Food & dining

Food & Travel

In a Haiti hard hit by Hurricane Matthew, cocoa still thrives

Farmer Antoine Josef with Jesse Last of Taza Chocolate.
Meg Wilcox for The Boston Globe
Farmer Antoine Josef with Jesse Last of Taza Chocolate.

When you savor a chocolate bar, Haiti may not come to mind as a source for that luscious flavor. That’s likely more true now than ever, as the country grapples with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew last month.

But Taza Chocolate wants to change that. Cocoa is a bright spot on Haiti’s landscape. Earlier this year, the Somerville-based chocolate company introduced a new dark-chocolate bar made from 84 percent Haitian cocoa beans. The lightly sweetened bar has bold and exquisite flavors: fruity notes, bright acidity, and a hint of sour cherry.

Taza is bullish on Haitian cocoa. “We know we have a good product,” says Jesse Last, Taza’s sourcing manager. “Ancient variety, good terroir, organic by default.”

Advertisement

The bean-to-bar company sources from northern Haiti, largely spared by the Category Four hurricane, which decimated Haiti’s southwest cocoa-growing region.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Producing that high-quality chocolate bar is a complicated process, a work of art that begins long before the fermented cocoa beans arrive at the company’s headquarters. A recent trip with Last to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, opens a window into that process.

Taza buys fermented cocoa beans from a processing company, Produits de Iles S.A. (PISA), located just outside of Cap-Haïtien, a bustling coastal city built of low-lying pastel-hued buildings 150 miles north of Port-au-Prince.

Cocoa is a tree crop that needs shade, so cocoa farms are often found in forests. PISA sources its cocoa beans from 1,500 family-run farms, each about 2½ acres in size, spread across the foothills of the Massif du Nord mountain range.

We visited one such farm, owned by Antoine Josef, age 61. Josef’s lakou (compound) is a one-story adobe home located an hour outside of Cap-Haïtien on a dirt road where goats and hens roam freely. There is no electricity or running water in this rural area.

Advertisement

A carpet of dried brown leaves crunches under our feet as we enter the cocoa forest, with Josef and Merviel Chilmise, another farmer. Sunlight dapples through the towering coconut, breadfruit, mango, and avocado trees, which offer shade to the smaller cocoa trees, food for the farmers, and cool respite from the tropical heat. Smaller banana trees are also grown, and every 10 feet we sidestep to avoid deep holes left behind by a recent yam harvest. Haitians call this system of intercropped farming a Creole garden.

Cocoa pods, the size of spaghetti squash, hang from the trees in a profusion of reds, yellows, and greens. Using a long bar with a hook on the end, Chilmise pulls down some pods. After piling several dozen on the forest floor, she cracks two pods together to split them open.

Dozens of beans clustered in a gelatinous white substance protrude from the cracked-open pods. Using her fingers, Chilmise scoops out the beans and empties them into a bucket. I’m offered a bean and told to suck the slippery white coating, which tastes of sweet lemon meringue.

PISA got into the cocoa business three years ago and is one of a few Haitian enterprises selling fermented beans to craft chocolate makers like Taza, who pay premium prices for organic, fermented beans. That allows PISA to pay farmers like Josef and Chilmise double what they’d receive from buyers for mass-produced chocolate made from unfermented beans.

Our next stop is PISA’s rustic processing facility, where the pungent smell of a brewery wafts through the hot air. Aline Etlicher, PISA’s manager and a French agronomist, tells us that she began collecting beans from farmers at 6:30 a.m. the day before, and was up until midnight bringing in a 6-ton harvest over muddy mountain roads.

Advertisement

During the peak harvest season, PISA collects beans seven days a week and Etlicher sleeps at the office.

Inside the fermentation building, the newly harvested cocoa beans are placed in a series of wooden slatted boxes, covered in plastic sheeting, and left to stew in their juices. The entire fermentation process takes 160 hours, and nothing is added except “much love,” says Etlicher.

“I tell my workers cocoa is like a woman,” she adds. “You have to treat it gently and kawès [caress] it.” As snickers ripple across the fermentation room, Etlicher grins slyly. “There’s something else we like to say here. If you don’t laugh, you die.”

After fermentation, the sticky, hot brown beans are laid out to dry on a cement patio, emitting the sweet smell of baking bread.

In the final drying stage the beans look like large smoked almonds. They’re purple and ridged inside and bitter to the taste, like unsweetened chocolate, with berry flavors.

Soon these beans will be ready for export to Taza, where they’ll be processed into Haitian chocolate bars.

Last scoops up handfuls of beans and inhales. He is pleased with their fruity, bright odor. “People will fall in love with the taste, place, and quality,” he says. “All of us here would like to put Haiti on the map for quality cocoa.”

And as southern Haiti faces a long, heartbreaking road to rebuilding, the north’s thriving cocoa sector offers promise for what the south can once again achieve with the right investments.

In a recent e-mail, Etlicher said that Hurricane Matthew was “a reminder of how fragile our environment could be, and how we need to invest in the growers to develop their crop and improve their resilience.” The partnership between Taza and PISA is one way to help achieve that.

Meg Wilcox can be reached at megwilcox101@gmail.com.