Haiti Emerges on the Artisanal Chocolate Scene

Karla McNeil-Rueda, owner of Cru Chocolate, unwraps the layers behind the creation of her Haitian chocolate bar.
Karla McNeil-Rueda, owner of Cru Chocolate, unwraps the layers behind the creation of her Haitian chocolate bar.


By Sharol Nelson-Embry

As the chocolate melts across my tongue, flavors of pineapple and honey give way to tropical flowers. This is the magic of cacao grown in Haiti. The artwork on the wrapper, as with all of Cru’s chocolate bars, represents elements of the country where the cacao was grown: a pair of black hands reaches out to the sky where a single large pearl floats with a butterfly and cacao pods above the hands. The butterfly is native to Haiti and represents good luck as Haitians believe butterflies might be their ancestors returning to visit. Haiti was once called the “Pearl of the Antilles” by the French. Cacao pods are bringing renewed international interest to Haiti for bean-to-bar chocolate makers such as Cru Chocolate.


I first met Karla McNeil-Rueda, owner of Cru Chocolate based in the Sacramento area, at the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon a few years ago. I attended to search out the best artisanal, single-origin chocolate bars to feature in monthly chocolate tasting kits for my business, Cocoa Case, and at my chocolate tasting parties. The bustling exhibit hall was filled with tables of chocolate. The very air was scented with chocolate and airborne cacao washed over us, enticing us to taste the amazing riches of chocolate from around the globe. Karla had a small table displaying her wonderful chocolate samples and colorful, artfully wrapped bars. The distinct flavor of each chocolate convinced me to carry their dark, 72% cacao chocolates for Cocoa Case tasting kits: the Nicaragua bar was bittersweet conveying an essence of caramel and cinnamon; their Honduras bar brought lively citrus notes with hints of espresso; and the Dominican Republic bar was deeply, satisfyingly smooth balanced with walnut astringency and subtle cherry tones. Karla recently added a fourth bar to her line, with beans grown and fermented in Haiti. I asked what prompted her to make this addition and she relayed stories about her own upbringing and a deep respect for the heritage of the people of Haiti, their culture and history. The chocolate from their cacao is also delicious.


Cacao beans in Haiti are a cross of the Trinitarian and Forestareo varieties with a terroir that imparts flavors that are mellow, not bitter, and redolent of tropical flora. In Northern Haiti, they also have a type of cacao tree they refer to as “Maman Pye,” Haitian Creole for mother cacao trees - a super-producer that can yield 20x the amount of pods of other cacao trees and have more seeds in each pod. Cacao farming is on the upswing in Haiti.


Overall, Haiti has had a rough time physically and economically. It's one of the poorest nations on the planet with a per capita income of $800 per year and 90 percent of the population living in rural areas, surviving on subsistence farming. It was devastated by an earthquake in 2010 that left millions homeless. Hurricane Matthew also hit the country hard in October 2016 while they were still recovering from the earthquake.


The island has a long history entwined with Europeans and chocolate.  Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic and was claimed for Spain by Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. He named it “Hispaniola” (Little Spain), and gentle natives who welcomed Columbus were soon taken captive in their own land to work crops, primarily sugar plantations, and build towns. The native Taino were basically exterminated by hard labor and European diseases from which they lacked immunity. By 1514, 92% of the native people had been killed. In order to have labor for the profitable sugar and coffee plantations, the Spanish imported African slaves to the island.


Cortez established the first cacao plantations on Hispaniola to provide chocolate for the nobility back home, and to use as currency on his return trips to Mexico. By the end of the 17th century, though, Spain had ceded the western half of the island to France. One hundred years later, Saint-Domingue, the area we now know as Haiti, was producing 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of the sugar France and Britain craved.  The era was notorious for the heavy hand of slavery on the Africans that were forced to live there. After several rebellions, in 1804 Haiti fought for and won its independence from France as well as freed its people from slavery.


Karla relayed to me that she wasn’t initially planning to purchase cacao from Haiti. She knows how important it is for small cacao farmers to have consistent, large purchases of their beans rather than selling to small operations like Cru. Selling to larger chocolate businesses makes the most stable, predictable income for the approximately 2,500 cacao farmers, many of whom only have about 3-acre plots to make their income. In a country that’s as mountainous as Switzerland, arable land is rare and poor farming techniques can lead to severe erosion. I also read that until recently, most Haitian cacao was sold raw, rather than fermented. Raw cacao brings a lower price to the seller than fermented beans. Their lack of infrastructure didn’t support most farmers taking that next step of fermenting their cacao. Now, however, there are four fermentaries in the country. Karla buys her cacao beans from the PISA fermentary in Acul du Nord area in Cape Haitian.


On Karla’s trip to Haiti, she discovered a generous, kind, proud and welcoming people with a rich culture.She fell in love with them -- and with their chocolate. At the farmer’s market she noticed how much care the women took proudly displaying their fruit and their wares. She enjoyed the country’s food: prepared with a blend of indigenous and African ingredients with French influence. She told me that rather than poverty, she experienced a culture rich in knowledge and heritage and food with very complex and sophisticated flavors. She said that, “When you talk to Haitians you know that, deep inside, they believe in their country.  We met so many people and heard so many stories that show resilience, dignity, strength and a sense of hope that was very inspiring.”


She recounted that as she walked a road in the countryside, she met a woman carrying a gallon container of Haiti’s cola drink, perfectly balanced on her head. The woman’s name was Roseline. She asked Karla where she was from and it turned out that Rosaline had been to the town in Honduras where Karla grew up. Roseline had been there 20 years ago when she took her 8 year old daughter from Haiti to Venezuela, hitchhiking across Central America to try and reach New York. Roseline described the road, park and foods of Karla’s native Honduras. They spoke together in a bit of Creole, English, French and Spanish. Roseline took Karla’s hand with tears in her eyes and said, “I have been in your land, I have known your people. When we were hungry they fed us, when we were thirsty, they gave us something to drink. Being a stranger, they invited us in. It was in that journey when I really learned to believe in God, and to know in my heart that we will always be ok. So today, my faith remains.”


She handed over her gallon of cola to Karla as a present in return for the kindness she experienced in Karla’s country. They cried and embraced. As Karla says, “For a moment we knew that we both had dreamt the same dreams, eaten the same foods and walked and loved the same lands. We both knew the pain of the immigrant soul, the joy of motherhood and we both shared an unwavering faith in the human spirit and high hopes for a brighter and better world.”


After her story, Karla said to me, “So why did we add Haiti’s chocolate to our Cru brand? So many reasons: the Haitian people, good food, their art, so much pride, history, and love. We added Haitian cacao because it is a place we want to come back to and spend part of our lives. It’s the people with whom we want to trade and help each other grow. It’s a delicious language that we fell in love with... we added Haiti because they are incredibly talented at what they do, because they have so much to teach us.” Karla finished with, “When I play Haitian músic for my kids on their way to school, I know that those are the songs, the stories and may be even the words that my ancestors longed for, that they missed...”


So, as I relish another bite of Cru’s Haitian chocolate, I consider the good that can come from chocolate makers that bring their art, their passion and caring to their work. They create amazing treats for us, and together, by supporting Fair Trade practices, we help grow the economy of countries like Haiti.


Other resources: 

Haiti’s History on Frontline

Could Specialty Cocoa be Haiti’s Golden Ticket to Prosperity? (On NPR’s The Salt: What’s on Your Plate?) 

Can Upscale Chocolate Turn the Tide on Haiti’s Devastating Deforestation? (On ensia.com)