Chocolate: people have been enjoying the versatile ambrosia made from cacao beans for centuries. However, despite possessing an ideal climate, Vietnam has never been known for its production of quality chocolate. Now, thanks to two chocolate-obsessed expatriates, Vietnam has the chance to become an internationally recognized hot spot for gourmet cacao production.
Vincent Mourou-Rochebois talks with a cacao farmer in southern Vietnam. The French-American and his partner, Frenchman Samuel Maruta (below), make "one of the world's best chocolates" in Vietnam , according to the vice chairman of Eurocham in HCMC.
Vincent Mourou-Rochebois, a tall, congenial 39-year-old French-American man, is often seen at Saigon art exhibitions, enthralled in conversation as he shares samples of his company's rich, unadorned chocolate bars.
In just one year, Vincent and his French business partner, Samuel Maruta, visited Vietnamese cacao farms to test for quality, found investors, and established Marou Chocolate Company. And now the duo has begun producing high-quality chocolate from cacao bean and sugar grown exclusively in Vietnam.
However, Marou's founders were mere chocolate novices when they undertook the project. They had to learn the entire process online until they convinced a chocolate specialist from France to visit Vietnam to help.
The company's founders are its toughest critics and they're quite pleased with their product. "Marou chocolate is not only the best I have found in Vietnam, but ranks among the highest quality in the world," said Tomaso Andreatta, an Italian banker and vice chairman of Eurocham in Ho Chi Minh City. The decision to make Marou "single cru" (chocolate made from beans specific to one geographic region) gives the chocolate a distinctiveness Vincent attributes to his own good luck, as well as the skill of the farmers who grow the exquisite cacao beans he buys.
"My favorite type of cacao bean is Ben Tre, which has an aftertaste reminiscent of red berries, with that good crispy consistency characteristic of good pure chocolate," continued Tomaso. "Marou is for serious chocolate lovers or those who wish to become connoisseurs; its high cacao content (over 70 percent), places it on the 'bitter' end of the chocolate spectrum. The experience of eating it, however, is far from bitter, as the taste is always smooth."
Like wine, the different varieties of cacao all have their own subtle nuances, which depend upon the climate, and the soil in which they're grown, as well as the farmer who tends them.
"For example, the taste of cacao in Ba Ria is fruitier. And hope to find something special in Dac Lak Province," Vincent explained. "We live [in Vietnam] and spend a lot of time finding the country's best cacao beans, and sell our chocolate locally, as well as exporting it."
Vincent's chocolate obsession began as an adventure. "The first contact we made with a Vietnamese cacao farmer was in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province. One day Samuel and I headed out on motorcycles into the countryside looking for cacao farms. We didn't know exactly where we were going, but had been told that cacao was grown in that region. We had a map and found our way there, searching the roadside for cacao trees.
"At one point, Samuel saw a sign that read: 'mua hat cacao' (cacao beans trade here). We stopped and met the farmer, who gave us a tour of his farm. It was well kept, with cacao drying in the sun. We left that day with two kilos of his cacao, not really knowing what we would do with it. On the Dong Nai River ferry on our way back to Saigon, I turned to Sam and asked him, "So, what's next?"
"Let's start a company!" he responded. I was pleased, but curious what exactly was running through his head, as my mind was ablaze with ideas," Vincent recalled.
According to Vincent, what makes the chocolate business interesting is getting to know individual cacao farmers. "We are always very well received by the farmers. As our company develops we are able to bring back finished chocolate that was made exclusively from that farmer's cacao beans. It's often the first time they have tasted quality chocolate. Often, they are surprised by the taste which is a far reach from the initially bitter dried cacao bean that we bought from them," he said.
Vincent and Samuel has spent months traveling through Vietnam's southern provinces and central highlands, visiting cacao farmers to find the perfect ingredients for his chocolate.
Vietnamese cacao farms tend to be small scale operations, usually covering less than two hectares. The harvesting process takes three years, but cacao trees can live as long as 30 years.
According to Vincent, 99.9 percent of cacao beans grown in Vietnam are exported, while most local chocolate producers buy processed cacao from outside Vietnam.
For him, the words chocolate made in Vietnam do not connote inexpensiveness, but something produced 100 percent locally with the power to penetrate the demanding markets of Europe and the US.
Marou has just introduced their Ba Ria new chocolate bar (100 grams; VND85,000) to food outlets in Hong Kong and the Salon de Chocolat exhibition in Paris.
Vincent admitted, "At first we didn't know the best way to roast cacao beans. But we had faith in our potential to end up with something we could market successfully."
Vincent and Samuel have spent a year experimenting with different roasting processes, finally settling on the perfect temperature and duration. After they are roasted, cacao beans are ground for two days before sugar is added. It takes about three days for cacao beans to become chocolate bars.
Marou is the first artisan chocolate company based in Vietnam. Through close collaboration with farmers, cooperatives and cacao experts, Marou aims to make Vietnam a world famous origin of gourmet chocolate.
Vincent deals primarily with production, while Samuel handles the company's finances. When it comes to products, all final decisions are made mutually.
Long winding road to Saigon
Vincent studied neuroscience at the University of Michigan, one of the most prestigious public universities in the US and then spent 9 years in Hollywood and London making films and advertisements.
"I always wanted to travel to South East Asia. Then a friend in Vietnam invited me to visit, and in 2010 I traveled through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia."
To Vincent, the film and chocolate industries share similar prerequisites for success: a grand vision and attention to detail.
"Everything about chocolate makes people happy. To me, chocolate brings great memories of my grandmother. I came here looking for something new to do which I would enjoy."
Vietnam's cacao roots
According to Samuel Maruta, the famous scientist Alexandre Yersin, a disciple of Louis Pasteur, introduced cacao to Vietnam in the early twentieth century. But cacao beans failed to become a mainstay of Vietnamese agriculture.
A few trees remained in some Mekong Delta provinces, where the fruit was occasionally enjoyed fresh and sometimes turned into cocoa, but without any significant investment or know-how, cocoa remained a marginal product in Vietnam.
Ten years ago, cacao trees were reintroduced in Vietnam's southern provinces by Dr. Phuoc of the Nong Lam University. Then the emerging cacao industry was given a boost from international trading companies and public development projects like the US Aid and Success Alliance programs.
"Last year the price of cacao in Vietnam reached its highest price: US$3,500 per ton," Samuel informed.
Vincent says what is needed to effectively establish high-end cacao farming in a country where it's never been before, is farmers and consumers appreciating how crucial it is to produce only the highest quality beans.
"If the farmers start to develop sustainable approaches toward cacao production, and use the techniques that the experts are recommending, Vietnam could start producing better cacao quite quickly. If this realization does not occur, and the farmers are content with average quality, Vietnam will miss a great opportunity to distinguish itself," he said. Taking the same exhaustive approach that was adopted for coffee, Vincent explained, will lead to a low quality cacao, destined to be purchased by foreign buyers for dirt cheap. Eventually, the consequence will be the further destruction of the land and rivers via pesticides and fertilizers.
"Fortunately, we are not an industrial-sized chocolate company, in need of thousands of tons of cacao each year. We are about making the finest single origin chocolate and we only need small quantities of high quality cacao to achieve our goals. We dedicate a lot of time and effort to finding quality farmers and the best tasting cacao," he concluded.