During Easter vacation we decided to visit the Zotter chocolate factory in Riegersburg, Austria which is about 1.5 hours south of Vienna in the middle of nowhere. For those not familiar with the Zotter brand, he is a famous Austrian chocolatier who those zany truffle bars with unique flavor combinations such as cheese and wine, peanuts and ketchup (the American bar), celery root and pineapple, and pork cracklins- which sounds really weird but is actually pretty good. Since 2008 I have sold his bars on and off at Kerstin’s Chocolates. He also makes chocolate bars, a line of drinking chocolate, and many other things as I soon discovered. The tour of the factory is really a multi-sensory experience that allows you to see and learn about how things are done in the factory all the while eating your way through all the Zotter creations. For 12 euros (and a little less for kids) you can taste everything he makes, which is about 300 varieties! The tour starts at the Chocolate “theatre” where you see a film that shows Zotter sourcing his beans in India. I found this interesting because India isn’t well known as a cocoa growing country. It made more sense once we learned that he has started a project where every time he sells a bar made with Indian beans, one child in the program gets served a meal. To learn more, click here: http://www.zotter.at/de/das-ist-zotter/projekte/schokolade-macht-satt.html According to the movie, he pays twice the market price for organic beans and he can trace the beans back to the individual farmer in India. There is a big focus on tranparency, not just in the sourcing of the beans, but in the factory tour as well, inviting visitors to get up close and personal with each stage of the chocolate making process from start to finish. The first stop is the loading bay. You see piles of jute bags filled with cocoa beans from different countries through a viewing window. In the adjacent tasting room, you can sample these beans in their raw form to taste the differences depending on the bean’s origin. Next we see the chocolate making equipment as our audio guide explain the uses of each machine. The chocolate is available to taste during the different stages of processing, including the nibs, the 100% liquid chocolate, and the powdered form before it hits the conche. The next section is where things get more exciting. At the “Shokotankstelle” or the chocolate filling station, we sample the different types of chocolate in liquid form, all of the Zotter blends. You might be compelled to stick your head under the tap and pour the liquid chocolate straight in your mouth, but instead you are asked to use a ceramic spoon that is given to you at the beginning of the tour. You can fill it with whatever and however much you want. I tried to pace myself but it quickly turned into a free for all as I began to realize just how many different kinds of chocolate Zotter makes and that they are all there to sample. After the “tankstelle” we were invited to climb the “chocolate stairway to heaven”. Here you could try all the different “Lambooka” bars which start with flavored white chocolate bars such as strawberry and banana and end with a pure 100% bar. The chocolate stairway faces a series of conveyor belts where the ganaches are poured, enrobed and cooled and where the finished ganache bars are packaged. Unfortunately we picked Good Friday to visit so we couldn’t see any work being done, but I didn’t really care at this point because I was on a sugar high and heading towards the hot chocolate station. When I got there, an attendent behind the bar was waiting to hand me a cup of hot milk. She told me to chose a hot chocolate flavor from the miniture gondolas that encircled us overhead and around the room. I chose chili, and plopped it into my milk (it was a solid piece of chocolate) and began whisking with my own personal whisk. All of this was really fun and pretty soon I was no longer a reviewer but overcome with the same enthusiasm as all the other Zotter customers. After the hot chocolate station, there was the Nougat station (the walnut was really good), the Bollero station (the fruit and nut one was my top choice) and it all ended to my surprise with the Zotter filled bars. How could I have forgotten about the filled bars? And how can I eat any more chocolate? Of course, I could eat more chocolate and I did. I tried all of them because, finally I could! The tour was a blast and I thought they did a great job of both educating customers and entertaining them at the same time. Zotter really has a cult of personality thing going on and we gobbled it all up.
I’ve never been to Switzerland before. Even though I love Swiss chocolate. Since I am living so close to Switzerland now, I accepted an invitation from Felchlin to meet with their reps at a confectionary show in Bern. I started using Felchlin chocolate in 2005 to start my Chocophilia line and the more I work with it (and taste it) the more I’ve grown to love it. Felchlin does a lot to promote fine chocolate by seeking out high quality, rare and otherwise interesting cocoa beans. Their Cru Sauvage chocolate made from “wild” Bolivian cocoa beans is one of the best chocolates I’ve ever tried and their Maracaibo 65% won best couverature in the world in 2004!
Knowing all this, why have I waited so long to go to Switzerland? I don’t really know. But I’m glad I finally did.
I planned to head over to the event as soon as I got to Bern, but through the window of the tram(the tram system in Bern is really good, by the way), I saw the pink sign for “Beeler Chocolatier”-one of the shops I wanted to visit. I jumped off and with suitcase in tow, descended upon the shop. I usually hesitate when I buy chocolates because you never know what kind of chocolate they use and I hate being disappointed by an overly sweet or otherwise lackluster bon bon. Happily I saw some truffles labeled “Maracaibo” and the shopkeeper confirmed it was Felchlin(it always pays to ask!). I noticed right away that the Swiss make chocolates differently than the French. It’s kind of a combination of French and the Belgian chocolate styles, where they use molds like the Belgians rather than cut ganaches but the chocolates are less creamy and more chocolatey like the French. There is a lot of stuff with nuts like Gianduja or “pralines”. I had one of Beeler’s classic Caramalina, which was a milk chocolate cup filled with hazelnut praline and topped with caramalized hazelnuts. One bite and I knew Switzerland and I would get along very well.
When I finally got to the event, I first went to check out the Swiss Chocolate Masters. The Chocolate Masters is a competition where pastry chefs vye for a spot to compete for the worlds in Paris. They are judged on the taste and presentation of their pralines, tortes, plated desserts and chocolate sculptures. I got there in time to see the judges taste and judge the desserts, which was the final event in the competition. The winning dessert , made by the young pastry chef who would end up winning the competition, was two “rocks” stacked on top each other that when split open, oozed a liquid filling over the chocolate “rock” cake below it. Pretty cool!
Back at the show I visited the Felchlin booth, which was decked out to look like a cafe complete with coffee bar, tables and servers. On the menu was a hot chocolate made with their new Grenada chocolate(delicious) and a parfait of sorts with chocolate ice cream, fruit, rum and sponge cake(also delicious). I devoured all this quite quickly as I waited to speak to a representative. The very nice woman who had attended to me introduced me to Mr. Schoenbaechler who is the head of innovation and quality at Felchlin. I told him that I have been using Felchlin for nearly 10 years in Canada and that this fantastic chocolate was one of my inspirations to travel the world in search for cacao with my family. He told me about the time he first tasted the Cru Sauvage beans at an organic food show in Germany and instantly saw something special in them. He worked with Volker Lehman(the man who “discovered” them in Bolivia) to perfect the fermentation until they had a product he was happy with. He also gave me some recommendations for chocolate shops in Bern. He recommended I try the custom 70% Cru sauvage bar that Felchlin makes for Sprungli(I did and it was great!). Sprungli, I learned, split off from Lindt in 1836 to focus exclusively on making confections, while Lindt continued on to make bean to bar chocolate. I left the show a happy camper with a bag filled with assorted Felchlin chocolate and an invitation from Mr. Schoenbaechler to visit the factory in the town of Schwyz. Can’t wait to go back!
My favorite part of the trip happened at the end of our tour, when we visited the Kallari cooperative in the the Amazonian rain forest. The trip began with a long but beautiful ride into the eastern part of the country. The air got thicker, the roads bumpier and the conversation deeper (it was a 6 hour drive so we discussed chocolate — a lot). I was thrilled to be heading into the heart of cacao country. According to studies tracing the origins of cacao, Theobroma cacao is native to exactly where we were heading, the Amazon basin.
We were here to visit a cooperative of indigenous people living in the Napo region of the Amazon called the Kallari cooperative. They harvest, make and market their own chocolate. The Kallari story is a fascinating one. It began in 1997 when a group of Quichwa leaders decided to help local farmers to earn more money for their beans. With the help of Judy Logback, an environmentalist and volunteer working in the region, they began selling the beans directly while improving on their fermentation and drying techniques. Several years later, they decided to take it a step further and actually began making their own chocolate. They asked John Steinberg, one of the founders of Sharfenberger chocolate to help them develop their first prototype bar and the first shipment of bars went out in 2008.
To learn more about Kallari’s journey, and the people involved, check out these two articles.
Shortly after arriving at our Amazon lodge, we visited the Kallari headquarters to watch a slide show presentation about the cooperative and to taste some chocolate. Prior to this visit, we had toured the chocolate factory in Quito that manufactures the Kallari bars. When I tasted the bars then and I liked them a lot. The chocolate is mellow and fruity with an excellent mouthfeel that signifies good conching techniques and a high cocoa butter content.
The opportunity to see this cooperative in action in the region where the cacao is grown, really made me feel connected to the chocolate. As a result, it tasted even better than before. It just goes to show that the story behind a food is very important in increasing your pleasure of it.
On the itinerary for the next day was a visit to a traditional family farm. The Quichwa use a system of agriculture called chakra where different crops are planted alongside each other to promote biodiversity. Next to cacao plants were medicinal plants, vegetable ivory, and tropical fruits, such as coconuts, and plantains. I learned that this system is also a way to preserve a traditional way of life that is threatened more and more by the encroaching western culture and economic pressure. For example, if the Quichwa families didn’t make a secure income from selling their beans, they would probably resort to logging vital Amazonian trees as a way to make money. This destruction of the forest threatens their environment, and hence, their way of life.
The very last stop before heading back into Quito (and our farewell dinner) was a tour of the cocoa collection center. Unlike some of the others we’d seen, this one was clean, well organized and busy. I saw a lot of pride in the people working here just like I had seen in the workers on the farm and in the office the day before. It struck me that Kallari could be a really great model for other cooperatives in other cocoa growing regions. Instead of being at the mercy of multi-national companies who force down the price paid to cooperatives for their beans, the Kallari cooperative retain 100% of their profits from the finished chocolate, the Kallari bars, all of which go directly back to their members. That is a massive achievement and definitely something to be proud about!
On the 3rd day, we visited several collection centers around Quevedo. These centers are where farmers in the area drop off their beans and collect their money. Usually the beans are already fermented and dried, but if the farmer doesn’t have the equipment or wants money quickly, he can drop off the fresh baba. These collection centers are very convenient for the farmers but leave a lot to be desired in terms of promoting quality beans.
In two of the three collection centers the beans were dried using powerful blowers instead of natural sunlight. Beans are “blow dried” to hasten the drying process so that it takes 10 hours rather than 4 days. I asked Steve Devries his opinion regarding this method, and he is convinced that it kills a lot of flavors that come out of drying the beans naturally.
We sampled some beans at random and found that many of them were under fermented as well. The beans we split open at Samuel’s farm were brown with nice even cracks, while these were mostly purple. Under fermented beans means the chocolate will taste astringent and will ultimately have to be masked with lots of sugar or vanilla in order for it to be palatable.
Steve pointed out that bean quality is compromised when you mix all the beans from different farms together, because they will have to be roasted to the most common denominator. The fact that some farmers bring in perfectly fermented beans won’t matter because others might not care as much about the quality of their beans. This problem is worsened by the fact that collection centers accept both Arriba beans and CCN-51. We noticed that very little is done to prevent them from mixing once they got past the door. So, even if your bar of chocolate claims to use only Arriba beans, chances are it’s not.
Probably the biggest issue threatening quality is cleanliness. I saw animal feces on the floors of the dryers at one (a good argument agains raw chocolate) and at another, there were chickens nesting in an unused fermentation bin. At one point we saw workers scrambling to clean up an overflowing toilet that threatened to leak on coffee beans which were laying out on the floor to dry! Minutes later we watched in amazement as trucks drove over the those coffee beans. This is just one example of why it’s very important to know where you food comes from!
I felt that the visit to these centers made one thing very clear: there is really no better way to insure quality and consistency than by working directly with a farmer.
On day 2 of our trip, we had an early breakfast and then caught the bus to Quevedo, a city in the Los Rios region of Ecuador, and one of the top cocoa bean exporting centers in the country.
After a long but picturesque 6 hour drive narrated by our excellent guide, Pablo, we arrived at Samuel von Rutte’s farm. Samuel is a swiss immigrant and former Nestle employee who moved to Ecuador years ago to become a cocoa farmer. He now has thousands of trees and supplies many local and international chocolate companies with premium quality beans. He also supplied us with a premium quality meal of homemade empanadas and chocolate mousse, which we hungrily gobbled up before taking a walk around the plantation. Samuel’s trees are purely Arriba Nacional, a type of forestaro cacao that is indigenous to Ecuador and considered to be a fine flavor bean. The success of the cocoa industry in Ecuador is linked to the Arriba cacao because it is said to have a distinctive flavor profile(floral) that can’t be found in the CCN-51, the other and perhaps more common type of bean available in the country. The demand for Arriba cacao is so high now that farmers are encouraged to plant them over the CCN-51 even though the latter are easier to grow. Whether or not the Arriba can still be found in its pure form is another story and I’ll go into that later.
After our walk we saw Samuel’s fermentation and drying set up. Samuel has a special technique to ferment the beans. Instead of dumping all the baba (raw beans with mucilage) into fermentation bins and rotating them over the course of 4 or 5 days, he does something called dry fermentation. Once the beans are removed from the pod, he spreads them out to dry for several hours. He then piles them up overnight to allow them to ferment for 2-3 days. In wet fermentation, it takes days for the enzymes to permeate the husks. Using Samuel’s technique, the moisture is removed from drying the beans first, which allows the fermentation to start more quickly. By doing this, the bad-tasting acids that normally stay trapped in the wet process, are eliminated straight away and the chocolate tastes less bitter and astringent.
After our tour, Samuel let us try some of his 100% chocolate and it was amazingly sweet, smooth, and lacked any bitterness at all. We all bought lots of bars to take home with us.
This post is being released out of chronological order. I will report on what happened in Peru and Bolivia in May and early June soon. Thanks for your patience.
(Events from mid June 2012)
I decided to treat myself(as if traveling around the world wasn’t a treat enough)by partaking in a chocolate tour at the end of our trip. The tour was put on by Ecole Chocolat (http://www.ecolechocolat.com) which is an online school based in Vancouver that offers classes in chocolate making, chocolate manufacturing and chocolate tasting. I am not a graduate, but I do use their website as a resource for finding ingredients and equipment. I sometimes fantasize about participating in one of their Master Classes which bring students together to the kitchens of highly acclaimed chocolate companies such as Valrhona or Felchlin in order to hone their chocolate making skills.
On perusing their website, I discovered that there was a plantation and factory tour scheduled in Ecuador at the end of June. Not only did it fit exactly with the dates that we planned to be there, but it was lead by my chocolate hero, Steve DeVries!
Steve Devries is my favorite bean to bar chocolate maker in the United States. His chocolate is a revelation. He coaxes out amazing flavors and texture without the use of vanilla, cocoa butter or too much sugar. During the tour, I discovered that this is a testament to his knowledge of cocoa processing techniques and a love for antique chocolate making equipment, which he insists makes much better chocolate. For those interested, his chocolate will soon be available online only which he ships from his shop in Denver, Colorado (http://www.devrieschocolate.com).
To begin the tour, our group met in the lobby of Hotel Quito in Ecuador, which would be our hub for the week. The plan was to take side trips to 3 different regions in Ecuador and then reconvene back in Quito. There were 12 of us including Ecole Chocolat founder, Pam Williams and her husband, Daryll, and on this first evening we shared dinner and stories of chocolate at a nearby restaurant. It was the only time I would be away from my family during the entire 10 month trip and after meeting my new travel companions and fellow chocolate enthusiasts, I was excited to do my my own thing for a week.
The photos below are of some of the participants!
For several years Kerstin’s Chocolates has been working with Edmonton-based charity Change for Children that helps fund projects around the world to improve the lives of children. I became interested in them because of the work they do in countries and communities where cacao is grown. Over the years, we’ve donated money and chocolate to support their projects in South American and African countries. I’ve always wanted to get a first hand look at the work they do and when we had the chance to visit Bolivia, I contacted the president of the organization, Lorraine Swift, to see if she could arrange for us to visit. Lorraine connected us with the folks from Fundacion Renance, a grass-roots organization which helps people in several different regions in Bolivia. They work with women, helping them understand their legal rights and teaching them ways to improve nutrition and farming practices. We met Oscar, the founder, and Odalis, one of his colleagues, the day after we arrived in La Paz and made plans to visit the region of Alto Beni later in the week.
There are only two ways to get to the Alto Beni, flying or driving. Deciding against risking the drive down the infamous “death road”, we took instead a small propeller plane from La Paz to Rurrenabaque in the Amazon jungle (La Paz is one of highest cities in the world at an elevation of 3900m above sea level, and “Rurre” is only 200m above sea level, so it is quite a drop). From there we hired a cab to the town of Sapecho in the Alto Beni region, which is about another 6 hours on very bad roads from Rurre. During our hot, bumpy and dusty drive, we had a chance to talk to Odalis at length about the region, its people and the problems that people are having there.
The Alto Beni is Bolivia’s bread basket, the place where most of the country’s fruit grows, including its cacao. The region has seen a lot of changes in the last 40 years. Originally inhabited by tribes such as the Moseten Indians, many migrants arrived in Alto Beni in the 60’s and 70’s from the Altiplano or the highlands of Bolivia after competition for land and resources began to push them out. The new farmers and the indigenous people were given 40 hectares of land each to farm, which they used to plant crops such as mandarins, cacao and bananas. Many farmers concentrated on one or two of these cash crops. They get relatively low prices for all of these crops, and cacao is much harder to grow and process than either bananas or mandarins.
Oscar (who is from Sapecho) noticed a need to educate the farmers on how to grow a bigger variety of crops so they can better feed their families and not become dependent on one crop should it fail one year. Many farmers would grow veggies and fruits to sell at the market or ship up to La Paz, but they did not consume them themselves. Instead they ate processed foods, fried meats and drank sweet sodas. One of the roles of Fundacion Renace is to provide farmers with vegetable seeds so they can grow crops for their own consumption and improve their families nutrition.
Odalis and Oscar now hold regular workshops to teach women how to make nutritious foods using local ingredients. They teach them how to make juices, fruit breads, jams, yogurts, even sausages and chocolate. When we were there, they were teaching women how to cook with pumpkin, a new food for them. Their goal in the next few years is to establish a breakfast program in the far reaches of Alto Beni where families are the poorest and where kids walk long distances to get to school. They want to hire some of the local women which they’ve taught to prepare nutritious foods, to cook a healthy breakfast for the kids. It struck me that Oscar might be the Jamie Oliver of Bolivia!
In her excellent English, Odalis told me about her plans to help the female cacao growers of the Alto Beni. She wants to create a project where women process their own cocoa beans into cocoa liquor and then invent cacao-containing products to sell in local and foreign markets. She is passionate about improving the livelihood of local women by increasing the value of their cocoa beans. Cyrus and I promised to help her find a good cacao roasting machine and cacao grinder to help her accomplish this goal. She already got word from Change for Children that they will fund the purchase of a grinder. We also discussed the possibility that I would eventually purchase some of this cacao paste to make products of my own. Its extremely exciting to finally realize my dream of helping a cocoa growing community gain independence through their cocoa products. It’s better still to find someone equally passionate as Odalis is to share that dream with me.
For those of you who have been following my adventures around the world for the last 8 months, you know that I have been to Europe, Africa, Asia and Mexico in search of chocolate knowledge. Despite going to all of these places, I feel like my holy grail has still eluded me. I had tasted the best chocolate in the world, the most expensive chocolate in the world, the most ancient chocolate in the world and yet I had not found what I was looking for. Until I came to Cuba, that is. My answer has arrived, but not in learning what chocolate is, but rather what it isn’t.
A young boy climbs a cacao tree to pick a ripe pod for us!
On Saturday we met a cacao farmer down here in Soconusco, Chiapas, named Don Isidro. He took us to meet his family and have dinner with them. The day started by meeting him at a highway gas station. Since we were late, he had been waiting at least an hour in the stifling heat. He was pretty cool about it though, and invited us to come to his house and farm where he grew cacao. First we went fishing! Don Isidro wanted to feed us fresh fish, so he took us to a talapia farm where a teenage boy dragged nets across a pond to scoop out fish. Once we had the fish(it took over an hour to find the boy and to get the right sized fish), we drove to his farm which was located at the very end of a dirt road that led through cacao and mango trees. Don Isidro grows both of those as well as coffee, which he told us, is his most profitable crop.
He showed us his cacao, which wasn’t ready to harvest yet. The peak harvest season in Chiapas is June where the pods turn bright yellow and are ready to be cut from the tree. The pods we saw were still green, although when we tasted them fresh, they were already sweet and delicious.
He then invited us into his house to meet his wife, Herminia and his six children. It was hard to keep track of all the kids because four of them are girls and seemingly close in age. Darius made an interesting observation. He said that if you have 6 kids back home, they make a TV show about it, but here it’s quite normal. I explained that farmers generally have more kids so they can help around the farm.
After a few glasses of lemonade, Don Isidro showed us where he dried the cacao. We walked up several flights of stairs to the top floor with the best view. He preferred to dry the beans there, away from the chickens and the dogs (for obvious reasons), but it was also a pain to bring the beans downstairs every time it rained. He told us that his wife and daughters did most of the drying work and they also sorted through the beans picking out the bad ones. He still had some beans from the previous harvest in September and he showed us the difference between well fermented and poorly fermented beans. The well fermented ones had cracks in them and there was a difference in colour, too, although Cyrus and I couldn’t quite understand what that difference was. My Spanish is pretty much non existent and Cyrus struggles with the technical terms.
It was getting quite dark now and the kids were bored and hungry. Luckily dinner was ready. Herminia cooked us a wonderful fish dinner. One for each of us! They declined to join us for dinner because they had friends visiting later and wanted to eat with them. I felt bad eating my whole fish in front of the family, but I was starving and the fish was delicious and that overrode all sense of propriety.
Once we finished eating, we left fairly quickly. Everyone was exhausted from the day, including the family who had made such pains to host us. We were very grateful to Don Isidro and his wife, for being so generous with us and our kids.
Last week we visited a chocolate shop called Tout Chocolat in the Condessa neighborhood of Mexico City. It took some work to get there: dragging the kids through the busy Mexico City subway system was no fun, neither was getting turned around several times before getting the map right. We were hot, tired and disgruntled by the time we got to the shop and we made it just before the afternoon rains.
Luis Robledo, owner and chocolatier extraordinaire was there to greet us as we stumbled into his shop. Cool, mellow and self-effacing, he instantly made us feel welcome and at ease (Darius later pointed out that Luis shares these characteristics with many other chocolatiers we’ve met). He seemed genuinely surprised that we made the trek to visit his shop after reading an article about him which counted him as one of the 10 best chocolatiers in North America. In appreciation he gave us a plate of his favorite chocolates to try.
We, of course, ravaged them, fighting over the ones that peaked our curiosity such as the lime caramel and the white peach and apricot(the one for which he was now famous). They were all amazing. The lime caramel blew me away with its intensity. The spiced caramel was rich and complex and so was the single origin ganache made with 100% Mexican chocolate. It was exciting to taste these bold flavors and meltingly smooth ganaches and centers. His execution was nearly perfect every time. This is not by accident; Luis Robledo has an impressive CV. He has worked with Daniel Boulud, Francois Payard and Canada’s own Thomas Haas in New York. He also counts Le Circque and the Four Season’s New York as his past employers. Little did we know, but we watched him compete for Mexico at the World Chocolate Masters at the Salon du Chocolat in October!
[See the photos that we took of him in Paris at the end of this post.]
Since I was fresh out of chocolate, I needed to stock up for the next little while. I bought a large box of chocolates (the largest), a couple of bars (he uses Valrhona) and some fruit and nut bark (which ended up being one of my favorites).
These items brought us great pleasure over the next few days in Mexico City. I might even go so far as to say I had a revelation about chocolate while tasting his spiced caramel bon bon. But more on that in the next posting…
[Mini Gallery of Photos from the World Chocolate Masters at the 2011 Salon du Chocolat in Paris]
Beginning Tuesday, March 13th, we will be discounting items throughout the shop by 15-40%. Stop by the shop to find out what’s on sale and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for daily specials. Our final day at the shop will be Saturday, April 14th. *Please note that discounts do not apply to Easter items.*
It’s been 8 years since I was in Japan last and have been enjoying every minute since our arrival 2 weeks ago(hence the long pause in blog postings). One of the things I was really looking forward to was getting at some good chocolate in Tokyo. All my European favorites are here including Hevin, Marcolini, and Bonnat and I planned to see them all at the Tokyo Salon du Chocolat.
I slowly made my way to the Isetan department store in Shinjuku, which has been hosting the salon for the last 10 years. I was excited to walk around a bit by myself, without kids, and husband and luggage and I breathed in the atmosphere of one of the busiest and brightest districts of Tokyo. When I couldn’t control my curiosity anymore, I took the elevator up to the 6th floor of Isetan and stepped into the overheated and crowded exhibition hall.
The first thing I noticed that was different from the Paris salon was the lack of space; every booth was crammed next to the other. The second thing I noticed was the lack of samples! That was one of the best things about the Paris salon. The third thing I noticed, which may be tied to the second thing, was that the prices were outrageously high. The average price for a assorted box of about 10 chocolates was a whopping $50!!!! That’s $5.00 per chocolate. The prices scared me so much that I bought only a few gifts for friends, and nothing for myself(ok maybe a couple of things).
I took great interest in watching the buying habits of the Japanese and what they were interested in. The Japanese are very savvy about food and they know and love chocolate. Many MOF’s(meilleur ouvrier de France) were present at the salon and people were gobbling it up. Most chocolatiers were French but brands from Switzerland, the U.K and the U.S. were also present. Popular items included chocolate bark in various flavors, cute, animal shaped chocolates, and beautiful hand-decorated chocolates in extravagant boxes. The Japanese are really conscious about presentation and aesthetics, so packaging is as important as the product itself. One could say the chocolate here is over packaged, they are often wrapped individually or presented in such a way that they don’t touch each other. I guess if you are paying $5.00 per chocolate you want them to be spotless when you pop them in your mouth.
I decided to escape the mob and take a hot chocolate break at Jean Paul Hevin cafe. I chose the yuzu(a type of Japanese citrus fruit) hot chocolate for $12.00. It was rich, hot and not too sweet. The yuzu was concentrated on top so you would get a whiff of it’s aroma as you drank it but it didn’t overpower the drink. I was happy to be in the land of chocolate again. If the Tokyo Salon was a bit disappointing, my cup of hot chocolate was decidedly not.
(After visiting Hoi An and Nha Trang, we headed back to Saigon for our final first true cacao encounter in Asia)
Back in October we were contacted by Samuel Maruta, a chocolate maker in Vietnam, who had seen our blog. He had invited us to visit his operation in Saigon. Over e-mail we were able to able to arrange a meeting for our last day in Vietnam with the only artisanal bean to bar chocolate maker in the country.
Samuel picked us up at our hotel early in the morning and took us out for breakfast. He told us about how he and his business partner had come together to create their company, Marou Chocolate. Like many chocolatiers, they came from non-culinary backgrounds. Samuel worked in international finance for many years, and was living and working in Vietnam when he decided to take a year off work and learn Vietnamese. During this year off he happened to learn about the local cacao business, and decided that making chocolate would be a unique venture that he could attempt. His friend Vincent was also looking for something new to do, and happened also to be fascinated by cacao. They brainstormed for a while, and then everything fell into place.
The first thing they did was buy 2 kg of cacao beans from a farmer on the outskirts of Saigon and made some preliminary experiments roasting, winnowing and grinding them. To their surprise, they loved the taste of the chocolate! They went deeper into the Mekong Delta, found more beans, and made more chocolate. They discovered that the regions around Saigon were producing very different beans, and each chocolate was reflecting the terroir it was grown.
Confident that they could make a go of it, they found some financial backers and started to build up their operation quickly. They rented the small bay that we visited, in an industrial building on the outskirts of town, bought some classic equipment, and began to make large batches of bars.
After breakfast, Samuel drove us out to his factory and gave us a tour. We started with the roaster, which was a big old machine that he and Vincent had shipped from Europe. There were still some freshly roasted beans inside which we tried. They were dark and flavorful.
Next, Samuel let us try the chocolate straight from the conching machine. It was delicious. There’s nothing quite like freshly roasted and freshly ground chocolate. We continued on to the tempering room where the bars are made. He showed us how quickly the machine can temper a batch(approximately 20min) and then we had a mini tasting of all 4 kinds of bars. All of them came from different provinces in Vietnam and they were all distinctive. One fruity, one spicy, one earthy. Samuel explained that he wanted to produce something beautiful that was distinctively Vietnamese and I believe he did it with these bars. So far they are only selling the bars around Saigon, but they hope to begin exporting them out of Vietnam soon.
After the factory visit, we drove back to Ho Chi Minh to have lunch with Samuel and his family. Our kids really hit it off with his kids, and we discovered that Samuel’s wife, Sam, had gone to school with Cyrus back in 1982. You can read more about this on the Marou Chocolate blog.
All in all we had a fantastic time with Samuel and the folks at Marou chocolate. We can’t wait to get back to Vietnam and experience more of the culture that this great country has to offer.
It’s been a while since I’ve had chocolate and the bar of Beschle 64% with pistachios and salt that I purchased in Singapore was polished off weeks ago. I am in Hoi An, a picturesque but touristy town in central Vietnam which for hundreds of years served as a major port to Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese traders. Not surprisingly, the food here is delicious. As a former French colony, Vietnam also has many patisseries and one such place is Cargo, which I recon is one of the best in Hoi An. Darius and I go there to indulge our sweet tooth and judging by the gorgeous cakes on display behind the glass case, we will not be disappointed.
We order the two best looking(or biggest) items, the double chocolate cake and the passion fruit mousse cake. My Latte comes out first, and it arrives with a square of chocolate. I’m excited to see that it is a single origin chocolate from Vietnam. When I try it, I discover that it’s good, well balanced and fruity. It’s exciting to see locally made chocolate in a world dominated by Cadbury and Nestlé.
We try the cakes and they are delicious too! Now I want to meet the pastry chef who has the know how to put single origin chocolate on the menu and make excellent desserts. When I do the next day, the chef tells me that they use the same brand of chocolate in their desserts as the square I had, but the bean origin is different. On the web I find out that the brand, called Grand Place is a Belgium company that has subsidiaries in Vietnam and Japan. They mostly source beans from Africa but have recently begun making this single origin chocolate from Vietnam. I contact them to see if I could visit them in Ho Chi Minh since we are flying out from there. Really I want to do a tour of the plantations but unfortunately, we haven’t given ourselves enough time to go back to the Mekong Delta.
When I get to HCMC the following week, I meet with Yung, a nice salesman who tells me that Grand Place is the biggest chocolate company in Vietnam and supplies chocolate to much of Asia too. He gives me some samples to take home but seems a bit confused as to why I am there since I don’t want to buy chocolate. I am beginning to wonder that myself and when he tells me that they do tours of the plantation and factory for customers, I realize that’s where I really want to be.
It’s easy to lose focus when you are travelling. You think you have to see and do everything of interest and pretty soon you are as busy as you were at home. I have forgotten that by narrowing our focus on cacao, we also hone in on a very specific culture of farmers and the artisans, that could provide me with understanding that is more meaningful than what we might glimpse on the tourist trail.
The food in Vietnam is amazing. I don’t know how I can even begin to describe my feelings as I taste one delectable dish after another. In short, I feel like I’ve come home. It’s a strange feeling since I’ve never been here, nor have I ever really tasted proper Vietnamese food save the odd bowl of pho or bun.
Vietnamese food tastes like what food should taste like. There is so much variation in flavor because the Vietnamese use an astounding array of fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, basil, etc) plus limes and chilies. They emphasize texture in food as well and as a result, there’s always lots of crunch from fresh bean sprouts or crispy fried things. It’s all so good!
We’ve explored the country a bit starting in Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta and now we are in central Vietnam in a town called Hoi An which is surrounded by rice fields and vegetable gardens. There seems to be a very direct connection from the field to the table here with the farmers coming into the markets daily to sell their produce. It’s not like at home where there are weeks between visits to the grocery store. Fresh food is a daily affair. Restaurants get fresh meat and produce from the market every morning and outside our hotel(which is in a residential neighborhood) you see women on mopeds or bikes delivering fresh greens to our neighbors. I read that 75% of Vietnamese people live in rural areas of Vietnam. That’s the largest population of rural inhabitants of any country in the world. That means most people here work on fields and in rice paddies, or fish the waters for their sustenance. It’s not surprising then that the food here is so good.
Something about Vietnam reminds me of being a kid in Germany. The village where I lived was surrounded by fruit orchards, vineyards and pastures. Our neighbors had chickens roaming in their backyard. These foods turned up on my grandmother’s table cooked up in some delicious way. Perhaps that’s what I’m tasting when I eat in Vietnam. Fresh and wholesome ingredients brought alive in the hands of someones grandma.
We are currently in Malaysia now after spending a magical week on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand. Today we stopped in Ipoh which is a city about 2 hours north of Kuala Lumpur. The city is near some hot springs, which we swam in, but it is also one to some great culinary culture.
When we rolled into town we parked directly in front of a tea shop called the Purple Cane House. They had an enormous selection of Chinese tea in one half of the space and a garden restaurant in the other half. We sat down and saw that they were serving a set of 4 puddings made from green tea, oolong tea, jasmine tea and caramel, so we ordered them and tried to pair them with our teas.
Darius had jasmine tea and felt that the oolong pudding matched best due to contrasting flaovrs. The jasmine tea and jasmine pudding was not enough contrast. The green tea pudding had too much contrast.
Cy had the pu-erh tea which was earthy and full bodied. It had Lots of tannins. It went well with the jasmine pudding.
I had a delicate Chinese black tea, It went well with almost all of the puddings, but tasted best paired with the caramel pudding. When taken together, the caramel brought out some caramel notes in my tea which might have been a type of oolong tea.
I had read about a certain chocolate buffet that takes place on the weekends at the Sukothai Hotel in Bangkok. I knew it was going to be nice because it was billed as a champagne and chocolate buffet. I decided that if we were going to splurge on one thing in Bangkok, it would be this, and to further convince myself I argued that I really needed some fodder for a blog posting.
The buffet takes place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 2:30-5:30 and costs 950 baht or 1250 with champagne(the equvilant of about $30 and $45). We arrived at 5pm on Friday so we felt a bit pressured to gorge ourselves before they started breaking down the buffet table. I went a bit crazy, ordering the kids to take a plate and eat as much as they wanted of everything. I myself had difficulties deciding what I should have first. The opera cake? The puff pastry with chocolate cream? The dark chocolate truffles (I do believe I popped a couple of those in my mouth while piling desserts on my plate)? In the meantime Cyrus was at the hot chocolate table mixing up his own special blend of drinking chocolate that included a generous serving of Valrhona Manjari chocolate (smart, considering we just came from Madagascar home of the Manjari).
Ilona went straight for the cupcakes and licked off the icing as her chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce melted into a puddle in her bowl. Darius opted for the sushi (fish, not chocolate).
I realized that I was more excited than the kids were to be presented with the idea of the all you can eat chocolate buffet. (Ilona later on told me that she is tired of doing chocolate things on this trip. Who are these kids?). This must have been a fantasy of mine since childhood because I obviously was more excited than any one else in the family.
In the end, I really didn’t taste the desserts too carefully, so focused was I on what I should have next before they shut the whole thing down. Lucky I made a few notes that said: Excellent sticky toffee pudding! Darius’ iced drinking chocolate is one of the best things I’ve ever had!
In conclusion, an all you can eat buffet is best done when you have a lot of time and is perhaps more enjoyed in the anticipation of it rather than the actual experience. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact I was really impressed with the selection that the Sukothai offered its customers, particularly with the hot chocolate bar that offers customers a choice of 15 types of chocolate to blend into their signature drink. The service was also impeccable. The beautiful Thai servers didn’t make you feel at all bad for losing control as you ravaged the buffet table. This is definitely a cool thing to do if you are ever in Bangkok and want to experience some of the glamour that the city can offer. Just give yourself a lot of time and don’t bring the kids because they’re going to take the fun out of it!
If there is one thing that I have learned while being in Madagascar, it’s that there isn’t much of a chocolate culture in Madagascar. Cocoa was introduced in the 1920’s by the French so there is no history of native chocolate preparations. If people consume cocoa, they either eat it fresh from the pod or they buy western style candy bars.
There are a couple of chocolate makers on the island. The biggest one is Robert Chocolate and there’s one called Cinagra as well. Both make milk and dark bars with the dark chocolate ranging from 62 to 72 percent. Robert also makes Bon bons and confectionaries which they sell in their European style boutiques. Robert chocolate has a distinctive almost under roasted flavor (albeit fresh tasting) and I quite liked their Bon Bons. The 250 gr. box we purchased in Antananrivo was quickly consumed by the family.
However, I preferred the chocolate from Cinagra whose 44% milk chocolate I found in a shop in Diego Suarez, a town on the north of the island. It was surprisingly delicious and nicely balanced, with good acidity and it got me through some difficult times traveling through there.
We got the chance to tour the factory when we got to the capital of Antanarivo and as difficult as it was to get there(we were squished into a hot car ride stuck in traffic for an hour), it was worth the trip.
A very nice man by the name of Shaheen Cassam Chenai runs Cinagra. He started it about 5 years ago after meeting Francois Pralus who mentored him on the art of chocolate making. Cinagra complements his import/export business, which imports, among other things, all of the country’s Bounty and Snickers bars!
The Cinagra factory is pretty small (compared to the Valrhona and Bonnat facilities) and the tour was quite short, starting in the storage room where the dried beans are kept. Shaheen then took us around to the roaster, which was a small coffee roaster and then he showed us the refiner, which cleverly combines 3 functions: grinding, blending and conching. Next Shaheen showed us the tempering machine and cooling tunnel where the liquid chocolate is turned into bars. There was no production on the day we visited, but it was mesmerizing to watch the assembly line of women workers packing the chocolate bars piled high next to them into gold foil wrappers and sealing them shut; one woman brushing off the bars, the next placing them into the foil, the other folding them, etc. I wondered if they appreciated their work or hated it. I guessed the former was probably true since the country suffers from severe poverty and work is difficult to find, especially in a nice air conditioned room.
It was amazing for me to see how hard people in Madagascar worked to get cocoa off the trees, fermented and then dried. It takes almost 2 weeks of diligent labor. In the end, the farmer gets only 2 euros per kg. (or 3 euros if the bean quality is high). It was nice to see more of the profits and jobs staying in Madagascar.
At the end of the tour Shaheen told us about his new project of making high end bars for the European market. We got an exclusive look at the new packaging designed with the help of chocolate expert and consultant, Chloe Doutre Roussel and we tried the combava bar which is made with a local citrus fruit, as well as a spicy pepper bar. Both are delicious.
It was exciting to see someone be innovative and try something new. It’s even more exciting to see it succeed!
The day after we visited the family farm and the coop, we got a special tour of one of the biggest cocoa plantations in Madagascar, the Somia plantation. Somia is run by Bertile’s Akkeson’s family (Bertile is the man we had lunch with on the beach on at Nosy Be) and supplies beans to some of the best chocolate companies in the world. Somia is managed by a French agronomist named Ivan, who greeted us at the gates to show us around.
The first place we stopped at was the nursery. There were 24,000 baby cacao trees getting ready to be planted. Most of them were criollo/trinitario types because they produce better tasting beans. Ivan explained that Somia was a mixed plantation with criollo, trinitario and forestero trees. It is this particular mix that creates the distinctive flavour of Madagascar beans.
Next Ivan drove us to the plantation where we could take a closer look at the trees. On the way there, he pointed out patches of empty spaces near banana trees where the new trees would be planted. Banana trees are one of the shade trees planted near cacao trees to protect them from direct sunlight.
The plantation looked healthy and beautiful. There were lots of ripe pods hanging from the trunk. Ivan cut one open and showed us how both criollo and forestero beans could exist in one pod. He also explained that the beans exhibit a range of flavours, with some trinitario tasting like forestero and some more like criollo. I was learning more about cocoa agronomy in this one hour talking to Ivan than I had after years of doing my own research. Ivan was obviously passionate about his work and he had years of expertise to draw from. He told us that he started working with cacao on the island of Sao Tome, Africa. The very same place where Claudio Corallo produces his great chocolate!
Ivan explained that one of the reasons that this plantation was so healthy was because there were good density between the trees. Good density creates good circulation which decreases the need for maintenance. All that’s left to do in these ideal conditions is to trim the trees of “suckers”. Suckers are small branches that take energy from the main branch of the tree, resulting in a smaller yield. A good tree will produce 80-90 pods per year.
We asked Ivan if there were any predators or diseases that were a threat to trees. Ivan said that the biggest threat was probably thieves coming into the plantation at night! He said that the conditions in Madagascar are perfect for growing cacao and that the trees are not affected by witch’s broom or some of the other diseases that can kill off trees. As a result, the plantation is 100% organic.
Our trip to Madagascar coincided with peak harvesting season, which is from September to October (there’s a smaller one from March to May), so we were able to see the fermentation and drying of the beans in full swing. Ivan brought us back to the farm where the beans are fermented and dried. The first thing that hit me was the smell of fermenting beans, sharp and vinegary, interspersed with the warm smell of drying cacao. I felt both repulsed and attracted to those smells and it was exciting to see the process in action. There were many people working on the farm. Somiya employs up to 750 people during peak harvest season!
Ivan is very strict about the duration and method in which the beans are fermented and dried. During the harvest, the workers take special care to separate the pods from trees that are pure criollo from the rest. Fermentation happens over the period of 6 days (5 days for the batches with only criollo beans). All the beans are then dried for 7 days. He explained that the drying should start slowly at the beginning and then speed up over time because the husk needs to be wet and porous to all allow the unwanted acids to escape. If drying is too fast, the acids can stay trapped under the husk and the beans will taste like vinegar! The ideal moisture level of the beans when they are finished drying is 7.5 %.
After our tour, Ivan invited us into his house for a drink and a chat. He brought out some chocolate for us to try using the beans from the plantation. The chocolate had that distinctive acidity and tanginess that I love. My favourite chocolate concoction, however, was the chocolate rum that Ivan brought out just before we left. His friend had made it using the Somia beans. It was sweet and chocolatey and was a perfect way to end our plantation visit.
We have one last posting from Madagascar coming up from our visit to Antananarivo. Stay tuned!
Madagascar grows some of the best cocoa in the world and Ambanja is where it all comes from. It’s on the northwest part of the island and we went there on Sunday to visit a few plantations. Two technicians from the American chocolate company Madecasse took us to two farms and explained the harvesting, fermenting and drying process.
What struck me most was how labor intensive this work of cocoa processing was. We didn’t see the harvesting, but the job of fermenting the beans looked back breaking. It takes 5 days to ferment beans properly and they need to be turned often and moved from one fermentation bin to another. At this point the beans are moist and heavy. Once the fermentation is done, the beans go outside to dry. The workers have to put the still wet beans into large burlap sacks to transport them to the drying area. The beans are first dried on cement and then moved to drying racks that are wheeled in and out of the sun over a period of 7 days. They then need to be sorted and bad beans need to be picked out. Only the good beans are made into the Madecasse bars.
Frederic and Elli (full name: Elian Guy Randrimihazja) picked us up from the port of Ankify and drove us into the town of Ambanja which is the commercial centre of the Sambinaro Valley region. It was incredibly hot and humid, and we were all wilting. We checked into a simple motel in town called the Palma Nova and then drove out to this first farm called the Mangabe family farm. This farm is a traditional Malagache family farm, with all the work being done by an extended family and neighbours. The proprietor of the farm is Mr. Lalatina Mangabe, shown in the group photo with us. He and his wife Dauria and their daughter Karen live and work on the farm. Their plantation contains the usual mix of cacao varieties that makes Madagascar cacao special: criollo, trinitario and a little forastero. As we walked through the grove of cacao trees, Frederic explained how there a mix of beans in each pod. He opened a pod and sliced through a bean for us, showing us the creamy coloured interior of a criollo type bean. In the same pod, he cut through another bean that was dark purple, a more forastero type. Before the Mangabe farm started working with Madecasse, they did not really pay too much attention to post-harvest processing: short fermentation, short, haphazard drying.
Madecasse has partnered with the Mangabe farm to help them improve their cacao by helping them acquire drying trays, building a better fermentation system and building a storage room for the drying trays. These simple additions to the farm have made an enormous difference to the quality of the cacao that the Mangabe family can produce. In addition to the investment in equipment, the team from Madecasse visit the farm every day of the week, sometimes bringing up to 10 extra labourers with them to help the Mangabe family ferment, dry and sort the beans. Without this extra support it would be very difficult for the family to follow the exacting regimen that is required to make great cacao. Forgetting to turn the beans one day, or keeping the drying beans in the storage room , out of the sun, for too long, will make the beans unusable, so the attention to detail is key. As we learned about all this work, it really hit home how difficult it is to create the quality that we taste in Madecasse chocolate. I think I will savour the chocolate even more than usual next time I eat one (which may be for a while!) because I will be imagining the faces all the people who worked so hard to make these bars a reality. A lot of people throw around the term “bean-to-bar”, but when you feel connected to the earth where the cacao trees grow and the family growing the cacao, it is a whole different ballgame.
After we had a snack of jackfruit with Frederic and Elli, we drove to the second farm supplying Madecasse with beans, called the Cokafa co-operative. It was a little different from our first experience: we drove right through a village of about 1000 people and pulled up at a fenced-in drying deck. Cokafa is a co-operative that is part of the village of Antrankarana, about 20 minutes drive from Ambanja. This is a new project for Madecasse, about 3 months old, and 12 families in this village have joined the cooperative and are contributing beans so far. They hope to add 15 more families in the near future. Madecasse has helped the cooperative build a better fermentation system and drying trays. We met with the vice-president of the co-operative, Mr. Jean Bathelemi, and as we looked on, Frederic and Elli checked on the progress of the fermentation and drying.
Our thanks go out to the team at Madecasse (USA), Michael, Frederic and Elli (Madagascar). We really appreciate all the time and effort they provided to help us see how the cacao growers of the Sambirano Valley make great cacao.
Here is a gallery of photos from our visit. Captions are provided under each picture, so click on the gallery to get started!
After visiting Chocolat Bonnat in Voiron, France, we made our way back to Paris and boarded a flight for Madagascar. It was a long flight (about 10 hours), and we arrived in the airport in capital of Antananarivo, nicknamed Tana, at midnight! After waiting in immigration for an hour for our visas to be issued, we went to a hotel near the airport and crashed.
The next day we went back to the airport and grabbed a 2 hour ride in a prop plane to the island of Nosy Be, also called the “The Island of Flavors” (L’Isle des Parfums). It is a island off the northern coast of Madagascar that has been developed for tourism, and it is not far from the cacao growing region of Ambanja.
While we were waiting for the flight to Nosy Be, Cyrus met a woman named Alice who had just arrived from San Francisco. Alice said that she was going to fly to Nosy Be and then travel to Ambanja to visit a cocoa plantation. She is the chocolate maker at a new company called Dandelion Chocolate and she and her business partner Cameron were visiting Madagascar in order to source beans. Several days later, Cyrus got a call saying that they would like to meet us at a restaurant on the beach before they got the plane back to the mainland. Our lunch was organized by Bertil Akesson, part-owner of one of the largest plantations in Madagascar that we had arranged to visit the next week.
Alice and company arrived about 1 hour late due to boat trouble (not unusual in Madagascar) and we had a quick lunch so that they wouldn’t miss their flight. Besides Alice and her partner, Cameron, there was Bertil and Oliver, a chocolate maker from Germany. As we sat down for lunch, I was beginning to put it all together: Bertil’s father founded a plantation in the 70’s, and that plantation sells beans to some of the best chocolate companies in the world. Oliver and Dandelion were there to source these wonderful beans and to learn more about the plantation. And the reason that we were there having lunch with them was because Cyrus is a great communicator and had the sense to borrow my aunt’s cellphone before leaving Germany, getting a local sim chip, and staying in touch with our friends at Madecasse who were arranging our visit to Ambanja!
During lunch I sat next to Oliver and he asked me if I knew of a certain distributor in Calgary. “He’s the distributor of Coppeneur”, I said and then Cameron announced “Well, this is Mr. Coppeneur!”. This information totally blew me away. What are the chances of randomly meeting Oliver Coppeneur at a beach side restaurant in Madagascar? What luck to be at the right place at the right time. It was exhilarating to feel like I was part of some global cacao network. This chance encounter cemented my belief that what we were doing, traveling the world in search of cacao, was the right thing.
We now were anxious to begin our trip to the cacao growing region of Madagascar, the Sambirano Valley, and the town of Ambanja.
[This post was from early November 2011, but was delayed due to difficulty from posting from Madagascar, which has unreliable power and internet services! Stay tuned for the Madagascar reports coming soon.]
We all drove up in the alps to a place called Voiron which is the home of Stephane Bonnat and the House of Bonnat. Clay Gordon had made the introduction, and Mr. Bonnat himself called us after Cyrus left a message in French on his answering machine. It was pretty amazing to me that we would meet the man behind some of my favorite chocolate.
When we got to his shop we were invited to wait in his office, which had the feel of some undetermined era. There were old family photos on the wallpapered wall and other paraphernalia collected over the decades including framed chocolate bar wrappers and what appeared to be a golden ticket! When Br. Bonnat entered the room through a creaky wooden door in the back of his office, he explained that the door suffered some damage from a storm that blew through the town the night before. “It’s the only thing that’s happened around here in 100 years”, he said jokingly.
Mr. Bonnat is 4th in line to run his family’s chocolate company. His great grandfather started it in 1884 and it is the oldest family run chocolate company in France. Stephane Bonnat takes the tradition of chocolate making very seriously. In excellent English, he told us that one of his goals is to make chocolate that creates the feeling of nostalgia by allowing people to taste what their parents had tasted: “the first time you eat chocolate, it leaves an indelible mark” he said “and I want people to experience that every time”. As we were listening to Mr. Bonnat, he was beginning to leave an indelible mark on us too — that perhaps this was Willy Wonka in the flesh.
Stephane Bonnat is highly energetic and enthusiastic about everything. He believes that great chefs need to be interested in many things (He is crazy about chocolate but he also loves riding motorcycles and traveling). It is this curiosity that triggers his imagination because “chocolate is imagination”. He is also a bit of of a mad scientist drawing his inspiration from antique chocolate making equipment which he collects and restores. As we walked around the factory floor, he would point to a machine and say, “this is another old new machine I bought”. He believes that old equipment makes better chocolate and after years of loving his chocolate, I am in full agreement.
In the Roald Dahl book, the character of Willie Wonka is paranoid about spies and infiltrators who want to steal his recipes. Stephane Bonnat is very open about his chocolate. He gave us a full tour of his facilities and even told us the ratio of beans to sugar and cocoa butter that he uses in his bars. He is however, suspicious of chocolatiers who make claims to having the best chocolate in the world, namely some unnamed Italians. In his opinion, the difference between French and Italian chocolate is that “the French are innovators and the Italians are followers” To him, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, or in the taste of the chocolate, in this case. The Bonnat family has been making chocolate for 137 years and that’s a long time to perfect a recipe!
Some things we learned about our visit to the Bonnat shop and Factory:
1. His dad started making single origin bars in the 80’s, which was revolutionary at the time.
2. They support programs in Peru to reduce cocaine production by having farmers plant cocoa trees instead of growing coca.
3. They still produce a complete line of Bon bons and pastries which they sell in their tea and chocolate shop in Voiron.
4. They have 2 retail locations in Tokyo that are run by local partners.
5. He uses organic and kosher milk powder in his milk chocolate bars.
6. Bonnat is very concerned about allergens. He doesn’t add soy lecithin to chocolate and his dark chocolate bars are made in a special room to avoid cross contamination.
Thanks to Clay for the introduction, and thanks to Mr. Bonnat and the House of Bonnat for their hospitality. We really loved our visit. Vive Bonnat!
I made sure to brief the kids before we toured the Valrhona factory. I was especially concerned that Ilona would do some damage so I explained to her that we would be visiting a chocolate factory kind of like Willie Wonka’s factory except that there would be no Oompa Loompas. To that she said, “I’ll be the Oompa Loompa”, which I thought was cute. I told the kids that this visit was very important to me and that in a way, I had won the golden ticket. This piece of information got their attention pretty quickly. I told them that they had to behave and reminded them of what happened to the kids in the story who didn’t follow Mr. Wonka’s rules. “Do you remember what happened to Violet Beauregard when she refused to stop chewing gum?” I asked. “She turned into a giant bubble and flew away” Ilona said. “And do you remember what happened to Charlie?”. “He got to keep the factory” Darius said. “Exactly” I said, “Except I don’t think we will be able to keep the factory, but you might get something good”. The next day, the kids put on their protective clothing not once, not twice, but three times and listened quietly as our guide, Luce, walked us along the gleaming factory floors explaining the functions of many different machines including roasters, conchers, and winnowers. I think their favorite machine was the robotic arm that picked up boxes and piled them neatly into stacks to be shipped. “I think that’s your Oompa Loompa”, I told them.
Here’s what Darius had to say about the visit:
Valhrona chocolate factory
I thought the Valhrona chocolate factory was very interesting. I still can’t believe the effort you need to put in to make good chocolate. After this tour it became obvious to me why Valhrona is so much better than the leading mass chocolate enterprises who value speed and money over quality and ethics.
From my point of view, there are four things Valhrona does that the leading brands of low-quality chocolate do not do, (among many other smaller things.)
1. Unlike other chocolate factories, Valhrona takes the time to make their chocolate perfect. It takes them 8 to 10 to days to get the finished product. Other bigger companies can make a bar of chocolate in only 1 or 2 days. But, if they really cherish quality other companies would take their time.
2. Valhrona staff will go straight to the producers to ensure good quality, safe working environments, and consistency in their chocolate. They also always get the cacao strait from the plantations and co-ops, rather than buying it from a cheap provider and not knowing where the chocolate is from. This is why Valhrona is much more ethical then the other large chocolate companies.
3. They education pastry chefs how to properly work with chocolate and improve their techniques. This is vital if you want the future generations to continue the chocolate legacy.
4. It tastes so darn good!!!!! Valhrona puts in so much quality that when ever you bite down on a piece of chocolate, you feel like you are in heaven! And the gianduja !!!!!