In one of life's not-so-small miracles, chocolate really does grow on trees. And in the rainy hills of the Dominican Republic, this is especially true. Serious Sweets recently ventured to this lush island with French chocolatier Valrhona for a tour of their partner farms and a crash course in the DR cacao landscape.
Chocolatiers like Valrhona are looking to this Caribbean nation not only for the chocolate flavors it can produce—think classic notes of yellow fruit and bright acidity—but to the great potential that exists here for cooperating with farmers and exploring agricultural experiments. And though Valrhona works as directly as possible with cacao producers around the world, there are a few specific farms, such as El Pedregal in Venezuela, and Loma Sotavento in The Dominican Republic, that they've actually bought a stake in. These partnerships allow Valhrona to use the farms as living agricultural laboratories for the earliest stages of the cacao-to-chocolate process—they're as much farms as they are experimental sandboxes for agronomists and, literally, tastemakers.
We visited Loma Sotavento, a farm in the northeastern region of Maria Trinidad Sanchez, to see one of these farmlabs firsthand. From the vibrant gold-to-red spectrum of ripe cacao pods to the surrounding community of farming families and the cultivation of other plants complementary to cacao production like banana and cassava, this region felt rich and abundant in many ways. Modestly scaled at only 20 hectares, the 300 meter-altitude Loma Sotavento made an ideal setup for education and experimentation—just so long as one was careful not to slide down the muddy hillside.
As global cocoa production goes, Valrhona is a comparatively small player. The rest of the cacao world is making chocolate chips and other low-grade chocolate items that don't require a tremendously high bar in the way of quality. Likewise, much of the cocoa grown in the Dominican Republic is relegated to the moniker of so-called "Sanchez" cocoa: commodity-grade chocolate suitable for cheap candy, store-brand cookies, and the like. Working alongside its local cocoa partner Rizek, Valrhona saw not just an opportunity to cultivate another unique flavor profile in its single origin estate category, but a chance to develop a better understanding and increase the potential of chocolate products derived from these leafy Caribbean slopes.
And like many outside producers investing in direct relationships with farms at the origin level (this notably also happens in coffee, where the chain of agriculture and production is quite similar to cacao), Valrhona is looking at their DR setup as a biodiverse model they hope to apply to other regions. They're focusing on organic cultivation that's absent of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. When grown in the shade of other fruits and trees, the cacao is said to produce flavors that evoke the various fruits planted around it, creating a signature terroir that is also natural.
After actual cultivation, growth, and drying of the beans, the biggest farm-level factor affecting chocolate flavor is fermentation. At Loma Sotavento, experimental, time-staged fermentation boxes allow cacao beans to oxidize and ferment at different rates—in this example, the boxes were staged at two, four, and six days' fermentation time—which will then produce different flavors once roasted and processed into chocolate. Valrhona's agronomists are after the answers to questions like, what is the relationship between acidity and fermentation time? What about moisture content? The proving ground at this farm, and their other experimental relationship farms, allow them to attenuate all of these factors to get closer to the answers—and flavor profiles—they're seeking.
From the fermentation stage, the cacao beans are then sent overseas to France, travelling overseas in a two to three week journey. The beans are then roasted and processed into chocolate, and tasted by Valrhona's tasting committees, which consist of a minimum of ten people and can be up to twenty-five. It is this committee of palates and cacao roasters that ultimately bring out what the chocolatier has decided to express in any particular chocolate. In the case of this particular farm, the Grand Cru de Terroir chocolate they've named Taïnori for the indigenous Taïno peoples is a subtle, 64% dark mix of yellow stonefruit and nutty notes, with a warm finish. (A second Dominican Republic chocolate, the Bahibe Lactée, was released as well.)
Click through the slideshow above to see highlights from the cacao farms. And stay tuned for part two of our chocolate origin explorations, where we cover the highlights of tasting and terroir, region to region.