Author of Ed Engoron’s Choclatique, Running Press, 2011
I have had four careers in the last 45 years….a producer for ABC-TV covering the war in Vietnam, an art director and director in the film industry, a restaurateur with over 350 establishments and the co-founder of Choclatique. I’ve shot great action films and been shot at. I have directed famous and popular movie stars and have been credited with producing one of the top ten worst movies in history. I’ve opened restaurants that have been spectacular successes and one which was a spectacular failure. The most fun I have had has been the development of the brand and the fantastic products we make at Choclatique.
Last month I spent several weeks in Equatorial Guinea which, up until the mid twentieth century, was a large exporter of cocoa beans. I was in search of discovering great chocolate on the Dark Continent (If you prepare the recipe for Sofitel’s Cold, Welcoming Chocolate Beverage you will see and taste exactly what I mean about great chocolate). The Spanish brought a cocoa culture to Spanish Guinea, now known as Equatorial Guinea, West Africa in the late 1700’s.
Equatorial Guinea is on the west coast of equatorial Africa, bordered by Cameroon to the north and Gabon to the south and east. Malabo, the capital, is exactly 3 degrees north of the equator (I proved this out with my trusty iPhone compass and GPS system). It has the perfect climate and just the right amount of rainfall to grow great cacao, the fruit from which chocolate is made. A tiny country, it is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. This includes the mainland (Río Muni), as well as three coastal islets (Corisco, Elobey Grande, and Elobey Chico) and two islands (Bioko and Annobóon). The larger of these is Bioko, formerly known as Fernando Po which is 25 miles off the coast of Cameroon. Mangrove swamps lie along the coast of the island. Río Muni is mainly tropical rain forest and is home to a variety of animals, including gorillas, snakes, chimpanzees, monkeys, leopards, elephants, and crocodiles.
Bioko was most important because of its cocoa plantations and proved to be one of Spain’s most profitable territories in Africa. When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, the Spanish began to invest more in the development of Equatorial Guinea. The country experienced increasing prosperity with the aid of the Spanish government and the Catholic Church. Industry grew, and cocoa and timber contributed to a strong economy.
Independence was declared in 1968. With the departure of Spain the country was left in dire straits. Many of the plantations were deserted and reclaimed by the rain forest. Today the country is rebuilding and establishing a great degree of political and economic stability. With the discovery of oil and other valuable natural resources their efforts are noticeable. On Bioko, the majority of the population lives in the City of Malabo, which is Equatorial Guinea’s capital. The city is clean, and its older architecture exhibits Spanish influence while the new buildings resemble the skyline of a major American city. There are new roads being built and construction cranes throughout the city showcase the efforts of Turkish and Chinese contractors.
The main foods are cassava root, bananas, rice, papaya, mango and yams. People also hunt and fish for protein. Palm wine and malamba (an alcoholic drink made from sugarcane) are both mild and popular.
Before independence, Equatorial Guinea’s primary source of income was from Spanish-grown cocoa production. With their departure, production fell significantly leaving plantations to be reclaimed by the jungle. Over the last couple of weeks I hiked into the jungle to find these old plantations and see for myself what remained of these vast growing areas. I was pleasantly surprised to see many old heirloom plants had survived the neglect and lack of attended cultivation. The cacao I found is most likely Forastero or Criollo (only testing will tell for sure). I estimate that the trees are probably about 200 years old and may very will be derived from the ancient cacao plants that would have been found in ancient Aztec civilizations and shipped to the colony.
Like superb wine and premium olive oils, fine chocolates all carry a signature flavor. Their distinctive flavors start with the original ingredient… the cacao bean. Wine grapes vary by varietal, region of origin, harvesting methods and weather. So, too, do cacao beans with the additional complications caused by the remoteness of the growing area and the fermenting and drying environment. Sophisticated connoisseurs of chocolate claim they can identify the country of origin, cacao tree type and processing methods; and can detect whether a chocolate comprises beans from a single estate (“terroir”) or blends. I’m pretty good at tasting, but not that good.
Before the mapping of the cacao genus a couple of years ago it was thought that there were only three varieties of heirloom cacao: the Criollo, the Trinitario and the Forastero. This is now being rethought as testing is proving that there may be more varieties than originally thought. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now has the technology to help identify and map the various plants around the world.
Grown mainly in Central America, the Criollo represents only 1% of world’s fine chocolate production. Some exceptionally rare Criollo is harvested only by dugout canoe deep in the Amazon rainforest. Its cacao is fine and sweet, with complex flavor notes. The Forastero, grown largely in West Africa and South America, comprises about 80 percent of world’s fine chocolate production and has a strong, bold taste. The Trinitario is a flavorful bean and contains qualities of both trees and is grown throughout the world, producing about five percent of world fine chocolate output.
The most exciting part of the venture which eclipsed most everything else was the national energy to make a better life for all of the people who live there. It is more than just the construction of new buildings and roads and the discovery of oil which pays for much of it. It is the people who were most giving and hospitable. With all that is going on in the world today it was great to be welcomed as an American and treated so well by everyone I met and worked with. I am looking forward to returning back later in the year.
Choclatique creates chocolate for connoisseurs and for people who just love great chocolate. Our award-winning truffles and bars demonstrate our attention to artistic presentation and flavor perfection. Every day, our chocolatiers craft each piece using the finest ingredients. We use our premium blends of dark, milk and white chocolate made from premium cacao beans from around the world. And we continually search for rare and emerging cacao plantations from which we can source. We use only the finest ingredients: fresh cream and butter; and the finest liqueurs, nuts, fruits and spices. The secret to our success is allowing the natural chocolate flavors to dominate our truffles. We don’t use artificial flavors or preservatives.