After a grueling week immersed in the city of Oakland's problems, Councilmember Nancy Nadel unwinds in a unique way. She puts on a hair net, cranks up the reggae, and loses herself in swirling vat of warm, rich, dark chocolate.
Nadel has become a chocolatier in her (very little) spare time, launching the Oakland Chocolate Company with its roots in Jamaican soil.
"It's like my Zen," Nadel said last Sunday, the only day of the week she isn't buried in budgets and voluminous agenda packets or other issues affecting her West Oakland district. "The preparation and even the clean up, I get into it. When I give people my chocolate they are happier than when I talk about my progressive policies."
No doubt. But Nadel's progressive policies have a way of steering her life choices, and the decision to dabble in chocolate is no exception.
The story can be traced back to the last vacation Nadel and her late husband, West Oakland activist Chappell Hayes, took to Jamaica before he died. She has returned year after year during summer breaks from council business, staying with friends in the rural reaches in the parish of St. Mary on Jamaica's north coast.
Cacao farmers such as Steve Belnaviz eke out a living selling their just-picked beans to the government, which sends them to a state-run fermenting plant. Many of the poor farmers that Nadel met have land, but no money to harvest their cacao trees. Some have cleared the trees that shade the cacao to plant other crops.
"It's a beautiful place but it has the same kind of (economic) problems as Oakland," she said.
At first Nadel wondered whether she could help the farmers get better prices for their beans by helping them organize a fair-trade cooperative. The cooperative would ferment its own organic beans and sell the product in bulk to chocolate companies, basically removing the middle man. Then she thought, why not try her own hand at farming and making chocolate?
"As a city council member I've talked about sustainable issues and farming for a long time," she said. "My goal is to put my money where my mouth is."
So she took a weeklong class at UC Davis in chocolate technology and hasn't looked back. The Oakland Chocolate Company started small and Nadel intends to keep it that way for the foreseeable future, given the demands on her time.
For a time Nadel rented kitchen space at Brown Sugar restaurant on Mandela Parkway. But that arrangement required her to bring in her supplies and pack it all out at the end of the day. She recently subleased space from the maker of Barlovento artisan chocolates in Jack London Square. She bought a bigger machine for melting her chocolate and she can leave all her equipment, ingredients and finished products there.
Nadel is averaging about 200 pieces of filled chocolates or dipped nuts and fruits each Sunday, plus molded chocolate leaves and textured chocolate crunch bark. She eagerly gives visitors samples of nutty-tasting cocoa nibs to munch on as she describes how the milky white beans are harvested from football-sized pods that grow from the trunks of cacao trees, and then placed on trays and covered with banana leaves to dry and ferment.
It's taken years of research and outreach, but Nadel and her partners in Jamaica gathered with cacao farmers for the first time in February to discuss their plans for a cooperative and fermentary, and efforts to join the Jamaican Organic Agriculture Movement.
And it will be some time yet before a production-sized fermentary is established and the farmers can produce enough fermented beans to provide a steady supply to her company and other chocolate makers.
Still, the seeds are starting to take root.
"Two weeks ago was the first time I made chocolate from beans that I had picked, fermented and dried, and brought back 3,000 miles," said Nadel, sounding like a proud parent. "It's an incredible feeling."
A portion of the sales from the Oakland Chocolate Company will go to help build a production-sized cocoa bean fermentary in Jamaica.
To learn more about the company and the Jamaican farmers, or to order chocolates, visit www.theoaklandchocolateco.com.