Honest Chocolate

Meet the artisanal chocolatier specialising in handcrafted, small batch chocolate

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

If you’ve ever read or watched one of the films inspired by Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you’d be very disappointed by Honest Chocolate’s setup.

Nary an Oompa-Loompa in sight, the low-fi affair is all mismatched Tupperware, off-white fridges, pressure cookers resting on top of buckets, a hair dryer connected to an extension cord, reggae playing from tinny laptop speakers and recipes scrawled onto foolscap and then Prestiked onto the wall.

There are no machines here and everything is done by hand, including the traditional method of hand tempering chocolate on a granite slab, which is what Michael de Klerk is busy doing when we meet him.

“We like to make things difficult for ourselves,” laughs Michael, who started Honest Chocolate with Anthony Gird after experimenting with raw cacao in their home kitchens.

Now chocolate has always made a good gift: Christmas, birthdays, Easter, anniversaries, weddings, baby showers, appreciation, hostesses, business, sympathy and congratulations. However, it’s the heart-shaped boxes handed out to loved ones on Valentine’s Day that most people associate the sweet treat with. Which is why we caught up with the chocolatier for this month’s Maven feature and asked him to educate us on all things chocolate. 

We started in 2009. I was working for a property development company doing front-end web development. At the same time I was studying massage therapy as a way to get out of working in an office. Anthony and I went on holiday to New York where we stayed with a friend who was making chocolate. We didn’t think much of it, but when Anthony came back to Cape Town he made some truffles and then I started experimenting in London.

I moved back to Cape Town and we started doing stuff together. If you don’t have air con it’s difficult to make chocolate because you need to bring the chocolate below 27 degrees. So in summer we’d wake up at two in the morning, open all the windows, get in the kitchen and start tempering and dipping bonbons until five in the morning. Then back to work because we both had full-time jobs.

Anthony and a friend came up with the name Honest. We try and give people a chocolate that’s more about the cacao bean than the sugar. Chocolate is often referred to as candy. A 72% chocolate bar is 72% unroasted cacao bean that grows from a tree in a jungle. The rest is agave. But then Honest is also the business practice, how we pay and treat staff. We try and apply that to everything we do.

Our goal from the start was to upskill people. Take people and teach them what we’d learned. We now have five people working at our Woodstock operation and three full time staff at the café. We’ve always looked after our staff and been fair.

Chocolate comes from a tree. A pod. We get ours from Ecuador. The bean is called the Arriba Nacional.

A lot of chocolate here isn’t sourced very ethically. It’s all owned by the big corporates and so it’s quite difficult to source ethical cacao. We’ve been using the same bean for ages. We know it comes from a good farm, ethically farmed and it's probably one of the best beans in the world.

Chocolate is too cheap. A slab of chocolate shouldn’t cost less than R20. Someone’s picked the bean, fermented it, roasted it, cracked the husk, ground it down and then someone has made the chocolate and it still costs X amount? The only way that can happen is if somewhere down the line someone has been taken advantage of.

We have a sample of Tanzania cacao bean. It’s a small farm and closer to home. Got a big bag of it and started roasting the bean ourselves. It’s a different style of chocolate compared to what we’re doing now. We still want to keep the raw, just eventually move on to doing two different types.

At the moment we do 10 slabs.  72% cacao nibs, cracked coffee bean, Maca Root, mint, orange, salt, Grains of Paradise, the 88% and then two small slabs.

People try and tell us what to do, but we don’t like following orders. ‘Do a chili chocolate!’ No, we’ll give you something even better like Grains of Paradise which is a spicy peppercorn from Ghana with a slightly citrus taste.

Chocolate needs equatorial, tropical conditions. Central Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania, Ecuador… We have plans to go to Tanzania and Ecaudor and visit the cacao farms there, but money is tight. Been doing this for seven years and still haven’t managed to do that yet. All the money we make goes back into ingredients.

We’re not making any money. Maybe if we were in London or New York and our margins were different but this bean is so expensive. Every time money comes in it’s a tough cycle. We’re ordering from Ecuador. So we pay now and get three months later. The bigger you get, the more you have to order and the more money you have to put up. So even things like getting something better than a hairdryer to heat the chocolate up with doesn’t happen because we just keep on investing in more ingredients.

We’ve taken loans from the bank, and we got an interest-free loan from the government, but as two guys it’s quite difficult and we’re looking for investors right now.

A machine costs over a hundred grand. So that’s one reason why we do everything by hand. There’s a lot of labour that goes into it. We do sixty slabs at a time. Every bar is hand tempered, moulded and wrapped.

The farms that we order our cacao from grind it for us because we don’t have the machines. We get it as 100% paste. We then melt it down, add agave, temper it…

Much like you temper steel to make it strong, you temper chocolate to change the crystal structure. What we’ll do is pour it onto a cold granite slab, and that cools it down, and then swish it around to warm it up again and it’s at that point that you get the shininess and snap. If you didn’t temper it, it would look very rough and it wouldn’t snap the same.

Honest Chocolate Café backs onto a courtyard space that we share with Commune.1 Gallery. We do coffee, cakes, tarts and everything chocolate. Retail is bonbons, bars and jars of chocolate spread. The café is following the same ethos but some things do use sugar and milk. We’ve kind of opened it up a bit to cater for everyone. There’s also a secret gin bar at the back that opens at 5 O'clock.

Local artists illustrate all our wrappers. The first one, a pirate stuck in the Kalahari Desert, was by a friend of ours, Toby Newsome. We let the artists do their own thing. It’s great how they’ve come on board.

People talk about chocolate being fattening, but it’s the opposite, if anything it increases your metabolism. Cocoa isn’t bad for you and there are health benefits, too. When you start adding sugars and emulsifiers, yah, then it’s bad for you. Don’t be afraid of the dark. It’s organic, raw cacao, high in antioxidants and ethically sourced. With no preservatives, additives or emulsifiers. It’s also diary and sugar-free.

Chocolate is known as food of the gods. Working with it, you’re obviously eating it all the time. You actually start to get high on the chocolate and we often find ourselves laughing hysterically at nothing. Hits you right in the adrenals.

Chocolate goes with everything. You can take our 88% slab and grate it over your eggs in the morning. In terms of food and pairing, there’s so much you can do.

It’s such an expensive cacao bean though, you wouldn’t want to use it for anything else. Which is another reason why we’re looking at another bean, so we can start collaborating with chefs and doing things like that. 

Haven’t a clue why we give chocolate on Valentine’s Day? Pure cacao is known to enhance the libido a bit. And the Maca Root we use in our one bar is definitely an aphrodisiac.