Meet & Eat: Jeff Pzena of Moho Cocoa

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Moho Cocoa's 67% Ginger bar. [Photograph: Liz Gutman]

I first met Jeff Pzena of Moho Cocoa when I took a trip with chocolatier Roni-Sue to his Cotton Tree Lodge. It's located smack-dab in the middle of the jungle, and is two plane trips, a boat ride and a jaunt on a bus away from New York.

So what makes a bunch of chocolatiers venture into the middle of the jungle to get bitten by insects, soaked by sudden rainstorms, and generally freaked out by howler monkeys? Chocolate, of course!

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Eladio Pop, one of the farmers whose cacao is used in Moho Cocoa. [Photograph: Liz Gutman]

The lodge offers opportunities to visit cacao farms, meet the farmers, see how everything is made, and generally get acquainted with the raw materials and processing of chocolate. We visited the factory (a small building with some ingeniously jury-rigged equipment) and watched Jeff take us through the process of making cacao beans into chocolate—from beginning to end—using a coffee roaster, hairdryer and Champion juicer before it was over. Ending up in a closet-sized cold room refrigerated by an air conditioner, we got to mold, wrap and (the best part) eat our own chocolate bars.

At the time, the chocolate made from these beans—procured just down the road from the factory, at the daily market—was only available at the lodge; but now Jeff has brought his wares to the U.S. as Moho Cocoa, named for the river that runs through the Toledo district of Belize where the cacao is sourced.

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Jeff's grinder, powered by a drill. [Photograph: Liz Gutman]

What was the impetus behind starting your chocolate work? I accidentally bought some cocoa beans at the farmers' market in Belize thinking they were almonds. They were unfermented, washed and dried beans the local Mayan people use for making their chocolate drinks. If cocoa beans are not fermented, they do look a bit like almonds. So it was merely by chance.

Which came first, the chocolate or the lodge? My first purchase of cocoa beans (as explained above) was while camping in the jungle at the beginning of the construction of Cotton Tree Lodge, so the two were intertwined from the beginning. Although the lodge was planned first.

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Eladio checks the fermentation on some cacao beans. [Photograph: Liz Gutman]

How involved are you in sourcing the ingredients for your chocolate? More involved than most chocolate makers could ever contemplate! I am growing some of my own cacao and buying cacao seed from local Mayan farmers in Belize.

We're literally going farm to farm in a pickup truck, offering cash for wet cacao seed. We take the seed back to our own custom-built cacao fermentation and drying facility. Basically, we make our cocoa beans, and can control the processing since we are doing it ourselves.

How is your chocolate unique? As with any single origin product, like wine, subtle flavors are expressed based on the growing conditions and the varieties being grown. The Belize cacao tends to be a bit earthy and raisin-y. My processing is fairly simple and I'm only using cocoa beans, cocoa butter, and sugar in the recipe (i.e., no soy lecithin or other emulsifiers). Also, the recipe itself is a bit on the smooth mellow side, rather than focused on intense flavor. It's almost like couverture. I made a chocolate that I like to gobble more than I like to savor. I never tire of it, which is a good sign.

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Moho Cocoa's line of 67% bars. [Photograph: Liz Gutman]

What's your favorite part about what you do? I like the figuring out of how things work part. I also like how business is nothing like you imagine it to be! It's all about human psychology and personal relationships. Chocolate is a treat to eat, so it's an easy industry to be in. The customers are always happy!

What are your future plans for Moho Cocoa? Our current line is of 67% dark bars. I want to put out another line of 67% bars using the same beans and the same ingredients, just more intense in flavor. Our current line is eight parts cocoa beans, two parts cocoa butter, and five parts sugar. The new bars would be ten parts cocoa beans and five parts sugar.

I think our customers would have fun comparing the flavor between the two; and then I'd also have the benefit of making a chocolate that I prefer to savor than to gobble up!

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