Interview and article written by Lea Phillips, copywriter and communications specialist – passionate about local, sustainable, delicious food! www.leaphillips.com.
“Chocolate is a vehicle for my expression, my voice, my hopes, my love of people, community and health”, says Michael Sacco, founder of the Chocosol Learning Community and Social Enterprise. Visionary, inventor, actionist and steward of indigenous knowledge – he is truly inspirational.
In 2003, Michael founded Chocosol with a group of innovative and dynamic individuals in Toronto and Mexico. The trans-local relationship between the growers in Mexico and artisanal chocolate makers here in Toronto is a shining example of true horizontal trade. The resulting chocolate is an expression of beauty – food for the body, mind and soil. As a community, Chocosol believes that sustainable foods should be fun to make, pleasurable, and an outlet for creativity.
Sacco learned to make chocolate in a small village near Oaxaca, Mexico. Working alongside indigenous farmers and artisanal chocolate makers, he learned ancient, time-honoured traditions. The dark, exotic cacao bean was an integral part of ancient Oaxacan culture – the tradition continues today. This knowledge he now stewards and passes on to others, “People ask me if I’m a chocolatier – I’m not creating chocolate, I’m stewarding that knowledge, regenerating that knowledge. Because it was here long before me and it will be here long after me.”
As a born actionist, he believes that ordinary people can do the extraordinary – the point is to just start doing it. The goal being “to really work with civil societies, communities and lead by example. Always bringing the means and the ends together, the living, the researching, the working, and take the busyness out of life. Find a way to make living and learning a more holistic expression of the art of living and dying with dignity”.
Mentored by his “Mexican family”, Michael was inspired to create Chocosol. The chocolate created from the cacao bean is a symbol embodying his philosophy about life – the belief in dignified work for all. In his words, “Dignity is the ability to say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, as well as have a vehicle for your creativity.”
There are at least twenty varieties of the cacao bean, each with a distinct flavour. The varieties can be tasted and classified – much like wine. As a chocolate sommelier, Michael understands the complexities of the cacao bean and the type of chocolate food to create from each variety. The nuances of the bean are influenced by many factors including the variety, soil, climate and fermentation techniques.
Chocosol creates “eating and drinking chocolate” – not dessert. The cacao bean is abundantly nutritious, high in protein and one of the richest sources of antioxidants of any known food. The five flavours of chocolate bars available are: Sinfully Raw Vanilla, Hemp Gold, Darkness, Coconut and Five Chili Bullet. Each flavour is uniquely delicious for its carefully chosen cacao variety and additional ingredients, including organic amaranth, vanilla, hemp, coconut, chile and agave nectar. My personal favourite is the Five Chili Bullet bar – as it is introduced to the palate it begins with a rich, dark, woodsy cacao flavour, followed by a burst of spicy peppery fire, which quickly and surprisingly diminishes to finish with a subtle sweetness.
Integral to the taste and nutrition of the chocolate are the traditional methods used in its creation. Beginning in Mexico, the cacao beans are grown organically on small two- to three-hectare plots. Once harvested, the cacao gets broken, fermented for 7 to 8 days, washed, sun-dried, and stored in a series of community depots. From there, Michael works directly with the growers, ensuring a fair price, then ships to Toronto with a minimal carbon footprint.
The Cacao Loft, Chocosol’s Toronto kitchen, is filled with the sights, sounds and aromas of artisanal chocolate making. Upon entering The Cacao Loft, I immediately felt a strong sense of community, conviviality and hospitality. This was particularly demonstrated by a young chocolista, Ilyan, who showed me through the kitchen, discussing the chocolate-making process, and giving me samples of his latest creations. Ilyan then set up several beautiful cacao and chocolate “sets” so I could photograph the essence of this beautiful food.
Unlike, European-style chocolate making, Chocosol does not roast the cacao beans at high temperatures, which eliminates many of the nutrients. Instead, the cacao is solar roasted and ground using a stone grinder. The slow, traditional process heats the beans only enough to activate the oils – 85% of the chocolate is considered raw food. After becoming tired of hand grinding, Michael invented a bicycle grinder, which is now used for demonstrations and for pre-processing ingredients such as vanilla. “We make chocolate that is good for the mind, body and soil – retaining the power of the cacao as food”.
Chocosol is committed to being as environmentally friendly as possible. The use of energy is minimized through solar and pedal power as well as the use of a 220 current. Much of the work is done manually and by a using pedal-powered grinder – invented by Michael. The Cacao Loft now has a green roof, providing fresh ingredients for the kitchen and significantly reducing energy costs. Over 70% of the material in the kitchen was upcycled – found items restored to give them new life. A new 3500-square-foot facility is currently in the works, which will be state-of-the-art in terms of energy efficiency.
Chocosol has expanded its offerings to include coffee and tortillas – my favourite Saturday morning breakfast at the Brick Works Farmers Market. The fair trade coffee is imported by Chocosol, then roasted by the Classic Roasting Company in Concord. The roasting takes place in an all-stainless steel plant that recycles the heat from its roasters to increase energy efficiency – maximizing flavour through a low-emission process.
Michael’s work continues through The Fresh Tortilla Project where he embraces the idea of global food produced locally. Corn tortillas are made using locally grown heirloom corn and traditional methods handed down through indigenous people in Mexico. The corn takes two days to prepare – one day to boil and a second day to grind using a stone grinder. The tortillas are then prepared fresh at farmers markets.
At Trent University, where Michael is a PhD candidate in Indigenous Studies, he is heading up The Milpa Project. The goal of the project is to demonstrate how small plots of land (milpa) can produce sustainable agriculture. Traditionally Milpa plots grow corn, squash and beans – at Trent that will be expanded to include a broader polyculture. The project provides a model for sustainable agriculture that can be readily duplicated.
Chocosol chocolate, coffee and tortillas are available at the Cacao Loft, located at 6 St. Joseph St. – bring your own container and receive 10% more chocolate for the same price. The same applies when purchasing at any of the following farmer’s markets: Apple Tree, Brick Works, Sorauren, Dufferin Grove, Riverdale and Wychwood Barns. Several shops and cafes also carry the chocolate, visit www.chocosoltraders.com for more information.
As a role model for all of us, Michael embodies true actionism while maintaining a strong sense of fun. My favourite quote from our conversation, “the greatest need now is to reconnect to the soil and food is a beautiful bridge. It gets you right into the soil”.