Organic and Fair Trade Chocolates

I ain’t Mr. Organic.

I’m one of those people where “local-trumps-organic”.
And taste trumps everything.
But I do generally prefer to buy from a local grower if possible, rather than from someone far away. (Unless it’s Target…then all bets are off!)

That’s what I like about daily life in Paris, those things are still important. You need to know the boulanger, the butcher, the fromager, the waiter at your local café, and, of course, the most important person in France: The Pharmacist.
(Next time you’re a guest in someone’s home in France, check out the bathroom. Holy Mother-of-Merck! The average French person gets 80 prescriptions per year.)

In many cities in America, organic has become all the rage.
Fine restaurants and their chefs are touting how organic they are. Boasting about which farms they buy their lavender-colored turnips from, and how tiny can they get their lettuce leaves to be. Branches of baby thyme are carefully draped over free-range quail eggs from birds that only eat peeled (organic) grapes. Everyone’s so chummy with their farmer, smiling from the pages of Food + Wine magazine, but do we really need to know which farmer grows the most special, rarest species of Japanese blueberry blossoms to be dehydrated and sprayed over diners while they’re spooning up their Smoked Lemon Sorbet?
American cuisine seems to be touting organics so much so that several French chefs have come up to me and asked,
“Why is everyone in America so into organic produce?”

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I usually respond with something along the lines of “Organic is better since you often buy direct from the grower, there’s no chemicals, it’s better for the environment” etc…

On more than one occasion, their response was,
“Well, in France, we use very little chemicals.”

“Er…um, really?”, I think to myself.

I’m not an agronomist, but I’ve been told the opposite. And just like anywhere else in the world, including the US, I am sure that most commercially-grown fruits and vegetables are sprayed with something or other to make them as perfect and blemish-free as possible.

But eventually I realized that organic here is associated with bourgeouis or upscale. Most organic products are more expensive, and of the two organic markets in Paris, the one on the Boulevard Raspail is full of snobbish clients, pushing you aside with their strollers while they reach for their precious organic turnips (like the SUV-driving folks who run stop signs racing to get to yoga, shoving you aside in the aisles of Whole Foods while they chat on their cell phones, drinking their chai lattes, oblivious to anyone around them.)

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But in Paris, the little shops are the most interesting, since you get to interact with the owners and they still take pride in their merchandise and often they like to talk to you. Each shop is like entering someone’s home. A few days ago I was walking down a street near Oberkampf, and passed a nifty little bio shop, an organic shop so clean and modern. Displayed in the window were lots of interesting products and some chocolate bars, but I was in a rush and I kept walking.
But then I stopped, turned around, then went back.

I found inside a small, but rather interesting array of chocolates on offer and I am always looking for new and unusual chocolates. So I picked up a few bars while the owners offered me strips of delicious dried mangoes.

Organic Chocolate
Chocolate, or cacao (the beans ground to make chocolate), is generally grown in very underdeveloped regions quite close to the equator. The climate is inhospitable and the jungles can be very rugged. I would presume that in many of those places, the people are not treated very well who pick cacao pods, nor do they make much money, hence the interest in Fair Trade, where the growers are said to get paid a fair wage for their products. Some of these products are organic, while others are not.

However I’ve been told by one of my most reliable sources for all things chocolate, that most cacao is not sprayed with chemicals and is, for the most part, organic. (In many places ‘organic’ is a term that can only be used if the products are certified and tested, which often requires a hefty fee to be paid. Hence, farmers will often choose to label their products as ‘transitional’ or ‘unsprayed’ even if they are indeed organic.)

But what I like about these organic or Fair Trade chocolates is that the labels are chock-full of information; the region where the chocolate’s grown, the climate, how it’s harvested, what the growers had for dinner last night, how often they go to the bathroom, etc…

It’s all very interesting, and is good for consumers who imagine that chocolate is from some big factory full of test tubes and scientists formulate bars, so it’s nice to see a picture of the happy natives on the packaging.

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The chocolates I purchased were interesting, although they were geared more for mass-appeal rather than the rarified palate that someone such as myself has cultivated. (just kidding…)

The Oxfam chocolate bar is made in Belgium. It has 48% cacao mass and it was a bit sweet, but had a nice fruity aftertaste and it would be great for baking. The chocolate is from Ghana (hence the black woman).

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Another curious chocolate bar I found was made with quinoa.
Go figure.
Quinoa is an ancient grain, very high in protein. The grains are puffed and toasted, then embedded into the chocolate bar. I liked this one.
The chocolate is from the Dominican Republic, from an organization of 9000 little cacao cultivators. The chocolate was nice and dark (60 percent, for those of you into numbers) and had a nice snap. There was not much of a ‘finish’, no long-term aftertaste, and I wish there were more crunchy bits in there.

Still, what a wacky thing to find: chocolate with puffed quinoa!

Here’s some interesting places to check out on the web about organic or Fair Trade chocolates, with information where to buy and taste some of the products mentioned, as well as a few other brands, some that are available in the United States.

Oxfam Fair Trade chocolate in Belgium.

Dagoba organic chocolate from the United States.

Green and Black’s Organic Chocolate, made in England, available worldwide.

Max Havelaar chocolates and other Fair Trade products online.

Some of the chocolates shown, such as the bar with quinoa, are available here.

16 comments

  • David, people in general are under-educated when it comes to science. You make a good point that organic food MAY be better for the environment, but people do not know that it is NOT better for one’s health. It is certainly detrimental to your wallet. If non-organic food were so unhealthy, then we would have an epidemic of diseases among the workers who work on the farms growing non-organic stuff. The FDA and the Dept. of Agriculture would surely notice such an epidemic. These people would be first in line to get sick, develop diseases related to fertilizers etc. It just does NOT happen.
    I do like to know where my food comes from but this is just a fancy, a whimsical desire to know. There is no scientific support for organic stuff being healthier. But people who are uneducated scientifically, are quick to jump into the “cult” of Organica. They do not question it, they just go for it. It is a sad fact.
    Yes, the French are over-medicated but so are the Americans (antacids in particular). Americans have a hard time believing that some of the world’s best restaurants are in the USA. They so adore France and Europe in general that they are blinded to their own bounty and splendor. I am a French woman living in the US and absolutely loving it. I still adore some French traditions and culinary delights but I want to encourage Americans to love and appreciate their own bountiful land and its produce.

    Cheers! I like your blog very much.

    Anne

  • David? Who or what is TARGET? I cannot understand your remark about Target: “all bets are off”? Can’t find chocolate on their website. Pray, do explain, please.

  • David,
    How coincidental that I just posted on a little place in Oakland, California that sells chocolate bars, including organic ones! I happen to find Dagoba’s bars pretty tasty, especially the blueberry one.

    As for Target – are you perhaps referring to their in-house “Choxie” brand chocolate line? I haven’t mustered up the courage to try those yet!

    I love your site and it makes me miss Paris!

  • Hi David, thanks so much for saying something honest about organics. How very refreshing (organic?) to read. But I think organic in North America is just as bourgeouis as it is in France. Just look at your examples of the organic madness enveloping our magazines and chefs. The irony is that in France, from the sounds of it, people are more connected to their food, even if it’s laced with chemicals, simply because they know the seller of the food. I’ve generally found that even buying organic here (I’m in Toronto now, but used to be in Edmonton) is a very robotic sort of process, especially as the big box stores latch onto the craze. So sure, you’ve got a label that promises health and sustainability, but you’re just as disconnected as ever. And processed organic (cereals, cookies, etc) is still processed food- it somehow echoes the fat-free craze of Snackwells et al. Ie. carte blanche for a new kind of excess.

    Alrights, ’nuff said, I’m off to eat chocolate (dark and laden with earl grey tea- my favourite).

  • David,
    I just have to reply to Anna because we all need to think bigger then our bodies. Pesticides hurt the ecosystem in which they are used, they are dangerous for the people that handle them and they create more pesticide resistant bugs and diseases. Long term water supplies are tainted by excess pesticde use and run-off. Ethyl Bromide which is sprayed on unplanted strawberry fields is a proven human carcinogen, dangerous to all that handle it and are exposed to it.
    Organically grown food is not just about eating well but it is also a commitment to all the bugs, birds, frogs, bees and wildlife that are trying to survive in a shrinking habitat. And so many of us are not just buying produce for our good health but for the health of the planet.
    By the way, your toffee recipe was amazing and my 16 year old son made it every other day for two weeks until we all burned out on it!! Which I didn’t think would ever be possible!
    Carol

  • Carol, if all the pesticides were so bad and so harmful, the people handling them would be first in line to have an epidemic of diseases (epidemic means “within a given population”). It just does NOT happen.
    No one is spraying ANYTHING in the US with carcinogens in amounts that are dangerous. Do you know that mercury can cause cancer and yet you likely have it in your mouth? This is another Pandora’s box, the dental fillings. Soon I will be attacked by the anti-mercury cult.
    Wake up, the controls at the FDA and the Dept. of Agriculture are FAR superior to what you could wish for ANYWHERE ELSE in the world.

    Anne

  • I’m lucky to have a lot of friends who grow their own food, one of our friends own a farm, so a lot of the food that comes our way is organic, even though they can’t say it technically. It seems to me that organic food is handled with more care and because of this care it can be picked riper with resulting more flavour. But what I don’t like are some of the price hikes; when my supermarket ran out of cracked wheat, I went to the health food shop. They had two brands, the organic was three times the price of the other. For heaven’s sake, it was cracked wheat. I will pay more for organic, but not three times the price.

  • Wow, very long comments! I get lost. Euh, mine will be short. I loved 2 comments more particularly:
    -The pharmacist! ( right on!)
    -On more than one occasion, their response was,
    “Well, in France, we use very little chemicals.”

    “Er…um, really?”, I think to myself.

    I can “hear” it. So well observed!!!

  • Yes, there’s amazing food in the US that over gets overlooked or is unavailable to many. A friend who came to Paris was unimpressed, and said, “You know…the food is better in San Francisco.” In Paris, I generally go to bistros and wine bars to eat, rather than fancy or upscale restaurants. Real, old-fashioned French cooking beats all the Tuna Tartare Towers I’ve seen around.
    That said, in both places, there’s good food and bad food. I’ve met French people who think that all American eat at McDonald’s (truly!) The produce at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza is better than most anything available in Paris. And in Europe, France is McDonald’s most profitable country.
    Mon dieu!

    There is indeed no scientific proof that organic food is more nutritious, but I find it tastes better since in general the growers are more involved and concerned with quality. It was odd, though, when we switched to organic cream at Chez Panisse, the customers complained that the cream tasted “funny”. People do get distanced from what ‘real’ food tastes like.
    And at the highly-revered Chino Ranch, they don’t believe in organic, but their produce is magnificent.

    It is sad that organic food can be so pricey although these chocolate bars I got were the same price as other chocolates. (Starbucks has a policy of fresh-brewing anyone who asks a ‘French-press’ of Fair Trade coffee for the same price…you just need to ask.)
    However people pay $5 for a box of Sugar Frosted Flakes (or a chai soy latte), where you can buy a few pounds of organic oatmeal and some local honey and some nice dried fruit for about the same price.

    I did stop eating yellow bananas for years, since they are heavily-sprayed, and the children working in the fields got sprayed at the same time. And I avoid eating strawberries after it rains, since they can get a mighty dose of ethyl bromide, according to my produce supplier in Berkeley (who is not Mr. Organic either).

    And John, you poor man…Target is the best store in the world! I haven’t tried their new ‘upscale’ chocolate, but chocolate is something that I don’t care how much it costs!

  • Interesting discussion. Here in Germany, a lot of organic products are not so expensive anymore. And they are in absolutely every food shop, from the cheapest discounter to the more upscale shops, and we have 100% “bio” supermarkets as well.
    As for bananas, non organic ones have been a big no-no for me for many years. Obviously, it has had some effect on the producers of the no-no bananas, since a very big and famous American brand is now “Rainforest Alliance Certified”, and agressively communicates with this, at least here in Germany.

  • David, I really like your idea that “local trumps organic,” and “taste trumps everything.” Our local farmer’s market here in New Zealand has some organic food, some that’s labelled “spray-free,” but most of it is simply local, picked or dug a day or two ago, and sold by the people who grow it. In contrast, the ‘organic’ section in the supermarkets here look like the organic aisles of 20 years ago in the
    States – small, pitted, dry, and over-priced. I don’t touch the stuff.

  • Hi David, we will not settle this here. You mention that your supplier in Berkeley tells you the strawberries receive a dose of ETHYL BROMIDE. I wonder if you mean METHYL BROMIDE, which is used on food stuffs but warnings have to be posted (just like for Gypsy Moth sprayings). Ethyl Bromide is different from Methyl Bromide. Several gases are used to help fruit ripes. Many ripe oranges are green but because customers don’t like to see green oranges, they are blasted with a harmless gas that makes them turn orange and they are more to our liking then…

    The “bio” deal that is mentioned above by Veronique is indeed so huge in Germany but again, it preys on the ignorant’s idea that bio is somehow healthy or better for you. It is not at all. My sister in Germany will not buy anything on which there is no Bio label. She cannot explain why she does it, it is just a cool thing to do. :)And her kids, oh my, they have never had conventional food in their life! And yet they get infections and disease just like the rest of us, non-organic suckers.:)

    xoxoxo
    Anne

  • Great subject, great conversation! I’m always dismayed by the TASTE of our produce and meat after I get back from a trip to Europe, and we mainly eat Asian food for a month after we’re back.

    What is hard to imagine is the level of industrialization of our food supply here, and I live in one of the major foodie cities in the US. We have to devote plenty of time and energy to finding the food with taste, which I often assume is at the farmer’s market, or hope might be at Whole Foods. Imagine my surprise when I boutght potatoes at a lovely outdoor mkt in Santa Barbara last week, only to get home and cook them and find that they had no taste at all. Our food is so over hybridized, in addition to the use of pesticides ( the level of which is also unimaginable, Anne, see this list of pesticides starting with “A” widely used in the US), makes lots of stuff quite unappetizing….

    http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PUSE/pesticides.html

    And yes, it is ethyl bromide, most all pesticides are highly toxic!
    http://www.panna.org/resources/pestis/PESTIS.1997.22.html

    I thought that the French didn’t spray much, having idealized French food production because it tastes so darned good. Then I was in a small town north of Paris and saw a small plane flying over the crops, and asked the taxi driver what it was. He told me that it was spraying the fields, and that the father and son team who are in charge of the activities are always sick, that the father had died and that the son continues. “Go figure,” he shrugged his shoulders.

    Farmworkers are often terribly ill from working in fields, and it doesn’t register with the government, as they are not insured and are often not even on the radar, being undocumented immigrants! Our government is most interested in keeping large companies’ products in use, and much less in the health of farm workers. I wish I had the trust in government.

    I must admit that I was pleased when I learned that chocolate is pretty “organic” because it’s so hard to get the pesticides onto the trees below the canopy of the forest, and I do think about the fair trade issue, where does Valrhona get their chocolate?

  • Well, moi, I buy organic food products not because I am Chichiponpon, health-obsessed, or cool. Here in the US, organic products do taste better; when cooking with organic/premium ingredients I manage somewhat to recapture the flavors I was used to in non-organic French products.

  • Looking at it another way, why not avoid chemicals when we can, especially in a smoggy city like LA. I’m for taste over all else myself, but it’s hard to ignore the bigger considerations of big business (including the “Organic” designation here in the US) eclipsing the littler guys. Smaller does seem to be better. I just saw my first bottle of Heinz Organic Ketchup here! In LA, organic isn’t any more expensive than my local upscale market, though there is a price difference from the normal chain markets.

  • I read several tests in a French consumer magazine (Que Choisir): organic food is usually among the best or the best. The last test saw organic honey win. They always inform us about the amounts of some chemicals found in the food, and the consequences for health; organic food clearly is a safe bet. Non-organic food can be just as good (two regular honeys were among the three winners), but it is like playing russian roulette with your health in the long run (some regular honeys contained some chemicals a laboratory looked for).

    I remember reading the result of a scientific analysis in a French newspaper (Le Canard Enchaîné): organic oranges contained 100% more C vitamin than the others. This same newspaper regularly and scientifically informs us about the horrors of intensive agriculture on page 4. Maybe Anne should come back to France to read it.

    Pesticides are poisonous substances that kill peasants all over the World. A year ago I read about hundreds of Indian peasants who died after spraying pesticides. Tens of thousands of wage slaves in the banana plantations of Latin America have given birth to horribly deformed babies, have died from cancer, and suffered so many terrible illnesses because of the chemicals that US multinationals force them to use. Of course the pictures of those babies do not appear on the cute little stickers on those bananas. Reading those stickers for scientific info is not a scientific approach.

    French doctors have also determined that pesticides and the likes are responsible for making 5 million French suffer from painful digestion. I am among these people, and I often feel the difference when I do not eat organic. An example: if I eat any sandwich, pizza, quiche from Moisan (several very good bakeries in Paris, 100% organic), I never ever have any problem. But too often when I eat regular (pesticides friendly) pizzas, quiches, sandwiches, I experience a painful digestion. French agriculture being the largest consumer of chemicals in Europe, I am not that surprised.

    My most convincing experience so far was during my transition (at first I was just trying new cookies) from industrial cookies to organic industrial cookies bought from the same French supermarket: Carrefour. Over several months I went from “these organic cookies really have a strange taste, give me back my regular cookies” to “these regular industrial cookies taste like chemical industrial artificial shit” and “these organic cookies taste so wonderful, I want a box everyday”.

    And of course as a French citizen, I cannot avoid our essential food: bread! First I rediscovered the pleasure of eating bread with Poilane, who uses high quality non-organic flour, made from wheat grown slowly (not modern fast growing wheat), sprayed with as little chemicals as possible. I read several times about the nutritious qualities of slow-growth wheat: it contains a much larger quantity of micro-nutrients, which are essential among other things to help our cells not becoming cancerous too early in the long term. Then I discovered organic breads: they are 1000 times better than the breads of 99.9% (two numbers in the same sentence: tell me it is not scientific!) of those found in Paris’ regular bakeries. Even Carrefour’s organic bread is much better than their other breads. Everyone around me who has tried organic bread never went back to regular bread. And the difference is even bigger after several days: organic breads keep on tasting wonderfully and do not become too humid or too dry.

    I agree with David: ecologically, local is more important than organic. But organic and local is the best for us and for nature in the long run. I do eat local organic chicken, which is not as exceptional as organic black chicken from the south of France, but I know less gas was used to put it on my plate.

    I also agree with David on this: it depends on the food. Salad and strawberries are known for accumulating chemicals more than most foods, and many great wine makers use no chemicals at all, but do not bother with the organic certification.

    By the way David, you missed the best fair-trade organic chocolate in Paris: Rapunzel Extra Noir (70% swiss chocolate, real Bourbon vanilla, best eaten in the summer, when it expresses its exceptional flavours to da max). They use whole sugar (sucre de canne complet), which according to a swiss scientist (I read a long article about it…in an organic food magazine found in an organic grocery…am I brainwashed?) is not bad for our teeth, unlike other sugars, and contains many more vitamins and micro-nutrients.