Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2011-09-08
Thanks to cocoa, the north of the Republic of Madagascar has escaped the catastrophic deforestation that continues to ravage the Red Island of the Indian Ocean. The plains of the north, especially the north-west, are covered with cacao trees that reach up to twelve metres high.
In 1904, Lucien Millot began farming the plantation that still bears his name in Andzavibe. He chose the fertile plain of Sambirano for what would become an immense domain. Just opposite, in the Mozambique Canal, is Nosy Be, the Island of Perfumes, reached by ferryboat from Ankify or Antsahampano. Between Madagascar and Nosy Be is Nosy Komba, the Island of Lemurs.
They say that eighty kilometres of roads criss-cross the property, which covers over 50,000 hectares. Legend or reality? The owner won’t say - 500 km² is the area covered by the city of Los Angeles, and it seems truly enormous, even if Madagascar is as big as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg all put together. You can visit the Plantation Millot and even sleep in the Maison du Planteur B&B and dine at the Table du Planteur as long as you book well in advance. Antananarivo is 950 km further south; plan on two to three days of driving from one place to the other if all goes well.
A multitude of cultures
Lucien Millot, a native of Nantua in east France, came to Madagascar in 1901. He planted his first coffee and coconut trees (for the copra); he grew cassava and vanilla. Naturally: Mauritius and Réunion (then Bourbon) Islands are virtually neighbours! He also distilled citronella and ylang-ylang and gathered the drupes of the pesky flowering vine called pepper - a weed that wraps itself around host trees without asking their permission.
In 1915, Monsieur Millot began planting hevea trees for the rubber. In 1920 he added his first cacao trees, shipped by the Botanic Garden of Buitenzorg (ex-Bogor) in Java. Cacao trees are fully mature after seven to ten years of cultivation, but they can live for a century. And so began the story of a chocolate that is considered to be one of the best in the world.
Holds loaded with cocoa
But first, how did those Aztec beans from the high plateaus of Amazonia come to colonise the Malagasy plains?
The cocoa discovered by the conquistadors in the 16th century was a bitter, spicy drink prized by the Mayas and the Aztecs. The recipe supposedly originated with Quetzalcoatl, the ‘feathered snake’ that was the god of the Aztecs. The Spaniards diluted it with sugar and milk, added vanilla and cinnamon and introduced it to the court of the King of France.
Christopher Columbus was reportedly the first European to drink cocoa; it was during his fourth journey, in July 1502. He tried it on the island of Guanaja off of Honduras, the country where the oldest trace of this divine foodstuff was recently found... dating from 1,400 BCE!
Europeans quickly understood cocoa’s value and planted cacao trees in all of their colonies. To avoid sailing empty, the ships would return from the Caribbean and the Americas with holds weighted down with sugar, coffee, tobacco and cocoa.
Cacao trees were first planted in Sao Tomé and Principe, the small island nation west of Africa that was then under Portuguese rule, before arriving in the Ivory Coast. It then travelled across Africa as far as Tanzania.
Cocoa seems to have made most of its journeys by sea. Thanks to Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese began to settle in Tanzania and Zanzibar in 1498. They also colonised the Mascarene Islands near Madagascar, which include Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues. Cacao trees were planted in Madagascar before winding up their around-the-world tour on the Indonesian island of Java... where Lucien Millot’s plants came from.
Beans in the pod
There are two main native varieties of cocoa: criollo and forastero. Forastero, which has a marked bitterness, accounts for approximately 90 % of world production. Criollo, appreciated for its texture and flavour, is very present in Madagascar, as is the trinitario hybrid developed on the Caribbean island of Trinity after the great cyclone of 1727.
The guided tour of the Plantation Millot takes visitors to the very origins of chocolate.
Close your eyes. Imagine. It all starts with a cocoa pod, the fruit of the cacao tree. Twenty centimetres long, give or take a few, it weighs about a pound and looks like a rugby ball growing from the trunk of the tree (a cacao tree may produce up to 20,000 pink and white flowers a year, but only 20 pods). A swipe of the machete and it falls. Another swipe and it is sliced in two. The seeds are removed, still covered in a white pulp that tastes of lychee; each pod gives 25 to 75 of these beans. They are fermented during nine days with other beans in a wood crate. By then, their centres have turned brown - a good sign! If the fermentation had not been a success, they would have retained their original white or purple colour. They are then dried in the sun for two to three weeks, depending on what the cocoa expert deems necessary. Next, they cross the seas in burlap sacks of sixty kilos and are unloaded at the port of Le Havre in Normandy. From there, they are transported to Roanne, France where François Pralus, one of the last French chocolatiers who roasts his own beans (which arrive from the four corners of the world), very lightly roasts them, and then respectively de-shells, crushes, grinds, refines and processes the nibs for 72 hours during the delicate operation called ‘conching’. After conching and tempering, the chocolate is ready to be transformed into bars and other irresistible delicacies.
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