Chocolate artisan crafts sustainable ‘morsels of pleasure’

15:41 SGT February 8, 2018
Malaysia-based Chocolate Concierge 'pushes envelope' to show off the origin of cocoa to its best expression

Striving for Authenticity, one of the 20 megatrends which Euromonitor says is shaping the world through to the year 2030, can become a great opportunity for the cocoa industry, says the market intelligence firm. As consumers become more price- conscious and mistrust brands and products more, there is a movement towards more ‘authentic’ products, complete with back-stories and workers/makers with faces, as well as back to homegrown, home-made and other ‘root’ initiatives founded in tradition, trust and nostalgia.

This trend seems to resonate with the vision of Ong Ning-Geng, founder of Chocolate Concierge, a bean-to-bar operations in Malaysia. Ong relates to Foodbiz Asia the challenges he and his team had to overcome in order to procure the best cacao beans.

“For years, I have been curious about what the cacao beans of Malaysian origin could offer in terms of flavours,” he begins. “But deriving the best flavours out of cacao requires a thoughtful and somewhat controlled fermentation process. The other factor which requires more clarity and was lacking awareness is plant genetics.”

Owing to the difficulty in securing supply that meets his exacting standards, Ong decided to cultivate his own cacao trees in Pahang, thus ensuring Chocolate Concierge obtain the right flavourful beans needed.

“After not being able to find the beans that I thought would push the envelope, I finally purchased land to plant cacao with the intention of being more selective in the planting genetics that would contribute to the quality of flavour,” Ong says. “This is somewhat reversing the common practice, where genetics are selected for yield and disease resistance.”

The intention of Chocolate Concierge is to set up a retail platform for craft chocolate makers, and it encourages other chocolate producers to come forward and also use Chocolate Concierge as their platform.

“The cocoa produced through my farm are available for purchase by other makers, by the lot, and we have exported dried cacao beans to other artisanal chocolate makers as well,” explains Ong.

“The chocolates that I make are being used by F&B establishments who want to show sensitivity to the origin of the chocolate used, and possibly play a socially responsible role as far as chocolates go.”

As consumers become more price-conscious and mistrust brands and products more, there is a movement towards more ‘authentic’ products, complete with back-stories and workers/makers with faces, as well as back to homegrown, home- made and other ‘root’ initiatives founded in tradition, trust and nostalgia.

And while Chocolate Concierge is assured of obtaining top quality cacao beans for its retail and F&B clients, Ong says the company is also able to help growers practise sustainable farming methods.

“‘Sustainable’ is a big topic: to the farmer, that means being able to put food on the table; to the environment, sustainability means something else. At my farm, we think that we are practising good stewardship by exclusively using organic fertilisers. We also do not apply weedicide or herbicide around the trees, so weeds are removed purely through cutting,” he explains.

“We know that commercial farming practices result in loss of soil fertility, which impacts the health of the trees in the long run — a cacao tree has been documented to be productive up to 60 years of its life. In addition to that, we have a programme to enrich the Orang Asli indigenous community around Pahang, by giving them cacao and banana trees to plant, farming equipment such as chain saw and brush cutters, and organic fertiliser for all their plants.”

Ong says they do this because cacao prefers to be planted under the shade of larger trees, be it banana, durian, fruit trees, or even rubber. “There is no additional clearing of land required to improve the income of these villagers,” he shares. “Cacao also provides another revenue stream, and we make this all worthwhile for the villagers who take part by handling the logistics of the beans, where we are the ones to ferment and dry, which makes it easier for them, all the while promising a floor price that is at a premium over the market’s rate.”

Chocolate Concierge having its own farm to supply cacao beans also brings personal satisfaction, Ong points out.

“The benefit of planting, harvesting, fermenting and drying my own is to satisfy the control freak in me,” he quips. “But seriously, it is a lengthy process which is often better left to others if given the choice.

“The intention is not to save cost. [There probably aren’t much, if any, given our generous buy-back prices], but to be able to exert influence that would push the origin of cocoa to its best expression. In the end, that is the farm’s raison d’etre,” Ong says.

He is optimistic that the market for bean-to-bar operations will continue to grow in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We are already observing the recent growth of more independent chocolate makers in the region. I want to think that this is driven by consumer’s increasing interest in the food they consume. By that I mean food that is produced in a way that least negatively impacts the environment, and if possible have an added positive social impact,” Ong concludes.