Meet the European chocolate connoisseurs celebrating Kerala’s cocoa

An Italian couple is leading the production of high quality cocoa from Idukki in Kerala that is making its way to makers of artisanal chocolates in Europe and the US

November 27, 2021 02:54 pm | Updated November 29, 2021 11:52 am IST - Kochi

A cocoa farmer from Idukki district in Kerala

A cocoa farmer from Idukki district in Kerala

Spending six months with cocoa farmers in the hills of Idukki, in 2015, was just the beginning of Luca Beltrami’s journey. “They wonder how I am still around,” says the Italian, looking back at his six-year stay in Udumbannoor, where he founded, a small cocoa post-harvesting unit, Go Ground Beans & Spices Private Limited, with his wife, Ellen Taerwe.

More importantly, he built a fraternity of cocoa farmers that is now producing a steady output of high-quality cocoa that is finding its way to chocolatiers in Europe and the US.

A mathematical engineer, Luca gained experience at a cocoa post-harvesting unit in Uganda, before coming to India. Ellen, a business consultant, worked with him in Kerala to connect with farmers and collaborate with chocolate makers to understand the entire bean-to-bar supply chain.

“The relationship we build with the people is important to us. We always find people ready to help us and we are there to help them. It is a happy collaboration,” says Luca who is also a certified chocolate taster (level 1).

Back to the start

Luca met Ellen, in 2011, while both were working as interns in IT firms in Hyderabad. “We devoted an entire year touring India, from north to south and east to west. We fell in love with the country,” he says adding that after his stint in Uganda he was, on behalf of The Riva foundation, an Italian NGO that supports social projects, on the lookout for regions that produced good-quality cocoa.

“The climatic conditions in the high ranges of Idukki ensure that the cocoa can flourish here. That is why we chose Kerala and set up our project here,” he says.

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The present area under cocoa cultivation in India is estimated to be around 22600 ha. With a production of about 6300 tons, Kerala accounts for 79 % of the area and 71 % of the production of cocoa.

Luca started small, with his wife and three locals from the area. “We wanted to collaborate with farmers and give them opportunities to produce high-quality cocoa that would fetch a better price and find a larger market,” he says, adding that initially he would visit each farmer on his bike to find out individual challenges. After initial hesitation, he found them opening up. “Once they realized I wanted a long and permanent relationship with them.”

Luca reasons that the farmers prior to his arrival were not aware of the importance of the fermentation and drying processes. “It is often underestimated.” It took him two years of research and trials to obtain the expected results. “We continue to keep adjusting and improving,” says Luca who during the pandemic returned to Gent in Belgium, from where he hails.

What makes it special?

“The cocoa from Idukki is unique,” he says explaining that it has its own flavour profile. GoGround began by educating farmers in cultivating organic cocoa and also helped them with Europe and US approved organic certification. This helped farmers raise the quality of their produce and offer it to a new and emerging market for craft chocolate. “We raised one group of farmers, where we provide guidance for the plantation and the fee for the certification that includes the administration required for it,” explains Luca who has 88 farmers in this group. He liaisons with another 150 from an organisation called the High Range Organic Producer Company Limited, which has nearly 500 farmers with it.

Luca also began supplying high quality cocoa plants with a “buy back” policy, paying farmers a price higher than the rest. Though some organizations and farmers had already done “a good job” with the cocoa, they were not getting a good price. Before his post-harvesting interventions, cocoa from the area was sold in bulk, often fetching mediocre rates. The professional processing, fermentation and drying, opened up new markets for the produce. Not only does Luca handhold the farmers on cocoa cultivation but also organises organic foods certification and extends micro finance.

Seventy percent of the cocoa produced by GoGround is exported and now almost 20- plus tonnes is shipped to Europe while US markets are buying almost 10 tonnes of the produce.

Straight from the source

Brothers, Kuriachan (24) and Ouseppachan Johnson (27) who launched their brand of craft chocolate, Rakkaudella in July 2021 thank Luca for his mentorship. “He taught us how to produce artisanal chocolates and the farmers how to grow high quality cocoa that fetches them a good price,” says Kuriachan explaining that the inherent flavours in cocoa beans of Idukki are red fruits, cherries and raisins.

He further explains that craft chocolate uses only the solid component of the cocoa bean which also has the cocoa butter.

“Artisanal chocolate uses only the solid, pure chocolate and is made using cane sugar without emulsifier,” says Kuriachan who has a launched 70 % dark chocolate and flavoured ones such as ginger and coffee, with hazelnut, almond and cashew nuts.

Luca adds that chocolatiers make chocolates with different notes- woody, nutty, spice, and different flavours such as butterscotch and caramel, depending on the harvest and the process they follow. “A lot depends on the recipe, processes and the texture.” Nine women work at their fermenting and drying unit. “Our unit smells day and night of cocoa and that is really nice.” The women turn the beans while fermenting and move them while they dry. Finally, the beans are packed in 30 kg bags. The team packs 50 to 80 tonnes of dry cocoa beans every year.

Binu from Lucas unit saved enough to build a well in her house. “She doesn’t have to walk far to fetch water anymore,” says Luca with pride at being able to help his colleagues. “Our’s is not just a collaboration but also a personal bond with the men and women of the plantation. The farmers and their families are part of the supply chain. We seek ideas of improvement from them too.”

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