Jerry Toth has a simple goal. From deep in the rainforests of Ecuador, he wants to reboot the world’s relationship with dark chocolate. Provided you have $385 to spare, that is.
Toth, the co-founder of exclusive chocolate producer To’ak, speaks the language of a winemaker. He’s passionate about vintage variation and terroir, fermentation techniques and barrel ageing. It’s all a far cry from the somewhat-forgettable foil-wrapped treats we’ve come to associate with a mere bar of chocolate.
And that’s precisely the point, says Toth: “If you look at chocolate historically, in every culture it touched cacao was considered sacred. It was reserved for warriors and priests and royalty. It’s an idea that we’ve lost over the last 100 years.”
It’s one Toth is working hard to revive though.
But rather than a gourmand on a gluttonous quest, Toth first fell in love with cacao through his work in rainforest conservation.
“Reforestation with cacao is one of the best options in the conservationist’s toolbox. In Ecuador the land is going to be put to productive use: the question is, with what? Worst of all is cattle grazing or slash-and-burn corn, but if you can incentivise farmers to plant trees – whether it’s sustainable timber, fruit, coffee or cacoa – then you have a start.”
In 2007, living in a hut deep in the Piedra de Plata valley, Toth discovered that the cacao trees in the surrounding farmlands were the revered cultivar Nacional.
Once grown widely in Ecuador, in the early-20th century a disease dubbed Witches’ Broom decimated the forests, and the prized varietal was considered all but extinct. But in quiet corners of the Ecuadorian forest a handful of trees survived, and thrived.
Today, Nacional accounts for just five percent of cacao production worldwide, but is highly prized for its unique floral aroma and complex flavour profile. It’s also uniquely adapted to the microclimate of Ecuador’s Pacific rainforests, where a sun-baked rainy season gives way to overcast days in the dry months.
“This area is to cacao what the French province of Burgundy is to wine,” enthuses Toth, who set about working with fourth-generation farmers to cultivate and harvest the beans.
By 2014 the first To’ak bars were ready, and fast caused a stir with their sky-high price tag. Today, a single 50-gram bar will set you back $385. If you can find one that is: To’ak releases just four ‘editions’ each year, with a mere 100 bars per edition.
Toth is quick to acknowledge that not everyone is able to afford a $385 bar of chocolate, but hopes that a hyper-premium chocolate will encourage consumers to take cacao more seriously.
With farmers paid handsomely for their raw cacao, and every batch handcrafted, “the only way to make this work economically is to charge a very high price per unit,” says Toth. “But the price is also a tool that we’ve used to create that psychological mind shift around the value of chocolate.”
“We want To’ak to be the opposite of mass production. We produce very few bars so that we can be involved in every stage of production: how the beans are harvested, how they’re handled before they’re roasted, how they’re packaged. ”
Packaging is something To’ak takes seriously. Each bar is presented in a handcrafted wooden box of Spanish Elm, the individual bar number engraved on the case. The box includes proprietary tasting utensils and a 116-page booklet that tells the story of its provenance, and offers a guide to tasting dark chocolate.
To’ak are also pushing flavour boundaries with their barrel-aged bars, using oak barrels that once held anything from cognac to Islay single malt.
Thanks to its high fat content, “the chocolate pulls all of the aromas out of the barrel,” enthuses Toth. “It’s so subtle but the peat and salty sea air of Laphroaig is all there, superimposed on this silky chocolate. It’s alchemy.”
To’ak is available at selected merchants in the UK, USA and China, or online.