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In the heart of cocoa

20 February 2020
The Relais Desserts pastry chefs are quite particular about the ingredients they use: they favor organic, short-circuit sales, seasonal products and for some of them, their own productions. So, they decided to take it a step further, choosing agro-ecology. In the heart of the beautiful project “Cocoa Forest”, they dove into the cocoa plantations of the Caribbean…

Just like Brillat-Savarin used to say and every pastry chef will tell you, you can only make good dishes from great ingredients. And just like the president of the Relais Desserts Association, Frédéric Cassel, explains: “To get involved in a project like Cocoa Forest is very important. Because the quality of the ingredients we use is crucial, starting with cocoa. To be able to manage this production and be a part of it is fantastic!”

The downside is that the craze for cocoa -- a new black gold—over the last decade, has pushed some farmers towards intensive and mono-cultural production with the disastrous effects it causes: soil depletion, lower bean quality, less diversity of varieties and mostly lower income for the farmers. Hence the very nice concept of Cocoa Forest, destined to preserve the channels of quality production as well as protecting the small plantations, so they can be more autonomous and productive, while also protecting the environment in a sustainable way.

Sustainable cocoa farming

Started in 2015 in the Dominican Republic, Cocoa Forest unites a formidable group of people from the cocoa and food-processing industries, whether it be agronomic engineers, NGOs, chocolate makers, producer-processors and of course pastry chefs and chocolate artisans since the Relais Desserts Association has joined the adventure in early 2017. Originally supposed to be for 6 years only, Cocoa Forest is planning to switch to agroforestry, which is based on having trees, crops and/or animals, all on the same plot, in order to preserve plant diversity, thus the ecological balance. Soil richness is a guarantee of good crops, hence the autonomy of small farmers –men and farmers are at the heart of Cocoa Forest—in increasing their revenue sources. As Eric Vergne, spokesperson for Relais Desserts, teaming up with Frédéric Cassel for Cocoa Forest, explains: “Along with the producers, we try to set up the best methods while respecting their know-how. We bring eco-friendly agricultural solutions as well as solutions to sell products that are relevant to their plantations.” Because cocoa plantations offer many other resources: oranges, bananas and timber… Setting up distribution channels will allow a sustainable improvement of the producers’ way of life.

Even if this ambitious project of applied research concerns only 72 plots (about 18 hectares or roughly 45 acres) in the Dominican Republic, in the regions of San Cristobal, Duarte and El Seibo, it will soon be brought to Peru and Africa. A true virtuous circle but also an awareness of the human dimension and place of pastry chefs in the world and the impact their profession has. “This project has added a new story to the “house” of Relais Desserts” Eric Vergne continues. Lucien Peltier (Founder of Relais Desserts) initiated the values of sharing and high quality and for the last 36 years, the Association has always aimed at developing from the top, while preserving the fundamentals. “With “Macaroon’s Day”* we had already discovered that our profession could have a richer and larger meaning.” Today, always keeping in mind their primary values and to take them further, Relais Desserts is fully engaged in this “high quality” cocoa production.

And Eric Vergne concluded: “This RSE* project is the leader as well as the precursor in the profession. It is one more thing Relais Desserts is involved in, within the sustainable production of a raw material. To us, it also embodies a virtuous approach that makes complete sense.” And it is certainly the beginning of a beautiful adventure.

*A day of solidarity organized every March 20th during which the Relais Desserts pastry chefs give out a macaroon in exchange for a donation to a charity fighting cystic fibrosis.

* RSE: Companies’ Social Responsibility (RSE in French) is a concept in which companies integrate social, environmental and economic concerns within their activities and their interactions with the various parties concerned on a voluntary basis.