The world's best chocolate – a tale of organic cocoa production

Qin Xie
The world's best chocolate – a tale of organic cocoa production
Organic cocoa plantations in the rainforests of the Dominican Republic

The air was humid and sticky, the mosquitoes were out in force and hungry but the patters of rain softened the blow. A little.

I was in the rainforests of the Dominican Republic to learn about organic cocoa production. The plantation I was in produces beans for Valrhona, the company that supplies some of the finest chocolates to the world's best restaurants, patisseries and chocolatiers.

Having been involved with chocolate as a consumer, a chef and a judge at the international chocolate awards, I thought I knew a fair bit about chocolate and its production.

To start with, they tell you there are three kinds of cocoa beans used for chocolate - criollo, trinitario and forastero.

The reality is that, like grapes, cocoa beans come in many different varieties. The plants are selected, cloned, cross bred and grafted to create the most efficient crop. One that's resistant to disease, gives higher yields and, most importantly, will give great tasting chocolates.

And just like wine, the flavour of chocolate is affected by the type of beans as much as it is by their processing and production.

The Dominican Republic is the world's largest supplier of organic cocoa and just one of the many countries that Valrhona sources beans from. Here, Valrhona works exclusively with Risek who produces fair trade beans according to the requirements set out by Valrhona.

For Valrhona and Risek, the start of a cocoa plant's life begins with damp beans germinating under the cover of a Hessian bag. The shoots, selected according to the flavour of beans, are grafted onto favourable root stocks once they are big enough. The same process is used in orchard fruits and grape vines to ensure flavourful fruits can be grown from plants with strong roots. The grafted plant will grow in a nursery until it's ready to enter the plantation.

Six to eight months before that, other vegetation such as coconut and banana trees also need to be planted to give shade to the young cocoa plants and sometimes to create nutrient balance in the soil. Some of these plants are later removed according to the requirements of the cocoa plant but in the meantime, any resulting fruits can also be a source of temporary income until the cocoa trees mature.

The young trees will need to be planted in a soil mix of clay and sand, and of course compost (a mix of stem, manure and branches that's applied throughout its life), so that the ground isn't too dry during dry season or become waterlogged in rain season.

Once the cocoa is planted, there are other things to consider too. The trees need to be pruned so that, as they mature, they allow the right amount of airflow and sunlight through the branches and limit the spread of disease and pests - crucial in an organic plantation.

The trees won't start producing pods for about three years but from the first pods maturing, they can be harvested for some 20 years before needing to be replaced. In the Dominican Republic, they can be harvest twice a year due to the rain and therefore growing seasons.

All the cocoa pods, once matured, need to be harvest by hand. New pods will grow in the same place and if there's damage to the tree during harvest, nothing will grow there in the future.

Each pod needs to be opened and inspected for disease and quality before the beans are removed and put into wooden fermentation boxes. There, the beans will go through anaerobic followed by aerobic fermentation - the amount of time at each stage will affect the final flavour of the beans.

After fermentation, the beans are allowed to dry. If they dry too quickly, they will form an acidic crust but if they dry too slowly, they can begin to rot.

Finally, the dried beans are ready to be packaged and shipped to France, to Valrhona's headquarters and factory in Tain-l'Hermitage to be blended and made into chocolate. The finished products are then shipped all over the world for fine chocolates, desserts and other comestibles.

It's a complicated process but is it all worth it?

The world's top chefs, some of whom works exclusively with Valrhona, certainly seems to think so. Serious patissiers like Oberweis, who supplies the Luxembourg royal court, even offers a single origin Dominican Republic 70% cocoa chocolate with its coffee.

Valrhona is still looking to improve on this and has acquired its first plantation in the Dominican Republic - Loma Sotavento. It is hoped that the plantation will allow Valrhona to work more closely with the Dominicans to research, develop and improve farming practices and production techniques that would ensure better chocolates for the future.

In the hellish jungle, that thought certainly helped the testy heat melt away.