SUNDAY 9th MAY:
It’s 4.45am on a Sunday and I’m running for a train to the airport with two backpacks strapped to me, trying to eat a banana and call a cab company. Uber have failed me!
I make the flight and set off on my most ambitious Chocolate Adventure yet. Having spent most of the last few years exploring some of the best chocolate shops in far-flung corners of the world, and having worked as a chocolatier, it was now time to get down to basics, to go right back to the beginning and discover what really goes in to creating one of the worlds’ most popular treats.
We gathered at the Hotel Barcelo in Managua, capital of Nicaragua. There were 13 of us in total, from various areas of the cacao industry around the world, all on an educational cacao research trip for the next week; the Academia de Cacao, to learn the ins and outs of cacao production from the inspiring people of Ingemann Fine Cacao, who’s passion for chocolate can be seen right down the the farmers they help, the bees they keep and the cacao seedlings they gently nurture into new trees and graft stocks.
After a night in a delicious hotel with much needed sleep in an amazing bed, we were on the road and heading for Matagalpa, on a long, eye opening and hugely informative road trip along the Pan American Highway.
Nicaragua is one of, if not the safest place in Central America, nestled right in the center of the long thin bit that joins North and South America together, it is not yet a tourist hotspot, and until only recently has begun making a name for itself on the chocolate map. We met with Margaux the organiser of the trip and Lars, owner of Ingemann Fine Cacao and Ingemann Organic Honey.
Arriving at the Ingemann facility we were first given a tour of their honey factory, including extraction plant, samples for Germany (they are most strict on quality control, as China has been known to produce fake honey and the US buy it, the US also only consider 75% Organic enough to be certified Organic, where as Germany insists on 100%). It’s worth it for the higher quality.
After exhausting all opportunities in the Nicaraguan honey industry, Ingemann branched into Cacao as well, and that is where Nicaraguan based Cacao Fino whom Ingemann purchased in Dec 2012 comes into play. Now Ingemann export over 79% of all Nicaragua’s chocolate, dealing in the fine quality cacao, but also understanding there is a time and a place for other cacao, such as the medium flavour cacao that is ideal for their nursery root stocks, onto which they graft fine flavour cacao stems and send on to farmers to use. Ingemann then commit to 20-30 years of purchasing from said farm/s, ensuring they always buy ‘wet mass at farm gate’ for 25% more than the New York Stock Exchange value – see, getting political here, but it’s important!
After our tour of the honey plant we then move onto chocolate, with a brief tour of the facility; discovering the results of different fermentation lengths and drying methods have on the flavour of the cacao beans (set up as various different experiments by Dutch Copenhagen University student, Julie). We’ll be back here on Friday to get hands on with the fermenting, checking, drying and sorting, so for now, it’s time to try our hand at root stock grafting.
The grafting technicians show us how, a quick flick of the knife a few times to part the bark on the stock, finely trim your branch node to size, stretch out your plastic so you can wrap your graft up to keep bacteria out and your done. Easy, right? Harder than we thought when we had a go ourselves. Technicians graft a fine flavour cacao sample taken from the heirloom or mother tree in the forests and graft onto a standard root stock – usually forastero due to its robustness and reliability. Once grafted and sprouted (usually takes about 15 days) the plants are then left in the nursery for a further few months until they are strong enough to be transported out. At which point, these saplings will be sent out to the various farms that Ingemann work with and technicians will regularly be on hand to support the farmers in getting their new saplings to fruition and maintain a healthy stock and produce. In addition to this they will teach the farmers effective pruning methods to ensure they can get maximum crop from their efforts. Improving the farmer’s quality and quantity of product, thus increasing their overall profit and livelihood.