ChokolÁ and Cacao Santa Fe

by Robin Babb · photos by Stephanie Cameron

At Chokolá—top left, clockwise: Tasting trio of mousse, truffle, and drinking chocolate; Javier Abad tempering chocolate; separating cacao from shells; the mousse bar.

In the back room of Chokolá, Javier Abad greets me with a telltale smudge of chocolate on his chin—evidence that he’s been enjoying his work. “Come see our new baby, the Madagascar,” he says eagerly, and leads me to a tall stand mixer that’s spilling a heavenly aroma through the room. The mood-elevating effects of chocolate pervade the small Taos shop. Owners Abad and his wife Debbie Vincent, along with their assistant Ruby Oland, all wear seemingly permanent smiles as they go about their work. It’s contagious.

Vincent and Abad opened their craft chocolaterie just off the Taos Plaza last August in an attempt to change the way people make and consume chocolate. In the small room behind their storefront (“the factory”), they make single-origin chocolate bars, truffles, and their specialty mousses. “Craft chocolate” didn’t really become part of the American culinary lexicon until the early two thousands, around the same time that the popularity of craft beer began skyrocketing. Since then, craft chocolate makers in the US have been steadily multiplying in response to the farm-to-table movement and the growing consumer demand to know where food comes from and how it’s made. New Mexico, which has long been fertile ground for both craft brewers and farm-to-table initiatives, has provided a home for a couple of these bean-to-bar chocolate makers in recent years.

As with craft brewers and local small-yield farmers, craft chocolate makers must also be teachers. Customers want to know why they should buy a ten-dollar bar of single-origin, ethically made chocolate instead of a three-dollar name-brand bar at the grocery store. To help consumers understand the difference a few dollars makes, Vincent begins her lesson with the dark colonial roots of modern chocolate. “The history of chocolate is very violent,” she says. Cacao, like coffee, has historically been wrapped up in unethical labor practices and ecologically destructive mass-farming. Bean-to-bar chocolate makers like Chokolá are trying to change that by using only single-origin cacao beans from fair trade farms and cooperatives. Chokolá buys much of their cacao from Venezuela. “They’ve been growing cacao the same way for centuries there,” Vincent says. “They don’t grow [hybrid] beans or anything. Before they harvest, they go out and pray to the cacao trees.”

In the bean-to-bar movement, Vincent sees potential to effect real change in the fraught and neo-colonial world of chocolate making. “Historically, making chocolates was something reserved for Europeans.” Typically, though, it’s Latin American and African countries that grow the cacao—a much more labor-intensive, but much more poorly paid art. This trend could be changing, though. The Bolivian cooperative El Ceibo recently earned distinction for being the only cacao grower to make their own chocolate in-house. Today they control the entire process, from planting the trees to distribution and sales.

At Cacao Santa Fe—top left, clockwise: Cacao chocolate bars and truffles; hand grinding cacao beans; filling molds with tempered chocolate; cracking bars from the mold.

Another New Mexico chocolate maker trying to demystify the way chocolate is sourced and made is Cacao: The Art & Culture of Chocolate. The company’s facility in Santa Fe is part factory, part storefront, and part classroom. Regular workshops and tastings are hosted by Melanie Boudar, a founder of Cacao and a board member of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. When I visited, she was in the middle of a guided tasting.

“CCN-51 is sort of the scourge of the chocolate world,” she tells the handful of students who are gathered to learn about the controversial origins of chocolate. The cacao bean from the CCN-51 plant is used to make most commercial chocolate candies. This hybrid plant is designed to be high-yielding, disease resistant, and uniform in flavor. It is this uniformity, says Boudar, that makes most mass-produced chocolate bland, flavored more with sugar than with actual cacao. The CCN-51 bean, she explains, also artificially lowers the cost of chocolate. Farmers can grow and distribute it with unnatural speed, and in unnaturally high volumes.

Like Chokolá, the chocolate makers at Cacao are dedicated to transparency and ethical labor practices. Transparency may be easier for Cacao, as Boudar owns shares in two farms that grow cacao: one in Hawaii, the other in Belize. “The cheap chocolate bar you buy at the conventional grocery store was most likely produced by slave labor,” says Derek Lanter, the co-founder and coffee maestro at Cacao. “We’ve found that ten dollars is the magic number. At ten dollars, everybody involved in the process of making a bar gets a living wage.”

Customers are rewarded with chocolates that are anything but bland. As we chat around a card table in the company’s workshop, Mark Sciscenti, the resident chocolate historian and pastry chef, serves up a flight of chocolate elixirs prepared with traditional Mayan and Mexican recipes. These chocolate drinks are dark and earthy. Some are even spicy. They taste much closer to coffee than to any foil-wrapped chocolate confections. The secret is rare, flavorful heirloom cacao varieties that have been grown for centuries, but that are being marginalized by the monopolistic CCN-51 bean.

Besides the shared ethics behind their work, the chocolatiers at Chokolá and Cacao also aim to make exceptionally good chocolate. Be forewarned, though; they all agree that if you grew up on Swiss Miss and milk chocolate, craft chocolates may challenge your taste buds at first. Chokolá’s Vincent can empathize; it took age and awareness to refine her palate, she says. “I ate a Hershey’s bar every day when I was a kid!” These days, she tries not to be pretentious about chocolate to her customers, while still attempting to expand their palates. “I still eat a chocolate bar everyday, but now it’s chocolate that I make, just the way I like it.”


106B Juan Largo Lane, Taos

Cacao Santa Fe

3201 Richards Lane, Santa Fe, 505-471-0891

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Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.