Holiday Tour Day 1: The Chocolate Life and Chocolat Bonnat
Welcome to the first annual Cacao Muse Holiday Tour!
Giving back and paying it forward shouldn’t be a chore. It should be a party. It should be fun. It should spark joy, as a certain goddess of impossibly clean and organized households likes to say. So I got busy.
And now, ladies and gentlemen…
Welcome to Day One of the first annual Cacao Muse Holiday Tour! For the next twenty-five days, we will craft a unique and fun pairing: great artisan chocolate paired with newsletters crafted by great writers. We have a delicious line-up of publications on food, culture, history, travel, technology, mindfulness, fiction and the craft of writing, and more, by some of my fellow writers here on Substack.
What will this look like? Will we get to taste real chocolate? Well, that can certainly be arranged, but you will discover chocolates you never knew existed and you’ll definitely get to read real writing.
Sometimes I’ll do the chocolate and the publication in separate segments, other times I’ll weave them together. Some pairings will be done as Q&As, others as third-person stories, and still others… well, I’m not going to give it all away—you’ll have to wait and see! Just like the kids waiting for Santa to slide down the chimney. Patience, dear reader, patience!
Our first pairing is the French chocolate company Chocolat Bonnat and Clay Gordon’s The Chocolate Life. Might as well start with the best and move up from there. Enjoy!!
TCM Holiday Tour Day 1 pairing:
THE CHOCOLATE LIFE and CHOCOLAT BONNAT
For our inaugural Holiday Tour post, I’d like to give the floor to my partner in chocolate crime, Clay Gordon of The Chocolate Life.
You might have heard of The Chocolate Life. It’s only one of the biggest and longest-running online communities dedicated to cacao and chocolate. Its founder, Clay Gordon, has been a friend and colleague of mine since 2016. In the chocolate world, time warps back on itself so that people you haven’t met yet are your closest chocolate confidants, and the people you met years ago never age. Don’t ask me how that works, it just does.
TCL, as we affectionately—and efficiently—call The Chocolate Life, was founded in January 2008 and has members in over 160 countries spanning every continent except Antarctica. If the climate scientists are right however, we might have cacao trees growing at the South Pole before too long… and maybe that won’t be the first time, either.
Please welcome Clay Gordon and The Chocolate Life.
The Cacao Muse: Welcome Clay! Let’s start with the obvious first question: your favorite type or brand of chocolate and why you love it.
Clay Gordon: This is easy. When I am eating chocolate recreationally, dark milk chocolates as a category. When I am eating professionally I have to be an equal-opportunity taster, giving every chocolate equal opportunity to impress or disappoint, without pre-judging.
As far as a brand is concerned—there is no other choice but Bonnat. It was finding and tasting their chocolate back in 1994 that inspired me to jump on the path that led to The Chocolate Life.
Birgitte: Ohh Bonnat. They were one of the first artisan chocolate brands I ever came across, early in my research for The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree. I remember the moment I first laid eyes on a Bonnat Bar… it was at The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto (which has since closed its garage door, sadly). There’s something so resonant about the name Bonnat. It feels like a rich, thick cup of hot drinking chocolate. With lots of whipped cream and cinnamon sprinkled on top.
Well, Clay, you made this pairing super easy for me. I just happen to have two Bonnat bars in my chocolate fridge that I bought at the Chelsea Market in New York this summer, so I whipped up an impromptu tabletop for your feature here on the Holiday Tour—all in the midst of cooking dinner and picking up my daughter from vocal practice. That is the life of the working chocolate mama.
In Clay’s honor, we’ll taste a special dark milk bar from Chocolat Bonnat, with cacao sourced from Colombia, one of my favorite countries on the planet.
Chocolate: Dos Cielos from the Collection Particulière
Ingredients: Cacao, cacao butter, sugar, milk powder
Tasting Notes: When Dos Cielos first lands on your tongue, you sense a milk caramel candy that instantly softens with your body temperature and begins to melt, deepening into a maple honey caramel butter so impossibly smooth and creamy that you literally lose track of what you were doing. And yet it remains light on the tongue, melting away like a snowflake on your hand… beautiful, intricate, fragile, but unforgettable.
Dos Cielos means “two skies” in Spanish, but it’s really referring to two heavens—because one isn’t quite enough to express how extraordinary this bar is.
While we admire this exquisite—and expensive—chocolate bar, let’s slide back into our conversation with Clay.
TCM: What’s the one burning question you've had about chocolate that you'd want an expert to answer? Oh wait, you are the expert.
CG: One burning question I have is about the connection between cacao and the creation myths in South America where cacao originated. We know something about the connection in pre-Maya, Maya, and Aztec cultures but there is no evidence—one way or another—for such a connection among the Mayo-Chinchipe people 5,500 years ago, which is the oldest archaeological evidence we have for the use and domestication of cacao.
Did the connection predate cacao’s move north to Mesoamerica? During? Only after it arrived?
Birgitte: That’s a fascinating topic, and one I dove into pretty deep when I was researching The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree. I did not find mention of specific evidence of a connection until the Maya and Aztec cultures, as you say. That doesn’t mean of course there was no connection, or perhaps it grew and evolved over many centuries, and initially without much documentation or physical evidence.
TCM: If there is one thing you had the power to change or improve about the chocolate industry, what would it be?
CG: Fix the trifecta of deforestation that leads to climate change, illegal labor, and making sure farmers are paid properly for the work they do. Aspects of this include expanding the definition of poverty to mean more than providing a living income, and the definition of exploitation. Exporting beans at a low price only to import derivatives and finished products at a much higher price means the economies of producing countries get screwed at both ends of the chain.
TCM: Tell us more about The Chocolate Life.
CG: The Chocolate Life is the oldest and largest online community—outside of social media—that caters to chocolate fans of all flavors. Living The Chocolate Life—aka Living La Vida Cocoa—is about finding a subject that interests you, that you are good at, and that provides some form of social utility. In this respect, it is like the Japanese concept of ikigai.2 However, Living the Chocolate Life differs from ikigai in one important respect: to truly live a Chocolate Life, it is necessary to inspire and assist others to find and follow their own Chocolate Life.
Birgitte: Preach, brother! I shall make this lofty goal the poorly masked ulterior motive behind this entire Holiday Tour. Humans everywhere, rejoice, for the world shall bask in chocolate sunsets!
TCM: Right. By the way, that cacao flower photo above is stunning. I know you do a lot of photography—we also love the one here of the sunrise.
CG: I have a BFA in photography and I use that training to document my travels. Because I am not a member of the selfie generation, you will only very rarely see images with me in them on my travels. There are extensive stories I can tell behind each of these images, stories that connect the people I tell them to. These images are about the experiences I have on my travels—places I have been, things I have seen, the people I have met and those shared experiences.
Indeed. Chocolate has always been, and always will (should) be, a profound and pleasurable experience. And with that, my friends, we conclude Day One of The Cacao Muse 2023 Holiday Tour.
I hope you enjoyed this first pairing. We have twenty-four more coming your way, each one unique, each one delightful, and each one bringing you an artisan chocolate from a new region of the world paired with an inspiring newsletter by some of Substack’s most passionate and thought-provoking writers.
Please give this post a biiiiiig chocolatey hug—you can share, like, comment, cross-post, restack, and if you’re game, send us a photo of your favorite chocolate :) All that love will translate into more of the world discovering great writing and great chocolate.
Above all, check out The Chocolate Life. It’s a treasure trove of knowledge and insights into the wild and wondrous world of chocolate. If you like podcasts, Clay does a live podcast every Tuesday and Friday (he might be doing one this very minute in fact, given it’s Friday). He has recently rebranded the podcast to Pod Save Chocolate, and I was honored to be his inaugural guest.
COMING UP! DAY 2 of the TCM HOLIDAY TOUR
On December 2, we ascend 30,000 feet for a mountain goat’s eyeview of the world we humans have constructed (and now have to live with).
~ A goat, huh, you say. Are you doing a goat’s milk chocolate pairing?
~ I mean, I could. I’ve tried it. Tasted a little like… feta (is that surprising?)
Who might this mysterious goat shepherd be? Or is he just the greatest of all time?
Hint: He writes about everything from history to food to pigeon droppings to AI. He loves puppies. And incredibly, he writes. Every. Single. Day.
He also has a 4th degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so mind your manners in the comment section lest he tie you up into a salted pretzel and dip you into a vat of chocolate.
Sleep tight, wee ones, and stock up on chocolate power bars. Tomorrow I shall take you to the mountain top.
Is it slightly north of insane to buy a bar of chocolate for $16? Yes. Is it totally, unabashedly worth it? If it’s a bar like Bonnat, yes. Would I do it every day? No. Bars like this you buy for those special occasions, and stash them in a titanium safe somewhere on a deserted island far away from “friends and family.” You remember the story of the Montagues and the Capulets don’t you..
Ikigai is having a sense of purpose in life, of being motivated. It is the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment that results from the pursuit of your passions. It’s important to note that the feeling of ikigai is not forced or faked; the things you do and the activities you undertake to achieve that sense of ikigai, are done willingly and of your own accord. (Source: Wikipedia)