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Cocoa: The Food of the Gods

Cocoa: The Food of the Gods

Having returned from West Africa to see cocoa in its natural environment, Australian Baking Business looks into the history and production of the coveted food and discusses how one country’s most popular indulgence is another’s economic lifeline.

Cocoa is enjoyed in an increasing array of products around the world. Nonetheless, its background is equally rich and compelling.

Originating from the Amazon in South America, the cultivation of cocoa spread in ancient times to Central America, where it was developed and used as currency. Although historical reports vary, Native Central Americans are believed to have first used cocoa in the form of a drink for spiritual and social rituals, flavouring the bitter crushed bean and water mixture with spices, chillies and herbs. The Aztecs went as far as to believe cocoa came from a god who was cast out of heaven for sharing chocolate with lowly humans.

After the invasion of Central America by Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500s, small cargoes of cocoa beans were shipped to Europe. Although the bitter taste did not initially agree with the Spanish palette, the introduction of sugar and sweet flavourings, including honey, aniseed, cinnamon and vanilla, ensured the popularity of chocolate as a drink spread quickly throughout Europe. By the 17th century, the trend had reached Italy, France, Germany and Great Britain.

For many years, chocolate was reserved for the upper classes. However, the launch of the first recorded chocolate-confection maker in Paris in 1659 brought the ingredient to the masses. By the 18th century, the Dutch West Indies, North America and Brazil were on the cocoa bandwagon and both explorers and missionaries were keen to cultivate crops on a large scale.

Records indicate Dutch missionaries planted cocoa in the coastal areas of the then Gold Coast – a British colony on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa – as early as 1815. Not long after, Christian missionaries planted crops in Aburi, Ghana.

Today, there are an estimated 2 million cocoa farms in West Africa alone. The Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) produces the most cocoa in the world, with 1.23 million tonnes churned out annually. To put this figure into perspective, that’s 34.7 per cent of world production, accounting for more than 50 per cent of household income. Ghana comes in second with 746 thousand tonnes annually (20.6 per cent of world production), followed by Indonesia with 489 thousand tonnes annually (13.8 per cent of world production).

In Ghana, crops grow in six forested regions, namely Ashanti, Brong Ahafo, Eastern Ghana, Volta, Central Ghana and Western Ghana, where 1000-1500mm of rain falls each year. Cocoa from Ghana is now considered to be among the best in the world. And beyond its strong reputation in global food circles, cocoa production is Ghana’s most important economic sector, playing an integral role in the country’s political, economic and social stability.

  

Cocoa Harvesting Process

Cocoa beans are the seeds of the fruit of the cocoa tree and are usually grown on small familyowned farms 3-4ha in size.

The farming process is laboursome. Pods are harvested by hand as there is no better way to remove them from the tree without damaging the bud from which additional pods will grow. To make the process more time consuming, cocoa pods don’t ripen at the same time, rather they require farmers to monitor crops almost year-round.

A typical pod contains 20 to 50 beans. Pods weigh around 400g, with each pod yielding 35-40g of dried beans and, on average, an experienced farmer can separate the beans from up to 2000 pods every day.

Once the ripened pods are opened, usually with a machete, the pulp and beans are removed and left to ferment in piled heaps under banana leaves or on wooden grates. During this time the seeds sweat and the thick pulp liquefies. Organisms and bacteria partially break down proteins and sugars in the bean and after a week, the fermented pulp trickles away leaving cocoa seeds behind to be collected.

This fermentation process continues in a manufacturing facility for up to a week, before being dried for an additional five days to two weeks depending on the climate. The beans are then left to dry in the sun and raked constantly

Chocolate Production

It takes up to 900 cocoa beans to produce just 1kg of chocolate, depending on the desired cocoa content.

Cocoa beans arrive at the chocolate factory in sacks. Like all raw materials, a stringent set of quality control checks must be approved before the beans can enter the manufacturing facility. Once approved, the beans are cleaned in a machine before beginning the roasting process.

Roasting can be done on the whole bean before shelling, or on the nib after shelling. The time and temperature of the roast affect the result: a low roast produces a more acidic, aromatic flavour, while a high roast gives a more intense, bitter flavour. As the beans rotate and dry inside the cylinder, their colour deepens and their aroma intensifies.

It’s the inside contents of the bean – the nib – that makes chocolate. To extract the nib, newly roasted beans are cooled and split, which removes the brittle shell. The grinding process hasn’t changed significantly since ancient times, however instead of grinding by hand, modern mills crush beans mechanically between large grinding stones. The result is plain, unsweetened liquefied chocolate, which is then often poured into moulds.

Alternatively, the nibs can be separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter using a hydraulic press. This process produces around 50 per cent cocoa powder and 50 per cent cocoa butter – used in chocolate bar manufacture, as well as in some confectionery, soaps and cosmetics

  

Addressing Social Issues

Farming families face challenges that make it difficult to realise the true potential of their in-demand resource. The fragile nature of the cacao tree makes it vulnerable to pests and disease and, each year, many farmers lose nearly their entire cocoa crop. The limited availability of scientifically-enhanced seeds, organic fertilisers or soil enhancers means farmers are also harvesting from old trees that produce low yields.

Although most cocoa production is carried out by peasant farmers on plots of less than 4ha, a small number of farmers dominate the African trade. Indeed, some studies show about onefourth of all cocoa farmers receive just more than half of the country’s total cocoa income. This is often due to lack of organisation among groups of farmers, which limits their ability to purchase supplies at a lower cost, to access helpful market information or to secure a better price for their cocoa. Of course, low literacy rates exacerbate this problem.

Health and social issues impact the community as well, notably a lack of access to quality, relevant education for children on cocoa farms. In West Africa, many cocoa farming families must also contend with HIV/AIDS, malaria and poor-quality drinking water. For more than a decade, the global chocolate and cocoa industry has been working together to bring about positive and sustainable change to the way cocoa is grown and harvested in West Africa.

To address labour practices in cocoa farming and to co-ordinate industry activities, the industry formed a coalition of chocolate and cocoa processing and manufacturing companies and trade associations representing the North American, European and international chocolate and cocoa industries.

Leaders in the coalition include ADM, Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Ferrero, The Hershey Company, Kraft Foods, Mars, Nestlé, the National Confectioners Association, the Association of the Chocolate, Biscuit and Confectionery Industries of the European Union, the European Cocoa Association and the World Cocoa Foundation.

Barry Callebaut works with farmers, farming organisations, civil society and government authorities on a range of sustainability and research initiatives. Not only does this partnership ensure the future supply of cocoa, ADDRESSING but it also helps improve the livelihoods of farming families and address social issues in cocoa communities, such as child labour. F.Mayer Imports chocolate division manager Gary Willis says cocoa production can be defined as “sustainable” when farmers earn equitable income, engage in responsible labour practices, safeguard the environment and can provide for the basic health and education needs of their families.

“Barry Callebaut’s business depends on cocoa, a sensitive crop that is experiencing a downturn in production,” Gary says.

“While 2010/11 delivered a bumper cocoa crop due to favourable weather conditions, during the last six years the annual cocoa supply has frequently fallen short of demand. To help address the overall decline in cocoa production, Barry Callebaut has made sustainable cocoa a pillar of its growth strategy and accelerated its long time efforts to ensure sustainable cocoa production.”

In March 2012, Barry Callebaut launched a CHF 40 million cocoa sustainability initiative. Called Cocoa Horizons, the initiative aims to boost farm productivity, increase quality and improve family livelihoods in key cocoa producing countries in West and Central Africa and Indonesia throughout a 10-year period.

Through Cocoa Horizons, the company is investing in farmer training, infrastructure including schools, community education and health programs. Sustainability activities focus on three main areas: farmer practices, farmer education and farmer health. What’s more, Barry Callebaut also guarantees the entire chocolate production for its gourmet brand Callebaut is sourced from sustainable cocoa beans

Visiting the Home of Chocolate

F.Mayer Imports/Barry Callebaut takes Australia’s best and brightest to the home of chocolate.

In early April, 46 Australians set out on a trip of a life-time. The destination was Ghana, a country many had thought very little about, until F.Mayer/Barry Callebaut devised a competition to send a cross-section of the country’s chocolatiers, pasty chefs and food professionals to the home of cocoa.

Anticipation of what was to come negated the day-long trip and once there, the entire group was in awe of the colour, noise and pace of West Africa’s darling.

While the five-day itinerary took into account the country’s tropical beach idyll, fascinating historical heritage, rich cultural variety and world-renowned natural environment, the focus was on cocoa – it’s origin, production and social consequences.

Day one of the tour was kicked-off with a visit to two cocoa farms, where the cocoa pod could be seen growing on trees. When cut open by the local farmers, the group was able to see, touch and even taste the cocoa bean in its most natural state. Along with the harvesting of cocoa pods, these farms gave further insight into the fermentation and drying processes, which have undergone very little change in more than 100 years.

  

Throughout the trip, the group’s knowledge of the production and distribution of cocoa was also enhanced by a visit to a buying centre and a tour of the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana – a centre that has overseen quality control, marketing, research, seed production and export regulations since the 1930s.

For Tim Clark, owner of chocolates patisserie Cacao, the experience installed a renewed appreciation for his most valued ingredient.
“Standing beneath the canopy of leaves you quickly realise how difficult conditions are for cocoa farmers. The humidity was uncomfortably high and it was hard enough standing in one position let alone slogging about cutting and carrying pods in baskets on your head,” he says.

“Without the assistance of machinery or farm animals to aid the farmer it does make for a hard day’s work. And that’s just the harvesting process. The beans are checked and weighed so many times so that they are not only traceable, but picked and sorted based on size and quality. It’s a long, time-intensive process.”

Visiting the Kukurantumi School was undoubtedly a highlight for many on the trip. Previously one of the poorest and most unresourced primary schools in the Akyem region, this school of 70 boys and 73 girls has been sponsored by Barry Callebaut for a number of years, in which time a substantial amount of money has been donated to improve facilities and learning resources.

The Australian tour group also dug deep, raising more than $7000 for the school, which, after F.Mayer Imports director Sam Mayer engaged in discussions with the school’s principal, staff and students, has been put towards a toilet facility, sporting equipment, white boards and renovations to school offices and classrooms. This will be completed during the remainder of 2013, with Barry Callebaut Ghana contributing an additional $6000 to meet the final cost expectations, which come in at just more than $13000.

“A block of toilets and a netball post may seem a pretty basic starting point for a school in Australia,” Sam says.

“However, upon seeing the school first hand and after speaking with both students and staff, we realised the basics are what is needed to give the school are good foundation for growth. As a result, we collectively decided to give the community a helping hand.”

Currently, all students share one toilet, while recreation facilities consist of little more than a grass field.

  

“Cocoa production has a bit of a bad reputation in some parts of the world because historically, multi-nationals come in, take all the resources and give little back to the community. However, the welfare of the local people is of massive importance for F.Mayer Imports and Barry Callebaut and resourcing this school is just one way the company is building up the local economy and giving real life-skills to the people of Ghana,” Sam says.

The trip wasn’t all about cocoa however. The final day of activities took the group to the Kakum National Park, a 375sq km reserve covered in tropical rainforest, where the group braved a 350m-long canopy walk. The tour bus also swung by Cape Coast Castle, originally built by Swedish traders and later used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Used to hold captive locals before they were loaded onto ships headed for the Americas and the Caribbean, the building was a poignant reminder of Ghana’s turbulent past.

For Jodie Van Der Velden from Josophan’s Fine Chocolates, like most on the trip, the experience gave weight to an ingredient many take for granted.

“Most of the world consumes chocolate without thinking twice. However, the small decisions we make, for example, the decision to use ethically-sourced cocoa products, can make big differences in other peoples lives, dramatically changing their quality of life for the better.”


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