Saturday, November 2, 2013

Real Chocolate and Other Gifts of the Trees

In the northern latitudes extending onto the belt of Arctic tundra you enter a realm of birches, various species giving way to each other as longitudes, soil types and land masses change. The northernmost in the family are shrubs, and there is a yellow birch, a black or sweet birch, a silver birch, and American paper birch, that really showy best-known of the clan, with its white bark curling loose to expose salmon-pink inner patches. The peelable bark has provided generations of craftsworkers with material for canoes, rafts, baskets, cookpots, shelter, footwear, writing paper, toys and fire starter.

A co-worker recently posted that as a child he was afraid of birch trees. I can imagine a kid alarmed by any crooked white thing in a dark woods. Once long ago there was a contest on the radio with a cash prize for the person who dared the strangest stunt. The winner was a guy who ate a whole birch tree, leaves, twigs and all, it seems after I had asked about those details. Size and degree of rawness were sketchy at best when my sister, the one who heard about it, told me.

Birch was the choice when an art client commissioned me to design a family tree as an anniversary gift for the folks, who live here in birch country where they raised their three offspring. The project was illuminating on many fronts, triggering a sense of how a tree's characteristics, if you start to pick and choose from among them, can resonate with a family's traits. The listing in my Etsy shop for a family tree made to order asks that the customer choose a favorite kind of tree along with any other specifications to be part of the illustration. Trees after all are cherished fellow-beings, as individuals and as types. There are family trees, phone trees, coat trees; they are symbols of any organization, whether seen as the one in the many or the many in the one.

Here is homage to the birches from my own writing of 1988, titled The Education of Trees (in Memory of Scott Starling:)
               "Seeds of the birch tree chose rockfield, pocked with bog;
                 Betula lutea (Yellow Birch) peeled a gold rind;
                 Betula papyrifera (Paper Birch) traced cold humus to the Arctic, wrapping its trunks
                 in white lapels, its badges darkening it as its descendants eked from dells on
                 the tundra, recommending reclining postures, which Betula minor (Dwarf Tundra Birch)
From any perspective, people who are enamored with birches are most concerned with the aesthetics or poetics of these graceful white-barked, orange-barked, silver-and-gold or black-barked trees.

The influence of some kinds of tree is hugely pervasive around the world through flavoring and food value, as in apple or citrus, coffee, and most significantly to our household, cacao which leads to everything chocolate.

The tree that bears cacao beans is described as small, especially in its cultivated state,with white wood and frail branches. The leaves are large, glossy, red at immaturity, changing to green. Picking the pods requires long-handled knives for the higher reaches of the tree, machetes for the lower branches. Fragile branches and shallow roots typical of the trees used for commercial production prevent climbing to get at the crop by any means. Though most of today's chocolate harvest comes from African countries, another third or so comes out of South America where cacao originated and appears to have been first enjoyed by the Mayans and the Aztecs, its human history going back more than two millennia. Theobroma cacao, the tree's Latin name, means food of the gods.

This household's Meadowlands Chocolate Company offers bean-to-bar chocolate in four varieties, each from a distinct part of South America--Belize, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Each variety has a sub-flavor of its own, in contrast with the chocolate of major brands offered in vending machines and convenience stores or the luxury chocolate offered for Valentine's Day and its equivalents. Meadowlands Chocolate is not candified by dollops of added sugar in the manufacturing, or by milk or emulsifiers; instead the unadulterated terroir or unique regional flavor can be discovered and recognized, the taste of the very soil that fed the beans, much the same as with fine wines. My own favorite is the Venezuelan Amazonas, with a warm drawn-out quality that seems a perfect blend of chocolate, sweetness and forest itself. Beans for this product are brought by canoe from within the Amazon region where the manual harvest takes place using the patient methods described above.

Organic cane sugar and organic cocoa beans are the only two ingredients in Meadowlands Chocolate. The bean supplier carries only certified Fair Trade and other certified organic products. Organic certification, in its quest to promise ongoing harmony between the crop plant and its retinue of harvesters, pollinators and land supervisors, serves in part to simplify, or clarify, the connection between the artisans and the tree that is their source.

From another perspective, there is a whole jungle of motley crops and beauties and supportive strengths for endless art, music and feasting once you step out even to the edge where the tame confronts the wild.

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