Claire visits Chocolaterie Robert factory in Madagascar: Blog #3
I have recently returned from a fascinating trip to Madagascar to visit cocoa plantations & Chocolaterie Robert who make chocolate out there from bean to bar (we work with their 64% & 70% dark chocolate couvertures & sell their retail bars too), get an insight into the Malagasy way of life & come face to face with some of their unique beasties!
Read my Blog #1 to find out more about Chocolaterie Robert & their ethos
Read my Blog #2 to find out more about the "cocoa paradise" of cocoa plantations in Sambirano in NW Madagascar - how cocoa is grown, harvested & processed into dried beans ready for producing chocolate
So, having talked about cocoa in Blog#2, let me show you how Robert turn those dried beans into chocolate....
The Robert factory is based in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. They employ 125 people on site and we spent many happy hours talking chocolate & visiting the various areas of the pristine factory. The staff were all immaculately dressed in white coats, hats, hairnets & even face masks and clearly are extremely proud of what they do.
Meet Hery the technical director (on the left) with Lina & Stanyella (production & quality control managers) in the middle with Nicolas (the export manager) on the right - the chap behind them is checking bars that have just come out of the cooling tunnel.
Robert describe their Chocolat Madagascar chocolate as "fine, fresh & fair" and we discovered just how fresh it is when they showed us the warehouse full of sacks of dried beans from the cocoa plantations - only it wasn't that full...because they are effectively operating a just in time system.
The trucks that drive down from the plantations (a 15 hour drive on typically bumpy Malagasy roads) can take a maximum of 6 tonnes each so they deliver weekly and in that time, the factory team process the beans they have into chocolate - wow, now that is fast compared to all the beans that are destined for production in Europe.
Does this quick production into chocolate have an impact on the flavour of the chocolate? I think it does - the Chocolat Madagascar chocolate from Robert that we work with certainly has a "bright" level of acidity & fruity flavour notes which I think are partly due to freshly dried beans being used to produce it.
It is something that no doubt could be argued about with other chocolatiers, but it is worth bearing in mind when we all get excited about bean to bar production here in the UK. Not only are we continuing to use the traditional trade model (see Blog#1) but the main ingredient being used is several months old before being processed into chocolate.
It should be pointed out that once made into chocolate, the flavours do mature and bars that are 1-3 months old after production will taste more rounded/mellow than when first made & so there is that time delay for us with Chocolat Madagascar chocolate as it will be shipped to us by sea once made. This is something that other artisan chocolate producers consider too - Mott of the Grenada Chocolate Co used to talk about his bars maturing when sailing them by brigantine from the Caribbean to Europe. However, it could be argued that the initial flavours are better for being made with truly freshly dried beans!
By the way, the cocoa beans bound for production in Europe will take months to arrive as they will have quite a complex journey to get out of Madagascar (sometimes involving x2 local ports depending on whether the beans are driven to the port of Diego in the north or via the port on Nosy Be island just off Ankify near Ambanja where the plantations are), before being shipped to India for collation into bigger containers & then finally shipped to Europe - quite an operation!
Ok, enough on logistics of moving cocoa beans around the planet, time for transforming those beans into chocolate....
There are a number of stages to make chocolate. Firstly the beans need to be quality checked before being roasted - roasting times & temperatures (around 120 degrees) will depend on the size of the beans (mixing small & larger beans in the same batch would be a disaster as the small ones will roast too quickly vs the larger one & adversely affect the flavours). Once roasted, the beans are released into a rotating tray to cool - its very noisy & hot in the roasting room but I wish I could bottle the smell for you as it is amazing!
Once the beans have cooled, they are poured into the winnower, another very noisy machine, to remove the shells and chop the roasted beans into what are known as cocoa nibs.
cocoa nibs = 100% chocolate! & drums of cocoa shells - often recycled as garden mulch
The cocoa nibs are then poured into a grinder to form a paste that is known as cocoa liquor or cocoa mass - this is a very thick, unctuous & quite grainy liquid at this point.
cocoa mass starting to collect in the tank
This cocoa mass is then pressed in a rather magnificent press (which also made rather impressive noises) to extract the cocoa butter. Cocoa butter gives chocolate its melting properties (but doenst have a huge amount of flavour) as it has a very low melting point (in fact a lot of cocoa butter is used in the pharmaceutical & cosmetics industries as it melts into the skin so easily). By the way, those industries who use cocoa butter want an inert white fat with a long shelf life, so cocoa butter is "deodorised" to remove any volatile chemicals & the flavours it does have & turn it into the long life inert white fat they want. This type of cocoa butter is also widely used in the chocolate industry too - but not here!
Robert leave their cocoa butter in its natural state, thereby helping to add to the flavours of their finished chocolate.
Did you know that approximately 50% of every cocoa bean is cocoa butter? Well you do now! So what is the remaining 50%?...cocoa powder. These "cakes" of cocoa powder ping out of the other side of the cocoa press and is the other constituent part of making chocolate. As you can see, cocoa powder is brown & has most of the flavours of chocolate within it, but you need both cocoa powder & the cocoa butter to make chocolate!
So, having separated out the 2 constituent parts of chocolate, time to put them back together again with the other ingredients as required in the final stage of chocolate production - conching.
These machines gently heat & turn the cocoa powder, cocoa butter, milk powder (if making milk chocolate), sugar & sunflower lecithin (a small amount of this is used as an emulsifer & it's great to see that Robert have switched away from using soya lecithin), for many hours to form a smooth liquid.
Chococo Claire with Stanyella & Lina in the conch room
Conching is a critical element for producing fine chocolate & the longer the conch time the better to remove undesirable volatile acids & to refine the chocolate liquid down to a very tiny particle size...the result being smooth, fine liquid chocolate with a good balance of acidity & the red berry fruit flavours that Madagascan chocolate is famous for.
At Robert, conch times extend to up to 42 hours depending on the type of chocolate they are making - that is a long time! By contrast, industrial chocolate can have a very short conch time of c6 hours.
So, now we have fine chocolate that is then tempered (ok, quick science bit for you: chocolate has to be tempered to achieve the correct crystalline structure so that it sets firm with a good shine & with a snap) before being moulded into bars & passing final quality checks before either being bagged into 1kg couverture packs for us to work with, or bars to sell in shops. Love it!
Recognise these bars as we sell?! & couverture being packed into 1kg bags - possibly for us!
The Robert factory also produce a selection of chocolates for their domestic market and it was fascinating to see how they prepare their fillings using heat rings to heat ganaches in a not too dissimilar way to us.
Some of their ingredients were a bit different though. They use local nuts (especially cashew) & fruits including passionfruit & "pokpok" - aka physallis or cape gooseberries. What a fabulous word for a fruit that works surprisingly well with chocolate - watch out for a pokpok chocolate from Chococo at some point in the future!
It was brilliant to see the factory & all the processes involved in turning cocoa beans into chocolate - the whole process is pretty incredible when you think about it from start to finish - you go from pale purple beans covered in a fruity white flesh that bear no resemblance to chocolate at all, through a fermentation & drying process to a production process that involves a number of stages that rely on the skill of the roasters & refiners to achieve a fine chocolate at the end of it.
The contrast between the very labour intensive, zero mechanisation process of cocoa growing & harvesting, vs the more technically demanding processing, also never ceases to amaze me & remind me that chocolate is a complex product that takes a lot of time & effort to produce.
It should command respect from us for all the work that goes into producing it by the farmers & the chocolate producers - it is not cheap to make & we in the west should stop expecting it to be a cheap sweet food. The industrial multinational chocolate companies have helped build the expectation that chocolate is cheap over the years by using low quality West African cocoa beans (& not many of them) and bulking out their chocolate with a lot of cheap (& addictive) sugar.
By contrast, fine chocolate is something very special and the world is a richer place for it but we ignore the economics of global cocoa production at our peril.
I will save more discussion about the global issues around cocoa for another blog...but in the meantime, a few pictures to capture that transformation of fine cocoa from tree to bar in Madagascar....enjoy!