A Chelsea Chocolatier Raises the Bar

Love should never be imbued with guilt. So as the holiday of mandatory romance approaches, those who veer toward a virtuous Valentine’s Day—and don’t have the bank for conflict-free diamonds—might consider a trip to the sixth floor of a lofty, light-flooded, steel-and-concrete building on West 27th Street where the small staff of Vere Chocolate turns out sweets that even an ethicist would endorse.

The gleaming facility features a 40-foot-long custom-built enrobing belt and cooling tunnel that ferries salty caramel and cacao nibs, gluten-free brownies (made with almond flour and Ronnybrook milk), and fig and fennel hearts through a chocolate waterfall on their 12-minute trip to completion. It’s the homegrown eruption of the conscientious-cocoa shift that has prodded Hershey’s, Vosges and everyone in between onto the dark, singleorigin, politically correct bean-to-bar bandwagon.

Vere (the name is derived from the Spanish word for “real”) is the brainchild of 64-year-old Kathy Moskal, who, two decades ago, helped women’s legwear graduate from lifeless socks and pantyhose to colorful cottons and opaques. (If you wear tights today, she probably designed them.) In 2003, she was inspired out of retirement when she tried—in vain—to find a chocolate suitable for a dying diabetic friend.

“Most chocolate contains things that even well people shouldn’t eat,” says Moskal, who shifted her focus from lycra content to cocoa content and began constructing batches mostly from baker’s chocolate (which lacks nuance but is also free of fake vanilla and soy lecithin). When her evangelical aspirations outgrew her Chelsea home kitchen, Moskal sought help from Chicago-based Knechtel, the world’s largest confectionary consultant, on sweetening with agave and fortifying with probiotics. “Healthy chocolate was an undiscovered food,” she says.

But the more Moskal learned, the more she realized that the nutritional fallout for the eater was just the beginning of the treat’s dark underbelly. You see, cocoa (the dried and fermented beans of the cacao tree) is one of those tropical exports produced exclusively in the Third World and consumed almost entirely in the First World. (Coffee, vanilla and bananas are other examples.) The cocoa beans that become chocolate bars savored in Brussels, Tokyo and New York all grow in that waistband of rainforests that girdles the planet between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

And, like coffee, another berry-bearing bush in the shade of the jungle, there are basically two ways to farm cacao: in a manner that helps to preserve rainforest, or in a manner that destroys it. Unfortunately, more and more of the world’s cacao is grown in what was rainforest—clear-cut tracts of land without shade that give off the dry, burning scent of ammonia fertilizer and provide little habitat for the orchids, mosses, frogs, salamanders and birds that inhabit rainforests. Moskal explains that “farmers use clearcutting to get a bigger yield.” But the practice often also means an inferior crop, more plant disease and extinction. Nor does chocolate do much good for the people who grow it: as with Starbucks lattes, very little of what is ultimately paid for the final product ever makes it to the farming community. And some three-quarters of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, where its production and sale have been implicated in funding corrupt regimes, fueling conflict and harnessing child labor.

Before she knew it, Moskal became part of the wider movement of chocolate- and candy-makers trying to make a statement. Beth Kimmerle, a chocolate historian and author of Chocolate: The Sweet History, who met Moskal at this year’s Fancy Food Show, was impressed by “how she was trying to hit on all these things”— from buying direct to eliminating artificial ingredients—”that are very happening in the world of chocolate right now.” (In a sign of both Manhattan gentrification and chocolate-eating evolution, Kimmerle was tickled to see Vere’s bite-size bars being sold at her own neighborhood corner store, Sunny and Annie’s Deli on Avenue B and Sixth.) Moskal also fits neatly into a growing food entrepreneur demographic: At a recent new wave chocolatier competition, Kimmerle noted that seven of the eight finalists were, like Moskal, women who have left previous careers to follow their edible bliss.

Today, all of Vere’s beans are grown in Ecuador and certified by the New York-based Rainforest Alliance or certified organic by Ecocert and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And rather than purchasing the precious resource as a low-value raw commodity, as most processors do, Moskal works with a facility in Guayaquil, just a few hundred miles from the farms, to roast, ferment and process the beans into cocoa liquor. (The liquor also contains organic raw cane sugar grown by members of the Maquita Cushunchic Foundation, an organization founded by an Italian priest to promote fair trade for impoverished farmers, including many women-run farms.) The Guayaquil plant uses Vere’s recipes to produce its bitesize and three-ounce bars, and also makes bars that Vere melts to use as raw material in its other handcrafted products.

This riff on fair trade—that arrangement by which eaters can ensure that food communities halfway around the world get a fair price for their product—not only means more money and jobs stay in the cocoa-growing community (although Vere’s beans are not fair-trade certified, the combination of the Rainforest Alliance’s environmental and social standards, and Moskal’s direct relations with the Maquita Foundation, covers many of the same bases), it also means less fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, since Vere’s beans don’t make the typical trip to roasters in Belgium or Switzerland before being shipped to America, and because processing in Ecuador means shipping finished bars rather than much heavier raw beans.

Vere’s attenuated chain of custody means it can trust what’s wrapped in its square ingredients-forward packaging. At a time when many food conglomerates couldn’t tell you whether melamine has inadvertently seeped into their recipes—recently, a shipment of Vere’s dairy-free chocolate was mistakenly detained by customs officials concerned about anything that may contain milk—Vere invites the public into its Chelsea facility every Friday for a free tour and tastings. “One kid on a tour spit it out and then put it back in his mouth and liked it,” says Moskal. “The flavor of real chocolate wasn’t familiar.”

The end result, according to Erika Erskine, Vere’s young Cordon Bleu-trained, Le Bernadin-recommended chocolatier who invents a new product every few months, is “you don’t have to sacrifice quality for cause. Or flavor for health.” People use a lot of sugar to cover up bad practice, explains Erskine, who also has a degree in nutrition and food studies from NYU. She and Moskal have not only sought out beans with higher levels of antioxidants—they use the floral Arriba variety considered perhaps the closest descendent of the original cacao bush discovered in the headwaters of the Amazon— but also ferment their beans for less time to preserve more of these antioxidants and the complex flavors they carry. And Vere forgoes artificial preservatives by employing a Stephan mixer—technology also used by cosmetics makers to produce face creams—to create a creamy silky ganache in a bacteria-free vacuum.

From the line of diabetic-friendly bars to the Vere Crunchy Stuff (think dark-chocolate trail mix with flavor combinations like vanilla-ginger-lime), all of Vere’s offerings contain at least 70 percent cocoa, the minimum level that has been shown to lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol and yield other health benefits, including one that’s perfect for V-Day: Cocoa contains phenylethylamine, which our brains release when we are in love, so dark chocolate is more likely to act as aphrodisiac than a box of milky truffles, no matter how gaudy the heart-shaped packaging.

And while Moskal is discouraged that more than a few of her artisanal competitors, and agribiz firms like M&M/Mars, may greenwash—”They say ‘bean-to-bar’ but they’re melters; they don’t know where their beans come from”—she admits “I’m really grateful to be in food. It’s at the nexus of all important issues right now.” Moskal hopes to eventually add other foods constructed with the same thoughtful principles. “We make chocolate, not candy,” she says. “This is something you can eat every day.”

Vere is available at health food stores like Garden of Eden, Commodities and Lifethyme; conscientious caterers like the Green Table; a growing number of wine shops (the minimally sweetened, fruity bars pair better with wine than most chocolates); and at Whole Foods Markets throughout Manhattan. Vere is open to the public every Friday from noon-6 p.m., and adds extra factory days around Valentine’s Day; 12 West 27th Street (between Broadway & 6th Ave.), 6th Floor. For more information, visit veregoods.com or call 866.410.VERE.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell