How To’Ak Is Revolutionising Your Favourite Indulgence

It’s the luxury chocolate that gastronomers love, but how are #brandtotrust To’ak chocolate ensuring their cacao farming works with the environment? Co-Founder Jerry Toth shares all…

TELL US A BIT ABOUT HOW YOU GOT INTO THE FOOD INDUSTRY?

In 2007, I was living in Ecuador and co-founded the rainforest conservation foundation Third Millennium Alliance. Our flagship project was creating the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, which protects 1,400 acres of tropical forest in coastal Ecuador. We found groves of semi-wild cacao growing in this forest and started making chocolate with it in our off-the-grid house in the middle of the forest. The house didn’t have electricity, so we made chocolate by hand—extremely low-tech at first. Around this time I also started developing an organic fruit tree farm in two hectares of land surrounding our house. In total, I planted over 50 different species of tropical fruit trees, with a special focus on cacao trees, which I planted in the shade of the other trees. Once these cacao trees started to produce fruit, I harvested the cacao and started making chocolate with it—from cacao trees that I raised myself from seed. At this point I was hooked.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START TO’AK?

At first I never gave any thought to commercializing the chocolate—it was just something we made for ourselves and for the other people who came to work with us in our forest, like biology students and researchers and permaculture interns, etc. And yet, everyone who tasted this chocolate was powerfully affected by it, not just because of how it tasted, but also because they had taken part of the process itself. Making your own chocolate became something of a rite of passage for everyone who came to work in our forest preserve, and the experience of finally eating chocolate (that you have made with your own hands, from tree to final product) was almost a quasi-religious experience. So the idea emerged to take this to another level.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE NOTION OF TERROIR TO YOUR BRAND?

I would say that terroir is central to the way we make chocolate. Terroir is not just a concept to us, it is one of the defining features of our entire approach to making chocolate. We take great pride in being “tree-to-bar” chocolate makers. There are many good chocolate makers in places like Europe and North America who are forced to import cacao beans from a distant land. We live and work in Ecuador, which is the native origin of the cacao tree, and we have a direct and intimate relationship with the cacao trees we harvest from and the land on which they are grown. The land is the reason why we make chocolate—it’s how I got into this in the first place. It’s very important for us to celebrate the land that our cacao is grown on, and one of the best ways to do this is to highlight the unique flavor and aroma characteristics that particular valley instills in the final product.

HOW DO YOU FARM YOUR CACAO?

Cacao is a tree. You can raise a cacao tree from seed or you can graft it (we do both). It requires a lot of shade when the tree is young, and is tolerant of shade it’s entire life, which is why conservationists (like me) often promote cacao as a forest-friendly crop, as opposed to less sustainable land-uses like cattle ranching. You can also interplant cacao trees with lots of other species of trees, such as fruit trees and native hardwoods, so it lends itself very well to a polyculture, as opposed to a less dynamic monoculture. Pruning is very important, fertilizer is not necessary but certainly increases production, and irrigation can be very helpful but is also not necessary, as long as you adroitly manage shade and sunlight and effectively use mulch. Another great thing about cacao trees is that they are very easy to grow organically. As long as you properly prune and manage your trees, there is really no reason to ever use pesticides or fungicides—and we never do. There’s really just no need to.

HOW DO YOU WORK WITH THE SURROUNDING ENVIRONMENT?

Young cacao trees grow best when they’re planted in the shade of other trees or shade-producing plants like banana or papaya. In general, the most biodiverse the surroundings are, the more healthy the trees will be, in terms of natural soil fertility. Micro-climate is also important. Cacao trees do well on the lower parts of hillsides where there is good sub-surface water flow. And the most forested the surrounding area is (as well as the cacao plantation itself), the more effectively the land will store water.

IF YOU HAD TO CHOOSE A FAVOURITE BOX WHICH WOULD IT BE?

As in, my favorite To’ak edition? That’s very hard to say. On any given day, any of our bars could be my favorite. Literally, every day I have a different favorite—there is no single bar that is always my favorite. I have a special place in my heart for our Cognac-aged edition and our Islay Single Malt aged edition, but I’m also just as fascinated by our Andean Alder edition, and all of our harvest editions have dominated my heart on certain days, and also there are days when our more adventurous editions—like our Kampot aged or Palo Santo aged—are my favorite.. Most recently I’ve been most in love with our Duality Blend, which purely from a chocolate perspective may be (in my opinion) our finest achievement. But it really always does change—I’m not just saying this. It’s something Carl [Schwezer, co-founded] and I have both noticed—it’s impossible to pick a favorite.

 

WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE TO STARTING THE BRAND?

All of it. Everything from product development to marketing to logistics to sales to accounting. Product development is by far my favorite aspect of building a brand, so I consider that a very fun challenge. To be honest, I don’t consider myself much a businessman, so all of the “business-y” sides of our work are much less fun to me, and therefore they seem harder. Most any business has its sexy side and its unsexy side. Not surprisingly, I prefer the sexy side, though I acknowledge that the unsexy side is just as important (but not as fun).

WHAT HAS BEEN THE BEST WOW MOMENT FOR THE BRAND?

For me, I think it was the moment we received the results from the DNA analysis of the cacao trees in Piedra de Plata, and found out that some of them are 100% pure Nacional. That was a game-changer for us. There were also a few viral moments in the media, which translated into a flood of sales, which was also fun to watch. It’s exciting when something you’ve created is received well by people.  

WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO PAIR WITH THE CHOCOLATE?

Wine & Spirits: A wide range of whiskies, well-aged cognac, and sweet fortified wines like Port and Pedro Ximénez Sherry are our favorites. One rum in particular works very well (Ron Zacapa 23), some añejo tequilas can work (especially Casamigos), and we’ve even had success with absinthe and green chartreuse. Contrary to popular belief, red wine is a much trickier pairing partner with dark chocolate; the tannins in red wine tend to clash with the tannins in dark chocolate, although exceptions can be found. Some white wines can be made to work, although sweet dessert wines like Sauternes and Muscat work far better. Likewise, a sweeter sparkling wine like Moscato d’Asti will work better than dry champagne.

Cheese with Chocolate: When pairing with cheese, the fat of the cheese tends to absorb and neutralize the bitterness of the dark chocolate, and often brings out the latent nuttiness of both chocolate and cheese in an unusually beautiful way. Some of our favorites include a wide range of brie cheeses (eg. Brillat-Savarin), alpine cheeses (eg. Comté, Gruyère and Beaufort), Pyrenees sheep milk cheese (eg. P’tit Basque and Brebis), Manchego, and mature Gouda.

 

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