Chef Matt Birong and Dominican Cacao

chefAlice Levitt (Seven Days) asks “What happens to a Vermonter when he tries to leave the Dominican Republic with nothing but 20 kilos and a hunting knife in his bag?” The answer is “He’s detained—but only briefly, because the contents of the bag are pure cacao.” My question is, “How did he get through U.S. Department of Agriculture controls?” Anyway, this article highlights the use of Dominican cacao for some of the finest dishes prepared by Chef Matt Birong, an investor in El Guineal, a private preserve in the Dominican Republic. Coincidentally, it is also home to the rare Bicknell’s Thrush [see previous post Chris Rimmer Studies the Bicknell’s Thrush in Haiti and the Dominican Republic]. The article also underlines the conservation efforts of Dominicans, such as the Consorcio Ambiental Dominicano and Jaime and Jesus Moreno (of Helados Bon).

“I got held up in the back room, but pretty soon they were laughing at this crazy gringo going home and making chocolate,” says Matt Birong a day after his adventure with customs. The chef-owner of 3 Squares in Vergennes was on his second journey to the DR to visit El Guineal, site of an 1100-acre preserve that currently includes about 25 acres devoted to growing cacao. Birong is an investor in the farm, which employs between 10 and 20 members of the high-altitude, rural community.

Though the food miles certainly don’t qualify the beans as locavore, Birong’s use of them is farm-to-table direct sourcing at its purest. He cut many of the pods from the tree himself before bringing the fermented, dried cacao home to use in a special menu for Vermont Restaurant Week. [. . .] Birong will roast, clean and process the beans and transform them into not just sweets such as flan and house truffles but also braises and crusts on savory dishes.

[. . .] His cacao menu previews his new obsession. [. . .]  “I’ve never had one single ingredient captivate me so much since I got involved in this last year,” he adds. “This” is the farm Birong bought into last July. It’s part of the first private reserve in the Dominican Republic, a conservation project stretching over 20,000 acres of mountainous land, and it’s a tribute to an unlikely connection between landlocked Vermont and the Caribbean nation. Those locales are the summer and winter homes, respectively, of a rare bird called Bicknell’s Thrush. With climate change and mercury deposits endangering the thrush’s mountain habitats, conservationists ramped up their efforts to establish a wintertime preserve for the bird.

Grant aid came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, among others. Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) is in charge of the ornithological aspects.

The Adirondack-based Eddy Foundation purchased the property to create an ecological corridor, along with Jaime and Jesus Moreno, known as the Dominican Ben & Jerry for their 240-store ice cream brand, Helados Bon. In addition to funding the project and maintaining a hands-on presence at the preserve, the Morenos have debuted a flavor called Choco Maple, combining their local, organic chocolate and macadamias with Vermont maple. Sales will raise funds for Consorcio Ambiental Dominicano, a conservationist nongovernmental organization.

[. . .] Since November, Birong has manufactured the small-batch, bean-to-bar Project Reserva bars, now sold only at 3 Squares and the University of Vermont’s Dudley H. Davis Center. He uses beans from a chocolate cooperative called La Red in Los Pajones, with which Kerchner began working as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2001. Birong will continue to draw on La Red’s trinitario beans for the 70 percent cacao bars, which boast notes of cherry and citrus.

Why is Birong so enraptured with chocolate? To demonstrate, he asks a staffer to steam up a cup of Mayan sipping chocolate, latte style. “It’s almost like a drug,” says Birong of the drink, which was used by the ancient Maya in religious rituals and as medicine. “The sipping chocolate gets you high, like an endorphin buzz. The first time I made it, I drank about four or five ounces, and I really started to get that ritualistic component to this. It’s a warm-body feeling.”

It’s also delicious. Using a traditional recipe, Birong combines trinitario beans with numerous ingredients, including rosebuds, rosewater, orange-blossom water, cinnamon and aniseed. The foamy drink reveals new flavors with every sip. Even its texture transforms over time, from frothy to heavy.

[. . .] His freshly made truffle packs a similar punch. The velvety chocolate, made from La Red’s trinitario until Birong can process his own trinitario and criollo beans, is cut with little more than boiled cream, then rolled in pieces of his own macadamias. The beans, far more complex than the hardy forastero varietal used in most American chocolate, change with each bite. The first is floral, which gives way to a meaty taste, then one of grass, ending with a flavor almost identical to that of strawberry yogurt. Eaten unprocessed, the nibs of the trinitario are distinctly tannic. Criollo nibs are nutty, with an intense, tobacco-like aftertaste.

[. . .] Snapper or grouper will be crusted in criollo, then served with mango slaw and tostones. Tangy ceviche will be deepened with a cacao-nib cracker. Even a simple salad of field greens will be dressed up with vanilla-Key-lime vinaigrette, then intensified with a goat-cheese-cacao-nib fritter.

If those dishes sound straight out of the DR, then Birong has achieved his goal. “I wanted [some of the dishes] to represent the origins of the cacao, to sort of respect where it came from,” he says.

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