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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Gluttony: "Making Sure Farmers Get Paid Well Is Really Important to Me." How Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates Is Hoping to Change a Broken Industry

10 November 21 words: Adam Pickering
illustrations: Kasia Kozakiewicz

Most people love a bit of chocolate, don’t they? But not everyone knows the problematic practises driving one of the world’s most valuable industries. We dive into the darker side of the tasty treats and chat to Luisa Vicinanza-Bedi, of Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates, about how she’s fighting back against controversial confectionery corporations...

I’m a glutton for chocolate, and in moments of craving just about any will do. Cheap, sugary, wrapped in plastic, full of milk from some far flung godforsaken cowshed - despite calling myself an environmentalist and trying to be an ethical consumer, none of these things stop me from fulfilling my cravings. But is rampantly eating crappy chocolate such a bad thing?

In short, yes, and in my enlightening chats with Luisa Vicinanza-Bedi of Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates, I’ve learned a few things that have made me rethink my relationship with this devilish delight. At the industrial scale - what Luisa calls “Big Chocolate” - the brown stuff has been linked to slavery, child labour and deforestation. 

Death by Chocolate

Despite making an effort at trying to eat more ethical brands, hurdles abound. Tony’s Chocolonely (Tony’s) may seem a pretty safe bet, and at £3.50 for an 180g bar (vs around £2 for a 200g bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk) your wallet feels like it’s doing a good thing. Tony’s . 

However, in February 2021 they were removed from Slave Free Chocolate’s Ethical Chocolate Companies list, who cited the fact that their chocolate is actually made by Barry Callebaut. It appears to be a fair criticism. One of the biggest chocolate manufacturers in the world, Barry Callebaut has been accused of purchasing cocoa illegally grown in national parks, and deforested vast tracts of rainforest. In 2021 the company was named alongside six other major producers in a class action lawsuit filed by eight former child slaves from Mali, alleging that these Big Chocolate makers aided and abetted their enslavement on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast. 

In Tony’s own response to the bad press this generated, they justified this relationship as a means to show that slavery free chocolate can be made at scale, via such work with the biggest industry players. Their goal, after all, is to influence the whole industry. But Tony’s own statement admits that they do find instances of “illegal child labour” on the farms where they source their beans - which they claim to proactively solve. In any case, propping up cacao’s answer to the Galactic Empire hardly seems a properly ethical approach.

Raising the Bar

Luisa’s approach is a radical departure, and she brims at the opportunity to talk about it. “I love telling people about the story of our chocolate, making it fun and accessible to everyone - not only how it’s created here but also on the farms,” she says. “I used to be a fashion and textiles teacher at a school, and I always had a bar of chocolate in my bag, it was my go-to pick me up. So I always had a love and passion for chocolate, but when my eyes were opened to the world of single estate-farm chocolate and all the nuances between good beans, I felt like I was missing out on a whole different world.

“I decided to become an apprentice chocolate maker and learned about different origins and the backstories of different farmers, which inspired me to use this knowledge to create my own range of bean to bar chocolates. After a year I left my career as a fashion and textiles teacher, and started my own business as a chocolate maker, and we remain the only 100% plant-based bean-to-bar chocolate shop in the UK.”

Coca to Cacao

The price normally received by farmers for their cacao is pushed perilously low by Big Chocolate, which encourages environmentally harmful farming practises like rainforest deforestation (a leading emitter of carbon dioxide) and higher chemical use, and leaves growers poverty-stricken. Sugar - the other main component in most chocolate - is often called “The Hunger Crop” because it’s notoriously hard for growers to profit from. So the low price you’re paying in the supermarket ultimately lands on farmers.

That’s why Luisa works on a direct trade basis - working directly with growers and paying well above so-called Fair Trade prices, which she says are inadequate. “Paying farmers a direct price really helps to contribute to communities, by focusing on the farmers they can gain knowledge about the whole process and create a better quality product, which gains a better price,” Luisa explains. “It’s a two way partnership between farmer and producer. I didn’t just want to create chocolate in a sustainable way, I wanted to use it as a tool to build communities.”

Luisa has been on multiple trips to meet her farmers. In Colombia she embarked on the “coca to cacao” project in partnership with the University of Nottingham, seeking to set farmers free from the control of the notorious FARC rebels who have long held communities in the grip of cocaine production. Cacao, sometimes termed “The Peace Crop”, provides an alternative for families, and it’s a perfect swap-out for coca crops as it requires such similar conditions.

Each origin is a unique experience, like a fine wine. It’s completely different from supermarket chocolate, in both taste and ethics

Cropping Up 

But it’s not just about fairness and sustainability, it’s the flavour of the resulting beans and the quality of the chocolate that Luisa’s really trades on. Strip everything else back, and this is still amongst the tastiest chocolate you’re ever likely to eat. I can attest to this, as when I visit I’m bombarded with samples of her extensive range of small bars, priced at £2.50 for a 25g bar. 

They’re all vegan too, of course. After a year in the chocolate making game, Luisa realised there was a gap in the market for vegan milk chocolate. “Alongside our core Single Origin range, I started experimenting, using nuts and other plant-based milks and we created a better-than-milk range, and it’s all made without any nasties. Our Hazolate (made with hazelnuts) and Casholate (with cashew nuts) contain just five ingredients - ones that your grandma would know,” she says.

“Our newest additions to the range are our Choc-OAT-Late, and Tiger M*lk bars.” Luisa hands me a chunk of the Pumpkin Spiced Casholate and it’s silky smooth, gradually unpacking lovely mouth-warming spices into my omnivorous mush. I’m missing nothing in creaminess here, and as soon as it begins to melt into my tastebuds I’m getting all the good wintery feels.

Less Is More

One staggering thing about the set-up is that once the cacao arrives, the whole production of the chocolate takes place in Luisa’s in-house makery nestled neatly behind a stud wall behind the counter Sneinton Market shop. Her chocolate is certainly more expensive than mainstream rivals, but Luisa doesn’t want you to break the bank. Oddly enough for a small business that depends on selling the stuff, she’s quite happy to recommend eating less. 

“We want to make a better quality bar, that’s healthier and lower in sugar, so it might end up costing more by weight but we encourage people to enjoy it in smaller amounts. It’s about quality over quantity - coming into our shop you can see and smell cocoa beans roasting and sense the journey of our chocolate, following a beautiful transition between farmer and maker. Each origin is a unique experience, like a fine wine. It’s completely different from supermarket chocolate, in both taste and ethics,” she explains.

“Making sure the farmers get paid well and have a good standard of living is really important to me. Without giving them the tools to do that we can’t expect to get the best quality beans. They can also send their children to school, grow their communities, and protect the land. The chocolate then goes on to win international awards which increases the crop value and gives them prestige, and a greater sense of pride over what they do.”

As tasty as the products are, you get the sense of Luisa’s deeper mission. It is about bringing this bean-to-bar approach and rich complexity of flavours to a wider audience, but it goes beyond that. “As an ex teacher I feel like I’ve got that social conscience and in a soulful way, and as a female, I think it’s really important to approach the system in a different way and to empower women in other communities.”

luisasveganchocolates.co.uk

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