“I’ve got this Sol Feeling”

“I’ve got this Sol Feeling”

I’ve got this Sol Feeling

Where have I been hiding? Well, after the recent birth of my darling baby boy and becoming a mum, I’ve been trying to adjust and change the sail of this ship’s—aka Chocolate Artisan’s—sailing life.

I’ve skipped a couple of editorials, written a lot of emails at 3am during early-morning feeds, and watched the clock while trying to squeeze in more like never before. Welcome to motherhood and being a small business owner, I think.

Luckily I had nine months to make some plans to manage this new newness. It’s not like we in this industry ever had nine-to-five hours anyway, hey! Taking flights around the country and overseas has been the norm for me for so long; I’m used to working long days with no breaks and giving beyond 100 per cent to the cause.

It’s been since November since my last work trip to Melbourne, which was a walk in the park compared to the two return trips to Europe I did while pregnant with a letter in tow from the obstetrician clearing me to fly (they weren’t going to let me on the plane at 33 weeks), but the show must go on!

Well the show has just taken its maiden voyage as a mum and it was off to the Solomon Islands (Sols, for short) for Sol Choc, a chocolate festival in late April early May, now in its third year of running.

I had packed the breast pump, half a suitcase of tools and of course kilos of handcrafted chocolate. The trip was only four nights away from baby, but at four months old, that was enough for the both of us. Brave, some said, but I knew the cause was bigger than us and this small amount of time was going to give way more than I could ever measure.

We had been planning for this for quite some time and had a lot of good work to do. What got me there was being asked to give a celebrity chef demonstration onstage and teach a side event invitation-only workshop.

No problem!

I took the opportunity to donate myself and get over there to see things for myself “on the ground” for the first time. To me, this is a new life project I started a couple of years ago to help the Pacific cacao industry blossom into a healthier economic industry for the people and future, leading with cacao under our belts, and followed by a few other culinary commodities like coconut and ngali nut. I would like this list to grow. Ideally it would be great if we could set up the locals to do everything themselves but the Solomon Islands are still running off diesel-powered generators that are on the blink at the best of times, so we aren’t at that stage yet, but we have vision for great things and are currently working at what is possible now. So, whatever we can’t do there happens in Aus.

My input was ignited and joined by Brian Atkin, director of South Pacific Cacao/Makira Gold who, like me, has completely self-funded his efforts into helping the people make a sustainable future for themselves with cacao and co. you could say in short.

We were introduced by Nat of Madre Chocolate in Hawaii, another craft industry chocolate maker who has also travelled to the Sols, to help the locals develop their practices with cocoa.

Solomon Islands is on the list of least developed countries in the world and the spread of the population across an archipelago of almost 1,000 islands in the South Pacific with limited communications makes it very hard to implement systemic programs to uplift the country out of poverty.

Up to 25,000 households in Sols are estimated to be involved in cocoa production; that’s about 26 per cent of the population. This makes cocoa one of the best opportunities in Sols to improve rural livelihoods.

Income for most cocoa farmers is very low due to poor quality beans, which are dried on wood-fuelled smoke driers. This means the only market suitable for the beans is the bulk market. I found all the beans I have used in making craft chocolate from scratch to be fantastic quality, but that’s due to Brian sourcing this for me from the small but growing number of sun-drying farmers (being half Aussie and half from the Solomon Islands helps Brian with his cocoa-based social enterprise at times).

Brian and the aid programs are working hard to turn the tide with converting farmers from drying their beans with smoke driers to sundried beans, which gives farmers and their families better prices with access to specialty cocoa and chocolate markets. But, as I can attest to, the South Pacific storms can come in at any time, which makes drying in the sun a real challenge.

One innovation we saw at the festival was a solar bubble drier, which can dry up to one tonne of cocoa inside a long plastic enclosure using solar powered fans. It still dries beans during cloudy and rainy weather. Apparently this was the first time one of these has been setup in the Pacific but no doubt they will be widespread within a few years once they are well tested in the rainiest part of the Sols—the island Makira.

The objectives of the cocoa and chocolate festival (now rebranded Sol Choc) is to commend those in the cocoa industry for their hard work, to increase awareness of different markets for cocoa (including premium and super premium), to provide an opportunity for cocoa farmers/buyers to learn together and to network.

One of the findings from last year is that a number of the top 10 winners had a production of 500 kilograms a year or less. In order to ensure they can make as much money as possible from their cocoa, we started promoting simple/practical value-added products. This year, this was tied in with celebrity chefs to get people thinking about the different ways that cocoa can be used and enjoyed in the domestic market.

I made a granita from the fresh pulp of the fruit known as the mucilage; it was amazing and I have included a recipe and photo here. Also, I made a brittle with local roasted cacao nibs, local roasted coconut, and local roasted ngali nut, which everyone enjoyed.

I then made a tasty spread with the same ingredients and added local coconut cream. Something I noticed while there was the common use of cocoa powder, which is 100 per cent imported at this stage—something that seems totally pointless to me, considering what they have on their own doorstep. One of the things we’d like to make happen locally is cocoa powder and cocoa butter I’ve got this Sol Feeling.

Yes, there were all the fun things one could want in a chocolate festival. Lots of chocolate tastings, visiting farms and industry-related presentations. The guest chefs and judges came from Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

The festival was opened by the Prime Minister of the Solomons in a dazzling
ceremony with very talented local performers and the closing event was typified by a sudden thunderstorm that nearly lifted the roof off the venue.

Farmers submitted their best samples of sundried cocoa beans, which were judged by the panel of chocolate makers. The panel had their work cut out for them with over 150 samples to evaluate. After a number of shortlistings, the top ten were made into chocolate to be taste tested with the top three farmers taking home some great prizes.

Overall it was such a positive opportunity that I think everyone involved learnt something new, shared ideas and got to watch the fruits of their labour shine together I’ve got this Sol Feeling.

I’ve got this Sol Feeling

Next year, the fourth Sol Choc will be even bigger and better than this one. This was the first time they opened the event to the public and I am sure it won’t be the last.

One of my highlights was meeting with the farmers that we name our chocolate after, along with teaching the woman and youth workshop for local entrepreneurs and meeting all the people working with the aid programs that support the whole thing coming together.

Do you know where your chocolate comes from? Is it sustainable? Is it ethical? We all have the opportunity to make a difference when we all work towards something better for our future and it can be as simple as a bar of chocolate. That’s got my Sol feeling!

Thanks very much to Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for sponsoring the event through their local aid program in the Solomons “Strongim Bisnis” and their Pacific aid program “PHAMA” which is co-funded with NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT).

My travel expenses to Sols was funded by Strongim Bisnis in my role as Celebrity Chef for the festival.

I’ve got this Sol Feeling

Cacao Fruit Granita

Remove pulp from fresh cacao pods, weigh flesh. Place pulp in a bowl with 20% water and 5% white sugar of total fruit pulp weight. Massage with hands really well, trying to squeeze through the water and sugar. Cover and leave overnight in the fridge. In another bowl lined with a colander scoop the pulp into the colander and stir with a strong spoon and the juice will come through the holes leaving the seeds. Remove the juice and freeze. Once frozen, grate with a fork and serve. Enjoy!

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