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!