On Saturday, chocoholics flooded the Boston Center for Adult Education in Arlington for the first New England Chocolate Festival. Visitors entered to explore a makeshift chocolate factory, where they could taste, learn, and interact with chocolate companies and raw cacao producers.
The festival was organized by the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to identifying, developing, and promoting fine cacao and chocolate, primarily by addressing ethics and quality issues in the supply chain.
“We decided to form the organization three years ago to fill the gap in existing services available to cacao producers, the people who grow the raw materials that go on to become chocolate,” explained Carla Martin, founder and executive director of FCCI, and organizer of the festival.
The mission of FCCI centers on providing education, and curriculum was developed out of Martin’s own research. She studies the politics of the global chocolate industry, and has conducted field work in West Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe.
“I study the ways that operations, government, NGOss, academics, and all of the other stakeholders in the industry interact with each other, and how that changes the outcomes in cacao producers lives,” said Martin.
When she is not eating or researching chocolate, Martin also works as a lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
Martin’s early research focused on labor conditions in cacao production, but more recently she shifted focus to looking at the “speciality market” for chocolate, which includes companies focused on transparent trade and craftsmanship.
All of the companies invited to participate in the festival fall into the category of “speciality market,” and a total of 16 ranging from Brookline to Vermont were featured.
The festival also invited cacao producers, who came from all over the world. Almost 30 producers came to Boston, from Brazil, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Thailand, Venezuela, and Vietnam.
“Essentially what we are trying to do is flip the script in the way that events like this usually go,” said Martin.”
“Festivals like this are usually concentrated on one end of the supply chain: the companies and consumers. We are trying to shrink down that distance and have the people that produce the raw materials available as equal partners in the event,” she added.
Visitors entered straight into the heart of the festival: the chocolate pavilion. Vendors lined the perimeter of the central space, standing behind long, white tables covered in chocolate to sample and buy. In the next room was a small cafe, where festival goers could sit back, sip on hot chocolate, and watch chefs make mouth watering desserts and chocolate creations.
But this was just the beginning. On the second floor of the building every room was occupied with a different activity. There was a chocolate escape room, workshop room, tasting classroom, and lecture classroom, where cacao producers and professors led conversations and tastings on all things chocolate.
The highlight of the festival, however, was the chocolate sensorium, which served as a miniature deconstructed chocolate factory.
“We have always had this dream at our organization to have some kind of chocolate museum exhibit where it would be very interactive and people could go in and taste and touch and just really be involved,” said Martin.
In the sensorium, this dream came to life. Visitors were able to see, touch, and taste fresh cacao straight from a tree in ecuador, and watch chocolatiers make fresh chocolate before their eyes. Fresh chocolate dribbled down the chins of those in attendance, and many left with pockets full of samples.
In total around 700 people turned out to celebrate all things chocolate. Any profit made went directly to FCCI, funding programming with cacao producers. A few hundred tickets were given away to local immigrant organizations, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, and local schools; as Martin stressed that she wanted to ensure that cost did not pose a limiting factor for people who were interesting in attending.
“Our main goal is to try to generate excitement around these different types of products, and to build community among the cacao producers, companies, and customers,” said Martin. “It is meant to be as much fun as it is educational.”
If successful, Martin added that she hopes to make the festival an annual event.
“We very purposefully called it the New England Chocolate Festival, rather than the Boston one, because we would love to take it on the road. We certainly don’t think is of interest only to people in the greater Boston area,” she said.
Featured Image by Isabel Fenoglio / Heights Editor