Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo is known among chefs as the "bean guy" -- his Good Mother Stallard, Vallarta and Santa Maria Pinquitos make appearances on most top restaurant menus this time of year. More recently, Sando began importing a handful of products made by small producers (very small, often one or two individuals). Among them, the best Mexican chocolate we have tasted. It also comes with a handy (and genuine) holiday gift card story that trumps the average Beverly Hills chocolate box.
The chocolate is made by a small collective of women (Mujeres de Xochistlahuaca) in Guerrero. They grow and harvest their own cocoa beans, toast them in clay comales, then stone grind them with piloncillo and canela (Mexican cinnamon). By hand. Read that again and yeah, a box of 5 large tablets for $14.95 is a fantastic deal.
Get more on the chocolate, and why Sando, who primarily commissions small U.S. farmers to grow his beans, began importing a few products in recent years.
"A lot of Americans have a misconception of what Mexico is all about," says Sando. "Not just in a negative way, with the [violence] that's happening in some areas. But misconceptions also come from the press side, with magazines and all the pretty photos and stories. That's not what the 'real' Mexico is. Mexico is even better than that, more real."
As for how products like the chocolate wind up in his portfolio, Sando says it's the flavor, but also "the story, the people" that have a lot to do with it. He's also importing banana vinegar and dried xoconostle fruit traditionally served as a (very salty!) tequila chaser. "I also think we haven't always been very good neighbors to Mexico," he continues. "I don't think Mexico is going anywhere, and I'm pretty sure we're staying put."
"Every once in a while, I meet people like these women who make the chocolate who are amazing," he continues. "They grow their own cocoa and toast it in clay pots, then grind it. It's like those commercial tablets, as far as how it looks, only it tastes nothing like them. The difference is these are 70% chocolate. They're more crude, but delicious, almost smoky. For me, I'm a small business, but I can try out a palette, 2,000 pounds of something, see if it sells. That's how we think in this country. 'Let me see if it sells.' But for these women, for another farmer I buy beans from there, those 2,000 pounds change their lives. They are so grateful, so happy that you want to buy what they have made -- it's as much about that to them."
Each tablet is a slightly different shape and color, with that rustic cocoa texture and flecks of piloncillo and a subtle diversity in texture and flavor among each that comes from stone grinding. Traditionally, the chocolate is used for cooking sauces like mole or making hot chocolate, should you manage to have any leftover after snacking your way through the box. These are the moments when having a jar of San Angel mole comes in handy, so you can have your mole sauce, as they say, and eat your chocolate, too.
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Rancho Gordo Stoneground Cacao is $14.95 per box, available online.
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