer one and very open for a reasonable debate. The problem I have is the imbecilic labeling of “uncured” as if this product is in some measureable way superior. It would have been far less confusing and much more honest to call it “naturally cured” or “cured according to traditional practices” or anything else but “uncured.” My large suspicion is that this is yet another example of marketing antiscience. People don’t know what nitrates and nitrites are but they definitely sound like something made by people in glasses and white lab coats, which is scary.
For those of you who are more interested, it actually gets even more confusing because the reason that we starting curing meats with sodium nitrate and nitrites in the first place is because they are the active chemicals released by traditional curing agents. So, even uncured meats which are cured without the addition of nitrates and nitrites also have these chemicals. If there is a reason that you cannot or will not consume these chemicals, you can’t eat either style. To sum up, there ain’t no such thing as uncured salami and the only difference is that they don’t add any nitrate or nitrite to the “uncured” salami but they’re totes in there anyways. YEESH!
The next person that comes in and asks for uncured salami is getting chased out of here with a stick of salami.
I have a reputation for never answering the question “what is your favorite cheese?”. For a great many reasons, there is no answer to that question. I do however, have a favorite style of cheese. That style is what I generally call the hard, Alpine style. This is the flavor most of us will readily identify as “Swiss.” Technically, the Alps reach beyond the borders of Switzerland into France, Italy, Germany, Lichtenstein, and Austria. I like most cheeses from these regions and the selection we carry in the shop will make that obvious. If you must know, my favorite of the style is usually the great and massive (80-90 lb. wheels) Beaufort d’Été by the brilliant affineur, Joseph Paccard.
Now I (cheese geek), just got a news alert to my inbox (yes, I subscribe to news services that alert me about cheese news), that a research team has just discovered signs of cheese-making in what is now the Swiss Alps dating back to the Iron Age (about 3,000 years ago.) Chemical Analysis of Pottery Demonstrates Prehistoric Origin for High-Altitude Alpine Dairying. Click that link if you are interested in the research paper.
The researchers seem to think that during this time period, dairy farmers got pushed further and further up the mountains because they were being pushed out by produce farmers as the population increased. I’m not so sure though. I think that’s certainly part of the explanation, but I also think that there are a couple of other factors at play. First of all, I’ve met a lot of cheese-makers. Cheese-making is pretty boring and most of them (not all), seem to be pretty solitary individuals. I think those high mountain pastures were a nice way to get away for them. More importantly, I think that even at that time, they realized that the cheeses produced from the higher pastures tended to be more sought after (better quality) and they could get more value in trade for these products. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I like to think that even our prehistoric ancestors knew quality when they tasted it.
Gerard Mulot, Barthélémy Au Bell Viandier, La Dernière Goutte, Poissonnerie du Dôme, Poilâne. What do these things all have in common? They are all shops in around the sixth district of Paris, and they are all a pretty short walk from each other. Gerard Mulot is a dessert shop, Barthélemy is a cheese shop, Au Bell Viandier is a butcher, La Dernière Goutte is a wine shop, Poissonnerie du Dôme is a fresh seafood shop, and Poilâne is a bakery (bread only, the desserts and pastries are down the street at Gerard Mulot).
So what? So, apart from these being extremely high quality shops, there is nothing unusual about them. In fact, pick any district in Paris or any other French city, or small town, or Spanish city, or Italian, or Belgian or German or Dutch,… and you will find very similar shops within minutes of each other. Also, take a look at the size of the refrigerators of the locals; you will be shocked to see how tiny they are. Everybody always wonders about the French Paradox – how do the Europeans stay so much slimmer than us while eating such famously rich food? I don’t know, it might have something to do with the facts that they usually shop for less volume at one time, while walking from store to store for several miles, stopping to poke around in other shops along the way.
Remember, we live in a country of fairly recent immigrants and when most our ancestors got here, there was nothing close to the infrastructure to support specialty shops, and frankly, most of them came here to start a new life without many resources. Most of us are descended from people that needed food for sustenance, quality came second. This characteristic has been passed down to most of us. My family is a prime example. My mother did have her lines in the sand though. She tried to stay away from canned vegetables for one thing. We Americans seem to value different things in our society. How many people have you seen that are scraping and clawing to get by, are in enormous debt, buy very low quality foods in bulk, but have the latest model of the iPhone in their pocket (along with the associated large monthly bill)? I think it’s because buying a $17/lb. piece of Prime meat doesn’t get you any status but that iPhone sure does. We crave status and will go into debt to prove that we can afford nice things.
I am under no delusion that we can recreate a Parisian district right here in ‘Merica, but we can certainly be a bit more discriminating on the things we put in our mouths. A few businesses have tried, and some are terrifically successful (Zabar’s, Zingerman’s, Di Bruno Brothers,…), but I would like more of us to just try more things. For example, go to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market and sample a strawberry from Harry’s, then go pick up a basket of strawberries from the supermarket and see the difference. Night and Day doesn’t begin to cover it. You’ll never be able to eat a bad strawberry again. Harry’s cost at least twice as much, but they are eleven times better (I measured). When you eat them, you won’t be able to help but to savor every precious bite, wanting the experience to last forever. Just that little taste is all you need. Or taste the $12/lb. Swiss cheese at the supermarket, then come here and taste the magnificent Josef Paccard Beaufort d’Ete and you will see what I’m talking about. I promise, you will start eating your food more slowly and savoring it more, the difference between eating and savoring is a great one.
Trying to shop every day at several different specialty shops in a city like Los Angeles is not impossible, but it’s very close to that. We drive everywhere, we get big discounts for buying massive quantities, and we have enormous financial stresses and professional obligations that make it difficult to spend half the day shopping for dinner. It is also quite rare in this country to find several specialty shops within steps of each other.
In short, we’re not the Saint Germain arrondisement in Paris but we don’t need to be. They’re not better than us, just older and different. We’ll get there in our own way in our own time but I think we can certainly learn a thing or two from our European friends about valuing high quality things, whether they be food, drink, or conversation. Start one item at a time is my suggestion. Choose your favorite thing to eat or drink. I don’t care if it’s cheese, chocolate, wine, beer, or strawberries. Do yourself a huge favor and go somewhere where they have experts on whatever it is you like. Buy the best one that you can find that the expert thinks is a match for your taste without destroying your pocketbook, just one. Don’t eat it alone. Find someone to share it with. A relative, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, that girl you just met on line who lied about her age (it’s okay, you lied about your weight), and enjoy the moment, and talk about it and why you liked it or didn’t. It’s possibly the beginning of a whole new thing for you. Life is too short, eat some good cheese J, preferably with some good friends.
Several times per day, we get people who come into the shop, recipe in hand, asking for something like “five ounces of Gruyere, please.” That’s great, and we are thrilled to have the business and very happy to help. However, more often than not, whoever came up with the original recipe more than likely is not an expert on cheese. That is not their job. “Gruyere” is quite a big category (as is Cheddar, Manchego…), and they are almost never specific about which brand they used, how old it was, and what time of year it was made. Did they mean five ounces of weight or volume? Shredded or in one piece? Was that five ounces with the rind or without? All of these things make a difference in the final taste of your recipe; sometimes drastically so. We try to be helpful and ask what the recipe is so we have a better idea of what they actually might need and sometimes customers are extremely receptive to this, but sometimes not so much. “The recipe calls for five ounces of Gruyere and that’s just what I want.” Sigh, I just hack them off about 1/3 lb. of whatever will make them happy.
We have actual experts that work here that can be extremely helpful if you just give us a chance. The point of this to me is that recipes should be looked at as more of a general guideline for your dish, rather than an inerrant bible that can never be deviated from out of a fear of failure.
I recently listened to an eye-opening interview with world-renowned chef, Jacques Pépin. Jacques Pépin gets it.
He spoke at length about his famous recipe for poached pears in caramel sauce.
“If the recipe had been followed to the letter, the finished dish would have been a disaster, but understanding the idea in the platonic sense behind the dish enables the cook to adjust and compensate for ingredients, temperature, humidity, et cetera.” It seems to me that you must first get the feel of what the finished product is supposed to taste, look, feel, and smell like, then experiment a little to tweak things until you achieve your goal. Who knows, it may come out better than the original!
I have been trying lately to make a very traditional Breton pastry called a Kouign Amann for the shop. It is quite difficult (for me). Attempt one was a total disaster and I turned the failed experiment into something more like scones. They were good scones, especially with butter, but a complete failure as Kouign Amanns go. My next attempt came out much better, but the dough was way too dense. They were delicious, but not nearly as airy as they should be.
I’m on my third attempt now, and I realized that I need more flour, I have to wait for the butter to soften more before I fold it, I need a better rolling pin, and I generally suck at laminating the dough. But I will get better because I’ve never done this before and I am not afraid to fail. I learn more each time I do.
This dairy in northern England powers itself and the local community with cheese biogas.
That’s right, they take the waste water and the whey, feed it to microbes, who in turn, convert it to methane, which is used to provide gas for cooking and heat to about 1,600 local homes and businesses. Pretty awesome. I wonder if they can figure out how to use the massive amounts of methane produced by the cows (major source of greenhouse gas, by the way), and convert that too. I also wonder if the whole town smells like somebody cooking a giant grilled cheese sandwich.
I got an email from my vet this morning about the dangers of feeding your pet a raw food diet. I have been hearing for years how drinking raw milk (or eating raw milk cheese) is healthier for you because of the healthy enzymes found in the raw milk. I have been also screaming until I’ve become blue in the face that this is nonsense for the exact, same reasons Cynthia explains below. You have your very own enzymes that work quite well in your own, human, digestive tract. When we consume foreign enzymes, we digest them just like any other protein, and they become inactive once they hit the hot vat of acid in your stomach. Bravo, Cynthia! Science, bitches.
“Raw pet products are one of the fastest growing segments of the pet food industry. Proponents of raw food diets claim these diets improve our pets’ longevity and can even cure diseases, because vitamins and enzymes are preserved in raw food diets. Remember, all enzymes necessary for digestion are made by the gastrointestinal tract and pancreas of healthy dogs and cats (and humans). Furthermore, most proteins (enzymes) are inactivated by stomach acid.”
Cynthia Hervatic, DVM
American Animal Hospital Association website. Raw protein diet position statement.
Available at: https://www.aahanet.org/Library/Raw_Food_Diet.aspx%20.
- American Veterinary Medical Association website. Raw or undercooked animal-source protein in cat and dog diets. Available at: https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/Raw-orUndercooked-Animal-Source-Protein-in-Cat-and-Dog-Diets.aspx.
I’ll never forget the woman who was a customer in a French/Italian Bistro I managed in the early ‘90’s. She asked me why she couldn’t find a Cæser salad on the menu. I explained that we didn’t have one. She said “Isn’t this supposed to be a Mediterranean restaurant?” “Yes,” I replied. Before I got the chance to explain further, she cut me off with the most arrogant tone you could possibly imagine, “young man! If we were in Europe, you would be laughed off the continent!” As awesomely funny as that image was, I just had to help her squeeze one of her overpriced pedicures into that gaping black hole of a mouth for her. “Ma’am, it’s a common misconception, I believe because of the name, that the Cæser salad is Italian or possibly French. The recipe is in fact, Mexican, Tiajuana, to be specific. There is a restaurant there called Cæsar’s that is quite famous for the salad invented by it’s namesake, Cæsar Cardini, an Italian-American immigrant, in the 1920’s. As a matter of fact, it is quite rare to find this salad on any European menus, and if you do, it’s most likely due to American influences and tastes. So, Cæser salad is not European, and by the way, we don’t serve French Fries either.”😀 Okay, it didn’t quite happen like that but my recollection isn’t really that far off and the “laughed off the continent” line really happened like that as far as I can remember.
This story came to mind because it is a good example of how people get an idea in their heads about how something is supposed to be, when the truth is generally quite different, and usually more interesting and fun anyway. I get similar reactions when customers insist on having monstrous, dry, red wines with their cheeses. I think this is yet another example of a little knowledge getting us in trouble. We have heard that the Western Europeans like to drink wine with cheese. This is mostly true with some regional exceptions (Asturians and cider, Belgians and beer come to mind). So, we think that’s what you’re expected to do, right? You pick your favorite wine, which around here is normally a big California Cab type thingy, and grab some cheese. Now you’re very continental, right? Wrong. Old world wines are generally much lower in alcohol than ours, and when the French have the cheese before a meal, it’s almost always a very light or sparkling wine. If they are having a heavy meal and the cheese afterwards, they will have a heavier style red wine with it, and just finish off the bottle with the cheese course for convenience. Remember, their idea of a heavy red is much leaner than ours, and their after dinner cheese selections will tend toward the very fatty and powerful, like blue cheese or triple-cremes.
To keep things simple for y’all, I’ll give you my general order of presence of beverages (with alcohol) to pair with cheese:
2) Hard, sparkling cider
3) Sparkling Wine
4) Dry, light, white wine
5) Dessert Wine
6) Light, dry, red wine
7) Full bodied, dry red wine
There are certainly many subcategories, overlaps, and exceptions, but that’s pretty much my inner dialogue I use to guide people. Three things should be jumping out at you right now. First, it’s no accident that categories one, two, & three feature bubbles. Contrary to popular belief, bubbles go with just about everything, especially cheese! Second, look at the last item, way at the bottom. Pairing bold reds with cheese (unless the wine is fortified), is a nachtmare. Tannin with most cheese clashes like crazy, and the most interesting thing about these wines is usually the power (when they’re too young, as is painfully the norm) and it’s no match for all the salt in cheese. Yes, there are some individual cheeses (triple-cremes, Cheddars) that can soften out the tannin like adding cream to your coffee, but those are the exceptions and good luck trying to taste anything else afterwards. Now, what do you think is the most common beverage we are asked to pair cheese with? Yup, “I have a beautiful bottle of 2015 Chateau no-fruit-too-young-overly-oaked-gravel-lighter-fluid-bomb that I paid $150 for. What cheeses do you recommend with it?” Every day I get that. You want to see me wag my tail like a puppy? Tell me you have a great Belgian Witbier with Brettanomyces or a Champagne. How about a Sancerre? Now we’re talkin’! You will have much more trouble finding a cheese that doesn’t go with these.
That brings me to my fave cheese pairing, beer. That doesn’t mean it’s always an easy pair (you want easy, Champagne, Champagne, Champagne), but the bubbles and the yeasty feel from the fermentation (ditto for good Champagne) work magic with cheese. The ancient, German monks called their beers “liquid bread” because of the wheat and yeast. What could possibly go better with a nice piece of cheese atop a freshly baked baguette? Also, the alcohol content is usually much lower than wine, so you don’t get that hot nostril burn that wreaks havoc with most cheese. Remember, there are way more styles of beer than wine. Another plus is that great beer is way cheaper than great wine. We have a Belgian ale/champagne hybrid thing called Deus which is an extremely expensive bottle of beer, one of the best in the world, and flat out amaze-balls with just about any cheese you can throw at it. I bring Deus very often when I’m invited to someone’s house for dinner and it’s a huge hit. Even the non-beer drinkers flip out over Deus. A 750 ml bottle of one of these greatest beers in the world sells for $34! We also sell a bottle of Araujo Cab, Eisele Vineyard, and it’s one of the best wines I have tasted in my life, for $465 but I wouldn’t want to eat cheese with it.
This is not to say that every beer goes with every cheese. They don’t. But if you tell us what kind of beer you like, we can easily point you in the right cheese direction, and vice-versa. Besides, getting a world class product for usually under $20 makes it easier to experiment and have a little fun.
Why can’t we all just loosen our Ascots a little from time to time?
Yes, these pictures are of me back in the day. My mother was right, I have a lot of real estate on my forehead.
I used to encounter an interesting problem when I was much thinner and could fit into the monkey suit they forced me to wear (I am working very hard on being able to squeeze into it again without injuring myself) in my previous life as a Maitre Fromager (cheese master) at a swanky restaurant. I would put together a plate of several cheeses (anywhere from two to about a dozen or so), and decorate the plate with little accoutrements like almonds, honey, fruit preserves, etc. The customers would usually ask me what order they should eat the cheeses in, and which accompaniment goes with which cheese. I was the expert with the intimidating French title, and they wanted to make sure they were following all the proper “rules” of cheese etiquette. I don’t blame them for this. Nobody likes to make a faux pas, especially at the prices we charged. Like I try to stress at my Cheese 101 classes, let’s not forget where these products come from, and what is the point in eating them anyway.
For me, it’s all about pleasure. Don’t forget that. At the end of t
he day, if you’re paying the price, you get to make your own rules. We professionals can certainly help be your guide but you are the captain of this ship. One of the things that makes modern great chefs great is their willingness and enthusiasm to break some traditional rules and think outside the box. Trust me, they make more disasters than masterpieces by doing this but they are not afraid to fail. They are talented and confident enough to know which experiments work, which ones need some tweaking, and which ones to put in the trash. I have a reputation for being able to pair cheese with some risky and interesting beverages. I learned this by making lots of bad pairings and remembering what worked, what didn’t work, and why.
Back to our little cheese plate dilemma. In the old days, I would explain to the guests that you generally want to taste cheeses from mild to strong for a simple reason. If you start with the strong or very salty cheeses, it will much more difficult for you to taste subtle flavors in the milder cheeses. When I would come back to the tables to check on them I would notice that they took me way to literally. They were eating all of the first cheese, then all of the second, then all of the third, and so on down the line. That’s no fun and never what I intended when I told them which order to taste the cheese in. So, I decided to slightly change my instructions. I started explaining that there is a difference between tasting and eating. I would recommend that they taste the cheeses in the order that I explained, but after they have sampled them all, go back and try them all again. Now that your brain knows basically what they each taste like, the milder ones are much less likely to get overpowered by the stronger ones (with some crazy exceptions that I call “palate-killers). Now, there is much more stuff happening in your mouth and you’re likely to start having new experiences and combinations. Go ahead, dip some of that Basque sheep’s milk into that salty soft cheese from Vermont! Why not? What’s the worst thing that can happen? If you don’t like it, don’t do it again but don’t stop experimenting just because one experiment didn’t quite work out. Same thing with the accompaniments. We can tell you the general rules but please, mix and match, create your own pairings and have a little fun. You don’t have to “get it right” every time, that’s my job and I don’t even knock them all out of the park. I’m just better at explaining that the reason you didn’t like my pairing is because you don’t have a sophisticated enough palate to understand the subtle nuance and brilliance of my seasoned palate and expertise (just kiddin’). Now go out there and be bold and weird!
Number one most important and shortest answer: Taste it.
Just number two on an extremely long list (I’ll let my chocolatiers explain):
We believe that using only the best quality ingredients, along with obsessive attention to detail in production, yields the best bread and pastries and the same applies for chocolate. We spent two years sourcing our beans before we launched our chocolate and we are constantly searching for new farms and co-operatives to work with.
The terroir, variety, growth, harvest, fermentation and drying of the beans before they get to us will all affect the final flavor of the chocolate. We look for beans that come from owner-operated farms and cooperatives in fertile cacao-growing locations, with good bean varieties.
We are currently working with beans from five sources:
Patanemo Village, Carabobo State, Venezuela
Hacienda Limon, Guantupi, Los Rios Province, Ecuador
Ambanja, Sambirano Valley, Madagascar
Crayfish Bay Estate, Grenada
Finca Tres Marías, Honduras
At the end of the day, we know the farmers who sell us cocoa by their first name, we pay them a premium reflecting the extra care given to the post-harvest processing and when we finish weighing the bags, the money goes directly in their pocket with no intermediaries to pay; we are happy to call such trade fair.
The most hands-on approach we could take was to start with the raw cacao. We are able to source the finest fairly-traded cacao and perform all the steps in-house to turn the raw ingredients into delicious chocolate, all in our small factory in Eureka, California. This entire process takes approximately three weeks to complete but allows us to make some of the finest chocolate possible.
The cocoa beans come from plantations in Venezuela and Ecuador and have been individually chosen by a local agricultural expert, who monitors the harvest, fermentation, drying, and bundling. From South America, they’re shipped to Amedei’s plant in Pontedera, Tuscany, a journey that can take more than 20 days.
Fair Trade is one way of evaluating if farmers and producers are getting a fair price for a crop. Fair Trade looks at a variety of social and environmental criteria, and certifies a producer of a product. However, quality is not one of the criteria. Therefore Fair Trade, although a trusted system by many companies around the globe, is not an appropriate measure for the chocolate that goes into Fran’s products. Since we purchase chocolate that is made with the highest quality beans available, the chocolate makers that we work with are paying prices for cacao that are well above “fair-trade” standards. For more information, or for our full sourcing statement, please contact us.
Contrast this with some of the big brands that buy much, much cheaper chocolate.
An article from last year on The Daily Beast will shed a little light on this: The Daily Beast
An excerpt: “West Africa is home to two-thirds of the world’s cacao beans (cocoa), the main ingredient in chocolate—a product that’s fueled a $90 billion industry.
The first group to question the financial strategies behind the industry’s wealth was a British organization called True Vision Entertainment. In a shocking 2000 documentary titled Slavery: A Global Investigation, the group reported on the chocolate industry’s alleged connection to cocoa harvested by child slaves. The award-winning film opens on stick-thin adolescent boys in the Ivory Coast slinging hundred-pound bags of cocoa pods on their backs, followed by an interview in which the boys express their confusion over not being paid.
Later the filmmakers meet with 19 children who were said to have just been freed from slavery by the Ivorian authorities. Their guardian describes how they worked from dawn until dusk each day, only to be locked in a shed at night where they were given a tin cup in which to urinate. During the first six months (the “breaking-in period”), they say, they were routinely beaten. “The beatings were a part of my life,” says Aly Diabata, one of the former child laborers. “I had seen others who tried to escape. When they tried, they were severely beaten.”
The boys’ stories are sickeningly graphic. Before beatings, the boys say they were stripped naked and tied up. They were then pummeled with a variety of weapons, from fists and feet to belts and whips. In the film, some of the boys get up and imitate the beatings. Others stand to reveal hundreds of scars lining their backs and torsos—some still bloody and scabbed. They get quiet when the filmmakers ask whether any are beaten today and say some are simply “taken away.”
Asked what he’d say to the billions who eat chocolate worldwide (most of the boys have never tried it), one boy replies: “They enjoy something I suffered to make; I worked hard for them but saw no benefit. They are eating my flesh.” Toward the end of the segment, the filmmakers meet with one of the “slave masters,” who admits he purchased the young boys and that some of his men routinely beat them. His reasoning: He is paid a low price for the cocoa and thus needs to harvest as much of it as he possibly can.”
Also, you can watch a fairly recent documentary called “Shady Chocolate” here: Shady Chocolate
I don’t know if I can totally blame these large companies (Hershey’s, Nestle, Mars,…) because of this “race to the bottom” business model that we all are complicit in creating. Let me explain. I’m sure that these companies would prefer to not use slave labor to produce their products. They may even really, really want to not do business with such companies. Unfortunately, most of us here in The States have no idea what’s going on in The Ivory Coast, I would be willing to bet that most of us (Americans) have never even heard of The Ivory Coast. Because of that, there is actually a reverse incentive for them to stop buying these products. If Hershey’s decides that they can’t tolerate these practices, they will have to spend more to buy the beans and raise their prices accordingly. But if Nestle turns a blind eye, they can keep their prices low and take a huge chunk of the market away from their competitors. This is why I get so frustrated when I watch our Presidential Primary debates and the candidates keep claiming that they’re going to make sure that we produce more things right here at home. Really? I don’t feel like paying $2,000 for my iPhone and I’m pretty sure that most of you don’t either. Maybe Mr. Trump can afford it but I’m not that lucky (and I didn’t inherit $200,000,000). They don’t have the same minimum wage laws, insurance laws, or working condition laws in China and the labor is flat out a fraction of what it is here. The playing field is simply not level. I promise you that if we could somehow force or convince China or The Ivory Coast to improve things for their employees, the big businesses will just race over to another area where things can be done more cheaply again (India, South Sudan,…).
It looks like the hope was that when the American public found out about these practices, we would stop buying such products and force the big companies to babysit their producers better. That clearly has not happened. We seem to think about our bottom line when making purchases, and that’s understandable. Who has the time to research the provenance of everything they purchase and honestly, rent is high, insurance is high, taxes, cell phone bills, Internet bills, gas, car payments,… Who could blame us for wanting to save wherever we can? It takes about $1,000,000 at a minimum to be able to retire in this country at this time without too much of a hassle, and I’m not talking about swimming in luxury either. That’s just hoping that you don’t have to move in with your kids and to be able to live for about 25 years or so on interest and savings. How many people do you know that will be able to do that?
The other solutions I can think of are fairly simple. We can investigate the sources of the products that we buy and if we find that one of our companies is supporting producers who use such appalling tactics, you give them a warning, and a fixed amount of time to correct the situation however they’d like. If they don’t, fine them heavily and ban their products until they can prove that they fixed things. Another idea would be economic sanctions against the countries where these practices occur. But, the companies in question are quite large, quite wealthy, and have lots of lobbyists. My point is simple: We are all complicit in this. You and I both. We have to put people in office who can get things done and who care. I don’t find the Presidential Primary debates funny anymore. I get depressed. For crying out loud we have a guy who may control the most powerful military in the history of the world, and he’s bragging about the size of his penis! Can’t we please elect an adult? Trust me, I’m not in love with any of the other candidates either but this is really too much.
Wow, I do like to run off on tangents, don’t I? Anyway, that’s’ one of the many, many reasons why chocolate is expensive here. I won’t even bother going into the craftsmanship and passion that it takes to produce these things. I also don’t need to go into the fact that I flat out just love chocolate. If I sold diamonds, they’d all be antiques that are already in circulation. I sell food. The least I can do is to make sure that number one, it’s delicious, and number two, as far as I know, nobody gets hurt making it. I’m not rich but I’d rather pay $9 – $19 for a world class chocolate bar that tastes transcendent and was produced by a farmer and employees that were treated fairly, than $0.75 for a piece of forgettable, waxy junk that was produced by abducting and beating an unpaid, starving eleven year old. It’s literally the absolute least I can do.
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