Wednesday 22 February 2012

Cocoa farmers - at last

I was put in touch with an interesting contact here in Bali, and a meeting with the chair of a farmer group was set up for me. There was initially a reluctance to arrange this meeting, as at this time of year there is no cocoa being harvested and the only cocoa pods around might be old or ‘ugly’; no-one wants a visiter to think badly about the quality of their cocoa so with the reassurance that I would understand and not judge them on ‘ugly cocoa’, the meeting was set up.

The usual traffic battle to get there – this time further complicated by an accident. Once out of town and heading west we were on the highway that takes you to the far north west tip of Bali, where this is a ferry to East Java. Slamet, the driver, is from East Java and so knows this road well. He has galaxies worth of patience as well – still loads of cars and motorcars, but now on this important trade road – joined by lorries and buses. The road is quite hilly as well – reminded me of driving in Devon and Cornwall when I was a child – just stuck in endless lines of slow moving traffic. I think Slamet did reach the heady heights of 4th gear once!

As we headed west of Tabanan we began to see more of the countryside; bridges crossed wooded, deep river gullies, we even began to see mountains in the distance. And when we left the main road and headed off to the cocoa village – the countryside suddenly opened up. It was magnificent – beautifully sculptured terraces of young rice, bordered by coconut, banana and cocoa trees! The road meandered through small villages, each gate with a tall bamboo pole outside, decorated with banana leaf and palm frond garlands – looked very festive. As households here are bounded by a high stone wall, and the verges are cropped grass, the village has an English country feel to it.

We were met at the cocoa processing unit by N Wijana, the chair of the local subak abain (dry farmers group – referring to plantations rather than the wet farmers group that co-ordinates rice production), I Wayan Muliasa (Agriculture Extension officer) and Idewa Nyoman Alir Sastrawan (an export trader). To my delight, Wijana spoke impeccable English – learned through his long years as a tourist taxi driver. He is a great football fan – and ‘visits’ the UK every Saturday and Sunday when he watches the football. His favourite team is Man United, and he is eager for the day when Indonesia has a world class team.

Anyway, back to cocoa! The subak is a farmers group that aims to support farmers in getting the best out of their farms. They have been growing cocoa for some years now and traditionally did not ferment the beans. The government have been encouraging farmers to increase the value of their crops – both through fermentation, but also advice on planting, crop improvement and managing diseases. They even provide loans for subaks to develop these production units.

This production unit has been operating since 2007, and they are producing good quality fermented beans – they have always reached the standard required of them. Here they buy pods from the farmer members, ferment and dry them, and then sell them on. I was shown yearly yields from 2007, which range from 5,000 to 10,000kg a year of fermented beans. Due to mobile phone technology – farmers are able to check global cocoa prices when they sell, and so are able to get prices at about 90% of the international price – and are in a good position to hold out for a decent price. However, the price difference between fermented and unfermented is not actually that great, and is often not enough to encourage farmers to put in the extra work to ferment.

The government is encouraging farmers to increase value – but various factors in the market chain keep the fermented price low. For example, to ensure value is added to cocoa within Indonesia – there is a tax on the export of unprocessed beans; so the cocoa industry extracts cocoa butter an d cocoa from the Indonesian crop and there is no tax on the export of these products. However, fermented beans do not count as processed and so when these are exported there is a 15% tax imposed. This keeps the price of fermented beans low, and the differential between the two types too small to attract farmers to change their practice.

We walked through a nearby cocoa grove; no ugly cocoa here thank goodness! Lots of flowers, and Wijana explained the presence of the black plastic bags on the trees. These are full of dry leaves, and encourage black ants to nest in the trees. They then keep the pod borers away – so a simple form of natural pest control. These farms are not yet certified as organic, but are interested as they are reducing their use of chemical pesticides.

So, would they be able to sell me cocoa? Yes – as long as the price is right! They were initially fearful when my visit was first mentioned as they thought I might want far more cocoa than they produce – but relieved to hear that I am only interested in 100kg or so. So come next harvest, they will find a way to send me a sample and we will see!

It was a fascinating morning and my heartfelt thanks to Wijana, Wayan and Nyoman.

A bamboo chocolate factory and no references to Willy Wonka anywhere!

In Bali, and I am a serious disappointment to the local tourist trade. I don’t want to go to a spa, lie on a beach, sit by a pool drinking cocktails (always seemed so exotic – but when actually offered it, it somehow did not appeal!), don’t want to go to a monkey sanctuary, or an elephant one either for that matter, or ride around on a jetski, or watch civets ‘processing’ coffee beans. All I want to do is meet some cocoa farmers!

I had managed to organise at least two meetings before I came here – one with Big Tree Farms, and the other with Rainforest Alliance.

The visit to Big Tree Farms was my first excursion in Bali, and I must admit I was not expecting the tedious traffic – the distance travelled was not that great, maybe 30 to 40km – but it seemed to take for ever. I don’t think the taxi driver ever got higher than 3rd gear – it was so bumper to motorbike to bumper. The roads were lined with shops, houses and temples – so even if we were travelling through the countryside there was no real sense of it.

The directions we were given were to ‘turn left at the second giant tree’; we were a little skeptical about this at first – how would we know the first giant tree to be able to see the second? What constituted ‘giant’? However, it was very clear when we got there – a first huge beringin or banyan tree (Ficus species) appeared on the roadside and soon after it a second. Down a short track and there was the bamboo chocolate factory!
This is the largest bamboo structure in Indonesia and possibly the world – and very probably the only bamboo chocolate factory. It is a magnificant structure, and well organised inside with warehouse, manufacturing space and packing rooms on the cool ground floor, a whole suite of offices on the first floor and then a wonderful open ‘reception space’ on the second – looking out over farms below. I was shown around by Afi, a fantastic guide – and although only the second week into her job was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Big Tree Farms’s programme. One of the aspects of the building design was ‘transparency’ – a founding principle of the company – and so all internal walls to offices, processing rooms, etc are made of glass.

Big Tree Farms, as you can see from their website, work with a number of products – cashew, coconut palm sugar, as well as cocoa. They work with farmer groups and the focus is to increase the value of their crops to improve their livelihoods. They have established processing plants where farmers can bring their pods and learn how to ferment the beans for the chocolate market, thus adding value to their crop. They then solar dry the beans at the processing plants, to the required moisture content and then sell their processed beans on. This programme has been very successful in Bali and they have now extended it to Aceh, far away on the north-western tip of Indonesia.

Afi then showed around the factory. They make only raw chocolate at the moment – this is chocolate made from beans that have not been roasted; the raw food principle is that food should not be heated above 50C, and so fermentation of beans is OK as this is kept just below about 49C, but roasting of beans is not. They have a magnificent melangeur, in which they grind the cocoa beans (having removed the papery skin around them); this sat in the corner churning away, producing a very luscious looking shiny dark brown ‘liquor’. This is a cool process, in line with raw food requirements; the liquor is then transferred to another machine, where sugar is added, and this then continues the grinding process taking the cocoa solid particle size down to about 24 microns. This then is tempered and molded into bars. And there in a corner, was a woman polishing away at the moulds – just like I do!
The raw chocolate was interesting – quite fruity and caramelly in taste, but actually the cocount plam sugar that they use has a very strong caramel taste – so not sure if that was where it came from. The cocoa nibs – just broken cocoa beans, again un roasted, were very good – really nutty and moreish.

So, down to business – would I be able to source some beans from them? It turns out that it is the wrong time of year to find beans in Bali! The harvest period is April through to November – so no Bali beans available. However – they are harvesting in Aceh and they would try and get me a sample of beans from there before the end of the week.

A big thank-you to Afi and Wawan for their time and assistance.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Money, money, money

A cool million!

I have taken 1,500,000 cash out of an ATM! Never done that before! As they are Indonesian Rupiah - this is equivalent to about 100 quid - so no I have not gone barmy. I am though struggling to keep up with currency! In the last 2 weeks or so, we have used Cambodian riel, American dollars, Malaysian Ringits, Singapore dollars, and now the IDR. We have little bundles of notes and loose change all over our baggage. I started off trying to keep currencies separate, but have had to give up - having run out of little pockets to do this.

The worst though is the mental sums you have to do to work out equivalent value in sterling; 4000 riel to the $, 4.5 MLR to the pound, S$2 to the pound and now IDR 15,000 to the pound. It is better than Sudoku at keeping the brain active!

OK the next blog entry might need to be about all the things I am casually been leaving across the region! Have just taken a photo of a cool million to post here - and realised that I have left the cable for the camera in Kuala Lumpur! So all the pictures for the blog will have to wait until I get back there in two weeks!

Friday 17 February 2012

Something fermented in the state of Malaysia!

Not sure why I have got stuck on Hamlet quotes! Just a quick note to report that I have found some Malaysian chocolate – made with properly fermented beans! This is good news – but the bad news is that the two companies concerned source beans from their own plantations.

I visited two chocolate shops today – both actually in the same neighbourhood and both clearly there to meet the needs of the tourist industry. There were busloads of people being shipped in – and I seemed to upset their system as I had come on my own (each bus load got a numbered sticker). It was mad in each shop – chocolates stacked high on shelves and counters; staff filling shelves as fast as they customers were clearing them. Lots of tasters on offer and loads of staff on hand, which was great.

The first I went to was Beryl’s Chocolate Wonderland (ooh yes, I think I will rename my workshop Charlotte’s Chocolate Wonderland); their website said that they only used Ghanaian beans – but infact they do also use Malaysian beans as well – either on their own or blended with the Ghanaian. They had lots of local fruit flavours as well – mango, kiwi, jackfruit and even the infamous Durian.

Everything seemed to be sold in bulk – large bags of chocolate coated nuts and dried fruits, packs of boxed chocolates – and all being sold in large quantities. A good display about origins of cocoa and making beans into chocolate. Really excellent on that front.

The next was The Chocolate Boutique; again using Malaysian chocolates and flavours. In fact the flavours were much the same as at Beryl’s – and the bulk selling. Again, an excellent display about cocoa.

A conversation at dinner one night put me on the trail of a Lebanese chocolate company, Patchi, who have a number of shops in Kuala Lumpur. This was a hard trail to follow – the first shop that I looked for was closed down, and I eventually found them in a shopping mall (Singapore all over again!). Eveything there was shipped in from Lebanon – so no-one was able to tell me anything very much about the chocolates. They were beatifully packaged and presented – and that has given me much to think about – but nothing really to help me on my cocoa quest.

We leave Malaysia today – heading to Bali. The next two weeks of the trip are going to get really interesting – no more malls, I hope, just meeting lots of cocoa people and finding beans, with luck. Have been trying to think of a Malaysian flavour for my selection; we have had some delicious food here – Malay, Japanese, Indian, Chinese. Lovely fruit as well – so maybe that would be the flavour – mango.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

To ferment or not ferment – that is the question

Back in Kuala Lumpur now – we travelled from Singapore on a sleeper train! Most everyone you mention this to automatically asks you why you aren’t taking the bus! Indeed, the berths had seen better days – but it was comfortable and there were very civilized elements to the whole experience that made it very enjoyable. For example, I had never gone over an international border on a train before and had immigration coming through the train checking passports, and so avoided endless queues and electronic gadgets taking photos and finger prints; took me back to James Bond and spy movies of my choldhood set in Europe where this always seemed to be a sticky moment for the hero or villain in some way.

I have been really fortunate to have been put in touch with Chow Boi Yee, here in Malaysia, who has worked in the cocoa industry in this region for years, and I met him to learn more about the cocoa industry in this part of the world. Chow Boi’s experience of the region is really fantastic and I have now a much better sense of what might be possible on this trip. The meeting to some extent settled a niggling anxiety that I have that I might be wasting people’s time – the amounts of cocoa that I would be able to buy and use are so small compared to the scale of the industry here.

There are a number of issues here, and the main one is how the cocoa is processed once it is harvested. When cocoa beans are removed from the pods they are covered in a sweet white pulp that is attached to them. The easiest way to remove this is to let it rot away, and this is done by piling the beans up and letting the pulp ferment and rot away. This fermentation process is also critical in bringing out many of the flavours that we value in chocolate, so managing this and getting the most out of the process in terms of potential flavour is important if you are interested in using the beans for making chocolate.

However, most of the crop in this region is valued more for its cocoa butter – it tends to have a higher melting point than cocoa butter grown elsewhere and so is favoured by the chocolate industry as it means that chocolate will cool and harden quicker - useful on a conveyor production line. The cocoa flavour is less important when it is the butter that is the focus and so the fermentation is less important. Most beans here are therefore termed ‘unfermented’; there has in fact been a 2 day quick fermentation to remove the white pulp before drying the beans for export, but to bring out good flavour, 5 to 7 days of controlling the temperature and the fermentation process is needed.

So the quest will be to find farmers – and the cocoa is predominantly grown on small holdings – who have the skills to do a complete fermentation, and would be able to supply me with 100kg of beans.

Another issue here is that the cocoa industry is on the decline – partly because of some nasty pests and diseases over the last few years – but also because it is easier to make an income from palm oil than cocoa. It takes one person to tend 1ha of cocoa, but that person could tend 10ha of palm oil. Far more cost effective.

Finding cocoa in Singapore

Reluctantly leaving Cambodia behind we end up in Singapore for a few days; my expectations of finding cocoa here are of course extremely low – after all Singapore is only really famous for growing money and buildings. However, I thought it would be interesting while here to try and explore the local chocolate scene – chocolates are a popular luxury in this part of the world, and I know that there is a growing artisanal as well as factory scale industry in Japan, so maybe here too.

This however, proved really quite difficult. We googled for chocolate shops, and there were a range of results. One that looked really interesting was the Chocolate Research Facility ( that boasts over one hundred flavours. They have three outlets in Singapore according to their website – but they did not seem to be where they said they would be! Anyone who has been to Singapore will know that it is just a mass of shopping malls, each one a glittering, ice cold maze of marble, glass, shops, fast food outlets, and millions and millions of people everywhere – shopping. Anyone who knows me will also know that I would rather be searching for cocoa in a leech infested backwater than a shopping centre – so although I did persevere in the search – I am mentally and constitutionally inadequately equipped to see something even right in front of my nose in one of those places.

To make matters worse – it was the day before Valentines Day – so when I did find the counters for the various shops, they were mobbed and on the whole empty of chocolate, and the poor shop assistants too weary to answer any of my questions about cocoa bean sources and flavours. This was particularly the case when I found an outlet for Laurent Bernard (, another chocolatier that I was interested in finding. It was just a counter in a department store, and so busy I was only just able to get a quick look at some of their single origin chocolate bars on offer but none of them used a SE Asia grown cocoa. However, on their website they do have Ile de Java and Papousie – so I wish I had managed to find their main shop.

I did find a counter for Royce chocolates (www. – these are very beautiful Japanese chocolates that are delicious creamy and rich truffle blocks (about the same size and shape as my own chocolates), with no outer chocolate shell on them. Each box comes with a little fork so that you can pick them up without them melting onto your fingers.

The following day I decided to explore a different part of the city and spent most of the day in the fantastic Botanic Gardens; a really beautiful place – vast, with huge trees, palms, lakes, whole collections of gingers (I learned that ginger and bananas are in the same family!) and insects and birds so loud in places that they almost drowned out the background noice of traffic that is constant there. Just before I left I spotted a rather thin and spindly Theobroma cacao plant, in a section of the gardens dedicated to plants of economic importance. This was a new part of the garden so the trees haven’t really settled in, hence the spindliness – but there were flowers and small pods growing on the stem already. So I did find a cocoa tree in Singapore!

As I walked around I tried to think of a Singapore flavour for my SE Asia selection: would love to do frangipani (a very diverse collection of these at the gardens) but I doubt it would be practical to take blossoms home. We have enjoyed some delicious Thai food here – with coconut, kaffir leaf, lemongrass and ginger’s cousin galangal – so maybe there is a flavour there that I can explore.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Made in Cambodia

This has been the first part of the trip, and to be honest mainly holiday. Angkor Wat, Mekong Dolphins, river trips, cycling through tropical villages and past paddy fields. Far too short a trip and far too much to explore in this amazing country; all very bussly but relatively little hassle. And wonderful food. An absolute delight. Almost forgot the purpose of my visit; we did look out a little for cocoa – asked a few folk, and various people said that they thought there might be some cocoa grown somewhere in the country, but it wasn’t just here. We came across an interesting bag of coffee in one hotel, a mix of two types of coffee beans and cocoa beans, and the information on the packet vaguely suggested that the cocoa was grown in Cambodia but that was all. Tantalising – will have to come back one day and explore more.

We did though find a Belgian lady, Griet Lorré, who has a chocolate shop in Phnom Penh. In a row of exquisite boutique shops, there was ‘Chocolate, by THE SHOP’ (; we arrived bus-weary and hot into this air-conditioned marble tiled chocolate Aladdin’s cave. All ready for Valentine’s Day with ‘all you need is Love’ in large chocolate letters hanging over the counter. Valentine’s Day is very big in Cambodia it seems and a chocolate selling extravaganza, a little like Christmas at home. Griet apologised for the general pinkness of the shop – a Valentine’s must it seems. She generously took some time out from her busy preparations to show me her super-cooled workshop; so cold at 19˚C that she and her assistants wear woolly hats! I am lucky if I can reach that temperature with the heating on in my workshop!

Griet sat us down with a generous plate of samples and very welcome glasses of cool water, and we were all set to try our first Cambodian chocolates. Griet actually imports chocolate from Belgium as none is made in Cambodia. She has a range of classic Belgian flavours and added some real Cambodian twists to some of them. The Kampot pepper was a favourites as was the Keffir Lime leaf. As you can see one of the chocolates looks very similar to mine!

Saturday 11 February 2012

A cocoa innocent abroad

I have left cold dark February (and I am afraid, Valentines Day chocolates) behind and for the next five weeks travelling in exotic South East Asia. Initially this was a long awaited holiday but given that so much of the world's cocoa is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia it did not take me long to wonder - maybe I could find a source of cocoa, find someone to make it into chocolate, and then be able to use chocolate that I know exactly where it is from and who is involved in making it. With a small grant from a local enterprise fund - I am all set to go. I will attempt to share what I find along the way initially in this blog and then of course on my return with lots of new chocolates. I hope to develop a running menu of flavours as I go along, and then my March selection can be a SE Asia themed one.

I refer to my trip as ‘a cocoa innocent abroad’ as I know that at minimum by the end of the trip I will know so much more than I do at the moment. The cocoa world is vast and in Malaysia and Indonesia very big business. If I can manage to find samples of cocoa beans and have chocolate made from them – well that would be fantastic.

So my trip will start in Malaysia, and include Cambodia and Indonesia as well. In Indonesia I hope to visit Sumatra, Java and I just might have to go to Bali as well. Such is life!