As an electrician in the Galeão international airport, Emerson Gama responded to emergencies like exploding transformers. But in his spare time, he was becoming a self-made expert on Latin American mythology, tropical ecology and sustainable resource management.
These passions led him to quit his job four years ago; since then, Gama has become the Rio de Janeiro chocolatier with the most dedicated cult following. Only a few South Zone specialty stores carry his Quetzal chocolates, and where they come from is largely unknown, both to the clients on the long waiting lists for deliveries and to Gama’s own neighbors. The “secret” source? His three-by-three-meter kitchen in his family’s tidy three-bedroom home in the North Zone neighborhood of Encantado, a small residential area set off from one of the city’s busiest highways. His is a sleepy villa of elderly residents and yapping dogs, as characteristic of Rio’s Zona Norte working-class neighborhoods as it is otherwise undistinguished.
“Where I live,” Gama says, “people don’t know what I do. They just smell the chocolate.” Of course they would: he roasts the cacao beans in his own petite oven (Brazilian kitchen appliances are usually about two-thirds the girth of their American counterparts) and then grinds them on his granite countertop in a melanger for 36 hours. A special-order melanger from India is stuck in Galeão’s customs, to Emerson’s great agony, slowing his ability to answer the outstanding 50 orders he has.
Chocolate is, as Gama explains well, a historical Latin American artifact. Equal parts enamored and academic with regards to the product, the chocolatier has traveled from Peru to Venezuela to Mexico to study his craft, in addition to taking a foodstuffs course in São Paulo that networked him with producers across the country.
The cocoa bean is the dried and fermented fatty seed of the cacao tree, whose weighty orange and purple-brown pods are native to the Americas. Chocolate bars as we know them came about with the 19th-century invention of the hydraulic press, which could remove enough cocoa butter from the processed cacao so that it could be made into a powder. When its alkaloid theobromine is preserved, cacao has a caffeine-like effect. Gama notes that this is how the Aztec emperor Montezuma, who is said to have drunk 60 cups of chocolate a day, kept up with a double-digit number of concubines in between those cups.
Gama’s Bahia bar has similar properties. You’ll have difficulty sleeping after a few squares; overdo it and risk some tummy rumblings. With an 80 percent cacao content and lightly sweetened with coconut sugar, it has an appealingly earthy flavor and melts onto your tongue in a thick way that speaks to its purity. Following the Bahia in intensity is the macadamia bar, sweetened with brown sugar and with chocolate from the vital and embattled Xingu region of Pará, whose indigenous residents are known internationally for their fight against the Belo Monte mega-dam project.
Our top choice from Gama is the toasted coconut and curry bar, which has a satisfying crunch and a nice tingle-of-the-tongue from the peppery curry. Those who choose to follow Montezuma’s legacy would do well with the baru bar, which in addition to being 85 percent cacao, has the namesake nut’s flavor, somewhere between a Brazil nut and a peanut. The baru nut comes from Brazil’s central cerrado scrublands and is used as an aphrodisiac.
Sustainability and social responsibility are just as important as flavor for this boutique chocolatier. Many industrial-scale chocolate producers buy their cacao from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, but Gama worries about lack of accountability over labor concerns like child workers. He gets much of his cacao from a co-op in the Amazonian frontier state of Pará, which is one of Brazil’s cacao powerhouses, along with neighboring Bahia. The former tends to be earthy, the latter fruity in flavor, with a ruddy tone. Bahia’s crop of cacao was largely wiped out for nearly two decades, returning to export levels last year, after a disease called bruxa (“witch”) devastated the crop from the late 1980s onward. Gama says bruxa was sabotage against the powerful landowning coroneis in the state, but that those who suffered most deeply were the ordinary farm workers who spent a generation without employment on the state’s lavouras.
Has demand for specialty chocolate lessened during Brazil’s current economic crisis? Quite the opposite, Gama says; indulgence is the antidote to despair. So is hustling. “In times of crisis,” the chocolatier says, “you either cry or sell tissues.”