Last week saw chocolate maker Akesson’s take home the coveted Academy of Chocolate Awards 2015 Golden Bean Award for the best bean-to-bar chocolate.
The very first cocoa plantation I went specifically to visit belonged to Bertil Akesson Senior, at one time a Swedish diplomat who had come to base himself in Madagascar. The plantation was on the very Northern tip of the main island of Madagascar.
Along with two fellow cocoa-fiends from Sweden, I flew from the capital, Antanarivo (Tana), in a very small and disturbingly worn-looking plane to Nosy Be, the island just off the tip of the mainland. We checked into a hostel and wandered into the village, stumbling across an-almost empty bar built into the cliffs with views across the sea. We ordered a drink and, as we chatted, the locals arrived, then the DJ, then the disco lights. An entertaining evening. Sore heads were comforted by hearty breakfasts and terrible coffee in the morning; we headed to the port to haggle a ride on a motorboat back to the main island to our accommodation closer to the cocoa plantations.
Several uncomfortable hours later, the boat pulled up at some stone steps falling into the water that led up a slope into trees where we could just see glimpses of the roof of an old, colonial style farmhouse. We unloaded our packs and our selves, hiked up to the house and settled into the furniture on the wide verandah that encircled the house. We drank very welcome cold juice. Quickly followed by cold beers and a swim at the private jetty.
Our beds for the night were in individual cabins away from the main house. After seeing the guards patrolling with guns and being warned to stay alert for snakes and spiders, the Swedish girl and I decided to camp in together. There was no electricity after 9pm and I still remember how suffocating the heat felt as I lay under the patchy mosquito net of my hard, single bed. Not quite the island paradise I’d imagined.
Daylight came slowly after a fitful sleep that had me jolting at every snap of a twig as the guards made their rounds and each time an insect buzzed too close to my ear. A cold shower brought my wakefulness to “almost” and we went for breakfast in the main house.
We were picked up by the farm manager in his 4X4 to traverse the local roads to reach the plantations. Even holding tightly to the inside of the car our heads kept hitting the ceiling with each pothole – and there were many. We were dressed in long trousers and long-sleeved shirts to discourage the mosquitoes. The trade off was sweltering in the heavy, thick heat of the forest. Our guide was South African and knew the plantations inside out. He shared with us their strategies for getting higher yields from the crop and how a single tree could produce pods of more than one variety. We saw seedlings being pruned and learnt how it was only at this size that the trees needed shade from the canopy, once the trees were able to produce fruit (from 2-3 years) direct sunlight wasn’t a concern.
The potholed roads, the haggling, the guns, some harassment, the pervasive poverty - especially in the dirt roads that made up most of the capital city – plus the limited electricity all surprised me. All I’d known of Madagascar previously was stories of beautiful flora and fauna and bright blue skies. We saw this too, but the state of the country in 2010 made it one of the more unsettling locations I’ve visited. It was worth it for my first sight of cocoa growing. To taste the sweet sourness of the pulp that clings to the seeds. To spot the vanilla plants wrapped around the trees, their flowers mixing with the cocoa flowers into an intoxicating, heady scent. To meet many smiling locals and watch kids kick a football in the dust and on the grass, the adults gathered around a TV to watch the game played in another country. To see whole communities getting involved in a harvest. I’d still love to return one day.
The plantations I visited now belong to Bertil Akesson Junior who harvests the cocoa, pepper and vanilla and, with the help of a French chocolate maker, transforms them into award-winning bars. Last October he opened a small store in Notting Hill, on Blenheim Crescent. More than 20 varieties of pepper, his full range of bars plus bars made by others from his cocoa beans and a selection of sugars and other cocoa products line the drawers and shelves of beautiful wooden furniture, and sacks of beans lean artfully against the window. It features on the Notting Hill Coffee & Chocolate Tour and wins over more people to 100% chocolate than any other sugarless bar is capable of doing. What really impresses guests is the 75% Madagascan bar though. Proving that the Academy really are recognising and awarding chocolate that most chocolate lovers will appreciate.
The Golden Bean for bean to bar maker is the Academy of Chocolate’s highest honour. Actually a golden painted wooden cocoa pod, the trophy represents the best in class for artisan chocolate produced anywhere in the world. Akesson’s 75% Criollo Madagascan Chocolate scored more highly than any other dark bean to bar chocolate. It is sensational. This year for the first time the Academy required that all chocolate samples were sent in identical 5g moulded bars to ensure true blind sampling with no identifying marks. No matter how subjective we like to think of ourselves as judges it is impossible to not let our unconscious associations interfere so this is an excellent progression for the awards (though, of course, might limit the entrants willing or able to enter).
There were also two further “Golden Beans” given out: to Chika Watanabe for Best Newcomer and to World Chocolate Guide’s very own Dom Ramsey, who has moved from writing about chocolate to creating it. He was awarded “One to Watch” after his first two bars won Bronze awards in their category.
Other Gold Award winners included:
Rococo - who took a swathe of awards for their plain dark ganaches and caramels
Ben Le Prevost – Best Filled Chocolate – Fruit category for Raspberry, Lime & Chilli
Berries Luxury Pudding Makers & Confectioners - Raspberry & Rose Jelly Heart; and Blackcurrant Caramel Dome
Demarquette Fine Chocolates - Imperial China chocolate
Chococo - Totally Twisted Nose (gin and watercress)
Hotel Chocolat – Single Malt Cardhu Whisky filled chocolate; Salted Caramel hot chocolate
Benjamin Chocolatier - Palm Blossom Caramel
Chika Watanabe - Tajine Apricot filled chocolate; Yuzu Mint Caramel
Coworth Park Hotel - Muscavodo & Ginger Caramel
Selfridges - Hebridean Honey and Sea Salted Caramel
Winchester Cocoa Company - Ginger and Muscovado Caramel
Yauatcha - Raspberry Rose chocolate
Kokoa Collection – Best Unflavoured Drinking Chocolate – Dark Haiti 75% Hot Chocolate.
Past winners who didn’t submit this year included Amedei, Paul a Young and William Curley, in case you noticed their absence. Some of them participated in the judging, instead. There were also other great chocolatiers and chocolate makers who were not judged as part of this competition because submission is via companies who choose to (and pay to) enter. For further information on the awards go to www.academyofchocolate.org.uk/awards.
Finally, more photos from Madagascar in 2010. It truly is a beautiful country with charming residents.