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?

Anglo-French rocky road

For reasons too complicated to explain in detail here, I recently found myself teaching four groups of school children how to make rocky road. In French. Yes, I know. I’m not sure how I get myself into these situations but once the gate clanged shut, there was no getting out. (Literally – French primary schools are like fortresses.)

I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I’d been in similarily challenging teaching environments before (though I wasn’t sure this French primary school would enjoy being compared with a medium-security New Zealand prison, so I kept that to myself). Luckily, I also had help: an ex-nurse and a former army officer whose CVs were packed with far more useful and impressive feats than mine.

Image shows a bowl of rocky road mixture (marshmallows, chocolate, crushed biscuits) being stirred by five children (only their hands are visible)

I don’t want to go telling tales out of school, but trust me when I say that all three of us needed to be on our A-game. Fortunately, French school kids are used to being told off. Unfortunately, they’re like all other children (and adults) in the presence of chocolate. Suffice to say, it was an exhausting morning, much mitigated by a refreshing glass of cider at 11.30am in the staffroom afterwards. 

Should you wish to recreate this experience yourself during the school holidays, invite 10-15 children to come and make the following recipe with you. Make sure you’re in a classroom without aircon, preferably a few days before a record-breaking heatwave. For best results, have very rudimentary cooking equipment, at least two children who will be fighting at any one time, and eyes in the back of your head to stop them running with scissors and licking the bowl before you’ve finished mixing. Bon courage et bonne chance!

Two children stir a bowl of melted chocolate, condensed milk and melted butter. Only their hands are visible.

Rocky road

You can substitute other dried fruit or nuts for the cranberries and peanuts if you like.

100g butter
400g chocolate
1 x tin sweetened condensed milk
200g plain sweet biscuits
200g marshmallows
150g dried cranberries
150g roasted peanuts

Line a tin or plastic container (measuring about 20x25cm) with plastic wrap or baking paper.
Put the butter, chocolate and sweetened condensed milk in a large pot. Set it over low heat and stir until melted. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
Put the biscuits in a freezer bag and crush them gently until they are crumbs. It’s good to leave some bigger pieces to make the rocky road crunchier.
Using scissors, cut the marshmallows in half or into thirds if they are large.
Put the crushed biscuits, marshmallows, cranberries and peanuts into the melted chocolate mixture. Stir well.
Pour into the prepared tin and smooth the top. Leave to set in the fridge for 1 hour. Cut into pieces and store in the fridge.

A boy licks biscuit mixture off a spoon.

‘Chemin Rocailleux’

Vous pouvez remplacer les cachuetes et les canneberges sechees avec des autres noix ou fruits secs.

100g beurre demi-sel
400g chocolat
1 x boite lait concentré sucré
200g biscuits du thé
200g guimauvres
150g canneberges séchées
150g arachides salées

Tapisser un moule ou un Tupperware de 20x25cm avec du film étirable ou du papier sulfurisé. Deposer le beurre, chocolat et lait concentré sucré dans un pot. Chauffer doucement pour les fondre, en agitant souvent. Laisser refroider 10 minutes.
Mettre les biscuits du thé dans un sac de congelation. Utiliser un rouler ou vos mains pour les éraser.
Couper les guimauvres en petit pièces avec les ciseaux.
Ajouter les biscuits écrasés, les guimauvres coupés, les canneberges séchées es et les arachides au chocolat. Melanger bien.
Verser dans le moule. Placer au frigo pendant 1-2 heures. Couper en petits pieces et garder au frigo. Bon appétit!

Need more school holiday baking ideas? Check out these ones.

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