IF THERE IS a takeaway lesson from the past year, it’s that money doesn’t grow on trees. But chocolate does. Cacao beans, from which chocolate is made, mature in football-shaped pods that dangle from the branches of a shortish, fussy little tree, most dependably in humid third-world countries with delicate political climates. Cacao is hard to grow well and expensive to ship, and the machinery needed to turn it into actual chocolate—a winnower for shelling the beans, conches that reduce moisture and coat chocolate particles with cocoa butter before it’s tempered and molded—requires serious financial commitment. It’s not immediately obvious why anyone would want to make chocolate.
Not many do. In the last few years, Seattle has welcomed a bloom of new chocolatiers, but most of them start with something that already looks like what we know as chocolate, and compose confections from there. Only Theo Chocolate (theochocolate.com), our local superstar and the nation’s only fair-trade, organic (read: extra expensive to make) producer, actually starts from beans.
But here’s the thing: People really, really like it. And they buy it, even when the metaphorical money tree is bearing little fruit. And compared to life’s other luxuries, it’s cheap, even at the high end. “Chocolate isn’t necessarily a staple, but I think people will still buy things at the low end of their price scale, and we qualify,” says Debra Music, vice president of Theo.
In fact a growing tendency to savor a few dark squares on the sofa in lieu of ordering dessert at restaurants may help account for steady sales this year at Theo and among upscale chocolate manufacturers worldwide. But don’t count out the dark delicacy when it comes to the main dish either: Autumn Martin—who until recently served as Theo’s chocolatier—incorporates cocoa into her corn tortillas and melts Theo’s orange chocolate in her citrusy demi-glace. She says her guests gobble it right up. “I’ve never had trouble convincing people to eat chocolate,” says Martin.