Chocolate Rain: Pure Chocolate by Jinji tells stories through raw cacao

"Chocolate is just the start of it, like it will just shape and mold to whatever energy you're putting into it

Guy Fraser always has chocolate in his system.

"I'm on a drip," he says from behind the counter at Pure Chocolate by Jinji in Belvedere Square Market. In front of him is a glass-covered case displaying gianduja and dipped salty caramel fudge triangles, peanut butter-stuffed Turkish figs, date poppers, Carolina Gold pineapple pralines, pecan turtles, pots de crème, and four flavors of truffle.

Jinji Fraser is Guy's daughter. They've been business partners since the Fall of 2012, when Pure Chocolate by Jinji opened as a wholesale business. A year later, they opened a retail pop-up spot in the middle of the market, and transitioned to their current spot in the back corner in the Spring of 2014. In that 80-square-foot stall—approximately the size of a small car—they make approximately 50 to 60 pounds of chocolate per week, by Jinji's estimates.

"During high times like holidays, Valentine's Day, there can be four of us in here at once," she says, leaning on the case. "There is actually some kind of choreography that needs to happen in order for production to carry on throughout the day."

Beyond the display, packages of cacao and various powders line one wall of the tight booth; the other is covered by jars and droppers containing various ingredients like spices and raw honey. Jinji is the primary producer of the chocolate, with the help of two employees. Among other things, Guy is in charge of bookkeeping and conducts most of the transactions with customers. As he talks, he waves to familiar faces passing by the shop.

"The relationships that I form with customers make my function feel like it's not work," he says, comparing the business to his former career as a civil servant. "It becomes a friendly exchange and we've kinda created a community of people who not only look at us as providers of chocolate but as people that they can tell a short story to or get a short story from."

"Even during my shift, people won't even buy chocolate from me," Jinji adds, laughing. "They're like, 'Oh is your dad here? Because I'll come back when he's here.' He really talks to people. I don't. I make chocolate, you know? But that kind of dynamic is what makes it successful."

In addition to their Belvedere spot, the chocolate can be found at local shops and eateries like Artifact Coffee, MOM's Organic Market, and Milk and Honey Market in Mount Vernon, for whom Jinji created a special bark made with coffee. She and Guy frequently collaborate with other artisans: they've made a smoked chocolate with their Belvedere neighbors Neopol Savory Smokery and do mezcal pairings with Clavel in Remington. They also teach classes at schools, restaurants, private events, and at their shop after hours. For Jinji, the relationships she develops with other local makers have played a major role in her own growth as an artisan. It's a cooperative bond that she believes could only exist in Baltimore.

"It's kind of an open door," she says. "It's sort of like go ahead, give it a shot, if you make it you make it and if you don't, you try something else."

After working for Under Armour, where she was first introduced to nutrition and community-based work, Jinji became a holistic nutrition counselor. That led her to taking a raw chocolate-making workshop in the summer of 2012, and three months later, she became a full-time chocolatier.

"It doesn't feel like something that I chose intentionally, most of the time. I didn't grow up a chocolate lover. I still to this day am much more about appreciating the ingredient, appreciating the versatility of the ingredient."

But versatility is exactly what draws her to chocolate. She explains that the cacao bean is capable of sweet, savory, bitter, or fruity flavors that can then be linked to other natural ingredients to form increasingly complex and widely varying flavors.

"Chocolate is just the start of it, like it will just shape and mold to whatever energy you're putting into it."

In her treats (all of which are vegan and gluten free), those flavors don't become weighed down by ingredients like refined sugar or dairy, she adds. Instead she uses lucuma (a fruit native to South America), coconut blossom, and mesquite powder to sweeten the cacao. Made in small batches, they stone-grind the chocolate in a melanger for about 21 hours, followed by another two hours, roughly, in a tempering machine, to get it to a workable consistency. In order for the cacao to remain "raw" and keep its natural health benefits, the cacao is never heated above 118 degrees. Raw cacao helps with oxygenation, improves metabolism, and energizes through an chemical compound called theobromine. And, according to Jinji's website (jinjichocolate.com), cacao carries more antioxidants than red wine, green tea, and blueberries combined.

Jinji and Guy get their cacao from Ecuadorian farmers, whom they met and chose to partner with at the international chocolate show in Paris.

"We were looking kind of long term, being world citizens, which is a great responsibility," Guy says. "In that sense, sourcing ingredients as responsibly as we can, that all kind of informs the taste of the end product."

The Frasers get a few other ingredients from elsewhere in the United States, like their pecans, which are shelled by Jinji's mother in Tuskegee, Alabama. Most other ingredients come from within a 50-mile radius—they even found a nearby farm that grows lemons, Guy says. Often, Jinji will experiment with unconventional ingredients, like garlic.

"People just bring us stuff, and then we put it in chocolate," she says.

With the exception of a few mainstays like the fudge and date poppers, the selection changes based on what ingredients are in season, and on Jinji's current experiments. Those changes come as a disappointment to some customers returning to find what they tried before—until, a moment later, when they find something new to try.

"We don't want to put ourselves in a space of this permanence where we have to do the same thing every time, you know?" Jinji says. "We really enjoy the flexibility and the openness to create in whatever way we want to."

Sure enough, a couple comes by the display case looking for the lavender raw honey truffles they tried and loved last time—they're regulars—to no avail. Instead they choose a close match: a rosemary raw honey truffle, a personal favorite of Jinji's.

"They're the best," the man says after Guy hands him a small paper bag carefully stuffed with truffles. "Absolutely the best."

Jinji says she's always surprised by the way people react to her chocolate, by their animated expressions of joy and excitement. She looks out for the moment when the flavors trigger a familiar memory or feeling.

"I love telling the stories through the chocolate," Jinji says. "Being able to kind of mold that into a flavor, like oh when I smell this, or when I taste this, it reminds me of that time when I— or it reminds me of that picture I saw that one time. It's just being able to relate this human experience through a piece of chocolate. And people get that. I feel like without even knowing the full story, someone could eat a piece of chocolate and just for a moment there's just this unspoken connection that you can't articulate, but you know like, huh, something just happened."

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