How the chocolate island of Africa produces high-end cocoa

A piece of chocolate sits on the tongue and a strong but subtle flavor begins to blossom. “When the chocolate starts to soften, you bite into it”, orders chocolate maker Claudio Corallo.

The chocolate tasting then extends to different flavors – ginger, coffee, pepper, sea salt – but at the base of each of these delicacies is a land, a richness that comes from the cocoa trees that grow in volcanic soil, washed away by the tropical Atlantic breeze.

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They grow in Sao Tome and Principe, a small island nation off the west coast of Africa that has a rich but also tragic association with chocolate. Formerly called the “chocolate islands”, the Portuguese-speaking archipelago was the world’s largest producer of cocoa at the end of the 19th century.

Then, as competition intensified in the second half of the 20th century, the industry was almost wiped out. Many plantations have been abandoned, and their fields and buildings have been taken over by nature. Today, however, there is talk of a comeback as a handful of entrepreneurs look to the growing global premium chocolate market.

“Focusing on quality is the only way to survive,” said Jean-Remy Martin, a Frenchman who revived an old, dying plantation ten years ago on the island of Sao Tome, in Diogo Vaz. .

The place gave its name to a Martin chocolate brand created with his son. Her 82% organic “Grand Cru” chocolate – with “hints of flowers, smoke, spices and fruit” – sells to online shoppers in Europe for 6.40 euros ($ 7.42) a bar. .

Its expanse of 420 hectares (approximately 1,000 acres) sits on the slopes of an ancient volcano overlooking the Atlantic, using cocoa trees which are the descendants of plants imported by the Portuguese in the 18th century.

Mechanized agriculture on this land is impossible, but the trees grow under a lush natural canopy and in soil so fertile that Martin says chemical inputs can be dispensed with.

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Growing cocoa, making chocolate

But going organic was not enough.

“We have organic certification, but growing the cocoa alone will not cover the costs,” Martin said. “We had to opt for 100% production”, taking charge of the whole chain from the chocolate pod.

The business model required a radical change. The farm went from “a monoculture regime, where cocoa prices were determined by global buyers, to full control over our prices and increasing our cocoa in the value chain,” he said. declared.

Since then, Diogo Vaz chocolate has gained an international reputation, winning numerous awards and making enough profit to create an ambitious and sustainable business. About 250 people, almost all local, are employed by the company, which aims to replicate its success with the cultivation of fruits and vanilla, to be transformed into pastries and alcoholic beverages.

Corallo, an Italian from Florence, settled in Sao Tome in the early 90s and became a pioneer in the development of high-end cocoa. He set up “laboratories” in his plantation on the island of Principe and his workshop in Sao Tome to try to unravel the unique taste signatures of cocoa grown on the archipelago.

The agronomist and chocolate producer Claudio Corallo. (Photo by Adrien Marotte / AFP)

“I don’t like chocolate myself,” said Corallo AFP mischievously, alluding to his professional career as a coffee specialist. Corallo Chocolate has developed a growing and dedicated international customer base, although he said export logistics from a location more than 300 kilometers (185 miles) from the Gabonese coast were often a headache. head.

Sao Tome and Principe is one of a growing number of cocoa producing countries to target growing demand for organic products. The global market is expected to grow by nearly 8% per year over the next five years, reaching $ 1.3 billion (€ 1.16 billion) by 2026, according to an industry study released in October.

Bittersweet story

Cocoa plantations are steeped in the history of the islands.

At the height of the industry at the end of the 19th century, the islands produced nearly 35,000 tonnes of cocoa per year, the fruit of the labor of thousands of immigrants from other African colonies of Portugal, Cape Verde, ‘Angola and Mozambique.

But once the colonies gained independence in 1975, “the Portuguese left with their know-how, the plantations were hit by pest epidemics and the state redistributed land to former employees without any oversight. “said Maria Nazare Ceita, historian at the University. from Sao Tome.

“The production collapsed.”

“The whole population is linked to cocoa in one way or another,” said Carlos Vila Nova, the country’s president. AFP. “With our know-how, we understand the product very well,” he said.

“In the globalized economy, we have to add value to cocoa. We must focus on quality. By extending the chain to processing, the cocoa business once again has a future.

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