Although Easter gets all the attention, for Cynthia Leung and David Castellan, it's always the right time of year for chocolate. The Toronto-based culinary artisans and founders of Soma Chocolatemaker were recently named Best Chocolate Maker in the World by the International Chocolate Awards for their dark chocolate bar made with cocoa from Venezuela. Food writer Simran Sethi caught up with them to find out more about their award-winning chocolates and the ways their confections are a passport to a world of flavour:
Q: You started Soma Chocolatemaker back in 2003, when the so-called craft chocolate movement was just beginning …
David Castellan: Yes. We started before the term “bean-to-bar” came into existence. We called it micro-batch, kind of borrowing that term from the brewing movement at the time. What makes us different is that we don’t just do bars. We do all sorts of things: We do cookies, gelato, truffles, ganaches, caramels, all of that. And chocolate.
Q: How — and why — did you start the company?
Cynthia Leung: I was working as an architect at the time, and David was a pastry chef. We were a couple but weren’t seeing a lot of each other, so we started bouncing around business ideas of what we could do together.
We found this little space in an abandoned distillery where they used to make whiskey that they were trying to fill with makers. We thought, "This would be the perfect space." Except it was the last space. It was close to the washrooms; it had no real ceiling on it. We started out with 450 square feet, and eventually we both quit our jobs after about a year.
Q: Making chocolate is a lot harder than eating it. Why did you decide it would be a core part of your offering?
CL: Because of the depth of history and places where cacao is grown, and the people who grow it. There are totally different flavour profiles, depending on where the beans are from, plus an expansive science that we knew we could really dig into, that gave us the ability to make our own palate of chocolate flavours.
It’s highly rewarding. Being a small maker allows us both to be immersed in the “doing” — making chocolate, fixing machines, sourcing beans, dreaming up new products, trying new techniques, painting labels, designing chocolate spaces — and connecting with the bright, kooky people within the chocolate community at large. Happiness levels are high and climbing.
Q: Fast forward over a decade. Your success is also high and climbing. Soon, your team of now 40 people will be working in an expansive, sun-lit space that you call a “dream factory.”
CL: When it’s finished in May, the space will flow like chocolate. Visitors will be able to pass through a viewing corridor that shows the full chocolate making process: from roasting cocoa beans to pouring chocolate into moulds. There is a space upstairs with a test kitchen and a tasting room that overlooks the city. A path in the back of the factory connects to a wild forest that was parcelled to the property back in the day. In spring, we plan to install a greenhouse and start growing some of the ingredients that will wind up in our chocolates.
Q: Your travels are reflected in your chocolate. For example, there’s a real earthiness — a sense of intimacy — in your bar from Jamaica.
CL: Our first trip to [a cacao] origin was to Jamaica to visit our friend and bean supplier Desmond Jadusingh. His 1,000-acre family farm called Bachelor’s Hall is deep in the lush jungles between the John Crow and Blue Mountain ranges. The time we spent connecting our worlds — from Desmond’s farm to our factory — completed the circle from tree to bar. It was a soul-filling experience not only through learning about growing and harvesting cacao, but from hanging out with Desmond and the Rastafarians working on the farm, who have a more innate understanding of the medicinal and life-giving properties of the rainforest.
Q: Tell me about your bar that was just named best in the world, from Venezuela?
CL: We had been looking for cocoa from Guasare since reading about the place in Maricel Presilla’s book The New Taste of Chocolate even before we opened in 2003. Trusted sources in Venezuela said the Guasare growing region was unstable and dangerous and that the authenticity of the bean couldn’t be verified, so we waited. Finally, in 2018, we found and bought a very small supply of Guasare growing on four diversified farms near the town of Rosario, west of Lake Maracaibo.
That variety of bean was discovered in the '90s on a small farm in the Sierra de Perijá, near the Colombian border. Cacao agronomist Humberto Reyes discovered this old, pure Criollo and named it after the Rio Guasare. Unlike Criollo types of cocoa, scientists found these plants to be very productive. They blossom in two years and produce big, hearty fruit with plump, white seeds in three years. This, in the world of cacao, is huge. The cocoa has the same beautiful, ancestral flavour profile as its Criollo relations without being fragile and hard to grow. It’s a hopeful sign for Venezuelan farmers in a time of chaos.
Q: What do you wish chocolate lovers understood about your chocolate?
DC: One of our tag lines from earlier on was “Traveling Without Moving”, which came from the movie Dune. When you’re at a table and you have a bar from Madagascar, a bar from Venezuela, one from Sao Tome, another one from Java, what more fitting phrase could there be? You’re tasting all these chocolates and getting transported — flavour-wise — to these far-flung places. You can have little, quiet moments of tasting flavours that you can get lost in. And that’s what makes this whole world of chocolate so interesting. It’s a different journey each time.
Savour Soma Chocolatemaker at their two retail locations in the Distillery District and on King Street West, and, in May, at their new factory in Parkdale in Toronto, Ontario.