A Journey into Vietnam’s Cocoa Revival
From the cocoa plantations of southern Vietnam via its modest Ho Chi Minh City factory, Marou chocolate has made its way onto the shelves of some of the finest stores in the world. Simon Stanley and Francis Xavier rode out to the edge of Nam Cat Tien National Park to meet the farmers supplying the country’s only bean-to-bar producer.
“How was the trip?” calls Mr Sang, my apartment building’s manager, as I stumble through the lobby doors fresh from the road, my two day old clothes hanging shabby and mud spattered. A black smear below my eyes marks the gap between my face-mask and visor. After so many hours in the saddle I stagger towards him and drop my helmet and keys onto the reception counter along with three second-hand LaVie bottles filled with the recompense for my efforts. “What is that?” he asks, eyeing the suspicious golden liquid within.
“That…” I reply, “is chocolate wine.”
“It’s a long story…”
The Rebirth of Vietnamese Chocolate
It’s impossible to return from Vietnam’s countryside without a tale or two. In 2011 however, Vincent Mourou and Samuel Maruta, a pair of French expats living in Ho Chi Minh City, came back with a small sack of cocoa beans and an idea. Less than a year later, what started out as an evening of Google-led experiments on Samuel’s kitchen table became Marou Chocolate, today an award-winning range of ‘single-source’ gourmet bars grown and produced entirely in Vietnam and sold in 25 countries worldwide.
Using nothing more than cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar, their products are a return to artisanal chocolate making traditions. “Our process is simple,” explained Vincent when I met the pair at their factory in Thu Duc before our expedition. “We like to say that we find the taste at the farm. We’re not magicians and we don’t want to be. It’s a lot more fun to find great cocoa”. And that’s exactly what they did, setting out into the countryside on scooters in search of Vietnam’s elusive cocoa farmers. But through their adventures, Marou have created more than just good chocolate. They’re paving the way for the future of the industry.
A Turbulent Past
Introduced to Vietnam by the French in the late 1800s, cocoa was quickly abandoned in favour of more profitable crops like coffee and rubber. Then came a short but doomed revival in the 1980s following investment from the USSR, then Vietnam’s biggest trading partner. With the the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the Russian buyers vanished and the trees were destroyed. And the latest chapter? Samuel explains: “It’s a story that restarts about 15 years ago. 70% of cocoa was coming from 2 countries in West Africa – Ivory Coast and Ghana. The big buyers wanted to release this stranglehold, so they sought new places to plant cocoa”. Enter some big-name organisations like the WWF and USAid, and with help from the Vietnamese government the humble cocoa tree reappeared. Third time lucky? Yes and no.
After a five hour ride to Lam Dong province, trailing Marou’s agronomist, taste analyser and tropical agriculture and cocoa expert Alexandre Parizel, I meet Mr Doai, a cashew, jackfruit and durian farmer since 1987. When an economical development NGO arrived in 2009 to reintroduce cocoa, he took full advantage of the plants, tools and training on offer.
Was it not a huge risk, to make such a change from traditional crops to something relatively unknown? “Not really,” says Mr Doai. “Cocoa is an intercrop. It can grow below my existing fruit trees.” The ideal supplement then? Again, yes and no.
Mr Hoa has been a ranger for Nam Cat Tien National Park for 27 years. He was heavily involved in the US$70,000 WWF project in 2007 to plant cocoa and protect the park’s buffer zone at a time when many farmers were cutting back the forest for coffee trees. However, the project reached its inevitable conclusion and the inexperienced cocoa farmers were left to fend for themselves. “Now we are facing a lot of difficulties,” he explains. “The cocoa trees planted by the WWF are producing less than normal quantities and farmers are finding it difficult not to cut them down and revert to other crops.”
Were it not for Marou, such a fate may have befallen Mr Toan. From his two hectare field in Dong Nai, he has been growing cocoa since 2010 as well as fermenting his own harvest – a process vital to the quality, flavour and value of the beans. But it is not an easy task. I ask Mr Toan about the early days of his relationship with the Frenchmen. “When Marou first came here, they checked the fermented beans and said that the quality was not right, so I had to sell to other buyers at a much lower price. When they came back, Marou helped me with the fermentation process. They showed me how to monitor the timings and check temperatures so I could sell good beans to them.” With Alexandre’s supervision, Mr Toan was able to increase the value of his harvest by over 30% in just two months.
Across all five provinces supplying Marou, Alexandre is constantly on the move, rolling out his expertise and advocating Marou’s ‘quality over quantity’ approach to secure the crop’s future in a market still dominated by mass producers. Whether they’re making regular visits to monitor a farmer’s round of fermentation, or financing a suite of improved drying racks, it seems Marou’s assistance knows no bounds. “We just want the best quality beans,” says Alexandre, “and we’re prepared to pay a lot more to get them.” As Vincent told me before, “It’s a win-win situation.”
Today, using a specially made guillotine, Alexandre selects 50 beans from Mr Toan’s latest offering, a wonderfully aromatic bag slumped on the veranda of his family home. With a satisfying crunch, the beans are quickly dissected, the guillotine opened and Alexandre gets to work. “I inspect every bag of beans we purchase,” he says. “For aroma, for fermentation and for flavour.”
“Every bag?” I ask with wide eyes.
It’s little wonder that the tanned 24 year-old from Strasbourg has clocked up 1,800km on his dusty Suzuki in the last 3 weeks alone.
Fermentation is not an exact science, however. “Normally, we don’t take the beans if less than 85% are fermented. Many companies will accept 70 to 75%, so at 78%, this bag is still very good. So we want to form a partnership with another buyer, to ensure that Mr Toan can always sell 100% of his beans.” I begin to sense more than just a conventional buyer / seller relationship between Marou and its farmers, all of whom are known to the company by name. There is a connection there, a responsibility.
Spreading the Wealth
Squeezed from the sweet pulp of the fruit, we sip dewy glasses of cocoa juice in Mr Toan’s living room where his friend Mr Nhan has been listening quietly. After a pause, and with a soft lilt to his voice, he begins to speak to Marou’s interpreter, Thuong. “He says he was the principle of a local school,” she tells us. “For ten years. But now he works for the local farming cooperative giving lessons to farmers in how to grow coffee and cashews.”
Comparing the general decline of cocoa in the province against the success his friend has enjoyed since Marou’s intervention, Mr Nhan asks if the company could assist him in delivering lessons in cocoa production. Alexandre’s reply comes without hesitation: “Of course.” Being one of the few agronomists in Vietnam with his blend of skills and experience in cocoa cultivation and analysis, Alexandre and the guys at Marou are well aware of the need to disseminate such knowledge to keep the industry afloat. If it means protecting the environment and making some of the world’s best chocolate at the same time, well, again, “win-win”.
I swirl the cocoa juice in my glass. “It tastes like guanabana,” says Francis. I’m thinking mangosteen. Surprisingly it tastes nothing like chocolate. “If he has cocoa juice,” I ask, “does he have cocoa wine?” I’d read about this home-made elixir during my research and couldn’t leave without trying it. “Not today,” says Thuong. “Sold out.” We leave empty handed, but at the next farm we strike gold – literally. A random collection of re-purposed drinks bottles are lined up and filled with the sweet liquor, along with a small shot-glass for us each to try. Rich and flavoursome and served ice cold – 20% alcohol maybe – I’m reminded of something between a port and a schnapps. The next product in Marou’s lineup? Perhaps not. But with praise for its chocolate arriving from all over the world and a recent endorsement from Michel Roux, Marou won’t be going anywhere but up, and taking a lot of happy farmers with them.
Marou Chocolate is available in stores across Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, see website for details. marouchocolate.com
Published December 2014 – Word Vietnam