Chocolate, a Love That's Bittersweet

By Katti Gray

I love chocolate. I have read the science about its good effects on the body and the harm it can do as well, but have not been persuaded to lay down my chocolate habit. As culinary indulgences go, chocolate suits me just fine.

Yet, I try not to let my love of chocolate overtake me. I have restricted myself to having chocolate only every other day or so. Sometimes, I grab a mini Baby Ruth or Butterfinger from the stash a colleague keeps in his desk for the chocolate lovers in our pod.

At home, I keep it in the fridge to satisfy a random urge.
I send chocolate to say "thank you" or "happy birthday" or "get well soon." Just a nibble will do.

"It's a multidimensional food. Not only does it appeal to the sensory of the palate, in terms of the flavor, it also appeals to the senses of the brain, the seratonin," said Frederick Schilling, a former chef and caterer and founding alchemist of Dagoba Chocolates.

Just the other week, I discovered Schilling's sweets in my favorite grocery store. Initially, my curiosity was piqued by the name and the pretty pastel wrapper. I picked up a bar and read the fine print, including its mention of organic cacao butter and cacao beans, which, if one is going to indulge in something as indulgent as chocolate, sound like more wholesome ingredients than the inorganic kind.

Dagoba comes in 15 flavors, including lavender, latte and chai, which I know for myself to be magical on the tongue, and mint rosemary, raspberries and rose hips and an elixir of Peruvian chiles, nutmeg, vanilla and cocoa bean bits. What's more, cocoa used in roughly a quarter of what is sold under the Dagoba label, headquartered in Central Point, Ore., is bought from international cooperatives that do not profit from forced child labor and, as proof, bear a trademark from the nonprofit TransFair USA.
Today, 70 percent of cocoa secured for making chocolate comes from areas of West Africa where trafficking of child slaves has been documented by, among others, the U.S. government. Among those exploited children are ones toiling in the cocoa fields.

There are few chocolatiers who are picky about the sort of chocolate they sell, few who are as focused on the politics of chocolate as on the flavor. Into that small pool, TransFair also has certified an upstate company, Ithaca Fine Chocolates, as the first in the United States where 100 percent of product is "fair trade" chocolate - which also means a farmer gets a fairer price than if the farmer's cocoa were being processed for use in an uncertified company's chocolates.

"One aspect of this, of course, is the idea of tasting something yummy and smooth and delicious. And when you chew fair trade, that psychological effect is heightened by the idea of knowing that you may be allowing a cocoa farmer's family a better life," said Erika Fowler-Decatur, an art historian and owner of the Ithaca firm, which launched in November 2002. Her company's Art Bars are made by a Swiss chocolatier and sold with cards bearing reproductions of fine art.

Chocolate is food of the gods. That is how a Swiss botanist labeled it centuries ago, when he was blessed with his first taste.

"On a spiritual level, it just kind of resonates to my core. It's just a powerful food," said Schilling, a religion major in college who started making chocolates in his kitchen 2 1/2 years ago and chose Dagoba because it means temple of gods in Sanskrit.

"There is a Quaker proverb that says 'Go as the way opens,'" he added. "This presented itself to me. It's a subliminal calling."
Valentine's Day is for lovers.

If sales go as projected, roughly 37 million boxes of chocolate will be sold on Feb. 14, a special day for chocolate devotees.

And while it is unlikely that I always will buy what is best for the cocoa farmer - Dagoba is affordable but pricier than Butterfinger, a favorite since childhood - I will be more purposeful about where at least a portion of my chocolate-buying dollars go.