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?”
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.)
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.
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.
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).
Another curious chocolate bar I found was made with quinoa.
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.