Alexandre Parizel –
Alexandre Parizel had travelled most of the world before taking up the mantle as Marou’s cacao wrangler, a job that sent the 26 year-old French agronomist out into the Vietnamese countryside on a 125cc motorbike to search out new origins and hand-test each bag of cacao to ensure it met Marou’s exacting standards. Armed with multiple degrees in agriculture and engineering, Parizel worked closely with farmers to improve their fermentation practices. He spoke to us in the small office set inside the fragrant bowels of Marou’s suburban factory. Parizel sat at a desk, hunched over a drawing he’d spent hours preparing to explain Vietnam’s cacao situation.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I grew up in a small town about five kilometers from the German border with Lorraine. The whole village was just a few thousand people. My father was very complicated. He had like thirty jobs during his life. He was an economics professor and a building contractor; he did everything. But he was also a chocolate addict, he ate two bars a day, but only 75 percent cacao and above.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST MEMORY OF CHOCOLATE?
I remember cocoa powder. I don’t remember the brand. I remember the texture, the taste. But I never looked at the package. My parents made it for us.
SO YOU KNEW ABOUT QUALITY FROM THE START?
Yeah, but I didn’t care about it until college where I had a special opportunity to learn how to taste chocolate, to find the acidity, bitterness, astringency that hits you first and the floral, spicy, fruity notes that come later.
These two French chocolate companies, Valrhona and Weiss, partnered with a research center that focuses on tropical agronomy in Montpellier to design a product for developing countries. We figured out that discarded citrus pith provided a great balance to highly-acidic chocolates.
When we finished the project, I did an engineering internship in Peru to see how aromas from the cacao tree transferred to the chocolate.
HOW IS PERVUIAN CHOCOLATE DIFFERENT FROM VIETNAMESE CHOCOLATE?
You can only really talk about the individual varietals.
In Quillabamba, north of Cuzco, I encountered two varietals from the chuncho family—one with a very floral characteristic and the other with a very interesting fruitiness, something like grapefruit.
Funnily enough, we were working against a project to promote CCN51, a high-yield variety that lacked the aroma of the chunchos.
Meanwhile, our goal was to connect chocolatiers with farmers growing native cacao varietals prized for their wonderful aromas. These prized varietals yielded three to four times less fruit than CCN51.
WHO WAS TRYING TO DEVELOP THIS HIGH-YIELD, BORING CACAO?
Um, I don’t want to use names. Basically a French company that claimed to be fair trade. But the trade wasn’t so fair and the quality wasn’t good at all—I couldn’t eat it. French consumers bought it for the purported social impact, which was very low, like the quality of the chocolate.
HOW DID YOU FIND MAROU?
My first job involved researching cacao agroforestry systems in Togo and Benin. I continued that work in India, Guatemala and Senegal.Then I went back to Peru.
In 2012, I went to the Festival Salon in Lima to find a job that would allow me to work directly with farmers—from tree to chocolate bar.
More than 80 percent of the companies weren’t doing that. And some of the remaining companies weren’t making great chocolate.
When I found Marou, I applied to them via email and they took me!
HOW CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE DIFFERENCES YOU FIND IN MAROU’S SINGLE-ORIGIN BARS?
Each farmer grows a mix of varieties which helps determine the flavor of each origin.
In my opinion, post-harvesting practices determine ninety percent of the flavor. To test this, we played with cacao grown in the same soil and fermented at the same temperature and humidity.
Shaving a day off of the fermentation cycle created totally different flavors. Changing the number of times we turned the fermenting beans resulted in completely different astringency.
Small differences like these either bring out defects or create hundreds of delicious flavors.
CAN YOU TASTE CHOCOLATE LIKE WINE AND PICK OUT ITS ORIGIN?
Well, cacao and grapes are very different plants. Stress, for example, only produces off-flavors in cacao—it’s never good.
As far as tasting goes, I can identify chocolate by its maker.
Each company creates parameters for conching, roasting and texture that yields a kind of signature.
In 2014, I judged an international chocolate award in South America. I was tasting different chocolate from different makers and I found it very easy to say “This is Marou,” rather than say “this is chuncho.” Within a single country you can literally created hundreds of thousands of flavors through your post-harvest practices.
IF I GAVE YOU TEN DIFFERENT SAMPLES OF MAROU SIGNLE-ORIGIN CHOCOLATE FROM LAM DONG PROVINCE AND TEN FROM DAK LAK PROVINCE, COULD YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE?
That’s a trap! Recently the Lam Dong profile has grown closer to Dak Lak. Sometimes the acidity is higher in one than the other. It’s quite a confusing time. For the rest or our origins, I’d have no problem at all.
WHAT DOES YOUR DAD THINK ABOUT MAROU?
It’s the only chocolate he eats. Most producers reign in so many flavors to preserve a neutral and consistent flavor profile, but Marou embraces the variety.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHOCOLATE IN THE WORLD?
It changes every year!
This year, it’s Treasure Island from Marou. Back in 2012, it produced flavors of red fruit, then dried fruit, then caramel. The aroma was amazing.
In 2013 it was Ba Ria which had really strong notes of red fruit coming slowly, slowly slowly to the top. That was my favorite.
In 2015, it was Tan Phu Dong, which somehow tasted full of pepper.
These days, I’m in love with Treasure Island for that strong cinnamon notes. I also like the 70% from Cacaosuyo.
WHAT EXPLAINS THE CHANGES?
Well this year it was El Nino, which brought the biggest drought in 90 years. The cacao beans themselves are quite dry, making them difficult for farmers to ferment. Most years, our farmers successfully ferment an average of 96 percent of their crop. This year the average dropped to 88 percent, mostly due to water rationing in the Mekong Delta.
I’d guess this recent crop will be more acidic than usual.
YOUR WHOLE LIFE REVOLVES AROUND A SINGLE PLANT; DO YOU EVER GET SICK OF CHOCOLATE?
I feel like there’s a lot to discover. All over the world, we’re just touching the beginning with cacao.