On the 19:05 flight to Ho Chi Min City, also known as Saigon, I had very little idea of what I would discover. It was my first visit of Vietnam and my first encounter with the roots of chocolate: Cocoa trees.
Visiting the cocoa tree plantation demystified my vision of chocolate, yet, there was still that magical moment of conching where even the most prominent scientists in world weren’t able to break the magical code of chocolate, leaving them pondering on what physicochemical transformation happens to create this true food of the Gods. The Ben Tre province is home to the plantation of Trinitario cocoa trees, located 2 hours from Ho Chi Min City; it’s an area rich in agriculture, especially rice field and fruit trees. As a matter of fact the cocoa tree fields are often cultivated as multi-culture with other trees, notably longan trees or mango trees that are grown amongst the cocoa tree. The several reasons of this multi-culture mode is to provide young cocoa trees enough shadow under the scorching sun, but also to provide revenue when the cocoa trees are too young to produce enough fruits to be profitable. Once the tree reaches a certain size, the field will be turned into a monoculture of cocoa trees.
The beginning of our 3-days trip on the trail of chocolate (kindly organized by DKSH Hong Kong) brought us to an immense cocoa tree nursery. There, an average of 400’000 trees is being grafted, just like other fruit tree, every year. When I was 5 or 6, I assisted to my first grafting of a cherry tree with my grand-father. Grafting is a technique where you “plug-in” a small fruit producing branch on a young plant. This grafting technique allows the tree to produce nice fruits in a relatively shorter period of time. Meeting the cocoa farmers was unique. Although we didn’t speak the language, eye contact was enough to understand the passion from an artisan of taste to another.
A few miles down the road was the fermenting plant – to me, that was the highlight of the visit. If I had to choose one thing to see in chocolate making, this is it! The ripe cocoa fruits are brought under a shed where workers are breaking them in half and emptying them from the flesh-covered fresh beans. The spoiled beans are discarded and the good ones are filled in buckets. So far, the mystery remains…
Walking on the backyard of the shed, we discover huge wooden crates filled with the beans being fermented for 3 to 5 days. The beans are warm from the lacto fermentation, later developed into acetic fermentation, just like in wine or kimchi making. On the first day of fermentation, a fresh light greenish liquid pours down the crate from the fresh beans – this is pure cocoa juice – served chilled, this drink could take over the world in no time, but sadly, the quantity produced is very low and it stays a very much local product, just like the wine fermented from the precious liquid. The fermentation is a key point in the making of cocoa; this is the work of an expert without text book guidelines – but experience. The beans are stirred and transferred to other crates during the few days of fermentation.
Once fermented, the beans are laid on bamboo beds to dry under the sun for a good week or more depending on the weather, but no mechanical drying here, only Mother Nature’s best. This is where the magic starts… as you break open the dried bean, the aroma of cocoa starts to shine. It’s after the roasting and the cocoa mass process that the aroma of the chocolate is mostly created, but not entirely. The conching process that follows transforms the grounded cocoa mass into chocolate by mixing it together with other ingredients such as cocoa butter, sugar and lecithin, for hours, or even days.
Chocolate making and cocoa culture is relatively young in Vietnam, they started growing trees for commercial usage in 2004, which makes it just a beginning, yet, I could witness different projects with incredible potential. Just like the local produces in Hong Kong, you’ve got to give a chance and time to the movement to grow “organically”. And while the chocolate we could taste in Vietnam were not quit matching the like of Porcelana Blanca from Lake Maracaibo, or to the famous Arriba Nacional from Ecuador, I believe the single origin Vietnam chocolate had something special and had potential…
It was shyly dancing on the tip of my taste buds, screaming to my cognitive senses a beautiful melody of “we’ll be back for more!” Bring it on Vietnam!
PS: We visited the chocolate factory afterwards, but as you can imagine, photos were not permitted.