Jo Zander came to the Land of Israel in 2003. He began his journey by working in restaurants but never really found his footing in the restaurant world. Going back as long as he could remember, Jo had always wanted to get into chocolate. His family had been bakers for four generations, and as a young child, he worked in his father's bakery, which gave him a profound love for cookery and food creativity. Jo began making chocolate full time in 2007 with Zev Stender, his business partner who also attended yeshiva with him. Together they set up their factory just outside the city of Hebron in a little community (Pnei Chever) nestled in the Judean hills and began making high-quality chocolate using the ancient craft of bean-to-bar.
Bean to bar chocolate is a craft going back centuries, which has seen a revival in the past several years, mainly in the United States. Until the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in the 16th-century, cacao was indigenous to South America and was used as a drink, a cooking ingredient, and even a form of currency. Since its spread across Europe from Spain, nobility and the upper class paid particular attention to the flavorful fruit from the prized trees in particular regions. At Holy Cacao, they are engaged in the process from the moment the cacao bean is harvested by independent farmers, all the way through the casting, cooling, and wrapping stages of the chocolate bar itself. This intense and intimate process allows for a closely monitored chocolate making procedure that renders far higher quality chocolate than that produced in a factory.
Talking with Jo about the different flavors of cacao beans, he said, “Just as wine is Sauvignon or Merlot, depending on where the grapes are grown, the taste of our chocolate is influenced by where the cacao was imported from. It’s a magical tree, and when we transform the fruit into chocolate, the origin of the cacao is essential to its flavor.” But finding the right trees with the specific cacao flavor they wanted wasn’t easy, especially being thousands of miles from South American sources. For months Jo searched for a good contact until he gave a lift to a Peruvian girl in Gush Etzion (a city in Judea) and discovered that her father had direct connections to farmers in the South American cacao industry.
Jo personally travels to meet the farmers that Holy Cacao works with in order to listen and learn from the experts they get their cacao beans from. The flavor profile of a cacao bean varies depending on the geographical location it is grown. Humidity, soil type, altitude, and seasonal shifts all play crucial roles in shaping the essence of a cacao bean. From Madagascar to Peru, Venezuela to Ecuador, Holy Cacao sensitively cultivates various beans and create chocolate that maximizes the unique expression of each specific geographical region.
As for the bean-to-bar method itself, the process works like this: Selected cacao beans are roasted, winnowed, refined with pure cane sugar, and put through a process called “conching,” which Holy Cacao’s owners describe as the point “where all other chocolate factories in Israel start.” Constructed in 1879, the original conch machine looked like a giant seashell, hence the name. Depending on time and temperature, conching gives the chocolate maker freedom to enhance or diminish certain flavors. Finally, the chocolate is poured into large blocks, aged up to six months at a time. When it reaches the point where Jo believes it is ready, it is melted down, poured into molds, and packaged.
Holy Cacao is also an 8-time winner at the International Chocolate Awards, an independent competition that recognizes excellence in fine chocolate making and products made with excellent chocolate.
There are a lot of different ways of making chocolate. But they chose to go the Old World route. It sometimes creates difficulties, but they have always found a way to keep their dream of producing quality chocolate in Israel alive.