When you think of the country of Madagascar, your thoughts are inevitably going to go to a DreamWorks animation film featuring talking animals and dancing lemurs, but actually your thoughts should go more along the lines of Willy Wonka. Not only does Madagascar make special chocolate, they do it in a fashion that would make even the great Wonka connoisseur drool a bit. The peculiar climate, geography, and pristine location of Madagascar has landed it in just the right place to develop quite the chocolatey history, culture, and variety, and while few people are in tune to the considerable cacao coming from the region it’s a story that deserves to be told.
From the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the streets of Brooklyn in New York City, one can find chocolate originating from the island of Madagascar. But before we trace the chocolate’s journey from one shore to another, we have to understand its passage through time and history first.
The story of modern chocolate history begins in the 1500s with the Spaniard Conquistador Hernan Cortes’ discovery of the substance in the court of Aztec emperor Moctezuma. There’s no telling how long the indigenous populations of South America had been utilizing cacao beans prior to Cortes coming, but it had undoubtedly been long enough for the plant to fill a very prestigious role in the culture and society.
Granted, they weren’t buying houses with chocolate bars and cupcakes, but they did use unprocessed cacao beans as currency. That’s rights: rabbits, a house, or a prostitute could all be acquired and bartered for with the right amount of cacao beans. However, using the beans for consumption was something only the elite and wealthy could afford, thus a drink derived from the cacao beans was a suiting gift to welcome the Spanish Conquistador in the eyes of their Mesoamerican hosts.
While the cacao bean and its use in a drink perplexed the Spanish visitors, it did catch their eye and fancy well enough to earn it a spot on the ships back to the Old World, and from there the cogs began to turn on the modern chocolate enterprise. Granted, there were still quite some steps left to be had until the commodity would mature into its modern day delectable form, let alone reach the shores of Madagascar.
To make a long story short, once in Europe, it wouldn’t be until the late 1800s that a series of Dutch and Swiss think tanks began to experiment with cacao beans and its mixtures to produce milk chocolate in the 1860s. Soon, European nations across the board began to seek the sweet product of processed cacao beans and invest in cacao plantations in their colonies abroad.
Specifically in Madagascar, the trade didn’t become solidified there until the 1930s. Though the exact details of the arrival of the beans to the island are somewhat blurred, sources seem to indicate its first arrival in the 1890s, likely from the Philippines, and after many failed attempts, French entrepreneur Millot stablished a 50,000 hectares plantation in the Madagascar region of Ambanja in 1920 giving a firm root and future to Madagascar’s cacao trade.
While the Madagascar variety of cacao bean became established and began to commercialize in the 1930s, this is anything but a rags to riches story, at least not in the form of global dominance. You won’t find Malagasy plantations topping production charts and smashing records, but what you will find at work is the age old adage of quality over quantity. Simply put, Madagascar chocolate is special, rare, and a pristine delicacy for artisan chocolate enthusiasts everywhere. This esteemed reputation for cacao from Madagascar has been established due to the distinct varieties found in the country afforded by the particular climate and position of the island.
The Ambanja region, where most the cacao in Madagascar is grown, is found in the north western region of the island, and the secret to Madagascar’s great crop lies in its nutrient dense soil. Consistent seasonal flooding in the area means the soil naturally turns itself and stays enriched, and because the soil’s quality remains so high 365 days a year, Madagascar is likewise able to yield its cacao all year round.
Not only does Madagascar yield its cacao year round, but it thrives in an abundance of the Criollo cacao variety. Of the three main chocolate varieties Criollo is the rarest and most unique, making Madagascar a virtual chocolate gold mine. While one would also find plenty of the more common Forestero variety there, as well as Trinitario cacao, the fact that the rarest variety thrives in plenty there sets Madagascar apart and a well sought after source for quality chocolate.
Madagascar’s unique ability to produce rare and pristine varieties of chocolate has landed it in a peculiar spot in the global chocolate production world. As previously mentioned, you won’t find Madagascar’s name on top of any of the production charts. In fact, Madagascar only produces 1% of the world’s cacao and totals in at only about 4,500 tons of chocolate a year. Compare that to the 172,000 tons that Belgium produced in 2012 and your left with a pretty stark contrast.
The key is that the majority of Madagascar’s 1% contribution to the world’s cacao is comprised of rare variations coveted by artisan chocolate crafters and producers who are looking to produce something a little more unique than your average chocolate bar. Madagascar chocolate provides a unique taste to the chocolate world that steers away from the normal bitterness found in common cacao and accomplishes a more citrusy and fruity flavor without the substantial amounts of sugar normal varieties depend on the sweeten their tastes.
Not only does Madagascar provide a type of chocolate hard to come by through the mass producers of the industry, the chocolate comes via hands and methods that add to its rustic and artisan nature. Cacao plantations in Madagascar are still, for the most part, family owned and operated utilizing the same grass roots methods that have been around since the cacao plantation’s conception in the 1900s. The above methodology produces a mindset of Malagasy pride around their chocolate production that infiltrates every aspect of the trade resulting in quality chocolate coveted by chef’s, connoisseurs, and chocolate enthusiasts everywhere.
Quality over quantity continues to be what sets Madagascar’s citrusy and fruity chocolates apart from the bitter alternatives that much of the world is accustomed to. From Paris to New York this small island continues to impress, and if its current contribution to the trade is any indication of the future, we may have a lot more to look forward to when it comes to Madagascar and chocolate.
By David Gilbert
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20810103 (Belgian chocolate numbers)
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