Opening Shots: On a mission
November 13, 2008
In reading this month’s cover feature on Jürgen Rausch, the 2008 recipient of the European Candy Kettle Club award, there’s an anecdote about the chocolatier and chief executive that didn’t make it into the article.
Sometimes, editing to fit can be a cruel process. Luckily, I have this page to relate a story that Rausch told me when I was visiting with him and his team in Peine, Germany.
As one of the pioneers and proponents of fine-flavored cocoas, Rausch has visited many farms and plantations during the past 10 years. In doing so, he – together with Biki Khurana, the man responsible at Rausch for ensuring adequate supply of fine-flavored cocoa beans – has seen the good, bad and the ugly of cocoa growing practices throughout the world.
There’s one story that he and Khurana shared with me that I have to relate–a bittersweet tale that will hopefully have a happy ending. Upon visiting some old plantations in Sri Lanka about two years ago, plantations that had trees ranging between 50 to 80 years old, the two cocoa experts came across an unusual practice at that location: the farmers would literally wash cocoa beans to make them lighter.
As Rausch explained, because the market for Java beans, which are lighter in color, paid more money, the farmers would cut open the pods and thoroughly rinse the pulp from the beans before allowing them to dry.
In doing so, the farmers scrubbed out the 1,000 or so flavor notes that are released via fermentation. When Rausch asked the farmers whether they ever fermented the beans, using boxes perhaps, an elderly woman came forward and said, yes, she remembered the boxes.
When Rausch asked her whether they were still around, the woman replied yes. But as she explained, they were primarily used to store bicycles today.
Both Khurana and Rausch later went to the local chocolate manufacturer to see what kind of products were being produced from these beans.
“It was essentially a sugar bar,” says Rausch. “Yes, they used cocoa beans, but aside from the color, there wasn’t any flavor.”
In order to preserve the potential from these ancient trees and their fruit, Rausch saw to it that the farmers were re-introduced to past fermentation and drying techniques. “We favor drying of the beans in the sun,” Khurana adds.
Within a few years, Rausch is hopeful that these practices, coupled with proper pruning and cultivating techniques, will lead to the beans being classified as fine-flavored cocoa beans.
But Sri Lanka represents only one example of many that Rausch and Khurana have experienced in their quest for fine-flavored beans. Cognizant of the growing demand for such flavors, the two are on a mission to not only ensure areas already growing those beans follow best practices, but also to introduce new fine-flavored cocoa bean trees to farms and plantations ripe for such plantings.
Again, as Rausch related, he and Khurana have seen abandoned plantations that were ideal for a rebirth suddenly destroyed because of misplaced government redevelopment projects. Decade-old trees were cut down to put up housing units that easily could have been located elsewhere.
“But that’s life,” acknowledges Rausch. It’s a complex weave of triumphs and tragedies.
Alarmed at the fact that the International Cocoa Organization has reported that fine-flavored cocoa production has dropped from 5.3% to 4.8%, Rausch and Khurana are committed to ensuring that future generations will be able to enjoy the same wonderful flavor notes prevalent in these beans as we currently do. To say they’re on a “mission from God,” as the infamous Blues Brothers asserted, might be a bit presumptuous, but I certainly wish them success.