In the first week of April 2013, I, Chocolatina (chocolatier at Xocolatl Artisan Chocolates and Cafe), was one of the only 45 lucky Australian chefs, bakers, pastry chefs, chocolatiers and industry professionals to be sent over to Ghana by F.Mayer Imports. The trip was a five-day tour visiting cocoa plantations and chocolate production facilities. I would like to share with you my journey and it begins on a hot sunny day in Accra, the capital of Ghana.
On the 2nd of April we arrived. It was hot, very hot. Driving through the city for the first time was very different to most places I have travelled to before. In Mexico and Brazil there is a stark difference between the poor and the wealthy but here there was no difference, everyone was living in poverty.
After we settled into our rooms at the hotel a small group of us decided to explore the food markets of Accra. We had a driver from the hotel who was happy to take us. We parked next to the market where there were approximately 4 outside public toilets with seven ladies standing out the front, hand washing their clothes… I guess this was the closest water supply to their homes.
The market was…interesting. With our cameras out, we approached the locals. Some were very happy to have their pictures taken, others not so much. One lady even chased us asking what the photo will be used for! The markets were chaotic; there were people everywhere buying and selling all sorts of food items. The most common items we saw included several different varieties of chilies, dried fish, dried spices and vegetables.
The next day we woke up very early in the morning as we had a long drive to the cocoa farm in the Eastern region of Ghana called Tafo. Most of the plantations in Ghana are only 1-2 acres but the farm we visited was exceptionally large with 260 acres of plantations. The owner of the farm was very happy to talk to us. He has had the farm for over 15 years, and he has two wives and ten children. He was a very busy man indeed!
More importantly - the cocoa… The magical beginnings of the cocoa pod start as a small beautiful white flower that grows in small bunches off the trunk or the branch of the tree. This flower then forms into a cocoa pod, amazing, I know! Depending on the variety, the pods are different colours. We saw mostly a hybrid of cocoa varieties that were green before turning yellow when ripe. The process is long - there are only two harvests a year. After the pods are harvested they are split in half where each pod holds between 30 to 60 beans covered in a white pulp. We were able to eat the pulp from around the bean; it had a fresh fruity flavour that to me tasted like a pleasantly sour mango. This pulp is imperative to the next stage of cocoa as it contains all the sugars that begin the process of fermentation.
The next step: Fermentation. On this particular farm (as there are many different ways to ferment the beans) there was a three-leveled apparatus where the beans begin on the top level and over the next four to six days, the beans are moved from one holding basket to the next. The fermentation is an exothermic process (meaning that the chemical process lets off heat). Three kilos of fermenting beans can reach up to 51°C. The process also changes the colour of the beans from purple to dark brown due to an enzyme that is released during this process.
After the beans have travelled down the fermentation baskets, they are then moved to the drying racks where they sit for a few days to ensure there is no moisture left, if there is moisture the bean can still germinate and grow mould.
The beans are now ready for the farmer to pack into hessian bags and sell off to the local buying centre.
There is a husk on the beans that is taken off and ground down to make a soup for the family on the farm! The leaves of the cocoa tree can also be eaten as it is cooked whole and eaten or then ground into a paste.
Next stop- the buying centre! In Ghana, the Cocoa Board sets the price of the beans for the farmers, which is influenced by the rest of the globe. This is a great way for farmers to know exactly how much they will be getting for a certain amount of beans, depending on how good their crop was for the year, before they even harvest. The set price is for one full year beginning in September. The buying centre is where the beans are graded. The grades are printed onto the bags, and then sold onto manufacturers.
We then went to visit a school in Tafo. Barry Callebaut (the couverture chocolate company we use) funds this school as it is in an area where there are quite a few cocoa plantations. The school relies a lot on funding from Barry Callebaut as the current facilities are very basic. At school we asked why all the students, both boys and girls, have shaved heads. It is a law for all schools within Ghana to have shaved heads so that there are no issues with lice.
With 70% of all cocoa coming from Africa, CRIG (Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana) has an extremely important role of ensuring farmers have adequate support to grow their crop to the fullest potential. CRIG not only look into cocoa, they also do research with other products such as coffee, cashew, kola and sheanut. CRIG has a view to increase the yield of cocoa within Ghana. It mainly looks at pest and disease control but it also looks into fermentation, soil fertility and agricultural practices.
The following day, we went to the Barry Callebaut factory. This is where the chocolate is processed into a cocoa liquor or cocoa mass. There was the most amazing smell of chocolate in the air, at that point in time I felt at home! We were given a tour of all of the huge machinery to process the cocoa beans into cocoa liquor, which is not as simple of a process as I once thought. Grinding cocoa beans into a paste cant take that long right? Apparently yes! There are a number of machines: the first starting with the removal of the beans from the bags that ensure there are no stones or twigs or other foreign material from the farms. The next stage is removing the husk from the bean. Finally, the beans go through a couple of grinding stages.
Did you know? That Ghana is the second largest cocoa producing country in the world with the first being the Ivory Coast in Africa.
We visited the Quality Control Division (QCD) of COCOBOD. This is where all the hessian bags are kept in huge warehouses. When the warehouse is full it holds up to 50,000 tonnes of bags of fermented and dried cocoa. There was a small room were all the hessian bags were tested. A sample of 100g of each bag has five tests they must undergo. These include: humidity - where there must be no more than 7.5%; the size; defected beans (abnormal shape or flat); mouldy (no more than 3%) and lastly for insect infestation. After these tests are completed, the beans are graded into four areas: grade A, grade B, subnormal (where the beans are sent back to the farmer and reprocessed) and lastly rejected.
Our next day was a city tour with a lot less cocoa. We made our way to the Kakum National Park where there is 375 square meters of tropical rainforest. The rainforest is known for the ‘canopy walkway’ that consists of seven long bridges hanging over the canopy of the rainforest. The bridges are 330m long altogether and are at a height of 40m above ground. This was incredibly nerve-racking for me as I soon discovered a problem; I have a fear of heights! Without a safety harness I slowly walked the creaky bridges… this was terrifying!
We then went off to Elmina Castle. This was very interesting but at the same time very overwhelming and incredibly sad. This European building was built in 1482. By the 17th century, its main purpose was to hold slaves before they were shipped to the New World. Although the view was beautiful, it also evokes the image of the slaves as they passed through the ‘door of no return’ as they embark on their horrible journey into unknown territory.
Our last day… Another day of city highlights. At this point of the journey, I have to be honest… I missed chocolate and cocoa! We drove around Accra city and visited a number of places. The Centre for National Arts and Culture, popularly known as Arts Centre was our first stop for shopping for Ghanaian hand-crafted items like clothing, kente cloth, leather sandals, masks, drums and lots and lots of beads. There were three rooms filled with cases of brightly colourful beads and I took great delight buying jewellery for my mum and sister. Next in line was the Independence Arch and Black Star Square, Accra’s ceremonial grounds and then off to the Artists Alliance Gallery and the unique Casket Making Shops which I found odd. These shops make various funeral caskets with designs based on the deceased persons profession in the belief that they continue their profession in the other world. Yes, I even found a cocoa pod casket... I think this is where my future lies, creepy I know!
We come to the end of my amazing, sensational, inspirational and educational trip. I would like to give a huge thank- you to the companies that made this all happen; F.Mayer and Barry Callebaut Ghana for giving me the amazing opportunity to experience and understand the wonderful world of cocoa. This is one experience I will never forget.