UW News

February 10, 2012

‘Dr. Chocolate seeks worlds best chocolate

News and Information

Kristy Leissle chronicles her chocolate and travel adventures on her blog “Mostly About Chocolate.”

There are those who claim addictions or obsessions to chocolate, and then there are those who eat it for breakfast, get a doctorate in it and create inventories of their chocolate stash just to keep track of it all.

That would be “Dr. Chocolate,” a UW lecturer in interdisciplinary arts who’s on a worldwide quest for the best chocolate. She, and yes she is a ‘she – more on the chocolate-gender stereotype later – has eaten chocolate on every continent, though on Antarctica she had to bring her own.

Kristy Leissle making chocolate lollipops at the Callebaut Academy.

Kristy Leissle making chocolate lollipops at the Callebaut Academy.Kristy Leissle

Kristy Leissle, named Dr. Chocolate by friends and people in the chocolate industry, studies the global market for chocolate. She teaches “Chocolate: A Global Inquiry” for freshmen at the University of Washington Bothell. It touches on history, economics, literature and culture and, she said, chocolate is the perfect food to teach such a multidisciplinary inquiry.

Leissle, 37, is a “well-practiced” chocolate-eater. “Its part of my life. I eat chocolate every day and usually several times a day.” She also runs, sails, climbs and scuba dives, when not teaching or writing.

Lets try not to be too jealous, OK?

While at her home in Ballard, nibbling on some disc-like pastilles by Callebaut, she says that she starts her days with chocolate melted into her oatmeal and acknowledged that her “lifelong obsession” with chocolate began early. “My grandpa would feed me chocolate as a baby to keep me quiet,” she said.

Chocolate-obsessed, but not a chocolate snob, Leissle will eat all chocolate. Though she eats mostly dark, she will make “sandwiches” out of dark, milk and white chocolate bars. Shes still tasting the options for the “worlds best” bar. But one of her favorites is the San Francisco maker Dandelion, and she noted on her “Mostly About Chocolate” blog that she brought a Dandelion bar to eat during a trip to Antarctica a couple of months ago.

Kristy Leissle in Antarctica with a bar of Dandelion Chocolate.

Kristy Leissle in Antarctica with a bar of Dandelion Chocolate.Kristy Leissle

Leissles scholarly pursuits of the treat began as a graduate student in the gender, women and sexuality studies department at UW. Many people assume that her interest in womens studies and chocolate has to do with the stereotype that more women than men are so-called chocoholics. But actually, Leissle used her womens studies background, rooted in investigating social injustices, to examine the inequities of the global chocolate trade.

While in graduate school in 2005, Leissle received a Bonderman Travel Fellowship that allowed her to spend a year traveling and studying cocoa-chocolate trade routes in Hawaii, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, India, South Africa, Finland and Austria. She also went to Ghana and Great Britain for her dissertation fieldwork.

From her travels Leissle has found that the farmers in West Africa – where 70 percent of cocoa beans are grown – rarely eat chocolate themselves. By her calculations, a West African farmers family would have to go hungry for a few days to save up money for a chocolate bar.

Whats more, as the chocolate industry has become more high-end, moving from the standard white, milk and dark varieties to exotic flavors, its left West African growers at a disadvantage. High-end chocolate makers play up cocoa beans coming from Madagascar, Venezuela, Ecuador and other places outside of West Africa.

“The countries that grow the most cocoa, usually West African countries, are the ones that are not celebrated by high-end chocolate makers,” she said. This is because, at least according to some chocolate connoisseurs, West African beans do not give the “fullest, most elegant flavor profiles.”

Kristy Leissle in what she says can safely be called the southernmost chocolate shop in the world, in Ushuaia, Argentina. She went there on her way to Antarctica.

Kristy Leissle in what she says can safely be called the southernmost chocolate shop in the world, in Ushuaia, Argentina. She went there on her way to Antarctica.Kristy Leissle

Leissle has a different theory. “The great rift between cocoa production and chocolate marketing at the high end has much less to do with flavor than with a racialized, politicized global perception of Africa,” she wrote in “Bittersweet: The Chocolate Show,” a catalog that accompanied a 2010 art exhibit  at Rutgers University. “Our major associations with (West Africa) are war, poverty and HIV/AIDS – not the sorts of things that make for a good chocolate sell.”

These days Leissle is most interested in the up-and-coming world of artisanal chocolates, in which makers are involved with every step, including helping cocoa farmers develop good husbandry and fermentation practices. But their most interesting work happens during the processing, when they fine-tune roasting and the “mouthfeel” to bring out the specific flavor of the beans.

The Northwest Chocolate Festival, held in October in Seattle, is the meeting spot for these makers. Leissle is the education director for the event, which last year attracted 6,000 chocolate enthusiasts and most of the two dozen artisanal chocolate makers in the U.S., the leader in artisanal chocolate.

The interest in such chocolate has been spurred by increasing interest in local, sustainable foods and healthier eating, Leissle said. Its a whole new world of chocolate, but one that looks a lot like the wine or coffee worlds. Like how some grapes can become Merlot and others a Cabernet, cocoa beans can have different flavors too.

Kristy Leissles chocolate-strewn writing desk.

Kristy Leissles chocolate-strewn writing desk.Kristy Leissle

The chocolate world has inspired chocolate tastings similar to wine tastings. They show off flavors of cocoa beans, and Leissle incorporates them into her UW class. “Chocolate is familiar to most of us, but the new wave of artisanal chocolate will be much different from what were used to,” she said.

Cocoa beans taste differently based on where they are grown. Madagascar-grown beans taste like tart citrus fruits and sour cherry, whereas Dominican Republic cocoa beans can be more bitter and acidic with a coffee tinge, and Ghana beans can have a cinnamon flavor. Some Venezuela beans hint at licorice, though Leissle says that the Venezuelan strain called Porcelana conveys “honey, cream and wildflowers, very delicate flavors.”

Artisanal chocolatiers will add some sugar, maybe vanilla and very occasionally the emulsifier soy lecithin to keep chocolates natural fat particles in solution. Artisanal chocolate gets its taste from the natural flavors of the bean, setting it apart from other high-end chocolates that are infused with, say, bacon or chilies.

And its this natural bean flavor that has Leissle traveling the world in hot pursuit of the best bar. “I want to taste the bean. The best chocolate to me is the one that allows the flavor of the cocoa bean to come through in the most vivid possible way,” she said.