Local Food Economy

“Bristol attracts people with ideas”: collaborations in chocolate

By Ramona Andrews

We caught up with Radek and Joe from Radek’s Chocolate, an independent food business making organic, vegan and free-from-refined-sugar (and delicious!) chocolate bars. With the launch this month of their collaborations with other Bristol independent businesses, we discussed how this kind of joint effort provides mutual benefits for all, plus enhanced health gains along the way. 

Bristol has a long and complex history with chocolate. Cocoa and sugar were first brought here from the Caribbean as a result of the brutal slave trade. Later on, the first solid chocolate bar was created in Bristol in 1847 by J. S. Fry & Sons (later known as Fry’s), the beginning of the modern bar suitable for mass production. This is a far cry from Radek’s Chocolate, a small-batch artisan chocolate made in a bite-sized chocolate factory in Fishponds. In 2008, around the time the term “bean to bar” was emerging as a way for artisan chocolate makers to distinguish their chocolate from chocolatiers and mass producers, Radek Ditrych discovered the joys of cocoa beans and began experimenting, giving his chocolate away to friends, and then selling it in markets and festivals in a basket, alongside cooking at the vegetarian restaurant Café Maitreya. Radek’s Chocolate was born. In 2017, Joe McDonnell joined the company.

Bristol Good Food met Joe and Radek at their chocolate factory, a converted warehouse in Fishponds, a building shared with other small independent food businesses, Café Kino, RaviOllie, Proper Probiotics, Hanging and Aging, Chiki Monkey and Toff’s Pasta. Radek and Joe reflect on the importance of collaborating and connecting with other local food businesses in their work. As a group the businesses can order items in bulk, making, for example, packaging and other items cheaper, and there are the obvious perks of being close to other food companies, sharing food and eating lunch together.

But back to the beans which is the essential element for the duo in their bean to bar range. Joe says “bean to bar means buying the beans, processing them yourself, roasting them if you want to roast them, then you winnow them which is a process where through air you separate the nibs from the husks. The husks are the light fibrous bit that you don’t want. We grind the nibs in our stone-grinders. We do that for three days, sometimes even longer and then we temper the chocolate, mould it up and wrap it.”

The provenance of their ingredients is at the heart of the business – they are fair trade, organic where possible and they always buy from trusted suppliers. Joe quoted Amarachi Clarke, founder of Lucocoa, saying she is very often asked why her chocolate is so expensive, “but the question should be why is the other chocolate so cheap?”

He adds, “by supporting small farmers, you know there is respect for the environment around, and agro-forestry” and without traceability “there might be child slavery in the process, or slavery more generally”.

Cocoa and chocolate ingredients
Photo by Manon Houston.

Radek’s buy São Tomé cocoa from Impact Foods, a wholesaler that imports “superfoods”, including cocoa, from around the world. Joe says, “it’s all sustainably sourced, it’s all organically certified, it’s fair trade and there’s full traceability. With our bean to bar range we buy through Silva Cacao with two other South West-based food businesses, Coco Caravan in Stroud and Rye Bakery in Frome. We’ll all chip in together and get a big sack.”

Joe gave the example of one farm with “a beautiful story, a farm in the Duarte province in the heart of the Dominican Republic cacao-producing region called Zorzal, which has a 1,019 acre conservation area for a native thrush bird, a migrating bird, and what they do is use the money from the cacao sales to fund the conservation on the island for the birds to have a space to come back to.”

He adds, “one thing to differentiate with bean to bar is the term ‘chocolate maker’ and ‘chocolatier’. A chocolate maker makes chocolate from start to finish, and a chocolatier is someone who will buy coverture, temper it and make truffles, or mould it into bars or whatever. In a sense, we’re both of those things. And we’re also bakers because we bake brownies!”

Radek acknowledges that there is something special about Bristol when it comes to food and innovation, “we are so lucky to have these amazing companies in Bristol, we’re completely spoilt. I think Bristol attracts people with ideas, it’s hard to say if the city encourages it or not, but innovative people come here.”

Lion's Mane Radek's Chocolate (collaboration with Bristol Fungarium)

One such innovative business is Bristol Fungarium, the UK’s only UK-grown organic certified medicinal mushroom tincture company. Radek’s Chocolate’s CBD bars (a collaboration with Bristol CBD) are currently their best-selling chocolate bar in the entire range. CBD is the active ingredient in cannabis that is derived from the hemp plant, said to promote sleep and relieve anxiety, depression and stress. The success of the CBD-infused bars, led to the pair developing ideas with mushrooms and, as Joe says, “exploring the field of medicinal chocolate”.

Radek has been picking mushrooms since he was five or six with his family in Poland and has carried on this tradition in Bristol, “one day I came back from the woods with what I thought – but wasn’t sure – was a turkeytail. Turkeytail is one of those polypore mushrooms that grows on trees. I contacted Bristol Fungarium to check and it turns it was. They said ‘yes. we need this. We’ve run out. We need it to make tinctures and we’ll pay £50 for a kilogram!’” Next came a period of experimentation – they were unable to put tincture in the chocolate, so had to develop a way of drying the tincture into a powder – and after much development work, Radek’s Chocolate is finally launching the Lion’s Mane mushroom bar this month. Lion’s Manes are said to help with digestive health and immune function and encourage the growth of good gut bacteria.

This month also sees the launch of collaborations with Bristol-based Blind Owl Coffee Company, and craft brewery Wiper and True. Joe says, “two years ago we started talking to Michael Wiper and playing around with tests, trying to figure out how we can make a collaboration. We’re using their barley malt that they use in some of their IPAs, and also hop pellets. The hop pellets were completely inedible though. They are so bitter. So we had to try and get the aroma out of that without the bitterness.” There is not a hint of bitterness in the final product and they have that comfort flavour of a malted milk biscuit or cup of Ovaltine. Joe jokes, a kind of “childhood beer flavour”.

Photo by Agni Las.

Meeting Radek and Joe, it was striking how they have thought through the health and ethical implications of every element of the business – from using cellulose packaging that can go into home compost, to opting for coconut sugar (with its lower glycemic index), to using Lucuma fruit powder from Peru as a sugar and milk replacement. Their experimentations and collaborations bring something utterly unique to the table.

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