Nancy Nadel is an Oakland city council member and chocolate maker that I met at Richardson Researches’ Chocolate Technology Class. She got into chocolate making as a creative endeavor and a way to improve the world. She tells the story better than I do, so here’s Nancy’s story in her own words, with some followup questions. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this business progresses, both as a chocolate making venture, but also as Nancy finds ways to source beans more equitably.
Nancy, take it away…
My background is in the arts and sciences. I have an art degree and have taught art in public high school and to adults. I have also been a craftsman making hats and ceramics over the years. I returned to school when I was in my mid 20’s to get a second undergraduate degree in geology and a masters in geophysics and worked in natural gas exploration and hazardous waste clean-up for many years. What does this have to do with chocolate, you ask? Only indirectly in that working with chocolate satisfies my love of how things work as well as my creative side and love of making things. As a politician (my current role on the city council), I find limited joy in my work and a lot of delayed gratification as bureaucracies move slowly. Making chocolate is a 180 degree change from that.
I have been traveling to Jamaica every year for 14 years, ever since my husband, daughter and I had our last vacation there together before he passed away from pancreatic cancer. My husband was a wood scientist and craftsman who had developed equipment to bend wood for furniture-making in a completely enclosed ammonia environment. His dream was to sustainably log wood from northern California, bring it down by train and start a furniture making company in Oakland that would create jobs for the large number of unemployed young people in our city. As I just turned 60 and realized that I only have about 20 good active years left if I’m lucky, I thought about how I could carry on the concept of a sustainable loop economic development project like my husband hoped to do, but using the skills and relationships I have developed. So my dream is to import beans from Jamaican farmers receiving a fair price for their product. Ship it to Oakland and other small chocolatiers. Starting a small chocolate making business that I hope to grow into a worker-owned co-op in Oakland and as our capital increases, mechanize our process for the standard shapes but create a lab for continuous improvement and creativity.
I have been dismayed by the lack of capital to spark local economy for Jamaicans. Last summer I spoke to several farmers who explained to me how the cocoa crop is handled. For many, the price is too low for them to bother harvesting and much of the cacao doesn’t even make it to market. The government contracts with them for some of their crop. The young generation is finding the illegal crops more lucrative and often abandon the family farm edible products for the underground market. One farmer I talked to had lots of land but no help to manage it or capital to pay someone to help harvest.
In Jamaica, because most small farmers don’t have capital for transportation, the government took over the cocoa market by setting up state fermentaries. The government buys the wet pulp from farmers, transports it to the state fermentary closest to the farm and there the beans are fermented and dried by people who make that their expertise. From there, the beans are bagged and tranported to ports where they are shipped to northern customers. There is a small local market and one chocolate candy company in Jamaica that makes a Cadbury look-alike fruit and nut bar. The farmers I talked to had never done fermenting and have no resources to get the beans to market. Last year I promised one farmer that I would find out more about Fair Trade certification and grants that could possibly help them build capacity.
What I have found is that a farmer can become Fair Trade Certified only if they have the capacity to bring the product to market. While there are some ICCO grants given out internationally to help develop sustainable farms, there doesn’t seem to be any current granting in Jamaica. There is a Jamaica Cocoa Industry Board which has a webpage that says they are the sole marketers of Jamaican cocoa which they get from the state fermentaries, but doesn’t have any information on how to buy their beans. I have had difficulty communicating with them at first getting no response to email and letter. I asked whether it would be possible to develop a Fair Trade relationship with an individual farmer and the response was this:
“We are willing to supply you with our first grade beans required in due course. However regarding the joint venture proposal this will not be necessary as we are a self-sufficient Organization and the very high quality developed over the many years can be affected if great care is not exercised. Demand for our product has been growing year after year. We are currently paying the most competitive price to farmers and there are plans in place to increase this even further.”
I followed up asking about how to buy their beans, or how I might help a farmer produce organic beans and have gotten no response. I will be going to Jamaica in August to find out more. I am also researching other grants that might help build the farmers’ capacity to bring their crop to market and I have been reading the Gar, Wood text to them over the phone to help them practice fermenting. I can’t wait to see the results of the fermenting tests.
Meanwhile, “back at the ranch,” I have been teaching myself to be an artisan chocolatier and having a great time of it. Mindy from our Davis class sold me the Fall line of Hershey-rejected Joseph Schmidt boxes which present my oak-related theme chocolates of The Oakland Chocolate Company very nicely. The single “log” in one photo is made by putting finely grated pistachio in the mold prior to filling with chocolate. This one is filled with marscapone cheese and a few chocolate nibs – a modified canoli, accented with a milk chocolate oak leaf. The pistachio has a lichen or moss-like quality on the log that I really like and the phasing of flavors as you taste them is delightful. Most of my other fillings are fruit conserve, nuts and ganache. I have some with ricotta cheese and a rum raisin or brandied cherry. I also hope to get my Jamaican farmers interested in diversifying crops and drying mangoes for my delicious dried mango dipped in dark chocolate. I’ve been using El Rey 70% chocolate from Venezuela predominantly, but really look forward to making the chocolate from Jamiacan beans when I develop the importing aspect of my company. I also plan to start making my own molds from natural shapes to complement the stylized French and Belgian acorn, leaf and log molds I used for the chocolates in the pictures.
How have you gone about educating yourself about chocolate making? It sounds like you are using some unusual (and tasty sounding) fillings. You don’t see a lot of cheese as filling, though I have heard that various French chocolatiers are using it. Is there any particular chocolatier you are inspired by?
Practice practice practice . I don’t have a particular mentor or favorite chocolatier although I sample occasionally from many of the Bay Area sources. There are lots of interesting creations around. I think about recipes late at night and then try them when I have time between the hectic meetings and policy work of my council job. I love the Chocolate Alchemy website which helps me think holistically. I was delighted to learn from him that there is another use for my Champion juicer that has been sitting on the shelf having served my husband many a glass of carrot juice when he was ill and had so many negative memories for me.
Do you have a timeline for when you’d like to be selling a product? How do you plan on marketing your chocolate?
I was planning on the new year to launch The Oakland Chocolate Company which might become the Ja-Oakland Chocolate Company if the importing beans plan works out. As I look at the potential business configurations (LLC, worker-owned co-op, farmers co-op) I will explore the feasibility of having the farmers be part of the company. I don’t know what the regulations are for such a relationship either here or in Jamaica for a mini-international company.
For marketing up here, I hope to work with the local tourist industry in Oakland, marketing at the hotels and airports, as well as some of the new wine bars and lounges, and an internet box a month club. It’s time we had an alternative to SF chocolate souveniers at the stores and Oakland airport. If I begin importing beans, I hope to market to smaller bean-to-bar chocolatiers anywhere in the US.