2020 – The Year That Almost Wasn’t
2020 started out like many of the past five or so with me looking forward to traveling to Amsterdam for Chocoa in February. But first on the travel agenda: A trip to Tokyo as a guest of Barry Callebaut as the only foreign journalist at the launch of a wide range of products made with Ruby ahead of Valentine’s Day. I wrote about that trip in this article:
I left on the 17th of February and spent about a week in Amsterdam to attend Chocoa (story linked to below) which has grown to be one of the premier events on the European chocolate calendar – with the other major event in my calendar being the Salon du Chocolat in Paris in October/November. While at Chocoa I met with the organizers of the major chocolate festivals in Brasil about working with them to increase international engagement and so a trip to São Paulo was organized for immediately after my return from Europe. I love the travel and – more importantly – this meant an interesting and lucrative consulting engagement for the rest of 2020 and, if all went well, for years to come. (Heavy foreshadowing.)
After Chocoa I spent about a week on holiday in Finland (my first-ever visit), including some time in Helsinki where I visited, among many other things, an old chocolate colleague from New York, Anna Kekki, at her shop Annan Suklaatehdas. If you ever get to Helsinki, a visit to see Anna is highly recommended.
From Helsinki I flew to Lyon on my way to Voiron to visit Bonnat – the chocolate that inspired me to get into chocolate in 1994. My first-ever visit to a chocolate factory was to Bonnat in 1998 and this was my first return visit in almost 22 years.
From Voiron I took a local train to Lyon where I caught a train to Brussels. I was there for a consulting engagement and this is where the reality of COVID-19 first struck. Rather than getting together with a group of colleagues in a conference room in a building on the client’s campus, the work was done remotely via Zoom with my in my hotel room. This resulted in staying in central Brussels rather than in a suburb and I took advantage of the location and the extra time I had. Despite the alarming news starting to come in from around the world about the ’ronavirus streets, bars, and restaurants were crowded and no one was wearing masks. However, it was already impossible to purchase hand sanitizer.
I left Brussels and stopped in Rotterdam on my way to Schipol to visit Ewald Rietberg in the workshop of Heinde & Verre.
As I was about to board my flight back to NY JFK the first US/European travel ban was announced. Upon arrival at JFK I was asked where I had visited on the trip (Netherlands, Finland, France, and Belgium) and despite the itinerary I was waved through immigration and customs with no more than the usual formalities.
I was back in NY for about 36 hours before getting on the plane to São Paulo. All of my posts for that trip are over at the Instagram feed @DiscoverChoc.
The final day of the festival was canceled because of coronavirus fears. I took advantage of that schedule change to visit with Zelia Frangioni, the founder of Chocolátras Online and the Prémio Bean-to-Bar Brasil. The airport in São Paulo was a mess with hordes of people crammed at the gates looking to catch flights home. I arrived at NY JFK about 5am and this time I was ushered into a room where my temperature was taken and I was given stern instructions about whom to notify if I developed any symptoms and advice to start sheltering in place – the polite form for quarantine? – the moment I got back to my apartment. Good advice as, at that point, the hot spot in the mid-Atlantic region was a town immediately adjacent to where I was living.
I left NY for Amsterdam and Chocoa on February 17th and returned to NY from Brasil on March 16th, a month and a lifetime later. Within a week it became clear that all of the work and travel in my calendar for the balance of 2020 was likely going to be canceled – including all the work in Brasil I was counting on and looking forward to. And so, like many people and businesses, I was forced to re-think not just my 2020 business prospects but my entire life.
This has examination led to my launching TheChocolateWire back in May. In September I was informed that I had to move TheChocolateLife off the Maven platform and so much of October, November, and December was spent in pursuit of that goal.
Some of My Top Chocolate Finds in 2020
It’s always hard for me to pick a short list every year, but it was made a little easier this year because of the relatively limited amount of travel I did and a decision to limit my selections to products I know can be purchased in the US.
- Literally everything I have tasted from Heinde & Verre (Rotterdam). My article on them is linked to above and there is a link to my YouTube interview with them below.
- The 62% dark chocolate bar with Dates and Fennel from Mirzam. I love both dates and fennel – but not necessarily at the same time – so this was an wonderfully surprising combination. And – the texture is delightful.
- Any of the inclusion/flavored bars from Arcelia Gallardo’s Mission Chocolate in Brasil. While Mission does a good job at straight dark chocolate, IMO it’s in the deft mixture of local ingredients that made their work stand out for me.
- The 75% 2018 Harvest Galapagos from To'ak. The first chocolate I have tasted made from beans grown in the Galapagos and really quite intriguing from the aroma to the flavors to the texture and melt. At $25, it’s the most accessible bar from To'ak both in terms of price and flavor profile.
- Heinde & Verre, Mirzam, and Mission are available through Bar And Cocoa along with more than 50 other makers. To'ak is available from their website and at retail locations around the world.
2021 – The Year to Come
I was asked during an interview with Carl Schweizer and James Le Compte of To'ak in mid-December what I thought 2021 might have in store for craft and specialty chocolate. I had not given it much conscious thought up to that moment but the question crystallized – or as Juanita Marquez said in Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash – “condense[d] fact from the vapor of nuance,” in the following response:
2020 caused everyone in the craft/specialty chocolate businesses to step back and assess how to move forward. A surprisingly small number shuttered. Many of the rest not only survived, but thrived. They did this, in no small part, by finding new ways to engage with and serve existing customers and to attract new customers by creating new products and providing new services.
The resilience and robustness of this response is, I think, a strong foundation upon which 2021 is being built. I also think it represents a fundamental – and much needed – examination of some core assumptions that will lead to long-term expansion of the consumers that craft/specialty chocolate makers reach.
Please add your thoughts in the comments below: What were your experiences (good and bad) of 2020? You favorite (and least-favorite) chocolates? What are you looking forward to in 2021?
Main story image: Crawford Jolly via Unsplash