For years, a small island in the middle of the Mekong River provided us with the means to make a chocolate that shocked the world.
No one knew how Mr. Cong, a balding coconut farmer partial to Hawaiian shirts, grew fermented and dried cacao beans that tasted like fresh cinnamon rolls at 75% and pure heaven at 85%.
The future seemed impossibly bright for this small-lot farmer, until a record drought killed a third of his orchard. Suddenly, two of our most popular products disappeared from shelves. Suppliers were clamoring for more. So were customers at Maison Marou.
Welcome to the roller-coaster ride of making bean-to-bar chocolate in Vietnam.
BACK TO BASICS
Some 10 years ago, a new wave of chocolate makers changed the way people thought about chocolate: ditching the old paradigm of chocolatiers in gleaming shops remelting industrially produced chocolate blocks to create fancy confections, the upstarts wanted to get back to the basics of the chocolate bar and to get there straight from the raw ingredients: cacao beans, sugar, and really who needs anything else?
Springing up fast in places like Brooklyn, Fremont or the Bay Area this new generation of chocolate makers came to redefine what it meant to be making chocolate – from the bean to the bar.
In 2011, when we came up with the peculiar idea to make chocolate using only Vietnamese cacao and to manufacture it in Ho Chi Minh City, the southern metropolis once known as Saigon, we had never heard the term, ‘bean-to-bar’, but we soon did and all of a sudden felt like we were part of something larger than just creating a local food business.
“Tastebuds and good taste were reacquainted.”
As we were putting our name on a new chocolate brand, food was becoming more important in our lives, but not just our lives: everybody seemed to be catching this new ‘mal du siècle’, intellectuals were talking about picking up mushrooms as a serious subject, people started to neurotically care about ingredients and how they found their way to their plate. People had once cared about music like this. Food was becoming a larger part of our identity.
And in the midst of it all we were entering the fray, in our buzzing tropical outpost, like some gatekeepers at the source of a secret cacao mine. There was cacao in Vietnam and we soon found out that it was pretty special. Food makers were the new indy bands. We were dying to go on tour.
A BRIGHT BEGINNING
In the early naughties, development agencies, multi-national agribusiness and Vietnamese farmers had all joined forces in the hope to create a cacao revolution.
Farmers volunteered to try the new exotic crop because the shrub-like trees thrived in the shade of taller crops (durian, avocado, even jungle) and there were subsidies handed out by enthusiastic officials sharing international aid packages.
Multi-national corporations had jumped on board because they needed raw materials to make candy Bars for the world’s fastest-growing markets: China and India suddenly had a craving for chocolate.
Development agencies saw it as a great opportunity to move the chocolate supply chain away from countries with lousy records of child labor and poor quality-control.
Vietnam offered an ideal alternative: industrious farmers would soon be planting cacao throughout the country and Vietnam would become a new powerhouse in the chocolate world…
Fortunately for us nothing of the sort happened. Cacao proved too finicky for farmers used to the laisser-faire attitude of coconut trees.
FAIR TRADE, BY ANY NAME
By the time we started Marou, farming areas where cacao had gained a foothold were few and far between. In those early days, we scoured the country for farmers interested in producing high-quality cacao. Over the years, our dedicated agronomists have spent countless weeks tinkering with wooden fermentation boxes, drying beds and compost heaps on remote farms.
In doing so, we offered an alternative to the middle-men looking to undercut a commodity price that rose and fell. These agents mainly specialized in bundling cacao and shipping it to industrial cacao processors churning out cocoa butter and powder.
Meanwhile, we bought beans one bag at a time—and tested every one to ensure the best quality. We continue to roast the cream of each crop in small batches; our only additive remains sugar. The process yielded exquisite chocolate, but it has done far more for Vietnam’s limited cacao industry. We pay above-market rates (at the moment, double cacao’s commodity price) to encourage and compensate the most committed and talented farmers in the country. We’re proud to call this fair trade, by any name.
SEEKING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
A lot happened before and after we started making chocolate bars. Vietnam’s average annual income tripled in two decades. Many farmers quit cacao to speculate on the soaring price of pomelo or pepper vines. Multi-national commodity traders ultimately pulled up stakes, seeing little hope of creating a vast market with such an aspirational (and upwardly-mobile) population.
In 2011, the same year Marou rolled out its first bars, the Government of Vietnam rolled out its National Strategy for Climate Change, acknowledging the significant threat to the Mekong Delta. In the years since, the country’s fertile southern tip has proven ground zero for rising tides, saltwater intrusion and drastic shifts in weather.
Even beyond the Delta, a record drought hampered and stressed crops. Many of the kids who once skipped through some of the best cacao orchards in the country have mostly moved to cities, taken office jobs and only visit the farm for brief holidays. Meanwhile, the average farmer is approaching retirement. Marou’s future remains inextricably linked to Vietnam.
At the moment, we’re planting cacao in the shade of natural, second-growth jungle canopy to see whether so-called ago-forestry plantations will offer the solution to this unique set of problems. Even if it doesn’t, we aren’t going anywhere.
We hope our chocolate continues to testify to the Vietnam’s resilience, richness and indefatigable spirit.