Burmese Chocolate & Cacao Culture

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t the time of publication, there is just one cacao growing group, one cacao processor, and one chocolate producer in Myanmar, and all three of these businesses are owned by Ananda Cocoa & Coffee. Although cacao has been grown in Myanmar for much longer than that, the firm has only been operating since the late 1990s and is headquartered in Yangon, the country’s capital. Because it’s possible that you haven’t heard of the chocolate manufactured in Myanmar yet, but its history is fascinating enough to warrant a full-length motion picture.

The story would revolve on Ananda’s founders, Jean-Yves Branchard and his wife, and would include kidnappings, fatal illnesses, forest fires, and recurring floods. The Branchards would play a central role in the story. And all of this occurred before there was ever a single chocolate bar produced. Even though there were very few sites in Myanmar that were safe to visit at the time, Branchard launched a tour business in order to start bringing tourists back to the nation as it was beginning to recover from the civil war.

My prediction is that Burmese cuisine, landscapes, and people will soon be on everyone’s radar, despite the fact that Myanmar, previously known as Burma, is a destination that is visited by a very small number of tourists. This is especially true of the chocolate that is produced domestically in the nation.

The Tumultuous History of Agriculture in Myanmar

In spite of the fact that people have been living on the region that is now known as Myanmar for well over ten thousand years, the history of the nation as we know it only goes back a few hundred years. There were a great number of kingdoms that were dispersed all over the region prior to the establishment of the British colony and the establishment of the independent state of Burma. Rice has become one of these once-independent communities’ primary sources of sustenance in the contemporary age, with fishing, cattle, and other low-to-the-ground crops accounting for the majority of Myanmar’s agricultural production.

Additionally, the lumber sector is becoming increasingly significant due to the relevance it has in regard to the cocoa industry in Burma. Cocoa cannot be grown with the majority of the country’s other primary agricultural products due to their incompatibility. There is a good reason why you do not often think of cocoa trees in conjunction with onions, sesame, or sugarcane; none of these crops are compatible with one another. However, Myanmar’s beautiful woods are the ideal locations for intercropping cacao with existing tracts of plants, including the areca palm, which is significant to the local community.

The difficulty with this concept, on the other hand, stems from the monarchies and colonialism that existed in Myanmar. Since they gained their independence, they have been subjected to a number of authoritarian regimes, a continuing civil conflict, and natural calamities that have caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose their homes. Because of this, many people have, over the course of the years, begun to rely on the very same woods as a source of money, a place to find refuge, and even as a means to cook their meals.

The practice of illegal logging continues to be a significant obstacle for landowners in Myanmar and is the primary driver of forest loss there. Because there was a lack of infrastructure inside the nation up until about five or ten years ago, it was difficult to get things like cocoa and other goods like these types of woods to market. But since there are now more roads and bridges that link more parts of the nation, deforestation is occurring at a quicker rate than it ever has before.

Even if increasing the amount of cacao grown on current farms in Myanmar were to solve a minuscule portion of the issue, it would still be a drop in the ocean in terms of reducing the rate at which the world’s forests are being cleared for development. Because, well, there is only so much that one person and a small team can do.

Bringing Cacao to Myanmar

Cacao is assumed to have been introduced to Myanmar for the first time sometime in the 1970s, however the exact year of its arrival cannot be pinpointed. “Everything was written on paper, so [the records] were simply destroyed by time, weather, humidity… rodents; anything you can imagine,” explains Jean-Yves Branchard, the inventor of Ananda Chocolate. “Everything was written on paper, so [the records] were just destroyed.” Branchard has been living in Myanmar for more than 20 years, and during that time he has discovered a lot of abandoned cacao plants on government property. These trees are the leftovers of a long-ago experiment in producing cacao.

However, ever since Branchard started his own Burmese cocoa experiment back in 2003, he has not been able to obtain any answers that can be considered conclusive on those initial farms. Back in those days, the government even started producing their very own chocolate making equipment. However, Jean-Yves has a sneaking suspicion that they had trouble figuring out how to properly process the chocolate on their own, which is why they eventually gave up on the project and declared it a failure. It wasn’t until Jean-Yves imported sixteen distinct cocoa varieties from CIRAD in 2003 that Myanmar’s cocoa business made its way back into the record books.

An outpost of the Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD) may be found in the island country of Vanuatu, which is located in the South Pacific. They were able to deliver 16 samples that were free of biological contaminants straight to Myanmar from that location. But now, more than a decade and a half later, there are just four of those initial sixteen left. There’s no way to tell for sure what caused the first decline, but it might have been anything from the kind of soil and rainfall to natural vulnerabilities to natural weaknesses to local pests and disease.

The thing that concerns Jean-Yves the most is figuring out how to effectively treat the problems that are afflicting the trees that have survived, and then planting even more of those trees.

Setback After Setback; Repeat

In the years that have passed since Jean-Yves and his wife planted those first trees, their efforts have been hampered by obstacles that I could never have anticipated. Some of these concerns have been caused by the same lack of infrastructure that is causing problems for all of Myanmar’s agricultural industry, such as flooded bridges, roads riddled with potholes, twisting highways or highways that do not exist, etc. When poor roads extend a journey that would normally take one day to two or three, getting to and from your cocoa plantation becomes 10 times more difficult. Branchard claims that the distance between their current location and their home is 650 kilometers, and that they are just at the beginning of the southern section of Myanmar.

Crops have been wiped off due to natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and forest fires in recent years. They had to begin their tree plantation almost from scratch when a fire destroyed 95% of their trees one year and forced them to start again. However, these are only the issues that have arisen as a result of the physical surroundings; the Branchards have been subjected to a great deal more unsettling occurrences as a result of the human factor. In just the last twenty years, Jean-Yves has been hospitalized three times with dengue fever, been threatened by armed thieves and disgruntled tribesmen, and had the government attempt to relocate him because of guerilla warfare. All of these events have taken place in the same region.

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This doesn’t even begin to touch on the fact that his employees have been the target of attempted kidnappings, that the government and private residents have engaged in illegal logging, and that people from all walks of life have been taking his ripe pods directly off the trees. The preservation of Myanmar’s woods is essential to him, but so is his family; throughout the course of his life, he has learnt when to back down and when to maintain his ground. One thing that he is unmovable on is the cultivation techniques he utilizes, which emphasize natural and organic goodness to the greatest extent that they may be cultivated.

However, since he adheres to such a stringent policy of not using pesticides, the amount of land that he is able to possibly plant cocoa on is restricted. Cocoa trees and areca palm trees, which produce the widely consumed betel nut, complement each other well as companion plants for cacao plantations. In spite of this, oil palm and rubber trees have proven to be Myanmar’s two most successful cash crops in recent years.

The majority of individuals that plant oil palm trees want that the whole tract be deforested and monocropped to maximize profit, but rubber trees are like kryptonite for cacao since they compete for the same resources. They ensure that any cocoa trees that are cultivated in the area do not bear fruit for as long as they are alive, leaving the plants fruitless. Unluckily, people in general have a tendency to go where the money is, and Burmese farmers are no exception to this rule. Even so, cacao is still responsible for paying the bills.

Building Burmese Chocolate Culture

Craftspeople who utilize cacao that was produced in the same nation as where their product is created produce a value-added chocolate. This kind of chocolate is made from bean to bar, or in this instance, tree to bar. The current consumption of chocolate in Myanmar is rather low, regardless of the level of value addition, and the majority of it is composed of compound-style chocolates that are imported from Malaysia. When you enter a convenience shop in Myanmar, you will discover a great amount of foreign chocolates, many of which you are likely familiar with, such as Hershey’s, Cadbury, and Kraft, amongst others.

You may even be able to purchase chocolate bars such as Lindt and Ritter Sport at more upscale retail establishments. These brands are regarded premium in the majority of other countries’ economies. However, in this region, even these premium products are elevated to the next level since they are imported, which means they have been given the coveted seal of approval. These imported chocolates come in milk and dark varieties, with and without additional flavorings, and in a variety of sizes. They are considered the greatest chocolate money can buy because, for decades, that was indeed the case.

It took Jean-Yves and his team 10 years, with a few pauses along the way, to perfect the cacao processing to the point where they could use it to produce chocolate. However, at the present time, the majority of Ananda Chocolate’s sales are still made via hotels and specialized shops in the country’s main cities; very few customers make queries directly. The chocolate is mostly of the dark sort and has a taste that is bolder and more bitter than what people in Burma are used to tasting.

The Burmese youths that were there. I participated in a chocolate tasting with people who favored more subdued, creamy chocolate tastes that were sweeter than even the 45% milk chocolates from Ananda are able to give. The consistency of Ananda bars is similar to that of fudge, but they include no additional fats beyond the milk powder and use solely cane sugar as a sweetener. However, as Ananda only distributes chocolate in bar form at the moment, it is difficult to tell how the people of Burma would want to drink their chocolate. The beverage that comes the closest to being a substitute for hot cocoa in Burma is iced Milo.

Meet The Only Chocolate Maker in Burma

Ananda Chocolate was established by Jean-Yves and his wife, who is also one of the company’s founders. However, in addition to making chocolate, they also work as tour guides and travel brokers, and they have a few other businesses that are constantly in the planning stages. During the course of our discussion, Jean-Yves smiled and said, “Chocolate doesn’t pay the bills.” Cocoa and coffee import-export business runs in his family in France, but he didn’t go into the cocoa business until the local coffee export market crashed in 2003. Before that, he was in the coffee business.

As soon as it seemed that his cocoa trees would produce enough cacao for him to start a chocolate enterprise, he immediately began sourcing equipment from Europe and India and dived headfirst into the chocolate industry. He educated himself on cacao processing and chocolate production by reading books, consulting with friends, and engaging in a significant amount of trial and error. After establishing his cacao fields in 2003, he was forced to cease all production of cocoa between the years of 2008 and 2013 owing to conflict in the area around the estates. His exquisite packaging now features photographs of some of the cacao farmers with whom he works, as well as the varieties of cacao that have made it through the first fifteen years.

However, cultivating cocoa in collaboration with other farmers results in greater labor. The pair must go to the farms of any farmers who are interested in collaborating with them since, absent this step, there is a risk that they will make an error. He claims that the cultivation of cocoa requires “a great deal more energy.” It’s not a banana, and it’s not a coconut, either of which are far more typical crops in that region of Myanmar. “It’s not,” they said. Finding farmers who are able to achieve such standards has been one of the factors that has delayed expansion.

Actually, Ananda had its very own café in Yangon at one point, but they were forced to take it down a few years ago as a result of the ongoing decline in tourism in the area. Although there weren’t enough clients to make that specific business profitable, they haven’t let that setback slow down their forward progress in the least.

The Future of Cocoa in Myanmar

At the moment, Ananada Chocolate produces around one ton of chocolate per month. The majority of this chocolate is supplied to local hotels and companies for the purpose of resale. The cocoa part of their company is continuing to grow, with a new farm now in the planning stages and a greater number of farmers than ever before expressing an interest in cultivating cocoa on their property. According to Ananda, they pay the farmers they deal with two to three times the Fair Trade price, and similar to the situation in Thailand, the majority of farmers just plant it alongside their regular crops.

“Because of the manner we cultivate cocoa in the forest, on top of the already existing plantations, the majority of the farmers earn twice as much money.” In addition to their usual revenue, they profit from growing cocoa for our company. They develop a strong fondness for it as a result.

Jean-Yves Branchard, Founder of Ananda Chocolate

Even though Ananda has been using this cocoa to make chocolate for over seven years, they still have a lot more to learn each and every day. This is particularly true in light of the fact that their cocoa is being adversely affected by a shifting environment in a new manner throughout each season, and the ever-present danger posed by each previous defeat they have endured. Because Myanmar has not yet planted enough cacao to even think about exporting it, the expansion of cocoa cultivation in neighboring countries does not seem to pose a danger to the sector. But as Myanmar becomes more accessible to tourists, the number of customers purchasing chocolate may make or destroy the industry.

Will these additional tourists be interested in purchasing chocolate made in the area? Will they even make it to Myanmar if they do come? Cacao has the potential to become a minor deforestation deterrent in Myanmar, provided that farmers are willing to grow cocoa plants on their current property. The Burmese cacao sector continues to be in a precarious state of flux, with no end in sight, despite the fact that there is no history of cacao cultivation in the country and that there are very lucrative choices for selling its hardwood.

Have you ever tasted chocolate that was crafted with cocoa from Burma?

FAQs

What is the cultural significance of chocolate?

They thought that their gods had bestowed cocoa to them as a gift. They utilized cacao beans as payment to purchase food and other items, much like the Maya did, but they also relished the caffeine rush of hot or cold, spiced chocolate drinks in ornate vessels. These beverages might be served hot or cold. Cacao beans were regarded as having a value that exceeded that of gold in Aztec society.

Why was chocolate so important to the Mayans?

They thought that their gods had presented them with cocoa as a gift. They utilized cacao beans as payment to purchase food and other items, similar to the Maya, and they appreciated the caffeine boost that hot or cold, spiced chocolate drinks in ornamental vessels provided. However, unlike the Maya, these people also enjoyed the chocolate’s flavor. Cacao beans were regarded as having a value that exceeded that of gold in Aztec society.

What culture is known for chocolate?

Chocolate in the Middle American region

According to popular myth, the Olmec culture of Mexico was the first known to ingest chocolate, which dates back to around 1500 BCE. New evidence, on the other hand, reveals that the Mayo-Chinchipe civilisation in Ecuador was already cultivating and making use of chocolate approximately 3500 BCE.

How did cacao impact culture?

Cacao beans were distributed as post-battle rewards to warriors, used as cash in commerce, and served at royal feasts because of its cultural significance to the indigenous peoples.

What does cacao symbolize?

Although the afterlife was closely associated with the concepts of rebirth and fertility in Mayan and Aztec cultures, cacao functioned as a symbol of the afterlife in both of those civilizations. As a result, cacao was associated with both the end of life and the beginning of a new one. In addition to these associations, cocoa came to be connected with riches, power, and commerce.

Why was cacao a sacred food?

Chocolate was elevated to the rank of a delicacy and even a holy offering in the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica. The Maya and the Aztecs both held the belief that the gods were responsible for finding cacao in a mountain and that it was meant to be a gift to the people once they were created.