I recently included artisanal dark chocolate in my grocery list -the same list which includes, among others, roasted coffee beans, coconut sugar and whole wheat bread. Eating chocolate candies is, of course, nothing new to me-as like most Pinoy Gen Xers, I grew up with local chocolate-candy favorites, such as Serg’s, Chocnut and Flat Tops. My siblings and I also enjoyed imported chocolate brands like Toblerone and Mars candy bars-sweet treats that used to be part of my overseas Filipino worker dad’s balikbayan box.
But locally made bean-to-bar brands are a recent discovery for me-something which I only learned and understood while researching on Philippine cocoa industry for a separate news assignment. Indulging on a 70-percent dark-chocolate bar didn’t only satiate my sweet tooth but also made me more appreciative of the care and hard work poured into crafting bean-to-bar chocolates.
According to Megan Giller, the Brooklyn-based food writer and author behind the popular chocolate blog Chocolate Noise (http://www.chocolatenoise.com), bean-to-bar chocolates (also known as ‘artisanal chocolates’ and ‘craft chocolates’) refer to chocolates that were made from scratch by artisans who oversee the entire process of chocolate-making-from buying, roasting and grinding the beans themselves. Unlike mass-produced chocolate candy brands which are known for their cloyingly sweet taste, craft chocolates have a more intense, layered flavor-you can, in fact, taste the bittersweet flavor of roasted cacao beans.
The bean-to-bar chocolate trend started in the United States in the mid-1990s, prompted by the demand for ethically sourced cacao beans and the rise of sustainable farm-to-table dining industry. The trend came in the Philippines around seven years ago, with independent Filipino chocolate makers introducing local brands like Theo and Philo, Hiraya and Malagos chocolates. These brands were once confined in online stores, specialty stores and pop-up shops, catering to a niche market. But with more Pinoy chocoholics searching for high-quality and healthier alternatives (craft chocolates are usually produced with less sugar than their mass-produced counterparts), local bean-to-bar brands are now lining up the shelves of some major supermarkets and department stores.
There’s also a growing interest among local chocoholics to make their own chocolates, no doubt inspired to take the chocolate-eating experience to a new level. The Cocoa Foundation of the Philippines (CocoaPhil), which is more known for organizing weekend cacao-farming workshops, has also started conducting bean-to-bar chocolate, making workshops early this year as more people are now interested to make tablea from scratch. CocoaPhil Executive Director Edward David said the workshops, which are held at least once a month, are always fully booked.
The popularity of the local bean-to-bar brands is good news to the Philippine cacao industry which is now being revived by government and industry leaders via the Philippine Cacao Industry Roadmap (http://pef.ph/index.php/2016/09/29/2016-2022-philippine-cacao-industry-roadmap/). The road map, launched in 2016, aims to increase cacao-beans production from the current 10,000 metric tons (MT)/per year to 100,000 (MT) by year 2022 to meet local demand and help the Philippines finally cash in on the lucrative cacao export market.
After all, while the Philippines is one of the first countries in Asia to cultivate cacao-the first cacao plant was brought by Spanish colonizers in the 17th century-the country has never been a net exporter of cacao. Even at the height of cacao farming in the 1980s, when tax incentives encouraged large-scale investments in cacao farms, local cacao beans were only used to feed domestic demand.
Cacao production started to decline in the late-1990s, with farmers discouraged to plant trees owing to the land-reform program, cocoa pod borer infestation and lack of support services. Annual production, which peaked to 30,000 tons per year in the 1990s, slumped to less than 6,000 tons in early-2000s. The Philippines had to import from Malaysia and Indonesia cacao beans just to close the supply-demand gap.
But local industry and government officials decided to revive the industry a few years ago, encouraged by news reports quoting top executives of chocolate manufacturers Mars and Barry Callebaut, saying there would be a shortage of 1 million tons cocoa beans a year by 2020. The export opportunity that such expected shortage presented has spurred the government to give incentives, such as credit assistance, tax exemptions, planting materials and crop insurance to encourage farmers to plant more cacao trees. In 2016 production climbed to 10,000 tons. This is still not enough to meet the estimated annual domestic demand of 40,000 tons, much less spare anything for exports. But David, who was part of the group that drafted the road map, is confident that intercrop planting of cacao trees in existing coconut farms will expand cocoa farmlands and boost bean production. He said intercropping is more sustainable-both for the environment and the financial health of cacao farmers, as opposed to plantation-based mono cropping which was practiced in the past.
Compared to what the export market can offer, the local craft chocolate producers and consumers are such a tiny market segment to cacao farmers. But I observed that these same craft chocolatiers have successfully raised the profile of Philippine cacao beans not only here but overseas, as well. For instance, Philippine artisanal chocolate brands Auro Chocolate Ginto Chocolates Hiraya, Kablon Farms, NutraRich, Malagos Chocolates, and Theo and Philo participated at the Salon du Chocolat held in Paris from October 28 to November 1. Cacao beans produced by the Davao-based Malagos farm was selected as one of the top 50 samples for the 2017 Edition of the Cocoa of Excellence Programme, the entry point for the International Cocoa Awards. For this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila, Philippine bean-to-bar chocolates again took center stage as President Duterte’s partner Honeylet Avancena gifted the spouses of Asean’s top leaders with Malagos chocolate bars and tablea.
It’s also these chocolatiers-through notes in their packages, web sites, social-media accounts and participation in various trade fairs and weekend markets-who stressed on the origin of their cacao beans (most of them used fermented cacao beans from Davao) and what they’re doing to help farmers increase production. They brought the cacao farms and farmers ‘closer’ to their customers. This is especially crucial for most of us city-based consumers who are so busy and detached from the country’s agriculture that we often associate food sourcing to a trip in a supermarket or a quick meal in a fast-food restaurant.
But, as what the journalist Michael Pollan noted on his groundbreaking book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, ‘to eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction.’
Pollan’s statement can serve as a gateway to getting into the whole farm-to-table dining experience or, perhaps, encourage you to go to a nearby talipapa to prepare your meals from scratch for a change. But, perhaps, you can start by just savoring every bit of that artisanal chocolate, fully aware of the time, energy and artistry that were molded into every bar.
(c) 2017 Business Mirror Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc. (Syndigate.info).