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For the love of chocolate

Chocolate shoes on display at the Salon du Chocolat 2017.  Credit: Bioversity International/S. Collins
Chocolate shoes on display at the Salon du Chocolat 2017. Credit: Bioversity International/S. Collins

Last week saw the 2017 Edition of the International Cocoa Awards, celebrated as part of the Salon du Chocolat, Paris. Find out why these awards matter for the future of chocolate.

Last week saw the 2017 Edition of the International Cocoa Awards, part of the Cocoa of Excellence Programme, celebrated as part of the Salon du Chocolat, Paris. Samantha Collins, Communications Specialist, reports.

Huge international crowds gathered in Paris last week at the Salon du Chocolat – a testament to the enduing love affair the world has with chocolate. Show-stopping chocolate sculptures took their place beside classical chocolate fountains while on the centre stage, models showed off high-end chocolate fashion.

Of course, the best way to appreciate chocolate is not to wear it, but to taste it and the world’s best chocolate makers did not disappoint with a myriad of mouthwatering chocolate in every size, shape, flavour and colour you can imagine. Also on display, was the diversity of shapes, colours and flavours of the very foundation of the chocolate we love to eat – the cocoa beans.

Cocoa is grown many thousands of miles away from an autumnal Paris, in a narrow tropical equatorial belt that spans the globe. Its cultivation depends on the know-how of the farmers who lovingly plant and tend the trees, in often challenging conditions.

This process also includes the essential fermentation process, which is carried out after the cocoa pod is harvested and the juicy and pulpy beans are taken out of the pods. The fermentation process is what reveals the unique flavours. Once optimum fermentation is achieved, the beans are dried and bagged, ready for buyers and traders.

These skills are showcased at the International Cocoa Awards, organized by Bioversity International and Event International and implemented through the Cocoa of Excellence Programme, at the Salon du Chocolat which take place every two years.

Earlier in 2017, 40 countries from around the world submitted 166 samples to an intense and lengthy evaluation process hoping to win one of the 18 coveted awards – only the best 50 samples go forward to the final stage of the competition.

Every step of the evaluation is carried out blind to ensure impartiality from the judging panel of the Cocoa of Excellence Technical Committee. As Brigitte Laliberté, Cocoa Expert, Bioversity International, said at the Awards Ceremony when the winners were revealed, “These bean samples are a work of love, so they are treated this way within the programme by all the staff, the technical committee and all our partners.”

The International Cocoa Awards aim to increase awareness and education along the cocoa supply chain about the opportunity to produce high quality cocoa and preserve flavours that result from a mix of cocoa variety, bean quality, geographical origin, growing and processing conditions and farmer knowledge.

Common traits of ‘best 50 cocoa shortlist’ is the diversity of flavours the samples offer from floral to spicy to fruity to woody, all with a different cocoa base, which offer a multitude of options for cocoa bean buyers.

Vanuatu is one case in point. At their exhibition stand in the Business to Business section, there were chocolate bars made from their shortlisted cocoa bean. The bars were displaying the Cocoa of Excellence label which is just one way that entrants can link to businesses. Companies are showing interest in using the label which is a great outcome.

And new participating countries are entering the quality cocoa competition. This year saw Dominica, El Salvador, Martinique and Sierra Leone, not only entering for the first time, but selected in the best 50 and winning an International Cocoa Award.

Sadly, the winners of the award from Dominica were not able to attend the event due to the recent ravages from Hurricane Maria which swept through the Caribbean in September, destroying a lot of the island, including many of their prize-winning cocoa trees.

Increasingly, changes to the climate and weather are having a devastating impact on smallholder cocoa growers, and as Laliberté explained in an interview last week on CBC Radio Day6, “If you think about its origin, cocoa comes from very hot humid environments and what is happening with climate change is that a lot of areas where cocoa is grown are experiencing severe droughts.”

Cacao diversity is not just essential for flavour, but also for production, as it provides resistance to pests and disease outbreaks, resilience in changing climatic conditions, and options for farmers. Unlike seed crops, cocoa trees take several years to mature, so it is not so easy to switch varieties year-by-year to adapt to the prevailing conditions.

This is why initiatives like the Cocoa of Excellence Programme that generate incentives for producers to cultivate diverse cocoa varieties need to be celebrated as well as the wonderful chocolate that is the end result.

This work contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests for Trees and Agroforestry, supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Donors