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An Inside Look into the Philippines’ Chocolate Capital

Words: Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

A new generation of Filipino chocolatiers reaps global recognition, rediscovering home-grown cacao and championing farmers in Davao City on Mindanao island. Their story is a fitting tribute to World Chocolate Day this month.

Willy Wonka would have gushed at the sight. Standing in a grassy industrial park in Calamba, 55km south of Manila, is the 2,000sqm state-of-the-art factory of Auro, a local chocolate company launched only four years ago. Its nondescript exterior conceals the bustling activity inside, behind the hotel-like reception area and second-floor lounge decorated with earth tone murals of the cacao tree – the tropical source of chocolate.

Instead of Oompa-Loompas from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, however, I find regular-sized factory workers in face masks and bouffant caps navigating temperature-controlled halls. Nevertheless, my eyes still light up with child-like wonder. The fastidious process is no less magical. They haul out jute sacks of cacao beans from storage and operate a series of stainless steel machines that transform the almond-like seeds into silken chocolate that oozes out of pipes onto warm moulds.

Cacao fruits are manually harvested and processed by smallholders at Malabog village in Paquibato district, Davao City, where Manila-based artisanal chocolate company Theo & Philo sustainably sources its cocoa beans. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

Showing me around the spacious facility isn’t an eccentric recluse in a top hat and velvet coat, but a mild-mannered millennial in minimalist wear. Mark Ocampo envisions Auro to be the gold standard in chocolate making. After all, the brand is a portmanteau of oro, the Spanish word for ‘gold’, and the element’s chemical symbol, Au.

This ambitious operation belongs to a fresh wave of innovative chocolate makers revitalising the local cacao industry and garnering international accolades within the last decade. “We are a proudly Filipino product,” says the 30-year-old former advertising professional, “We want the world to know that, apart from growing cacao, we also produce quality chocolate in the Philippines.”

Last month, Auro won nine awards from the Academy of Chocolate (AOC) in London, most notably, a silver for their smooth tasting Saloy Reserve 70% Single-Estate Dark Chocolate and the country’s first gold from the competition for their 100% cacao unsweetened chocolate.

Cacao fruits are manually harvested and processed by smallholders at Malabog village in Paquibato district, Davao City, where Manila-based artisanal chocolate company Theo & Philo sustainably sources its cocoa beans. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

Deep-rooted History

While Filipino-made fine chocolate brands have only been appearing recently, cacao trees have been thriving in the archipelago for centuries.

Native to the Amazon Basin and cultivated for millennia by the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilisations in Central America, the valuable pod-bearing crop was introduced to Asia via the Philippines in the late 17th century, having been brought over across the Pacific Ocean with the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade, which linked the continent to the Americas from 1565 to 1815. Soon enough, Filipinos inherited the Mexican tradition of preparing unfermented beans into tablea (cacao tablets) – which are dissolved to make hot chocolate and rich desserts like champorado (chocolate rice porridge) and morón (a type of rice cake).

Today, fine chocolate manufacturers in the Philippines are committed to fair trade practices, acquiring their cacao beans from local farmers at competitive rates. Most of the nation’s cacao is grown on the southern main island of Mindanao. Considered the country’s ‘Chocolate Capital’, Davao Region has 29,000 hectares planted with cacao trees, accounting for more than 80% of national production.

Roasted cacao nibs are poured into a grinder at the San Juan workshop of Theo & Philo Artisan Chocolates, which takes pride in its small-batch approach to chocolate making. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

While the broad-leafed evergreen thrives throughout the Philippines, Mindanao has the best potential for expansion with its fertile soil, generous rainfall and vast tracts of existing coconut plantations highly suited for inter-planting with the shade-loving crop – an environment-friendly practice that maximises agricultural lands and reduces the need to convert forests and wilderness into more farms. This is promising news for the global chocolate industry, which is often affected by cacao shortage due to climate change and outbreaks of pest and disease, among other factors.

Fruits of Labour

Established in 2010, Theo & Philo is the first bean-to-bar, single-origin chocolate maker in the Philippines.

“I have an easygoing definition of what good chocolate is. For me, it’s whatever you like,” reveals founder Philo Chua at his modest factory in San Juan, 9km east of Manila, where he shares with me his experimental, small-batch approach to chocolate making.

The pioneering brand is best known for dark chocolates incorporated with local fruits, nuts, spices or arabica coffee. To date, seven of their boldly flavoured variants have bagged accolades at the AOC Awards and International Chocolate Awards. Most notably, a silver went to their Milk Chocolate Adobo, which was inspired by what many consider to be the country’s national dish: a much-loved meat stew marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and black peppercorns.

Davaoborn entrepreneur Rex Puentespina established the Malagos Chocolate Museum – the first chocolate museum in the Philippines – designed to educate visitors on cacao and its deeply rooted history. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

The artisanal company sources all of its cacao from Malabog village in the remote highland district of Paquibato, 50km north of Davao City. After an hour-long motorbike ride over hilly dirt roads from town, I meet a jolly yet hardworking group of women at an NGO-initiated cacao processing facility.

The women are in the midst of processing ‘wet beans’ purchased from neighbouring smallholders at above-market prices. They pour the beans into wooden crates where the pulp-covered seeds ferment for five to six days, exuding an intoxicating sweet-sour aroma, before these are transferred to greenhouse-like sheds to dry out completely under the sun for another week.

Like mahjong players mixing tiles, they sit around a mesh-topped sorting table that sifts out debris and beans that are too small. The larger ones that remain are segregated by hand into two sizes – an important step for even roasting in the factory. “It’s the perfect opportunity to gossip about our husbands,” jokes one of the ladies about their tedious and time-consuming work.

Fermented cocoa beans are spread in a solar dryer to dry under the sun at Puentespina Farms, which manages a ‘tree-to-bar’ operation from growing cacao to making chocolate. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

Jenelyn Perez, nee Palayon, who oversees the smallholding facility, then accompanies me to her family’s farm nearby, where we find her soft-spoken mother cutting open pods with a bolo (native machete widely used in farming) and scooping out the fleshy beans in a bucket. Smallholdings like this practise organic farming, relying on mulch instead of artificial fertilisers and wrapping fruits in biodegradable plastic to ward off pests and diseases rather than spraying trees with chemical solutions.

Cacao farming has significantly augmented the income of the Palayon family since Jenelyn’s father, Teodoro Palayon, started intercropping their two-hectare coconut plantation 13 years ago. “Because of cacao, I was able to pay off the loans I took to send my children to school”, says the 54-year-old father of seven as he prunes his trees.

The cooperative ships all of their processed beans – an average of six metric tonnes annually – to Theo & Philo, which purchases them at 45% above market price, channelling a gross income of nearly PHP1 million (approx. USD20,000) yearly to the community.

Auro also takes pride in its sustainable practices, maintaining fruitful relationships with more than 10 cacao-producing cooperatives and 80 individual smallholders in southern Mindanao to improve the standard of their yields, apart from increasing their profits. “We created a pricing system that grades the quality of the beans,” explains Ocampo, “The better the quality, the better the price.”

Auro’s operations manager Louie Cena, who works closely with cacao growers, drives me to their partner farms in Calinan district. At the Subasta Multipurpose Cooperative (SMPC), he demonstrates how beans are assessed, slicing open individual seeds from a random sample. An even brown coloration inside indicates proper preparation. As instructed, I nibble on the cacao nibs, noting how fermentation – an essential step in chocolate making – has developed the complex, full-bodied flavours of cacao found in quality chocolates.

Cacao pods are rolled over a mounted blade to break them open without damaging the seeds inside at Puentespina Farms, revealing cocoa beans enveloped in sweet-sour flesh. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

Sweet Success

No company, however, has raised the profile of home-grown cacao like Malagos Chocolate. This Davao-based chocolate company goes beyond the bean-to-bar model by growing its own Trinitario hybrid cacao trees and manufacturing fine chocolates on site, thereby streamlining the value chain and greatly reducing the company’s carbon footprint.

The integrated ‘tree-to-bar’ venture has reaped 37 international awards to date, including nine bagged at last year’s International Chocolate Awards. Most recently, the company’s 24-hectare Puentespina Farms received the Heirloom Cacao designation from the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, an initiative to certify growers of quality, fine-flavoured cacao. They are the 16th cacao producer in the world – and the first in the country – to receive this distinction.

While Malagos Chocolate harvests, ferments and processes cacao from its own plantation, they support local farmers by also purchasing wet beans from neighbouring plantations within the vicinity of Malagos village in Baguio district, thereby maintaining the terroir of its single-origin chocolates – much like fine wine and cheese. Terroir refers to the unique set of environmental factors, such as soil, topography and climate, which influence the taste and aroma of produce.

Davao City restaurants transform home-grown chocolate into delectable creations like the award-winning Chocolate Caramel Cheesecake by Yolks Flower Café + Cupcakery. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

According to Malagos Chocolate co-founder Rex Puentespina, the fruit-growing area is responsible for the berry-like notes that their products are known for. At the factory, I snap off a piece of their darkest 100g bar, Malagos 85% Dark Chocolate, allowing broken shards to melt on my tongue and release harmonious notes of oak and raisin that finish off with the lingering astringency of red wine.

“It’s really important to educate consumers,” says the jovial 50-year-old entrepreneur, when distinguishing fine chocolate from industrial versions made with inferior quality or poorly processed beans, unhealthy additives and overpowering quantities of sugar. “People now want to know where their food comes from.” With this in mind, the family-owned Malagos Garden Resort conducts guided tours to showcase the entire process, from cacao farming to chocolate making.

In 2017, they also opened the country’s first-ever chocolate museum. This milestone was soon followed by another with the publication of The Malagos Book of Chocolate, a hardbound coffee table book that celebrates the company’s successful journey and shares creative recipes for sweet and savoury dishes made with their distinguished line of chocolates.

Cacao farmer Jenelyn Perez (first from left) oversees the manual sorting of sun-dried cocoa beans at the community postharvest facility in Malabog village at Paquibato district, Davao City. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

Fertile Future

Without a doubt, the future of Filipino chocolate makers couldn’t be any sweeter. While Auro opens its first official store in Tokyo, MS3 – another award-winning brand from Davao – eyes the Middle East by marketing its chocolate products as halal certified.

“The secret is applying the science of making chocolates and maintaining our quality,” says MS3 founder, Abdul Kareem Santillan, a former expat in Qatar who, inspired by the accomplishments of Malagos and other chocolatiers, launched his own business in 2016. “If we believe in our quality, we will succeed.”

It’s been a long time coming for the Philippine crop. After sailing a long way to these bountiful islands hundreds of years ago, home-grown cacao is finally fermenting a delicious reputation and taking on the world. It truly echoes a friend’s witty remark, “Better chocolate than never.”

In the last decade, Philippine fine chocolate brands – Malagos Chocolate, Theo & Philo, Auro and MS3 – have been reaping awards from international chocolate competitions, revitalising the country’s cacao industry. Image: travel360/ Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

WORLD CHOCOLATE DAY

This annual ‘delicious’ celebration on July 7 is about all things chocolate! Although its origin is not altogether clear, World Chocolate Day is believed to mark the day the globally-renowned decadent treat was first introduced in Europe in 1550. Today, chocolate is not only among the world’s most favoured confectionary but also offers multiple health benefits.

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