Q&A With Maricel Presilla

August 20, 2015 3:15 pm Last Updated: March 8, 2018 5:30 pm

We’re talking with: Maricel Presilla
Occupations: International Chocolate Awards Americas partner, historian, chef-owner (Cucharamama, Zafra, Ultramarinos), James Beard Foundation’s 2015 Who’s Who of Food and Beverage, author of the James Beard Award-winning “Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America”
Home: Weehawken, N.J.

Epoch Times: You ate hundreds of chocolate samples to select the chocolates for the judging process of the Americas portion of the International Chocolate Competition. What was that like?

Maricel Presilla: It’s an attack on your body. For us it’s always exciting but the effect it has on my body is scary. There comes a point where your eyes are glazed. The grand jury [selection] is at the [Ultramarinos] store so we can get good food, we can get back to normal after a few rounds of tasting. We walk around, there’s a dog park, we watch the dogs play, then we go back to tasting.

If we did not use polenta as a palate cleanser throughout the competition, we could not do this properly. The polenta is like having a mouthwash because it’s grainy and it has no salt. It really cleans you up and you start tasting almost as if you started fresh.

We look for judges in many areas of expertise. But, I’m always looking for great cooks [to be judges] because a great cook understands chocolate as food and that’s what it is. It’s nothing more than food.

If you’re a great cook, you will be able to identify great chocolate, and you won’t have preconceived ideas.

Some experts love certain brands because they know too much; they might be influenced by a style, what they perceive as  French or Italian style for instance.

Sometimes judges look for harmony but there are chocolates that are great because they’re not harmonious. They have maybe a single note that is very exciting. And if you have an adventuresome palate you understand that some foods are like that. Some great foods in the world are defined by single notes of flavor—not simple single notes, complex single notes. They don’t have that roundness that people think is a mark of quality, like having chocolate and spice and fruit and this and that. It’s like a good symphony. Sometimes a chocolate is a solo performance, and you have to be able to recognize it and appreciate it.

I remember when I took a group of American and European chocolatiers to Venezuela to tour cacao plantations on behalf of Chocolates El Rey. I would never forget the day we tasted regional Venezuelan cacaos at El Rey’s factory  where chocolatier Larry Burdick, whom I adore, tasted a chocolate from south of Lake Maracaibo (Sur del Lago) that had a hay-note. Very few liked it. But he said, “I can do something very interesting with this.” He understood that the herbal hay note could be ideal for something he had in mind.

Epoch Times: What impact have the competitions made?

Ms. Presilla: We have already seen the changes. We have seen changes in Scandinavia. We have seen young chocolatiers [who came] to us kind of green last year in Copenhagen now making delicious chocolates that we could not stop eating.

The first year in Italy was fairly uneven. Now there’s unbelievable stuff coming from Italy. We have seen qualitative change in every single place where we’ve actually done a contest. We send feedback to people as an important part of our process.

What we have discovered is, some people really care about the International Chocolate Awards. So when people are too casual about our painstaking process, we don’t respect them very much because many chocolate makers and chocolatiers do sacrifice to enter their products in the competition.

People from countries where there are restrictions about shipping, travel with their products. The Venezuelans bring their chocolates by hand because they cannot trust the shipping. The boxes are stabbed at customs there to see what they contain. Or the products do not arrive.

The Japanese do it, not because they don’t trust the mail, but because they believe their products need to be totally protected against changes in temperature and mishandling. They treat them as jewels. The Japanese chocolatiers send their right hands, people who play an important part in their business.

What we have seen in every competition is that entrants have improved. We’ve had an influence on them.

Informally, we have often said to our non-European entrants. “We would not like to see copycats of European chocolates.” We would like to see products that represent the culture of your region and country. When a product that uses regional ingredients, as it has happened with Japanese entries, wins, it becomes a benchmark. It is not taken lightly one bit.

Epoch Times: There’s no big sponsor, right? This is an endeavor run by very few people.

Ms. Presilla: I’m a sponsor in the same way that the three of us [International Chocolate Awards British partner Martin Christy and our Italian partner Monica Meschini] are our own sponsors. When I go to London, my other partner Monica and I stay together in Martin’s flat, which is small. He sleeps on the floor. I sleep in his room, she sleeps in his office. We cook together, take the train, and do everything on our own. We often cook the polenta at his apartment in London and we carry it with us in the train.

We don’t have sponsors—not yet. But we are totally OK at this point. In a way we are building a complex but sustainable system. Every year we have grown.

Epoch Times: Tell me about your connection to chocolate while growing up.

Ms. Presilla: If you think of Cuba as an alligator, where the head is, the eastern part, is where I was born. At the top of that head is an area called Baracoa. Cacao was brought there, probably by the Spaniards. My paternal grandmother’s family comes from there.

My great-grandfather and his two brothers settled in an area inland by the river Jauco, and they established a hamlet, Cañas, where they grew cacao, plus coffee, plantains, yuca and other tubers and a little sugar cane.

What happened to my poor great-grandfather is that the Spaniards killed him in the war of independence. The Spaniards had enlisted volunteers, “voluntarios” who were savages. They went to the countryside to burn hamlets, to get the peasants from the countryside into concentration camps in the cities because they didn’t want them to feed insurgents. So they would come into towns and the men would hide in the countryside; otherwise, they would be killed.

The Spaniards came to this hamlet called Cañas and my great-grandmother was pregnant with her last child and my great-grandfather did not want to leave her, so the Spaniards shot him—although he was a Spaniard himself.

They shot him and because they heard him moaning, they came back and they cut him into pieces with machetes, no kidding. The women put together the pieces.

You know, the Royal Palm has gigantic flowers and fruits that look like grapes, and covering the flowers, there is a protective sheath shaped like a canoe with strong fibers called yagua. Yagua is used in Baracoa for everything—they even make baskets with it. Well, they buried my great-grandfather wrapped in a yagua. The women of the family made a bundle and buried him right by the side of the cacao field. You can still see a wooden cross on his tomb, and my relatives have planted a garden there, by the river.

So when I was a child, my father took  me there. It was an amazing experience to go with my father on horseback—I remember meeting family, and seeing and eating cacao for the first time.

When I did the first edition of my book The New Taste of Chocolate, I went back and then I did a story for Saveur magazine. I saw cacao and learned that the government was buying the cacao for nothing. [My relatives] were not making any money out of it. If I could have helped them commercialize the cacao, as I have done in other parts of Latin America, they could have made more than  decent money.

It was kind of sad, because one of the militiamen infiltrated a family reunion—there were so many people, there were neighbors, relatives. One of them was there listening to me opening my big mouth saying, “Oh, things change, I can commercialize your cacao, I can sell your coffee. … Imagine we can call it Ferrer cacao. I can sell the cacao for 3, 4, $5,000.”

The next day the soldiers came to pick me up and took me to their garrison. They kept me for hours asking me stupid questions and they reprimanded me because I was putting capitalist ideas in my family’s mind. “You come with capitalist ideas telling them you’re going to sell their cacao, it’s our inheritance, it’s our  this and that…such stupidity.” I was furious.  [They said,] “Well, because of what you did, you’re not to be trusted to be roaming around here. You’re not allowed to go into the cooperative fermentation and drying facility.”

When I got to Baracoa, I went to a factory created by “Che” Guevara in the ’60s. I saw the machinery, dilapidated. They lacked the simplest tools. I looked at that and almost said, “I will send you something.” But I said, “You’re so proud of your weapons but you don’t have the simplest things in your factory.”

So my feeling is, I now see a lot of my friends in the chocolate business buying and using Cuban cacao. Big companies buy from the government and then they resell it to companies like Sprungli at high prices, and these people make bars and sell them at high prices because it’s exotic—a theme park mentality. I think it’s unethical. I think cacao from Cuba is like blood diamonds. My friends ask me, “Why do you get so upset?”

I say, “Why do I get so upset?”

When I think of my family sitting on cacao, in a historic area, and their neighbors in the Dominican Republic are selling a similar cacao at a premium, and they’re prosperous—and my poor family, with so many needs. The women still cook over a wood fire. They’re aged, they’re weathered by this hard work. Their homes are not the beautiful homes I saw when I went there as a child. Those homes, they were made of cedar, carved by hand. Now many live in huts with palm-thatched roofs. I saw their needs. Still, in a very healthy Cuban way, they seem happy and were singing, but I said to myself, this is really unfair.

So when I go to Europe and I see friends making chocolate with Cuban cacao I ask myself, well, should I boycott them? Well if we boycott them, then the government will cut down the trees and  plant something else.

I have said to some chocolate makers I respect, “Write something on your package, write a paragraph not apologizing but saying it the way it is, that you’re buying this cacao because you don’t want the cacao to disappear” but no one does. They sell it as a commodity like they’re helping the farmers. It’s this farm-to-table mentality taken to extremes.

Epoch Times: The appeal is predicated on the fact that it’s Cuban?

Ms. Presilla: Yes, it is the mystique of Cuba. It’s the forbidden island and these chocolate makers feel like they are “explorers,” although they’re sitting in their offices and they make the orders over the phone.

Some people have entered chocolates made with Cuban cacao and the judges have not liked it so I haven’t had to deal with it but I’m thinking I might have to deal with it eventually in the U.S. I don’t know what I will do because to me it’s unethical until the day Cuban cacao farmers take the fate of their cacao into their own hands.