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It’s a long way from Bogota to Brockley in south London: 5,264 miles, in fact. But that is the journey some of the world’s finest, if least-known, cocoa takes en route to becoming a bar of Doisy & Dam chocolate.
Its bright packaging – inspired by the poppy colours of the iPhone 5C – makes Doisy & Dam stand out against the sea of black and gold found on many other premium chocolate bars. But the brand, which started four years ago, is still pretty tiny. Its two founders, Ed Smith and Richard Wilkinson, want it to become better known, not just for selling intriguing flavours such as goji berry and orange, but for championing chocolate from Colombia.
In recent generations, Africa has come to dominate the global cocoa market, producing more than three-quarters of the world’s supply. But cocoa originally came from this corner of South America, where the land is lush from the frequent rain and hot equatorial sun. Ed, 29, and Richard, 30, school friends in London since they were five, have teamed up with a Colombian cocoa company called Luker Chocolate in a bid to make Colombia as famous for cocoa as it is for its two other well-known cash crops: coffee and cocaine. I joined the ‘Doisy boys’, as they jokingly call themselves, on a cocoa plantation in Necocli, northern Colombia, to find out more.
Here, Juana Botero, sustainability director of Luker Chocolate, showed us around the sprawling estate, where alligators laze in the river. ‘Colombian cocoa is not well known outside the country because traditionally we consumed all the cocoa produced as drinking chocolate,’ she says (hot chocolate is apparently as staple a breakfast drink for the Colombians as tea is in England).
The other reason why cocoa almost died out in this area of Colombia is the cocaine trade, she explains. On the Caribbean Sea, Necocli is one of the last major towns in Colombia before you hit the border with Panama and North America. ‘It was a bottleneck for drug trafficking here,’ says Richard. With all the drugs passing through the town came guns and gangs – and few stable job prospects. There are still the occasional police roadblocks checking vehicles, but Necocli and its countryside has been transformed, in part, by the return of cocoa. A region that once echoed with the sound of gunshots is now filled with the sound of machetes slicing through cocoa pods. Luker Chocolate has planted 550 hectares of cocoa trees in the verdant hills above the town and, as we bump around in a four-wheel drive along muddy tracks inspecting the plantation dotted with bright and highly scented hibiscus flowers, you wouldn’t know this was a no-go zone for tourists five years ago.
The cocoa trees are like big shrubs, standing 8ft tall when mature, and contain about 40 pods. ‘It’s so fantastic to see the pods,’ says Richard, jumping down from back of the truck. ‘They are big, colourful, and each has its own personality, even on the same tree.’ He’s right. The pods vary in colour from deep carmine red to egg-yolk yellow, with some purple and orange ones, too. They are harvested throughout the year, as and when they reach the right size. It takes three large pods – each about half the size of a rugby ball – to make one 80g bar of Doisy & Dam. A farm worker, harvesting the pods, slices one open for us to inspect. With a few swift blows of a machete, the thick husk comes off and you can see the contents: about 50 beans covered in a thick, white slime. It is not pretty. ‘But you must try it,’ insists Ed, with boyish enthusiasm. ‘It has the most amazing flavour.’ It does. The pulp has a sweet citrus tang, similar to the flesh of a mangosteen fruit, if you’ve ever tried one.
Ed and Richard insist that setting up the business and working together at their headquarters in Brockley, south London, has not damaged their lifelong friendship. ‘Any arguments we have are resolved very quickly,’ says Richard, who is the finance man. ‘We don’t have arguments,’ laughs Ed, who concentrates on marketing. ‘We have heated debates!’ Meanwhile, the farm worker scoops out the pulpy fruit into a sack, which is then sent off to fermentation sheds at the farm.
The air here has a sour, vinegary tang as the sticky pulp-covered beans sit for six days in large wooden boxes and start to develop the distinctive, almost gamey, notes of raw cocoa. The next stage is drying. The beans are spread out on concrete terraces for another six days, as someone turns them by hand with a wooden rake. On the day we visit, Veronica is methodically raking the beans under the hot midday sun. I crack open a finished bean to try. Inside are raw cocoa nibs: dry, bitter, but unmistakably the taste of cocoa. Veronica is one of 200 farm workers and explains how, until the cocoa plantation came along, she only managed to find sporadic work on plantain farms, earning $5 a day. She now earns a regular monthly salary of about $220. ‘Cocoa has changed my life 100%,’ she says.
Two weeks after harvest, the dried beans are trucked 500 miles to Luker Chocolate’s processing factory in Bogota, where they will be roasted, ground and turned into cocoa mass before being shipped to London to be made into chocolate bars. It’s here that exotic flavourings such as coconut, goji berries, Himalayan pink salt and lucuma (an antioxidant-rich Peruvian fruit) are added, and these have inspired our delicious recipes.
Many of these ingredients might be more at home in a health food shop; the boys say they always try to put one ‘superfood’ in each bar, and insist that good-quality chocolate has a place in a ‘balanced lifestyle’. ‘People are starting to care more and more about where their chocolate comes from,’ says Richard, explaining Doisy & Dam’s ethical appeal. ‘Everyone loves eating chocolate, but if you can eat chocolate that improves lives, that’s got to be a good thing.’
Now try our recipes: