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Anna Bonavita's "chocolate revolution"

Chocolate--it coats, fills, and flavors American life in the form of myriad confections that compete to tempt our insatiable national appetite. But the sort of chocolate you'll find on the typical snack counter or in a supermarket is not the chocolate Anna Bonavita thinks about. 

In a better world, there should be better chocolate, she says, and she's doing her part to bring that better chocolate to the Twin Cities and the rest of America. Bonavita is introducing Minnesotans to the highest-quality Italian, French, and American chocolates through Bonavita Chocolates, the online business she started last year with her husband, Massimo Bonavita, and Ella Chamba. For her, it's all part of the nationwide movement toward better, tastier, healthier food.

“I believe this is actually a revolutionary movement,” says Bonavita. “In a better world it’s going to happen with regard to every food that we eat. It has happened with wine. We know much more about wine and perhaps we are more selective about wine. It has happened with olive oil.”

Sure--the best olive oil generates a certain amount of excitement among savvy eaters, but that can hardly be compared to the lasting satisfaction tasters find when they experience the complex flavors of an exceptional chocolate. And along with offering a range of upper-end chocolates Minnesotans might not have heard of, the company advances the revolution by offering chocolate tastings, educational presentations, and other events. Bonavita extols the health benefits and celebrates the origins and sustainability factors of high-quality chocolate.

From "Socialist Chocolate" to the Real Deal

She developed her passion for chocolate while growing up in Bulgaria during the Cold War. “Socialist chocolate” was very sweet, but she dreamed of the far more flavorful Swiss chocolate.

In the United States, she ate American mass-produced chocolate until a friend told her she could do much better. Bonavita read about a French chocolatier that was pioneering quality chocolate. And while in Europe, she was amazed by Italian chocolate and was told it was the best in the world.

Bonavita’s research led her to conclude that Italy did have some of the world’s best chocolate, measured by criteria such as taste and international awards. Along with the French and Italians, some producers in the United States are also making high-quality chocolate, Bonavita says.

Her success in presenting Italian chocolate to friends in the U.S. made her and her partners decide to market it here. In May 2010 they launched a website and began planning ways to bring their chocolate to more events and venues.

Getting the Good Stuff to Consumers

By marketing online, the company sought to connect chocolate lovers in Minnesota and the broader internet community with great chocolate producers.

“It’s a situation where really it’s a great product and there are great consumers. There is this conscientious, curious, enthusiastic consumer and there is nothing that can connect [them]. We see ourselves as really filling this gap or breach between the enlightened consumer and a great, idealistic chocolate maker.”

The success of the co-op movement is evidence that Minnesotans seek quality, she says. They also are curious, even though many haven’t been exposed to high-quality chocolate.

 “We do a lot of kind of shock therapy,” she says.  “We let people try a supermarket quality [chocolate], let’s say something like Hershey’s, and we have them try a high-end, high-quality chocolate and let them decide for themselves.”

Of Cacao Percentages and Bean Genetics

When chocolate tasters make the comparison they often recalibrate their palates to the high quality product, she says. Bonavita Chocolates’ chocolate is in the top 10% or higher for quality.

Minnesotans have developed a taste for chocolate with 90% cacao, Bonavita says, adding that the company plans to offer a 100% cacao product. Another big seller is chocolate with sweet salt--top brands include Domori and Amedei.

The top chocolates are not necessarily organic, because some growers of high quality beans don’t seek the certification, Bonavita explained. What’s most important for quality chocolate are the beans’ genetics. “Genetics is 50%, if not more, of the quality,” she says. “Fine cacao, which has exceptional aromatic qualities, represents less than 10% of what’s available on the market.”

All Bonavita Chocolates’ products are sustainable and ethically produced; some are also organic and fair-trade certified, she says.

A Health Food? Yes!

Along with the focus on quality, Bonavita highlights chocolate’s health benefits. One of the most complex products on earth, chocolate is believed to contain more than 600 chemicals that may have important health benefits, including plant-derived antioxidants called flavonoids that facilitate healthy blood flow and prevent clogging of arteries. Studies show chocolate has a calming effect, especially on women, she says. It’s also important for cardiovascular health.

To tap into chocolate’s health benefits, Bonavita is offering lunch-hour classes in yoga and tai chi combined with chocolate tasting at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis. The state of heightened awareness the yoga or tai chi creates is perfect for tasting chocolate, Bonavita says.

 “You can discover a universe of flavors in a chocolate if your mind is calm,” she says. “If you’re in a hurry, no point in tasting such a high-end chocolate.”

Along with tasting sessions at the Cowles and other locations around town, Bonavita is offering a class on making chocolate from cacao beans at the Kitchen Window in Uptown. “The final result is not going to be what you can find in a high-end chocolate, because we don’t have the equipment to reduce the size of the particles,” she said. “However, nothing compares to something you have control over.”

Find details about events and class offerings here.

A Chocolate Happy Hour 

Believing that exceptional products deserve their own home base, Bonavita Chocolates plans to open a retail location, possibly in the next year. “I imagine we’ll have a chocolate happy hour,” Bonavita says. “Every Thursday and every Friday, with people just stopping by to get a bite of chocolate and continuing with their evening.”

Getting Twin Cities chocolate enthusiasts’ attention is a challenge, she admits. Online sales pick up when consumers have tasted the products, she says. “We know that the foodies of the Twin Cities are desperate to find us and we want to find them too.”
That high-quality food products like chocolate contribute to better health and taste is a not revolutionary concept. But as fine chocolate becomes an experience rather than just an idea for many Minnesotans, they’re passing up the supermarket selection for greater flavor--and for a different attitude toward eating and life.

“[We need] an intelligent approach to what we eat and how we enjoy our life," says Bonavita, "because if we don’t slow down, if we don’t eat better, if we don’t spend more meaningful time with each other, what are we doing?”

Susan Klemond's last article for The Line was a look at the revitalization of Smith Avenue in Saint Paul, in our June 22, 2011 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Anna Bonavita displays her wares.

Amedei chocolate is Italian and elegant.

Roasted cacao beans. "[Cacao] genetics is 50%, if not more, of the quality,” according to Bonavita.

The Bonavita Chocolates team: Anna, her husband Massimo, and business partner Ella Chamba

All photos by Bill Kelley
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