Life might be like a box of chocolates, but it was thinking outside of that box that brought our area its first bean-to-bar chocolate makers.
In 2016, Sara Nelson began visiting Costa Rica to learn more about tropical botany. Her parents, Susan Waughtal and Roger Nelson, own Squash Blossom Farm in Oronoco, a vibrant place filled with gobbling turkeys, barking dogs, and beautiful gardens, as well as a commercial kitchen that produces baked goods and pizza from its wood-fired oven.
Sara, a grad student, is studying ecological restoration and plant community ecology. After apprenticing with several botanists in Costa Rica, she met one who was a chocolate maker.
“She introduced me to the process of making chocolate, and also the social and ecological issues around cacao in Costa Rica, specifically the fact that many indigenous growers in Costa Rica [particularly the Bribri women in the Talamanca canton in Limon province] don’t have access to markets that pay fairly for their cocoa beans,” she explained.
From that knowledge, Sara wanted to help connect chocolate makers who would pay a good price for cocoa beans with the Bribri. She also thought it would be fun to get her family making chocolate on their farm.
Though Sara is still working to find ways to connect the Bribri women with fair markets for their beans, she brought some beans back from other Costa Rican growers and started working with her parents to refine a chocolate-making technique that she hopes will grow into something that will help make a connection with Bribri cocoa farmers.
“Sara started teaching us in the spring of 2019,” Waughtal said. “It took a long time to learn the art of making the chocolate, creating our own recipes for inclusions, then designing and getting our own molds, and designing and creating the packaging.”
The process of making chocolate requires only a few ingredients — cocoa beans, sugar, and a little cocoa butter silk — but includes many different steps.
The cocoa beans are harvested and fermented in Costa Rica, then shipped to Squash Blossom Farm in a 50-kilo gunnysack stamped with a picture of a squirrel and a cocoa bean. The beans are roasted in the farm’s wood-fired oven, then cracked with a fruit-juicer, winnowed to remove the beans’ shells, and ground into the consistency of thick peanut butter. The next step uses a mélange to grind a mixture of 70% cocoa beans and 30% sugar for 24 hours.
One of the most difficult steps is tempering the chocolate after the cocoa beans and sugar have been ground together. Tempering gives the chocolate bars a shiny surface and a satisfying snap. Roger said he melts the chocolate, then cools it while adding cocoa butter silk, to get the desired crystallization. Minnesota’s humidity makes this step difficult since any water in the chocolate has the potential to spoil the tempering process.
After the chocolate is tempered, filling the whole kitchen with a dark smell of earthy sweetness, it's poured into the unique Squash Blossom Farm molds, which went through several prototypes, including a food-grade silica relief created from a 3-D-printed bar. The mold features a stylized scene with a five-petaled squash blossom hanging over a barn, road, and rolling hills.
Finally, while the chocolate is still molten in the mold, some bars are sprinkled with inclusions. Besides their basic chocolate, the farm also makes black-walnut bars, hazelnut bars, and Roger’s special “Wholly Mole” bars, inspired by Mexican mole sauce, including pepitas and pistachios covered in cinnamon, hot pepper, and a bit of garlic.
The finished products are hand-wrapped in bright-colored foil, then placed in a paper sleeve that says, “We hope to honor the labor of the folks for whom this plant is both sacred and economically vital.” They are available for sale directly at Squash Blossom, the People’s Food Co-op and the Rochester Farmers Markets.
Waughtal said the hardest thing about making the chocolate may be “not going crazy from the delicious smell of roasting beans.”
“For me,” Sara said, “the chocolate is special because it represents connection, friendship and solidarity with a group of people who are caretakers of the rainforest.”