In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle finds truly special sustainable chocolate in West Cork.
Allison Roberts was a curiously ambitious child. Growing up in Ontario, she met a chocolate maker when she was 10 and was instantly inspired. She asked her mother to take her to a local chocolate-making course over her Christmas holidays and had set up her own business by the following Easter. Today, an adult operating in West Cork, she works alongside just one employee most of the time, although she calls in favours with chocolate-loving friends in the run-up to busy periods like Christmas and Easter.
Determined to make a positive contribution to the world around her, Roberts carried out considerable research before deciding to source all of her cacao from Kuapa Kokoo, a farmer-owned cooperative in Ghana that she visited in 2013.
“I’m keen to draw attention to that region because it’s where the darkest and worst side of the cacao industry exists. Most commercial cacao comes from West Africa, whereas in Ghana and especially Cote d’Ivoire (Ghana’s neighbouring country) there is so much child labour, poverty and slavery resulting from this industry.” Kuapa Kokoo is comprised of over 1,500 micro-farms of around four acres each, relying on cacao supported by other income streams such as batik and pineapple growing, all under the Fairtrade umbrella.
While Roberts is passionate about the positive impact Fairtrade has on Ghana’s cacao farmers, it does come with sourcing restrictions, and she admits that the system is flawed. “Fairtrade needs to remain accessible to grassroots businesses or it will only be used as needed by large businesses for image greening. Many big businesses adopt Fairtrade for a few years and then drop it. This is terrible for farmers, and unfair to consumers who hear all the Fairtrade hype and then don’t notice when the logo is then quietly dropped.”
Roberts’ passion for sustainability in her private life has “trickled over,” into her business. “We minimise waste all round: our packaging is either home compostable or biodegradable. I use post-consumer recycled printing paper, as well as paper tape and biodegradable sponges.”
Roberts describes the cacao from that region in Ghana as characteristically earthy, acidic and sharp, “like sun on hot earth.” She’s keen to point out the impact of her Cork locality, too. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I lived anywhere else. Because the community here is so positive and encouraging and not overly income-focused, I have kept slowly going and growing. Ireland still has so many vibrant small towns, and I want to add to that landscape; Canada’s small towns are either dying or very isolated, and big box stores have taken over and elbowed out small shops. I am happy to be a small business in such a great community-oriented country.”
Once the beans arrive in the Clonakilty kitchen, the chocolate-making process takes one month from bean to bar, including three weeks of aging. The range includes chocolate bars in a variety of flavours, and unflavoured base chocolate is sold as cooking chocolate, again minimising waste. When asked if she eats chocolate every day, Roberts responds with an enthusiastic “yes!” but her favourite changes daily. “I love my salt and seaweed bar and my new oat milk bar, but I also love nibbling on roasted beans straight from the oven — and whatever is in the scrap bucket, too!”
One standout product in the range, and one that was new to me, is the Cocoa Husk Tea, a natural, loose leaf chocolate tea made from the outer shells of the cacao bean. Rich in antioxidants, it’s also a heart-healthy source of vitamin E, zinc, iron, manganese and copper. With a high level of theobromine — a natural stimulant that gives a slow-release boost of energy without the crash associated with caffeine — it’s a fantastic, all-natural pick-me-up. I’m a fiend for caffeine, but since trying the cocoa husk tea I’ve been using it as a substitute for coffee at those times when I’d rather a calmer buzz.
Here in Ireland, there’s definitely a reluctance to accept chocolate as a health food, but Roberts sees a pattern. “When it comes to education about things like terroir, tasting and sourcing, chocolate follows coffee, which follows beer, which follows wine.” Her theory is that this continued education will help Irish people see dark chocolate as a nutritious part of a balanced diet; it has, after all, a 3,000-year history of being used as a health food.
So what’s next? Roberts is rebranding Clonakilty Chocolate and returning to the name Exploding Tree, which she used when she first set up shop in Ireland. “One of my biggest struggles is marketing and communication with customers who aren’t in front of me. I think the entire brand needs to reflect the radical nature of the chocolate.”
Radical it is, from Roberts’ approach to sourcing to her eye for unusual flavour combinations. Fans of chai lattes will appreciate these chocolate pots de crème, but there’s something in the range for every taste — I’m happily nibbling on a chunk of Wild West Salty even as I write this. Here’s to many more years of Exploding Tree ambition.