When good chocolate becomes a staple of your daily diet, you need the good fortune to live in a place where to find it. Otherwise, it will become complicated to satisfy your choco-cravings day in and day out. As it’s true that necessity is the mother of creativity, you may be prompted to look for your silky, flavored “bread” not only online but, even more likely, through family and friends. In this sense, my talent (read, fortune) is having found Vincent, my content contributor from the US.
Even if the cozy American town where Vincent relocated for working reasons years ago is not his Big Apple, Asheville is home to one of the most well-equipped—if not the best—choco-corners across all North Carolina, French Broad Chocolates. In a certain way, the particular connection with the other side of the Atlantic makes me feel I am buying locally. The resemblance between the “Land of the Sky” (nickname for Asheville) and my Campobasso, a 58,000-inhabitant town in the Center-South of Italy, is impressive, especially for the similar elevation, the presence of hills, and a culture tied up to the local agricultural traditions. That is the same feeling of “twinning existence” I felt on my skin when I lived almost one year in Tuscany eight years ago, and learned that we are not meant to experience only one place in life.
Before going on too long to reveal the intricate meaning of life, let’s stick to Asheville. The first package of chocolate bars from French Broad Chocolates that Vincent sent me was in occasion of last Christmas. Even if it would be boring to describe every detail of the endless hassle I faced once my parcel arrived at the Italian customs, it’s beneficial to know, for anyone dealing with the red tape at the customhouse, that being ignorant of the importing rules does not pay off.
My story, thank goodness, ended in the way I desired and, after a two-week long complaint pending against my express courier and an agreed return of the parcel to the US, I had all my stuff safe at home in just two days from the US! All this without having to pay a dime for the second time my parcel traveled here again, just by declaring the right (convenient) information on the box.
I am convinced that introducing first the behind-the-scenes and story of every successful business is what good chocolate implies. That is truer than ever in the case of the chocolate food segment, where adopting a philanthropic approach together with the artisan process itself is at the core of the results expressed in the end product and the degree of satisfaction received from people tasting the chocolate.
History of French Broad Chocolates
2003. Minneapolis-based graduate students Daniel and Jael fell in love first with each other, then with chocolate. They left graduate school and bought an abandoned cacao farm in Puerto Viejo de Limon, in Costa Rica. It is there they opened a café and dessert shop, called Bread & Chocolate, later sold when they decided to come back to the US.
2007. The second “home” along Dan and Jael’s journey fell on Asheville this time, and French Broad Chocolates saw its birth.
2008. The business began by selling the chocolates online and at local farmers markets. Then, the demand outgrew in such a pace to turn the dream into the reality of a Lounge.
2012. Dan and Jael’s dream of being a bean-to-bar chocolate maker was achieved when they opened the Factory & Tasting Room. Here, they directly import fine flavor cocoa beans from quality cacao farms and convert them into chocolate bar delicacies. From roasting to wrapping, Dan and Jael handle every step in the chocolate making process, besides still owning their cacao farm in Costa Rica.
Present times. Now French Broad Chocolate is a one-of-a-kind chocolate realm consisting of three units:
- factory, hand-crafting chocolates with a focus on the quality, integrity, and sustainability of the ingredients (see for guided factory tours HERE);
- lounge (a 4-star certified green café) that, chocolate apart, also offers a curated selection of cakes, pastries, ice cream, wines, beers, tea, and coffee (see full menu HERE);
- boutique (known as Chocolate + Milk), exposing a library with more than 130 premium brands of chocolate from all over the world (see online shop HERE).
The uniqueness of the small-batch chocolate manufacturing process of French Broad Chocolates is that most of the equipment is designed and built onsite by its very owner Dan Rattigan, whom I’d define as the “Leonardo of chocolate equipment” (read each manufacturing step HERE).
My order at French Broad Chocolates included both own label and other brands of high-quality chocolate, among which are Askinosie and Maverick. While I prefer to dedicate separate posts for each brand, let’s focus on the only bars from French Broad Chocolates present in my package:
French Broad Chocolates 80% San Andrés, Costa Rica Cacao
Ingredients: cacao, organic sugar.
Tasting notes: deep cocoa, dark coffee, blackberry. Smooth and dry, with hints of lemon, tobacco, and maracujá (passion fruit).
American writer Megan Giller from the Chocolate Noise has just recently introduced on her blog the job of restyling that French Broad Chocolates has adopted to better present their products to the public.
The plain paper wrapper, aluminum foil, and grosgrain ribbon sealing the bars are now definitively old souvenirs.
Each of the revisited bars not only manifests a more sophisticated and modern look, but a feel for the history that has led to reach the end quality of the product.
- The first encounter between Dan and Jael Rattigan and the history of their theobroma realm:
- The story of the particular bar and Notes on Taste, a guide to distinguishing the distinct flavors detected in the chocolate:
- The connection of the pair to the place and their mission as chocolate makers:
What I most liked about my second French Broad Chocolates tasting experience is that the notes of a particular chocolate faithfully reflected the ones in my palate. Another aspect that would catch the attention of the meticulous chocolate buyer is that Dan & Jael qualify their activity as chocolate makers with the attribute “handcrafted”. This detail is not secondary at all for small-batch chocolate makers, the only ones that I reckon should concur to be called “chocolate artisans” par excellence. Part of the French Broad Chocolates’ making process is, in fact, not automated, but still conducted by the human zeal and experience, such as hand-sorting cacao beans and self-projected equipment for roasting, cracking, and winnowing the cacao beans into nibs.
Six-origin 100% cacao blend
100% cacao represents one of my favorite chocolate treats, since chocolate makers are well aware of the fact that much art is requested to produce this type of chocolate and avoid defects in taste and texture.
Tasting notes: a balanced blend of six cacao origins. Taste of raisin, espresso, and almond butter. Moderate bitterness and acidity. Silky and smooth texture, despite being pure cocoa mass (no extra percentage of cocoa butter).
Guatemala 73% cacao
Ingredients: cacao (direct from partners at Cacao Verapaz), organic sugar.
Tasting notes: flavors of Concord grape and chocolate wafer cookie.
Malted Milk 44% cacao
Ingredients: cacao, organic sugar, organic cocoa butter, organic non-fat milk powder, malted barley flour, organic browned butter.
Tasting notes: a dark milk chocolate featuring Riverbend Malthouse’s Heritage malts, locally milled by Carolina Ground. This chocolate has a creamy, malty flavor, with aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon.
Sea Salt 75% cacao
Ingredients: cacao (direct from partners at Cacao Bisiesto Nicaragua), organic sugar, Bulls Bay Carolina flake salt.
Tasting notes: the salt tempers the bitterness of the chocolate while complementing a flavor profile of buttered biscuits and black coffee. The delicate flakes of salt offer a pleasant crunchy texture contrasted with smooth chocolate.
Personal digression on the meaning of “Organic”
Below follows a position of the thorny organic issue illustrated by French Broad Chocolates on its website:
The organic movement embodies principles of responsible food production and earth stewardship. Since the USDA developed their National Organic Program, the word is laden with controversy and many small farmers and producers feel that the spirit of the movement has been legislated away.
We were certified organic under the USDA NOP for the first year of our operation, but our honey had to come from Brazil, because that was the only certified organic honey we could buy. Now, we can procure honey from local beekeepers, and save about 4,000 miles of carbon-intensive travel. By creating local relationships with our food producers, the specter of “food security” loses its ominous underpinnings. We value the third-party organic certification for keeping a watchful eye on producers that we can know nothing about, but all the better if we can visit Alex up at Full Sun Farm and ask if he sprays his berries. His farm may not be “certified organic,” though he does, in fact, use organic methods.
Although there are not any certification stickers on some famous chocolate bars, I would like to clarify now forever through this post that we should not stubbornly look up a label of any sort (be it Organic, FairTrade, etc.) to have the guarantee that a product is ethical and “natural”. Apart from the latest dispute over what can be called “natural” in a food, the one on the definition of organic first requires an adequate culture about its meaning before trusting the blanket statements of a few misleading marketers I often find on the Internet.
The chocolate sector is the perfect example to understand better this concept.
Small cacao farmers have not enough money to spend for pesticides to use on their crops, while most of the best artisan chocolate makers are just small-batch producers watchful on strong agricultural and trading relationships with their partner farmers. In layman’s terms, some of the best small chocolate businesses are both organic and ethical by default, because the minimum level of accountability on the final product is such not to permit any downgrade in the quality of the same.
It’s suffice to say that using common sense is the only way to go to spend money wisely. We just need a wider education on the food subject consolidated with a little firsthand experience in the field to distinguish the good from the bad and inherently take better decisions in front of the grocery shelves.