From cocoa trees to delicious desserts: 8 facts to know about making chocolate

Ning-Geng Ong is steadily becoming a Malaysian trail-blazer in the realm of chocolates – the founder of Chocolate Concierge, which offers artisan chocolates stocked in Bangsar Shopping Centre, recently launched a range of chocolate bars produced entirely in KL, made from cocoa crops harvested in Pahang and the Klang Valley.

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Ning holds regular chocolate appreciation and tasting sessions at various venues – here are some insights that we gleaned from his most recent gathering, illuminating the process of cultivating cocoa and making chocolates for Malaysian chocoholics.

Ning reveals much more at his sessions – which sometimes include hands-on contact with cocoa pods and other fun experiences, such as pairings with tea or cocktails– so check out Chocolate Concierge’s platforms if you’re keen on a masterclass in chocolate.

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1. In recorded history, the Mayan civilisation of the Yucatan Peninsula was the first to consume cocoa millennia ago, followed by the Aztecs of Mexico. But it was only in the 1500s that cocoa was propagated around the world.

2. Fewer than three decades ago, Malaysia ranked among the world’s top three in terms of production volume of dried cocoa beans. Subsequently, the country’s output dwindled due to lucrative prices of palm oil and rubber. But prices of cocoa have quadrupled in the last few years, so more farmers are considering tending again to cocoa trees, which produce the beans that form the basis of chocolate.

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3. Cocoa trees grow within a 20-degree band of the Equator – 10 degrees north and 10 degrees south. Africa currently produces about 70 percent of the world’s dried cocoa beans, led by Ivory Coast. Malaysia produces some 8,000 tons of dried beans a year, a tiny fraction of Indonesia’s 350,000 tons. Regionally, Vietnam’s cocoa industry is also picking up.

4. How long would you need to wait to cultivate cocoa trees? From date of planting to first harvest, it takes two and half years to three years. In the wild, the trees can grow up to 20 to 25 metres. You can find decades-old cocoa trees propagated at Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM).

5. Cocoa as a crop bears fruits almost year-round, but it has major seasons when some 70 percent of the fruits may grow during a short two-month period. Cocoa is labour-intensive because it needs to be harvested by hand. Cocoa is predominantly cultivated by smallholders.

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6. Chocolate-making is a tedious process with roughly a dozen necessary steps – cocoa pod harvesting, pod cracking, bean extraction, fermentation, drying, grading and packing, roasting, winnowing, milling/grinding, blending and refining, conching, tempering and moulding.

7. When you pick up a bar of chocolate at most stores, there’s generally zero transparency about where the cocoa beans used to make that chocolate are from. A lot of cocoa is transacted at commodity exchanges in New York and London, but sourcing is opaque. Massive chocolate makers can’t be picky about where beans are coming from, since their key requirement is volume. Issues of child labour, slave labour and repressively low wages for farmers still persist in parts of the world.

8. In buying chocolate, check the labels and go for bars with no vegetable oil or vegetable fat other than cocoa butter. Those are the best, but those are also the ones that would melt more easily if you leave them in the car. Also avoid the ones with artificial flavours if possible.

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