Marou Chocolate, bean to bar in Ho Chi Minh City

(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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chocolate in Hoi An

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 NestlĂ©.
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.

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Vietnam

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.

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