By Susan Stewart
Sometimes over the many years and many trials of raising children, building careers, and cultivating a life of community service, Tom and Eve Neuhaus would share a sigh and say, “You know, we really should just be making chocolate.” With the opening of Sweet Earth Chocolates this past July, they found themselves standing in the center of that long-chanted dream. Milling about the charming shop at 1491 Monterey Street that warm summer night, chocolate fans of all ages sampled a staggering array of hand-made, organic, fair-trade chocolates in every form – from cups to clusters, bars to barks, turtles to truffles – each and every morsel hand-crafted to be better for farmers, better for children, and better for the earth.
The Neuhauses’ passion for chocolate runs deep. Long before they met, Tom and Eve began their separate love affairs with chocolate as children, over Christmas boxes sent from their European relatives. Tom’s family received handmade, cognac-filled chocolates from his German grandparents every year. “I got to eat the broken ones,” he smiled. At Eve’s house, a two-pound box of Viennese chocolates marked “Das Beste von das Beste” (the best of the best) would arrive each holiday from her Aunt Ida. “We savored that box until Easter,” said Eve.
First at the kitchens of the Vets Hall here in SLO, and later in the upstairs factory above Splash Café, the Neuhauses perfected their chocolate-making craft using shining rivers of liquid chocolate, vats of intoxicating aromas, and shelves of exotic ingredients like imported ginger, dried berries, and roasted macadamia nuts. The results of their efforts recently yielded first prize in a San Francisco Chronicle chocolate-tasting.
Holding a PhD in Food Science from Cornell University, Tom Neuhaus taught there for 16 years before accepting a post at Cal Poly in 1998. His undergraduate course in Chocolate was the only one of its kind in the nation. To further develop his curriculum in food and culture, Tom was invited to help start a chocolate-making business in a small Peruvian village. It was there that he began experimenting with native ingredients. Seeking out unique molds and using fillings like fruit, jellies, nuts, chili, and carob, the idea was to make chocolates that represent different cultures. The enterprise never got beyond the business plan, but Tom’s interest in the link between chocolate and international development had been sparked.
Better for Farmers: A trip to West Africa to visit a fair trade cooperative fueled Tom’s desire, not only to make fine chocolate, but also to forward the cause of fairness for cocoa farmers. “Fair Trade is all about the relationship between town and country,” he explained. “About fairness between farmer and consumer, so that farmers get paid a livable wage. This is a much bigger, much bolder issue than chocolate.”
For six years, Tom has been visiting the villages of West Africa, bringing accurate scales, dryness meters and storage bags, and helping to build new roofs and wells for some of the more than 2.5 million cocoa farmers there. Project Hope and Fairness, a 501(c)3 charitable organization co-organized by Tom and three others, is the newest contribution to a now-global effort to assist third-world farmers.
“My goal is to bring new customers by Direct Trade, where there are even fewer middlemen than with Fair Trade,” said Tom. “But that’s a goal yet to be achieved.”
Better for Children: Buying fair trade chocolate ensures that we do not contribute to the inhumane practices pervasive in some parts of the chocolate manufacturing industry. More than 15,000 child-slaves work on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast, according to the U.S. State Department.
“There are over 200,000 children of cocoa farmers who have never been to school,” Eve elaborated. “And there is no access to affordable medicine should the child of a cocoa farmer contract malaria.”
Fair trade-certified cocoa comes only from certified farmers’ cooperatives, organized to strengthen their farmer-members economically so that they can provide for their families and educate their children.
Better for the Earth: Buying certified organic, fair trade chocolate also protects the environment from further damage caused by POPs (persistent organic pollutants) used in mono-crop, plantation-style growing. By contrast, small farmers inter-crop, growing as many as six crops on one small plot, thereby keeping the land fertile and preventing the pollution of lakes and streams.
Better for us: Fair trade organic chocolate is healthier and tastes better than commercial chocolate, because there’s more outreach to small farmers, helping them to improve the quality of their beans. All of which makes fair trade, organic chocolate better for us.
With a mission to “link the world through chocolate,” the Neuhauses envisioned a globe of the earth dripping with chocolate. That image became their logo, and Sweet Earth the name that grew naturally out of that.
A plush sofa and whimsical, hand-painted furniture give the retail shop a warm and welcoming feel. All of the pieces are recycled, and Eve herself did the painting. Chocolate ephemera such as records, trading cards, postcards, books, and CDs fill the shelves and tease the senses of all who enter. A scatter of toys and books on a low table, including Eve’s own Journey to Mythaca, invite children to play or read while parents shop. “We want to encourage people to come in and sit awhile,” said Eve. “And they do!”
As if on cue, a young woman steps in to ask whether Sweet Earth carries organic marzipan. “It happens we do,” said Eve, happily producing Tom’s world-class marzipan made fresh from whole, local, organically grown almonds.
Sweet Earth has scheduled a chocolate-tasting this fall that will introduce many of us to the nearly limitless variety of flavor and nuance in the chocolate universe. Cocoa beans grown in a particular place have their own unique taste – with all the subtleties, hints, overtones, and undertones usually reserved for fine wines. “It’s a great way to tour the world,” said Tom. “For example, Madagascar …” he nearly moans with pleasure. “If there’s any one bean worth cultivating, it’s that one.”
Stop by the shop, visit www.sweetearthchocolates.com, or call 805-544-7759 for more information, or to place an order.