Bean-to-bar chocolate making is much more than wrapping up the bars in fancy paper and selling for a high price. It’s a lifestyle that encompasses the whole production from the moment cocoa beans are harvested, personally knowing your cocoa farmers and being socially responsible. I first met Samantha Aquim at Parabere Forum organized by the wonderful Maria Canabal who is the biggest advocate of women in the world of gastronomy. Now we met again at Imperivm Rio de Janeiro store in Lisbon, which sells everything Brazilian from iconic furniture to bikinis and chocolate. We ended up talking for hours about how Samantha started making chocolate and what is the difference between the “real chocolate” and the one Easter bunnies are made of. Like coffee or wine, chocolate taste should reflect its terroir and even the weather.
Ten years ago, Samantha Aquim was running a successful chocolate shop in Rio de Janeiro, when a representative from the Brazilian cocoa growers association called her. After a long discussion about chocolate production and manufacturing, she realized that she was missing something vital. “I had won awards and visited the Valrhona factory, but I had never seen a cacao tree. I felt like a fraud,” she told me.
This realization sparked a passion that would lead Samantha to start making her own chocolates. She began researching plantations, production methods, learning about chocolate from around the world, as well as what differentiates chocolates from one another. Most importantly, she visited cacao farms in Brazil’s Bahia region.
The world of chocolate was much different back then, in 2007. Artisanal chocolate makers were rare because small scale machines were hard to find. The bulk of chocolate production was carried out by giants like Nestle and Valrhona. Of course, it still is today, but now there’s a growing interest in small batch chocolate made to high standards of quality and traceability. Samantha Aquim helped pioneer this approach.
“I became very good friends with the owner of a very good plantation,” she said, referring to Fazenda Leolinda, where she now sources all her raw cacao. “That’s when I had my epiphany. He said, ‘you’ve been searching for chocolate with this personality, but you won’t find it.’” So she decided to make it herself. The owner of the plantation Joao Tavares introduced her to the owner of a chocolate factory in Santa Caterina who offered to let her make chocolate using his equipment. “That’s when everything changed,” she said.
Samantha Aquim took what was a radical approach to chocolate at the time. Besides a commitment to buying straight from the producers at fair prices, she eschewed the sugar and flavourings that define chocolate for many people. She describes sugar like the sun blazing on the beach. “Too much sun and it’s playful, but you don’t sense anything else. If you use less sugar, you can taste the little notes it would cover otherwise,” she explained. Instead, her chocolate evokes the lush, shady rainforest where cacao is produced.
Today Aquim chocolate is regarded as some of the finest in the world. High quality cacao obviously plays a part, but equally important is Samantha’s personal connection with the raw ingredients. “I had learned about chocolate as a professional, but when you arrive as a chef, it’s different,” she said. “I just want to eat it and see if it’s good. I have to trust my palate. To give personality to the product, it needs to be from you, from your heart. I decided to go with my intuition.”
It seems like she’s on the right track. Aquim chocolates are now available in North America and select locations in Europe. But for Samantha, her job is just beginning. “We’re not just selling chocolates,” she said. “Our mission is to make the Q universe a synonym for chocolate to the world.” Too often, when people think of chocolate, they see a Swiss cow or Alpine pastures. Samantha wants them to see Brazilian rainforests and cacao trees. “We have an educational role to play,” she explained. With 99% of cacao production ending up as bulk chocolate in industrial products, she has her work cut out. But everything about Q chocolate is intended to inform and amuse customers. Wave shaped Q0 bar was created by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, is an invitation to discover and savour each chocolate medallion; the colourful flora and fauna gracing the exterior of Q collection chocolate is a reminder of its tropical origins.
Samantha Aquim takes her role as a chocolate maker seriously and she believes consumers should too. “Consumers have a role in the world,” she said. “Like voting. When you stand up and decide to do the research behind what you eat, wear or use, then you can change the world.”