Interview with Samantha Madell from Tava Chocolate, Part II

The last part of the Samantha Madell interview discusses Tava‘s cacao sourcing adventures and her observations on the Australian chocolate market. Thanks again to Samantha for all the great information, and best of luck to Tava’s future success.

You have lots of information on your sourcing from Vanuatu. Are you considering sourcing from other locations also?

We’re very happy with the quality of the cocoa coming out of Vanuatu, and Vanuatu produces many times more cocoa than we can currently use, so we don’t have a strong incentive to look for additional sources. There are also logistical issues to consider when looking for new sources. For example, the only people (or businesses) who are legally allowed to export cocoa from most cocoa growing countries are those who hold a cocoa exporting license. Cocoa exporting licenses are notoriously difficult to obtain, and (in my experience) they are often held by multinational corporations that have no interest in selling to small manufacturers like us. It’s also common to run across problems with corruption in Third World countries. So, buying cocoa can be a logistical nightmare. Hence, we consider ourselves very lucky to have relatively easy access to cocoa from Vanuatu.

Having said that, we are constantly developing relationships with people in the region, which might give us access to cocoa from other South Pacific growers (in places like the Solomon Islands, Samoa, and Bougainville) sooner rather than later. To a very large extent, though, whether (or when) we expand our range of bean sources will depend on our commercial success.

Given the transportation difficulties getting to the cacao, is it difficult getting product from the growers also? How much logistics have you had to do on your own?

My answer to the previous question probably largely answers this question, but I should add that without access to an unusually helpful, accommodating, and ethical cocoa exporter in Vanuatu, we probably wouldn’t have made it this far!

Also, we would dearly love to be able to buy cocoa from some of the more remote growers in Vanuatu, like those in the village of Olboe (who I talk about on my website). But, as yet, we simply don’t have enough money to send a boat out there to pick the cocoa up off the beach!

Have you provided fermentation and drying advice to the growers? How much fermentation and drying is typically done on these beans?

Earlier on, I said that most of what I know about making chocolate came out of Minifie’s book. Well, a lot of what I know about cocoa fermentation came from the forest floor in Olboe (the remote village in Vanuatu that I mentioned above). The cocoa growers of Olboe ā€“ as isolated and uneducated as they are – perform text-book quality heap-fermentation.

We were absolutely amazed to see what these guys manage to achieve with no tools or equipment other than their hands, the ubiquitous machete, and some banana leaves. The results they get are absolutely beautiful.

We asked them how they learned about fermentation. They told us that their fathers taught them. So we asked them how their fathers learned. They told us that a man came and showed them in the 1980s. Who was this man? They didn’t know.

Since then, I’ve seen some pretty terrible fermentation techniques ā€“ the worst I’ve seen was in Ecuador, which is a country notorious for producing under-fermented beans, and beans that have undergone partially uncontrolled fermentation.

I am totally convinced that the undeservedly bad reputation which has attached itself to Forastero beans is due mostly to the fact that poor fermentation techniques are so common. And, believe me, there is a world of difference between a well fermented Forastero bean, and a poorly fermented one.

But, to go back and answer your question – no, I haven’t offered any fermentation advice to growers, simply because our growers do such a great job already. However, I do think that a lot of really useful work could be done in large parts of the cocoa growing world by educating growers about fermentation, and more importantly, by giving growers fair financial compensation for producing perfectly fermented and dried beans.

To my mind, the most exciting revolution that could hit the chocolate world wouldn’t be for everyone to frantically start producing and using Criollo beans, but rather for every person in the chain (from growers to chocolate makers) to start treating the world’s existing Forastero beans with some proper care. If this happened, I’m certain that the result would impress any open-minded chocolate critic.

(On the subject of open-minded critics: If I have one pet hate in this industry, it’s the behaviour of high-profile individuals who go around espousing the close-minded view that ALL Forastero beans are poor
quality. These are obviously people of limited first-hand experience with cocoa, who unfairly blame Forastero beans for the sins of the multi-national chocolate manufacturers. Hershey and Cadbury (and others) might make “bad” chocolate using Forastero beans, but it doesn’t follow that all Forastero beans are therefore inherently bad. Talk about guilt by association!)

Have you seen any changes in the areas that you’ve been sourcing from?

Not really. Not yet. Partly because I think we’re still too small to have made a significant impact on anything ourselves. Partly because I haven’t been back to look for a while! Starting a chocolate factory is an incredibly labour- and resource-intensive job. Many days I dream about flying off to visit the growers again, but for the foreseeable future, it’s just a dream.

The artisan chocolate market in the US seems to be growing quite quickly. We see more and more brands offering single-origin, high-cacao content chocolate. How do you see the Australian market changing?

From the chocolate production side, I’m not seeing any changes at all – yet.

There has certainly been a recent boom in the chocolate cafe industry. Lots of independent chocolatiers (i.e. the people who make bon bons and truffles, and serve hot chocolate) have sprung up, particularly in Melbourne, while the corporate “concept” stores (like Lindt and Max Brenner) seem to do very well in Sydney.

I once read that Australia is twenty years behind the northern hemisphere in its appreciation of fine chocolate, but I think that’s actually a pretty generous assessment. Because we live so far away from
the world’s best chocolate makers, their products can be really hard for us to get hold of. Most Aussies have never even heard of Amedei, Domori, or Pralus. So, I guess you can’t really blame Aussies for not being interested in something that they don’t even know exists. As a matter of fact, I have never tasted Amedei chocolate myself, because I simply can’t buy it where I live (not even by mail order).

Large department stores in Australia often carry small quantities of the relatively big brands, like Michel Cluizel and Valrhona, but the products are often near their use-by date, and affected by sugar- or fat-bloom. I’m sure this turns a lot of people off, who might otherwise have become fully-fledged connoisseurs.

Where Australians really excel is in our appreciation of fine wine, and boutique beer! I’m lucky enough to live in a wine making region (the Mudgee/Rylstone region of New South Wales), where the production (and tasting) of wines, olive oils, and cheeses is an every-day thing. I think chocolate appreciation would be a perfect addition to this set, and it’s something I’d love to get around to organising, when I have the time …

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