The Product: Fair Trade, the Other Chocolate

by Katherine Sacks
Antoinette Bruno
July 2012




Fair Trade Chocolate Terminology:

Fair Trade: A buyer pays a fair price toward a cooperative of producers or growers, set by a third party organization and determined by the cost of production, cost of work input, and cost of the producer or grower's living conditions. A large percentage of the sale of the beans goes toward the cooperative.

Direct Trade:The buyer pays a higher price directly to a single grower or producer.

Purchasing information:
Camerino suggests making relationships with farmers and purchasing fair trade chocolate from Askinosie; commercial producers including Valrhona and Callebaut also offer alternative options.

Using fair trade chocolate:
When purchasing 100 percent raw chocolate, it is necessary to add cocoa butter and sugar to make it palatable.

When you melt a bowl of chocolate, you know exactly how it will behave. Heat the chocolate, stir, cool, and in an almost magic-like transformation, the correct crystallization occurs resulting in the shiny snap of a perfect temper. Silky (almost downright sexy), the chocolate does as it’s told, flowing when it needs to, setting up when handled just right.

Except when it doesn’t. For 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Community Chef Taria Camerino, chocolate isn’t shiny pellets that come boxed and ready to go. Along with a few of her visionary kin, Camerino shuns conventional products, arming herself instead with rough, gritty, raw chocolate straight from the farm. And as the newest addition to Chef Ford Fry’s team at Rocket Farm Restaurants, Camerino is not just using fair trade chocolate in her own chocolatier operations, but in the kitchens of three of Atlanta’s most in-demand restaurants: The Optimist, No. 246, and JCT. Kitchen & Bar.

Although fair trade chocolate comes with its share of problems (high costs and operational complications among them), for Camerino, the robust flavor and ethical advantages of fair trade chocolate more than outweigh the negatives. In purchasing directly from farmers (or companies that follow similar principles), Camerino’s primary concern is paying a fair price, guaranteeing the sale to a farmer and enriching the lives of those involved in production. In exchange, she receives a crop unlike any commercial chocolate, full of vibrant flavor notes. “It’s like any chef who uses farm produce,” she explains of the nuanced flavor. “The tomatoes you get today are different than the tomatoes you get tomorrow.

72 Percent Ghana Ganache Tart with Pink Peppercorn and Wild Blueberry Meringue

72 Percent Ghana Ganache Tart with Pink Peppercorn and Wild Blueberry Meringue

It’s All in the Smell

Camerino didn’t always have this insight. Before becoming a self described “radical” pastry chef (also the name of her Sugar-Coated Radical shop, currently re-envisioned as an event space and dinner party locale), Camerino studied traditional French techniques. A friendly customer, who happened to own cocoa land in Ecuador, changed all that. “I opened [the box of chocolate] up and smelled it, and the vibration was so intense it brought tears to my eyes,” says Camerino (who acknowledges the “hokiness” of this exchange, but stands by it all the same). Although the unrefined chocolate was inedible, Camerino was determined. “Just from the aroma alone, I decided I would figure out a way to eat it, that I would make confections out of it,” she says.

The Raw Stuff

Finding a way to use the chocolate was another story. It was the rawness that Camerino loved, but that natural state also made for an unmanageable product. “The quality in texture is a lot less; it doesn’t temper like a commercial chocolate,” she explains. From tempering to making ganache, using this rough chocolate was completely unlike traditional products, and each crop she received was different.

“When I first started working with it, I would take notes and say, ‘OK, the chocolate needs this,’” she explains. “But then I would get another batch and it would be completely different. It isn’t reliable; it doesn’t behave like you want it to.” Rather than use the specific times and calculations she was taught, Camerino had to adjust her technique to the product. “I listen; you have to adjust and play,” she says. “Usually I can taste the chocolate and know what I need to do. You can tell the way it moves in the bowl where it needs to go.”

Unadulterated Flavor

Fair trade chocolate is not only more difficult, it’s also more expensive. But Camerino brushes off these concerns by emphasizing the extreme difference in taste. “You can find so many nuances within the chocolate,” she says. “The chocolate is exquisite in its flavor and there is so much more to pair with it.”

Beyond flavor, resourceful pastry chefs can also get more for their money with fair trade chocolate, Camerino explains. Take for example her recent dessert at The Optimist, a Chocolate Terrine, which stretches a small amount of chocolate into a large serving. “I used an 84 percent from Ghana, turning it into a terrine,” she says. “Rather than being really gooey, it’s extremely rich.” Served with crème anglaise and brioche, her $8 dessert seems like a steal, even by Atlanta standards. Camerino also often creates flourless chocolate cakes and tarts with the chocolate. “It applies to the decadent quality that people want, but I don’t have to give up on subtleties of the chocolate,” she says.

Of course these advantages don’t counter the fact that fair trade chocolates run from $15 to $17 a pound (when conventional products average closer to $10 a pound). But, “if you pair it properly, you can extend your value,” Camerino says, describing the varied flavor of each batch. She also always includes the percentage and country of origin on her menus, extending the value for the customer. “It educates the staff, and it educates the consumer,” she says.

For Camerino’s boss the choice is a no-brainer. “I think more and more, it’s about doing the right thing, whether it’s fair trade chocolate, local, or sustainable,” Fry says. “That’s what it’s all about for me, and we can always make it work.” Even more than her talent with classical French pastry (an apple tarte tatin helped win Camerino the position), Fry appreciates her (almost obsessive) dedication to product, a quality that other chef-owners might discourage, especially in relation to cost. “I just love her clarity and passion for it. It really speaks to what she can do, and the complexity she can get with the product is amazing,” he says.

Finding It Raw

After Camerino started using the Ecuadorian chocolate, other small farmers appeared, ready to form relationships. “In order to make the change, you have to have connections to farms, and I didn’t have them at the beginning,” she says of her early days as a chocolatier. On top of purchasing directly from small farmers in the Philippines, Ecuador, and Colombia, Camerino now sources from larger companies like Askinosie. But this isn’t the ready-to-use chocolate most pastry chefs expect. “It’s 100 percent raw chocolate,” says Camerino. “A lot of times I add cocoa butter and [fair trade] sugar to make it palatable.”

Camerino has also recently struck up a relationship with local coffee roaster Octane Coffee, who is forging relationships throughout South America for their beans. “They’ve got connections with all these plantations and that’s about to start connecting me with all these farms,” she says.

Fair Trade Going Big Time

And as more and more chefs are boning up on the local, sustainable, and quality issues of their products, big-name producers are getting in on the game. Both Valrhona and Barry Callebaut have adapted their own standards and offer chocolates that fall into the responsible realm. (Valrhona’s vintage brands are single-origin chocolates, produced from one farm’s harvest, while Callebaut offers several options including fair trade and Rainforest Alliance Certified.)

But Camerino, like any eager disciple, is quick to point out that while these are better options, they still aren’t the best. “Fair trade has to be a co-op and has to meet a minimum amount, so that farmers are getting a fairer price. [This] guarantees a sell to the farmer, and it is enriching lives,” she explains. “These companies aren’t using a co-op. They are enriching the lives, but not actually paying more money.”

The Future of Chocolate

Paying the kind of prices fair trade chocolate demands and working with the sometimes unpredictable product is not feasible for every pastry chef. But fair trade chocolate offers a depth of flavor and ethical responsibility.

“Pastry chefs have a high comfort zone, and they have to, but within that, you can push your own understanding of the ingredient,” says Camerino.