29 May 2021

Farming Flavour - chocolate and chillies

From Country Life, 11:40 am on 29 May 2021

Feeding the farm crew at docking time, even as a child, was no problem for Johnty Tatham.

Things culinary have been the 24-year-old's passion for a while.

Now he's handcrafting chocolate from a cottage on the family farm and his sleekly packaged Lucid Chocolatier products can be found at top-notch Wellington restaurants and artisan chocolate shops.

Johnty and his brother Paddy are back on the Tatham's sheep and beef farm in coastal Wairarapa forging new paths in the food industry.

The brothers used the lockdown last year to think hard about how they could use the land for their own ventures.

Johnty, who describes himself as "a bit of a nerd and a tinkerer", makes the chocolate from scratch, roasting and grinding cacao beans from Peru in the kitchen where he used to bake as a child.

Johnty Tatham

Johnty Tatham Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

The space has been converted to a commercial kitchen and now machines whirr and the heady smell of chocolate fills the air. Boxes of cacao beans are piled high on the table.

"It's sometimes a surreal feeling being here doing what I'm doing," he says.

He ages the chocolate in the former pantry and infuses ingredients like mulberries foraged from the farm.

The house steps down to the large old kitchen gardens which fed several families in its heyday.

This is where Paddy is now trialling several different varieties of Mexican chillies.

He has seen a niche market in the Wellington foodie scene for the fresh product as most chefs, he says, seem to be using it dried.

Marvin Guerrero of Don Luciano in Masterton tastes Paddy's chillies

Marvin Guerrero of Don Luciano in Masterton tastes Paddy's chillies Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

"It's still very (much) in the early stages," he says checking out the 70 or so bushes he's been nurturing during the season.

In late autumn, the plants were still producing although they had been a bit battered by the coast's notorious wind.

"Other than that, the chillies have been really successful and grown really well," Paddy says.

"I'd call it a successful foray into horticulture which is not something I'd really considered before."

Paddy Tatham

Paddy Tatham Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

The brothers are the sixth generation of Tathams on Homewood Station which has been in the family since 1876.

"I feel out here, there's no reason to rush. I take my time, I make good chocolate. It definitely flows into the flavour," Johnty says.

Their mother Jan Tatham is enthusiastic about the different tack her sons are taking.

"It's really classic of this generation of young people.

"They're well versed in the world and they realise that actually we have land and they don't necessarily want to farm sheep and beef and they're looking to use the land for other means."

"It's actually quite lovely that they want to do something different with the land than what it's been used for in the past."

Johnty started off doing a fine arts degree and ended up at cooking school where he was bitten by the chocolate bug.

"I just found something magical in it.

"I saw chocolate not only as a great medium to eat but a great medium to work with from an artistic perspective."

Johnty and his dog Ghost

Johnty and his dog Ghost Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

He later honed his bean-to-bar craft, working with a chocolatier in Matakana.

"A lot of parallels can be drawn between the craft beer scene, even (with) coffee. It's a very up and coming thing."

After researching and "asking a lot of questions" Johnty invested in his first melangeur, some moulds and a melting tank.

He sources his beans exclusively from Peru as his research has shown farmers there are getting top dollar and the beans are grown in a diverse ecosystem, which mimics the effect of the rainforest.

He says in Peru there is also attention paid to genetics and a selective breeding programme involving sourcing wild beans from the forest.

"My favourite part is giving different origins of the same percentage (chocolate) to people, saying that they're all from within Peru and seeing their minds blown as to how different the chocolate tastes," Johnty says.

It took a while for Johnty to realise he could have his passion as his job, Jan says.

Their sons breaking with tradition is not something she and husband Andy are too concerned about.

"We feel the options are endless and we're really excited our children want to do something different."