Local cocoa gains global fame, generates revenue, boosts regional development
Two researchers check and monitor the flowers on cacao trees in a tropical botanical garden in Wanning, Hainan province, in July. (LI TIANPING / FOR CHINA DAILY)
China's tropical island province of Hainan has joined the ranks of celebrated places of origin for chocolate. World-class master chocolatier Pierre Marcolini played a big role in this transformation by debuting Grand Cru Hainan chocolates at his online flagship shops in June.
"This is a fantastic Grand Cru. I feel a slight bitterness, very pleasant, without astringency, with notes of citrus, grapefruit. It is extraordinary," said Marcolini. The Belgian chocolate composer spoke via video about his latest bean-to-bar products made with beans grown in Hainan, a place he said he learned about by chance. Grand Cru, meaning "great growth" in French, was originally a classifier for fine wines.
Always on the hunt for new resources in his frequent and far-reaching travels, Marcolini learned about the island in 2017 in the International Journal of Food Properties, a magazine published in the United States. It said Chinese scientists had developed a new variety of cacao in Hainan, a place already known for tropical fruits and economically important plants such as black pepper, vanilla, coffee, pandan, jackfruit, breadfruit, mango, litchi and wax apple. Cacao is the plant that produces seeds from which cocoa and chocolate are made. The seeds are often called cocoa beans.
Late in 2020, 500 kilograms of cocoa beans were shipped to Brussels, the world's premier city for chocolate, from the Xinglong area of Wanning on the eastern coast of Hainan. The humid island environment, which includes vibrant biodiversity, imparted special qualities to the cocoa beans, including fine quality and special textures and flavors. This captivated Marcolini, who asked his representatives in China to look into the bean.
"This is the first time China has exported its locally produced cocoa beans," said Qin Xiaowei, deputy director of the Spice and Beverage Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences, or CATAS, and lead author of the article that introduced Hainan to Marcolini.
"The deal showed that our cocoa quality and production standards have been recognized by the international community," Qin said.
Local reports said that Marcolini has placed two additional orders of Xinglong beans.
After learning that Hainan is building the world's largest free trade port and has enacted favorable tax-free policies on imports of raw materials and production equipment to encourage investment, Marcolini said he looked forward to visiting Hainan cacao plantations in person, understanding the local culture, and may consider opening a duty-free shop selling chocolates made with Hainan's quality cocoa beans, according to local reports.
Mark Huestch, a descendent of an eminent family known for their chocolate business in the US, said he was also impressed by the superb quality of the local beans during a recent tour to inspect the planting and fermentation process in Hainan.
"Hainan cocoa beans have a very unique flavor, with strong red fruit and nut flavors," Huestch said, adding that he would recommend his chocolate products made with Hainan beans to US consumers.
"With a growing number of orders flowing in from food producers at home and abroad, Hainan's cocoa production simply cannot meet market demand," said Li Fupeng, director of the Cocoa Research Center of CATAS, located at the Xinglong Tropical Botanical Garden, a base for the preservation of tropical and subtropical plants in China.
Pods on a cacao tree ripen in Wanning. (LI TIANPING / FOR CHINA DAILY)
While the known cultivation of cacao dates back thousands of years in Latin America, Hainan's cacao growing can be traced only to the 1950s, when returned overseas Chinese brought in seeds and grew them on farms and in the courtyards of their homes in Hainan.
The cacao cultivation area once reached some 667 hectares around 2004, following large-scale promotion efforts in the 1980s and 1990s. But the acreage dwindled to about 133 hectares mainly due to slack market demand and insufficient processing equipment and technologies, said Li.
Over the past 60 years, researchers from the Spice and Beverage Research Institute have established a nursery for 500 varieties of cacao, making China an important base in the protection, evaluation and innovative utilization of cacao germplasm resources. A total of 21 new varieties have been developed through systematic breeding and artificial hybridization, boasting high yields, fat content and cold tolerance. The technology and standards for growing cacao in China have reached advanced levels, according to reports from CATAS.
"The annual yield of Reyin No 4, China's first cacao variety with independent intellectual property rights, has reached 1,600 kg per hectare, 3.5 times higher than the world average. It has a unique flavor, fine quality and is rich in polyphenols," Li said. Polyphenols are compounds that can have health benefits.
He said, however, that with a limited planting area, Hainan is not in a good position to compete with big cacao growing countries in terms of its cocoa bean industry's output. Hainan should explore an industrial path that is "small in scale but beautiful and exquisite in quality".
Hainan is promoting cultivation of shade tolerant cacao trees in forests of rubber, coconut and areca palm trees, a practice known as "an economy under the trees".
"While increasing the output per unit of land, we have found that planting cacao trees in coconut forests can play a role in protecting the growth of coconut tree roots, a practice that is not only conducive to building a complex agroforestry ecosystem and maintaining soil fertility but also helpful to farmers in generating more income in one place as well," Li said.
Cultivation of high-quality cacao varieties will create favorable conditions for Hainan to build a superb origin and international brand of high-quality cocoa beans, he added.
Hainan has established a primary cocoa processing production line and a quality and safety control traceability system. It also has developed key processing technologies such as low-temperature drying and baking, ultrafine grinding, scientific fixation of aroma and flavor enhancement, local government officials said.
With the special features and quality of Hainan cocoa beans gaining more recognition, more domestic and foreign enterprises are looking to do business with the island province, said Liao Zirong, director of the Hainan tropical agriculture international technology transfer center of CATAS. An increasing number of local farmers are turning to the center, asking for technical guidance in cultivating new varieties of cacao trees, Liao said.
The Spice and Beverage Research Institute has reached agreements with international organizations and institutions such as the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center, or CATIE, the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, and Ghent University of Belgium to boost future collaboration and exchanges in scientific and technological innovation, talent training, technical upgrades and brand development, said Qin.
Qin added that they will work together to promote the high-quality development of the cocoa industry in Hainan.
Cocoa beans are rich in ingredients such as cocoa butter, the vasodilator theobromine and flavonoids, which are good for the heart, kidney and intestines. Experts have suggested that Hainan tap their potential health value and develop products with local features that can be marketed to tourists as gifts.
Cacao trees and their fruits are a special attraction for tourists, especially those from northern regions, as the fruit changes from green to yellow, pink and red as they become ripe.
In Xinglong Tropical Botanical Garden, the attractive fruit, or pods, growing on the trunks and branches of the leafy trees－instead of only on the branches as with most other fruit trees－attract crowds of photo-snapping tourists. The pods contain seeds which are the cocoa beans. The DIY chocolate center also lures many to enjoy making chocolate themselves with cocoa beans harvested from the garden.
Xinglong garden, a famous tourist destination with more than 800,000 visitors annually, is home to more than 3,000 kinds of tropical plants, such as tropical spices, beverages, fruits, ornamental and medicinal trees and other plants as well as palms and tropical aquatic plants.
"It was very pleasing to see the wonderful and colorful fruits hanging on the cacao tree trunks. And it was even more exciting to have time to indulge in making sweet chocolates myself in Hainan," said Lao Ding, a tourist from Shandong province who took a day trip to the botanical garden, which also serves as a national environment science promotion and education center.
"Cacao trees and their beans definitely will make Hainan more attractive, along with its popular sea views, soft beaches, tropical landscapes and the traditional food hospitality," said Wang Bin, a frequent visitor to Hainan in his 50s from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.
"The experience of DIY chocolates here was very entertaining and impressive. I believe people will be happy to see a small shop giving people a place to enjoy making chocolates themselves in my home city," said Wang, adding that he may open a bakery to make chocolates and sweet cakes with cocoa from Hainan.
Wang's idea is in line with a new boutique business model involving cocoa that is becoming popular in some big cities at home and abroad.
At present, China's annual per capita consumption of chocolate is less than 0.1 kg, less than 10 percent of that in Western countries. But the trend is growing at 15 to 20 percent annually, experts said. Imports of cocoa products－including beans, powder and cocoa butter－grew from 75,000 metric tons in 2010 to 108,000 tons in 2019, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
"With small chocolate-making machinery becoming more budget-friendly, anyone can become a chocolate maker at home," said Huang Dantong, a bakery owner in downtown Haikou, capital of Hainan. He said he thinks more consumers want to buy high-quality cocoa beans and process them in their own way to create unique flavors, especially as COVID-19 keeps more people at home.
"So Hainan's cocoa industry has good prospects in exploring its added value to bring in greater economic benefits, better serve the tourism sector and enhance its role in helping to build a more sound natural environment," said Liao, director of the technology transfer center of CATAS.