No matter how you melt it, whether into drinks or bars or in your mouth, chocolate is considered, by many cultures, to be the food of the gods. We've used it not only in our religious rituals, but we also gift it to children, lovers and, most often, ourselves.
But like many commodities, the cacao trade has a slippery history, and the labors of the farmers who provide the world with its favorite sweet have been historically exploited.
Because of that, fair trade organizations have sprung up to make sure that these farmers are properly compensated. And, it should come as no surprise that Portland's confectioners and chocolatiers pay special attention to where their most crucial ingredient comes from.
Here are five local chocolate-producers dedicated to making socially responsible treats that you can enjoy without the (socio-economic) guilt.
In 2004, Alma's Sarah Hart made a splash at the Portland State University Farmer's Market, where she sold handmade gold-leafed chocolate icons like Ganesh, Quan Yin and the Virgin Mary. Within two years, she had a brick and mortar that chocolate lovers could visit and sample from a variety of fair trade barks, bars and bon bons. According to Hannah Sullivan, Alma's events and marketing manager, Hart has long been suspicious of labels like organic and fair trade, which is why she looks closely at the farming practices employed by fair trade distributors and vendors before selecting her cacao.
The Chocolate: Comes from Vintage Plantation, a New York City-based importer that sources hand-selected beans from farms in Ecuador.
Where to Get It: At the shop, online, and at Cacao or the Heathman Hotel.
Try This: The Thai Peanut Butter Cups—bon bons made with a chocolate ganache infused with coconut milk, chilies, lemongrass and ginger, all of which is sprinkled with volcanic red sea salt.
Alma Chocolate, 140 NE 28th Ave., 503.517.0262
Melissa Berry wasn't planning on the life of a confectioner. (She’s a naturopathic doctor.) But when it became evident that her mother's dietary restrictions would require a gluten-free, vegan diet, Berry did what every good daughter would do: She made her mom vegan, gluten-free truffles. Her mother loved them and told her friends, and those friends told their friends, and, before long, Berry had so many order requests that it simply made sense to set up shop. So she did, and within a year, Berry was selling sweets to her own walk-in customers and supplying chocolates to 46 other local businesses.
The Chocolate: Comes from the Guittard Chocolate Company in San Francisco, which gets beans from growers in the West African state of Ghana.
Where to Get It: At the shop, online, at as many as seven farmers' markets, and at 46 markets, cafes and performance art spaces throughout Portland.
Try This: The Meyer Lemon Explosion truffle that Berry describes as having a "bright" profile and which, to date, has won her seven awards.
Missionary Chocolates, 2712 NE Glisan St., 503.961.3262
Stirs the Soul
Daren Hayes used to work on a bamboo farm in Hawaii, and was, for a while, a homesteader in Alaska. Then, within five months of moving to Portland in 2006, he turned his gaze toward chocolate. At first, he experimented with drinking chocolates—his original plan was to open a coffee and tea shop—but soon, chocolate's innumerable edible possibilities captured his attention. Five years later, Hayes makes more than 50 varieties of edible sweets, supplying them to 70 stores in a dozen states from Alaska to Massachusetts.
The Chocolate: Comes via a friend of Hayes who travels the globe (for Crio Brü and Bean of the Gods), alerting him to recent fair trade farms discoveries the world over.
Where to Get It: Online, or at your choice of 17 locations throughout the city.
Try This: The Turkish Coffee—a caramel sweetened with coconut and palm sugar, which is hand-dipped in coffee-infused chocolate and sprinkled with finely ground cardamom.
Stirs the Soul, 503.774.4309
Bees & Beans
Before starting a family, Faith Dionne practiced the confectionary arts as a pastry chef, most recently at Higgins. But after becoming a mother, she set up shop at home, making confections with chocolate sourced from all over the world, and with honey harvested locally from Wessels Family Honey in nearby Forest Grove.
The Chocolate: Comes from Theo, a domestic chocolate importer located in Seattle, which sources beans from farms in Central and South America as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Where to Get It: At a dozen shops around town, including Food Front, Foster & Dobbs, Pastaworks, Ruby Jewel, Salt & Straw and Woodsman Market.
Try This: The 'Bert Bar, made with filberts, peanut butter and toasted rice, all of which is hand-dipped in dark chocolate.
Bees & Beans, 503.869.4105
Rochelle Koivunen never intended to make chocolates—she'd planned to move to San Francisco to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts. But then she went on a cleanse that forbade the eating of sweets. Giving up sugar, she says, was no problem. The chocolate, not so easy. So, Koivunen started making her own, swapping out sugar for xylitol, the birch tree sweetener. With the encouragement of friends, she turned her craving into a business, and now, with the help of her partner, River Darensbourg, Koivunen specializes in making one brand of raw, vegan, sugar-free chocolate candy, made with coconut oil, coconut flakes and vanilla extract.
The Chocolate: Comes from Ultimate Superfoods, in Moonpark, Calif., which sources cacao from Peru.
Where to Get It: Ten markets and co-ops all over Portland stock Rox Chox, including Powell's Books on Hawthorne, Cherry Sprout Produce, Foster & Dobbs, the People's Food and Alberta co-ops, and Food Front.
Try This: Rox Chox offers only one bar—the Sweet & Salt—but it comes in three sizes and is sold in bulk. Koivunen suggests the 4-ounce bar, not just because it's gift wrapped and makes a nice present, but because there's nothing quite like a big chunk of chocolate served up in its "purest" and most nutritional state.
Rox Chox, 503.523.7538
Do you have a favorite fair trade chocolate treat made here in Portland? Do tell.