From Cocoa Tree to 3-Star Award Winning Chocolate
After a 15 hour journey from the UK, the descent into Vietnam’s southern city of Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it was formerly known, is impressive, barely skimming the rooftops of the vast city’s densely constructed buildings. With its airport located directly in town, one is immediately immersed into the hustle and bustle and paradoxically orderly chaos of millions of motorcycles.
A short night’s rest, a very early wake up just before sunrise, and we set off out of the city onto the recently completed, American-funded motorway which takes us south past vibrantly green rice fields and little rural villages with their busy morning markets.
Upon reaching Ben Tre, the capital city and municipality of Bến Tre Province, located in the Mekong Delta area of southern Vietnam, we stop by a roadside restaurant to meet our hosts for the trip to the cocoa plantations. After a delicously fresh Pho soup, we continue off-road into the hinterland, deeper and deeper into the palm-rich landscape towards our first cocoa plantation.
The last stretch requires a 20 minute walk deeper into the bush, straddeling streams and fallen palm trunks and then we arrive! There before us is the source of our 2010 3-Star Guild of Fine Food award winning chocolate. Sheltered by the protective shade of tall coconut palm trees, this particluar cocoa orchard is owned and run by a local farmer. The main crop in this area has always been the coconut which no longer offer a competitive market price.
With the support of Professor Pham Hong Duc Phuoc from the Nong Lam University (NLU) and head of the World Cocoa Foundation-NLU Joint Cocoa Project, whom we’d meet later that day, encouraged and taught farmers to dig irrigation trenches and plant cocoa trees. As a result these farmers now not only enjoy a higher yield of coconuts each year due to improved irrigation, but also have an additional stable income from their cocoa harvest which demands high prices in line with the cost of cocoa on the London stock exchange.
The main harvesting season for the cocoa runs from September to January and most of the large pods have already been picked at this plantation. However, due to the tropical climate the plants flower and bear fruits throughout the year, so there is an abundance of cocoa pods everywhere we look.
As part of our commitment to support and source any of our cocoa exclusively from traceable and ethically managed highest quality cocoa plantations, Marc was very honoured to plant a young cocoa tree in the nutrient rich soil. In these ideal conditions this tree should bear the first pods in 3 to 5 years.
As we walk back through the lush tropical landscape, the sun is high up the sky warming the humid air and we are relieved to be sheltered by the cooling shade of the tall coconut palms. We trace our way back along the little pathways, balancing over fallen palm trunks that act as bridges over irrigation trenches that provide much needed water for the plantations.
Back at the car we look forward to meeting our next farmer whom, after a further half hour bumpy drive and short trek, we find busy harvesting his cocoa pod laden trees on a small plantation he has owned for over 10 years. Despite the obvious language barriers, he and his wife greet us warmly with huge smiles and immediately offer us the utterly refreshing coconut water from freshly cracked open coconuts.
Even without the very helpful verbal translation from our interpreter, it is immediately apparent and such a joy to see the pride that is clearly visible in both Tuan and his wife’s expressions as they talk about their work. As we chat about their life, aspirations and the opportunities that have opened up for them by the addition of income generated by the cocoa crop, we are reassured that the type of cooperative model employed here in Ben Tre is truly set up to benefit the welfare of the farmer, as opposed to the shortcomings of other models in areas such as Ghana or the Ivory Coast where despite the drive to offer a fair price to farmers there, there is still proven widespread child slavery and child labour activity. This is one reason of course why we do not source any cocoa and cocoa products (cocoa butter, cocoa powder etc.) which could originate from these countries. Instead we know the exact origins of all our ingredients and work very closely and directly with the farmers and our trusted suppliers to ensure that you can be secure in the knowledge that our products are completely ethical. In order to maintain that promise we even avoid buying any pre-blended cocoas, as in most cases it is impossible to know whether they contain cocoa or cocoa butter that originates from Ghana or the Ivory Coast.
Back to our journey... Tuan explains and shows us how he tends to his plantation, how he selects which pods are ready for harvesting and we suddenly realise that whilst we have been listening with fascination about his daily routine, he has already filled three large sacks with the most beautiful cocoa pods.
We help carry them back to ‘plantation central’ a small brick building piled high with cocoa pods and surrounded by stilted drying beds which are exposed to the hot tropical sun ready for the next stage in the cocoa pod to chocolate production journey.