By Emily Shesh
Chocolate is a wonder-food on many levels. Most would agree that good chocolate is one of the most sublime confections available on our fair planet. But many aren’t aware of the health benefits: The cacao bean, chocolate’s soul and foundation, is the highest anti-oxidant food source we know of; It’s got higher levels of magnesium, a mineral essential for heart, bone and muscle health, than just about any other food; It’s loaded with Phenylethylamine, the compound released by our brains when we’re in love, as well as anandamide, which causes the sensation of bliss, and all kinds of other components that are scientifically proven to make you feel really good.
Daniel Sklaar, founder of Brooklyn’s own Williamsburg-based Fine & Raw Chocolate, embarked on a mission three years ago to create a new kind of chocolate, focusing on combining a few pure, organic, sustainably-grown ingredients and preparing them with a raw production technique that would retain and celebrate cacao’s complex flavors, nutrients and vitality. Most who have tried Fine & Raw’s chocolate would agree that his mission has been a success.
Daniel has traveled a winding path seemingly destined for chocolate if not always intended on it. A native of South Africa, Daniel came to New York in 2003 after winning the Greencard Lottery “for adventure and kicks in the guise of the financial industry”. But he says his love of chocolate began at an early age when he quite literally “fell into the chocolate pot”. Although that first chocolate pot was a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, a delicacy of a rather different standard than that of the chocolate he produces today, the love has never faded.
After leaving finance to indulge his passions in the kitchen, Sklaar found himself trying to decide whether to continue his work as a raw food chef in the high desert of Arizona, or to start his own chocolate business. He chose the latter, returning to Brooklyn to pursue his dream of creating a chocolate that was both healthful and spectacularly flavorful.
The path to realizing that dream was full of adventures, one of the first of which was finding the highest-quality fair-trade, organic cacao grown using sustainable practices. He found his source in a co-op of small-scale Ecuadorean farmers who grow intensely flavorful heirloom varieties of cacao which promote bio-diversity within the rainforest ecosystem in which they’re grown, and whose growing practices maintain the rainforest’s natural canopies which provide the shade the cacao needs to thrive.
Once he’d secured a source for cacao that met his exceedingly high standards, he focused on perfecting a production technique. Traditional higher-heat chocolate-making approaches cause many of the delicate oils to become transfatty, destroy most of the natural enzymes and up to 80% of cacao’s natural vitamins and minerals, and eliminate the flavanols which deliver the natural bitter flavor notes present in cacao. Daniel wanted to take a purer approach, so he focused on perfecting a raw production technique that would preserve the cacao’s natural nutrients and flavors.
Much experimention in his Williamsburg loft led Daniel to develop a low-heat approach combining the Ecuadorean cacao with raw blue agave nectar from the Mexican high desert, virgin cold-pressed coconut oil, and Himalayan sea salt, all sourced through networks that supply the highest-quality organic, sustainably-produced, raw and wild ingredients.
After sharing his creation with friends and foodies like his neighbors at Whisk and Ladle, an underground supper club, he brought his truffles down the block to Bedford Cheese Shop, which soon become his first account.
Daniel and Georgie Castle, a native New Zealander, chef, and Fine & Raw’s chief Oompa Loompa (their term – the Fine & Raw culture eschews more traditional job titles), shared three of their decadent delights with me on my visit while filling me in on what makes their raw chocolate so fine.
Their signature Bonbon bar was one of the samples of that fine afternoon that I shall soon not forget. The virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil sweetens the raw chocolate beautifully, adding a subtle and delightfully surprising flavor to what is already a premium melt-in-your-mouth treat.
We also sampled the Crystal Sea Salt bar. The Himalayan sea salt used in the bar is hand-mined from ancient sea beds high in the mountains, and according to Daniel and Georgie, it contains all the minerals and trace elements of which the human body is comprised. It’s blended with a very small number of other ingredients and although it was hard to pick, I’d have to say it was my personal favorite of the day.
Finally, we tried a ginger bar that’s currently in development. The ginger managed to be subtle and sharp at the same time, adding a bright note that highlighted the other flavors in a truly unique way. (You’re going to want to keep an eye out for the unveiling of this one!)
When asked about their personal favorites Daniel and Georgie could only say that they go through phases and have a hard time choosing just one, but never tire of their chocolates (and believe me, they’ve tried!) They keep things fresh by continually exploring new ingredients and flavor combinations, meaning that innovation and experimentation are always at the forefront at Fine & Raw. They regularly produce limited runs of bars such as a chili inspired chocolate that they created in support of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Chile Fiesta, and limited-edition collections of chocolates around the holidays. Each of these also gets a specially designed wrapper created by one of Daniel’s many artist friends in the Brooklyn community.
One thing Daniel loves about Fine & Raw, aside from the chocolate itself, is that his product is a treat. The premium ingredients and small-batch production approach means that the bars are not cheap (most cost $8.50). The high price point means that his costumers make a conscious choice to select his products for their highest-quality organic and sustainably-produced ingredients, and for the health benefits and beautifully complex flavor profiles that come with the raw production technique.
Since landing that first account at Bedford Cheese Shop a few years ago, word has spread about Fine & Raw. In addition to Bedford Cheese Shop, you can now find their bars in Brooklyn at Blue Apron Fine Foods,Urban Rustic, Spuyten Duyvil Grocery, Radish, Marlow & Sons, Grab Specialty Foods, The Park Slope Food Co-op (members in good standing only, of course), and most weekends at The Brooklyn Flea. For a list of additional locations beyond Brooklyn, or to buy online, see their website.