When you taste a new cacao sample for the first time, how do you assess the potential for that cacao to become a new Bonnat bar?
Much of the potential is in the people behind the cacao, as was the case of accepting El Castillero. When El Castillero came to us, the fermentation of the beans could have still been improved to reach its greatest potential. However, we learned about El Castillero and the farmers through Lutheran World Relief. When we saw how the farmers were striving to improve their cacao and build their business, that was the turning point for us to say, yes, we will use this origin for a bar, and we see it as a work in progress. I think this bar has even more potential to show.
Do you have a special preference in terms of flavor? Origin? Genetics?
Preferences change with what you feel over time. Our preference, for example, when we decided to set up the Selva Maya plantation was to rescue the ancient origins that were in Mexico. We prefer old cacao varieties that are ignored, are delicate and that require an ancient knowledge to handle. In the case of Selva Maya, for example, we have a calendar for pruning and fertilization that is linked to Mayan methods. Respecting ancient knowledge and the cacao that grows at the origin of where it really belongs is really important to us.
Why and how do you engage in “direct trade” at Chocolat Bonnat? What are the challenges you face?
We visit the farms on a regular basis. We spend many months of the year visiting the plantations, working closely with the farmers. We help with bean selection and the technical processing and monitor that production ethics and protocols are followed. Then we purchase the beans directly but use another company that specializes in moving cacao beans to help us import them.
In each country where we work, the challenges are different. Some are common to all the projects.
For example, in some countries people might abandon a project if the government comes with a new kind of economic assistance linked to a different way of doing things. In many cases, producers change their way of work for a one-time economic incentive instead of seeing the long term. In Latin America, this is very common as rural populations are used to receiving assistance each time governmental policy changes.
Another challenge is the people that might want to take advantage of producers, who might trick them for a once only buy. We stopped posting on social media about our work with farmers because there was a chocolate maker who knew us and would go to farms saying he was friends with Stephane Bonnat. He often tried to get some of their beans for free or tried to convince the communities to work with him without giving any technical assistance.
Constant follow-up, constant training is a challenge. Often in the morning or around midnight, Elisa is sending messages to producers when they have complications with a process, if it has not rained or if there is something to do. Obviously, distance is one of the great challenges. That is why it is important to have a close relationship with farmers, to find a farmer who can be our constant supplier and who wants to work with us for the long term. This requires creating incentives for the producers and for our company to maintain sustainable relationships that can truly last for the long term.