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Can Philippine Cacao Stand up to The Rest of the World’s? Moulinet Chocolat is Making it Happen

June 9, 2017

Cacao has been in our shores for centuries, carrying with it a rich history that goes way back to the days of the Manila Acapulco Galleon Trade. Many believe we have what could be some of the world’s best cacao in the world, growing on our own shores. But we’re still in the process of fully understanding the world of Philippine chocolate and all it has to offer. One company aims to help facilitate the learning phase as of current—and in the process, share its unique potential to the world.

Named after the wooden whisk traditionally used for stirring hot chocolate in France that goes by the same name, Moulinet Chocolat is a UK-based company and social enterprise promoting ethical and sustainable practices in the cocoa value chain (that is, the steps making up the process from the cocoa tree to the finished chocolate bar). Initially financed through crowdfunding, this one-woman venture in the UK (supported by a network of cousins in the Philippines and New Zealand-based co-founder, Alan Benton) is now working to establish Philippine cacao in the world market by solidifying its identity and connecting our seeds and bars to makers and enthusiasts the world over.

“I’m an architect and architectural historian,” Estela confesses. “I will always be both, in addition to my new identity as chocolate taster!”

While her background is in Architecture, UK-based Filipina founder Estela Duque found herself researching cacao after her “Tito Jun” (Ernesto Pantua of Kablon Farms) approached her to help bring the farm’s cacao beans to Europe. She would soon find herself enrolling in the International Institute of Chocolate & Cacao Tasting, from where she was able to attain levels 1 and 2 certification as a chocolate taster, and she gets to exercise this skill as a judge at the prestigious International Chocolate Awards.

Over the course of her research, she also came to realize the problematic status of the Philippine cacao industry. In spite of the Philippines being a cacao-growing country itself, she shares, Filipinos consume only 80% of what is found here, relying more heavily on imported chocolate products (which in some cases might even be made with our own cacao, sold overseas for a dirt-cheap price!) that are often of the bulk, mass-marketed variety. In the process, we’ve gotten so used to the industrially-produced stuff that we don’t even get to recognize the redeeming qualities of fine chocolate (which, by the way, we do have local producers of). There are also issues with how certain local cacao and chocolate companies use the image of farmers less out of true concern, more for marketing purposes (at times to cover up questionable ethical practices)—and this paints a distortedly favorable-looking picture of what in fact is the less-than-stellar situation of our industry, which can be misleading for those outside the country.

“Where does this put us? If we want to be a reflexive, self-critiquing, and discriminating public, we probably should be asking ourselves: What does my chocolate have in it? What kind of chocolate is it? How much was the farmer who grew the cacao in my chocolate paid?”

Through Moulinet Chocolat, Estela hopes to strengthen the connection between stages of the chocolate-making process—by looping together the people involved in each step.

We need for Filipino chocolate makers to also understand this link between cacao production and chocolate making, and a discerning public that will also support their livelihood.

As a company they uphold a number of principles, chief among them direct trade: working with the big guns—landholders and chocolatiers—and passing profits straight to the cacao workers and farmers. Sustainability, too, is something they commit to as they emphasize the importance of environmental conservation in the cacao-farming process.

They have a number of projects in store: knowledge transfers, workshops, and more on different cacao matters in the Philippines to be held locally and internationally; a History of Cacao Conference to collate research and information on cacao’s history in our country; and the establishment of a Fine Chocolate Cooperative, a unifying body to link farmers, fermentation supervisors, chocolate makers, chefs, and others. The goal? To uncover more about the tree’s backstory and to link all those involved in the chocolate-making process, all in the name of better cacao and better chocolate in the Philippines—which we can use to promote our country to the world.

Estela poses with her cousin, Marga Testado. Marga, along with fellow cousin RJ Eslao and Estela’s mom Elnora Duque, has created the REED MT Cacao Trading Company, which allows Moulinet (officially based in the UK) to operate in the Philippines.

Also on their radar is the establishment of the Philippines as a country with what is called fine flavor cacao. Broadly put, “fine flavor” refers to a status or certification of sorts conferred to countries by the International Cocoa Organization which, as the name implies, connotes you’ve got great-tasting cacao on your land, allowing you to charge a premium for it (which can work wonders for the local economy) and overall giving it the recognition it deserves. With fine flavor cacao currently making up only 20% of all cacao in the world (having only been awarded to 17 countries—mostly located in South America—as of late) coupled with the fact that more people are willing to pay for good chocolate, the demand for it is massive. While there is controversy on the lack of objective standards to qualify as having “fine flavor”; generally it’s conferred to beans of the Criollo and Trinitario varieties, which are more prone to disease (the former especially) but thought to have superior flavor. And as both of these varieties are believed to grow on our land, there is a high chance that the Philippines can attain fine flavor status status. Only governments can carry out the actual application process, but this is something Moulinet, along with key players in the industry, hopes to facilitate. If we do get it though, the concept of direct trade will be all the more important as the the higher prices we get to charge translate to extra profit—and you’ve gotta make sure actually reaches the farmers who do all the hard work.

With her background and certification in professional chocolate tasting, Estela also holds occasional tasting sessions in hopes of educating enthusiasts on how to better appreciate chocolate. Currently they are working on a chocolate subscription box—a service that would deliver a curated selection of fine chocolate bars all made with Kablon Farms’ beans but under the hands of different chocolate makers the world over. Tasters and enthusiasts not only get explore the different ingredients and methods employed by these artisans from different parts of the globe, but also gain a better appreciation of South Cotabato beans and ultimately, Filipino cacao.

Just some of the many chocolate bars available through their soon-to-launch subscription box. All bars above share a common denominator; can you guess what it is?

Estela admits there is much work to be done. One area in need of more attention is the identification of these Philippine fine flavor cacao varieties genetically—this entails genetic mapping and chocolate flavor profiling to help identify the distinctive flavors or characteristics of Filipino cacao (which’d establish its identity and, in turn, be used in promoting what we’ve got to the world). More research must be done to fine-tune the cacao fermentation process (fermentation is crucial to developing flavor) to bring the best out of our beans and get them at a quality level marketable to the fine chocolate sector. There is also a need for a skill development program that would educate chocolate makers on how to improve the process (and make better chocolate we can enjoy and market to the world!) and would communicate to people the fundamentals: what to look for in chocolate and why.

But small victories are key for the young company. Estela has brought the project proposal over to international and Philippine state agencies. “[It] has been received very well overseas, propelling me to try and try to push it further in the Philippines,” she shares. Abroad they are flourishing, with four bars they’ve helped supply beans for that have won awards at the recently held Academy of Chocolate Awards in the UK. Locally, one especially successful event they’ve carried out is the Bean to Bar Chocolate Festival held at the Glorietta mall just last month, which brought together key players in the local chocolate industry. But this is just the beginning. We, for one, can’t wait to see what’s in store.


Moulinet Chocolat

A UK-based, one-woman venture that aims to establish Philippine cacao’s identity, beginning with the local industry and moving out towards the world.

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Patricia Baes SEE AUTHOR Patricia Baes Trish thinks too much about everything—truth, existence.....and what’s on her plate. Her ongoing quest for a better relationship with food has led to a passion for cooking, gastronomy, and a newfound interest in its politics. She is a cheapskate in other aspects of her life, preferring to use her savings on specialty vinegars and degustation menus. While she admits to eating out too much, cooking and baking remain her first love, and she's always looking for quirky new ways to use up seasonal produce. Thanks to her obsession with (unnecessarily) making everything from scratch, she is now desperate to clear her fridge full of homemade condiments. She dreams of perfecting the art of making soufflé with her crappy toaster oven.
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