Cacao and coconut

We are taking a package tour on the Mekong Delta. These tours always stop at tourist traps where they demonstrate handicraft or candy making. On our tour we stopped at a coconut taffy making workshop but to my surprise, there is cocoa growing in the surrounding plantation. Mekong River Cacao! Who knew?
I asked our guide what they do with it here and he said that they bring it to a co-op where they process the cacao to sell. It’s an extra way to make a “dong” I guess.
We were led through the steps of coconut taffy making process. It starts with the flesh which is pressed for the milk. The milk is then cooked over a fire for many hours until it becomes taffy. It’s then cooled on a table, cut and wrapped.
The taffy is quite good: Slightly smoky and not too sweet with good a coconut flavor. Should keep us going for more touristic action.






Tea tasting in Malaysia

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.


Finding chocolate in Bangkok

[After taking a long flight across the Indian Ocean, Kerstin arrives in Bangkok, Thailand!]

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!

Two Chocolate companies in Madagascar

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!

Visiting the SOMIA plantation in Ambanja.

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.

Click here to see all the photos.

Photo gallery from our visit to the SOMIA plantation.

We have one last posting from Madagascar coming up from our visit to Antananarivo. Stay tuned!

Christmas 2011: From our Edmonton shop

We know you love exploring the holiday offerings of our European and U.S. counterparts as much as we do, but here’s what’s coming out of our own kitchen this season:

Our classic offering is undoubtedly the Chocophilia Christmas Trio. Three chocolate barks in either a milk or dark box, all wrapped up in the handsome label created over at Edmonton’s Vanguard Works. In both boxes you’ll find sheets of our favourite Fleur de Sel Toffee on 49% Venezuelan dark-milk. Accompanying this lovely in the dark box is Peppermint on 66% and Orange-Pistachio on 64% Madagascan dark. For milk lovers, we’ve added a Raspberry Linzer Torte on 38% and a beautiful sheet of white chocolate with Fruit and Nibs studding the top.

This year we are excited to add ganache-filled Chocolate Logs to the shelves. Delicate butter ganaches in Peppermint, Eggnog, Orange spice and Gingerbread are enrobed by milk and dark chocolates.

As in the past, Mendiants in milk, dark and white chocolate are also gracing the shelves this season. Two of each of Crème Brûlée (white), Ginger-Sesame (milk) and Fruit and Nib (dark) can be found stacked near the bark, wrapped and ready to share.

Finally, milk and dark Santa Claus lollipops can be found in the “truffle case,” and next week roasted almonds enrobed in our Fleur de Sel chocolate will find their way into the shop.

We must thank our chocolatier, Becca Grant, for this year’s lovelies. Many hours go into this season, and we couldn’t do it without her.

Meeting the people who grow the cacao for Madecasse.

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!

Click here to see all the images.

December Bar of the Month: Zotter’s Bacon Bits

Before we delve further into this bar, a little background is certainly needed. Firstly, what’s the deal with the bacon-chocolate combo? And next, what’s the deal with Zotter!?

Bacon + Chocolate. It might not seem like a natural fit, but think of the pluses on both sides. Bacon is smoky, rich and salty, whilst chocolate can exhibit a range of fruit, smoke and earthy flavours (just to name a few), as well as a sweetness that wonderfully contrasts ingredients like bacon.

Over the last decade, chocolatiers (especially those in the U.S.) have played with this combo, bringing salty-sweet to forefront. I posted back in October on some of the chocolatiers I encountered in Portland. One of them is Xocolatl de David, and he’s pushing the sweet-salt contrast to the extreme, mixing things like Parmesan cheese, and even foie gras (hello, “Foietella”), with his chocolate. To this day, one of our most requested items is the chocolate-covered bacon we break out around Fathers’ Day.

Zotter, a bean-to-bar manufacturer hailing from Austria, is one of the only European makers we carry playing with salty and savoury ingredients. Their ganache-filled “hand scooped” bars became a quick favourite of customers, with Fig, Walnut and Blue Cheese, Bacon Bits and Rosemary Polenta bars mingling with more classic efforts like Marc de Champagne, Scotch and Coffee. You can browse their many flavours here.

Last month, we appealed to you, our customers, to send us your pick for December’s Bar of the Month. After much deliberation, we decided that Zotter’s Bacon Bits bar (and the spirited nomination it received) was the right choice. Smooth 70% dark chocolate enrobes a cinnamon-infused milk chocolate ganache, studded with crunchy hazelnut nougat and salty pork crackling. The bacon flavour barely hits you until the end, so if you’ve tried the combination before in a more obvious form – i.e. bacon dipped in chocolate – and didn’t love it, there’s still a good chance that this bar will delight. It’s creamy-crunchy texture and salty-sweet flavour makes it a definite favourite among Zotter-lovers, and hopefully you’ll fall in love too.

A serendipitous meeting with some chocolate makers on Nosy Be

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.