When Tim McCollum joined the Peace Corps in 1999, he secretly hoped for a post in Latin America. When the recruiter said “Madagascar,” he was too embarrassed to ask, “Is that the big island off the coast of Africa?”
Fast forward a few years and that island had made such an impression on the volunteer English teacher that he teamed up with fellow Madagascar Peace Corps alum, sometime seaweed farmer and now business partner Brett Beach to found Madécasse, a Brooklyn-based importer of specialty foods made in Madagascar, much to the benefit of farmers there, and eaters here.
While Madagascar’s poverty hit him hard, its citizens’ resourcefulness made an even more lasting impression. With only 15 percent of Madagascar’s population formally employed, most rely on their wits and the soil to earn a living: growing rice, cultivating pineapples, raising a few chickens for market. He and Beach quickly concluded that a country with such rich natural and human resources doesn’t need to be poor.
Hence Madécasse’s mission: to boost Madagascar’s economy by creating an in-country fine-foods production base that makes top-quality vanilla, spices and chocolate to sell to gourmands in Brooklyn and beyond, all following a model known as Equitrade. An “evolution” of fair trade, which guarantees a fair price for raw commodities, the Equitrade approach instead “adds value” to those ingredients in the country of origin, leaving a bigger slice of the profit pie where it’s needed most. In other words, farmers don’t just get a better price for, say, raw cacao beans; they actually turn them into chocolate bars, and thus capture a much bigger share of the customer’s dollar.
Madécasse began with vanilla. The singular soil, climate and ecosystem along Madagascar’s eastern coast—where 80 percent of the flora and fauna is otherwise unknown anywhere on earth—grow over half the world’s vanilla, and unanimously its best—but the beans have long been exported as a raw commodity and processed elsewhere. Rather than become one more business buying beans as raw materials, Madécasse is working with farmers to make true vanilla extract (startlingly, the first ever produced in Madagascar), as well as vanilla powder and vanilla sugar. While well-abused synthetic vanilla clogs so many sweets that the word has become a synonym for “ho-hum,” an increasing number of chefs and home cooks are going back to the bean, rediscovering the potent, nuanced flavor of this edible orchid.
Unsuspecting Brooklynites have already sampled Madécasse’s vanilla while scarfing treats like homemade ice cream at the Chocolate Room and fruit tarts at Lassen and Hennigs. McCollum says the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Palm House restaurant will soon use Madécasse’s vanilla in its desserts too. (Sated visitors can also get a glimpse of living cocoa and vanilla plants in the Steinhardt Conservatory’s Tropical Pavilion.)
Madécasse has expanded to salt and pepper, too; as with their exceptional vanilla, these seasonings bear little resemblance to the ubiquitous pale powders found in tabletop shakers. Rather McCollum and Beach trade in pure fleur de sel, the delicate crystals hand-harvested from natural salt ponds, and a finishing salt of fleur de sel blended with their vanilla powder and a citrus called combava. Fragrant pink peppercorns are on offer alongside their basic black counterparts. Too soft and moist to mill, they’re like tiny, piquant fruits, delicious sprinkled whole over a salad, added to steak rub or even mixed into ice cream.
But chocolate has become the real workhorse of Madécasse’s Equitrade economics engine. “It dawned on us how much more popular chocolate is than vanilla,” McCollum recalls. While an avid home baker might go through a few jars a year, customers with a modest chocolate habit can eat that many bars a week. He likens the explosion in fine chocolate to the recent wine renaissance: Forty years ago, France and Italy cornered the market for fine wines. Today Napa Valley, South Africa and Long Island have earned household recognition as distinct wine-producing regions. McCollum sees the burgeoning interest in farms, foodscapes and single-origin products transforming the chocolate industry, too. “Ten years ago you had a couple of major manufacturers like Lindt, Godiva and Hershey’s. Go into the store today and there might be 15 or 20 brands, all these small-scale, artisanal producers who don’t have the machinery or the marketing money that Lindt has, but their chocolate is a lot better.”
Cocoa requires the shade of the forest floor, and in Madagascar it often sprouts beneath papaya and mango trees, whose soil nutrients reportedly lend the beans a “fruity” characteristic. Growing conditions, weather patterns and the roasting, drying and fermenting process all influence the beans’ final flavor—as do cocoa and cocoa butter content in the finished chocolate, hence the modern preponderance of percentages on packages. The dizzying array of tastes and textures leads chocolate tasters to use descriptions like “citrusy,” “nutty” and a less-kind “burnt diesel.”
Most chocolate contains an ingredient called soy lecithin—an emulsifier that keeps the cocoa and cocoa butter from separating. Madécasse doesn’t use it (and knows of only two other manufacturers who do without). Instead they conch (knead and roll the liquor) much longer, which makes for a naturally smooth texture without any additives. “It takes more time,” says McCollum, “but it’s a purer approach to chocolate.”
In keeping with the single-origin trend, fine chocolatiers like Pralus, Amedei and Michel Cluizel offer a Madagascar bar. But these companies import raw cocoa for production in France, Italy or the UK, so Madagascar retains about 17 percent of the value of the finished chocolate. By contrast, Madécasse is working directly with a Malagasy chocolate maker to produce four proprietary dark bars, ranging from 63 percent to 75 percent cocoa. Producing and packaging the island’s first American-bound chocolate means Madagascar captures 60 percent of the value. If all the island’s export cocoa and vanilla were processed domestically, McCollum estimates it could bump Madagascar’s $500 million export economy up by $50 to $60 million dollars each year—a whopping 10 percent increase.
McCollum and Beach credit Brooklyn’s food culture—its inquisitive, exacting palates and social consciousness—with helping the company evolve. The Brooklyn stores that use Madécasse’s ingredients and carry their retail line—including Blue Apron, the Chocolate Room and Foragers Market—“are excited about what we’re doing, and the owners have been generous with their time to explain parts of the industry that would have taken us months to figure out on our own,” McCollum says. “If something passes the test in Brooklyn, it will pass the test just about anywhere else.”
Working with the planet’s 10th poorest nation to create a product that can compete on the international stage has its challenges. Unlike raw cocoa, a finished chocolate melts at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, necessitating costly refrigeration through the entire shipping process. Spotty telephone and internet connections mean the partners set their alarm clocks for all hours to communicate with the factory. And Madécasse is more vulnerable to pricing, crop output and weather changes than other importers, who source raw materials from whatever region is selling the cheapest product at any given time. Still, in the wine world, it’s precisely those local risks and variables that make certain vintages so special. Perhaps one day we’ll sit around nibbling chocolate and discussing how 2009 was a bang-up year for Madagascar beans.
While Lela Chapman’s three-month-old son Rowan currently obliterates any opportunity for culinary adventure beyond a slapdash peanut butter sandwich, she remains a staunch supporter of good eating. She also plays Balinese percussion and is thrilled to have discovered yet another reason to eat chocolate.
Tim McCollum and Brett Beach import exceptional vanilla, salt and pepper, but chocolate is the real Equitrade workhorse.
Madécasse, which takes its name from a 17th-century French word for Madagascar’s people, works to benefits Malagasy farmers there—and Brooklyn eaters.