This blog post was a special collaboration between Cambio & Co. and artisanal chocolate brand Oodaalolly to share the story of Filipino chocolate.
One of my earliest memories of chocolate and the Philippines involves Balikbayan boxes - lots of them. I had come home from school and was on my way to the kitchen when I stopped to peek into one of the box’s cavernous contents. I picked up a shiny wrapper.
“What’s this for?” I hold up a box of Ferrero Rocher to my mom, who is busily packing large tins of Nescafe.
“That’s for the Philippines,” she says, not looking up at me.
“But why? Don’t they have chocolate there?”
“It tastes better here in Canada.”
For a long time, I didn’t push further. Until in 2016, I started my long journey with Cambio & Co. and travelled to Davao City in the Philippines’ Mindanao region for the first time. On a search to understand my roots and the country from which I came, my partner Jérôme and I went on a food tour tasting the city’s foods. We indulged on plump tropical fruits, regional delicacies, and - you got it - chocolate.
We were brought to a tiny market stall where a young man stood with steaming hot cups of tsokolate (Cho-ko-lah-tay), the iconic Filipino drink made by melting tablea. He used a large wooden molinillo and pounded the mixture by hand, passing the steaming cup to me after several minutes.
We did a food tour in Davao tasting the region's delicacies. Here is where I tasted my first real cup of tsokolate and began to wonder if there was more to Philippine chocolate than I thought.
‘Hot chocolate?’ I remember thinking, confused. ‘What could be so special about this?’ I had never been crazy about hot chocolate back in North America. Overwhelming sweetness in a watery stew? No, thank you.
But - within that cup was magic. I drank its contents piping hot and felt it wash over me. Thick and velvety and full of luxurious flavour - it dawned on me for the first time.
“Holy crap, is this what real hot chocolate tastes like?!” I haven’t tasted anything even close in North America.
Little did I know that chocolate and the Philippines have a long, intertwined history.
The Rise And Fall Of Filipino Chocolate
In the late 17th century, cacao was a highly valuable commodity. It was reserved for the wealthy and was all the rage in Europe. Believe it or not, the Philippines is considered to have been the first country outside of the Americas to have ever grown cacao trees.
As the story goes, the Spaniards brought cacao from Mexico under the Galleon Trade in the late 1600’s. From the Philippines, cacao was then transported to neighbouring countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam; literally making the Philippines the Chocolate Gateway to the rest of Asia.
Because of the Philippines’ close location to the equator and our lush, tropical climate, cacao trees grew in abundance. As the Spanish colonized and controlled more parts of the Philippines from Northern Luzon to Mindanao region, cacao trees spread, too. And so did the custom of drinking tsokolate amongst Filipinos.
As cacao trees grew, so did the business opportunities that came with it. For many years, the cacao industry was dominated by multinational corporations who used Philippine cacao to create highly processed and mass-produced chocolates, pumped to the brim with sugar and additives.
But the boom didn’t last. A culmination of land reforms and pod borer infestations decimated a large percentage of the cacao population, and the industry has never fully recovered.
Young, artisan chocolate brands like Oodaalolly are set on restoring Philippine chocolate back to its former glories. Photo credit Oodaalolly.
The Philippines went from being the Chocolate Gateway of Asia to now contributing less than 2% of the world’s cacao. Even domestically, the majority of cacao in the Philippines is imported from our neighbours Vietnam and Indonesia.
As a result, cacao farmers have taken to cutting down their cacao trees in favour of more profitable cash crops. Bananas, for example, take an average of 10-15 months to bear fruit. Compare that to a cacao tree, which takes THREE years.
But if you take a trip to the Philippines, you can still see plenty of cacao trees growing. Though where you find them may surprise you.
‘Just A Backyard Crop’
These days, it’s not uncommon for a family to have one or several cacao trees growing behind their houses. The cacao is often consumed for personal use or sold in very small quantities at local markets. It’s not considered ‘export quality’, and thus cacao trees in the Philippines have been relegated as mere ‘backyard plants.’
But… wasn’t Philippine cacao considered one of the best, just centuries before?
As the writer Fruhlein Econar puts it, “With good quality cacao literally growing in our backyards, it is ridiculous to think that we import as much as 75% of our local demand for chocolate.”
And when you think about it - it IS quite ridiculous. Especially when Belgium, long lauded as the purveyor of fine belgian chocolates, doesn’t even grow cacao.
As frustrating as it is, it really isn’t that surprising. Like my mother, Filipinos have long been led to believe that ‘imported is better’ when it comes to anything designed and made in the Philippines, not just chocolate (thanks, colonialism!).
A New Generation of Filipinos
It was a chilly Friday afternoon in the middle of winter. I heard cars honking all morning as they attempted to navigate the snowy roads trying to get to work on time. Lucky for me, I sat at home in my toasty apartment enjoying an afternoon coffee as my Google Hangouts app came to life.
It was Hernan Lauber on the other line.
Hernan is a trained chocolatemaker, engineer, and importantly, a proud Filipino. He’s the founder and owner of Oodaalolly, an artisanal chocolate brand set on restoring Philippine chocolate to its former glories.
Though it was the first time Hernan and I actually spoke, within minutes I already felt a kinship towards him.
Hernan and I both grew up as members of the Filipino diaspora, searching for reconnection and meaning. For many of us Filipinos growing up outside of the Philippines, it can feel like we’re grasping in the dark to have something to hold ourselves to the past and anchor us to the ancestral lands of our parents and grandparents. For Hernan, he grabbed hold of chocolate. For me, I found Filipino fashion.
I co-founded Cambio & Co. with the mission to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship and our rich artisanal traditions. We want to make people fall in love with everything designed and handcrafted in the Philippines, and to truly value the talented people behind every craft. By reviving interest in our indigenous heritage, such as indigenous weaving and pre-colonial jewelry making, we can elevate the livelihoods of Filipino artisans all over the country.
And Oodaalolly aims to do the same, except with chocolate.
“Creating Oodaalolly was another way for me to get in touch with my Filipino heritage,” Hernan tells me.
He grew up in the chocolate industry, having spent every afternoon making chocolate with his father, a professionally trained chocolatier, and working after-school with him from fourth grade all the way through college. Hernan loves chocolate, but he also knows the impact of Oodaalolly is so much bigger than himself.
Oodaalolly specifically sources cacao beans from the Philippines (“I don’t plan to source beans from any other country” he says definitively). He purchases cacao beans directly from the farmers rather than middlemen, and uses minimal ingredients to showcase the natural taste and quality of the cacao beans.
“My intention as a chocolate maker is to focus exclusively on Filipino cacao to create the best chocolate possible with minimal ingredients,” he says.
And Hernan takes his oath to minimalism seriously. Browsing through Oodaalolly’s collections, you won’t find any fusion or jazzed up chocolate confections over here. Oodaalolly currently offers three varieties of single roast, single origin chocolate bars: 70% dark chocolate, 60% milk chocolate, and 70% dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt.
“I want the flavours of the Philippine beans to truly speak for themselves. That’s why we focus on expert techniques and sourcing the highest quality cacao we can, rather than relying on additional flavours,” He says with pride.
Is Filipino Chocolate On The Rise?
If you enter a search on Instagram with hashtag #PhilippineChocolate, a small but steadily growing list shows up. Picturesque images of beautiful packaging, glitzy flatlays, chocolatey creations, and accompanying hashtags like #beantobar and #artisanalchocolate complete the posts.
Could it be that people are changing their minds about Philippine chocolate?
The answer appears to be a resounding yes.
Beyond winning over Instagram crowds, Filipino chocolate is garnering attention even from the most trained palates.
In 2018, Davao-based chocolate brand Malagos took home multiple awards from The Academy of Chocolate, one of the most competitive chocolate competitions in the world. Filipino brand Auro Chocolate also won two bronze awards for its dark chocolate and flavoured white chocolate bars.
In 2019, Malagos Chocolate’s Puentespina Farm in Davao also became one of sixteen farms in the world to be given the Heirloom Cacao Designation. This elusive title is only assigned to endangered species of cacao trees which have been deemed to produce high quality, flavourful cacao, and which require special protection.
Anyone familiar with wine will have heard the term terroir, referring to the way a land’s environment and the other agricultural products grown around it will impact the flavours of the wine. The same is true of cacao beans.
Oodaalolly Chocolates come in simple flavours with minimal ingredients in order to allow the quality and taste of the Philippine cacao beans to speak for themselves. Photo credit Oodaalolly.
“The taste of cacao is impacted by its terroir and add to its unique characteristics,” Hernan explains. “The Philippines grows fruits like bananas, coconuts, guava, and mango - and all of them really impact the taste of the cacao, among other things.”
That means the cacao grown in the north of Philippines, for example, will taste wildly different from cacao grown in the south, leading to exciting opportunities for innovative flavours and cacao varieties that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
Back To The Bigger Picture
Making Filipino chocolate fancy again sounds great. But what does this mean for the people on the ground?
When we consciously choose to elevate the value of a product and an industry, this can lead to tangible increases in salaries, better working conditions, improved bargaining power, opportunities for higher education, and economic stability.
With Cambio & Co., this means fair and sustainable wages for indigenous artisans and traditional Filipino craftspeople. For Hernan and Oodaalolly, this means elevating livelihoods of Filipino cacao farmers across the country.
By increasing how much we value a craft, such as weaving or cacao farming, we have the power to tangibly grow salaries, improve working conditions, and preserve a cultural tradition. Photo credit AKABA.
Together, we have the power to elevate entire communities. And maybe even an entire culture.
“Cacao has been part of our history in the Philippines for as long as it’s been part of European history,” Hernan shared during our call.
He describes the Philippines as ‘the Napa Valley of Cacao’. In the same way that Napa Valley developed into a refined wine region within the Americas to rival the finest vineyards of Europe, so too can the Philippines become a producer of the world’s finest chocolates.
“During my last trip to the Philippines in 2017, we decided to plant some cacao trees in my grandfather’s ancestral home in Calinog, Iloilo just to see what would happen,” Hernan shared in an interview with Undiscovered SF. “The cacao trees began to thrive and grow as though they naturally belonged there, so we planted more. Now we’re cultivating even more of them - about 4,000 seedlings.”
Cacao trees may be ‘backyard plants’, but perhaps they serve as a metaphor for the bigger lesson here:
It’s time we appreciate what’s growing in our own backyard.