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From bean to bar

Chocolate is one of the most-loved products in the world.

Most of the world’s cacao, the source of chocolate, is exported from producer countries in “bulk” form and receives a relatively low-price set by global commodity markets. However, in recent years, consumers have become more interested in trying “specialty” versions of cacao products. Since the mid-1980s, exporters and processors have also been increasingly marketing enticing “single-origin” chocolate products made from cacao they purchase from specific countries or regions, or even from a single farm or farmer group, in some cases moving manufacturing closer to growing sites or using distinctive techniques to develop flavors. These products tend to have idiosyncratic flavor profiles that reflect local conditions and represent the unique lands, people, and cultures that produce them, in turn providing farmers with higher prices that help improve their lives. Nonetheless, even as many consumers begin to develop more sophisticated palettes for these products, most lack tangible associations with the lands and people that produce them.

Fostering consumer appreciation of the fascinating and unique properties of single-origin products to improve their value is at the center of our mission at GeoBeat, the company where I’ve been Communications Director since 2020. In support of this mission, I’ve met and photographed cacao farmers, traders, and processors in dozens of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and Oceania to help create bonds between these people and consumers.  

ter·roir /terˈwär/ (French)

The natural environment in which a particular food item is produced, including factors such as soil, terrain and climate, as well as unique growing and processing techniques and practices. The characteristic flavor and texture imparted to a product by the interaction of the physical and human environment in which it is produced.

While the applicability of the term “terroir” to cacao in strictly scientific terms is a subject of debate, I think it’s a useful concept for describing the subtle and evocative character imparted to single-origin products by the lands and people where they are grown and processed. In this sense, in addition to soil and climate, this more expansive definition of the word “terroir” also encompasses the activities that local people undertake to produce cacao products, such as harvesting, drying, and fermentation. Factors that influence the way farmers relate to their trees—including how extensively and densely they plant them, what they inter-crop them with, and when they harvest them, as well as the conditions in which beans are dried, stored, fermented and sold—all interact to determine quality and flavor. More subtle elements related to this interaction could even include seasonal income cycles and the role of a crop in farmers’ livelihoods, the resources farmers and processors have available to invest in their farms and handling facilities, and the way a crop is consumed locally in the communities where producers live.

 Ultimately however, the way people experience a specific cacao product may be most shaped by the unique and personal associations of its consumers. To a person lucky enough to be able to associate a unique chocolate with the often-remote places and people behind it, this experience can be a remarkable sensory journey. For example, the tangy bite of a bar from Madagascar may conjure up that country’s fetid, vanilla-scented coastal rainforests as well as memories of the industrious, panga (machete)-toting farmers that grew it; or a fruit-toned Fijian bar may recall the breezy, palm-lined, tropical South Seas and also the often-joyful communal ethos of the women that bagged the beans used to manufacture it. That is the evocative power of terroir. In this article, I share an example of my experience of a specific place and product in order to illustrate why I define the concept of terroir in this way. While most consumers will not be so fortunate as to have this direct experience with cacao producers; hopefully, by sharing my photography and stories, I am harnessing the evocative power of this expanded concept of terroir to strengthen associations between consumers and the people that grow and process cacao, to the benefit of both.

Cacao is one of the many crops Danish, Dutch, English, French, and later, American, explorers and colonists have diffused along the enormous tropical arc of islands comprising the Caribbean Antilles since the seventeenth century. Haiti is no exception, and the country has a rich cacao history stretching back to Spain’s rule of Sainte-Domingue, as the now bi-national island of Hispaniola was then known. Arriving from Martinique, cacao’s earliest cultivation was reported in Haiti’s central Artibonite region in 1696 (on the Monsieur de la Bretesche plantation). In the century that followed, despite frequent setbacks caused by tropical storms and plant diseases, cacao plantations spread to cover the area where it grows today - the north coast around Cap Haitien, and throughout the island’s southern arm where the département (province) of Grand’Anse lies. In 1941, the crop was given an unexpected impulse when a U.S. and Haitian government partnership created the Société Haïtiano-Américane de Développement Agricole (SHADA). Intended principally as a way to generate an alternate source of critical rubber during the wartime occupation of Malaysia, SHADA research stations also developed improved varieties of other crops, including cacao, to bolster rural incomes.

One such station was Franklin Farms, named for U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, which today lies overgrown with palm trees and vines alongside a rough, muddy track a few miles inland from the Grand’Anse littoral. You have to blaze a trail through thick vegetation to find the cacao trees that still grow there – likely ancestors of many of the trees growing throughout the region today (farmers in Grand’Anse still refer to one type of cacao they grow as the “shada” variety). With families creating small orchards on their homesteads, the diminutive Grand’Anse port of Dame Marie emerged as a cacao trading center with a fermentation facility and a small stone quay that linked it to the capital by coastal shipping specifically designed to carry the cacao trade. However, this all fell into decay during the long decline that began with the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1950s, and the political turmoil that followed, and most farmers in the region slowly returned to subsistence crops and small-scale fishing in the decades that followed. By the late 1970s, many people forgot that Haiti once had a burgeoning tropical economy and the tourists that shuttled between the jazz clubs of Port-au-Prince and the superb beaches on the Cote des Archadins and at Sainte Marks were replaced by aid workers and U.N. staff.

It’s a long, arduous drive from Port-au-Prince to the cacao-producing regions on the far western tip of the mountainous peninsula that comprises Haiti’s southern coast. You need a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle to make this trip. For the first few hours, you wade through the capital’s teeming suburbs and then traverse densely populated plains around Leogane before reaching the intriguing provincial Sud département capital of Les Cayes, which lies opposite pretty Ile a Vache, Haiti’s bucolic but little- known tourism hub. Not long after that, the pavement ends, and you start to traverse rugged passes dotted with small settlements until a rocky coast lined with hand-carved pirogues pulled up in front of wooden shacks signals your arrival at the rustic Caribbean port of Jeremie, the capital of Grand’Anse and the last opportunity to stock up on supplies. From there, dense forests close in overhead as you cross broad rivers and finally head up into the final and most dramatic ranges until, at last, you are treated to spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea far below and you make the steep descent into Dame Marie, the diminutive and isolated coastal port of Anse-d’Hainault arrondissement (division).

At the time of my first trip to Grand’Anse in 2016, efforts were well underway to rehabilitate Haiti’s cacao sector and approximately 20,000 smallholders were producing it throughout the country. Along with essential oils (especially vetiver), mangoes, and coffee, cacao had remerged as one of Haiti’s key export products, and there was a robust domestic market for artisanal cacao products, especially drinking chocolate and liqueurs. However, the small scale of these enterprises results in very limited raw material demand. On the other hand, large local companies like Geo Wiener (Selecto), Askanaya, and Société Générale de Production Agro-Industrielle (SOGEPA) were making investments into the sector and even attempting to produce chocolate at origin for the world market. International exporters included Equitable and Kaleos in France. In addition to these, an expanding number of craft chocolate companies, such as Singing Rooster and Taza Chocolate, were exploring the potential of making single-origin products from Haitian cacao and had recently purchased beans from local farmers.

When I visited Dame Marie, new farmer cooperatives were being extended into the mountainous interior, extensionists were being recruited to train members, and a new fermentation center had just been built with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank. When I arrived at the center at mid-morning on a typical workday, it was a hub of activity. Outside, farmers were arriving from the surrounding mountains to sell their newly restored cacao crops, some of them traveling for hours down rough tracks on mules laden with burlap sacks of beans. Inside, the air was heavy with the warm, rich aromas of cacao and the piercing sweet scent of the juice being sluiced off into cement channels. In many rustic settlements in the surrounding areas I visited, streets were filled with rust-hued beans drying in the bright sunlight, while inside tiny offices under corrugated tin roofs, cooperative leaders explained how important cacao was to livelihoods in the area, but also how they were struggling to improve quality, collect enough beans to fulfil sales agreements, and pay members.

At random intervals throughout the region the small, brightly painted homesteads of the farmers nestle amidst the woods covering the precipitous farming areas that rise abruptly from the coast and in what first appear to be deep shady natural forests, lanky cacao trees appear interspersed at seemingly random intervals. Here and there, heaps of discarded yellow, purple and red husks testify to past harvests. Derived from the word “creole”, Haitian “Kreyòl” refers to the hybrid African and French language and culture that arose in Haiti in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the mingling of enslaved Africans and French planters. The farmers in Grand’Anse are remarkably resilient country folk steeped in Caribbean “Kreyòl” culture. At one home we visited, I asked an elderly man about the foods they typically consume. “Mostly we eat rice and beans with some leafy greens we grow along with breadfruits and yams” he replied. Then he burst into a toothy grin and said, “but if you buy a little pig in the market down in Dame Marie, everyone will come for a barbeque, and we’ll make you a real Kreyòl feast!” During our visits, they inevitably insisted on lopping off a ripe pod and splitting it open with their ubiquitous machetes so we could try the pulp. Breaking into a grin, they’d remind us that this was the best part.

On October 4, just a few weeks after my visit, in yet another of those tragic notes so common to Haiti, Hurricane Matthew struck the southern coast of the country. In addition to significant loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, reports soon started to filter back describing losses in Grand’Anse as “massive”, including heavy damage to both cacao infrastructure and groves. Most of the trees were stripped bare of foliage and farms were clogged with felled trunks. The recently reconstructed fermentation center I visited - around which so much activity had been centered - was destroyed, forcing the coops to suspend their activites until assistance could once again be brought in to rebuild. Nonetheless, fueled by production from the north coast, Haitian cacao products continued to expand, affording chocolate connoisseurs the opportunity to sample the flavors of this enigmatic and unique land and experience its distinctive Kreyòl culture.

One of the pioneers in Haiti is Taza, which in 2015 launched an 84% cacao stone-ground chocolate made from organic beans they procure through a partnership with Produits des Iles S.A (PISA), a local exporter based in Cap-Haitien that is helping producers by providing premium prices. A few weeks after I returned home, I purchased some of Taza’s Haitian-origin chocolate bars. When they arrived, I opened one and bit into it. What I experienced was a chocolate that celebrates the landscapes and culture of Haiti in a very profound way. The initial impression comes from the coarse rustic texture produced by the stoneground beans. Gradually, a deep, rich cacao flavor emerges followed by highlights of cookies and spices, especially cinnamon. The warmth and texture of these attributes evoked the warmhearted and resilient Kreyòl farmers that have persevered through decades of hardships in the rugged mountains around Dame Marie. I was transported to their remote and vibrant little corner of the world in the steep forested hillsides of Grand’Anse, and I felt as if I were revisiting those mountains tumbling onto palm-fringed coasts, a wide expanse of the sparkling, bucolic Caribbean shimmering beyond - that is in my opinion the very essence of the evocative power of terroir. I encourage consumers to seek out single-origin chocolates to help support the livelihoods of cacao farmers like the ones around Dame Marie, and even if they can’t visit them in person, to learn about the places and people the cacao came from to enrich their chocolate tasting experience.


Lucy O’Bryan is an accomplished documentary photographer and is also the Communications Director at GeoBeat Economics and Media. Her work employs tools such as photography and photo blogs, public speaking, and new social media, to enhance promotion and public outreach efforts of organizations around the world. In this role, she has photographed cocoa producers and processors in dozens of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and Oceania to enhance linkages between consumers and farmers and promote richer appreciation of the culture and terroir associated with cocoa and chocolate. A particular focus of her work is the social development projects that cocoa companies implement in order to improve the living conditions of producers in source countries. Visit her site at: or for more information.

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