ALOR GAJAH, Melaka: Freshly harvested cocoa pods at a farm in Melaka will leave one in awe of nature's wonders.
They came in colourful hues, ranging from deep purple to bright yellow, each containing seeds that will be made into chocolates.
Clutching a pile of ripe cocoa pods in his arms, farm owner Simon Ting Shu Shin emerged from a shack, his work boots crunching against the dried leaves beneath his feet.
The 31-year-old marketing graduate has been cultivating cocoa trees since 2016 on the 8ha land belonging to his parents, when they decided to chop down old, unproductive rubber trees.
“I advised them to plant crops with higher returns. I saw the potential of cocoa because Malaysia is relying largely on imported cocoa beans to meet our chocolate export demands,” he told CNA.
Initially starting with six local cloned varieties - cocoa trees derived from selected hybrids - Mr Ting has since successfully cultivated 22 cocoa clones in the span of three years. Ten of these clones contain foreign cocoa varieties. Today, a total of 6,500 cocoa trees stand on his farm.
Curiously, coconut trees were interspersed among the cocoa trees, their fronds towering over their shorter neighbours. This cultivation method is crucial because cocoa plants do not thrive under direct sunlight. At the same time, this has resulted in cocoa beans with a hint of coconut, thanks to cross-pollination of the two crops.
“Customers who roast my cocoa beans reported that the beans have a distinctive aroma, which reminds them of gula melaka (palm sugar made from coconut),” Mr Ting said.
Such is the charm of cocoa planting that has motivated Mr Ting and other cocoa farmers.
In Malaysia, cocoa cultivation covers 12,000ha of land, primarily at Ranau in Sabah, Kota Samarahan in Sarawak, as well as Jerantut and Kuala Lipis in Pahang.
The country, as the second-largest processor of cocoa seeds in Asia last year, raked in RM5.55 billion (US$1.3 billion) of export earnings via the cocoa sector. However, 2014 data from the Malaysian Cocoa Board stated that some 99 per cent of the cocoa beans used were imported, and this may stymie the growth of the cocoa sector in the long run.
A recent growing trend of bean-to-bar chocolates, where chocolate makers source cocoa beans directly from farmers to be made into single-origin chocolates, is shining a spotlight on the crop that has lost out to durian and palm over the years.
Recognising the potential of the cocoa sector, the federal government is keen to increase its momentum going forward to promote local beans and improve production, and the local players say they are willing to play a part, too.
EXPERIENCE, EXPERIMENTATION KEY TO INDUSTRY’S GROWTH
Cocoa used to be a popular crop in Malaysia, but that has changed over the years. From 400,000ha in 1990, there were only 11,000ha of cocoa farms in 2012, largely due to competition for land use with oil palm and other high-yielding crops.
But Mr Kok Ah Kau persisted and kept 4ha of his plantation for cocoa.
The 71-year-old has been through it all in his 33 years of cocoa cultivation in Sungai Ruan in Pahang, a village blessed with fertile soil and an abundance of agricultural products.
His son, Mr Nicky Koh Kuan Heng told CNA: “The local cocoa industry was thriving in the 1990s, but many planters switched to oil palm and rubber in 2008. A massive breakout of diseases, known as Vascular Streak Dieback (VSD) and black pod, forced them to give up their cocoa trees.”
“My father persisted to nurse his cocoa trees back to health. Banking on his experience, expertise and perseverance, he nurtured the trees through a difficult period of time,” the younger Koh, 32, recounted.
The senior Koh is highly regarded in the industry, with his farm conferred an exemplary farm status by the Malaysian Cocoa Board in 2006, after he successfully used grafting techniques to stop diseases from spreading.
“We will not give up on cocoa. Most importantly, I believe cocoa price will soar to new heights. There is so much potential for cocoa here,” Mr Koh, who helps his father to manage the cocoa farm, said.
The involvement of young people, like Mr Koh and Mr Ting, in cocoa plantations is an encouraging sign.
Although Mr Ting is new to cocoa farming, he has already carved out a niche with the cocoa beans he produces. When most farmers prefer to sell their wet beans to collectors, he is trying his hand at fermenting the beans.
Cocoa pods, when cracked open with a machete, will reveal pulp-covered seeds with nary a hint of cocoa aroma. The beans will be fermented and then sun-dried.
“I cover the boxes with banana leaves and gunny sacks to contain the heat. When the temperature hits 42 degrees Celsius, fermentation starts,” Mr Ting explained.
After five or six days, the beans are dried in a sheltered shed for another seven days, until their moisture content falls below seven per cent.
“I am fuelled by curiosity. I will sprinkle the beans with starter culture, coconut water, pandan leaves during the fermentation process to see if it makes any difference to the taste of the cocoa beans,” he said.
Growing cocoa in Melaka is especially meaningful for Mr Ting, as it was said that the very first cocoa plantation in Malaysia, which dated back to 1778, was found in the state.
He revealed that he is collaborating with the state government to develop a “chocolate city”.
In addition to using his own beans, Mr Ting also purchases wet beans from small cocoa farmers to make up the volume for bulk fermentation.
“I buy the beans from them at a premium price, and sell my fermented beans at a premium price. I want to show them that if they manage their farms well, they will earn more compared to planting other crops,” he said.
BEAN-TO-BAR MOVEMENT OFFERS UNIQUE BITES
Meanwhile, a handful of artisanal chocolate makers aspire to offer an alternative to connoisseurs.
Their bean-to-bar quest begins with sourcing for single-origin cocoa beans, usually from farms tended by farmers passionate about the crop.
Starting from scratch is what sets these chocolate makers apart from manufacturers who make confections out of processed ingredients purchased from grinders.
“For bean-to-bar, we don’t go to the grinder. We go straight to the farms and buy the beans,” Mr Jerome Penafort, director of Benns, said.
The Singaporean brand with a production base in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, only started experimenting with bean-to-bar chocolates about two to three years ago, after producing commercial chocolates for 20 years.
It found its luck in the Koh family farm. While the terroir of Sungai Ruan is key to the healthy growth of cocoa trees, it is Mr Koh’s expertise and patience in the fermentation process that makes all the difference.
“Fermentation takes six days, and drying takes another six days, depending on the weather. That’s a good 12 days spent. It’s labour intensive and not what most farmers want to do,” said Benns’ director Wilfred Ng.
This is why Benns does not mind paying more for the beans, at two or three times higher than the regular price. “We try to encourage a mindset shift among the farmers. We will buy quality beans from them, so we need them to invest in producing these beans,” Mr Penafort said.
With only two main components - cocoa and sugar - Benns’ Sungai Ruan chocolates offer hints of black currants, raisins and almonds. The tasting notes are most discernible when sampled together with other Benns’ bean-to-bar chocolates made of beans from Anaimalai, Vung Tau, Calinan and Lampang.
Another bean-to-bar company, Seniman Kakao, focuses on single-origin cocoa beans from Malaysia after discovering that the best beans in Vietnam - the Prang Besar clone - originated from Malaysia.
Founded by New Zealander Mr Michael Wilson, the craft chocolate outfit was launched after the company established itself as an artisanal coffee roaster.
The team thought roasting chocolates would be an easy feat with their background in coffee, but the process has proven them wrong. “Only after we started roasting cocoa we realised that it is hard. It is a different thing altogether,” Seniman Kakao managing director Nona Zainuddin said.
They travelled to as far as Sabah, Johor and Pahang in search of the best cocoa beans, and eventually found their favourite in Jengka, Pahang.
“Beans from Jengka have such a unique taste. They are distinguished by its super sweet and fruity taste,” she noted.
Over at Seniman Kakao’s cafe, which opened in February, three single-estate chocolates and draught kombucha made of cacao tea are among the products offered.
Meanwhile, Harriston Chocolatier, which was founded in 2005 and became a leading local chocolatier, dedicated its chocolate boutique in Kuala Lumpur to Malaysian single-origin chocolates.
It currently offers three single-origin chocolates - Titiwangsa, Hulu Selangor, and Raub.
“Besides bringing out complex flavour profiles from the areas of origin, the creation of this series, which involves strong partnership and collaboration, also aims to support local cocoa farmers,” Harriston executive director Ms Queenie Teng said.
COCOA SECTOR PLAYS IMPORTANT ROLE IN COUNTRY’S ECONOMY: MINISTER
Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok, best known as a champion of Malaysian palm oil, was most recently seen promoting made-in-Malaysia cocoa products in parliament.
“Today the Malaysian Cocoa Board has set up an exhibition, and you're all invited to enjoy some chocolates produced in Malaysia, which are even better than the ones you get overseas.”
Fishing out items from a paper bag, she told the lawmakers that they would be given chocolates, toothpaste and soap made of local cocoa beans.
Other innovative cocoa products included oral rinse, shower gel and cosmetics such as lipstick, foundation and loose powder, Ms Kok told CNA.
“The cocoa sector plays a very important role in Malaysia’s economy. It contributed RM1.55 billion to the country’s gross domestic product last year, an increase of 4.6 per cent compared to RM1.38 billion in 2017.”
As for chocolates, there are 51 chocolate and chocolate confectionery manufacturers in Malaysia, whose products are exported to 128 countries and contribute to RM1.03 billion export earnings.
Ms Kok acknowledged that the expansion of the cocoa grinding industry was constrained by the lack of locally produced cocoa beans, while price volatility, competition for land use with other crops, escalating input costs, and pests and diseases are the major factors leading to a decline in interest on cocoa cultivation.
To mitigate these factors, the Cocoa Cluster Development programme was introduced under the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016-2020), she said.
With a “farm-to-table” concept, the programme targets cocoa entrepreneurs in three main areas - Ranau, Sabah; Kota Samarahan, Sarawak; and the Pahang cocoa belt (Raub, Kuala Lipis and Jerantut).
The Malaysian Cocoa Board offers subsidies on pesticides and fertilisers to farmers in the cluster to encourage new cocoa planters and replanting of cocoa trees, its acting-director general Ramle Kasin said.
“The concept of Cocoa Cluster is to encourage single-origin farming. We provide them clones that produce superior quality single-origin cocoa.”
In general, the board provides transfer of technology to assist farmers through workshops, seminars, field visits and training courses on cocoa planting technology and chocolate making.
Handmade chocolate entrepreneurs can also access the board’s development programme, which includes centre of chocolate couverture supply and technical and advisory services, Mr Ramle added.
Encouraged by the government's support, the local players are banding together to form a Malaysia Fine Chocolate and Cacao Alliance to boost the industry’s growth, Mr Ng of Benns said.
“We have gathered some fine chocolate makers, farmers, chefs and chocolatiers to promote fine Malaysian chocolates and the use of local cacao. Hopefully it will be registered in the next few months,” he said.
Additional reporting by Tho Xin Yi