The world’s appetite for Swiss chocolates and sweets knows no bounds. “Swiss made” is recognized around the world as a sign of quality. It was a pleasant surprise when I read that at January’s International Confectionery Fair held in Cologne, Germany, Swiss confectioner Chocolat Stella globally released its newest extra dark chocolate, Chocolat Noir, made with cocoa from Kerala, India.
More important, the Indian cocoa used in this new Swiss treat is organic as well as fair trade certified. It’s supplied to the Swiss confectioner through the Indian Organic Farmers Producer Company Limited (IOFPCL), the largest organic producer company in India owned by the farmers, based in Aluva, Kerala.
Chocolat Noir, the 70-gram extra dark chocolate bar, is the first dark chocolate the company has made with Indian-grown cocoa. The Indian link is acknowledged on the wrapper with an image of a trade ship with billowing sails. This is the perfect allusion to chocolate bar’s cocoa source, as India is a land that beckoned many an explorer in search of exotic spices.
Chocolate joins the global-sourcing trend
The cultivation of agricultural products in various parts of the world, and the process through which they are spread to distant lands, is an amazing tale of food globalization. Tomatoes and peanuts from the New World are thriving today in Asian countries. Brazil dominates the production of coffee, originally from Ethiopia. Vietnam is the largest producer of black pepper, Kerala’s indigenous spice, which pioneered the Indian Ocean trade in spices. Now the land of black pepper cultivates cocoa, native to the dense tropical forests of the Amazon.
After not being able to find this chocolate in any stores I decided to contact the company directly. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Antony Panakal that Chocolat Noir will arrive in the United States soon. Panakal, who coincidentally also is originally from Kerala, has worked for Chocolat Stella for 25 years and now is the company’s export key account manager. Chocolat Stella is a family-owned business started as the Chocolat Bernrain Company in 1947 by experienced Swiss chocolatier Walter Muller and his wife Karin at their 300-year-old home. Their son Adalbert continued the tradition, and Chocolat Bernrain built a reputation as a reliable and a high-quality manufacturer of creative chocolate specialties that were sold all over the world. In 1980, Chocolat Stella became part of the Chocolat Bernrain group. With Adalbert’s continued efforts, Chocolat Stella gained a global presence in the specialty chocolate industry. Walter’s granddaughter, Monica Muller, now runs the business.
In the 1980s, Chocolat Stella was one of the first chocolate companies to embrace fair trade practices. The company is known for the good relationships it maintains with farmers, including its 20-year relationship with South American farmers. In the past 15 years, the company has produced kosher specialty chocolates and organic chocolates made from cocoa grown in Brazil and Ecuador, and now India.
Decades in the making
Most of the world’s cocoa grows in areas 10 degrees on either side of the equator because the trees grow well in humid tropical climates with regular rains and a short dry season. Though India is relatively new at growing commercial cocoa, Cadbury, the British-based multinational company, has been operating in India since 1948. Bogged down with problems of importation and related high costs from other parts of the world, the company investigated the option of growing cocoa in India because it was relatively inexpensive and easy to export cocoa to chocolate-producing facilities in Europe.
Studies by Cadbury experts identified South India, especially Kerala, as the most suitable region for growing cocoa. The commercial cultivation of cocoa in India started in the mid-1960s, but encountered some challenges that would stall Kerala’s development as a source of quality cocoa for several decades. Among the biggest problems was that Indian farmers were unfamiliar with cocoa and didn’t know how to grow the new crop.
Finally a Swiss-quality product
Chocolat Stella launched a series of initiatives to improve the quality of Kerala-grown cocoa that took years to pay off for the company. Fifteen years ago, Chocolat Stella imported semi-finished cocoa products from Kerala but the quality was not satisfactory. In 2007 the company, in collaboration with IOFPCL, sent a team of experts, including Panakal, to Kerala to evaluate the production and processing of cocoa. The team gave farmers several practical tips, but new exports again were not acceptable. On a third attempt Chocolat Stella invited Kerala farmers to Switzerland for in-house training, which paid off.
It was a historic achievement for the farmers when a shipment of cocoa from Kerala met the stringent quality standards of Chocolat Stella. It showed a lot of patience with Kerala farmers, and in the end they succeeded. The quantity of Kerala cocoa exported to Switzerland is very small. Yet, this exposure received from a reputed Swiss chocolate company has opened international market for growers. Four decades since initial cultivation, Indian cocoa beans have now achieved Swiss chocolate standards.
Chocolat Noir chocolate bar made with cocoa from India. Credit: Ammini Ramachandran