Chocolate Maker's Journal
Markham Valley Part 1: The Road to Markham Farm
Posted on 11/2/2011 by Ray Major
Lach stopped the car at the top of a ridge and we got out to look at the view. Flat as a tortilla, the Markham Valley fanned out in front of us. It was a stunning sight. The valley looked like a slice of pizza held in two great jaws; the Finisterre and Saruwared mountain ranges to the north and the Kratke and Herzog ranges to the southeast. Along the southern margin of the valley ran the Markham River, the fourth largest river in Papua New Guinea. We had just crossed the Leron, one of the Markham's major tributaries. The Leron's bed was a huge expanse of gravel and boulders. The river ran through the center of it like a thin platinum braid.
We had left Madang at 6:00 AM and traveled east along the Madang-Lae Road. It was a delightful drive through a region of lush secondary forest and cacao farms. We wound our way up a low mountain pass where white cockatoos flashed against the deep green foliage and then we descended into the beautiful Ramu River Valley where Mt. Wilhem in the Bismarck Range towered 14,793 feet above us. We were headed to Markham Farm, one of the largest cacao plantations in Papua New Guinea and home to some of the best cacao in the world, at least in my opinion.
I had arrived in Papua New Guinea the week before and had been tagging around with the folks at Monpi Cocoa Exports, trying to see as much cacao as I could and learn about the cacao business in Papua New Guinea. I had been to their nursery and budwood garden in Bogia and to another in Usino and had spent three days on Karkar Island as a guest of Derek and Brett Middleton, owners of Kulili Plantation where they combined cacao and coconut on what must be one of the most beautiful settings for a farm in the world, if you discount the saltwater crocs, death adders and small-eyed snakes. We had spent a lot of time slogging through the bush and sweating in the equatorial sun and we had drunk a lot of SP beer-it's important to stay hydrated in the tropics.
Markham Farm was my last stop and I hoped I had saved the best for last. At SCHARFFEN BERGER we had come across a sample of their cacao quite by accident and were totally astonished by the complexity of the flavor. It was an explosion of red fruit, raisins with subtler hints of vanilla and pipe tobacco. We knew immediately we had to make a bar out of it, but before we did I wanted to find out what made this cacao so unique.
My companion and guide was Lachlan Moonsbourgh, an Aussie, who ran Monpi Cocoa Exports in Madang. As we drove through a lush plain of kunai grass, the Markham Valley opened up like a huge fan. When we entered it at the Ramu divide it was only about three kilometers wide, but as we progressed down to Lae it expanded out to about twenty kilometers. The entire river basin is about 140 kilometers long and drains an area of about 12,000 km2.
The climate of the Markham Valley is consistently hot, but with rainfall that varies widely. The average monthly temperature at Erap is around 27.2degrees C with a daily swing of plus or minus 5degrees C. Rainfall at Lae on the mouth of the Markham River is around 4,500 mm per year - very wet - while at Erap, 40 kilometers west, it is only 1,250 mm per year. This swing in rainfall results in considerable variation in the natural vegetation of the region. It ranges from grassland to savannah to alluvial rainforest. Markham Farm, where we were headed, lies in a transition zone from savannah to alluvial rainforest. The unique terroir of this region - the combination of variable rainfall, porous gravelly soil and constant heat - I am sure contributes to the remarkable flavor of the Markham Farm cacao.
Finally after a good five hours driving we reached the turn off for Markham Farm. The total area was over six thousand hectares, but only about a sixth of that was planted in a mix of coconut and cacao. The remainder was mostly pasture for cattle, but they also had a few hectares of vanilla. They produce about 610 tonnes of cacao each year. This is large scale cacao farming.
We turned off the tarmac and onto a sandy dirt road that was lined with enormous acacia trees that closed their branches above us like the archway of a huge cathedral. Beyond the acacia trees we could see well pruned cacao trees growing under the shade of coconuts. The acacia trees, although beautiful, were a surprise because they are water hogs and tend to crowd out any other trees that grow beside them.
After driving about a kilometer we arrived at the plantation house where the manager lived. It was a low one story house made of wood and painted green. It would have been picturesque if not surrounded by a high security fence topped with razor wire. The reality of Papua New Guinea today is that it is a Wild West environment with a heavily armed population; the reality of cacao is that it can be quickly and cleanly converted to cash.
We were met by a uniformed security guard wearing an orange vest and a ball cap. He was stern faced and suspicious. Lach spoke to him in Tok Pigin, telling him who we were and our business. He opened the gate for us and we drove into the yard. The manager and foreman came out of the house and greeted us. The manager was a tall, lanky Indian, spectacled and studious. He was dressed in a striped shirt and gray pants. The foreman was a burly Papuan, bearded with a round bearlike face. He wore a red ball cap and a black polo shirt, jeans and work boots. The manager told us Mr. Singh, who ran the plantation, was still on his way from Lae, but we could go and see the fermentary and he would join us when he arrived.
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