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!

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.

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.

For that extra citrus kick – Valrhona Manjari Orange

Madagascar chocolate is an easy sell for me – I love the flavour of dried fruits, the slight spiciness, and mostly, the citrus. Of course, Valrhona was the one to step up with this flavoured bar, studded with candied orange rind, to give their 64% Manjari that extra edge. Valrhona’s efforts did not go unnoticed – they were awarded Gold for this one in 2009, at the Academy of Chocolate‘s annual competition.

Valrhona always does a great job in the tempering department, and this one has their characteristic sheen. I also love the light orange-brown colouring on this one, which hints at the citrus flavours to come.

Of course this bar smells as expected – like oranges. But a cinnamon-cloves scent also brings up the rear… definitely worth waiting for.

While I don’t generally select Valrhona’s Manjari chocolate for my Madagascar fix, here its light, crisp fruit flavours provide a perfect base for those flavourful chunks of orange. For me, this is exactly what their Manjari chocolate needs – a big hit of that sweet, acidic citrus that I love in other Madagascar chocolates.

In the end, I think it is this bar’s versatility that carries it a long way – whether you need a mid-day (or morning) pick-me-up, or a refreshing yet decadent finish to a winter meal, this one certainly delivers.

Let us know what you think of this bar! Also, if you have any favourite bars you would like us to post on, leave a note below!