Standing over Tammy MacDonald’s marble counter covered with cooling tempered chocolate, she describes the horrific circumstances of child labour practices in West Africa.
The Morinville-based chocolatier, owner of Au Chocolat, showed her repugnance at what she describes as global choclatiers' disregard for human welfare and unhealthy, unsustainable production practices.
“This is not an ethical industry ... . They have created a generic fruit [cocoa bean] that is very big. Most comes from the Ivory Coast where they grow big cocoa trees. They’ve created this fruit that is large, but lacks originality. It’s not very flavourful. And the original cocoa trees are bring destroyed. They get masses of cacao, add a whole lot of sugar, put palm oil in it, and remove a lot of the cocoa butter and sell it in different forms. They make more money that way,” said MacDonald.
After watching a documentary, the craft chocolatier was shocked and outraged to discover child labour, kidnappings, slavery, trafficking, and other abuses exist on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, the world’s single largest producer of cocoa pods. The West African countries of the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon harvest between 60 to 70 per cent of global cacao production.
“Some children are abducted from villages or sold by parents. Children are small. They can easily climb trees and pick the fruit,” she explained.
According to online WorldAtlas, the chocolate industry is valued at $103 billion. The big drivers are global chocolatiers. Although high-quality chocolates make up only a small portion of the financial pool, the high-quality segment has gained inroads through small businesses such as Au Chocolat which have demanded traceability and transparency. Some individuals may hesitate to spend $2 per chocolate, but there are plenty of educated consumers eager to support fair-minded crafters who compete against the industrial giants.
MacDonald is more than a passionate artisanal chocolate-maker eager to develop new recipes and share them with clients. She is determined to leave a legacy of ethical standards and clean health.
Discovering cacao beans
Although MacDonald now lives in Morinville, she is a descendant of St. Albert’s McMillan-Chevigney families. She graduated from St. Albert Catholic High School in 1984. Initially, she looked at hairdressing as a career, but switched to naturopathic practices.
When her young daughter developed cancer, the family founded the well-established Hair Massacure and successfully raised $14 million. But at one point, while running the organization, MacDonald had a nervous breakdown.
“I saw so many children pass away. There were so many triggers. I never took breaks. I was all in. At the suggestion of my son-in-law, we took the kids to Hawaii and I ended up staying for three months. I stayed with an older lady who broke her wrists. I offered to do her gardening so she could sell at the market,” MacDonald said.
A self-described chocoholic, she is the first to laugh and say chocolate is in her DNA.
“When I was in Hawaii, and I saw the cacao trees, they were so beautiful. I fell in love with them, and I appreciated it even more because I enjoy chocolate so much. I came back so unsettled. I was so sad. I was just interested in chocolate making. It literally consumed me. I was hungry for more knowledge about it.”
She enrolled in Vancouver’s École Chocolat and studied under master chocolatier Rachel McKinley, later a judge on the Purdy-sponsored reality show, The Great Chocolate Showdown. In addition, the Morinville resident was invited to attend Montreal’s Chocolate Academy, a Callebaut affiliate. There she studied under Philippe Vancayseele, master chocolatier and head chef.
For MacDonald, creating original chocolates was more than a distraction or a job. It became a pleasure, an everyday ritual, a state of mind and a way of being. After dabbling as a chocolatier for four years, she opened the small-batch Au Chocolat on Oct. 1, 2019. Using only her original recipes, the business grew steadily. Between November and Christmas of this year, she will have packaged 5,500 handmade bonbons — working seven days a week, 12 hours per day.
“Chocolate is the most complicated food on Earth. I love it because it is complicated. There’s such opportunity for error and I love the challenges. Chocolate is a feel-good food. It makes people happy. It increases endorphins and there’s health components. That's why I love my customers. They’re happy, and chocolatiers are basically happy people.”
MacDonald converted several rooms in her home to kitchens and storage areas that contain equipment and gunny sacks full of direct-trade cacao beans and cacao butter. Working with Mexican Arabica Bean Company, she uses only organic and ethically-sourced products imported from Peru, Honduras, Papua New Guinea, Columbia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic.
“Direct trade is better than fair trade. You deal directly with the producer, and they receive a livable wage. They can preserve their terroir — that is, working hard to preserve the flavour of the country and type of tree the beans grow on.”
She notes that cocoa beans in every region of the world exude a different flavour. As an example, she offers a bite out of Mexican bean. It tastes crunchy and very earthy. Beans sourced from Honduras instead taste nutty, whereas Vietnam’s product is fruity.
Making giant batches of mediocre chocolate is one thing. Making small batches of premium confectionary is quite another. The first step in chocolate making is dropping the beans into a grinder that separates the shell from the fruit. At this point cacao beans look like dried, deflated footballs.
Once the bean pods are ground into pieces, they are placed in a winnower to separate husk granules from fruit granules. The next step is making a chocolate paste. To make the paste, winnowed fruit is mixed with sugar and dropped in a mélanger — a machine that mixes and grinds the beans for up to three days.
“It’s mixed for three days until it reaches the profile and texture I like. It has to be velvety and smooth.”
The next step is tempering the chocolate at 97 F. Cocoa butter is unstable but can be stabilized by tempering. Chocolate not properly tempered looks spotty, chalky, and brittle.
“In tempering you heat the paste with lots of stirring and cool it quickly. Heating changes the structure of fat crystals so you’re able to work with it. The crystals and the fat line up with light. That’s why you see shiny chocolate.”
Once MacDonald places the tempered chocolate in molds, the individual bars or confections need to harden before she fills them with a ganache and puts a bottom on each. Up to five or six time-consuming steps are required to complete each chocolate.
Some of Au Chocolat’s distinctive flavours include salted caramel, peanut butter ruby, Mexican chili, coffee crunch, candy cane, rum raison, aloha raspberry, maple rum, root beer, jalapeño, and peanut fig.
When it comes time to bite into a high-quality chocolate, MacDonald has one suggestion.
“Eat it slow at room temperature. Don’t gulp it down. Appreciate the flavours and what it tastes like.”