Growing Up With Cacao Trees in the Backyard?

Maribel Lieberman did, so it’s no wonder she went on to found MarieBelle Chocolate and Cacao Market by MarieBelle in New York. We were both guests together on the show “Nutrition and Exercise” on Doctor Radio, (Channel 110 on SiriusXM), and she agreed to chat with me later to tell more of her story.

Born in Honduras, Maribel said “It was usual to have cacao trees in the backyard, so yes, I grew up with cacao trees.”. Those trees weren’t a direct line to chocolate making however. “My mother was a very passionate seamstress and my idea was to become a designer and continue with my mother’s tradition.” This led her to come to New York’s Parson’s School of Art and Design, intent on becoming a fashion designer.

“When I arrived in New York, I was absolutely in love with the city and its culture,” and finding herself mesmerized by all the different food cultures that have always been part of the city. “This is when I started experimenting cooking with unfamiliar ingredients,” and how she learned to combine them into unique flavors.  As her interests evolved from fashion into food, she bought lots of cookbooks, learning to be a chef.  Maribel eventually started a catering company, maintaining it for 5 years.

It’s during this period that she learned a lot about chocolate. “I experimented making truffles and really loved it,” but combining and fusing different flavors with chocolate is what fascinated her even more.

Bean-to-Bar with Women Farmers

The vast majority of the cacao Lieberman uses comes from Hondouras, “although sometimes from Nicaragua or El Salvador, also.” Most of her cacao beans are Trinitario variety — a hybrid of the more common Forastero and the uber-delicate Criollo beans.  She travels to Honduras several times a year. “I have a relationship with the growers, most of them are women farmers, I have about 60 women that I buy cacao from,” but from other farmers as well. “I work very closely with the Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola.  The non-profit FHIA provides her with a wealth of knowledge about cacao, and “they help me pick the best quality bean.”

Maribel’s shop offers about 50 different flavors of chocolates and truffles. Spices figure prominently in her ganache chocolates, with the cardamom flavor being one of her favorites.  For me, a couple of her ganache truffles and a cappuccino make an excellent  dessert.  Not high in calories either (given their size, figure about 70 calories per truffle), and just enough indulgence.  With the cap (I’ll take a decaf, thanks, and I know I’m in the minority here) supplying some protein and dairy nutrition, it’s one way to make dessert or an afternoon snack really work.

Sugar-free chocolate her way 

She also entered the sugar-free market, sweetening her 70% bar is only with organic whole milk powder. “I think it works well” and I agree. It has the creaminess of milk chocolate, but the intensity you’d expect from a 70% bar.  Added sugar? Zero.  Protein?  Yes — a little over 5 grams in a 40-gram portion (about 170 calories).  She’s currently developing one sweetened only with raspberries and blueberries.

Her ganache chocolates have unique airbrush designs on them. Some are her husband’s designs, other are the work of her in-house designer. All are whimsical and have their own explanations that come with the “paperwork” in each box sold.  She’s obviously figured out that people eat with their eyes, too.  Smart.

Does all the “business” of cacao make her less interested in eating it? Not a chance. “I eat cacao every day,” she said happily. “Sometimes when I travel and didn’t bring any with me, I end up buying it at the local store.”

Chocolate fans, I’d say she’s “one of us.”

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