Chocolate Maker's Journal
The Ben Tre Bar Goes Home
Posted on 11/15/2009 by Ray Major
Last November, John Scharffenberger and I made a trip to Southeast Asia. As always, we were looking for new sources of great beans, but we'd also planned to swing by Vietnam to meet with the farmers who had produced the truly wonderful cacao we used to make the Ben Tre bar as part of the Chocolate Maker Series.
Our agenda in Vietnam was arranged by Le Thi Tuyet, the charming and very able coordinator of the World Cocoa Foundation - Nam Lam University Joint Sustainable Cocoa Project. On our first day, we traveled to Bá Ria Vung Tau province to look at an organic cacao project near the town of Chau Duc. On the second day, we drove to Ben Tre province and met with our cacao partners. That night we flew to Buôn Mê Thuot in Dak Lak province and spent a day seeing how cacao is grown in the Central Highlands. We returned to Bá Ria Vung Tau province on our last day and saw more cacao farms, then finished with a visit to the cacao germplasm collection at Nam Lam University in Ho Chi Minh City.
Although each day in Vietnam had its own story, the highlight for me was visiting the beautiful farms in Ben Tre where our cacao was grown, and seeing the pride on the farmers faces as they tasted what we had created from the fruits of their labor. This is the story of that day.
The Legend Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City is a modern hotel that sits facing the Saigon River. From my room I watched as boats of all shapes and sizes plied their way upstream and down while cargo ships unloaded at the docks. Two story pleasure boats and floating restaurants were moored against the far bank.
Le Tuyet met us in the lobby at 7:30 in the morning. We had been communicating back and forth by e-mail, but this was our first meeting. Her husband, Dr. Phuoc, is a researcher at Nam Lam University, and co-president of the Vietnam Cocoa Association. He would also be our guide in Dak Lak.
Tuyet had hired a driver for the day, who navigated surprisingly fast through the chaotic morning traffic. Both Le Tuyet and the driver knew shortcuts, so we soon were speeding southeast from the city across a landscape mixed with the old and new - rice paddies tilled by water buffalo and shining new condominiums.
After nearly two and a half hours, we crossed the Tien Giang River and entered the province of Ben Tre - one of 13 that make up the Mekong Delta. Our first stop was the cacao fermentation center owned by Mr. Dat in Quoi Son Village in Chau Thanh District. We had purchased our Ben Tre cacao from Mr. Dat, who had in turn purchased it from local farmers.
Although cacao was first brought to Vietnam in 1878 by the French, it remained mostly a botanical curiosity and was never really developed as an export crop. The South Vietnamese government tried to develop it in the 1960's, but this effort was curtailed by the war. Several abortive attempts at cacao cultivation were initiated since then, but it was not until 1997 through the combined efforts of the Nam Lam University and the World Cocoa Foundation (then ACRI) that any progress was made. In Vietnam today there are approximately 10,000 hectares of planted cacao in 18 different provinces - the most since 2003. The total national production is between 1,000 and 1,200 tonnes per year. The Vietnamese government has set an ambitious target to have 80,000 hectares planted in cacao by 2020 with production at 100,000 tonnes per year. Today Ben Tre is the leading province with almost 4,000 hectares of planted cacao. Plantations are small and the farmers are meticulous cultivators, treating their properties more like gardens than farms. It is the first place where I ever saw drip irrigation and liquid fertilization used on cacao.
We turned off the main thoroughfare onto a small secondary road that ran through rice paddies and coconut groves. After a few kilometers we parked beside a small store, then walked down a narrow path that wound its way through a mixed planting of coconut palms and cacao trees. The setting was idyllic, broken only by a steady stream of scooters coming and going. We passed several homes, each surrounded by a garden and a small grove of fruit trees. Some had cacao trees planted in their front yards. I stopped to inspect one and saw that the pods were covered with the small black ants that the farmers cultivate as a form of bio-control against sucking bugs and thrips that destroy the fruit. A network of canals and small ditches used to control the water level ran through the farms.
Mr. Dat greeted us warmly in front of his house. He was a thin man, short like me, with a weathered face and large ears. He wore a pale blue shirt and khaki cargo pants with many side pockets. After Tuyet introduced us, Mr. Dat's wife came out to greet us. She was the same height as Mr. Dat, thin with well-styled hair. Their small house was surrounded by fruit trees and flowers, and was encircled by a tiled veranda. In one corner sat a large pile of cacao pods that a woman was breaking open with a cleaver to reveal the beans and pulp (called baba) inside, which she scooped into plastic buckets.
Mr. Dak buys cacao pods from the local farmers and lets them accumulate until fully ripened. He then collects the baba to ferment in boxes. He has one step tier of three large boxes and six smaller boxes arranged in a line. The boxes sit on bricks about six inches off the ground to allow the liquid to drain as the pulp around the beans ferments. During fermentation he covers the beans with banana leaves and burlap to hold in the heat. He normally ferments for five to six days, turning the beans for aeration on the second day and thereafter as required.
As we walked around the room, the fermenting cacao smelled wonderful - tart and fruity. Mr. Dak appeared to be doing everything right. There was a large erasable white board on the wall where he kept track of each batch's progress. Once the fermentation was complete he transferred the beans from the boxes to woven mats set on bamboo frames where they dried in the sun. John and I cut a few of the dried beans and tasted them. They were deliciously fruity.
John and I were impressed with everything we saw. Mr. Dat took meticulous care at every step in the post harvest process and it showed in his finished product. It was a great pleasure to finally present him with our 72% Ben Tre Bar. Through Tuyet we complemented him on his fine work and the high quality of the product he produced. I believe Mr. Dat was quite touched. I know I was. Most cacao farmers rarely have the opportunity to taste chocolate, let alone a bar made from their very own cacao. For me, this was really closing the circle.
Mr. Dat then offered to show us one of the farms where he purchased cacao. We followed his scooter through a small village, then stopped in front of another path where we continued on foot through a beautiful grove of coconuts. We crossed into the farm on a wooden plank over a small duckweed choked canal.
The farmer's name was Mr. Tot - a small thin man with large friendly eyes and straight black hair parted on the side. His farm was rustic yet clean, with nearly 600 cacao trees planted under the shade of 100 coconut trees. Coconut pairs very well with cacao. The palms do not form a tight canopy so many can be planted before they shade out the cacao, which adds significantly to the farmer's income.
Mr. Tot cared for his cacao meticulously. The trees appeared to be between four and five years old and were laden with fruit. Mr. Tot also cultivated ants on his cacao trees, but he had the yellow type which is larger and more aggressive than the black variety. The farmers attract them to make nests in the trees by nailing chicken entrails to the trunks and larger branches. The yellow ants do a better job caring for the cacao, but they attack viciously when the farmer harvests the pods. It may be a trade-off, but I'd go with the black ants - I got into a nest of the yellow buggers and they bite and sting like crazy.
We toured Mr. Tot's entire farm, then presented him with a Ben Tre bar. He returned the favor with fresh coconut. Because of the heat, John and I were as happy with our coconuts and their deliciously refreshing water as Mr. Tot was with a chocolate bar made from his cacao.
We said good-bye to Mr. Tot and headed back the way we came to our next stop - An Khanh village and the farm of Mr. Lap. On our way we spotted some cacao drying in baskets by the side of the road. We stopped and found that a second fermentation center had sprouted, giving Mr. Dat some competition. It was not a very sophisticated operation, but still it was a healthy sign and showed that people were interested in cacao. The Ben Tre cacao farmer's options were expanding.
We reached Mr. Lap's farm down a long road where we parked and then walked for another several hundred yards on a small path that ran atop a small levy - again lined with coconuts and cacao. John and Tuyet walked ahead as I stopped to photograph different plants. I had the impression I was touring a botanical garden.
Mr. Lap was a small, happy man wearing a ball cap and white polo shirt. His white stucco farmhouse was surrounded by citrus and guava trees. Like most of the farmhouses, his was encircled by a tile patio; this one with drying baskets stacked in one corner and bamboo racks covered with drying cacao along the side.
When we presented him with a Ben Tre bar, he was so astonished to learn that the chocolate was made with his cacao that I thought he would burst with pride. Looking at him hold the bar and smile was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career. I think John felt the same.
Mr. Lap took us for a tour of his farm which was more like a giant garden with cacao, coconut and different fruit trees. I was amazed to learn that his farm was less than a hectare in size, but that he was able to earn a good living from it. He had exactly 570 cacao trees and knew the approximate productivity of each one. Tuyet said that he had studied cacao farming with Dr. Phuoc at Nam Lam University in Ho Chi Minh City. From the pride in her voice as she spoke of him I suspected he was their prize pupil. In any case, his farm was beautifully cared for and highly productive. Mr. Lap said that his trees were less than five years old and were already yielding over 1.5 tonnes of dried cacao. That would be very good production on a farm twice that size.
We said good-bye to Mr. Lap, then drove back to Ho Chi Minh City to catch an evening flight to Dak Lak with Dr. Phuoc - and more cacao.
On the ride back to the city John and I philosophized a little on what we had seen in Ben Tre. Many times we try to help farmers improve their techniques by sharing what we see other farmers in other parts of the world doing. But in Ben Tre we had nothing to add. We just listened and learned. It seems some of the world's newest cacao farmers may be among the world's best. Try our Ben Tre bar and I think you'll agree.
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