As we cross the mighty Sambirano river like a sunning brown snake it marks the gateway to the fertile delta region of North-West Madagascar. The sides of the road are dotted with leaning shacks selling watermelon and fruits, children are walking to school, and the roadside is cool and shady in the early morning sun. A few minutes more and we reach our destination, the Organic cocoa farm cooperative run by Monsieur Rene Julien.
This is the plantation where the cocoa for the 100% organic couverture that we use to make our house blend is grown. It is the foundation of the majority of the chocolates that we make – it’s our DNA.
Monsieur Rene Julien greets us at the roadside entrance to his plantation. He is an energetic man with a broad smile and twinkling eyes. A true entrepreneur and Malagasy success story. Starting as a young cocoa farmer he worked his way through all of the roles that entails. Now he owns and runs his own organic cocoa cooperative of farmers working in partnership with Chocolat Madagascar to export organic couverture and retail bars around the world. There is steel beneath Monsieur Julien’s wiry frame and he has the aura of an astute business man.
As we disembark Monsieur Julien spots a young local helping himself to cacao and fervently shouts at him to desist. There are no fences here and consequently cocoa yields are low at the plantation borders! We later meet a security guard employed to patrol and try to reduce theft.
Monsieur Julien greets us speaking a mixture of French and Malagasy, he is pleased to see us and eager to start the tour. It later emerges that we are the first such guests he has given a tour and he is a little nervous; we are honoured.
Monsieur Julien’s plantation has a different feel to the MAVA plantation we visited the previous day. The sun is still low and the cocoa trees are shady with deep leaf litter. It feels somehow wilder, perhaps due to the large spiders with their impossible to see webs hanging low between the trees. A snake is spotted and we are informed it is a harmless constrictor. We take Monsieur Julien’s word for this but keep a respectful distance. Wearing open toed sandals Monsieur Julien is at one with his environment and an extremely fast and agile walker as he ducks beneath the trees. We shout ‘Mora Mora’ our favourite Malagasy phrase ‘slowly, slowly’ and form a trail of pasty Europeans ineptly following our nimble guide.
We pause beneath a shady cacao tree and Monsieur Julien explains that in this area of the farm he is losing as many as two thirds of his crop to rot. This is a very high figure and shows the difficult reality of cocoa farming even in such a fertile growing region.
All of the coaco plantations in the Sambirano have historically been planted with Criollo trees in the early 1900s and later with Forastero varieties from Sao Tome in the 1950s. From this a natural Trinitario hybrid has formed through cross pollination and it is the Triniatrio variety that has led to the renown of Malagasy chocolate with its unique combination of bean variety and terroir. The Sambirano valley has rich volcanic soil and as a river delta has ground water that is believed is reachable by cacao roots (though the text books say this should not be possible). The region is geographically sheltered and less prone to damage from cyclones. There have recently been attempts to revive earlier cocoa plantations on the less sheltered East coast. The early results are that the cacao from the East coast has a very different flavour profile.
Harvesting the beans is a year round process as the cacao trees flower and fruit continuously in Madagascar and there is virtually no winter in this region with the coolest night temperature around 13 degrees C. Monsieur Julien demonstrates how to cut down the high pods using a special cutter. He then proceeds to demonstrate several methods of opening the pods with a machete. Diana has a go and as I suspect is a natural from many years of wielding chef’s knives. Monsieur Julien’s farmers demonstrate harvesting the beans at full speed and we realise how skilled they are with a machete in this intensive and repetitive manual task.
Criollo – Forastero – Trintario
Criollo cacao trees are considered the holy grail in the fine chocolate world for their complex flavour notes. It is difficult to say if there are any pure Criollo trees on Madagascar without genetic testing. The natural cross pollination has led to the majority of trees being a hybrid Trinitario variety. (Chocolat Madagascar believe there is no pure Criollo anywhere on Madagascar and prefer to describe the terroir that has led Madagascan chocolate to be considered amongst the finest in the world). However the white colour of the cut beans (not to be confused with the fleshy white pulp surrounding the beans) and the deeply grooved shape of the pods, as well as tree yield and most of all flavour, allow a best guess by the farmer to select as close to pure Criollo as possible. The photo shows two cut beans. The violet variety is forestero, the white bean closer to pure criollo. Note in Brazil there is a forestero variety that is white when cut!
Monsieur Julien shows us the plantation nursery where he has selected as close to pure Criollo trees for planting. It is his current plan to plant only Criollo trees in his plantation. We are invited to help with the planting and between our group we plant our very first cacao tree. It will be five years before it is fully grown. This is actually very fast due the fertile growing conditions on Madagascar- it is paradise for Cacao!
Fermentation and Drying
A short car journey later and we are at Monsieur Julien’s House where fermentation and drying of the beans takes place. The beans are cycled through three fermentation boxes in a similar manner to the MAVA plantation’s four stage process. The overall fermentation time is still six days. In addition to the natural drying of Madagascan sunshine Monsieur Julien proudly demonstrated his organic wood fired air drying machine. We then enter the bean storage area. It is here they are checked for quality before being sent to Chocolat Madagascar and then once again at the Chocolat Madagsacar.
High Quality Bean Selection
The beans selected for Chocolat Madagascar organic couverture export and subsequently used by Lick the Spoon are of the highest quality. These are segregated from the beans that do not meet the rigorous quality standards and when we taste these lower quality beans we see that they are quite acidic. These are sold for the local market and also for export to other chocolate makers (not by Chocolat Madagascar or HB ingredients their UK distributor). There is concern from Chocolat Madagascar that they may be marketed as fine Madagascan chocolate with the potential to damage the overall reputation of Malagasy chocolate. It is good to see that such rigorous controls are in check and Chocolat Madagascar are working hard to maintain the quality and reputation of Malagasy Chocolate. They have a close partnership with Monsieur Julien.
Finally we must say our goodbyes before returning to the MAVA plantation the following day for more on bean selection.
We are so honoured to have been given this tour and meet the farmers and growers of this finest organic cacao considered by many including ourselves to be the finest tasting in the world.
Thank you so much Monsieur Rene Julien and his farmers cooperative; Nicolas, Hery, Zo and Monsieur Ramadriebe of Chocolat Madagascar; HB Ingredients their UK distributor, and Neil Kelsall of Chocolat Madagascar and Raisetrade.
If you like the music in the You tube video please visit the beach lodges at Ankify and check out the staff band that play each night – it is their infectious Malagasy music you hear!