Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Davao Cacao: Your Next Bite of M&M's Chocolates Might Just Come from Davao

Chocolate has long been known as the anecdotal “Drink of the Gods”. Long, long before the Spaniards ventured out to sea, the Aztecs of South America have already enjoyed this drink regarded as sacred that only the chieftains could afford it. Christopher Columbus discovered it from the Aztecs in the 15th century and brought it back to the new world, and that was the start of the world’s love affair with chocolate.

Until the 16th century, the bitter dark aromatic drink remains undiscovered beyond the Aztecs and Mayan civilizations until it was brought by Columbus to show Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Though it became a court favorite, it was the Spanish friars who introduced the wonders of the chocolate beans to the rest of Europe. It was served as beverage, but the Europeans added sugar and milk to neutralize the cocoa's natural bitterness and removed the chili pepper, replacing it with vanilla, another indigenous Mexican spice (wikipedia).

For hundreds of years, the chocolate making process remained unchanged. In the 18th century, mechanical mills were created that squeezed out cocoa butter, which helped create hard, durable chocolate. However, it was not until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution that these mills were put to bigger use. This was when people around the world began experiencing and consuming chocolates.

Now, how did the big names in chocolates – Hersheys, Van houten, Cadbury, Nestle, Lindt and eventually Mars – came to be? Well, at the end of the 18th century, the first form of solid chocolate was invented in Turin by Doret. This chocolate was sold in large quantities from 1826 by Pierre Paul Caffarel. In 1819, F. L. Cailler opened the first Swiss chocolate factory. In 1828, Dutchman Coenraad Johannes van Houten patented a method for extracting the fat from cocoa beans and making powdered cocoa and cocoa butter. Van Houten also developed the "so-called" Dutch process of treating chocolate with alkali to remove the bitter taste. This made it possible to form the modern chocolate bar. It is believed that the Englishman Joseph Fry made the first chocolate for eating in 1847, followed in 1849 by the Cadbury brothers. Daniel Peter, a Swiss candle maker, joined his father-in-law's chocolate business. In 1867, he began experimenting with milk as an ingredient. He brought his new product, milk chocolate, to market in 1875. He was assisted in removing the water content from the milk to prevent mildewing by a neighbour, a baby food manufacturer named Henri NestlĂ©. Rodolphe Lindt invented the process called conching, which involves heating and grinding the chocolate solids very finely to ensure that the liquid is evenly blended. This enabled Milton Hershey to make chocolate even more popular by mass producing affordable chocolate bars.  Hmmm....thanks to wiki for this info.

The Mars Company came later in the United States in 1911. The Mars Candy Factory was started by Frank C. Mars. He was taught by his mother how to make hand-dipped candies. Forrest Mars, son of Frank Mars and his first wife named Ethel, was inspired by a popular type of milkshake in 1923 and introduced the Milky Way bar, advertised as a "chocolate Malted Milk in a candy bar". This became the best-selling candy bar. It was incorporated as Mars, Inc. in 1920 and the company grew to be one of the biggest consolidated confectionary companies in the world.

The company produces world favorites such as M&M's, Snickers, and the Mars bar. Its other confections include 3 Musketeers, Dove, Milky Way, Skittles, Twix, and Starburst candy; Combos and Kudos snacks; Uncle Ben's rice; and pet food under the names Pedigree, Sheba, and Whiskas. It also owns the world's largest chewing gum maker, the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company. The Mars family (including siblings and retired company CEO Forrest Mars Jr., Chairman John Franklyn Mars, and VP Jacqueline Badger Mars) owns a highly secretive firm, making the family one of the richest in the US.

Now what does Mars and chocolates have to do with us? Well, let’s go back again in history. With the spread of the popularity of the chocolate royal drink, the French established cacao plantations in the Caribbean, and Spain developed theirs in their Philippine Colony (Bloom 1998, Coe 1996).  The cacao plant was brought by a Spanish mariner named Pedro Bravo de Lagunas sometime in 1670.  The first plantings were done in San Jose, Batangas.  The country was the first in Asia to plant cacao and prepare chocolate drinks from cocoa beans.  Commercial cacao farms were established by a group of Filipino investors.  More cacao commercial farms were put up in Mindanao (Food and Agri-Business Monitor, 2010).  Cacao plantations continued to exist in the country, though smaller now than in the Spanish times. A cup of hot, bubbling, smooth chocolate starts with the lowly tablea.  Right up to the 70’s, and sporadically during the modern times, the processing of tablea were all done by hand.  Grinding the dark brown beans and shaped into discs which leave it characteristically coarse but full of aroma.  With problems hampering agriculture especially the cacao plantations during the Agrarian era in the 90’s, the local cacao industry did not flourish and tablea making was one of the first casualties of industrialization perhaps not only in the Philippines but probably the same with the rest of the world.

Now, somebody literally came to the rescue.  Mars, Inc. tapped Davao Region farmers for the supply of up to 100,000 metric tons of cacao for the next five years.  Mars has been doing business directly with farmers in different continents and came to Davao with a business proposition.  Since no single cacao plantation has the capacity to supply cacao of the magnitude required by Mars, Inc., Ms. Charita Puentespina has been asked to consolidate the cacao harvests of the farmers within Davao City (Balita, 2010).

Ms. Puentespina’s name has been synonymous with cutflowers ever since she mass-produced the orchid waling-waling (scientific name: Vanda sanderiana) in 1985 through embryo culture. When she passed on the management of her orchid business to her children, she started her own love affair with cacao. Since then, Puentespina became the biggest consolidator of all wet beans produced by farmers within a 25-kilometer radius from the Puentespina farm in Malagos, where a total of 17 hectares of the Puentespina Farm is planted to cacao. The Farm established fermentation and drying facilities to produce good quality beans.  Cacao is also sourced from satellite cacao farms in Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and Sto. Tomas in Davao del Norte (Balita, 2010). She established the Mars Cocoa Development Center to serve as a hub for cacao farmers in Davao City.

The scientific name of the cacao tree, where chocolate is made from is Theobroma cacao. Theobroma means "food of the gods". The word cacao was derived from the Aztec word cacahuatl, learned at the time when it was first encountered by the Spanish in South America, but later on adopted into the spanish language. The word cacao entered scientific nomenclature in 1753 after the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus published his taxonomic binomial system and coined the genus and species Theobroma cacao (wikipilipinas)

Cacao grows on relatively higher ground, to an elevation of 1,000 meters above sea level usually in between other trees where it is shaded for optimal growth. It thrives best in areas where there is an evenly distributed rainfall throughout the year. Upon reaching maturity, the cacao pods sprout from its trunk and branches. Embedded inside the pods are layers of 20-60 cacao beans (Food and Agri-Business Monitor, 2010).

Davao remained the highest producing province in the country. In Davao, the major cacao-producing provinces were Davao del Sur (1,669 tons), Davao City (832 tons), Davao Oriental (481 tons), Bukidnon (455 tons), and Davao del Norte (319 tons) (Food and Agri-Business Monitor, 2010).

However, comparing our progress among our neighbors in the Asian region, the Philippines have the smallest production of cacao beans at 5,000 metric tons of cacao beans in 2010. Its highest production was in 1980 with 20,000 tons and 1990 with 35,000 tons, declining over the years as farmers abandoned cacao farming for more profitable crops (Sun Star Davao, 2011). Embedded inside the pods are layers of 20-60 cacao beans. 

The Mars Cacao Development Center in Malagos aims to change the fate of Davao cacao farmers. The Center has hosted no less than 4,000 farmers who have received free training on the proper growing, rehabilitation and post-harvest of cacao trees. Once the cacao farms are rehabilitated, they will yield a very good harvest.  Mars, Inc. needs 100 metric tons of cacao beans in the next five years valued at 300 million dollars.  This is good news for farmers since Mars, Inc. has increased the price of cocoa to P110 per kilo. According to a news article, Mars buys the dried cocoa beans from the Davao farmers without exclusivity. The farmers sell via international commodity trading (Balita, 2010).

Inside the Center, fermentation and drying facilities were established to further control quality of the wet beans produced by the farmers.  It is in the fermentation that the flavor and aroma profile of the chocolate is developed, not only in the variety.

The beans are dried in specially-constructed tent-like structures.  The beans are turned twice a day for consistent drying. When the beans achieve the right color and texture, it is ready for sorting and packing.

Producing well-fermented and dried beans, well...are no easy task. Fermentation takes about 5-7 days for the full flavor of the beans to develop. Drying takes about a week or 10 days. Lucky for Mindanao, sunny days are an everyday fare. Oh! I hope Ms. Climate Change won't come down hard on these farmers. Well, at any rate....

For beans that have not yet reached its optimum dryness or have achieved the minimum moisture content required by Mars, then it is returned to the drying area. Though the structures depended mainly on the sun for heat, it is well ventilated to control humidity.

The last step in the Center is the sorting stage. The beans are packed in jute sacks. Jute, they say, allow air to pass inside which helps in keeping the seeds dry. Plastic sacks are not allowed since residual moisture are trapped inside causing molds to grow on the beans.

The Center is open for visitors willing to learn how cacao beans are processed. The Center advocates support for Cacao growers in the region, that's why the Center is open to educate people.  Locating it inside the Malagos Garden Resort is also a plus since visitors can enjoy the green and fresh environment of Davao.  The farm is big enough to house the facility, but you can still go around by foot. No need for big trucks like these to go around! well, it’s just me!

My visit at the Center definitely enriches my appreciation for our local products. Now, next time you bite into a Mars chocolate, think of it as helping also our brothers in Davao. Let's support Davao's bid to become known as the producers of a special kind "Davao" dark chocolate through their specially fermented and dried beans....go Davao Cacao! 

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