In Salt Lake City, Utah, the name Caputo has long been synonymous with good food, from the corner market run by the first generations of Italian and Greek immigrant Caputos in the 1920s, up to the popular deli and sandwich shop opened by a descendant in the late 1990s. It was the latter spot that eventually evolved into the Caputo’s you’ll find today, a specialty store that stocks gourmet items imported from around the world (with a focus on southern Europe), makes its own cheese (aged in the on-site cave) and has become known for having one of the best selections of craft chocolate in the country.
A self-described “chocolate geek,” current owner Matt Caputo became particularly interested in chocolate in the early-2000s, just before the bean-to-bar movement began to grow. “I had spent so much time learning about wine, but then realized I could taste more terroir in chocolate than in wine,” he remembers. “I learned that chocolate could have a sense of place.” The store began importing chocolate from all over the world— made mainly by small producers in destinations as diverse as Iceland and the United Arab Emirates—and also started offering classes to help educate clients on the world of fine chocolates.
Today, four instructors oversee a roster of classes (which cover topics from the evolution of cacao to how to pair chocolate and cheese), and the store’s selection spans 21 countries and 40 types of cacao. Shoppers can search by those categories, as well as by cacao percentage and whether a pick is vegan, dairy- or nut-free, or organic. “Organic is incredibly important to me, but I like the stories of the ones that go beyond that,” says Caputo. “It’s important that the farms aren’t getting sprayed with pesticides, but also that they have biodiversity, are harvesting from the wild, or are fermenting using indigenous bacteria.”
Since 2011, Caputo’s has also been hosting a popular annual Chocolate Festival, during which area chefs, mixologists and purveyors all create dishes using chocolate from one featured maker. The Festival benefits the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), a nonprofit that works to identify, preserve and certify heirloom cacao varieties to help encourage biodiversity and empower farming communities. “What ancient civilizations put into cacao, shadows what we put into grapes for winemaking now,” says Caputo. “They had so many unique strains that were revered and supported, but these days, there is such incredible pressure to decrease biodiversity in our food chain that these strains are continuously disappearing and going extinct.”
With the help of the HCP, independent farmers can navigate trademark regulations and protect the names of their farms and indigenous cacao strains, so that others can’t lay claim to them. The organization also helps with issues relating to Fair Trade, a concept that Caputo says is “backfiring in chocolate” with respect to biodiversity, as the certification process often requires farmers to go through a co-op that often pays just a fraction of what it costs to cultivate a lesser-known (and less marketable) strain.
Thankfully, HCP is helping shine a spotlight on these issues—and Caputo’s is doing its part by educating customers on the delicious world of craft chocolate. Because, as Caputo notes, “if we don’t do something about this, these ancient flavors won’t be available to future generations.” To learn more about the Heirloom Cacao Project and donate to its initiatives (like the Adopt a Cacao Tree program), visit hcpcacao.org.