Bertil Akesson is the man who put Madagascan chocolate on the map. He is also the one keeping Madagascar on the map by supplying about 95% of all cacao from the island. Imagine a European Indiana Jones. Trade some of his American brashness for a bit of European debonairness and you’ll come close to describing Mr. Akesson.
Anyone who has tried Madagascar chocolate can agree that chocolate made from Madagascan cacao is unique and some of the best in the world. Known for it’s distinctive tart, fruity qualities, Madagascar chocolate become such a recognized part of the craft chocolate scene. So much so that the premier craft chocolate event Northwest Chocolate Festival has a specific award for Madagascan bean-to-bar chocolate.
Madagascar Chocolate’s Come Up
But how did cacao from the Sambarino Valley in remote Northwestern Madagascar become so prominent? And how did this swashbuckling Swede become the one to bring Madagascar chocolate to the world?
Cacao roughly followed the path of European colonialism. From its first discovery in Mexico and Peru, the Spanish reportedly took this coveted plant to the Philippines sometime around 1670. From there, the Dutch took it to Java in Indonesia. Around 1800, French and British colonials took it first to Mauritius then to Madagascar. By 1878, there were some cacao plantations in Madagascar that were initially unsuccessful and then replaced by a more attractive cash crop: coffee.
50 years later, French colonists on Madagascar began planting cacao in the Northwest part of the island in the Sambarino Valley. These plantations eventually came under the control of Akesson’s late father in 1979. This was part of a deal struck with the government of Madagascar. The elder Akesson was primarily interested in the existing sisal plantations (used in making rope and matting) and mineral deposits in the area. However, the government of Madagascar pressured them to also purchase the adjacent, previously nationalized land. This land contained old cacao trees. Another 25 years later, the younger Akesson took it upon himself to figure out what to do with the unwanted, heirloom cacao plants on his father’s property.
In 2005, Bertil Akesson started exporting his cacao to the nascent craft chocolate makers in Europe then the US. He started with Guittard and Soma. Over the next 5 years his cacao grew in popularity and he began to supply most of the craft chocolate makers around the world. In 2008, he launched his own brand, named Akesson. He also dealt with family drama of a disinheritance from which he only regained control of the property in 2011.
Akesson and Madagascar Chocolate Now
Currently, Akesson has 200 clients around the globe, ten times the number he had just ten years ago. Akesson’s farms produce about 300-350 tonnes of cacao each year, a small fraction of the estimated 4.5 million tonnes produced each year globally. However, his cacao is regarded as perhaps the best in the world. He uses no fertilizers or chemicals of any sort. And the blights that have affected many plantations around the world have not affected Madagascar’s crop.
The Akessons also power their operations with photovoltiacs (solar power). They also provide custom ferment and drying of their beans to the specifications of their buyers. However, challenges persist, as northwest Madagascar is very remote and few services or infrastructure are present. It takes 24 hours to drive the 300km from Akesson’s land to the port for export Madagascar chocolate. He estimates that even with the security he provides to his trucks, he loses 10-15% to theft.
However, despite these challenges, Akesson’s business thrives and has recently expanded beyond Madagascar chocolate. In recent years he has acquired land in Brazil and most recently in the Western African nation of Gabon. We look forward to see what types of flavors he is able to get out of the soils in these countries!
If you haven’t tried what craft chocolate makers do with Akesson’s beans – or what he himself does, you really have to. It could change your entire idea of what chocolate can taste like.
photo cred: Ultimate Chocolate Blog