Ana Maria Panait shares the challenges and highlights as she helps to develop craft chocolate-making on our continent.
Chocolatier Ana Maria Panait has travelled the globe, refining her palate and uncovering the unique flavour profiles each continent has to offer. Now, her travels have landed her in Johanneburg, where she has created the Rrraw chocolate range, which not only indulges our taste buds but is an ode to the rich flavours that Africa has to offer.
Rrraw is committed to authenticity and quality and combines this with flavours that speak to Ana’s adventurous spirit and her travels across the globe.
The latest addition to the Rrraw collection is the spekboom flavour, which is an indigenous South African plant with rare and unique qualities, favoured by black rhinos, elephants and kudus. Its leaves are edible, have a zesty lemon-like taste and are also surprisingly high in vitamin C.
MUST-TRY RECIPE: Lemon-and-spekboom curd-filled chocolate fondant
Ana Maria Panait’s travels have also led to the creation of her distinctive Coconut White range, which draws on various cultures and culinary traditions, from a limited-edition African white chocolate infused with traditional West African ingredients like moringa and millet to a creation inspired by her stay in the Philippines.
At the heart of Rrraw lies a dedication to sustainably sourced African ingredients. The brand collaborates with a certified B-corp in Uganda to source cocoa, ensuring fair compensation for everyone involved in the process. This is especially important as a study by Oxfam revealed that up to 90 per cent of African cocoa farmers do not earn a living income, meaning they cannot afford enough food or other basics such as clothing, housing and medical care. Ana firmly believes that business can drive positive change in Africa by creating sustainable livelihoods for cocoa farmers and the communities they support.
We spoke to this pioneer about the craft chocolate business in Africa.
Coming from a Romanian background, how did you develop an interest in combining chocolate with South African flavours?
Romania, like most countries in Eastern Europe, is a melting pot of cultures, just like South Africa is – no country in the world is an island. Romania is the only Latin country in a sea of Slavic languages and was colonised, in turn, by Romans, Slavs, Germans, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Greeks, the Ottoman empire, and the Tartars, with a sprinkle of Romani. All of them left their imprint on our national food culture, and it is easy for me to recognise what I deem to be special everywhere I go and think of new ways to use it. Sometimes you need the mirror of a stranger to see how beautiful you really are.
Can you share some insights into the local ingredients you use in your chocolates – why do you use those ingredients?
A lot of the ingredients I use are part of my personal story, and an homage to various places and cultures I have encountered along the way. Sweetmeats is an homage to my Indian friends and their delicious Diwali sweets, with their combos of coconut milk and cardamom.
Hibiscus is a homage to West Africa where I used to live, and the refreshing bissap tea that is sold at markets from Niger to Senegal, Nigeria and beyond. Spekboom was a suggestion from my dear friend Kate, who walked up to me at one of our dinners and suggested it’s a good plant for salads – and I loved how tart it is. Food to me is a language, like music or fashion, and also a conversation starter about culture; I am always ready to be taught something by the places I travel to and the people I meet.
What challenges do you face in sourcing and incorporating indigenous South African ingredients?
A lot of the times the challenge is finding them in sufficient quantity or in dry form. Marula nuts, for example, are definitely not easy to find in large quantities, as it is not a habit to eat them here, even if they are quintessentially South African and delicious! I had to really work my connections and find someone who knows someone who knows a farmer who makes them to source even as small an amount as five kilograms.
How do you ensure sustainability and the ethical sourcing of your ingredients, especially those unique to South Africa?
I source from other small local businesses that are well engrained in their territory and, a lot of the times, they tend to be woman-owned and operated. The ingredients are locally farmed and harvested, and I usually check with my suppliers regarding organic agriculture practices.
How do you approach the creative process when experimenting with new flavour combinations?
For me, the creative process is very rarely deliberate, but rather a sedimentation of knowledge that I built over time. It’s about exposing yourself to as many experiences as possible and building a toolbox that you can draw from. This is what I am indeed deliberate about – being out there, creating spaces for exploration, talking to other people who are doing interesting things in whatever domain, and making sure that the doors are always open and there is space for failure. For example, I have been leading the Silent Book Club at the Goethe Institute for the past five years, which draws an incredibly diverse array of people and their book interests; just being in it has greatly enriched my views of the world, cultures and food.
Have you noticed any evolving trends or preferences among consumers regarding South African-inspired chocolates, and how do you adapt to them?
The world of craft chocolate is in its infancy in South Africa, and I think there is appetite for experimentation – we are leading the market and showing people what good chocolate with local or African-sourced ingredients could look like. What I have noticed in a broader spectrum is a re-evaluation of traditional ingredients, used in modern formats – Matomani with their mopane-based protein bars, Mopani Queens with the mopani flour nachos, or Spekboom & Co with salad dressings. People are looking at traditional African foods and overlooked ingredients in new ways, and that makes me excited about what could possibly come out of it. It’s a great time to be working in a food space in South Africa and Africa at large!