Feeding The Nation
Indonesia’s Chocolate Revolution
Indonesia may have been the world’s third-largest producer of cocoa beans, but it was never quite known as a competitive producer of chocolate – until recently.
Words by Janet DeNeefe
My first taste of Indonesian chocolate was in 1985 when I first moved to Bali. L’agie Bar, a small peanut-studded block, was my favourite and came closest to the mellow, milk chocolate Cadbury flavours of my youth. If I was feeling a tad homesick and wanted to wallow in Aussie-style edible memorabilia, I would walk to Toko Tino’s, the general store in the main street, buy a few of these pocket-sized bars and devour them. It was suitably sweet, with a little chewy-caramel intrigue, wrapped in soft chocolate.
Since then, a chocolate revolution has taken place, with luxurious handmade, hand-painted, organic creations pouring like liquid gold into the marketplace. As the world’s third-largest producer of cocoa beans, Indonesia is more serious than ever about this illustrious bean, and rightly so. There are approximately 1.5 million hectares of cocoa plantations across the archipelago, with smallholders contributing to most of the national production.
Sulawesi, North Sumatra, West Java, Papua and East Kalimantan are churning out this coveted powerhouse of indulgence. Tabanan, Bali, also produces an elegant bean and is favoured among local chefs in that farm-to-table kind of way. The Smithsonian Institution states, “Almost all of the world’s cocoa is grown in developing countries and consumed by industrialized countries.” I love the fact that I live in a place where chocolate trees grow in my backyard. If Adam and Eve were from the tropics, the cacao fruit might have been the bite that broke them. An apple is dull by comparison.
The earliest use of chocolate dates back to the pre-Colombian societies of Central America. Made from cocoa beans that grow on the tropical Theobroma cacao tree, the rustic torpedo-shaped pods that hold the seeds look like handcrafted sculptures. Nobody really knows when cacao first arrived in Indonesia, but by the late 18th century it was well and truly established. Cocoa is now one of Indonesia’s most important agricultural export crops, and the global chocolate market is worth around US$98.3 billion.
In Bali, chocolate was relatively quiet until 2000. Enter Thierry Detournay, from Belgium. I don’t think I am wrong in saying this charming man turned the Indonesian chocolate scene around (well, he did – for me anyway). Detournay, saddened by a lack of European-quality chocolate and obviously not excited by L’agie Bars, decided it was time to impress his friends and create a chocolate worthy of his homeland. Based in Kota Gede, Yogyakarta, he started creating small blocks of high-grade chocolate, learning as he went along. By 2005, Monggo Chocolate began its invasion of Bali and Java. When these designer-style blocks hit the shelves in Ubud, the expatriate community went crazy. Believe me, I was there.
In 2000, Ben Ripple, co-founder of Big Tree Farms, descended on the scene with a new-age plan to grow organic produce along with a fair-trade sustainable farming ethos to work directly with smallholder growers. Lured by the romance of Indonesian cocoa, by 2011 this innovative eco-warrior created what he calls the ‘bamboo cathedral’ chocolate factory and turned the local bean into a range of cocoa products in every shape and size, from vegan nibs to clusters, powder and raw cacao, to outshine any other. Tours of this majestic warehouse feature tastings are available for those who wish to experience his chocolate-laden grandeur. His coconut products are equally enticing.
In 2008, long-term Bali resident and Italian-born architect Giuseppe ‘Pepe’ Verdacchi launched Primo Bali, focusing on high-quality, single-origin chocolate from his beloved home. A darling of the star-chef set and fuelled with that inimitable Italian style, he created an artisanal chocolate that is featured in many of the island’s celebrated restaurants. “This is my first choice for chocolate in Bali,” claims Will Goldfarb, Room4Dessert celebrity chef. “Giuseppe picks the best beans and grinds them fresh every day.” Primo produces 60–100 per cent cocoa mass bars and chocolate drops in flavours that include orange, chilli, ginger, kaffir lime and cashew.
“We especially like Pepe’s Primo chocolate,” states Eelke Plasmeijer, of Locavore fame. “It really is something different, and his cacao butter is maybe even more special. It is a beautiful poaching agent for seafood and is super interesting and versatile.”
Like Ripple, Verdacchi is also dedicated to the well-being of the farmers. “Chocolate is a pleasure and, as such, anybody involved in its production, especially the farmers, should be compensated fairly for their efforts. The price of chocolate should take into consideration the farmers’ welfare, and therefore should be enough to guarantee them a life as good as the cocoa they produce.” In 2012, Toby Garrett arrived on the chocolate scene with a vision to make high-quality European-style couverture chocolate in a jungle setting to match. For three years, he created his own kind of cocoa alchemy, resulting in a beautifully packaged range of exotic flavours that is available all over Bali. His lofty chocolate factory in the hills of Petang is also home to a community of Sumatran elephants, emphasising his tropical mantra that chocolate should be produced in the country where it is grown. Chocolatemaking workshops are held in between rides on elephants and maybe a languorous lunch overlooking this lush estate.
Pipiltin chocolate is a relatively new cacao-kid on the block and the brainchild of Irvan Helmi and Tissa Aunilla. Based in Jakarta, Pipiltin source their beans from Bali, Aceh, East Java and Flores, showcasing the finest produce from this verdant archipelago. They are currently turning their attention to Lombok and are always on the hunt for new producers. Apart from their superb chocolate and enticing flavours, their packaging is of the utmost beauty, sporting elegant, highly individual designs by leading Indonesian artist Ayang Cempaka. They also produce a range of cakes, including their died-andgone-to-heaven truffle cake.
“I often call chocolate the best-known food that nobody knows anything about,” says Alexandra Leaf, owner of Chocolate Tours of New York City. “I admit when I moved to Bali, I had no idea I was living in the land of chocolate, one of cacao’s home territories, or even coffee for that matter.” Says Eelke Plasmeijer, “We serve chocolate fruit as a snack after dinner because hardly anybody knows how chocolate is grown and how it looks when it is still on the tree.”
According to studies, the consumption of dark chocolate, with its anti-oxidant magic, may lower cholesterol levels and improve blood-pressure levels, while drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day apparently helps keep the brain healthy and prevent memory decline. Just 100g a day of 70 per cent cocoa is all you need to reap these mega benefits. I even read that it protects your skin from UV sun damage and prevents wrinkles. If that’s the case, I’m opting for 250g just to be sure; but I will be in big trouble if that claim isn’t true. In the meantime, Indonesia’s cocoa industry is thriving, and these creative chocolate-preneurs will continue to develop extraordinary products. All the better for us!
Melbourne-born Janet DeNeefe, the founder & director of the annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Ubud Food Festival and Bali Emerging Voices Festival, has lived in Bali for nearly three decades. Her latest book is Bali: Food of My Island Home, following her memoir Fragrant Rice. She is also the owner of Casa Luna, Indus and Bar Luna restaurants in Ubud.