In our suburban home in this Third World country where internet connection is ridiculously slow, it took me the entire night to upload a five-minute video. Stressed beyond words, I downed two bars of dark chocolate. In a Herculean effort to think of something pleasant while waiting for the upload to finish, I recalled the indescribable sensation of eating my first Vietnamese chocolate bar. Divine would be an understatement.
It was our second day in Saigon. Alex and I had just moved out of the apartment I had so carefully chosen because it was just a street away from the Marou chocolate shop. I learned about Marou from Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix. I was so fascinated with the story of the two Frenchmen who moved to Vietnam to make chocolate from locally grown cacao. When the opportunity to visit Saigon finally came, I swore we would go to Marou.
Sadly, that apartment within walking distance of Marou proved to be a bad choice. Terrible, actually. We moved out and transferred to a better one in another part of the city. Too far from Marou but, fortunately, quite near Takashimaya at Saigon Center. It was there that Alex and I bought bars and bars, and boxes and boxes, of Vietnamese chocolate. Some we ate at the apartment; most, we brought home.
We’re serious fans of chocolate at home. Alex and I prefer dark chocolate, Sam adores white chocolate and Speedy likes milk chocolate.
But it wasn’t the love for chocolate that brought us to a cacao farm a year or so prior to the Saigon trip. It was the search for vanilla that brought us to RD Farms in Los Baños, Laguna.
Chocolate: from the tree to the factory
Alex was trying to find a local source for the pricey vanilla but, as it turned out, RD Farms sells vanilla in the form of plants. If Alex was disappointed at not being able to bring home vanilla pods, she showed no signs of it. She was too excited to purchase vanilla that she could grow in our garden.
For me, however, it was memories of cacao that remain vivid. The vanilla plants may be growing in the garden and, in time, there will be pods for home use. But I’m not a vanilla person. Unlike Alex who has had a classical French cuisine training in culinary school, I grew up in Asian kitchens. My grandparents’. Ours… I just wasn’t that interested in using a spice that has no distinct place in Asian cooking.
There has been chocolate in the Philippines since the Spanish colonial era
Chocolate has been in the country for centuries — mostly, in the form of oversized tablets (tablea, we call them) that are dissolved and mixed in hot water before milk is added and traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Filipinos have known chocolate since the days of the Manila Galleon trade. So, yes, we have been making Mexican-style hot chocolate drinks since the Spanish colonial era.
The Philippines, with a climate ideal for cacao farming, could have been a big player in the cacao industry early on. But cacao farming has been, for the most part, a small scale business. Chocolate production is not that popular a business in the country either. I’ve always wondered why. With the way we consume chocolate in the Philippines, no one can say there is no sufficient demand. The answers to the why — why cacao farming has remained small and why chocolate production is not a booming industry — would come later.
At RD Farms, the first sight that greeted us was a huge wooden tray on which cacao beans were spread. They were being dried under the sun. At that point, I had already seen documentaries on how cacao beans are fermented and dried. Alex hadn’t. And I was glad that the image of the semi-dry cacao beans in the farm will, until she sees a documentary of the fermentation process, serve as her mental definition of cacao.
Chocolate is made with fermented cacao beans
See, the fermentation of cacao beans, as fascinating as the process might be, is not exactly a pretty sight. Below, a screenshot from Cooked, the documentary based on the book by Michael Pollan.
Before the cacao beans become the brown pieces in the earlier photo, during the first stage of fermentation, they are wet and slimy — not exactly an appetizing image for chocolate lovers. But that’s reality. Without undergoing fermentation, the beans will not yield any desirable flavor.
The cacao fruit
Okay, so I already knew about fermentation when we visited RD Farms. What I didn’t know was that the flesh of the cacao fruit is edible.
During the farm tour, we saw cacao trees with mature fruits. The fruits carefully wrapped in plastic bags to keep off insects, I marvelled at the lovely color of their skin.
We spent quite a while touring the farm. And there was plenty of chatting. The owner was curious why Alex was interested in vanilla. Did she plan on selling it? No, Alex replied. It was for personal consumption. How exactly she intended to use it, she did not divulge to him. Trade secret, after all.
For his part, the farm owner told us about his business goals. What he wanted was to be able to produce enough cacao to qualify as an exporter. His target market? The giant chocolate corporations in the United States and Europe.
Why? Why not sell to local chocolate makers? Because there weren’t enough of them, he said, and the foreign companies buy at higher prices.
Was it difficult to go into large-scale cacao farming? The owner talked about a program from years ago. Right there at the U. P. Los Baños campus. There used to be a subsidy on the study of cacao farming which, eventually, would have been a tremendous help to cacao farmers. But the subsidy was withdrawn and the program was discontinued. Apparently, cacao farming was not considered a priority in agricultural studies by the government.
And I got my answer to the first why — why cacao farming in the Philippines has not really grown by leaps and bounds.
After the tour, the farm owner took a cacao fruit from his stash and cut it open. He then encouraged us to eat it. We were wide-eyed. I know I was. I had no idea… I always thought that cacao was grown for the beans and no other part of the fruit was edible nor usable. I was hesitant to try. But I also didn’t want to be disrespectful.
I don’t remember how I mustered enough guts but I reached out to take the cacao fruit to pull off a segment and put it in my mouth. The flesh that surrounds the cacao bean is delicious. Sweet but not cloyingly so. Silky and soft like cotton. Marvellous.
All that information from RD Farms became reference points when I began digging into cacao farming in Vietnam and the production of Vietnamese artisan chocolate before leaving for Saigon.
Cacao arrived in Vietnam in the 1890s when a French missionary planted cacao trees in Ben Tre. Cacao faming did not flourish at the time but the trees continued to grow along the Mekong Delta where locals ate the fruit flesh.
It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that cacao farming became an important industry in Vietnam. There were hurdles but, in time, not only was Vietnam producing high-quality cacao beans for chocolate making, the fruit flesh was being manufactured into juice and vin de cacao too.
I can only wish that I had taken the time and effort to take photos of all the Vietnamese chocolates we brought home from Saigon. But they got consumed fast and documenting got sidelined. I loved them all. I especially adored the delicate flavors of the ones to which flowers, fruits, spices and nuts were added. I was so smitten with Vietnamese chocolates that, a month later when Sam and I went to Hanoi, we brought home another huge batch of chocolates. None of which got photographed either.
After all the chocolates from Vietnam had been consumed, our chocolate supply in the house reverted to the usual. Andes, Hershey’s, Cadbury… And it always amused me to think how none of the biggest chocolate makers in the world produce their own cacao. These First World companies many own the biggest chocolate factories and largest distribution networks for their products, but the cacao that they turn into mass-produced chocolates are imported from Third World countries that have the soil and climate conducive for cacao farming.
For the nth time, I wondered why cacao-producing countries can’t all be chocolate makers at the same time. Vietnam has started doing it, and is doing it magnificently, but artisan chocolates produced in Vietnam are pricey. With prices like that, it’s hard to compete with cheaper mass-produced chocolate bars. It doesn’t really matter much that Vietnamese artisan chocolates are a hundred times better than, say, Hershey’s. In the end, it is the buying capacity of consumers that determine just how much chocolates artisans can sell.
Artisan chocolate in the Philippines
Like Vietnam, a few companies in the Philippines have ventured into artisan chocolate making. You won’t find their products easily in groceries and supermarkets which are flooded with cheaper mass-produced chocolates. These artisans, many of them based in Davao where cacao farming thrives more than anywhere else in the country, sell mostly in food bazaars. And the price of their stuff can make one’s jaw drop in shock. Expensive. Quite expensive.
I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more chocolate makers in the country. If there were, perhaps, the competition would drive prices lower. That why met its answer several months after the Saigon and Hanoi trips.
My husband, Speedy, and I went window-shopping for furniture one day. We’ve been having this massive house renovation that’s taking forever and we wanted to compare furniture prices so we’d know where to buy when the renovations are finally done.
So, we went to SM Megamall. We visited the kitchen cabinet makers, the furniture makers and hunger caught up with us. We had a light meal at Din Tai Fung. From there, we were proceeding to the Home Depot a few streets away to find fixtures for the kitchen.
While walking from Din Tai Fung to the parking area, we passed an exhibit of local products. Jackets made with hand-woven fabric (gorgeous but shockingly expensive), houseware, ornaments… and chocolate. Pricey chocolate. Auro Chocolate. Exceedingly good but pricey chocolate. We went through the samples one by one before ordering chocolate ice cream and a jar of white chocolate and cashew nut spread.
It was why enjoying the chocolate ice cream that we chatted up the nice lady minding the stall that evening. We asked why good-quality locally-made chocolates are so expensive. She explained that it has to do with imported technology.
To make chocolate, you need the correct equipment. Machines. These machines are manufactured abroad so a local chocolate maker needs to import them. So, you add shipping, customs duties, taxes, etcetera to the price of the equipment.
Moreover, because these manufacturers make equipment meant for large chocolate factories, if you’re a small operator, you need to have the machines redesigned to scale down the size. You’re small, your space is small, and you simply can’t import equipment that won’t fit in your operating area. So, you order custom-made equipment. And that adds to the operating cost which, insofar as the consumer is concerned, translates to higher cost of chocolate.
Think of it in terms of apparel. Why is an off-the-rack dress cheaper than one especially designed and made for you?
And right there, I discarded sweeping generalizations that all local artisan chocolate makers are opportunists who are merely exploiting the craving of a market that’s starving for good quality chocolate.
Hurdles to overcome
I recalled that conversation we had with the owner of RD Farms in Los Baños months earlier who said he’d rather export cacao beans to big companies abroad because they pay better. Local chocolate makers cannot pay as much, nor in big volumes either, because their operating cost is higher.
It’s a situation that made sense and no sense at the same time.
From the point of view of the cacao farmer, of course he wants to profit as much as he can. And if that means exporting rather than selling locally, then, that’s what he’ll do. And, from the perspective of the chocolate maker, with the cost of production horrendously high, he has no choice but to sell his artisan chocolate at high prices too.
But, looking at things from a broader perspective, it’s all screwed because the opportunity for the general economy to grow and prosper is lost.
If cacao farmers had more incentives from the government…
If the government would cut chocolate makers some slack and lower taxes and exportation costs…
If, if, if.