Editor’s Note: We asked culinary professionals from around the world for first hand accounts of their experiences in the industry. These recollections have become a new series on Life & Thyme entitled “Letters from the Industry.” In our first letter, Ryan Berk of Parliament Chocolate recounts his recent trip to Belize and Guatemala to source cocao beans.
Letters from the Industry
— 01 —
My whole life I have been searching for a way we can all connect through one entity. I did not care where you were on the planet, what your beliefs were, or what you dreamt for the future. I guess it was a romantic notion. How the hell could we possibly pull ourselves together and realize an amazing piece of art that we have all had a hand in? Well, it all started when I was fourteen years old. Two amazing things happened in my life: I got my dad’s Canon A1 and I started a job at my friend’s family’s Thai restaurant. I knew that these two things were going to be the rest of my life, understanding culture through food and being able to capture it through photography. While standing on the line putting together a dish of green curry I thought to myself, all of these items in the dish are coming together and have stories of their own. The kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk, Thai chili and coriander, each one of these items had an amazing story. A person whose life it was to create that single thing. The one thing that changed every aspect of the dish, it amazed me! What is the one thing that is a piece of artwork to everyone, and can connect anyone?
I believe that one thing is food.
Now I’m going to fast-forward my life about fifteen years to where I am currently.
Hello, my name is Ryan Berk. I now own an ice cream shop called à la minute and a chocolate factory called Parliament Chocolate with my wife, Cassi. Our main principle behind the company is to have a relationship with the farmers and vendors behind the products we present to you. Our chocolate company is what is called a bean-to-bar factory. We practice direct trade, this means we go and directly meet with farmers, co-ops and villages to source cacao. This helps us get an understanding of the person and passion behind the bean and is hopefully reflected in our chocolate bars.
The images before you depict a sourcing trip I went on to Guatemala and Belize, two of the most amazing countries in the world. We started our trip off with a flight down to the capital of Guatemala, Guatemala City, and took a bus up to northern Guatemala to an area called Alta Verapaz. As we got deeper and deeper into the rainforest we started coming across The Q’eqchi people, descendants of the Mayan world and some of the largest producers of cacao. Many of the villages we passed through did not even speak Spanish so we had to go through three translations to communicate with the villagers that spoke the ancient dialect of Q’eqchi. In the images I wanted to depict the passion that the farmers have for producing such a meticulous product. I also wanted to show that culture and family are such necessary parts of their farming and growing practices that have been passed down to them from generation to generation for thousands of years.
As the next step of our journey moved us forward we took a small boat across the border from Puerto Barrios in North Guatemala to a small town on the furthest southern town in Belize called Punta Gorda. This town is comprised of the “Garifuna” and “Mopan” people. Compared to the rest of the world Belize produces very little cacao, but they produce some of the best quality cacao in the world.
While I was there I would stay in Punta Gorda and travel up to small Mopan villages by motorcycle. The Mopan people are also descendants of the Mayan world and grow most of the cacao in the county just like their ancestors did. Some of the plantations I traveled to were hundreds of years old and took a half a day to get to. Most of the time the only way to communicate to the farmers through the vast ravines and over the mountains was through distinct bird calls that would echo through the rainforest telling you that you’re going the correct way. When you started to get lost you would shout out and in seconds seven to eight bird sounds would come shooting back at you and every tree in its way would feel the vibrations. At that moment I realized what it truly took to create a single chocolate bar. How much sweat, tears and passion you have to have.
It’s crazy how a single bean that travels around the world can change your perspective on everything.