While the Philippines may not be one of the biggest chocolate consumers in the world, despite the nation’s affection for mass-produced chocolates, it can take pride in producing the rarest and most luxurious variety of this treat. This is a fact that not many Filipino chocoholics know.
At the International Cocoa Organization’s bi-annual World Cocoa Economy report for 2012, the Philippines was at the bottom list of cocoa consumers, with the average Filipino consuming only 0.32 kilogram of cocoa per year, far from the Swiss’s 5.88 kilograms per capita.
But what is more interesting is that this quiet chocolate-consuming nation is believed to be one of the first countries outside the American region to have grown cacao back in 1670.
According to the 1877 folio titled Flora De Filipinas, “cacao first traveled outside its American homeland in 1670 from Acapulco, Mexico to the Philippines aboard Manila galleons.”
The published work further noted that the first cacao planted in the Philippines was pure Criollo, the most prized variety of cacao in modern day.
It was this discovery that led homegrown chocolate brand Auro to go the extra mile and highlight the country’s rich connection to this confection.
It all began when in 2010, businesswoman Jacqueline Go, found herself in a midlife crisis. Going through a spiritual journey, Go stumbled upon cacao and its rare variety unknowingly growing in the country’s backyard.
Fueled by this new information, Go went into a research frenzy, tapping local farmers oblivious they had the prized possession.
“I met a local farmer who never knew about the varieties of cacao. Passion went in to a lot of research and whatever we found out, we share it with them through seminars that we are conducting,” Go shared during the grand launch of her chocolate brand in Manila House, Bonifacio Global City.
However, upon turning her passion into a business, she was initially unsuccessful so she discontinued her research and refocused her energy on something else.
“But what is meant to be, is meant to be. Four years ago, my husband [who initially told her to stop pursuing her cocoa passion], got a free ticket to Davao, visited Almacen and met people who were working with cacao. He particularly had a chance encounter with a cacao worker who was on his last day of employment,” Go recalled.
Out of compassion, Go’s husband told the worker on the spot that he work for his wife. Upon returning to Manila, the businessman fulfilled his promise to the Davaoeño, and told Go to reopen their cacao venture.
Everything soon fell into place when their daughter Kelly, who was educated in Chicago, thereafter attending culinary training in Le Cordon Bleu Paris, decided to come home and take an interest in cacao.
“I am very blessed that she took interest in it as well and our business partner Mark Ocampo. They’ve since been going to Davao to meet with farmers and give them the proper information about cacao,” Go shared.
Passing the mic to Ocampo, the young businessman shared that there are three different varieties of cacao, which not all farmers from Davao knew. There is of course the rare Criollo; the Forastero, which makes up the majority of cacao production in the world; and the Trinitario which is a hybrid of the two.
Moreover, they also discovered something more rare in Davao—the heirloom Criollo Porcelana which only makes up 0.1-percent of the world’s cacao production.
“Mark and I just recently discovered this. We are unique in Asia [in terms of chocolate consumption]because we are very much like South America. We drink cacao as tablea while our neighboring countries don’t consume it, they just export it. Isn’t it great and unique that we have this long tradition here in the Philippines?” Kelly conveyed.
With the lack of knowledge of cacao’s rich history and value, it was but understandable how many farmers had been cutting down precious cacao trees.
“When my mom first started going around, they met a lot of farmers who would cry once they knew what they had,” Kelly recalled.
The young businesswoman then laid out that the goal of Auro—a portmanteau of gold’s chemical symbol, Au, and it’s Spanish word, oro—as the coming together of innovation and heritage.
“Heritage because we want to honor the farmers who have worked hard to produce cacaos and to restore some of those ancient, heirloom cacao varieties that we have,” Kelly explained.
“And innovation because there’s really no identification of varieties nor quality benchmarks in the country. Every farmer is paid the same amount for the same type of cacao. So what we really invested on are a state of the art factory and a big plant with the same equipment that big players out there are using, to accommodate as many farmers as we can,” Ocampo added.
The young tandem then proudly said that unlike the first chocolate buyers who do not give incentives to farmer who produce high quality varieties, they pay different prices for different qualities.
“With cacao, all we can do as chocolate makers is to maximize its inherent quality. I can’t dramatically change its flavors. So we have to work so hard to make sure that we have good raw materials,” Kelly finally explained.
The results of this passion to revive the abandoned Criollo are luxurious chocolate bars in dark chocolate (64 percent) and milk chocolate (42 percent). There are cocoa nibs, blocks and coins for variety.
And to prove how versatile a luxurious chocolate is, Manila House chefs led by Selena Ocampo prepared savory dishes—pan-seared salmon and roasted pork—with a chocolate twist.
The night then ended in a sweet explosion when top pastry chefs Sunshine Puey, Peachy Juban, Miko Aspiras and Richie Manapat created their chocolate masterpieces using Auro.