Monday 29 October 2012

A second look

I was fortunate yesterday to be able to follow up my February visit to a plantation near Cianjur, in West Java. Back then, we had visited the plantation on a Friday, which was a holiday and were unable to talk to anyone there about it. This time I was accompanied by owner Tiara Setiadi, and how blessed was I – it was a fascinating visit; Tiara’s father set up this farm in the 1970s and so he has grown up with it himself, and knows it like the back of his hand. He is very concerned about long term sustainability issues for cocoa in Indonesia – not just for his own farm but more widely within the industry.

This is a huge farm – 900 or so hectares near Cianjur, with another larger farm some distance away. Tiara is very focussed not only on rehabilitating the cocoa stock – grafting new clones, replanting old trees - but also in rehabilitating the soil and the microclimate about the tree crop. He argues that plantation culture remove cocoa trees from their natural preferred environment – as an understory plant in a forest. Growers push trees with fertilizers, pesticides and lack of shade to get the highest yields – but this, he feels, is ultimately unsustainable. His focus is now on the soil, improving the genetics of the trees (not just for yield volume and disease resistance, but also taste) and managing the trees to ensure good health and production. He has been planting an overstorey of mahogany, teak and coconuts – all helping to create a more natural microclimate for the cocoa. His observation is that this seems to work – he has not suffered the same losses as others with the recent prolonged drought.

Since our February visit, the farm has received UTZ certification – judged on environmental, social and economic criteria, and new signs have appeared around the plantation

The real treat for me was the tour of the fermention processing area. I have to admit to really loving that sour, fermenting vegetation smell of silage – and cocoa fermentation is the same smell with added chocolate notes! When we had visited before we had been able to only look over the fence into the processing centre – but now I could see and understand what is going on.

Fermentation is critical to draw out the complex range of chocolate flavours that we love, and getting it right takes practice, knowledge and skill. Too little fermentation and the beans' flavour potential is not achieved, too much and Tiara tells me it smells ‘hammy’. Beans need to be turned every two days to mix them up and ensure that those in the middle of the box are fermenting as well as those on the edge. Turning brings oxygen into the mass of beans and this ensures an aerobic fermentation, producing acids and it is these that soak into the beans and initiate the changes needed to bring out the flavours.
To make turning easier, the boxes are arranged on a giant staircase, and as you can see the beans are easily transferred and turned to the next box below. When they are done, they need to be slowly dried I the sun; this can take 5 to 6 days, with constant stirring to make sure that the beans completely dry out and do not rot.

I am very excited to have a bag of beautiful cocoa beans from this farm for Duffy to test. These are really fine quality; produced through exceptional good practice and knowledge.

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