Our trip to Uganda
Last week, myself and Cam had the opportunity to visit Uganda with chocolate experts and chocolate makers from around the world. We visited the region of Bundibugyo, where co-operatives of farmers are aiming to supply the specialty cacao market and move away from supplying bulk commodity markets. It was the most eye-opening and educational trip that has left us with an even greater appreciation for the incredible farmers. We are inspired and invigorated to keep making the best chocolate we can to spread the word of craft chocolate.
The process of harvesting, fermenting and drying for the specialty market is very different than that for the bulk market. There are many more steps, science and work involved – resulting in a far superior product which is worth above double that of bulk cacao. This difference in income to farmers is huge and really improves their livelihood.
The complexity of correctly fermenting and drying cacao is overwhelming!
We were so lucky to have been travelling with Zoi Papalexandratou who is a cacao fermentation expert and consultant at Zoto Chocolate. Her role is to optimise the quality of cacao by educating farmers on proper fermentation protocols (including how to develop vital flavour precursors), pruning and sustainable farming techniques to increase yield, harvest and post harvest practices.
We have so much to tell you! Let's start with where cacao comes from and what happens before it arrives at our workshop...
Cacao is a fruit and grows in hot and humid countries 20 degrees north and south of the equator. I squealed when I saw my first pod on the tree! The pods can vary in colour depending on the genetics and phenotype of the crop. Both of these trees are on the same farm.
The ripe pods are harvested and collected to a central point to be opened. In the Bwamba farms the pods are bashed with blunt objects (not cut with a knife) to protect the delicate seeds inside. It was so amazing to see inside the pod.
Cacao beans are the seeds of the fruit. They are surrounded by pulp (the fruit) that we had the opportunity to eat from a selection of pods with different genetics. Each tasted so different – from green apple, to mango and pineapple. It was so sweet and delicious but this flavour has not transferred to the very astringent seed yet.
The farmers scoop the flesh and seeds out of the pods one by one and collect them together in buckets – ready to be taken to a fermentation location.
We opened the seeds to reveal this incredible purple colour of the unfermented bean. We learned that "Ruby cacao" is not a new cacao genetic and is in-fact a (very well-marketed) different processing method on some of the cheapest beans available. To get the Ruby colour in the finished product the unfermented beans are rinsed with a citric acid (or similar) and ground to a purple powder that is combined with white chocolate. Although the shady marketing practices of "big cacao" should not be a surprise, we couldn't believe it! .
The fermentation process is the most critical processes in which the cocoa bean (the seed) develops flavour. It is an incredibly complex process with 3 microbial groups in succession/overlapping. During the fermentation of the sugary pulp the PH and temperature changes creating biochemical changes within the seed.
We learned about the two different ways to ferment: heap and box.
Heap fermentation (left) is when the wet beans are wrapped in banana leaves in a 300kg pile. We were so sad to hear that this process is often done at the farmer's home to prevent theft. For the specially developed Bwamba process the beans are mixed vigorously every 2 days and the banana leaves are replaced every time. Total fermentation time is 7 days..
Box fermentation (right) is when the beans are placed in wooden boxes to ferment. This is often managed centrally by the co-op or union. The boxes are often made from African teak or eucalyptus wood. There is typically 4 levels of cascading boxes. The beans are vigorously turned to make sure the ferment is even before being transferred into the next box. Each box becomes inoculated with good bacteria specific to each stage of fermentation which propels the fermentation process and production of essential acids.
Once successfully fermented, the beans are laid out to dry. This is either done on tarpaulins or on sheltered drying beds if the co-operative has access to them. This process is also carefully managed to develop optimal flavour. (Above Right) Grand opening of Bwamba union drying beds.
The beautiful ladies of Bwamba. The Bwamba co-operative is 80% woman. The scenery, weather and even the smells of Uganda were out of this world! The walk to the van was magnificent – across this bridge that had only been built the day before.
It's amazing to appreciate the amount of process that goes into specialty cacao before the beans reach our factory where there is nearly two weeks worth of processes! We have an even further appreciation for the struggles of farming cacao and how important it is to buy cacao that a fair price has been paid.