Cacao Fermentation with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

Cacao fermentation? What is it all about? How does it affect cacao flavor? Why is it so important?

Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat makes tree-to-bar craft chocolate in Vanuatu from cacao beans that are grown there. This interview is specific to cacao fermentation and Olivier’s experience/knowledge with fermentation in regards to Vanuatu cacao and location. Quite informative!

Victoria Cooksey: Will you give a brief description of the cacao fermentation process?

Olivier Fernandez: The fermentation is the second step in the process right after harvesting. It is said to require a minimum of 80kg of green beans to work and could possibly be done on a smaller scale with heating assistance but our experience in the field led us to use a standard 200kg size box. Below, we believe the critical mass to get to the right temperatures is not achieved. It is common to see farmers ferment into bags or digging holes in the ground covered in banana leaves, however we never experienced favourable tasting results from such practices and always witnessed inconsistency from one batch to the next. The fermentation is a two-step transformation of sugars and fats, with a first step consisting of a transformation of the sweet flesh wrapping every bean into a juice which has to drip through the box and out to create space in-between beans and activate the second phase with air and bacteria coming into play. Beans are braised a few times in the second phase to re-introduce fresh air and revive fermentation. Both the length of the fermentation and number of braising vary based on the genetics, the outside temperatures and the flavours you want to develop.

VC: Why is the fermentation process of cacao important?

OF: To us, fermentation is the most critical step in the whole process, the moment you develop the precursor of the chocolate aromas and magnify the cacao you are working with. Let’s put it that way, you could have the finest genetics to work with, if you miss on fermentation your chocolate will taste terrible. Now you could work with mainstream cacao and master fermentation and end up with beautiful and unique chocolate. We believe it speaks volume on how critical fermentation is, and this is common to both cacao and coffee, with a trend for more and more experimenting on flavours and complexity of both when altering variables in the fermentation process. 

VC: What are some “off” flavors you have noticed if cacao is under fermented? If it is over fermented?

OF: An under-fermented cacao will have a high level of ammonia and literally smell pee, it’s simply terrible and beans will have a typical purple colour when you do your cut test. For the over-fermented, it is more the mouldy flavours, cheese flavours that you will detect. Now you should realize that unless you practice grading upstream in the process, you will have a disparity of size in the beans entering into the box, and it implies that smaller beans will ferment faster than larger ones, thus you will always have a disparity in cut test and what you are looking for is the mass result. In previous interviews we pointed out how the pre and post-harvest handling of beans could make a difference and this is mostly related to what will enter the fermentation box. 

VC: Does the type of material/wood the cacao is fermented in affect the final flavor?

OF: Yes and no. We believe that essences of woods which are prone to release sap in the process should be avoided and so are any type of treated wood like timber used in building or logistic for palettes which are loaded in chemicals for long resistance. At Gaston we used reclaimed wood from trees that were damaged during cyclones. Now telling you that a particular type of wood would give a specific flavour, we believe it would be exaggerated. Not that there is no interaction between the wood and the beans, though we use banana leaves to isolate the beans from the box, but because the magnitude of other variables on the final flavour like the duration or the type of bacteria interacting with the beans in the process is way more important. It is also to be said that we do not work in labs thus each batch has slight variations from the previous one since we have no grip on weather and outside temperatures.

VC: Is the cacao used in your chocolate bars farmed, or is some/all of it wild cacao that is collected?

OF: The Cacao grows in plantations in Vanuatu, you would get wild trees in random places from birds and animals moving seeds but cacao was all man planted in the beginning and plantations are mostly dual crops with a shed from coconut trees. That said, some abandoned plantations would now look a lot closer to wild than a proper plantation and these are still harvested. A main work we are conducting is to restore some old plantations and get them back into operations with a source of income for the farmers. Know that in Vanuatu the amount of man planted areas is small compared to the vast size of tropical lush rainforest. Logging is limited and there is no mining. We do not face issues of deforestation and people have a profound sense of balance and respect for nature. 60% of agriculture in Vanuatu is for subsistence, not commercial.

VC: Did you begin to make chocolate before you worked on fermentation with growers/cacao collectors, or after?

OF: Like most chocolate makers yes. I was blending beans with sugar and other ingredients and enjoyed what came out no matter what or how terrible it was. Always had fun in the process. However, I would say it is only after we went back into the field and spent a few years on fermentation and plantations rehab that we really started to make chocolate. We chose on purpose to settle Gaston in Vanuatu for it is a country that grows cacao and an origin which has yet to make a name for. Work with the trees is the key and we would not conceive to run Gaston in another way. I worked from bags of beans without contact with the farmers in the past and you are bound to make something with the beans no matter what comes out of the bag, and believe me it is not always great. Though I took it as a challenge back in the days, there was a lot of frustration into the process too.

VC: What has been the biggest challenges in educating growers/cacao collectors on how to ferment cacao? (Or did they teach you about fermentation?)

OF: Vanuatu had a commodity type of cacao market before we began our work and fermentation was the least of the concerns with little attention paid to it and a focus on volumes. Prices dropping through the years didn’t trigger any will to invest or maintain plantations, the local market being controlled by a handful of intermediaries shipping overseas for a nice mark-up. It was only after we ran a few workshops on how to ferment cacao and access fine flavour cacao niche market that farmers realized there was an alternative that would drive higher incomes but requiring more work. It didn’t click in every location we tried to develop our program and we were confronted to lack of will and doubts regarding the changes we were introducing in a process that had been ran for decades in a mechanical repetition of harvest, dump beans in boxes until it’s full (even if it meant to fill the box over three or four days of work), turn the beans three times over 7 days and dry them on hot air type of dryers. Indeed, the process is quick and completed in 10 days when our technique requires at least 18 days between harvest, fermentation and drying. We also faced the terrible outcomes of programs destined to help the farmers and led them to believe that sun drying was the key and only requirement to qualify for fine flavour cacao. Organisations would mislead the farmers on prices, pay them a premium over commodity market price that did not capture the additional time and work it take for sun-drying and leading to another drop in efficiency and revenues for the farmers. These were our main challenges and it took three years and a few success stories to materialize to convince more farmers of the good of this work. To restore a scale of pricing, we studied every part of the process, timed and priced it and came up with a transparent system. We pay two to three times above the commodity cacao market and our price is net into the worker’s pocket which means we pay for transport, bags and insurances required to move the beans to our processing facility. 

VC: What has been the most rewarding part of helping others improve the fermentation process?

OF: The farmers are connected to their cacao in a way we didn’t witness before. They now see it as a valuable crop and source of income. We have seen a constantly growing number of farmers wanting to join our program and started with 3 to reach about 120 last harvest. You might find it small and it is the measurable extent of what we can do at our scale. Let’s be honest, we did the work to enhance the quality which serves us as well and we are not here to save the world. Our packaging doesn’t talk about fair trade or socially responsible behaviours, we simply do it. We believe that for as long as we use it as a marketing tool it will not become the norm. Everyone in the bean to bar movement is aware and has good practice. I personally believe it is a signature of this branch of the chocolate industry. At the end of the day what matters is that farmers have a better management of their resources, plant new trees for the future generations and work together to achieve quality that pays. Customers are no fools and they don’t need labels to make the difference.

VC: What has been the most surprising thing you have learned about cacao fermentation?

OF: The way flavours develop based on timing and braising is the key, acknowledging that you have made the necessary work to build functional fermentation boxes in a good environment. You can literally have two to three flavour profiles depending on genetics based on alteration of these two variables.

VC: How does weather affect the fermentation process?

OF: The variations of temperatures between winter and summer harvests are affecting the fermentation, at night the fermentation would slow down in winter forcing us to develop different fermentation profiles to get more even results across batches. The number of braising and days of fermentation has such an influence over the final result that we firmly believe it is the main trigger for variations of flavours from one farm to the next in a same region. The bacteria in the air are pretty consistent across the same region and so are the soils and water precipitations. It is virtually impossible to recreate the same fermenting conditions batch after batch unless it is done in a controlled environment like a lab. This is why we focussed on the process more and developed simple practice that would get consistency. Still we see variations over the seasons and batches.

VC: Have you experimented adding in other inclusions during the fermentation process to add to the final flavor? If so, what are your thoughts on that process? What are your thoughts on double fermentation? Any flavor changes with that style?

OF: On a small scale we experimented inclusion of passion fruit in the process which proves unsuccessful after roasting. Though we had flavoured beans after drying with residual parts of passion fruits, these same flavourful vegetal parts burned in the roasting process which was fairly disappointing and didn’t have the effect we were expecting. There was a remaining of acidity but you would not have been able to distinct from which fruit is was. Now, there are so many variables that we can play with already that inclusions are more of a trial for fun at this point in time. On a similar experience, one of our bags travelled on a ship next to a hand of ripe bananas and loaded in flavours which you could detect later in the process. At the time we are more focused on ageing of nibs to see what can be achieved. If you don’t see it in our range of chocolate, it means our attempt failed or was not convincing enough. 

VC: Is there anything you would like to see change about cacao fermentation in the future?

OF: We would love to see chocolate makers more involved in the fermentation process itself. There is a hype about travelling the world to scout new beans paid at farmer’s gate but little is shared about fermentation profiles. I like the work of plantations like Ingemann who are offering two to three fermentation profiles per genetics, this is future, this is how we’ll keep on bringing new flavours and this is worth for cocoa butter too and the market of milk and white chocolates.

Thank you so much for this interview on cacao fermentation Olivier!

*All photos in this interview were provided by Gaston Chocolat.

For more on Olivier Fernandez check out my interview with him on this blog from last year: https://darkmatterschocolatereviews.com/2019/08/03/interview-with-olivier-fernandez-of-gaston-chocolat/

For additional information on cacao fermentation check out my interview with Luisa Abram on the topic: https://darkmatterschocolatereviews.com/2020/01/18/cacao-fermentation-with-luisa-abram/

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat:

https://www.instagram.com/gastonchocolat/

Victoria Cooksey:

https://www.instagram.com/victoria.cooksey/

Cacao Fermentation with Luisa Abram

Luisa Abram’s bean-to-bar chocolate features bars made from Brazilian wild cacao harvested in the Amazon Rainforest. Besides loving Luisa’s chocolate I’ve also attended her talks on Brazilian cacao the past two years at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle and this lady knows her stuff! I don’t know if she will have a talk next year at the festival, but if she does I highly recommended attending it!

Luisa has been helping to educate and improve on the process of cacao fermentation in Brazil and this blog post is entirely about cacao fermentation.

Why is cacao fermentation important? What is the process? How does it affect the flavor of the cacao beans? Read on to find out more!

*All photos used in this blog were provided by Luisa Abram and were taken from the first ferment on Juruá river, Novo Horizonte Community early 2018.

Luisa Abram checking cacao fermentation in Brazil

Victoria Cooksey: Will you give a brief description of the cacao fermentation process?

Luisa Abram: I can give a rather technical answer, but you can find about all that on the web. Instead, I will say what I smell, sense and see. The cocoa pods are broken and inside them there are several beans covered with a thick white pulp. Beans are thrown in a wooden box and covered with banana leaves. After 24 hours, I remove the leaves and look at them. They should still be green. Then I get my face close to the beans in the box, close my eyes and take a deep breath. My nose searches for a very typical smell, a smell that takes my mind to a bakery, when the baker is making bread! Then I check the temperature of the beans. I don’t use a thermometer. Instead, I stick my arms inside the mass. Should be a bit warm, not hot. I look at the mass to see its colour, should be white still, and to check if little white dots are present at the edges of the box, the coldest part of it. These dots are the yeasts, the same ones responsible for bread making bread. Next couple of days, the beans are moved to another box, so that oxygen can end the anaerobic conditions the beans were subjected until then. The smell changes , from a bread like odour to an alcoholic one. The pulp begins to disappear and the colours of the beans change to ochre. By the fourth day, a light vinegar smell appears in the mass, the temperature reaches close 50 C and you can really feel that the beans are being cooked! More turnings of the boxes are done for the next few days, until the mass loses temperature. This indicates the end of the fermentation. It should last between 5 to 7 days depending on the size of the beans, outside temperature, the size of the mass and how mature the fruits were in the beginning. Continue reading “Cacao Fermentation with Luisa Abram”

Dark Matters Chocolate Reviews Craft Chocolate Awards 2019

I’m amazed that it is already time for the 4th Annual Dark Matters Chocolate Reviews Craft Chocolate Awards! Each year chocolatemakers are upping their game and 2019 was no exception. With so many amazing bars to choose from it was quite the challenge to narrow down the list!

How do I choose winners? Throughout the year I taste hundreds of bars and I keep a running list of bars as nominees for various categories. I look for chocolate that is complex flavor-wise, extra pleasant textures and the representation of single origin and/or inclusion that stands out above the crowd. (It’s important to note that different cacao harvests and separate chocolate bar batches all lead to potential changes in the flavors that come through so the bars tasted in 2019 might taste different than the current 2020 version).

The bars that are eligible to win are ones that I tried in the same year, meaning that the bar might have been made in 2018, but I didn’t actual taste it until the year 2019. Some of these bars are limited editions and some may be part of a makers regular line up.

What disqualifies a bar for being a nominee? As a reviewer, makers sometimes send me bars. (Which is quite a treat! Thank you makers!). If I am given a bar for free then I leave it off the nominees list. I received bars this year that I truly believe deserve awards, but alas, I must continue to stick to my own rule.

And the awards go to…. Continue reading “Dark Matters Chocolate Reviews Craft Chocolate Awards 2019”

Caputo’s Market Private Traditional Icelandic Dinner with Omnom Chocolate

On the eve before Caputo’s 8th Annual Chocolate Festival, which featured the Icelandic Omnom Chocolate, they held their first private media dinner with Kjartan Gíslason, chef, Chocolate Maker and Co-Founder of Omnom Chocolate with a theme of a traditional Icelandic dinner. Also present from Omnom Chocolate were, Thorlakur Thor, Export Manager and Hanna Eiríksdóttir, Marketing Manager. While the meal was presented in an elegant fashion, it managed to also be casual and family style. Traditions, especially family and food traditions, are important to Caputo’s Matt Caputo and Yelena Caputo with this meal captured these sentiments.

Omnom Chocolate Samples at Caputo’s Private Dinner Event Continue reading “Caputo’s Market Private Traditional Icelandic Dinner with Omnom Chocolate”

NW Chocolate Festival Trends 2019

2019 marked the 5th year in a row that I have attended the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA. With each year different trends emerge. This article focuses especially on craft chocolate trends at NW and may or may not be reflective on trends seen elsewhere.

Trend #1: While makers still offer 100% bars I noticed a much greater presence of milk and dark/milk bars this year including an increase in milk chocolate inclusion bars.

Trend #2: For several years various salts have been featured in bars, but this year makers are turning to a range of peppercorns and/or a combo of pepper with salt.

Fu Wan Chocolate’s 62% Bar with White Pepper & Fleur de Sel Bar Continue reading “NW Chocolate Festival Trends 2019”

Interview with Tomomi Kaneko of Sweets ESCALIER bean-to-bar chocolate and pastry in Japan

 

Tomomi Kaneko of Sweets ESCALIER (Pic taken by Victoria Cooksey at the NW Chocolate Festival)

Tomomi Kaneko of Sweets ESCALIER is a great example of someone able to live in multiple chocolate worlds by creating both pastry and his own bean-to-bar chocolate in Niigata, Japan.  Each year at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle I make sure to stop by his booth, which always has such a pleasant energy about it, to pick up bars for both myself and to give as gifts. Tomomi also draws the pictures for the wrappers and each bar comes with the option of various wrappers so the purchaser may pick the one that speaks to them best.

Enjoy this mini-interview!

Victoria Cooksey: When did you start making your own bean-to-bar chocolate and what was your inspiration to start making chocolate? How long have you been making chocolate?

Tomomi Kaneko: Bean to bar started 4 years ago. Until then I made chocolate confectionary with commercial chocolate. At first I tried to make chocolate as a pastry chef. Now I am interested in the possibility of making from cacao beans. The chocolate confectionary itself has been made for 30years. Continue reading “Interview with Tomomi Kaneko of Sweets ESCALIER bean-to-bar chocolate and pastry in Japan”

Interview with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

It’s time to sit back and be whisked away to Vanuatu, an archipelago of around 80 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean, with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat located in Port-Vila the capital of Vanuatu, located on the island of Efate.

I’ve had the chance to try seven bars by Gaston Chocolat thus far, and have enjoyed them all! Their Coconut, Caramelized Nangae Nut and Rum Drummed Raisins bars are tied for my top favs!

If you haven’t tried Vanuatu cacao yet, guess what? Gaston Chocolat is planning to be at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA this year in November! As you dream about trying their chocolate (or if you have and you need some more) enjoy this interview with Olivier!

Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat Continue reading “Interview with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat”

Interview with Albert Chau and Russell Pullan of Fifth Dimension Chocolates

Albert Chau and Russell Pullan are the co-founders of Fifth Dimension Chocolate and I am very pleased to say we get to hear from both of them on the majority of my interview questions! I’ve been lucky enough to try their bonbons twice. The first time, they were on a visit to New York and posted me a box of bonbons from there. The second time the lovely ladies of Dormouse Chocolates brought over a box for me when they were visiting Seattle, WA at the Nov. 2018 Northwest Chocolate Festival. Fifth Dimension bonbons are all amazing, but my favorite is New York with Apple and Calvados Caramel. 

Albert and Russell each came from different professions prior to starting Fifth Dimension Chocolates. Many of their caramels and bonbons are award winning products, they have participated in chocolate judging  with the Academy of Chocolate Awards and they use single-origin chocolates to make their bonbons adding a complex layering of flavors to their creations. While they are based in England, their bonbons are often inspired by their world travels. 

Read on to find out the time it takes to create a new bonbon flavor, how they approach chocolate judging versus eating chocolate for pleasure, tips on growing cacao trees at home, why they find it important to use single-origin chocolate in their chocolates and more!

Russell Pullan and Albert Chau of Fifth Dimension Chocolates

Victoria Cooksey: How did you each get interested in making chocolates?

Russell Pullan: It first started many years ago one Christmas, when I made some simple chocolate truffles as a finale to a big Christmas dinner for friends. The reaction was so positive that I then continued making chocolates as a hobby for many years, experimenting with different styles and fillings as I gained more experience. Then in 2013 I decided that I no longer enjoyed working in the media, and wanted a complete change in career and be my own boss, and the natural step was to go into making chocolates.

Albert Chau: I am pretty adventurous when it comes to food. So when Russell was making chocolates as a hobby, we always ended up talking about unusual flavors and fillings that we could put in chocolate. We just love experimenting with different ingredients when it comes to cooking.  Continue reading “Interview with Albert Chau and Russell Pullan of Fifth Dimension Chocolates”

Baking with Craft Chocolate Part 2

In Baking with Craft Chocolate Part 1 we looked at what is craft chocolate/specialty chocolate, cocoa powder/cocoa butter, using single-origin craft chocolate in recipes and how different origins affect recipe creation and and enjoyed a lovely Maison Marou brownie recipe. 

In Part 2 discover thoughts and inspiration behind baking product line development, how consumers and makers thoughts have changed on chocolate since using craft/specialty chocolate in baked items, where makers would like to see craft chocolate baking grow in the future and so much more!

Be sure to check out Lauren Heineck’s Strawberry Lemon Nib Muffins Recipe and Caroline Schiff’s Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe included in this post. 

Lawren Askinosie, Jael Rattigan, Lauren Heineck, Mackenzie Rivers, Caroline Schiff, Joanna Brennan, Sam Maruta, Steph Shafer and Victoria Cooksey

A huge thank you to Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolate, Sam Maruta of Marou Chocolate, Lawren Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate, Joanna Brennan of Pump Street Bakery and Pump Street Chocolate, chocolatier Steph Shafer of Bella Sophia Chocolates, Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate, Lauren Heineck of WKND Chocolate and Well Tempered Podcast and chef Caroline Schiff of ParadigmSchiff for sharing their time, expertise and experience in regards to the topics involved with craft chocolate products and baking. Continue reading “Baking with Craft Chocolate Part 2”

Baking with Craft Chocolate Part 1

For years I have enjoyed both baking, creating recipes and watching cooking shows especially if the show included chocolate recipes. As the instructions for the recipes often go “use good quality 70% chocolate” and as a viewer I would be all “ohhh chocolate!”.  Nowadays after reviewing hundreds of craft chocolate bars I am left thinking “Yes, but what chocolate and why only 70%?”. Sure, 70% helps standardize recipes with viewers and readers are easily able to locate 70% chocolate to bake with, but thanks to the continuing rise of craft chocolate/specialty chocolate now there is a larger variety of high-quality, single-origin and varied percentages chocolate out there to work with. Many makers now have both their own craft chocolate baking items for both home bakers and professionals to purchase which is elevating baking to another level.

A huge thank you to Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolate, Sam Maruta of Marou Chocolate, Lawren Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate, Joanna Brennan of Pump Street Bakery and Pump Street Chocolate, chocolatier Steph Shafer of Bella Sophia Chocolates, Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate, Lauren Heineck of WKND Chocolate and Well Tempered Podcast and chef Caroline Schiff of ParadigmSchiff for sharing their time, expertise and experience in regards to the topics involved with craft chocolate products and baking.

Over the next couple of blog posts we will take a look at a wide variety of baking with craft chocolate topics including the ways single-origin craft chocolate affects recipe creation and existing recipes, inspiration for products, product lines, obstacles for getting bakers/chefs to use craft chocolate, the enjoyment of baking with craft/specialty chocolate, where makers would like to see craft chocolate baking evolve to in the future and more!

(Be sure to check out the Maison Marou Brownie recipe at the end of this post). Continue reading “Baking with Craft Chocolate Part 1”