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Sweet Spot

vanuatu chocolate sweet spotVanuatu has a booming cocoa industry and its homemade chocolate is winning awards around the world, writes Ben Bohane. Who doesn’t like chocolate? It’s only been 500 years since Europeans first brought the cocoa beans out of Mexico and south America, but since then the whole world has succumbed to its rich, velvety texture and taste-bud explosion. 

It’s almost as if no dinner is complete without a little square of the dark delight afterwards and every culture has embraced it.

 

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Being a tree suited ideally to tropical conditions it wasn’t long before plantations were established in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Demand continues to grow world-wide; we can’t get enough of the stuff and commodity prices have been stable or rising. Those in the Industry say they are poised for the next big boom as China’s middle class grows and aquires a taste for the finer things in life, including quality chocolate.

You may be surprised to know that in its traditional form, chocolate was not sweetened but made into hot and cold drinks that kept the bitter taste - hence it was known as “bitter water”by the Aztecs. The word “chocolate”seems to come from the Spanish, who adopted it from the Aztec word chicolatl.

It has been consumed for more than 4000 years in South America, where it was used ceremonially. Aztecs linked chocolate to their god Quetzalcoatl who, according to one story, was banished by the other gods for daring to share chocolate with humans. No wonder its scientifc name “Theobroma” means “food of the gods”!

It was so important to the Aztecs that they used it as a form of tax and cocoa beans were used as currency; for instance a turkey could be purchased for 100 cocoa beans, while a fresh avocado was worth 3 beans.

In Vanuatu, it seems that the first pioneers of cocoa plantations were Christian missionaries looking to create self-sufficient missions and employment for their new flocks more than 100 years ago. It was trialled on a few different islands such as Efate with mixed success. Southern islands were too cool but hot conditions on Santo and Malekula allowed it to grow abundantly. Since then, Malekula has become the centre of the growing industry, with the largest planation in the country, Metensel, operating in north Malekula.

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Driving through the estate, I marvelled at the rows and rows of orderly trees filled with their orange-yellow seed pods.

“You have to keep the trees clear of leaves underneath and remove the rotten pods otherwise the rats get to them”says Aisen Samuel, who has worked here for 35 years and is now plantation manager. “But we have good workers here, the trees are healthy and each time we have new owners, they bring new innovation to make the process better”.

He uses a machete to open up a ripe pod and scoop out some of the dark beans with their sticky white gel that lends a sweetness to the otherwise bitter seed. We both suck on the beans and feel the unmistakable hint of earthy flavour come through.

Recently under new ownership by a consortium from New Caledonia, I learn they have brought some innovation in terms of the vital drying process. It’s important to get as much moisture and acid out of the bean before it is ready to be crushed and turned to powder. Preparation of the beans from picking to delivery in sacks ready for crushing and processing into cocoa butter takes roughly 12-14 days. Once picked out of their pods, the beans must be taken for drying within 4 hours because fermentation begins immediately.

It takes up to 7 days to lose its moisture and acid in shaded racks that are later put into wood-fired dryers, followed by up to 7 days left to dry in the sun, turned every hour. The final process sees it taken to a quality control seperator where it is sorted according to size, and its outer skin is removed. Then, when the beans are 100% dry and sorted, they go into jute sacks and are delivered to the wharf to be collected by ship and taken down to Port Vila, where chocolatiers are waiting to turn it into cocoa butter and, with 30% added milk and molasses (cane sugar), into chocolate bars for sale.

The ACTIV Association on the outskirts of Port Vila is a great place to visit and see the process of chocolate making. Not only does this Fair Trade pioneer in Vanuatu sell a range of handicrafts, woven bags and food, beginning last year it also opened the first serious chocolate factory in Vanuatu. Sandrine Wallez is the brains behind “Aelan Chocolate”and she has trained up local staff to help create a range of products for export and local sale.

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“At the moment we are producing about 50kgs per day, but we can grow to scale once the market is there and produce 500kgs per day”she says.

When I meet her she is excited because two of her source farmers have just found themselves named in the top 50 in the world for single origin cocoa at the presitgious Cocoa of Excellence competition held in Paris every second year at the Salon du Chocolate. A farmer from Malekula and one from Malo island went with Sandrine in October to be feted by the world’s best chocolatiers.

“Experts look for 5 characteristics when judging cocoa; smokiness, acidity, aroma, sweetness and earthiness”she explains. “We just wanted to particpate in the competition, we weren’t expecting to win 2 places in the top 50. It’s great because I don’t have to go kocking on doors - we already have a calling card which will help us with distribution in Europe”.

Sandrine hopes that their growing market will mean local jobs and money injected into rural communities.

Helping Sandrine develop some “value add”for her chocolate products is a young food scientist from Melbourne, Matt Watt. He is experimenting with combination flavours such as ginger, coconut, mango and even kava to go into chocolate bars. Matt points out that cocoa can also be used in more than chocolate: it can also be an ingredient in cosmetics and face creams, or made into alcoholic liquors, gum and tea.

Vanuatu cocoa butter is being used in a range of international chocolates by established brands like Haighs and Spencer in Australia and Whittakers in New Zeaand.

Adding to the buzz is a new chocolate salon - Gaston Chocolatiers - opened on the main street of Port Vila (opposite the yacht club) with a range of local chocolates available in a cafe setting. One of its managers, Olivier Fernandez says that for years cocoa production has actually been decreasing in Vanuatu but it was time to replant and develop the industry.

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“Many locals are focused on copra production, but you can get 4 times the income from cocoa than you can from coconuts, with the same amount of labour”he says. “So we are aiming for production and quality to improve. Customers want to know that there is a story behind every block of chocolate and Vanuatu has a great story to tell”.

The development of cocoa farming and products is one of the highlights of a growing organic agriculture sector which also feeds into rising interest in agri-tourism opportunties for tourists visiting Vanuatu. Sweet!

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