Thursday, February 13, 2014

Chocolate is back

What would you do to create the perfect product?  How about take 5 flights, canoe for 5 hours through the Amazon, and then trek 15 kilometers through the Bolivian jungle?  That is what it takes just to get the raw cacao for Oialla chocolate.  And we haven’t even started to discuss production yet.  And Rasmus Bo Bojesen, the owner of Oialla and chocolatier, will not settle for less.

This all started a few years ago when Rasmus’ wife asked him one morning why
they didn’t make organic chocolate.  This question didn’t come out of the blue.  Rasmus is a world-renowned chef and restaurateur who owns Axelborg and The Royal Danish Opera Restaurant.  (He has started several other restaurants throughout Denmark.)  His obsession with chocolate started over thirty years ago while working as a chef at Michelin star restaurants and as an apprentice to Lyon master-chocolatier Bernachon. Since then he has studied chocolate.  When I write studied, I mean that the man should have a doctorate in cacao if there were such a thing.  In addition to making and selling chocolate and delicacies in his restaurants and shops over the years, he started Bojesen Chocolate, which produced raw chocolate, in 2006.  And then he wrote a cookbook, “A Sense for Chocolate” that was published in 2009 (for which he won the Gourmand Best Chocolate Book in the World Award in 2012).  When he talks about chocolate, he beams as though nothing else in the world matters. 

So when his wife asked about making organic chocolate, Rasmus’ response was “Three reasons. Taste. Taste. And Taste.”  At that time organic cacao beans had a reputation for poor quality.  The supply of organic cacao was extremely limited and not consistent. But the couple was up for the challenge.  They talked with friends and colleagues, including an agriculture professor nearby that suggested that the cacao they were searching for may exist in the wild and only in the jungles of Bolivia.  After a lot of research, a small protected area was located that had virtually untouched cacao trees around Baures in the Beni region of Bolivia.  And they weren’t exporting the beans. 

This is where the 5 flights, 5 hours canoeing, and 15 km hike come in.  There was no assurance that Bolivia would have the quality of beans that Rasmus demanded.  In fact, he didn’t have proof that this raw material even existed. First, Rasmus met with locals who worked with Bolivian wild cacao harvesters. He then went to the sites to taste the beans and meet the workers.  He was surprised by what he found, an impressive bean with no acidity and bitterness that is usually associated with raw cacao.  He had found his bean.  And it doesn’t get more organic.  These trees have not been cultivated, fertilized, or treated with herbicides. The pods that are produced are about half the size of traditional pods, but hold much better flavor.  These are among the few beans that I have tasted that are not bitter.  They have a solid cacao flavor without the harsh aftertaste. 

Social entrepreneurship

When asked about gaining the trust of the Bolivian farmer, Rasmus shook his head.  “There are no farmers.  There are no farms.  This is the jungle.”  Trust was a big deal.  After working with the beans, he found that the fermenting and roasting process needed a small change.  However, this change flew in the face of what had been done by the locals for generations.  Thus, the relationship with the workers was critical to success. Additionally, the chocolate industry is notorious for the obscene use of child and slave labor. Since the location was deep in the jungle, it would have been easy for a company to come in and exploit those who live there.  Oialla now works with the Danish Foreign Ministry to set and ensure high standards for working conditions. 


Working with these beans has not been easy. As I mentioned earlier, the pods are smaller and the beans have a different flavor than traditional beans.  This cacao also has more cocoa butter.  Thus, the traditional ways of making chocolate did not work.  New recipes needed to be perfected before products were ready.  Initial products were launched in 2010 and in less than a year, Oialla won an award from the “Academy of Chocolate.”  Later in 2011, they won the Gold in Great Taste Awards.  In 2012, Rasmus was invited to a small conference with the most talented chocolate makers in the world.  Although impressed with Oialla, a colleague asked why he didn’t get the entire flavor from the bean.  Puzzled, Rasmus went back to the kitchen and spent almost a year refining the manufacturing process.  He says that he now understands what his colleague meant.  The 78% chocolate now has a fuller flavor that captures more of the nuances of the Beniano beans. 

The product

When I visited Oialla, I was offered a beautiful tray of chocolate to taste, first the solid wafers and then the truffles and nuts.  Bottom line - Oialla chocolate is so good that I actually felt guilty eating it.  There were so many wonderful choices.  Now, I wish that I had taken the whole plate, thrown it in my bag and ran out with the treasures.  I knew that you could buy the chocolate wafers, but now I find out that the truffles and other chocolates are not sold.  Cruel cruel world.

At first, Oialla was produced as 72% and 78% dark chocolates (percent of cacao solids).  They just started producing a 46% milk chocolate.  Although chocolate snobs often look down at the lighter versions of chocolate, this milk is for the connoisseur. Rasmus made a subtle, but genius change to the manufacturing process that takes this milk chocolate to another level. I can’t tell you the secret, but it is brilliant.    

Recipe for success: Passion

What does every entrepreneur need? Passion. Everywhere you turn, people who are talking about successful entrepreneurs talk about passion.  But, what is passion?  The dictionary uses synonyms such as intense, driving, overwhelming conviction, strong desire, and enthusiasm. 

Passion is what gets you through the unforeseen difficulties and challenges, and there always are some.  In talking with Rasmus, you can’t help but understand his need to make the best product that he can, whether it be gourmet meals or organic chocolate.  He is also witty and down to earth, breaking out the beautiful photo book that his wife produced after their last trip to Bolivia with their children. It is a terrific combination that has served him well.  We may very well find Rasmus’ photo under passion in the dictionary.