Nancy Nadel, Making Chocolate and a Difference

nancy nadelNancy 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.

Nancy Nadel Chocolate

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.


4 Responses to Nancy Nadel, Making Chocolate and a Difference

  1. laura says:

    what a fascinating story. nice interview, T.

  2. Tom Sharkey says:

    Aloha ! Loved reading about your chocolate making experiences. been growing and processing cacao beans here on the Big Island of Hawaii for a few years. I make alittle now and then and give most of it away. My orchard is a mix of many varieties and sub-varieties; so it is quite unique. Would love to have someone out there try my beans to get some feedback on the quality and the processing. Would be willing to share some with chocolate people. I moved here from the Santa Rosa area of Sonoma County where I grew grapes and made wine. Keep in touch! Aloha Tom Sharkey

  3. Chris Taylor says:

    I found this website purely by chance as I was looking for a new fermentation technique which seems to be somewhat elusive.

    I first went to Jamaica in February 1970 as Factory Manager of the company that makes the Cadbury look-alike chocolate today, except that in those days it was owned by Cadbury and I was an English expatriate. I soon fell in love and married a girl from Jamaica and we are still married 37 years later – so that I still have very close ties with Jamaica even though we have lived in many countries since those days.
    Jamaica was one of the first countries to grow cacao outside of the Amazon Valley and the Yucatan Peninsula and it is believed that the Spanish first cultivated cacao on the island in 1635. A milestone in the history of cocoa rarely recorded in textbooks, was the signing of the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, which recognised English Sovereignty over its existing possessions in the New World. This removed the need for defence against Spanish invaders, and encouraged the growth of agriculture. By 1672, Jamaica had 70 sugar factories and 60 ‘walks’ of cacao. I am not sure exactly what the term ‘walk’ means in terms of acreage.
    Today, Jamaica barely produces 1000 metric tons a year, but for the chocolate industry the beans are highly prized as a ‘flavour cocoa’. They are mostly grown by small farmers, but Jamaican cocoa is a unique blend of Criollo and Forrestero Cocoas, with some ‘hybrids’ thrown into the mix. The State Marketing Board, ensures that their high quality standards are met. Experience in West Africa has shown that Ghana Cocoa which is State controlled, has the highest quality standard and for which the cacao fetches premium prices whereas neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria, which are free market do not have such high quality.
    The other factor influencing Jamaican Cacao is the Central Government Fermentaries, which ensure a uniform quality and degree of fermenation.
    This is especially important since Criollo Cacao requires less fermenting time
    than Forastero.
    Unfortunately 1000 metric tonnes of cacao per year is a drop in the ocean when compared to the 1.3 mil tonnes produced each year by Cote d’Ivoire. For this reason, Jamaican Cacao is hard to come by.

    The Taylor Gentles Group is located in Tampa Florida and we specialise the the machinery neccessary for processing cocoa beans, and in technical consulting (formulation, process & Marketing) for the cocoa & chocolate confectionery industry.

    I hope that I can get to talk to you and explore what can be done to help you get started.

  4. Mark Wildish says:


    There is now a new Government in Jamaica, and a new Minister of Agriculture. I know they are keen to get things moving with the cocoa industry. I have reason to believe there will be some movement. Your Fairtrade idea is right on target – and it is possible to do right now. Fairtade have regulations for Dealers, and the Cocoa Industry Board can approve such a dealer / exporter. There have been non Cocoa Industry Board exporters for the last few years, but for some reason this had not be advertised!
    If you want more info or to chat, email me on this email, or call the new Chairmain designate of the CIB and intrdouce yourself. Mark

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