Now it was onward to transform cocoa nuts into chocolate bars.

Chocolate at its most fundamental science level explains an emulsion of cocoa mass in cocoa butter, & suspension of both in sugar. Simple stuff, no? Ha… cry a river.

Who better than De Vries to craft the initial prototype. Meticulous & artistic, a self-taught obsessive specializing in micro-batch processing (re: savings for Gary Guittard’s electric bill). Steve went at it solo, transforming Marañón cocoa nuts into chocolate until… equipment failure in his Denver, CO studio (the migraines of non-commercial machinery) forced him to go mobile. He packed up the essentials for a road show to Vegas & Paul Edwards at Chef Rubber.

Paul supplies all the bric-a-brac for a successful chocolatier: 25,000 products (molds, colored cocoa butter, transfer sheets,

Together they slot a few batches & quickly hit the jackpot: chocolate pay dirt. Friends & colleagues receive it with a lot of “oh, wows”, “ooos ‘n ahhhhs” & “nothing like it”.

A scheduled event for later that week features Steve as the main speaker at National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC. Amateurs just stepping on the cacáo trail usually lead such round-ups. They attract the general public, often couples on a date looking to seduce themselves. The routine is now pretty pat: a slide show followed by a tasting.

‘Hi everybody! Just got back from my family vacation to Cancún & want to tell you all about it… ba ba ba… One of the great things about being in this business is all the free chocolate I get… ha ha… now here’s how you eat it: first, look at it by opening your eyes; second, smell it by breathing in thru your nose; third, listen to it by perking up your ears; next, bite it…’

… ad nauseam; just more ‘tarding up of the American consumer who needs nanny-style potty training like the Pentagon another war.

NatGeo & Steve De Vries, of course, are different. He’s a one-man walking-talking Power Point Presentation. De Vries can switch with ease between roasting curves & Walter Baker’s booklet published in 1891 (before Milton Hershey even got into the game, let alone chocolate becoming the candy rage). That Baker, by the way, was the 1st major chocolate manufacturer in the USA & would become in American lore the oldest grocery trademark in the USA. A De Vries session avoids the rote spittle of wispy-thin ‘tasting notes’ (“interesting”, “chocolatety”, “scrumptious” – the meaningless fodder of yum-o Rachel Rays) & drills down to deconstruct the pith of the matter.

After melting thru a lineup sporting the usual suspects / chocolate all-stars – the historically important Gaunaja by Valrhona; Patric’s 67% citric-exciter from Madagascar; Claudio Corallo’s even-handed 73.5% with Nibs, & his own Dominicana 80% – De Vries brandishes the coup de grace. A stealth entry; no name, no label, no wrapper; just an anonymous brown-plated bar. He announces to the audience that under a nondisclosure pact, he must maintain confidentiality about this classified chocolate. By now, with a half dozen or so samples already under their belt, crowds fidget & grow jaded from palette fatigue except for the proverbial kid-in-a-candy-store among them, the one who yucks up every last lickspittle on an insatiable binge.

The secret bar breaks the mold. First, a moment of silence to ruminate… Enamored, the room shifts & the audience tilts with the jaw-dropping gravity of it… Then… it receives a standing ovation from a packed house. Chocolate typically elicits obligatory moans ‘n groans, ‘oooos & ahhhhhs’. Applause? Sometimes. A standing-O? Never.

A precedent had been set; the bar raised the playing field to a new standard.

What everyone reacted to is how, when properly crafted, these seeds send psychic waves of dappled florals over the roof of the mouth down onto the taste buds, somewhat reminiscent of Arriba Nacional from Ecuador, a long vanishing cacáo type encroached upon & largely supplanted by clones like the clinically-named CCN-51 to the point where Arriba is lamented to have practically disappeared. This kaleidoscope of flowers in the flavor owes much to the cacáo’s pulp that originally got Pearson hooked in the first place, the sugary lemonade compared to CCN-51’s sour ‘n bitter / ice tea vinegar, reigniting the debate between insiders whether fine-flavor chocolate comes from sweet or sour pulp. (Perhaps neither but rather a favorable ratio of the alkaloids caffeine-to-theobromine; typically the higher the caffeic acid aspartate the better.)

Plus, the secret beneath: to create the canyon of Marañón’s microclimate required several upheavals of volcanic action leaving in its wake some super rich topsoil, replete with exceptional minerality. When it gets right down to it, the altitude & the walls shielding the wind count for a lot but Marañón is primarily soil-dependent.

The whole terroir argument.

Terroir – sacre terra – (rough English translation, ‘plot of land’). Of course that tribe of daedal haute couture – the French, distilled thru the wine likes of Nicolas Potel, Robert Parker, & Elin McCoy – distend it to a ‘sense of place’, a hazy intellectual elsewhere; habitus; geology; field; sunshine, humidity, rainfall; temperature, surrounding foliage & fungi, light & altitude… intangibles that add up to… mystical theology.

In a bite: home base… a taste of place – with signature ID.

To play along with this, consider chocolate a memory of the gods, their fingerprints encoded in the ground, on the wind, among stars. Where Theobroma cacáo originates, thickly grow the wooded cathedrals of the great rainforests, a vortex of organized chaos filled with The Force. The older the cacáo, the greater the force field, enacting a tellurian bond between everything above & below the Earth… where science tries to fill the gap & humankind brings to fruition one of the greatest inventions – chocolate.

Or say they thought.

Word circulates around the canyon. Farmers in the know want eagerly to find out more… about their cacáo. That the lone gringo in the valley cultivates an avid interest in their cacáo grabs their attention. That he & Noe pay a super-premium multiplies it. Growers show up at the processing facility Brian & Noe built. One pulls up in a rickety old truck. Noe recognizes the driver & says to Brian, “hey, ya gotta meet Fortunato”. They exchange introductions & small-talk. Brian excuses himself for a scheduled appointment in the main town 40 miles away. They agree to meet at Fortunato’s Farm another day.

The 3 split & go their separate ways – Fortunato to his farmstead; Noe to the nursery. Brian kickstarts his motorbike heading in the opposite direction.

Things were falling into place & coming together, acquiring a certain momentum.

Unbeknownst to him, Peru was undergoing a crisis that will make int’l headlines, bringing a combustible mix of economics & socio-political strife right on his doorstep & at his feet.

He rides off… straight into the headwinds of an AP news bulletin.

GO TO PART VIII –> Dateline June 2009 Bagua Province, Peru



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