Category Archives: Talking with chocolate makers

Xocodiva Puerto Vallarta

Xocodiva Artisan Chocolates, Puerto Vallarta

During our recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, I had the pleasure to visit a little chocolate shop in the Zona Romantica – Xocodiva (pronouced sho-ko diva) and also talk to chocolatier and co-owner Carol who had opened the shop a couple of years ago with her partner, Charlotte.  Carol and I chatted a bit while she busily rolled truffles by hand.  Right way it was clear that the “artisan” designation was not just hype – the truffles were made by hand and in small batches, so that was enough for me.

She confirmed that they are using Belgian couverture for their chocolates.  Of course, using Mexican-sourced chocolate would be impractical on many levels, not the least of which is that cacao production volume in Mexico is relatively low and mostly consumed to make a rustic style of chocolate used mainly for drinking.

The place is decorated with a clean, but romantic vibe.  There’s a front seating area separate from the main shop that has a long bench and some separate two-top tables, enough space overall for 6 to 8 people.  It looks like it would be a great place to stop by after dinner for a few luxurious treats.  In the shop itself there’s a wide selection of truffles and other small confections, nut brittles, bars, gift assortments and hot chocolate.  Overall I have to say I was very pleased.  Why should fine chocolate surprise me in this town when I had already experienced some wonderful culinary skills in the restaurants of Puerto Vallarta?

Hot Chocolate topped with cocoa-whipped creme and dusted with cocoa.

I decided to get a sampling of chocolate treats so I could get a feel for the overall skill of the chocolatier and quality of the shop.  I went for some hot chocolate, truffles and bars.  The hot chocolate was all warm and ready to go and didn’t feel at all out of place in a beach town despite the early sun’s efforts to warm the air into the 80s.  After all, people were drinking coffee and espresso all morning in the surrounding cafes as the chairs were being arranged on the beach and the sand was slowly drying from the high tide.  Surely I could break from tradition and go with some hot chocolate.

Had it not been the last day of our trip, I would have made this a daily habit – great stuff!  Thick, viscous and bold as serious drinking chocolate should be.  Not too sweet but with enough sugar to power my climb back to our room on the hilly cobblestone streets of the Zona Romantica.  I definitely recommend that you make their hot chocolate your new early morning or after dinner habit when you’re in the area.

Next came the bars.  No need for a formal rating here, since it would be hard  to buy these bars outside of Mexico.  But if you’re in PV and trying to decide whether a visit to Xocodiva is worth while, this should give you some idea.

 

The bars are molded with a cacao pod motif

Ek Chuah – Dark Chocolate (Chocolate Obscuro) – Named after the Mayan god of Merchants. 50g bar.  Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa powder and soya lecithin.

Aroma – Peanuts, peanut shells, neoprene

Initial / Mid taste – Green beans, almonds, a hint of strawberry in the middle, pancake

Finish – Honey, vanilla

Texture – A little crunchy.  Benefits from first holding it in your cheek to melt it a bit.

 

Xocodiva's Bars

Kukulkan – Dark Chocolate & Cacao Nibs (Chocolate Obscuro Y Granos de Cacao) – Named after the Mayan god of creation.  50g bar. Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa powder, soya lecithin and organic cacao nibs.

Aroma -Honey, cedar, burlap, oak, hay

Initial / Mid taste – Green beans, almonds, peanut, vanilla, cinnamon, oak.

Finish – Nice long finish with caramel, roasted rice, rice crisp, peanut.

Texture – Light on the nibs, but still had a nice crunch.  I could go for more nibs myself.  It seemed that one end of the bar had more than the other.  On the other hand, the nibs were not overpowering, astringent and acidic as they can be if overdone.  They added a nice texture and extra notes of wood and nuts.

Overall, these bars were a little one-dimensional, but not flawed in any way.  Keep in mind, this is not bean-to-bar and doesn’t pretend to be.  They are good, solid bars and probably your best option in PV if you’re craving straight chocolate.   Ah, but then there are those truffles…

Back in our room, my wife and I sampled the truffles.  Here are our combinded impressions:

Tequila– We caught a distinct tequila flavor – not sharp, but definitely present and a nice fit for both the chocolate and our Mexican surroundings.  Combined with the sweetness of the truffle, the flavor was more reminiscent of a tequila liqueur than the biting yellowish liquid that I’ve learned to avoid, well… straight anyway.  I’ve always felt that dry spirts such as scotch are a better match with chocolate than, say, wine, so I wasn’t surprised to find this pairing with tequila to work well.  This one was my favorite.

 

Artisan truffles. Clockwise from the top: Nibs on Dark Chocolate, Cherry and Tequila

Cherry – We tasted little surprise bits of what appears to be Bing cherries mixed throughout the center.  I found the cherry flavor to be underwhelming at first (and these truffles were real fresh), but when I hit a bit of cherry, it all came into focus.  The contrasting texture of the smooth ganache, chewy cherry bits and the harder chocolate shell was a real delight.  This one was Genevieve’s favorite.

Dark Chocolate with Nibs on top –  We first experienced a beautiful, intense chocolate aroma followed by a nice texture in the mouth – the chewy, crunch of the nibs the smoothness of the chocolate below.  Just a hint of astringency and wood that you would expect from the nibs.  Genevieve gave a thumbs up to the complexity – notes of caramel and deep smoky cocoa but found the wood notes a little more dominant than I did.  Perhaps something like the space between aging hardwood split and stacked for the winter.

Speaking of winter, we are back home lamenting that it will be at least a year before we get back to Puerto Vallarta.  In the mean time, I’ll be dreaming of a daily cup of thick drinking chocolate with truffles.

Xocodiva – open 10am to 10pm daily in the romantic zone next to the San Marino Hotel on Rodolfo Gomez 118.  322-113-0352.

A Conversation with the Founders of Taza Chocolate

 

Taza Vanilla and Guajillo Chilli Bars

Taza Vanilla and Guajillo Chilli Bars

I entered the meeting room in Harvard Square and was surprised to see more than 80 people ready to learn about this unique business start-up story.   A “conversation” with Larry Slotnick and Alex Whitmore, the co-founders of Taza Chocolate, was was  facilitated by the CCAE with the intent, in part, of educating people in socially-responsible entrepreneurship. As tiny pieces of chocolate samples waited for us on stage, we listened to a meandering series of anecdotes about this young company.

 

For those of you who are not already familiar with Taza, they are a bean-to-bar maker of organic, stone-ground chocolate who practice fair-trade.    Their philosophy goes a little beyond that, in that they are trying to minimize the complexity of the supply chain and the process that the cocoa goes through before it hits the consumer. This approach is consistent with the slow foods movement that promotes better understanding of where our food comes from and how its cultivation, transport and processing affects people and the environment.  In other words, Taza are working to deal directly with the people who source their raw materials (i.e. cacao) establishing fair relationships with them and encouraging sustainable cultivation and supply.  Larry told the story of how he made their first cacao buy – getting on the plane to fly to Mexico (or was it Central America? Sorry I don’t recall the country now) with $2,500 cash in his pocket.  He meets the farmer that grew the cacao and makes the decision on the spot to buy 14 bags.  They then drive to the airport with the cacao in a pick-up truck and ship the goods back to Boston by air freight.  This is being intimately familiar with the source of your food!

Taza was borne out of an idea Alex had when both Larry and Alex worked at Zipcar.  Zipcar is famous as a disruptive innovator – someone who disrupts the status quo in an industry by bringing in new ideas – often simpler, less expensive ways of doing business that the existing industry players can’t see or can’t execute without giving up on their whole business model (I’m not sure if Taza’s business model is results in lower costs than other options – my guess is probably not, but it does achieve a certain amount of simplicity and in my opinion, that is beautiful)[1].  To say that Zipcar was somehow an inspiration for their business would be entirely inaccurate, but it appeared to shape how they thought about business and how to differentiate themselves from other chocolate makers.  So when Alex originally proposed a different chocolate business concept to his then-boss Larry, he rejected the idea.   Eventually, they massaged the idea over a year or so until the came up with the Taza stone-ground concept.  

The concept involved making chocolate in the traditional Mexican fashion using a stone mill rather than using European methods that involve additional steps such as conching.  Conching creates a smoother texture and mellower, less bitter flavor while the traditional Mexican method produces a more rustic, grittier product that some feel preserves more of the fruity complexity of the original cacao.

Although I wasn’t able to ask any of my questions due to the size of the group, some of them were asked for me:

What were some of the biggest difficulties in getting your business started?  Like most small businesses, they started on a shoe-string budget and had to be pretty frugal about how they used cash.  It’s not like they had any venture capital infusion – they used Alex’s life-savings and some cash he was able to “painstakingly” secure from his father plus, of course, lots of sweat equity.  For Instance, Alex had “rescued” a large winnowing machine from a factory in the Dominican Republic and had it painstakingly disassembled (this took several men five days), shipped to their factory and reassembled.  So it went with most of their equipment purchases – at first finding used equipment and then updating some machines as they required more capacity.  In the end, Alex says that they didn’t regret any of their equipment purchases.

They also cited some tribulations in getting their packing design done.  At Zipcar, it wasn’t uncommon to hire outsiders or consultants to handle parts of the business outside of their core skills.  Taza decided to hire someone to do their packaging design – paying them an upfront deposit as well as some additional payments along the way.  At some point it became apparent that the design just wasn’t going to work.  They finally decided to go with their original plan which was to have Alex’s then girlfriend, a graphic artist, design the packaging and that approach proved successful.  The lesson:  you know your business better than anyone.

Why don’t you source your beans from Mexico if you are making chocolate in the Mexican tradition?  It turns out that chocolate is an important part of the Mexican culture and they consume essentially all of the cacao that they grow.  (This reminds me of trying to buy Japanese sushi rice outside of Japan.  You can’t.  They are a net importer of rice).  Mexico is a net importer of chocolate, so it’s not the best place to try to source beans.    They also have some issues with their crop like fungus that limits output.

Where does the name Taza come from?  In Spanish – “Taza de chocolate” = cup of chocolate.

How do you get people to come to your open houses?  Alex: “I think it’s pretty easy to get people to come to a so-called chocolate factory.”

You seem to be pretty open and transparent about your business.  Have you had problems with other companies trying to spy or copy what you are doing? A buyer from retail market chain called ostensibly to buy their product.  This chain (that I won’t name)  is known for copying other products and selling them under their own name.   She asked Larry if she could  come out for a factory tour and see what they are doing.  Larry astutely never called her back.  

Other than that they are not too paranoid. Rather, they seem to be having a whole lot of fun.

By the time we were able to sample the chocolates, I was pretty tired and the pieces were so small that I couldn’t form a decent impression. So I’m going to buy some full-sized bars and do a proper tasting.  Stay tuned for my tasting notes to be posted within a week!

[1] For more on disruptive innovation see this summary of the ideas of Clayton Christensen.