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Artisans honor chocolate's roots 

Hallot Parson of Escazu Artisan Chocolates dispenses a batch of freshly roasted chocolate beans from an antique roaster.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Hallot Parson of Escazu Artisan Chocolates dispenses a batch of freshly roasted chocolate beans from an antique roaster.

Chocolate has a convoluted history tantamount to the saga and intrigue of a tragic heroine. Powerful men throughout time, be it Aztec kings or Spanish emperors, pursued her with vigoran elusive object deemed precious, indulgent. European conquerors claimed to discover cacao in a world they assumed to be new, cheapening her title as "food of the gods" and stripping her sacred seeds from indigenous hands.

Now, many local chocolatiers honor these roots of cacao, creating a historic, delicious tribute to what is now a globally revered staple beyond just the dessert plate.

"Reading the history of chocolate really inspired me to make it more traditional. And I don't want to sound vengeful or anything, but it was kind of a way of bringing back somebody's culture and giving it back to them. And presenting it to the crowd without preaching it, but just saying these are the roots of chocolate," says Areli Barrera de Grodski, co-owner of Durham-based Cocoa Cinnamon. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, she speaks from an appreciation of her roots.

Cocoa Cinnamon and bikeCOFFEE are joint ventures that she started with her husband, Leon Grodski de Barrera. They moved from Cherokee, N.C., to Durham in the spring, bringing with them more than seven years of coffee experience and a love of history.

"Life has a tendency to become, on its own, very banal. Some people maybe go to church to remember all the amazing things in life. Reading about history is a way to experience that, for both of us," Leon says.

Even after staying up late to finish truffles for pre-Thanksgiving orders, the couple relaxes over a breakfast at Toast. They speak about their shared love for growing a business that is as much about food as it is a mission to honor their heritage. They've outfitted a robot-like tricycle cart to pedal around downtown Durham selling artisan drip coffees, infused teas, spices and handmade chocolates. You can pre-order chocolates in bulk or you may find a cup of rose petal-infused coffee in unexpected places, like outside Motorco during its Sunday live music show or late night on the sidewalk near The Pinhook.

Their raw cacao balls can be grated like nutmeg in cooking and "last forever, like Twinkies" they say. Slabs of "tabla," or thick, fractured sheets of chocolate, dowse your tastebuds in a flurry of flavor. The bite-size truffles combine handcrafted ganache with carefully selected spice medleys; they are coated in deep dark chocolate and then dusted with witty bits of ingredients that acknowledge the origins of cacao and chocolate's complex history.

The couple reads books such as The True History of Chocolate, an intense anthropological study. They've marked it up with underlines and circles and sticky tabs peeking from pages deemed important. They tinker with indigenous flavors, combining them with modern truffle techniques popularized by French and Belgian chocolatiers.

"Chocolate doesn't really belong to Europe. I'm not saying one is better than the other, I'm just saying the roots aren't really shown in mainstream commercialism," Areli says. The two learned recipes for drinking chocolate dating from pre-Columbian times. "That was one of the things that really struck me. Chocolate was sacred. Not everyone got to drink chocolate. Mostly it was the high chiefs of the Aztecs, and also, when they had big parties, the common people could also drink it. It was considered precious."

Areli's eyes widen as she tells the story of Santa Sangre, a truffle based on the Aztec legend, in which achiote pepper was added to chocolate to make it red and represent the sacred blood. Since achiote proved potent, Areli modified her recipe to include a homemade hibiscus sauce and allspice, both ingredients found in Jamaica and taken to the Old World. The truffle is dusted with edible fuschia glitter. Leon leans in to recount the historical tale of "Finding the Moluccas," two Indonesian islands where cloves originally grew. In their quest for the Moluccas, Portuguese conquistadors found almost every spice but cloves. The truffle, then, lacks the elusive spice but includes what they did find, like macadamia nut and lavender.

Other flavors include Silk Road, a Persian recipe nodding to the spice trade, with rose petals, pistachio and cardamom, and the spicy Breath of Moctezuma. It is named after the Aztec king who supposedly drank up to 40 cups of chocolate each day. He could be credited for the Aztec word for chocolate, "tlaquetzalli," meaning precious thing.

"We want there to be a lightness," Leon says about the historical nods in their recipes. "It shouldn't feel heavy, it shouldn't feel burdensome, it shouldn't feel preachy, but it's still in there."

In Raleigh, the story of Escazu Artisan Chocolates begins with an accidental odyssey with its own historical significance. Escazu has become popular as the South's first bean-to-bar operation, and one that hand-packages its bars in bulk for sale across the country and in a few Canadian locations.

Hallot Parson, a chef, has grown accustomed to giving tours of the Escazu facility on North Blount Street. An antique cocoa grinder from Spain spins behind a window, looking onto the chocolate merchandise for sale. The grinder uses two granite wheels, about 2 feet each in diameter, to slowly grind a mixture of cacao, pure cane sugar and, sometimes, vanilla, into a paste and eventually into a whirlpool of viscous, creamy chocolate. The process begins when cocoa beans are removed from their husks and placed into a 1920s coffee bean roaster for at least three hours on very low heat.

"We pay a lot for very delicate beans with subtle flavors," Parson says. "Higher temperatures would burn that off fast."

The husks are reused, Parson says, repurposed as mulch or sold to Fullsteam brewery for its Working Man's Lunch chocolate stout.

The cacao tree is finicky, bearing fruit only in areas 20 degrees north and south of the equator (Durham, for example, is at 36 degrees north), such as Costa Rica. Escazu gets its beans, and name, from the small cocoa-producing country, where Parson in 2005 set out to research chocolate making. But during that trip, he also intended to help two friends open a business there. So they tried to find a particular organic cacao farmer, but no one they asked wanted to reveal his whereabouts.

"No one could tell me his name. They were very guarded," recounts Parson. "Finally we actually talked to a security guard at the Nestlé plant who said, 'Yeah, I know this guy, his name is Hugo. He bought a bunch of old equipment from us. I think he lives out near Limon.' So we drove towards Limon, for hours and hours, and we don't see anything. We ask and people tell us to keep going. We finally stumbled across this guy's farm."

Hugo's farm in Guapiles, a town in the Caribbean region of Costa Rica, is the source of Escazu's beans. "We can now be very much present in all parts of the process. There is as much skill at the farm level. And a lot of even artistry at that level," Parson says.

Escazu's beans are harvested from nearly foot-long cacao pods, cleaned of the inside flesh and fermented and aged about a month, all on the farm. The beans are later shipped in burlap sacks to Raleigh, directly and fairly traded. The company crafted roughly 60,000 chocolate bars last year, according to Parson, all hand-wrapped (about 75 an hour) and labeled.

Parson's careful study of chocolate's history is evident at the store's bar, where patrons can sip chocolate like Southern royalty (it comes in North Carolina-made clay cups). Four varieties explore Parson's interpretations of the recipes he researched. The 1549 Spanish version sparks the palate with star anise and smooth, nutty flavors of almond and hazelnut. The 1670 Italy cup nods to the end of the Renaissance with an artful combination of jasmine, orange blossom and lemon zest.

Two of Escazu's chocolates are finalists in the 2012 Good Food Awards, a national competition: the Goat's Milk bar (a personal favorite) and 65 percent Costa Rica dark. The chocolate category, the awards site says, includes nine U.S. artisans who exemplify "working closely with cacao farmers around the world and creating a transcontinental food community that is raising the bar on quality while stimulating farming economies around the globe. Eligible entrants craft Good Chocolate from beans or liquor using no artificial ingredients or genetically modified soy lecithin, and make efforts to know their cacao farmers, understand their supply chains and source sustainably grown cacao beans." Winners will be announced Jan. 14.

Paul Mosca of Elemental Chocolate in Raleigh honors cacao in his sole product, chocolate-covered cocoa beans. He sources the fair-trade beans from a small cooperative farm in Ecuador. Mosca worked closely with local coffee purveyor Larry's Beans to learn about fair-trade commerce and applied that economic philosophy, and his creativity, to Elemental.

With "a sixth-grade shop class education," he says he slowly built a factory—and a brand. His product launched last year, with three flavors: dark chocolate, sugared brleé and smoked sea salt, my favorite, which brightens to the smooth cocoa.

"I have the opportunity to introduce a whole cocoa bean in a way that's a little bit deconstructed," Mosca says. He compares it to a peach preserve that uses select summer peaches for a nuanced quality. "I am presenting a single peach that might go into the peach preserve, for someone that might really enjoy that singular experience.

"We can really make North Carolina a chocolate state," Mosca adds. "Some wonderful fine chocolate comes out of California. We've got just as good, even slightly better, chocolate here in this state. And we have an audience here that understands food, and that connection from the farm to the table."

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  • Cocoa Cinnamon, Escazu Artisan Chocolates and Elemental Chocolate (plus more) finesse flavors fit for royalty.

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