Friday, 7 November 2014

Vanuatu Chocolate - it's all in the smell

Judges son and father, Josh and Mark Bahen, cocoa grower Denis Nambith and cocoa buyer Basille Malily enjoy
 chocolate over the water in Port Vila at the end of the competition. Photographer: Conor Ashleigh
First Annual Vanuatu Chocolate Competition Salon Culinaire 2014
The joy that is chocolate, the desire to source flavoursome cocoa beans, and the opportunity to improve livelihoods for Vanuatu cocoa growers – could these ingredients be a recipe for success?

Two years ago, Australian chololatiers ‘Bahen & Co’ from the Margaret River, WA, visited Vanuatu. They collected and took home single-origin cocoa beans from local communities. They made chocolate and returned to Vanuatu for the growers to taste. Unfortunately, it didn’t taste good!
Enter a program of agricultural research covering pest and disease management and new pruning practices for cocoa plantations, in addition to quality control measures for fermentation and drying of harvested beans. 
Now, two years later, it’s time for another taste test!

Seven judges are in Port Vila for the inaugural Annual Vanuatu Chocolate Competition Salon Culinaire. The outcome of this competition will mark whether there could be a viable, high-quality, boutique chocolate industry for Vanuatu.  Such an industry offers a promising pathway to improve the livelihoods of Ni-Vanuatu families.

Cocoa beans and flavour assessment sheets; chocolate ready for judging. Photographer: Conor Ashleigh

The Chocolate

As part of a related research project, Haigh’s Chocolates, from South Australia, hosted two Vanuatu locals: Sandrine Wallez from the Association for Alternative Trade in Vanuatu (ACTIV), along with Basile Malili from the Cocoa Growers’ Alliance.

While at Haigh’s Sandrine was schooled in the fine art of making chocolate.

ACTIV founder and manager Sandrine Wallez stands outside their building in Port Vila.
Photographer: Conor Ashleigh
Sandrine is utilising her skills as ‘chocolatier’ for the inaugural competition. Ten growers from three different islands of Vanuatu have submitted their beans. Sandrine is making the chocolate, using identical techniques for each batch of beans entered in the competition.

The Judging

Among the seven judges are Ben Kolly, Haigh’s, and father and son, Mark and Josh Bahen, Bahen & Co. Josh has just returned from the US, where he met 100 other chocolatiers keen to locate fine-quality beans. While head judge Mark is optimistic about the Pacific’s appeal for Australian chocolatiers, geographic proximity and the romance of the Pacific tells a marketable story.

One of the judges Mark Bahen smells a set of cocoa beans before tasting a chocolate in the blind tasting.
Photographer: Conor Ashleigh

Judging is a serious closed-door affair.  Smelling reveals 75% of the flavour, followed by the tasting, waiting, thinking and talking.  The judges cleanse their pallets with apple and water.  Colourful flavour wheels provide a vocabulary for judges.  Score sheets are filled in, providing constructive comments for the cocoa growers.

The Results
The formal presentation begins.  Basile opens with a prayer, followed by an address by Jeremy Bruer, Australian Head of Mission. Each judge makes specific comments about the flavour and other qualities of the chocolate.  Ben talks about the unique flavours of the local beans: the fruitiness and the complexity are exciting, but the smokiness needs further work to be reduced. 
The placings are listed on the board.  The tasting has been anonymous.  No-one knows which farmer is which number.  Sandrine reveals their identities.  The young farmer our filmmaker has been following is first!  It’s Denis from Rory Village, Malekula Island, followed by Fredy from Bisa Village also on Malekula, and third is Joseph from Epi.

Josh is relieved. Flying into Vanuatu he was worried that the simple agricultural interventions introduced during the past 2 years, may not have made a difference. With these results, Josh and Ben believe the Vanuatu heirloom tree stock can produce a high-quality, complex-flavoured chocolate.  These beans will be highly sought after. 
The Future
A group of us are also here to workshop the next stage of the ACIAR cocoa livelihoods project.  The competition has confirmed that Vanuatu has a promising future in the global cocoa market. However, further research is needed:  continuing the basics of pruning,  and pest and disease management; not to mention postharvest work on the fermenting and drying of beans to reduce the undesirable smoky flavour.

Litamat Benua, is a farmer from Bremway village on Malakula Island, Vanuatu. Photographer: Conor Ashleigh
The new focus will be to identify and distribute the best possible genetic resources – trees that will have higher productivity but still give us the highly desirable fine flavours that our tasters have identified in Vanuatu cocoa.
Farmer training in improved agricultural practices and implementation of quality-control practices by leading growers such as Denis, Fredy and Joseph; cocoa buyers such as  Basile; and researchers such as Dr Marie Melteras (Vanuatu Agricultural Research and Technical Centre, VARTC) - they are all leading the way. 

In the excitement, I forgot to bring home any chocolate... Maybe next year!

By Joy Hardman
Crops Cluster Support Officer

First Vanuatu Chocolate Competition Salon Culinaire 2014 was an outcome of the Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative (PARDI) Activity Facilitating Improved livelihoods for Pacific Cocoa Producer Networks Through Premium Market Access.  HORT/2008/046 Rehabilitating cocoa for improving livelihoods in the South Pacific performs the agricultural research supporting the cocoa improvement.

Pacific region cocoa projects include  HORT/2008/046, AGB/2008/044, HORT/2012/026, HORT/2013/032, ASEM/2012/072.

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