January started out as it has for the past five years or so, with a trip to San Francisco for the semi-annual meeting of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) and the Winter Fancy Food Show organized by the Specialty Food Association.
While many people attend FCIA meetings for the conference programs, for me the FCIA is mostly about networking with colleagues in the cocoa and chocolate industry – many of whom I seem to encounter just at FCIA meetings. In this respect it was a good meeting.
I have been attending Fancy Food Shows (FFS) since the Summer show in New York in 2001, where I first met Frederick Schilling – it was his first FFS promoting Dagoba. (While I have not been at the Winter show quite as often, I have attended all buy one Summer FFS since 2001.) My primary reason for attending FFS – which include but do not feature chocolate – is to pay attention to trends; trends in food categories, trends in diet claims, and flavor trends. Going to the same show over the course of more nearly twenty years gives me perspective I can use to evaluate those trends, which is helpful in my consulting activities.
On the work front I started a new project down in Tabasco, Mexico. Actually, this project was a continuation of work I have been doing in Tabasco since late-2015. This project was funded for three years and is being overseen by the Consejo Regulador de Cacao Grijalva and I am part of a three-member international advisory team. My focus is on international markets for cocoa and chocolate.
Since mid-2013 I have been an advisor (both informal and more recently formally as an official Ambassador) to Chocoa, and have participated in Chocoa every year since 2014. Since 2016 I have been a part of the Chocolate Makers’ Forum program, seeing it grow from a one-day program to its current two-day format and being directly involved in the development of themes, the speaker program, and as a moderator.
Chocoa has grown and matured since its inception to become one of the most influential gatherings in the world of cocoa and chocolate. (Chocoa is a portmanteau of the words chocolate and cocoa with the slogan, Good Cocoa, Better Chocolate.) What sets Chocoa apart from the annual gatherings of ICCO (the International Cocoa Organization) and WCF (World Cocoa Foundation), IMO, is its inclusion and accessibility. Over the course of five days, every element of the cocoa and chocolate world, from enthusiasts to makers to growers to policy professionals attend – and participation from “big chocolate” is not scorned, as it seems to be at other gatherings.
I have found Chocoa to be a great opportunity to network with colleagues, make new friends, taste great (and not-so-great) chocolate, and educate and be educated in turn. Plus – it's in fricking Amsterdam, a city I have grown to appreciate greatly. In 2019 through the assistance of my good friend Kees Raat (Metropolitan) I was able to see the Rembrandt exhibit at the Rijksmuseum without waiting in long lines and I was introduced to the finest croquettes in Amsterdam – Holtzkamp. Kees and I also co-produced a fabulous chocolate and beer pairing session during Chocoa that was a lot of fun, fulfilling my motto: “If you're working with chocolate and you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”
March was a stay close to home month, and all the traveling I did was from my home and office in Southern Westchester County into New York City. The most exotic place I visited was Williamsburg, Brooklyn (which, with all due respect, is not all that exotic, really).
I did attend two shows – the New York Restaurant Show this year for the first time incorporating the NY edition of Coffee Fest and Dessert Goals, a really quite unexpectedly fun consumer festival in which the organizers cater to the Instagram / influencer community explicitly. While I do use Insta, I cannot be considered an influencer. Dessert Goals was an Instagram influencers’ paradise – with set pieces perfect for capturing colorfully instagrammable vignettes.
I spent two months helping plan a trip to the Philippines in April – my first – that fell through. Sigh.
My May started out with a trip to Las Vegas to co-teach a bean-to-bar chocolate making class sponsored by FBM and held at the Jean-Marie Auboine (JMA) school. I have been giving these classes at least once a year since 2015 and they are a lot of fun for me to teach for a number of reasons. Each group of students brings their own set of unique questions to the class so even though the topic is the same the way it’s covered is different each time. This is in part because I don’t know until I arrive what suite of equipment we will be using – JMA is constantly swapping out kit. While we do use a lot of equipment from FBM (they sponsor the JMA school not just the classes), it’s not a class about FBM equipment. While we always make a batch of chocolate in an FBM melangeur (a Rumbo), JMA also has a refurbished antique Lehmann so students get to see how the process differs. One other highlight for me is demonstrating a piece of equipment I had a hand in designing – the Kleego conche.
May concluded with a week-long trip to Tabasco for the project down there. The members of the International Advisory Team met with members of all of the other research groups (there are at least eight institutions involved) to discuss progress to date and to coordinate work over the coming months. One highlight of that trip for me was an overnight excursion with a group of tourism professionals led by the new minister of tourism for Tabasco. That trip included four memorable meals, with the most memorable at Cocina Chontal, my recommendation for a do-not-miss culinary adventure if you ever visit Tabasco.
June, July, and August
The summer months saw me staying fairly close to home. The furthest afield I went was Hartford, Connecticut to participate in the Retail Confectioners International trade show.
Later in June were the summer meetings for the FCIA and the FFS. The highlight of the FCIA meeting was receiving a Recognition of Excellence Award in Communications for my work over the past decade and more on TheChocolateLife and for Discover Chocolate.
September started out with a bang with a return trip to Las Vegas for a second class at the JMA school, also sponsored by FBM. This class was called Beyond-Bean-To-Bar and was the second time I've co-taught it. The target student audience is chocolate makers who are looking to expand beyond making just chocolate bars. There was a one-day master class on panning and students also learned about making ganaches, caramels, marshmallows, and enrobing as well as techniques to improve shelf life (with recipes).
I detoured through Dallas on my way back from Las Vegas to attend the 10th Dallas Chocolate Festival. I'd participated in two of the earliest festivals (held in Addison) but had conflicts in my schedule for the intervening years. I gave two presentations, one of my favorite formats, an AMA (Ask Me Anything), and the other on the project in Mexico.
My next trip was to San Francisco as a guest of Barry Callebaut for the global launch of their WholeFruit initiative. I was among a small group of members of the press who got to taste the WholeFruit chocolate (made with sugar from fresh cacao juice) as well as a variety of confections and baked goods made with the juice and flour from the pods. Along the way we sampled hamburgers made by a robot and nano-batch nitro ice cream among other delights.
Three days after my return from San Francisco I was on my way back to JFK headed to Trinidad for the World Chocolate Day Expo co-hosted by the Cocoa Research Centre. It was my first trip to Trinidad and it was a fascinating introduction to the cocoa and chocolate cultures on the island.
The highlight of the trip, for me, was walking through the cocoa genebank and seeing many of the different varieties of cocoa growing there, including varieties other than t. cacao.
October has been one of the busiest months of my year in the past five or so years with The Chocolate Show in London followed in quick succession by Origin Chocolate in Amsterdam followed shortly thereafter by the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. Neither the London nor Amsterdam show happened in 2019 and for personal reasons I was unable to attend the Salon in Paris for the first time since 2010.
One of the subplots of my trip to Trinidad was my desire to get a yellow fever vaccination. I had one back in 2003 prior to my first visit to Ecuador but I could not find my vaccination certificate and in any event the shot is only good for ten years. They are very difficult to schedule here in the US. My reason for wanting a shot was that I had been invited on a trip to Ghana (my first) and the Ghanaian government requires proof of a current yellow fever vaccination in order to apply for a visa. Not being able to schedule one in NY I was ultimately unable to get the vaccination in Trinidad without running the risk of my return flight. So, sadly, I had to decline the invitation.
The week before Thanksgiving saw me on my way back to Villahermosa, Tabasco to participate in the Festival del Chocolate as well as meetings with the research teams for the project down there. I ended up participating in close to a half-dozen conference sessions as well as being asked to judge work in a culinary competition during the festival which was a lot of fun for me. I was able to draw on experiences I had at the National and World Pastry Team Championships over a decade ago so it was doubly fun. The project meetings signaled the winding down of my involvement in the project but I am looking for ways to work with various Tabasqueño state government ministries to promote cocoa and chocolate through tourism.
One highlight of my trip was spending a day in Pichucalco, Chiapas with Rafael Vila and his wife Martha Contreras (owners of the Hacienda Napana brand of products out of San Cristobal de las Casas) visiting their farm, Rancho el Carmito and then having a traditional lunch at another farm owned by the Contreras family, who’d been farming – including cocoa until fairly recently – in the region since the 1700s.
I spent two weeks in Mexico City and vicinity after the Festival in Tabasco enjoying my first real vacation in more years than I care to admit. As this was a personal visit I did not do much social media. The only thing I posted was a shot of a lunch – duck confit with chocolate sauce at el Convite fonda y café followed by mas chocolate cake at their pasteleria around the corner. This was not the only good food I had – breakfast at El Cardenal, margaritas and cajeta crepes (not together) at San Angel Inn, fabulous ice cream at Amor Casero, tacos el pastor at El Tizoncito where they were invented, and the most amazing flour tortillas I have ever tasted from a tortilleria called La Harinina. [ As an important note, my companion in, and guide to, Mexico City was my girlfriend, Martirene Alcántara, who was born there but now lives in New York. ]
I ended up completing the final report for the project in Mexico and submitting it in December so that’s off my plate. For now, at least. I am looking into providing some database services to the project as a part of my larger efforts to understand the international markets for cocoa and chocolate.
What’s on the Horizon for 2020?
As I write this I am getting ready to travel to Tokyo for a short week as the guest of Barry Callebaut. They are hosting a press preview of product innovation in advance of the Valentine’s Day season and I have been asked to report on it. [ Disclosure: They are paying travel and accommodation expenses. ] I will also have two days to explore the chocolate culture of Tokyo and so I am excited for a return trip – the last time (my first time) I was in Japan was in 2017. So in addition to chocolate I am planning visits to one or more markets while I am there, something I did not get to do on my first trip.
February will see me return to Amsterdam for Chocoa. I plan to take a short vacation after in Finland, where Martirene is spending several months at an art residency outside of Tampere. I already know about Goodio and Annan Suklaatehdas (in a very small world coincidence, the owner of this shop used to be a neighbor of mine here in Westchester), in Helsinki – if anyone has other recommendations please let me know in a comment.
A lot happened in 2019 in my world of chocolate ... what happened in yours? Let us know in the comments.