A chocolate bar touted as among the most expensive in the world doesn't come from Switzerland or France, but from Ecuador. It weighs in at just 50 grams — and costs a whopping $260. Oh, yes, and there are only 574 in the world. This year.
We're used to luxe wineries debuting a Cabernet at $100 or $200 a bottle. But a chocolate bar in the triple digits?
I had the chance to taste the To'ak chocolate bar and came away impressed by the two young men behind it, fascinated by their story — and by their fabulous, deep-flavored chocolate, like nothing I've experienced before. "Experience" is the operative word.
Presented in a box made of Spanish elm, the same wood in which the cacao beans are fermented, the 50-gram To'ak chocolate bar comes with a special wooden "tweezer" — for want of a better word. Each box is hand wrapped and numbered and printed with the harvest year, in this case Rain Harvest 2014. Some of this year's 574 bars are for sale at Wally's in West Los Angeles.
At a tasting at Bar Jackalope, the back room at Seven Grand downtown, Jerry Toth and his Austrian partner Carl Schweizer recounted how each came to be living in Ecuador. (The connection is an interest in rainforest conservation and sustainable agriculture.) And how they were introduced to a stand of extraordinarily old cacao trees in a village so isolated that the trees hadn't succumbed to a disease called witch's broom that swept through Ecuador's cacao in 1916. After that, different genetic material was introduced into the country.
Though much of the world’s cacao is now grown elsewhere, cacao originated in Ecuador, and the native variety, Nacional, is considered the finest. In the 19th century, Swiss chocolatiers came to Ecuador in search of the best cacao. When they found it and asked where it came from, the farmers answered rio arriba — upriver — and so the cacao grown along the upper tributaries of the Guayas River Basin in coastal Ecuador became known as Arriba cacao.
This is what the farmers who work that isolated patch of centenary cacao trees in Piedra de Plata were harvesting when Toth was introduced to them. The farmers knew their cacao was extraordinary, but they were paid the same as everybody else, and that beautiful cacao ended up as part of a blend. It was like taking grapes from a grand cru vineyard and putting them into Two Buck Chuck.
Toth and Schweizer now work with 14 farmers of Piedra de Plata headed by Elio Cantos, whose great grandfather planted some of the centenarian trees. And they are producing entirely in Ecuador a chocolate made only from that heirloom cacao. The labor-intensive process starts with six or seven days of fermentation. After that, the beans are roasted, shelled and ground.
To'ak chocolate bars are pure cacao with no cacao butter added and only enough organic brown sugar to make the flavor "bloom." All you taste is the chocolate.
And what a chocolate.
Using the wooden tweezer, the partners demonstrated how to taste the chocolate, smelling it first, then letting a small piece melt on the palate without chewing, breathing through your nose to take in all its complexity. To'ak chocolate is firmer than other bars I've tasted, very intense, with notes of cherries, earth, flowers. As it melts, you find sandalwood, caramel, hazelnuts, orange blossom — and more.
Incised with lines to make dividing the bar easier, the chocolate is meant to be shared and savored like a bottle of fine wine.
That night we tasted the chocolate again with three different spirits: Angel's Envy bourbon from Kentucky, Tyrconnell single malt from Ireland and Abelour 18-year-old Highland single malt from Scotland. The whole exercise is precious, sure, but not pretentious. It's fascinating how your perception of the chocolate changes with time — and with the different spirits.
All too soon there's a line at Jackalope's door waiting to come in and I'm saying goodbye to Toth and Schweizer.
Seriously smitten, I'm wishing I had one more piece of that mysteriously evocative chocolate.
I may be spoiled for life.