Interview with Cinzia Anselmi, Global head of agroscience at Barry Callebaut


Interview with Cinzia Anselmi, Global head of agroscience at Barry Callebaut


What does cocoa mean for you?

Cocoa is people to me. When I think about cocoa I think about the people, the farmers, the women, the children that I met in all my trips. Cocoa for me at the moment is my biggest pasion, it is my life somehow, it ́s memories as well. This something that I am trying to say to my students or to my scientist, that you don ́t have to forget that behind this amazing fruit there are people, real people. When I say real people I say people that everyday they are really facing enormous challenge because cocoa is a very sensitive tree.

"Cocoa is people to me."

What does origin mean?

Origin is from where cocoa is coming from. When we discuss about Origin we discuss about mainly about the place from where it’s coming from. The Origin is due to the genetic of the trees. The Origin is something to do with the soil where the cacao is growing. Cocoa is also belongs to people it ́s also how they cultivate cocoa, and how they ferment and they dry cocoa, this make somehow the origin of the cocoa. And as well everything is related to the aroma and to the taste profile makes an origin.

Why the brands now want to define an origin?

I believe chefs and people are looking for origins because they want to have somehow a place or a face behind the cocoa they are buying, their processes somehow. And it is more easy probably to describe an aroma or to think about all the aplications if you have a story behind or you have a background, and the background on most of the case are the farmers, the colour of the face of the farmers, if they ́re coming from west Africa, if they ́re coming from for example from Indonesia, or even the accent from the farmers. I mean this is what actually our chefs or the people are looking for. Probably it’s all about faces and landscapes behind it.

"Chefs are looking for a place or face
behind the cocoa they're buying."

What does the future have in store for cocoa?

Cocoa belongs to people, and we have to convince today the people or our farmers, to stay in cocoa. And our biggest challenge today, together with managing the pest and diseases, is also the competition or the high competition that we have with palm and rubber. So we have actually, we have two routes for the future. Probably one route is to go for a bigger state, so think about cocoa belongs to bigger company or bigger piece of land.

Or to still really believe on the farmers, on what the farmers they can do, may be to convince our farmers that if they want to be competitive they have to take back somehow the origins of cocoa. Cocoa belongs to the rainforest, and we have somehow to bring cocoa back to the rainforest. So it means that if I have a big plantation of 1 hectare with 1000 trees I still have the posibility to plant something in between the trees and this probably can give competitiveness to the farmers because they can have an extra income coming from side crops. So, this how I see bring back the rainforest, intercropping cocoa, to manage better pest and diseases.

Also it is important to be sure that the farmers they have good materials to increase the yield, and to work a lot on soil fertility, I mean to be sure that everything that the farmers are going to uplide is sustainable in the future, they are able to uplide more organic fertilizers and not just the chemical fertilizers. Really to teach the farmers the basic of good agriculture practices.

How are cocoa diseases handled?

One of the biggets problems that we have today in West Africa is a virus, and we don ́t have a vaccination of course. We can think about prevention and one approach at the moment is to teach the farmers to recognize the problems first, but then also to stop somehow the problems. For example, covering or having cocoa with something else, like constructing barriers barriers in between the cocoa and something else.

"We need to bring back the cocoa in its normal environment, to make sure that its ecosystem is balanced again." 

All the work done so far was mainly to identify the best planting material in terms of yield, in terms of number of pots per tree, but about resistance. We are always looking for the gens responsible for resistance. For example in Asia one of the biggest problems we have is the VSD, and there are a lot of efforts looking for planting material resistance to VSD for example.

Actually in the last 15 years we did so much work in breeding and the problems are still there. So probably we have also to think what can we done more. Probably what is missing is really to bring back the origins to the cocoa, to make sure that we bring back the cocoa in its normal environment, to make sure that its ecosystem is balanced again. 

How can we teach the farmer to grow cocoa?

There are hundreds of instructions with beautiful pictures and very nice explanations available, but there are no instructions for the farmers. What is still missing in these instructions is the social anthropologic part. Cocoa belongs to people, so when we write these instructions we always have to think about who are the final receptors of these instructions. The instructions for West Africa they are not the same as those for Latin America or for Indonesia, because people are different: they have different needs, they grow up with different type of foods...

In the GAP (good agriculture practises) we discuss pre-harvest technics and the post-harvest technics.

In the pre-harvest technics we train the people how to manage the pest and diseases, how to manage the soil, how to increase the fertility, how to do pruning whichit is an extremely essential for to keep the system productive, how to manage the shade, how to manage the young trees in comparison with the old ones, what to do with the old trees...

"Every place has to have its own tailor made manuals, with a strong social and anthropological impact."

Post-harvest is really specific for different places, because it is about fermentation and drying. There are places where they do sun drying, this is mainly West Africa, and places where they don ́t have enough sun, for example in Indonesia we have sometimes 3.000 millimetres of rain per year. So obviously the manuals and instructions are completely different. There are even some places where they don ́t do fermentation because they sell the cocoa after the harvest. Some other farmers really believe in what they do: they will never sell cocoa if it ́s not well fermented under the sun, or if they don ́t get a humidity of around 8%, or if they don ́t have a nice crunchy noise when they keep it in the hands.

Every place has to have its own tailor made manuals, with a strong, strong social, anthropological impact. Religion is important, what they eat is important, wich type of education they got, the environment, the landscape, if they have acces to water, if they have acces to school, the role of the women... all these aspects we need to take in consideration when we write instructions for farmers. So, I don ́t belive in one manual, it will never work.

Why is fermentation so important?

During fermentation we prepare the precursors for the flavours, so it is an essential step for the final flavour of cocoa. Each origin has his own way of doing fermentation.

For example, in West Africa it is very common to find farmers who ferment directly at the farm level, so, using big banana leaves. They like to ferment cocoa in a big hole: they open pots in the plantations and drop the beans with the pulp on the top of these banana leaves, then close it with a new and clean banana leaves and leave it there probably for 5 or 6 days. Good farmers or well trained farmers sometimes even go back to the plantations after 2 days to move the beans and close them again with the banana leaves.

In Indonesia, for example, we have a completely different way to fermenting cocoa. Some farmers don ́t do fermentation because it is not required actually, because they can sell it anyway. We don't use this type of cocoa for fine flavours, only for the fat content of those beans. Other farmers, for example in Java or in Malaysia, do fermentation in enormous wooden boxes in a so-called stair system: the boxes, each containng 500kg of wet beans, are placed on three different levels. Every two days the doors are opened and the beans fall in the second box. Fermentation in boxes is more controlled because you can even add some bacteria that really help developing the fermentation or speeding the process of fermentation.

What does aroma mean?

I think it ́s difficult because taste is a very subjective feeling. Aroma is also linked to the memories of people. So I think it ́s really culturally dependent as well. I mean if you speak about aroma with chefs from France they will have a very specific demand. But if you speak about aroma with chefs coming from Mexico they will give you a completely different definition of what they ́re looking for.

"Aroma is also linked to the memories of people."

Aroma is coming from the roasting: high temperature, medium temperature, low temperature. How to conserve the aroma if we don ́t go too far away with temperature and thinks like that. So, it is difficult to define aroma. There are some guidelines of course, we know for example that some origins have specific aromas so we try to harvest or to source according to recommendations or guidelines.

What is special about Criollo?

The first nice thing of the criollo is the unique shape of the pods. Then when you open the beans, they are completely white but they turn dark brown very quickly because the oxidation is very fast. Criollo is the only bean that you can taste raw, because you don ́t have this strong astringency or acided types of notes. Even raw you already have a strong cocoa aroma, something that you don ́t feel for example in other type of origins because the astringency is too strong.

"Criollo is the only bean that you can taste raw."

Do you have any personal memories about cocoa?

The nice thing for me is that I didn’t choose it: somehow the world of cocoa and chocolate chose me. I was studying medicine, and to pay my study I was working as an assistant of a big chocolatier. I found it amazing: the chemistry behind the chocolate, understanding the cocoa butter, the different temperatures, how to transform the mass to create something amazing... 

I wanted to dive deeper into chocolate and cocoa and wondered where it comes from, and discovered the farmers... The day I met a farmer for the first time... It’s a drug, you get dependent, you will never forget it. You need always to go back there. Cocoa belongs to real people, with real problems... When I discovered this, I said, wow, it is amazing!