Chocolate Maker's Journal
Markham Valley Part 3: A Plantation Tour
Posted on 12/8/2011 by Ray Major
After observing Markham Farm’s careful fermentation and drying process, I was beginning to understand what gave their cacao such a unique flavor. But more secrets were hidden in the soil.
Mr. Singh suggested that we take a tour of the farm to which Lach and I eagerly agreed. The two of us got back in the SUV and followed the Markham team in their pickup down a sandy, dirt road and into the plantation proper. It was planted with tall coconuts spaced ten meters apart and with cacao underneath spaced four meters apart. This was the planting density to give maximum yield of both crops.
The plantation was well maintained overall and the combination of cacao and coconut was picturesque, although many of the cacao trees were old and in need of pruning—some even replacement. Mr. Singh had explained earlier that this was the oldest part of the plantation and they had plans for renovation. Secretly I hoped that renovation did not include replacing the fine Trinitario genetics, but I suspected it did. Vascular Streak Dieback (VSD) is a serious fungal disease of cacao in Papua New Guinea and resistant hybrids have been developed and were being planted everywhere in the country.
We turned down another dirt road and into a section with younger trees that had been produced from grafting. I could tell this because they lacked a jorquet, the fan shaped whorl of five branches that a cacao tree planted from seed throws out with every meter or so of vertical growth.
It was the off season and they were officially between harvests, but many of the trees had pods and they were obviously getting enough cacao to do some fermentation. I love a coconut and cacao plantation, especially with a tall coconut variety like Markham Valley Tall. The coconut canopy is high above the cacao trees and allows plenty of air flow which helps keep down fungal diseases. It also casts a dappled shade on the cacao trees and creates a pleasant climate for walking and for the farm hands harvesting and pruning the cacao trees. The two canopy levels also create some structure which provided more shelter for animals, especially birds and bats, than would a monoculture of either crop.
Mr. Singh also pointed out to us one of the key deficiencies in the Markham valley soil—copper. It was the first time in my career I had heard of a copper deficiency in a cacao farm, but Mr. Singh assured me it was true. He pointed out a leaf on one tree that had sclerosis along the edges and patch work yellowing between the veins. Sure enough it was a copper deficiency. I tucked this away in my mind for future thought. An idea was beginning to gel about why this cacao had such a special flavor.
We returned to the cars and continued down the acacia lane to the tarmac where we turned toward Lae and drove about a kilometer on the main road and then turned off down another dirt track. We stopped to open a padlocked gate and then drove on through another section of cacao and coconut. This time the coconut was a dwarf variety, probably the Madang Brown Dwarf judging from the brown color and quantity of the nuts. This was the newest section of the plantation and the cacao trees were all grafted varieties.
This was the end of our tour and we thanked Mr. Singh for opening up Markham Farm and giving his time to us.
A Unique Cacao
It had been an exceptional experience and an eye opener into the workings of plantation scale cacao farming. Although we think of cacao as the product of small farmers – and this does make up probably 90% of the world’s crop – there are some big farms and processors out there and many times the careful control they give to the harvest, fermentation and drying results in a product of superior flavor and quality. At Scharffen Berger, where our objective is to make the best American dark chocolate, we are looking for great taste and we do not over look any opportunity. We search the entire world to put the best cacao possible in our blends.
As Lach and I drove back to Madang I found myself going over in my mind all that I had just seen at Markham Farm and it was suddenly obvious to me why the cacao tasted so good. It had the Triple Crown: great genetics, careful post-harvest handling and a unique impact of terroir. I saw now that all three of these factors came together to make this cacao great. Cutting the beans I realized that the cacao was of noble origin. The high percentage of white beans indicated to me a strong Criollo influence in the Trinitario; something for which we are always searching. In addition there was careful attention to fermentation and drying. Although done on a grand scale there was an artisan attention to every batch. The wet cacao was brought in from the field on a careful schedule to avoid any incipient and uncontrolled fermentation of the pulp. Once in the boxes it was turned like clockwork to make sure at each step the right things were happening and the drying, although indoors, was slow and gentle. The unique terroir of Markham Valley also plays its part: the deep and coarse sediments washed down from the mountains, the steep rainfall gradient that ran up the valley and the farm itself situated in a transition zone between wet and dry. Finally, what about the copper deficiency in the soil? Although a strain on the trees, could it have an influence on the flavor? Very possibly yes.
Now I had in my mind the whole a picture about this wonderful bean and I had the confidence to turn our chocolate makers loose with all their creativity to a make a wonderful dark chocolate—Markham Valley, try it and enjoy.
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