A few months ago, I became obsessed with this song by Maggie Rogers. Its unlikely combination of folk and dance music is so hypnotic, I played it on repeat for weeks — even my kids started begging for it. The young singer-songwriter wrote this song while attending New York University, two weeks before a serendipitous masterclass with Pharell Williams launched her career. I found the recording of the session after falling into a YouTube rabbit hole one night and I’ve watched it a dozen times since. I think you should, too.
Pharrell ended up loving the song. He explains why on the video.
“Wow. Wow. I have zero, zero, zero notes for that. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because you’re doing your own thing….And I felt like your whole story I can hear it in the music. I can hear your journey.”
He illustrates his point by talking about Reese’s cups. Yes, I am serious.
“Chocolate on its own is amazing!… But so is peanut butter!… But somehow someone said (claps hands) and one of the most amazing things happened. Two things made a third. And that’s what happens when you allow two beautiful worlds to collide….”
What Pharrel seeks in music, I seek in chocolate. Bold makers doing their own thing, exploring unchartered, sometimes unpopular territories. Confident artists colliding two worlds to make a delicious third. These are the people you read about here. Remember Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate? She combines poetry with chocolate and makes grown-ups weep. Paul John Kearins of Chocolatasm is another one. He brings his deep olfactory memory to his chocolates and boom! Rhubarb and sage bonbons. Today’s interviewee, Tamara LaValla, is another, brilliant maker doing her own, beautiful thing. Let me introduce her.
Tamara LaValla’s a visual artist and half of the husband-and-wife duo behind Batch, a bean-to-bar company based in South Carolina. The couple makes chocolate bars in teeny little batches (as in 160 bars per batch), released as ephemeral collections. After gushing at their Instagram for two years, talking to Tamara on Skype (she has the most beautiful voice), and trying a few bars myself, I’ve been intrigued by their recent release, Batch 12. One of the bars especially caught my eye.
I ordered three and inhaled one (yes, I know, slow down and whatnot but what can I say, Batch 12 got the best of me.) This bar is a pure illustration of bringing two things together to make a beautiful and delicious third that’s creamy and tastes like coconut. Good thing I have two more left.
It’s hard to categorize Tamara’s work. When she’s not making gorgeous, tasty chocolate, she creates art in her studio and co-hosts a retreat for women of the chocolate industry. Tamara’s doing her own thing, which makes her cool, unique, intriguing and thus, the perfect guest for an interview. I think Pharrell would approve.
Judging from your Instagram and blog, it’s obvious you live a very creative life; what place does chocolate currently occupy in your life?
That’s a fantastic question, something I try to get better at figuring out on an almost daily basis. I currently describe myself as an artist and OCD chocolate maker. In fact, it was my foray into chocolate that finally gave me the push to get back into my art studio full time.
I’ve been making art my whole life, have had the great fortune of being able to make a living as a creative and so certainly defined myself as an artist. But, it wasn’t until I started showing up to places and people would say, “Oh, you’re Tamara from Batch, the chocolate lady!” that I realized it was time to get serious about figuring out the roles that both art and chocolate had in my life.
As for the OCD…
I’m learning to embrace my natural tendencies which means I’ve had to say no to many opportunities (retail, subscription boxes, partnerships) in order to leave enough time to really care and obsess over each Batch as a true work of art.
You see chocolate as art which, just like a painting, is rooted in a time and place. Your batches are often inspired by your travels (I still remember the trip to Portugal… and the batch inspired by it… my fave!). Can you walk us through the creative process behind each batch?
In the beginning (4 years ago) each batch was an experiment with different origins to get a better understanding of different flavor and texture profiles and to help us develop a palate for what was, and still can be, some very unusual flavors.
As we traveled more often, and for longer periods of time, we were inevitably inspired to integrate the foods, experiences and interactions we had along the way in our chocolate — and art — making.
Today, a new Batch is very much a reflection of where we are physically and creatively in the world. Often a direct response to a recent travel adventure but always influenced by a connection to people, places and experiences that move us.
These batches have become a record of our travel, sketchbooks for our work as artists and, I really believe, love letters to one another.
This is from the site: “Batch 12 is inspired by a recent winter retreat to the high desert of New Mexico. Experimenting with new paintings by day and curled up by a raging fire at night, this artful release is a reflection of that sweet sojourn.”
Can you talk about the smoked nibs bar? What was the inspiration behind it?
Zan is an avid outdoorsman and I’ve always enjoyed his love for making and stoking a raging fire. This winter, in New Mexico, he was so excited to rise each morning and build a fire. He kept it steady all day long until we relaxed by it, together, each night, after a long day of painting and drawing for me. When we talked about what memory we wanted to recreate from the trip, the idea of the sweet smokey smell from the fires was at the top of the list which gave us the idea for smoking the nibs.
Sometimes we go into a trip with the intention of searching out an inclusion — for example, we knew we would drive around Mt. Etna in Sicily to see pistachios at their source — and sometimes we don’t know until after we’re home and have had a chance to look back at the trip and talk about what we want to highlight and share.
Camino Verde is an origin you seem particularly fond of. What drew you especially to those beans?
After trying more than a dozen origins, Camino always rose to the top for me. I think partly because I wasn’t already into super dark chocolate and the flavors were really accessible — how I would’ve described chocolate (or, at least, the chocolate I preferred) before I even had the vocabulary to do so: a little nutty, a little fudgey, not sharp or tannic or overly fruity. It also worked really well with a lot of different types of inclusions we were using — coffee, salt, etc — and allowed us to improve our craft as we slowly explored other favorite cacao origins.
I was able to meet Vicente (Norero) during a trip to Ecuador last year and almost passed out when he tried one of our Camino bars and gave it high praise!
Your batches are ephemeral, which makes me wonder: have you ever considered making a specific bar or batch part of a permanent collection?
I have thought about it, briefly, from time to time. It would certainly make more sense from a business perspective but…
If I’m being honest with myself, it’s the ephemeral nature of each release that makes it so exhilarating and precious for me. I hope that it might be the same for some of our fans too. There is something really interesting about using my skills as an artist — where I am generally concerned with creating something archival that will long outlast my own life — with making something artful that encapsulates a fleeting experience and will be consumed then gone forever.
I love the idea of crafting a chocolate bar that first celebrates, then becomes, a memory.
Also, ephemeral is one of my favorite words and I have this weird thing for when certain words are used at certain times in my life…
I was so excited to see a white chocolate as part of Batch 12. What prompted you to create it? Will there be more white chocolate in the future?
Believe it or not, the white chocolate bar was the first time I ever wanted to make something (food) because I had a vision of how I wanted it to look before having a “reason” to make it. Because I am an artist and “make things look good” for a living, I was reluctant to place an emphasis on what our molds or packaging or brand “looked” like from the start. I didn’t want to seduce people with an impressive design then disappoint them with a mediocre-tasting product. I think I was also trying to avoid people saying, “oh, another small batch craft chocolate maker with no food experience who’s going to rely on a fancy wrapper and photography to go where she doesn’t belong…”
What finally allowed me to make this bar was feeling that, after 4 years of making chocolate, we’d figured out how to deliver on quality and taste and that it was okay to make a gorgeous bar. So, Batch 12 is a reflection of our New Mexico trip and I was making these black and white paintings during the trip that inspired the design of the bar. It was really satisfying to finally unite my chocolate making and my art making. I didn’t need to abandon one for the other but, instead, could fully embrace Art is Food is Art.
Side note: I also thought we’d have snow in the high desert — which would’ve been represented by the white chocolate — plus the burnt coals from the fire, represented by the charcoal.
Spoiler alert: it never snowed.
I’m going to do a pistachio white chocolate next and see how that goes.
I didn’t get the paste from Italy this time but found a place in California and we are about to fly to California for a three-week drive up and down the coast from San Francisco to Seattle and back.
You’re currently organizing the second Mujeres Milagros retreat for the women of the chocolate industry. What’s your vision behind it? What were some of the high points of the first edition?
I’m at a place in my life where I’ve learned the importance of slowing down, looking up from my work, recharging. The idea of conferences and networking events and pop-ups seemed counter to that but when the idea of creating a “retreat” in the desert with Lauren [Heineck of WKND Chocolate and the Well Tempered podcast] and Sophia [Contreras Rea of Projet Chocolat] arose, I knew immediately it was right.
The high points from last year were, in no particular order: the women, the women, the women.
I have always avoided anything geared toward “women only” so, initially I was nervous as hell but it has, without a doubt, changed my perspective on that forever.
So of course you’re back for another!
With bells on!
Why were you avoiding women only stuff?
Ha, so many reasons. I grew up around soooo many women. I’m one of 4 girls and all my cousins were female so I loved women but felt that society taught us to be fiercely competitive with each other in less than healthy ways. Also, I felt like women were seen as “less than” and wanted desperately to prove that I could do anything a man could do and that I didn’t need a safe, man-free space to thrive.
Mujeres Milagros really showed me that things are changing. We don’t “need” to have a woman-only space to thrive, we “get” to create that space if we so desire. The space is not better than a co-ed space but it is most certainly different and it is those differences that support the heart of what Mujeres Milagros is about.
Tamara, it’s been real. Thank you for your time. I wish all of your endeavors a lot of success.
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