By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – Suzanne Forman has always been a chocolate lover.
But her relationship with the confection changed when she took a trip to a cacao farm in Belize 10 years ago and learned about bean-to-bar chocolate.
Forman has now founded Tangle Chocolate, premium, ethical chocolate which she produces – bean-to-bar — at her home in Northampton.
“Bean-to-bar chocolate means that the maker started with cacao beans, did all of the roasting and refining in house, and ended up with the finished chocolate. That describes Tangle Chocolate,” Forman said. “Very large companies technically can be bean-to-bar chocolate makers too, but the term is generally used to describe small chocolate makers like us.”
Named for the wild, vine-like vegetation that covers the Amazon rain forest, Forman’s Tangle Chocolate is not only a more rich and complex chocolate than American taste buds may be used to, but it also helps support the livelihoods of Guatemalan farmers who produce ethically grown cacao beans.
The thin 9-calorie Tangle slivers, which are 70 percent cacao, have only two ingredients – the chocolate produced from permented cacao beans and some sugar.
“The beans are organic, the sugar’s organic. And that’s it,” Forman says. “I don’t add any extra cocoa butter or anything, so you’re really just tasting the chocolate.”
Tangle Chocolate is vegan and now also kosher, recently certified by the Massachusetts Kosher Commission.
“We gave a hechsher. We did a full kashering and we’re very excited about it, because it’s all organic, with very high-quality simple ingredients,” said Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, head of the SKC. “It’s all pareve. It would be a great thing after a fleischig meal.”
He added that Tangle Chocolate is just the kind of gourmet product the SKC has been seeking to include on their list of local kosher items. “It’s organic and natural. We deal with small companies and want to increase the number of kosher producers, especially the niche artisanal ones in the Connecticut River Valley.”
Tangle is available only online at tanglechocolate.com. Forman says she has no interest in selling it wholesale. “I really enjoy having contact with my actual customers. And I also get to have control over how it’s handled, how it’s stored, how fresh it is all of that stuff, which I wouldn’t if I were wholesaling it.”
Tangle Chocolate is available in various sizes, from the smallest “Act of Kindness,” a $9.90 box with one ounce of the slivers; the “Language of Love” with 2.7 ounces of the chocolate for $29.90; and the 5.4-ounce “Spirit of Generosity” for $49.90. Forman also offers Tangle hot chocolate and other goodies, that are all available in several gift sets.
Tangle Chocolate’s cost may be a bit steeper than treats in the candy aisles, but Forman says the higher cost means that the cacao farmers she purchases from in the Cahabón region of Guatemala can make a good living.
“My beans are pooled by about 64 family farms, each small. They pool their beans together so that they have enough to sell,” she explained. “That is really gratifying. I pay way more than the fair-trade price for these beans and the families have been able to do basic things, like have all their kids in school, have a budget that they can count on, buy a new piece of equipment.
“I really like this group of farmers also because they recognize and respect the labor of women that are involved, and that’s not always the case,” she added. “So, some women are on the board. Some have even started a little side business making some things with Guatemalan fabric, so that they are really opening up possibilities, for their kids as well. The kids are able to stay on the farm now or have the choice of whether or not they’re going to stay, which is a real problem with such poverty — kids leave. If people can’t make a living growing cacao, they’re not going to do it.”
Forman regularly receives bags of the fermented cacao beans, sent to her from farmers. Forman roasts the beans straight from the bag, then winnows them – taking the thin outer husk off. She grinds the leftover pieces for several days in a stone grinding machine. She then tempers the chocolate and forms it into her delicate slivers.
“The chocolate is very pure. The cacao beans are amazing. Cacao is a fruit…It has all of these flavors when it’s not adulterated and diluted. To me it’s very fruity. It has some citrus…some kind of cherry notes.
“It’s like wine – it has terroir, and depending on elevation, rainfall, the soil, and how the beans are fermented, the flavor can vary from year to year a little bit. So, in small companies like mine, there might be a variation in batches of chocolate, or you know, from harvest to harvest. And I love that. That’s what I celebrate.”
Forman says that she is basically producing Tangle Chocolate all of the time.
“Something is always in some stage of being produced. The batches that I make are very small. I make about five pounds at a time. I also do all the packaging myself.”
A body-mind therapist for several years, Forman’s foray into the world of chocolate after her first trip to Belize, resulted in Boho Chocolate, which she and partner Charlie Burke founded. A year and a half ago they “parted ways” and Forman began to build Tangle Chocolate.
“It took a long time, getting my formulas down, getting the trademarks going, getting labels and the packaging going, all of that stuff was time consuming,” she said.
But to Forman, it’s a labor of love – a love of chocolate and a love for tikkun olam – repairing the world.
“It can be almost overwhelming to find a little area to help make the world better. I mean, we’re in a mess right now,” Forman said. “But chocolate is something that so many people already love; it brings so much joy to so many people already that it seemed like just a really natural, joyful place to do my little part.”
Main Photo: Suzanne Forman with some of the fermented cacao beans she uses in her Tangle Chocolate.