Today is Valentine’s Day, so we’re going to talk about chocolate. That’s the easy explanation. The more complicated version of how Last Chance Foods choose to approach the topic of such a beloved confection involves a former aerospace engineer turned farmer, a vertically integrated beans-to-bar company, and a three-year-old factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn
Those are the bones of the story behind Cacao Prieto. Founder and CEO Daniel Prieto Preston started his career as an aerospace engineer, and after selling his defense company and signing a strict five-year non-compete agreement, he decided to turn his attention to his family farm in the Dominican Republic.
The farm had been growing organic cacao for more than 100 years. (Preston said most farming on the island is organic because of strict regulations to prevent deforestation like that seen in neighboring Haiti.)
The cacao pods that are harvested twice a year bear little resemblance to chocolate. “You have these strange football-shaped pods in all different colors that grow anywhere on the tree, not just at the end of the branches,” Preston explained. “They can come right out of the trunk. It looks like something that would be in a children’s coloring book.”
The fruit has a gooey white pulp with about 40 seeds inside each pod. “It’s not a bean,” Preston said. “That’s just another misnomer. You’re actually eating the seeds of the cocoa fruit.”
Even the word “cocoa” is a misnomer. “Cocoa is actually a misprint in an English dictionary from the mid-1850s, which became just sort of universally used,” he said. “So you can use it synonymously with cacao. Generally speaking, you’ll refer to cocoa as something that’s been processed, but people use it for everything.”
(Photo: Amy Eddings and Daniel Prieto Preston at Cacao Prieto in Red Hook, Brooklyn/Joy Y. Wang)
In most chocolate production processes, the cacao pods are hacked off the tree and then left to rot in 5-feet-high piles in tropical weather. “Most people don’t realize that chocolate is a fermented food,” Preston said. “The average fermentation pile probably has 400 different microorganisms and a least a dozen pathogens. That’s one of the reasons why it’s actually not good to eat raw chocolate. It needs to be sterilized first.”
Preston, who is also an inventor, felt like he could do better than that. Cacao Prieto created a controlled fermentation process that keeps out contaminants, and they inoculate the cacao seeds with lab-grown strains of yeast. He also created and patented a vortex winnower that uses a vacuum and centrifugal force to separate cacao nibs from the shells.
“There’s a saying in chocolate that every step of the process is the most important step,” he said, adding that the controlling fermentation helps Cacao Prieto control the flavor and bitterness of the finished chocolate.
“Sophisticated palates, I think, prefer bitter flavors to begin with,” said Preston. “I like a little bit of sugar, so my preference is something around 72 percent. Never milk. Milk chocolate’s not real chocolate to me.”
Amy Eddings and Daniel Prieto Preston in front of his vortex winnower at Cacao Prieto in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Cacao nibs at the Cacao Prieto factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn.