Image courtesy of Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi talks about chocolate as a passport to the world.

“I grew up thinking chocolate was just one flavour, one experience,” says the Indian American journalist and educator. “Then you start to see.”

How she sees chocolate now is not just as confectionary, but as a commodity, she says. Subsistence farmers around the world depend on it to survive, and as biodiversity suffers so too does cacao.

“I feel that it’s very important that if we’re going to enjoy it then we need to understand, firstly, that it is a crop,” says Sethi, who is in Dublin for a public lecture on 14 May.

The talk, “Chocolate and Agrobiodiversityis set to offer an education in bean-to-bar production, with a few tasters thrown in.

Behind the Food

Anke Klitzing spotted Sethi’s book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, on the shelves of the library of Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) on Cathal Brugha Street.

Klitzing, an assistant lecturer in culinary arts at DIT, took to Instagram. She tagged Sethi in a post. Sethi offered to come over and do a free public talk.

A precursor to late May’s Dublin Gastronomy Symposium – where dozens of culinary researchers and chefs are due to descend upon DIT Cathal Brugha Street for a series of lectures – Sethi’s talk ties in with the school’s behind-the-food ethos.

“It’s not just food preparation. It’s everything that’s behind it, the politics, the history,” says Klitzing.

“And it’s not something that people are necessarily that aware of, this idea that we’re losing biodiversity in our fields means that we lose our diversity of taste,” says Klitzing, who is currently studying for a PhD in food literature.

In 2017, Sethi launched The Slow Melt, a nine-episode podcast about all things chocolate.

It pulls together voices from across the confection spectrum – farmers, researchers, scientists, historians, chocolatiers – and explores the minutiae of chocolate. From romantic connotations, to efforts to preserve cacao varieties, to the politics behind cacao production.

Episode four tackles the issue of cheap cocoa production, exploring the effects this practice has on subsistence farmers.

In February 2017, there was a 33 percent drop in the price of cocoa, following a bumper crop season in the Ivory Coast, where more than 40 percent of cacao is grown.

As a result of this surplus, suppliers began to default on contracts once prices dropped, leaving subsistence farmers in the Ivory Coast, who are already surviving on low pay, out of pocket as sacks of cocoa piled up along Abidjan port.

Episode six focuses on efforts to save certain varieties of cacao, including a project in the Dominican Republic to preserve a 1,000-acre bird sanctuary by cultivating cacao.

Biodiversity, or a lack thereof, provides the material for Sethi’s upcoming talk. It’s important that we recognise that, like coffee, wine and beer, environmental factors have a huge impact upon cocoa production, she says.

Chocolate also has “a terroir”, says Sethi. It’s far more complex than most people realise.

“My goal is simply to encourage people to not just vote with their dollars but to experience, through the mouth, how pleasurable this can be beyond that cheap confection,” says Sethi.

She hopes Dubliners bear this in mind, following her talk, for which she is teaming up with Kelli and Patrick Marjolet, co-founders of Glasnevin-based Proper Chocolate.

“Hopefully next time they make a purchase that curiosity will encourage them to make different purchases or to ask their chocolate company, whoever they buy from, where they’re sourcing, how they’re sourcing,” she says.

“Place matters, people matter, flavour matters, that’s the biggest take-away,” says Sethi. “We can change our food system by how we eat. We shape it with every meal.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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