The Alma label is built around a nineteenth century botanical image of theobroma cacao by the Dutch artist, Berthe Hoola Van Nootenn. Visually connecting plant product to value-added product is a conscious choice for a business like Alma, particularly because cacao is not a plant most people outside of the tropical belt recognize. The illustration doesn’t note the variety of theobroma but its characteristics match that of the Cundeamor variety, a type of the treasured Criollo, with its deeply ridged and warty exterior and that curved, pointy tip (Presilla 2009, 62). The external characteristics of cacao pods vary hugely, even within a single variety of the species, but none of them are recognizable to the unfamiliarized eye. And chocolate is not a commodity most people think much about beyond gustatory pleasure. So I went to talk to Sarah Hart, owner of Alma Chocolates, about that Cundeamor pod on their label and the other subtle ways the company pays homage to the complex history of cacao. I wanted to know if Alma’s aesthetic nods to that history are meant to incite curiosity and conversation about its cultural significance.
The Makery, a Storied Space
The Alma Chocolate Makery in Portland, Oregon, is situated in a large and lofty space in a chic industrial corner of the city. I immediately noticed the cacao print hanging on the wall just inside the shop doors, framed in a slender and slightly chipped wood frame that looks like it may have hung in a grandmother’s dining room. The print hangs above shelves neatly lined with Alma’s signature caramel and complements the piquant aroma of steamed chocolate that hangs in the air. The production space is set behind two massive, blue-tinted, hanging wooden doors that look like they could have come straight from a sixteenth century mission in cacao country. Alma’s signature gold-leafed chocolates are displayed in a case lined with roasted cacao beans. The space was clearly designed with a reverence to the product and craft, and all who walk through the unassuming doors are encouraged to think about what exactly it is that they’re buying.
Sarah Hart moves quickly, smiles easily, and loves chocolate. She got the idea to start Alma almost fifteen years ago when she was putting together an Easter basket for her son and lamenting the fact that, despite how much and for how long she’d loved chocolate, most of the chocolate products available paid little mind to the cultural value of cacao or chocolate as craft. That Easter basket was a turning point in her life. Alma is not a bean-to-bar chocolatier but a confectioner with chocolate at its core. Hart learned the craft and built Alma out of the simple thought that “what is made out of chocolate should be amazing.” If we give chocolate that care and attention, Hart believes, we can change the industry.
Alma is driven by a reverence for the cultural history of cacao and a mission to honor its sacred beginnings. The about page of their website states “Its Latin names, theobroma, means ‘food of the gods.’ We are believers.” The plant name speaks of the sacred connection honored by Mesoamerican civilizations in their depictions and uses of cacao. Long before chocolate was made into hollow bunnies that taste more like milk than chocolate, it was a beverage and product that was treated with the utmost reverence. These first imbibers of cacao reserved the valuable beans for sacred rituals and as offerings to deities, kings, and people with whom they wished to win favor. For the Maya, cacao was perceived as connected to and representative of their gods, and consumed during their most important rituals connected to death, birth, and marriage. In the codices of the Classic Maya period, as well as in some Aztec renderings, we see cacao pods growing on the bodies of gods, the cacao tree in scenes of deities interacting, and hot, foamy cacao being poured and shared in the midst of sacred rituals.
In the year she spent learning to make chocolate and thinking about what it meant to her, Hart recognized a particular thread in the way we talk about chocolate that suggests its sacred past. As the daughter of a minister, “It was not lost on [her] that a lot of how people talk about chocolate is really religious and spiritual language, it’s the language of sin and redemption.”
While Alma doesn’t use imagery of Maya or Aztec rituals, those striking, gold-leafed icon chocolates are influenced by the Mexican Catholic traditions of the farmers she met while working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. The gold leafing also calls to attention the value and symmetry of the two materials – cacao and gold – and cacao’s historic usage as currency by MesoAmerican civilizations. It’s a different kind of sacred imagery, but sacred all the same, and allows Hart to fulfill the Alma mission while standing out from the ever-growing crowd of artisan confectioners and chocolatiers.
The Maya word chokola’j refers to the drinking of chocolate together, an interaction that often carried great ritual and social significance. In their two shops, Alma offers a repertoire of traditional and signature drinking chocolates. The Mayan Milagro is made with ingredients typical to the Maya region of what is now modern-day Mexico – dark chocolate, ground almonds, chiles, and cinnamon. The drink’s description reminds me of the Mexican mole sauce. The Jasmine tea-infused version calls to mind the once-secret recipe created by Francesco Redi, physician and apothecary to the Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici of seventeenth century Italy. Redi’s delicate jasmine-infused drinking chocolate became famous and highly sought after in European courts a the time (Coe and Coe 2013, 145).
The Chocolate Pause
Alma chocolates cannot be chosen or enjoyed without a moment of pause because they are divine but also because they are unique in their inspiration. A sip or bite of an Alma product demands reflection. That’s what Hart wants, that’s part of the mission of Alma – for chocolate to be a pausing point. My frothy cup of Mayan Milagro did just that – the almonds were left in tangible pieces, the mixture was barely sweet, and the chile and cinnamon interacted in such a way as to create a flavor all their own. It seemed more akin to Mayan drinking chocolate than what we now know as hot chocolate. Alma chocolate drinks differ from those ancient drinks to appeal and be palatable to a modern audience, of course, but the recipes are a respectful nod to cacao’s culinary history.
Hart says about chocolate, “If you stop and really taste it, there is something almost meditative [about it]. You have to stop and really pay attention and that actually brings you to yourself and the present moment.” The taste of an Alma chocolate will undoubtedly bring a discerning palette to the present moment but that old illustration of cacao and all of Alma’s distinct aesthetic choices spark a critical curiosity about the long road between pod and mug.
Citations & References
“The Flora of 19th Century Java.” 1996. BusinessWorld: 32. ProQuest.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Hart, Sarah. 2017. Recorded oral interview, March 6, 2017. On file with author. Portland, Oregon.
Martin, Carla. “Lecture 1: Mesoamerica and the food of the gods.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
*All photographs by author. Photographs are not public domain.