At Petraia I count on the fingers of one hand the principal staples I use we that we can’t easily produce on the farm. Chocolate, coffee, some of our flour and salt. Food shopping for me is a real luxury and I take great care and pleasure in seeking out the few ingredients I need to buy. When it came to chocolate I had always used the best Italian, Swiss or French brands until several years ago when Sherry Page of Culinary Getaways visited bearing gifts of Askinosie chocolate. Sherry, a professional food sleuth, told me this was the best chocolate she’d ever tasted. I was surprised and more than a little skeptical. How could a startup company founded by a lawyer from Springfield Missouri possibly compete with Europe’s legendary top chocolate houses? But I tried the chocolate Sherry brought and I realized she was on to something.
Askinosie chocolate was unlike anything I had ever tasted. It’s texture was not particularly smooth, reminding me a little of the famous chocolate of Modica. But it had none of the sugary abrasiveness I find distracts in that chocolate. Instead, Askinosie had a pleasing mouth feel and just the right amount of texture. The flavors were complex, bold and intense and that gave it an edginess I liked. But there was something else there too, something deeply satisfying that I couldn’t put my finger on.
I found a distributor in Sweden and placed my first bulk order for Askinosie broken bars. In our pastry kitchen it delivered the kind of performance I needed and in our cooking classes I introduced a new chocolate segment so our students could taste it along with several other varieties. Askinosie never failed to come out on top. Slowly I began to understand what it was about this chocolate I liked so much.
I realized Askinosie’s chocolate was not dissimilar to the best natural wines or the exceptional raw milk alpage cheeses produced only in the summer in the high pastures of the Alps. This struck a cord in me because it reminded me of what we are doing at La Petraia with our wine, and with the effort we put into raising all of our own animals, producing our own meat and growing our own fruit and vegetables. This chocolate, like our food was alive and full of intense flavor that expressed something about the place it came from and the people who made it. Here was a product full of character and integrity that wasn’t trying to be anything but itself. I wanted to learn more so, Sherry and I invited Shawn and Caron Askinosie to Petraia in the fall of 2012 to host one of our La Petraia Sessions.
This event was five intense days of celebrating Askinosie’s award winning chocolate and the efforts of the very special family from Springfield Missouri who produce it. We learned a lot from Shawn in a series of talks he gave about how his chocolate is made and I came to the conclusion, that, like a good winemaker he makes his chocolate, as much as possible, in the field. Instead of using a commodities broker he buys his cacao directly from farmers he knows personally. He tastes their beans and then roasts some up with them in their kitchens so they understand the quality he is looking for. He also teaches them how to taste chocolate.
Shawn is on the road constantly visiting his growers and searching for new ones. But how exactly did a newbie like Askinosie manage to enter the incredibly competitive global market for cacao beans? Not an easy task. Removing the middleman from the equation was the necessary first step, giving Shawn direct control over the quality of the beans he was buying and guaranteeing his farmers got paid a fair price. Then there was something he called “A Stake in the Outcome”, his novel approach to sharing his profit not just with his employees but also with his cacao suppliers. Add it all up and Askinosie was paying his farmers more while motivating them to produce the higher quality beans he was after. The result today is a $9 chocolate bar. But you’re getting what you pay for.
Askinosie also get involved in each cacao farming community they buy from. In Tanzania for instance they work with a local school bringing computers, generators and video learning systems. They have set up empowerment programs for girls and Shawn personally lobbies local government to ensure the school gets basic things like electricity. The Kyela rice he sells on his website is harvested by the school’s Parent Teacher Association and it pays for school lunches. In Davao tabelya, a traditional Filipino chocolate drink, is produced by the PTA of the Malagos Elementary School and shipped with the cacao beans to Springfield where they are also sold on the Askinosie website. All of the proceeds go the school and provide school lunches for every one of their 700 students.
Back home the Askinosie factory is located in downtown Springfield, just a block from the city’s largest homeless shelter where Shawn has established a computer lab for the children who stay there. His Chocolate University benefits those children, and others in his community too. Each year he takes a group of students enrolled in his University to Tanzania to meet and work with their peers there. Here’s a video showing how life changing this experience has been for so many of those participants.
From the Bean to the Bar: Back in Springfield and the Quest for Excellence Continues
1. THE COCOA BUTTER
Chocolate is produced from the hulled cacao bean (the nib) which is about 50% fat (cocoa butter). But for smoothness and texture most chocolate contains added cocoa butter. Dark chocolate has the least while white chocolate is made exclusively from cocoa butter, milk and sugar. Shawn explained to us that most small batch producers purchase cocoa butter from just a couple of different multinationals. He makes his own and each batch is produced from single origin beans. An expensive proposition requiring not only specialized equipment but know how.
I have been using cocoa butter at Petraia for years to transform our excellent extra virgin olive oil into a spread that has the texture of butter but the taste of our olive oil. We send this to the table with our house made bread and we also use it instead of butter to make vegan laminated and short crust pastry. I wanted to demo this easy technique in one of the chocolate-based baking seminars I was leading during the Askinosie week. Shawn explained their cocoa butter is like gold, but he would try and bring me a small sample for my demo. He suggested we make two recipes of the spread, one with my normal cocoa butter and the other with his. I never dreamt there would be a difference but tasting the two butters side by side I was shocked. The spread we made using the Askinosie cocoa butter had the delicate aroma and flavor not just of our olive oil but also of cocoa. The combination was extraordinary. Now I knew why it was so precious. Shawn doesn’t sell cocoa butter, but if you try one of his white chocolate bars you’ll understand what I’m on about.
2. COCAO NIBS
Askinosie sells cocoa nibs, which I’ve discovered, can be used in gluten free baking instead of tree nut or starch based flours. Cocoa nibs make an excellent base for nutrient-rich gluten-free baked goods like this easy cocoa nib bread. And at Christmas they add intrigue to this flourless fruit and nut cake. Quick breads and cakes made with cocoa nibs are excellent keepers. Like fruitcake, they improve remarkably with time. And while cocoa nibs are expensive both these recipes produce delicious, dense loaves that you can slice thinly to make last. They are semi-sweet and perfect with a cup of sipping chocolate for breakfast or some chicken liver mousse at dinner.
3. COCOA POWDER
If you think about cocoa powder as something you can produce only after you have removed most of the fat content or cocoa butter from the cacao bean then you understand why Askinosie is able to produce another exceptional ingredient. Unlike many other small batch producers they make their own single origin non-alkalized natural cocoa powder. If you’re wondering what the difference is between “non-alkalized” and “Dutch processed” here’s what Alice Medrich has to say.
Besides all the normal uses for cocoa powder, it makes sense that by adding fat back to it you can make your own unique chocolate substitute. I do this in the summer months so I don’t have to store large amounts of chocolate in our hot kitchen. As a child I remember my mother teaching me this trick. It was a fun job and the easy recipe was on the back of the cocoa box. The fat it called for was butter but you can add back cocoa butter or any other fat solid at room temperature. I’ve made interesting confections with duck fat and even lard. You can also decide what kind of sweetener to use and how much of it. Maple syrup, maple sugar, coconut sugar or honey are all good alternatives to white sugar and they each have their own intriguing flavors. Cocoa, coconut oil and honey for instance, work really well together in this wonderful recipe.
4. THE CHOCOLATE
Askinosie chocolate has won awards all over the world and Shawn gets lots of accolades for his humanitarian work. But at Petraia it was a humble, hardworking and generous man we met. He had created his own job and he was passionate about it and he seemed unaffected by all the praise. Together with Caron and their children he is growing a sustainable family business that is a role model for others. But it remains his chocolate that impresses me. It’s uncompromising on all levels and it has become my new gold standard.
There will be a separate post to share some of our ideas for Askinosie’s white, milk and dark chocolate. Stay Tuned!
To find out more about Askinosie chocolate or shop online in the US click here.
In the EU contact the wonderful people at Scandchoco.
In Canada contact A. Bertozzi Importing.
In Japan contact the lovely Tomoko Koyama at Platografico.
Or get yourself to Springfield and visit the factory yourself!
Thanks to Askinosie Chocolate for all the photos in this post unless otherwise credited.