Get Cooked: Investigating the Raw Food Movement
Uncooked, unprocessed… unthinkable?
Following a raw food diet can seem faddy, fussy and no fun – but then Pablo Spaull told us it could involve chocolate. And conching. We find out more, and ask why the Northwest hasn’t yet caught on.
At a time when so many of our peers appear obsessed with what they eat – counting calories, 5:2-ing, emphasising protein, vilifying carbs – there’s a lot to be said for embracing all the world of cuisine has to throw at us. Except, perhaps, for insect hors d’oeuvres. Or spirulina. Yet we’re constantly surprised by how tasty certain foods can be when the ingredients we know and love are snatched away from them. Vegan cakes do indeed sometimes surpass their dairy-based counterparts, and even lover of hand-reared, personally slaughtered meat Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has written an entirely animal-free cookbook with a view to placing vegetables at the forefront of every meal. For those restricted not by choice but by health – diabetics, coeliacs, the lactose-intolerant and more – there are more ‘free from’ options than there have ever been.
And then there is the raw food movement – perhaps the most limiting dietary plan of all. Raw foodists believe that heating food above 40-50 degrees celsius destroys enzymes that aid digestion. It’s thought to have begun way back in 1897, when muesli inventor Maximilian Bircher-Benner took to munching on raw apples while recovering from jaundice. He felt so revitalised that he was inspired to open a medical centre in his native Switzerland named Vital Force, which continues to treat patients to this day. Stamping out illness-related bacterial nasties is one thing, but existing merely on piles of fruit and vegetables? Didn’t Ashton Kutcher almost destroy his pancreas earlier this year doing something similar? Surely it’s been proved time and again by both nutritionists and the various unpleasant side effects of fad diets that our bodies need a combination of carbohydrates, fat and protein to function normally. And good grief, no raw food plan is going to allow us to eat, I don’t know, desserts, is it?
Enter Pablo Spaull, a raw foodie and believer that, for many people, chocolate is the ultimate gateway to the raw food lifestyle. Sampling raw chocolate at a friend’s birthday party led to a fascination with the stuff – and upon chatting to a friend, Dilwyn Jenkins, who had been helping the Peruvian Ashaninka export their damn fine coffee for around 30 years, Spaull decided to enquire as to whether the tribe grew cacao too. They did, as it happened. Fast forward four years, and Pablo is using the Ashaninka’s rare Criollo beans (or “golden magic” ones, as he puts it) to make small batches of raw chocolate bars fashioned from a mere three ingredients for his company, Forever Cacao.
We were “raw-curious”, as Pablo would say – or perhaps more raw-skeptic – when we attended his chocolate masterclass, held at Manchester’s Northern Quarter stalwart Teacup in association with its sister business Bonbon Chocolate Boutique on 13 June. As he talked us through the health benefits of raw chocolate, it sounded almost too good to be true. Chocolate’s flavonol antioxidants, said to be anti-ageing, help boost metabolism; magnesium for the heart and brain may promote “clarity and focus”, and then there are the mood-elevators serotonin, dopamine, anandamide (the ‘bliss chemical’) and phenylethylamine. Even the coconut palm sugar sweetener Pablo uses is choc-full (sorry) of minerals and vitamins. Supposedly, Forever Cacao bars allow you to experience all this healthful euphoria without any of the negative bodily impact you may encounter from factory processing, added fats and refined sugars.
The proof of the pudding was, of course, in the eating. We sampled the chocolate itself, handmade using only cacao nibs, the aforementioned coconut palm sugar and cacao butter. Pablo’s priority is to achieve the crisp snap and melt-in-the-mouth texture of your usual chocolate bar, and this takes over 20 hours of low temperature conching followed by hand-tempering and moulding. That’s some effort, and it pays off. It tastes delicious, and the only notable difference between Pablo’s chocolate and the 70% cocoa dark bars of Lindt or Green & Blacks is that Forever Cacao carries with it a slightly grainy, crunchy (but far from unpleasant) texture from the unmelted sugar. Otherwise, it breaks off and yields at body temperature, just as Pablo desired.
“I WORRY SOMETIMES THAT PEOPLE WHO ARE TRYING TO BE 100% RAW ARE HAVING FOOD PSYCHOSIS… YOU NEED TO BE HAPPY” – ARNAUD HAUCHON
The difference in price, however, is significant. A 45g bar of raw chocolate will cost you a whopping £5.50 – but this is, we acknowledge, a figure that covers time, labour and ingredient-sourcing, as well as taking into account the rainforest safeguard Forever Cacao is responsible for by working with Ecotribal, Cool Earth and Size of Wales; what Pablo refers to as “viral conservation”. All budding Swampys can therefore rest easy about biting into a block of this.
Our raw-curiosity was piqued, then, but let’s face it, the Northwest of England isn’t exactly at the forefront of specialist food movements. In Manchester and Liverpool we have a mere handful of vegetarian restaurants and even fewer entirely vegan ones, and ingredient-intolerants rarely get more than one choice of dish in any given eatery. Spaull informed us that Brighton is renowned for being the UK’s raw chocolate epicentre with its popular Raw Chocolate Co., whose products are distributed by 12 UK- and Europe-wide stockists. Meanwhile, back in 2009, Time Out magazine described London’s raw food scene as ‘exploding’. Pablo’s masterclass was an insight into something the Northwest hasn’t yet properly considered, and for that reason, it felt educational.
Many raw foodists admittedly crave cooked food, but the movement offers compromises. Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine states that ‘techniques, such as marination, can achieve cooked textures without the application of heat’. He also happens to be an advocate of dehydrated watermelon as a meat substitute (Time Out did note that dehydrators are ‘the ovens of the raw food world’). Ironically, however, the fruits and vegetables that taste better in their natural state can be better for us cooked. You might prefer, for example, to throw fresh tomatoes in your salad or dunk an uncooked carrot stick into hummus, but believe it or not, the nutritious lycopene and carotene in these two particular items are actually better absorbed by your body if they’ve been heated. Now put that on your crudité plate and (h)eat it.
We can tell that maintaining an entirely raw diet would be extremely difficult, but our short foray into the movement has taught us a lesson. Arnaud Hauchon, head chef at raw-vegan Aloka, a raw-vegan restaurant in Brighton, tells the blog Get Rawcous, ‘I ask people to question their habits, and then I want to say to people, “OK, you are a pleasure seeker, you are a hedonist, but you can still be healthy. You can still be ethically correct.”’ While Hauchon believes in the ‘vibrancy’ and the ‘many benefits of raw food’, he deems extremes counterproductive. ‘I worry sometimes that people who are trying to be 100% raw are having food psychosis… You need to be happy. Love what you eat, your body will respond to that.’
Wise words. Clearly, any toe-dipping into raw foodism is a personal journey, and we shouldn’t feel consumed with guilt if we find ourselves cooking up a batch of winter stew when the temperatures begin to dip (apparently, cooking food at lower temperatures for longer helps preserve those precious enzymes; an excuse for leaving the slow cooker on in the morning if ever we heard one). Meanwhile, if you want to feel virtuous when chomping on your square of edible serotonin, Pablo’s clever creations might be just the golden ticket.
Keep an eye out for upcoming events at www.bonbonchocolate.co.uk