MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The first time Carlos Mann mixed a batch of his own chocolate, he knew he was loco over cocoa. Thus was born Momotombo Chocolate, an artisanal chocolate house with a twist: It makes high-end chocolate in the Mesoamerican heart of the cacao bean with the freshest of ingredients and without any industrial machinery.
Just a pot, a fire and a spoon, Mann said.
Mann and dozens of other small chocolate makers around the world wager that artisanal chocolate is on the cusp of taking off. Comparisons with gourmet coffee, craft beer and high-end wine abound. Its really starting to explode. ... Every week, I hear about a new bean-to-bar chocolate maker, said Nat Bletter, an ethnobotanist and the flavormeister at Madre Chocolate, an artisanal maker with a shop in Kailua, Hawaii.
Small chocolatiers say theyre taking production back to its roots, often buying cacao beans from a single source say, Madagascar or Venezuela keeping the cacao content high, limiting other ingredients and distancing themselves from the behemoths of industrial chocolate. Momotombo Chocolate named for a towering, cone-shaped volcano on the shores of Nicaraguas Lake Managua sprouted near the ancient roots of chocolate. The cacao tree is endemic to the Amazon basin but moved up thousands of years ago to Mesoamerica, the region that stretches from central Mexico through most of Central America. The Aztecs used the cacao tree as a representation of the universe. Nicaragua is one of the last great places in the world for rare cacao hunters, Mann said. Within Nicaragua, I could lay out 10 different beans that have 10 different aromatic notes. Cacao, of course, was hijacked so successfully that many consumers associate chocolate with Belgium, Switzerland and Hershey, Pa., rather than Mesoamerica. Yet as recently as a century and a half ago, villagers in outlying areas of Nicaragua still traded the cacao bean, the fatty seed that grows in a pod from the trunk of the cacao tree, as currency. Local varieties of cacao have a soft, nutty flavor thats distinct from the acidity and bitterness of beans found in parts of Africa and Asia.
Mann, an illustrator, returned from San Francisco to his native Nicaragua nearly a decade ago and grew captivated by the cacao beans he saw at the market. He bought a sack and tried his hand at roasting and making chocolate. It took me four months, he recalled. It really was trial and error.
He finally hit on the right combination We use cacao, sugar, milk, honey. Thats it. Thats for our fresh chocolate and began to package it. I grabbed a cooler, filled it with chocolate and went around to a dozen shops around Managua offering my chocolate, Mann said. A near-cult following emerged. People would knock on my door late at night saying, Hey, do you have some chocolate? he recalled.
Its an experience shared by the artisanal chocolate makers who are popping up across the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and even the Middle East. Discriminating consumers are catching on to the unique flavors.
People started to understand that there is more to chocolate, and that it has as much depth and complexity as wine, said Todd Masonis, a co-owner of Dandelion Chocolate, an artisanal company in San Francisco. We call it the real chocolate revolution.