The Salt
11:06 am
Thu May 24, 2012

Estonia's Fake Chocolate: Born Of Necessity, Reborn In Nostalgia

Some of the world's most interesting food products have been born out of the innovation that comes with deprivation. Take chicory, for example. It's a trendy New Orleans coffee blend you can buy anywhere now, but it was first used during the Civil War when those caffeinated beans were scarce.

And when chocolate became scarce in Estonia and other Baltic states during a supply crisis in the 1970s, an enterprising company stepped into the breach with a substitute chocolate bar.

Today, the Kama bar is being revived for its pure nostalgia.

In tough economic times, people may cut out their morning coffee shop latte, but research shows there's one treat which almost never gets banned from the budget – chocolate. In 2009, during the height of the recession, Hershey reported a 20 percent increase in profits. That's because in a recession, there's an even greater need for comfort food. Chocolate is often the ultimate reward.

But sometimes, it just wasn't available. In 1976, a cocoa crisis threatened the world's cocoa supply, causing prices to rise to almost five times current levels. The low supply and high prices made it inaccessible for countries within the Soviet Union, where foreign trade was centralized and states lacked buying power. "The Mideast oil crisis and high inflation rates were significant factors," Michael Segal of the International Cocoa Organization tells The Salt. But also, he says, nations like Ghana who were big producers slowed down, and new markets like the Ivory Coast, were still immature.

Unbeknownst to many, Estonia's only chocolate company, Kalev, had already been working on an alternative. In the 1960s, Kalev experimented with local Estonian flour, made up of rye, wheat, barley and peas, creating a faux chocolate bar. Otto Kubo, head of Kalev's central lab, says the Estonian flour, called Kamarene, was used by peasants, who typically mixed it with sour milk or yogurt to make a refreshing summer drink that's still consumed today.

Kalev's workers mixed the Estonian flour with coffee, evaporated milk, sugar, cocoa powder and a few other ingredients to create the Kamatahvel, or Kama bar.

The Kama bar was popular mostly for its price — about half the cost of a chocolate bar — and its taste – sweet, but not quite as sweet as the real thing. And by the 1970s, it had found a market.

The Kama bar was the key to survival for both the Kalev company and anyone with a sweet tooth. Kalev pumped out Kama bars for Estonia and neighboring countries. As chocolate disappeared from the shelves, the Kama bar became the national snack.

But, in the 80s, when chocolate prices stabilized, Kama disappeared. Kubo believes after settling for the chocolate stand-in, Estonians simply longed for the real thing. The trend continued when in 1991, Estonians gained their independence. Kubo says Estonians preferred European chocolate from Belgium or Switzerland, so they stopped making the Kama bar.

It may not have the same addictive quality as its fine European counterparts, but the Kama bar has something else – a strong sense of nostalgia.

In 2001, after nearly twenty years off the assembly line, the Kama bars were brought back into production, thanks to growing demand from senior citizens and kids. For seniors, it represents a bygone era, for teenagers, it's yellow and red retro packaging is a symbol of cool junk food. And it's still cheap.

Kalev says Kama won't be discontinued again anytime soon, especially since it's the company's fourth most popular product.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.