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The Dark Side of Chocolate: What Our Love Affair With Cocoa Means for the World

In addition to labor issues, chocolate plantations can be responsible for deforestation. But it can also be empowering to farmers and relatively healthy for the environment.

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"Every time there's a new trade show we see new faces," Jason Willenbrock of Posh Chocolat in Missoula, Montana, told me. When he and his wife Ana opened shop seven years ago, they were the only chocolatiers in Montana. Now there are more than a dozen.

Willenbrock says they considered riding the "bean to bar" wave, where producers make products from "single origin" cacao from a specific region or even a specific plantation or cabruca. Single-origin chocolate is the equivalent of "varietal" wines, made from a single type of grape grown in one place.

As with wine, blended chocolates will often top single origin products in taste, and blending is where experts like Culinary Institute of America-trained Willenbrock have an edge. He describes chocolate in terms like "buttery or chalky mouthfeel," and notes the complex terroir of cacao grown in diverse systems like cabrucas.

Chocolate is an industry rife with stories, and stories -- like rainforest friendly labels -- sell product, even if they're plain wrong, says Willenbrock, who cites the fame of Belgian chocolate as an example. "This time of year, everyone wants to make chocolate fondue. And for some reason many of the recipes call for Belgian chocolate," Willenbrock told me. He says when Valentine's Day rolls around he has to brace for the annual onslaught of fondue makers looking for Belgian chocolate.

It's frustrating, he says, because Belgian chocolate makers tend to be "among the worst" of the Africa-sourcing chocolate makers, in terms of environmental and labor practices, and also in terms of quality. "There's absolutely no reason to choose Belgian chocolate, for fondue or anything else," he said.

Recipe: Jason Willenbrock's (non-Belgian) chocolate fondue 1 1/4 cup heavy cream
6 oz chopped chocolate (Prefers South American origin chocolates in the 65% range)
1 oz cognac or brandy
Sponge cake squares or strawberries for dipping  
In a heavy bottom pot slowly bring cream to simmer. Slowly incorporate the chopped chocolate by whisking in a little at a time until it melts completely. Whisk in the cognac and keep it warm. Serve immediately with sponge cake squares or strawberries.  

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.

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