SAN FRANCISCO de MACORÍS, Dominican Republic—A sculpture of a hand offering a cacao pod to the heavens stands in a square in the heart of this town, located about two hours northwest of the capital, Santo Domingo. It’s appropriate that locals here pay tribute to the oddly shaped pod that some say resembles a Nerf football. It’s the reason the region prospers, at least by local standards.
“Farmers here live in cement houses,” says Emily Stone of the American import company Uncommon Cacao. “Their kids go to school. There’s a good infrastructure. And it’s all based on cacao.”
Cacao is the prime ingredient in chocolate, and it’s why Las Vegas chefs Matthew Piekarski and Matthew Silverman have traveled to the Dominican Republic. Their restaurant, Hexx Chocolate & Confexxions in Paris casino-resort, is the city’s only “bean-to-bar” chocolatier, meaning they control every aspect of the process that turns beans into gourmet chocolate bars and other decadent treats. But while the big chocolate companies use commercially traded cacao on the commodities market, the chefs personally source their star ingredient from around the world, creating distinct lines of single-origin chocolate. The purpose of this trip is to secure a new source, and to ensure that the premium they pay for quality makes its way to the farmers. They recently invited Vegas Seven along to witness the process.
Cacao trees grown on farms in the Republic’s mountainous rainforests are a long way from the organized rows of corn, trees and produce we’re familiar with in the U.S. Hiking one farm trail, the chefs encounter numerous species indigenous to the area, including macadamia, plantains and coffee, all of which make for nice midday snacks.
The tallest cacao trees bear fruit pods that can sprout 10 to 15 feet or higher above the ground. Those pods will rot on the tree unless harvested, and they need to be cut down individually using sharp knives attached to the ends of long poles. As the trees grow taller, farmers add extensions to the poles.
Once harvested, a worker opens the pods to reveal the interior of the fruit, a gooey white pulp surrounding purple seeds or beans. An experienced farmer can crack them open with a single blow by knocking them against the tree right at their sweet spot, although a machete is considerably quicker. Yet even an expert, deftly cutting open one after another at breakneck speed, will take close to 20 minutes to fill a bucket with cacao beans.
Over the course of a day, the workers and the visiting chefs will occasionally pop a pulp-covered seed into their mouths and suck on them like hard candies. The flavor ranges from sweet to tart, depending on how ripe they are.
“This is how I like them,” says Silverman on his second day of touring, offering a yellow-orange pod packed with purple beans up to the group. “It almost has like a marshmallow flavor.”
Once the beans are separated, the empty pods are left behind to fertilize the soil and the remaining pulp is fed to work mules. Next, the beans undergo a fermentation process. A high-quality farm or collective will subject them to four phases of fermentation in specialized containers, while those supplying commodity beans often do it on makeshift tarps along the mountain’s dirt roads. As yeast converts the natural sugars to alcohol, they form a liquid that’s extremely acidic and hot. Dip your hand into the vat and it will become uncomfortable very quickly. And the cement around those vats is pitted and pocked from repeated exposure to those acids.
Milk and dark chocolate made from the Dominican beans will be packaged and available for purchase at Hexx about a week before Christmas.
Once the beans have fermented, they’re spread in thin layers over screen beds within long semicircular huts for drying. The climate usually facilitates this naturally. But just in case of unexpected cold, some drying beds are located next to emergency furnaces.
When the beans are dry, potential buyers can cut them open to check for telltale signs of quality: color (they change from purple to brown), mold and how pronounced the veins are. But, Silverman says, taste is still subjective. “Palate is still 50 percent,” says Silverman, “the acidity, the fruit flavor, whatever it is that’s not quantifiable.”
By the end of two days of tours, Silverman and Piekarski have found a supplier for their new Dominican line of chocolate. Milk and dark chocolate made from the Dominican beans will be packaged and available for purchase at Hexx about a week before Christmas. Some pieces chiseled from a brick of the dark chocolate a few weeks early and sampled alongside products made with beans they’ve found in Peru, Tanzania, Venezuela, Ecuador and Madagascar revealed notes of rich red wine with slight hints of jalapeño, as well as some smooth caramel features. But whatever final flavor it has when it’s revealed, keeping it consistent will be key to ongoing marketability. That, and a sense of social responsibility, are why the chefs spend so much time researching their farms.
“When we form a partnership with a cacao farm, we are looking to build a long-term relationship with them,” Silverman says. “There’s no way to do that without going to the farm, trying and testing their cacao beans, and getting to know the owners and operators. Plus, we need to feel good about the culture of the cacao farm. Establishing a business relationship in Latin America is like getting to know extended family.”
The Marriage of Chocolate & Wine
Chocolate can offer intense flavor, often simultaneously sweet, acidic, bitter and fruity. The mouthfeel of high-quality chocolate can range from smooth to luxuriously silky and creamy, which means that a wine—especially a dry wine as opposed to a sweet dessert wine—needs to be similarly intense if it’s going to pair well with chocolate. When the marriage of chocolate and wine works, the wine should harmonize with the intricate flavors in the chocolate, each adding something to the other, never striving to be the better half.
Hexx’s head chocolate makers Matthew Silverman and Matthew Piekarski offer a flight of three chocolate and wine pairings. You’ll find Hexx’s intense, fruity and floral Peru dark chocolate paired with Josh Cellars’ juicy and spicy 2014 zinfandel. Dark Tanzania chocolate, with its bright hints of cherry, coffee and lemon, is served with a 2013 Graffigna Grand Reserve Malbec. And Hexx’s milk chocolate from the Sambirano Valley in Madagascar, with its strong citrus notes, is accompanied by the pink bubbles of 2015 Domaine Ott Grenache Rosé, itself tinged with citrus zest and spices of cinnamon and cardamom. The tasting experience is priced at $40. –Marisa Finetti