Maple Tree Forests Branching out with a Cacao Forest Garden

Article by Christine Laliberté, 19 October 2017

Christine1ChocoSol Traders is a tree-to-bar chocolate maker social enterprise based in Toronto ( ChocoSol buys fermented cacao beans directly from cacao producers in Mexico, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic (DR). At the shop, the ChocoSolista team crafts different lines of chocolate bars using stone ground, whole food artisanal methods. One of the “Fino Line” flavours featured is called Bird Sanctuary. This appellation salutes the Hispaniola region of northen Dominican Republic which is where the Zorzal – Agroforestry System is located, a first of it’s kind for this country ( This region is the the winter habitat of the Bicknell Thrush. 


Look up in the Spring and depending upon what part of north eastern North America you are in you may observe a flock of Bicknell Thrushes moving along the Atlantic ocean during their migration. In the summer this small bird migrates to the vast Laurentia forest within southeastern Quebec and Vermont.( Like the Bicknell Thrush, I was also born in a maple forest region.  I feel that we are sharing a similar ritual; we are both “secretive forest singer[s].”


Made with 85% cacao from the Zorzal Reserve, this is my favorite mini bar made at ChocoSol. Bird Sanctuary reveals a distinct level of chocolate, expresses a balance of acidity and suggests a subtle nutty & fruity flavor. The added sea salt represents the Atlantic Ocean, the area covered by these birds during their seasonal migration.  Also, the maple sugar crumble used to sweeten the bar on the back is a call out to the forest gardens of the North that provide food and habitat for these endangered birds. 

Let me invite you to read the story of how I met a network and chain of artisans, technicians, ecologists and farmers who have devoted their lives to create a sustainable cacao product chain. Specifically, my article will focus on these four contributors:

MICHAEL SACCO – ChocoSol Founder, Toronto, CA
Dr. CHARLES KERCHNER- Zorzal Reserve Co-Founder & Artisanal Cacao Farm Operations Chief, DR GREG D’ALESANDRE – Chocolate Sourcer & Co-Owner at Dandelion Chocolate, CA, USA
CYNTHIA JONASSON – Chocolatier & Master Chocolate Maker Teacher at Dandelion Chocolate, CA, USA

Christine5While interning at ChocoSol Traders a member of the ChocoSolista Team, Rebecca Jacobs, once told me an idyllic story about the existence of a bird sanctuary. She described that there are two countries involved in this migratory route with an ocean separating its distinct winter and summer habitats. The story which inspired the name for “Bird Sanctuary” chocolate bar has the charm of a fairy tale but the narrative has peaked my curiosity about ethical chocolate sourcing.  Moreover, I was interested in getting a better understanding of ChocoSol’s horizontal trading business relationships with their producers.  Horizontal trade is an invitation ”to participate in an intercultural dialogue and movement to create a socially-just, equitable, & ecological food system” (  As a result of the generous help of Michael Sacco (TEDxWaterloo – Michael Sacco – 2/25/10) I was able to connect with Dr. Charles Kerchner (, a ZorzalCacao producer and was able to visit a small forest garden cacao reserve in the DR. The purpose of my trip was to also explore my enthusiasm for sustainable agro-ecology and to see with my own eyes how cacao is grown and how such an innovative agroforestry project could benefit the community and help preserve the ecosystem. ChocoSol was the first international buyer to purchase the carbon credit Zorzal beans in 2014, (

This agroforestory project is sucessful because of Dr. Charles Kerchner’s leadership. The Chief Troublemaker (as he’s described on the Zorzal website!) has demonstrated his environmental stewardship of the Reserva Zorzal for more than a decade with collaborative conservation efforts from different political levels and private sector. Additionally, Charles is kind-hearted and generous towards his dedicated staff, hardworking-farmers & their families. Besides being a good business man, Charles is an excellent host from which he has kindly invited me to join the Dandelion Chocolate Group (, who happened to be in the country for one of their chocolate trips.  My impromptu addition to these travellers gave me an invaluable opportunity to meet one the best single source bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the world.

I also had the privilege to participate in a hands-on workshop focussing on cacao bean and chocolate tasting with the amazing Dandelion Chocolate team. The session was taught by Greg D’Alesandre (What A Chocolate ‘Sourcerer’ Learned From Working At Google by Forbes ) where he introduced the importance of having a good qualitative method to “consistently and accurately communicate about flavor” (Getting-good-grades-for-cacao, July 14, 2017 by Greg). Greg presented a standard protocol that was created by the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI). The workshop was very educative and Greg’s expertise and insights of global cacao cultivation and industries are tremendous. Greg answered questions about fruit harvesting, evaluation of fermentation installations and discussing chocolate marketing with contagious enthusiasm. He belives that trust is a “crucial component” for an equitable economic system where the essential aspect of fair and ecological trade is based on sustainable relationships (Greg D’Alesandre from Dandelion Chocolate speaking at the Collaborative Trade Accelerator Culmination Event; this is a shared-value that is championed by Micheal Sacco and his ChocoSolistas in Toronto.

Cynthia Jonasson is a Canadian Master Chocolatier and a teacher at Dandelion Chocolate. She still thrives on learning about chocolate including the history of cacao and its application across civilizations, investigating the several origins of Theobroma pods, evaluating the different fermentation processes and assessing diverse types of installation and  testing recipes in her shop. Moreover, she is an excellent educator. She has been a resourceful person for all of the technical aspects regarding chocolate making . I am very grateful to Cynthia to share all her “tips & tricks”. I invited you to read her articles posted on the “Education Station” from the Dandelion Chocolate website (Dandelion Education Station with Cynthia).


Christine7Based on my observations during my stay in the jungle,  the members of the Zorzal team have adopted sustainable practices involved in cacao cultivation (e.g., agricultural practices work with natural processess to preserve the resources; design and manage organic farming operations ). Furthermore, I feel that the jungle garden sustains the economic viability and enhances the quality of life for DR farmers.Cacao Zorzal, Dandelion Chocolate, and ChocoSol are partners that are successful social enterprises. They are playing a role in addressing climate change, in supporting local communities, and in protecting endangered wildlife with collaborative conservation efforts. Moreover, as reported, “the chocolate makers who buy Zorzal cacao are willing to pay an additional value for each pound of cacao to invest in Plan Vivo reforestation efforts.” In summary, Zorzal philosophy is that: 

We believe that good business practices can help foster positive social, environmental, and economic change, and we are committed to increasing transparency in both our own process as well as across the supply chain.  

My trip reiterates my belief of supporting the fair trade market when you are sourcing and producing a commodity. I have a better understanding of the full implications involved when paying a premium for “Fair Trade” produce.  Although it can have a higher cost to support the sustainability, as a cutomer I am ready to take a few extra dollars from my thin wallet to cover these operations related to this artisanal method. The chocolate industry requires a colossal demand for physical labor throughout the entire process of seeding, harvesting and crafting chocolate. For the respect of the Theobroma cacao plant and it’s workers, biting into a piece of chocolate has forever changed outlook on the chocolate industry. Next time you eat a delicious bitter square of dark chocolate, perhaps you could try savouring it a little longer… being mindful of experiencing the “Food of the Gods” and its sweet contributions from numerous human beings.




Amaranth in the news

Check out the newest feature on our amaranth growers in Oaxaca, Mexico. NPR published an incredible article on one of our partners: Puente a la Salud Comunitaria. Puente is a nonprofit committed to seeking a solution to the high rate of prenatal and childhood malnutrition in rural Oaxaca through the promotion of amaranth production and cuisine. We are proud to be Puente’s first partner outside of Mexico. Amaranth is an native seed and food, nutritionally-dense in protein and other nutrients, part of the Oaxacan forest garden and drought-resistant, and financially profitable for growers and their communities.

We feature amaranth in our Cacao Power Cookies and in the masa (dough) for our tamales. We are also working on a complete-protein tortilla made with amaranth, chia seeds and maize.

If you’re interested in purchasing amaranth flour and/or seed, or pre-purchasing popped amaranth- contact us at Each bag is labelled with the name of the community in which the amaranth was grown.

Full article available here:

Moving Beyond Fairtrade

Check out the smiling faces of our founder Michael Sacco and one of our oldest partners in Mexico, Don Flor, gracing the pages of the National Post!

don flor

This article outlines the limitations and potential for certifications such as Fairtrade, and what direct-trade can mean for cacao producers and chocolate makers alike. At ChocoSol, we’re proud to work directly with growers in Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Ecuador. It’s great to see other chocolate makers like Taza Chocolate and LetterPress Chocolate engaging with direct-trade, and we hope more organisations can do the same!

Read the full article here:

Xocolatl: Mexican drinking chocolate


Did you know “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl word “xocolatl”, which roughly translate as “bitter water”? In fact, across South America, cacao was traditionally consumed as a drink, not a food. Our Mexican-style drinking chocolate are based in that tradition, and make a rich, frothy, not-too-sweet cup of chocolate! Now you can try all of our flavours in our Drinking Chocolate Chest. You’ll receive 4 packages of each standard flavour (the classic Xocolatl, Vanilla Choco-Latte, Oaxacan Cinnamon, and spicy Aztec Blood) plus 1 package of specialty Tejate.


Photo: A local woman preparing to serve tejate at the annual Tejate Festival in the village of St Andres Huayapam in Oaxaca.

Tejate blends cacao and maize with roasted mamey seeds and rosita de cacao into a thick, rich, and energizing drink. Tejate has pre-Hispanic origins, and is still used today in ritual contexts and important festivals including the Day of the Dead or Todos Santos. In Oaxaca, you’ll often see tejate being hand-mixed and served by Zapotec women in markets across the region.

Each drinking chocolate package contains 180g (8 servings). They normally retail for $10 each, but this Drinking Chocolate Chest retails for only $40 (no tax)*.

You can use our drinking chocolate for making hot or iced drinking chocolates, mochas, or try using them for Chocolate Chia Pudding! Simply blend or add 1/2 cup of chia seeds into 2 cups of drinking chocolate, and let chill overnight (or for a few hours). We like to add cacao nibs, dried fruits, seeds, and top with seasonal fresh fruit.


Pre-payment via Interac e-transfer is required. To place an order, contact and provide your full Canadian mailing address. This is a limited time offer while supplies last.

*Additional shipping charges will apply (rates vary depending on location).

Notes from Southern Mexico


In January, Michael Sacco (ChocoSol Founder) and Chrystal Porter (ChocoSol Head Chef) travelled to Southern Mexico as part of our commitment to horizontal trade and to our learning community. Here are some highlights from their time spent in Mexico.


Photo above: Michael Sacco (left) and one of our cacao producers Don Flor (right) in the Lacondon Jungle

Horizontal trade means reciprocity-based relationships based on direct trade. It is about embodying best practices at home and abroad, and striving to do our best with the resources and the vision that we have, not for someone else but by example, and in partnership with them.


Photo above: Friend & tejatera Gloria Cruz Sanchez (left) taught Chrystal (right) how to grind cacao using a traditional metate y mano. This important cooking tool is used for making chocolate and salsas, and also for grinding corn.


Photo above: Jaguar cacao pods and Jaguar cacao beans

Phase 2 of forest garden regeneration in Oaxaca’s forest gardens will include this ancient native variety of white cacao that we re-discovered and are building a regeneration project around at this very moment. Phase 1 of regenerating the jaguar cacao was so successful as to over supply our demand and so now we must work on the polyculture diversification of the forest gardens with this amazing Chinantec community. The jaguar cacao is used to make ChocoSol’s unique & rare ‘white’ chocolate (a.k.a., Jaguar Chocolate).


Photo above: Cooking nixtamalized corn/maize that will eventually be ground into fresh masa (corn dough) for making tortillas.

The nixtamalization process of maize is a technique of soaking and cooking corn kernels in an alkaline solution. It was designed by the ancients to make maize more nutritious and 70% more digestible. Without it, your maize masa will not be right!

A Learning Community Success Story

Colorful  solidarity design tree

ChocoSol’s Learning Community is firmly rooted in values of reciprocity, mutual respect, and conviviality. We could not accomplish the work we do without the wonderful support of our many volunteers. At the same time, volunteers benefit from their time with us in a variety of ways.

For an example of our Learning Community in action, check out this article highlighting the beautiful partnership that we have developed with Addus, a local Toronto organization that supports adults with developmental disabilities.

Oaxaca Profundo Coffee: A ChocoSolista’s Trip to our Coffee Growing Communities


In March 2016, one of ChocoSol’s Lead Animators (Emily Wat) was sent to Mexico to visit 2 of our coffee growing communities in the mountains of Oaxaca as part of our ongoing commitment to building horizontal trade relationships.

Although coffee is not native to the lands of Mexico, Indigenous communities in Oaxaca have successfully integrated this crop into their agroforestry traditions. In doing so, small scale producers are earning a dignified living by selling high quality, organic, shade-grown coffee grown in forest gardens that support plant and animal bio-diversity and also serve as carbon storage units.

To learn more about Emily’s trip, you can view her PowerPoint presentation Oaxaca Coffee Profundo: From Cafetal to Cup.

P1160516espresso cup and beans


Pride of the Artisan

Pride of the Artisan….made possible by the best cacao PROUD…ucers.

ChocoSol is a learning community social enterprise that engages in horizontal trade with cacao producers in Southern Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Horizontal trade is direct relationship based exchange rooted in reciprocity, friendship, sharing and improving the production chain. Sustainability, ecology, health, cleanliness and even “regeneration” are key concepts to our approach.

To celebrate two years running as Best Chocolate in Toronto by NOW Magazine readers, we are sharing three stories from our proud-ucers to recognize their continued support.

Don Florentino Gomez Lopez is a Tojolobal elder in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, Mexico who is a key animator in our horizontal supply chain.


Don Flor ensures quality is controlled, that producers get the best price in the region and that the cacao is safely and cleanly stored. Don Flor once told us that when the prices for cacao and coffee were low he still looked after his plants, and one day when he was injured and the price was restored it was his cacao and coffee plants that helped pay for his treatments. Working with Don Flor and his family is an intergenerational project rooted in humour, in friendship, in family and in solidarity.  It is not reducible to economics. Lacandon cacao is nutty, earthy, winey, and full bodied. Moreover, these forest gardens help to preserve and protect the most important rainforest in Mexico.

Don Maximino is a Chinantec elder and former traditional leader of his community in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, Mexico.  Don Max facilitates our engagement with regenerating the Jaguar Cacao in Chinantec forest gardens. Known as Theobromae bicoloris, Jaguar Cacao once was a key component of forest gardens from the Amazon to Mexico. In 7 years we have gone from sourcing 7 kilos in the village to almost 500 kilos. We have seen the price villagers receive rise from $3 to $25, and we supported the planting of more than 2000 seedlings in Indigenous forest gardens. The Jaguar Cacao project is not a commercial enterprise; quantities are extremely limited. Jaguar chocolate is an expression of regenerating the forest garden traditions of Oaxaca in partnership with Indigenous communities. Working with this Chinantec community reminds us that solidarity is more than just buying fairly priced products, it is about cultivating our own backyard here in Toronto like a forest garden. The Jaguar bar that is only available at ChocoSol is made with forest garden ingredients and it is one of our greatest symbolic accomplishments.


In 2014 ChocoSol was the first chocolate making company in the world to buy carbon credit cacao from the Dominican Republic (DR).
Moreover,  we established a horizontal solidarity trading relationship with the Zorzal private reserve that is a unique forest garden growing cacao that provides habitat for migratory birds from Quebec, New Brunswick, Vermont, and New York. 6391_Bicknells_Thrush_06-17-2012_1Carbon credits don’t taste good, but wrapping carbon credit producing forest gardens projects in chocolate is a way to put a delicious, nutritious and revolutionary body to a concept of regenerative agriculture. To celebrate this migration and ecology we have developed the 1Bird, 2Trees, 1Continent bar that combines maple and cacao from forest garden habitats in the DR and Quebec. A hint of sea-salt represents the ocean the Bicknell Thrush traverses. This bar is a trans-local expression of hope, beauty, and ecology.

ChocoSoil Blog #5 – The Birds and the Bees

In addition to the edible weeds, herbs and vegetables grown on our roof this season, we planted numerous flowers in 12 of our of EarthBoxes to attract pollinators. Pollinators are animals (birds, bats and insects) that “visit flowering plants in search of food, mates, shelter and nest building materials” (OMAFRA, 2015).  Since the spring our garden has been visited by bumblebees, wasps, blackflies and monarch butterflies who were attracted to our sunflowers, zinnias, blue cornflowers, cosmos, pepper, tobacco, tomato and sorrel flowers (to name just a few!). Not only do pollinator gardens attract beautiful wildlife, they provide a habitat that would otherwise be lost in an urban centre and are essential to our urban food system. Pollinators play a vital role in our ecosystem and it is important that we continue to create and maintain healthy and inviting habitats for them.


Here are a couple key elements to the ChocoSoil pollinator garden:

  • our organic soil mix made up from homemade worm castings and organically sourced seeds, (Thanks Colette of Urban Harvest!  (
  • planting a diversity of edibles and flowers to attract a variety of pollinators,
  • planting native plant species such as sunflowers and milkweed,
  • intercropping the flowers with mint, lemon balm and edible weeds to provide them with shade
  • selecting flowers with attractive blooms to add colour and vibrance!

There is growing international concern for the health of our pollinators, and organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Government of Ontario are working to conserve and restore native plant species to attract our native pollinators. OMAFRA recognizes that “the long term sustainability of Ontario’s food system and productivity of the natural environment may be affected” (2015) with the decline of pollinators.


Not only do pollinator gardens look beautiful but they are essential to maintaining our local food system. Investing in some seeds or asking a friendly neighbour to share can help to improve your harvest and protect our future! Check out our blog in the coming weeks to see how we have saved the seeds from this year’s garden to provide for next year!


ChocoSoil Blog #4 – More Edible Weeds!

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

IMG_20150612_101321Watercress is an aquatic plant that thrives in moisture-rich environments such as alongside streams and ponds. It can be found growing in Europe and West Asia and was brought to North America with the arrival of European immigrants. In ancient times it was a popular vegetable for its flavour and medicinal properties, and in mid-16th century it was cultivated in Germany where it was often used to treat coughs and bronchitis.

Watercress can be cooked or eaten raw, and is a source of beta carotene, iron, calcium, Vitamin C, bioflavonoids, Vitamin E, B1, B2. When cooked it is a good diuretic and also has positive effects on the respiratory systems, kidneys and heart through relieving fluid tension. For these reasons it has been used across many cultures to cure colds and fevers.


Our watercress seeds were started indoors in mid april and transplanted into a single earthbox in mid-may. We planted it alone because it spreads out low to the soil and intertwines into a thick clump. To harvest we simply pinched off stems and leaves in a “cut-and-come-again” manner. They were used in our masa and beans for our tortilla project. It did not flourish as well as we had hoped since it remained small and dry. We believe this is because the environment of the earth boxes was not moist enough for the plant. While there is a constant storage of water it is not a constant stream of moisture which the plant thrives on in the wild.

Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides)

IMG_20150708_161921Indigenous to Mexico and cultivated throughout Mesoamerica, Epazote grows wild in hot, dry and relatively poor soil conditions. It usually grows to be between 3-5 ft tall with strong-scented leaves 2-4 inches long.

This edible weed has many medicinal and nutritional benefits, but it can be detrimental in large quantities. Making a tea is a good way to get the nutrients from the plant, and can be especially helpful in treating parasites. Epazote helps to reduce gas, so it’s great to eat with beans 🙂 We add it to our mole recipes and to our tortillas.


We sowed epazote indoors in mid April and transplanted them in late May outdoors into two earthboxes. We felt the plants never reached their full growing potential as the plant and leaves were smaller than expected. The flavour was still strong and was a tasty addition to our tortillas. The reason the plants were spindly may have been that the dry-loving plants did not react well to living in a self-watering container where moisture is constant. When we allowed the water levels in the EarthBox to drop, the epazote started to do better. We have saved some seeds for next year and are hoping that the plant will eventually acclimatize to our rooftop environment.