Be my guest: Ola Pacifica

Wish you could run away to Samoa right now? Me too. Heck, I’d settle for the sun-drenched climes of Hawke’s Bay. Even that seems like an impossible dream at the moment. Sigh. However, I’m making up for it by eating some divine chocolate made from Samoan-grown cacao beans, thanks to Hawke’s Bay entrepreneurs Nia and Phil Belcher. Intrigued? Here’s the full story.

The Belchers have been in the chocolate business since 2010, when Nia started looking for a way to help out cacao farmers in her mum’s village in Samoa. They’ve grown from very humble beginnings to now working with more than 200 farmers in different communities. Their chocolate – Ola Pacifica – is now made in Switzerland and shipped worldwide.

Recently – slap bang in the middle of lockdown – the Belchers launched three new flavours: coffee, orange and almond. Launching a new range in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t one of the topics covered in Small Business 101, but the Belchers reckon chocolate is an important small joy in these difficult times.

“I love producing chocolate that makes people happy,” Nia says. “The taste of Samoan-grown beans is very different from beans grown in other countries.”

The Ola Pacifica story starts near Apia, where Nia grew up making cocoa mass from cacao beans. “We’d make our favourite cacao drink from the cocoa mass, so I also knew we could make chocolate if we ground it further,” she says.

An interest in food and cooking, combined with a desire to revitalise a dormant but sustainable industry in Samoa, inspired her to experiment further. 

“Samoa’s cocoa industry used to thrive under the administration of Germany back in the late 1800s, but the industry basically ended when the Germans left,” Nia says.

“Samoans were still growing it – they love their koko drink  – but we wanted to provide an alternative market for the growers. We started with cacao beans and nibs and gradually grew into different products including chocolate.”

The Belchers knew they were onto a good thing when their first products, sugar-free cacao beans and nibs, flew off the shelves. By mid-2013, they’d grown the range to four products. Inspiration for their next move – making dairy-free chocolate – came after Nia discovered that she was allergic to dairy products in 2014. She threw in the towel on her corporate job as a town planner and committed to the business full-time in 2015.

Growth was good, but it brought hard decisions to make. If they wanted the business to succeed, the Belchers realised it made sense to have Ola Pacifica chocolate made in Switzerland.

“The question of ‘why Switzerland?’ is often asked, and there are many reasons,” Nia says.

For one thing, it’s cheaper to send a container of beans from Samoa to Europe than from Samoa to New Zealand. (I know. This is one to file away under ‘great mysteries of the universe’, like where odd socks go.) Then there’s the issue of scale.

“Our growers needed a bigger market than just New Zealand,” Nia says. 

“We’re a New Zealand-owned global business, supporting Samoan growers, and we can do a better job of that making the chocolate where our target market is. Many of our dairy-free//vegan consumers are in Europe and the USA.

“The ‘made in NZ’ branding may be attractive; but not everything can be grown in New Zealand and still be profitable for artisan makers,” she says. 

“Many of those who make chocolates in New Zealand do so with cacao mass that’s actually from Belgium or other places in Europe; with other ingredients (nuts etc) produced elsewhere and imported. But it can be put together here and called ‘made in New Zealand’ even if the ingredients have been processed in three different countries and sourced from many more.”

Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing, Ola Pacifica chocolate is certified as being carbon neutral – the packaging is recyclable and the Swiss manufacturers offset their carbon emissions with planting projects.

“The Swiss we are working with are not just any Swiss chocolate maker but one with similar values on sustainability,” Nia says. ‘They’re the leading world producer of carbon neutral chocolates; they actively support suppliers and growers and are very advanced in future thinking.”

Of course, no amount of future thinking can protect a small business from the shockwaves of a global pandemic but Nia is bravely optimistic.

“We are very fortunate,” she says. “We have not lost anyone or had anyone we love suffer. We were also so fortunate that the last container of beans arrived in Europe where it was warehoused and stored before the lockdown. Likewise, the first container of finished chocolates had just arrived in NZ, been warehoused and were ready for launch when the lockdown hit here as well. So luckily,  we had chocolates on the ground ready for distribution into our online store and physical shops where possible.”

It’s not every day that you can treat yourself to a taste of Samoa and support a small, sustainability-focused New Zealand business in one delicious bite. This is really very good chocolate. You deserve some, don’t you?

For stockists of Ola Pacifica chocolate, visit www.olapacifica.com, or check them out on Facebook or Instagram.

Are you a New Zealand food or drink producer with a story to tell? Let me know…

Chocolate pikelets with spiced honey butter

You may well feel that life is too fraught at the moment to even consider making your own hot cross buns (you might feel like that all the time, in which case you have my sympathies). Even if you do like a bit of baking therapy, your plans might be stymied by a lack of yeast, or flour, or energy to do anything other than get through the day. I know the feeling. But in case you feel like making something, here’s an Easter-ish breakfast treat that uses basic ingredients, doesn’t require you to nurture a living thing and takes very little time to make. 

Chocolate pikelets with spiced honey butter

A note on substitutions for these straitened times: using butter gives these a better flavour, but using oil is fine if butter’s in short supply. Use any sugar (white, caster, brown) – but don’t pack brown sugar into the cup. Use any milk and any flour – omit the baking powder if you’ve only got self-raising, use a little less if you’re using wholemeal (and be aware the pikelets will be a bit sturdier). If you don’t have honey, use golden syrup in the butter (I had to do this for the photo – it was still delicious). 

Makes about 20 pikelets, serves 3-6 depending on greed, hunger, boredom etc

Preparation time: 10 mins

Cooking time: 10 minutes

  • 1 tablespoon melted butter or oil
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ – ¾ cup milk
  • 3 Tbsp cocoa
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 cup plain flour

For the spiced butter:

  • ½ cup (125g) soft butter
  • 2-3 generous Tbsp honey 
  • 1-2 tsp cinnamon

Whisk together the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and ½ cup milk. Sift over the dry ingredients and stir together until just combined (don’t over-mix or the pikelets will be tough). Add a litte more milk if the mixture is very thick.

Set a large heavy frying pan over medium heat. Grease with a little butter or oil.

Drop dessertspoons full of the mixture into the pan (hold the spoon vertically to make the pikelets round). Cook until bubbles appear and pop on the top, then gently flip over and cook for another couple of minutes. Remove to a plate lined with a teatowel or a cooling rack.

To make the spiced butter, beat the butter and honey together until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the cinnamon. 

To serve, pile the pikelets on a serving plate and accompany with the butter. Any leftover pikelets can be frozen and reheated in a toaster. Any leftover butter is great on hot cross buns or toast.

If you fancy a few more Easter cooking projects, you might like to try these Pretend Hot Cross Buns (gluten-free) or these Homemade Marshmallow Easter Eggs (also gluten-free and dairy-free).

Hope you have a happy Easter, wherever you are. Don’t go anywhere, will you?

Chocolate avocado butter (aka woke Nutella)

I’m not particularly proud of myself for this, but I developed a bit of a Nutella habit when we were in France. You know how it goes – warm, crusty baguette, cold, unsalted butter, a dollop of shiny, Wonka-esque Nutella – it’s pretty irresistible.

In my defence, the country basically runs on the stuff (which is why strikes at the factory are always taken so seriously). I know that’s no excuse – France runs on cigarettes too, but I managed to not start smoking – but no one’s perfect. I mean, at least I wasn’t eating foie gras for breakfast, right?

Now we’re back in New Zealand, I wouldn’t dream of buying Nutella, especially not when there are some very good local alternatives (such as the so-good-it-sold-out-in-a-day Kindness Spread from Good Bitches Baking and Fix & Fogg). But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss having chocolate for breakfast. Here’s a rather more woke version of the dreaded Nutella that you can whip up in seconds.

Chocolate avocado butter

Recently I lunched at Inca, Nic Watt’s new Peruvian-Japanese joint in the fancy new Westfield Newmarket. I’d go again for the sashimi, personally, but they also do a nice line in table theatre by making guacamole in front of you. You could always do the same with this chocolate avocado butter at home, perhaps as part of a Christmas breakfast?

  • 1 generous Tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 generous Tbsp honey or maple syrup
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 perfectly ripe avocado
  • Finely grated orange or lemon zest
  • Optional extras: Finely grated dark chocolate, a pinch of cinnamon, a sprinkle of chilli flakes

Beat the cocoa, honey and salt together until well combined. Mash in the avocado and beat until smooth. Stir in the orange or lemon zest. Taste – it may need a touch more salt, or a drop of juice for acidity – and add the optional extras if you fancy. Slather over a piece of sourdough toast. Alternatively, eat from the bowl as if you’re eating Nutella from the jar. Cover any leftovers and store in the fridge for up to a day.

Kim and Kirsty’s chocolate slab

I’ve had this recipe for more than 20 years. That’s not the same thing as saying I knew where it was – or even that I knew I had it – but I remember exactly when it appeared in my life. It came from my flatmate Kim’s half-sister Kirsty, but where she found it is anyone’s guess. Kirsty came to stay in our tumbledown flat in Mt Cook in about 1996. Kim was doing criminology Masters, Sally was working in a CD store, I was dying of boredom as an admin assistant and Steve was combining his Masters study with driving the cable car. We had no money and lots of good times.

I can’t remember why Kirsty turned up, but she was a curly-haired bundle of energy and a great guest. The flat, a creaky wooden two-up, two-down with a dodgy extension out the back, was the sort of place that felt like it would blow over in a strong wind. Now it’s probably worth a million dollars, but at the time it was pretty rough around the edges (and in the middle).

At some point during her stay, Kirsty produced this recipe, or Kim had it dictated to her on the phone by someone. It’s written on a coffee-stained piece of A4 that contains other, more cryptic, messages such as ‘optometrist, Tuesday’, an address in Howick and a note from Kirsty to Kim about borrowing clothes for tomorrow. Ah, they were simpler times.

Anyway, I still recall how incredible this was to eat – a big, fat slab of chocolate deliciousness. It turns out that it’s just as good as I remember. I thought I better record it here in case the piece of paper disappears (it’s taken me a major clean-out to find it and I’d rather not go through that again).

Kim and Kirsty’s chocolate slab

I know this contains huge amounts of butter, sugar and chocolate (the blessed trinity), but it makes a lot of servings and no one’s forcing you to eat the whole thing in one go, are they?

250g unsalted butter

1 Tbsp espresso coffee powder

1 ½ cups hot water

200g dark chocolate, chopped

2 cups caster sugar

2 eggs

2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1 ½ cups self-raising flour

¼ cup cocoa

Heat the oven to 160C and grease and line a brownie tin.

Melt the butter, water and coffee in a large pot set over medium heat. Remove from the heat, then add the chocolate and sugar. Stir until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth. Add the vanilla. Sift over the dry ingredients and fold together until combined.

Pour into the prepared tin and bake for about 60-80 minutes, until the middle is set. Allow to cool before removing from the tin and cutting into generous slabs. Dust with top with a mixture of cocoa and icing sugar before serving. Makes about 25 large pieces.

Prison Bake Brownies & Good Bitches’ Truffles

I did a lot of cool food-related things in 2018. I wrote a book about burgers, I helped judge the second Outstanding Food Producer Awards and I ate in some of London’s most celebrated restaurants. But the very best thing I did was join a group of volunteers teaching baking at one of New Zealand’s largest prisons.

That might not sound very interesting in and of itself (though I can tell you, being behind the wire at a prison is a huge learning experience) until you realise that baking was a bit of a Trojan horse. What we were really trying to teach – along with a few tips and tricks about successfully making biscuits and cakes – was the redemptive power of kindness. The Prison Bake programme, which ran as a short pilot in August and then a three-week stint before Christmas, was the brainchild of Good Bitches Baking. This charity, set up by Marie Fitzgerald and Nic Murray in 2014, now has about 1600 volunteers baking for 135 different recipient organisations every week. Prison Bake is another way of reaching out to the community and spreading what Fitzgerald and Murray call ‘moments of sweetness’.

You might take a dim view of prison rehab, preferring to think of jail being a place where they lock you and and lose the key. You might not think baking a cake is much of a help to someone having a tough time. But it’s hard to argue with the feedback from the prisoners themselves. When asked what they’d learned during the pilot programme, one of them said he’d learned that he could be a kind person – and he didn’t think that was possible. You don’t have to be behind bars to have that kind of learning experience (but it’s even more remarkable if you are).

PRISON BAKE BROWNIES

These brownies were part of the pre-Christmas Prison Bake programme. They’re very simple to mix and make, and you can change it up by using different chocolate or fruit. I think dark chocolate chips and brandy-soaked prunes might be a good combo (though perhaps not quite so prison-friendly).

125g butter

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1 cup caster sugar

2 eggs

1 cup plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup frozen raspberries

1/2 cup roughly chopped dark chocolate

Heat the oven to 180C. Line a brownie pan (about 20x30cm) with baking paper.

Set a large pot over medium heat. Add the butter and cocoa, stirring until it melts. Cook for a minute or two, then remove from the heat and stir in the sugar. Let it cool until it’s no longer hot to the touch (about 10 minutes).

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each one. Sift in the flour and baking powder. Fold together gently, then fold in the chocolate. Pour into the prepared pan and dot the raspberries on top (press them in lightly).

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the brownies are set in the middle. Cool in the pan before slicing.

Of course, if going to prison isn’t your thing there are plenty of other ways to support Good Bitches Baking. They’ve got a whole bunch of cool things you can buy to support their fundraising efforts, including the most beautiful cake sprinkles I’ve ever seen. If you wanted to be a very kind person you could buy some sprinkles, make these truffles and then give them away to a person in need of cheering up. (It’s ok if that person is you – self-care takes many forms.)

GOOD BITCHES TRUFFLES

This is more-or-less a Julie Le Clerc recipe from issue 100 of Cuisine magazine (a deeply precious issue that sparks much joy).

250g dark chocolate, roughly chopped (I use Whittaker’s 72% Dark Ghana)
50g butter
125ml cream
3 Tbsp dark rum (or brandy, or whisky, or a liqueur of your choice)
1 egg yolk
1 packet Good Bitches Baking Kindness Sprinkles

Put the chocolate, butter, cream and rum into a heatproof bowl and put into a low oven – or over a saucepan of simmering water, or in a microwave – and melt, stirring occasionally. The oven method is really easy, as long as you don’t forget it’s there. 
Let cool for a minute or two, then stir in the egg yolk until well mixed. Let cool for 10 minutes, then chill in the fridge until set (about an hour).
Roll teaspoonfuls of the mixture into balls – this is a sticky job, don’t even think about answering the phone etc while you’re doing it – then roll in the sprinkles. Store in the fridge, eat at room temperature. Makes about 22 truffles if you don’t accidentally eat the mixture.

To learn more about Good Bitches Baking, visit www.gbb.org.nz