Interview with Samantha Madell from Tava Chocolate, Part I

Langdon Stevenson and Samantha MadellI’m excited to have the chance to post an interview with Samantha Madell, one of the co-founders of Tava, an “extremely fair” trade chocolate maker in Australia. (More information on the complex issue of “fair trade” in a future post.) Samantha and her partner Langdon Stevenson have built a chocolate company from scratch, propelled by the ideal of helping cacao growers via fair trade. Their website relates their (literal) journey from finding beans to producing a quality chocolate, and is well worth perusing. Samantha was kind enough to take time out of her schedule to answer some of my questions about their techniques, how they source cacao, and the chocolate market in general. Few words are as abused as “inspirational”, but the Tava story, a startup in the truest sense of the word, motivated by a genuine altruism, surely fits in that category.

In this first part of the interview, we talk about starting the company and chocolate production techniques. Tomorrow I’ll post the remainder, which will focus on cacao sourcing and the chocolate market in Australia.


Starting small scale chocolate production is challenging. How have you found equipment? Have you had to build equipment, or have you found vintage equipment that works for our scale?

A. Our machinery has come to us from all over the place, and has usually involved plenty of lateral thinking and/or improvisation.

We began our search for equipment within the chocolate manufacturing industry, and were staggered by the immense size of the available machinery. When we were brand new to the industry, we simply didn’t realize that no-one (certainly no-one in Australia) was manufacturing chocolate from cocoa beans on a small scale. So, we would ring up a supplier to inquire about machinery that could handle, say, 10kg of chocolate per batch, only to be told that the smallest available unit was designed to handle 10 tons of chocolate per batch. It was quite common for our operation to be too small by a factor of a thousand.

It quickly became obvious that we would have to improvise. So, for example, on the advice of a friend who works for one of the multinational chocolate makers, we bought a catering-scale orbital mixer to make-do as a conche. We use a conventional oven for roasting (we discovered that we could buy literally dozens of conventional ovens for the price of one relatively small fluid bed coffee roaster. And as for sourcing a small-scale roaster especially designed for cocoa – forget it! They simply don’t exist). We built our own winnower, whose design was loosely based on a picture of an ancient Chinese rice winnower.

It’s probably pertinent to add that we’ve had our fair share of dead-ends and failures, too, and the process of completing and perfecting our range of machinery will be ongoing, probably for years to come.

How did you learn chocolate making?

I can credit Bernard W. Minifie’s book “Chocolate, Cocoa, and Confectionery” with teaching me most of what I know about making chocolate. The very first chocolate I ever saw being made from the bean was the first batch I made myself.

I don’t discount the value of knowing lots of facts about the science of manufacturing chocolate, but really, my main concern is that the end product should taste good. So, I rely pretty heavily on my senses …including common sense.

I studied science at university, so I suppose I’m naturally quite science-minded. But my work with chocolate is really based on the scientific method that kids are taught in primary school: experiment,
observe, and make improvements as necessary.

Having said that, I should add that I’ve picked up an abundance of useful information from some very knowledgeable, experienced, and generous people who populate online forums like Seventy Percent and Chocolate Alchemy.

What has been the hardest part of the process for you to master?

I wouldn’t really say that any individual process has been particularly difficult to master (although I think it’s fair to say that becoming a master of anything does require consistent effort, as well as
a foundation of basic knowledge).

What I did find really hard, though, was learning to believe that I could operate a chocolate factory, making chocolate from raw ingredients. Many members of the establishment imply that if your
great-grandfather wasn’t a chocolate maker, or if you haven’t completed a lengthy apprenticeship at the feet of a European master, then you have no right to involve yourself in the business of making chocolate.

And I’ve lost count of the number of times my partner and I have been asked: “So, which one of you is the chef?” Just for the record: neither of us is.

(I usually get a very puzzled response when I tell people that I trained as an agricultural scientist, although I’m in surprisingly good company on that score: Claudio Corallo, Pierrick Chouard, John Scharffenberger and Chloe Doutre-Roussel all come from similar plant science backgrounds.)

Anyway, in helping me to overcome my knee-trembling awe of the chocolate industry, I owe a real debt of gratitude to Ian Bersten, who is an Australian coffee expert, and author of the book “Coffee, Sex, and Health”.

I first saw Ian on a television show called Collectors, on Australia’s ABC TV. At that time, I was desperate to have somebody teach me the intricacies of roasting cocoa, but I couldn’t find anyone, either in Australia or overseas, who was willing to share their knowledge with me – even though I was quite prepared to pay for the privilege.

Then I saw Ian on TV. He came across as a slightly eccentric, really passionate guy, with a huge collection of antique coffee machines, and a lifetime’s experience with roasting coffee.

Partly out of desperation, but also because I recognised a kindred spirit, I tracked Ian down and gave him a call. During that first phone conversation, he spoke with me about coffee and cocoa for well over an hour, with great enthusiasm.

He gave me some really useful general tips about roasting beans – but mostly he gave me the confidence to believe that, with an orderly approach, I could find a signature roasting style on my own. And I did.

To me, Ian Bersten is the very best kind of expert. He is not afraid of sharing his knowledge and his wisdom, and he actively encourages the asking of questions. But sadly, too many authorities in the chocolate industry seem more interested in the smoke-and-mirrors approach: these are the people who over-simplify information until it bears little resemblance to the truth, and who like to perpetuate the idea that chocolate-making is way beyond the understanding and abilities of normal folk.

I noticed that you have started with a 100% cacao culinary chocolate. What is your aim for your chocolate making? Do you have an ideal for taste or texture that you are aiming for?

At this point, due almost entirely to financial constraints, we only offer an unsweetened cooking chocolate, which isn’t even tempered. Having never heard of another chocolate maker selling un-tempered chocolate, we were quite nervous about releasing such a “rustic” product into the market place. But we quickly discovered that our target demographic loves this chocolate. Our customers respond very enthusiastically to the story behind our chocolate, and they enjoy learning about things like fat bloom, and other aspects of chocolate making. But what keeps them coming back for more is simply that our product tastes great in their recipes.

In the future, as we continue bringing more renovated and/or home-made pieces of equipment into our production line, we will extend our range to include chocolate with a classic high-end texture, including a fine particle size and (hopefully) a perfect temper.

My goal is to produce chocolate that makes me think “wow” every time I taste it. It’s simply not possible to create a chocolate that will thrill everyone, so pleasing yourself tends to be a smart move, because it’s inevitable that a portion of the population will have similar tastes to yours.

Regarding my taste in chocolate, I must admit that the only two chocolate bars I’ve ever tasted that totally stopped me in my tracks were Michel Cluizel‘s “Maralumi” (a 64% bar made from cocoa grown in Papua New Guinea), and Lindt‘s Madagascar 65%. In short: Wow!

Obviously, my personal taste leans towards quite sweet chocolate. I also prefer chocolate with some added cocoa butter. I like interesting but non-confrontational flavour profiles: I love berry, nutty, and earthy flavours, but I can live without notes of mushroom and tobacco in my chocolate (and I won’t even get started on smoky and meaty flavours, which, in the cocoa trading industry, are considered serious flaws).

Like most Australian women, I actually enjoy eating Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate – a predilection which is practically a crime in fine chocolate circles. But I’m the first to admit that there’s not much to be said for any “food” item which is more than 50% sugar. With this in mind, I’d love to make a chocolate that could act as a kind of “gateway” product, gently introducing the Cadbury addicts to a world of high quality, interesting chocolate, with no milk solids, a lot less sugar, and a lot more attention to ethical issues.

I’m curious what your plans for the company are. Are you looking to diversify into other types of bars, or work more to supply nibs and beans for other producers?

My answer to the previous question mostly answers this one. In short, we want to keep making a 100% cooking chocolate, and expand into making fine eating chocolate. We envisage continuing to supply beans and nibs to people who are simply curious, as well as other chocolate producers -mostly hobbyists- but this is a small part of our business (given that Haigh‘s is, as yet, the only other commercial bean-to-bar manufacturer in Australia – and we don’t supply them with beans).

In the long term, we want to be able to apply what we’ve learned to moving some or all of the processing to the neighboring countries where our cocoa is grown.

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