Let’s start a nursery

Create new forms of life in an organic way: that’s the goal we set when we put up our fist cacao nursery.

We have ambitious plans for Cambodia when it comes to cacao. We know that the future of cacao looks magnificent; for the next ten years at least. We watch the world markets and the world movements, and then it’s not hard for us to foresee that cacao prices will grow in the next ten years. It never goes in a straight line of course. That’s what we experienced at the beginning of this year when suddenly the world prices dropped more than 10%. But there is already a recovery taking place. These price developments make us confident about the future of cacao in Cambodia. And it gives us the chance to bring prosperity not only to our own company but to share this also with other farmers who are willing to take on the brown gold, as cacao is sometimes called.

Because we want to set up a small chocolate factory within the next three years, we need more farmers to develop cacao. It is in our interest to get far more farmers on board, and for the farmers, it will give a peace of mind if they can get a farming contract which will provide them with a price assurance from year to year.

But to pull it all off, we have to start with a cacao nursery. And this is by far more exciting than we thought in the beginning. We are not just growing 80,000 seedlings at the time with the challenge of cloning the upcoming plant with a branch of a high yield producing mother tree, but we also love experimenting with new varieties. As long as you do this in an organic way, mother nature can give you fantastic surprises.

Thanks to Twitter and other social media we are in contact with farmers and researchers in South America, where the cacao development is even more exciting than in Asia. I am skyping with Aaron Sylvester, who is setting up cacao contract farming in Grenada, twittering with farms in Peru (@maranonchocolate ) and Nicaragua (@cacaofarmdiary ) and Facebooking with cacao scientist Darwin Toapanta in Ecuador who I visited last year. In Asia, we mainly work with the cacao species called Forastero. But with the help of Darwin, we hope to import cacao varieties Nacional, Arriba and CN51, and experiment with cross-overs between the different types. It won’t be that difficult to interbreed with cacao, because – and let me quote here one of the most attention-drawing information about cacao from a French female chocolatier – “cacao is a slut”. As a result, there seem to be around 1,400 subvarieties of the cacao tree. It would be an absolute honor if we could add a new Asian variety to this great family.


Sorry, it is cacao, not cocoa.

Until 1755 British people spoke of cacao, just like the rest of the world. So, why did they change their pronunciation of this magical food?

How popular was chocolate actually in 1755? Probably more widespread than you would have expected. Nobody had ever seen a chocolate bar yet. That would still take another hundred years. But chocolate as a hot drink was a well-known and exquisite delicacy in the higher societies in the West.

It all started when Spanish traders brought the first official shipment of cacao beans from Veracruz to Sevilla in 1585. The beans had already been introduced to the Spanish court before. Dominican priests visited Prince Philip in Spain with a delegation of Mayan nobles from Alta Verapaz in Guatemala. Among the items that they brought along was also cacao. But it was as from 1585 that cacao became a trade and a treat in Spain steadily.

The Spanish just copied the recipe from the Mayas. They roasted and ground the beans and then mixed it with chiles, some other spices and hot water. The first hot chocolate drinks in Europe. But the Spanish, known for their sweet tooth, added one new ingredient: sugar. It is also shown in the very first recipe for a chocolate drink ever published. In 1644, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma made the recipe accessible to a broader audience in his book A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. Besides the sugar and the beans, the chocolate drink contained chiles, anise, vanilla, cinnamon, almonds or hazelnuts, annatto seeds and something called ‘ear flower’ (Orejuela).

All the time the Spanish also directly copied the words for chocolate and cacao from the Aztecs and the Mayas. According to many, chocolate finds its origin in the Aztec word xocoatl. In the Nahuatl language (Nahuatl is a group of languages from the Uto-Aztec language family) xocoatl was formerly spoken as cacahuatl, a combination of cacahua (cacao) and atl (water).  There is, however, a theory that the origin of chocolate is chikolatl (for this read the highly entertaining blog of Magnus Pharao Hansen).

Before I finally go to 1755 when suddenly the British decided to become stubborn and write cocoa stead of cacao, let me describe the world of 1755 and even more the world of cacao back then. Maybe the publication of Colmenero de Ledesma was responsible for this but in the following hundred years drinking hot chocolate became very popular amongst the higher societies across Europe. Chocolate houses came up, like coffee shops nowadays. The chiles in the recipes however disappareared. They were still mentioned in a pubblished recipe in 1692 by the French M. St. Disdier who listed hot water, cacao, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and a tiny bit of powdered cloves and chiles. But in the mid-1700’s chiles were banned.

So, what happened in 1755? The word cacao was widespread across the whole European continent as the fitting description of an essential ingredient of the immensely popular hot chocolate drink. As I mentioned previously, the word cacao was also more or less copied from the Mayan and Olmec languages in Meso-America. Many languages in that area have more or less the same pronunciation for cacao: kakawa (Mazahua, proto-Zoquean, Nahuatl); kakaw (proto-Mixean, Sayula, Tseltal, K’iche, classic Mayan). So, in their chocolate houses and coffee houses, the whole of Europe pronounced cacao as cacao, not as cocoa.

Until that day that Samuel Johnson published his dictionary of the English language in 1755. In his notes, he maintained the distinction between the words cacao and coco, and between the cacao tree and the coco palm. But by some editorial or printing error, the two words were combined and printed in the same dictionary as cocoa. And from that moment on the British took the dictionary as the holy bible of the English language and based their pronunciation of the ‘food of gods’ (as the Meso-Americans described the beans) on a mistake. Poor British.

So next time when you hear somebody saying cocoa stead of cacao, and you have the guts, please point them out – but be gentle – that their whole cocoa life has been based on a mistake.

Chocolate becomes illegal?

What is the definition of a drug? Medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body. Well, there you go. Then chocolate clearly is a drug by those standards. It not only makes you feel better, but it also improves your memory and stimulates your abstract thinking. But you have to inject it at least once a week. In your mouth that is.

Psychologist Merrill Elias, one of the leaders of a recent study published in the journal Appetite told the Washington Post about the remarkable conclusion that chocolate consumption indeed can make you smarter. The study was done during a lifespan of 40 years, starting in the mid-1970’s. Elias and Georgina Crichton, a nutrition researcher at the University of South Australia, said that there is a significant difference between people who eat chocolate at least once a week, and those who do this less than once a week and that it strongly affects cognitive ability. The effect is especially recognizable when it comes to daily tasks “such as remembering a phone number, or your shopping list, or being able to do two things at once, like talking and driving at the same time”.

So why does chocolate makes you smarter? Elias doesn’t have the ultimate answer, but he has some ideas about this. He knows that the natural flavanols in cacao can reduce cognitive dysfunction due to aging, and that the flavanols might increase the blood flow to the brain which can result in a positive influence on psychological processes.

Chocolate also contains theobromine, an important alkaloid in cacao. Theobromine increases urine production; it can treat high blood pressure; it shows promise for tooth decay prevention. But the best of all: it makes you feel good (as long as you consume chocolate in small portions).

Feel good right? That brings us back to the drugs subject. Governments show double standards when it comes to drugs. They have no objection when whole tribes become addicted to valium or other anti-depressants. They have no problems with the hard drugs that are by far out the biggest killers of all drugs: alcohol and cigarettes. But when people are becoming too relaxed with stuff like ecstasy and marijuana they declare war on these stimulants. So what will happen with chocolate?

Holland is the world’s biggest producer of ecstasy.  The Dutch government does everything in their power to battle the production of this drug, but ecstasy is far tougher than you might expect from a love drug. Now back to chocolate and cacao, the base material of the brown gold. Who is still the world’s biggest importer and processor of cacao? You guessed it: Holland. So how long will it take before chocolate consumption and production becomes illegal? How long before the news will be dominated by reports about raids on chocolate stores and small bean-to-bar producers? And addicted mothers have to pay dodgy dealers in dark porches? Until that time: enjoy your chocolate while you still can. Enjoy the abundance of taste and variety. Bon appetit or better: bon bite!

S.E. Asian drought is looming?

Water, the essence of life. Without water no development is possible. When I lived in Europe, in the delta of the huge European rivers the Rijn and the Maas, I never thought of water shortages. In fact, it was more the opposite. Floods threaten the Netherlands once in a while. In 1953, thousands of Dutch died when dikes broke during a western storm and a quarter of Holland was flooded. In 1995, the river Maas rose many meters above her normal level and weeks-long the country was on a mission to save many villages and cities along the river.

A shortage of water in South East Asia, it is difficult to imagine when you think about the heavy rains that are battering countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and Singapore during the rainy season. In Mondulkiri, the biggest province of Cambodia and home to our Kamkav plantations, water was never a problem. Until ten years ago, Mondulkiri had a dry season of two, maximum three months. Now, a decade later, we are tortured by a drought that starts at the end of October, early November and continues till April. At this very moment, all farms are struggling with their water supply. Owners of excavators are experiencing golden times. Everybody wants to make their ponds deeper and wider. We bought extra land in the lowest part of the valley and dug a huge pond there. Unfortunately, big rocks are blocking us from going any deeper than 2.30 meters. Groundwater slowly finds its way but not quick enough to supply for our total irrigation demand.

The horrible drought in California is well-known thanks to the supremacy of the US media. But in South East Asia water shortages will become a media and political issue as well. There are Belgian reports about coffee in Vietnam that predict that 50% of the coffee farmers might need to change their coffee to another -less water depending – crop as early as 2020.

We in the meantime see no other solution than to look for dynamite to blow up the rocky formation in our pond so we can continue to dig deeper. Our cacao trees suffer already heavily and 30% died this season. We can’t afford ourselves to loose more.


What happens if you replace refined sugar by Cambodian Palm Sugar?


In 2010, the famous scientific magazine Lancet published an article about the 20 most harmful drugs in the UK. The top five was dominated by methamphetamine, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroine and as number one alcohol. Refined sugar should be in this list as well, and if it would be honestly judged it would probably have ended up in the top five. Because it is addictive and it is very toxic. Sugar addictive, that’s what most people will agree on. But toxic?

In 1957 Dr. William Coda Martin classified refined sugar as a poison because all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients were taken out and what has left consists of pure, refined carbohydrates. The body actually need the other elements to metabolize the carbohydrates. Now that these elements are gone, the body will have a very hard time to deal with this sugar in a natural way. According to Dr. Martin it all results in the formation of toxic metabolite like ‘pyruvic acid’ and ‘abnormal sugars’. Pyruvic acid will store itself in the brain and nervous system and abnormal sugars will do this in the red blood cells. The toxic metabolites will interfere with the cells, will frustrate the oxygen flow to these cells, in fact, will suffocate some of them resulting in dying off of these cells, and, therefore, causing a degenerative disease.



In 1929 Sir Frederick Banting discovered the link between diabetes and refined sugar. He observed cane sugar plantation owners and workers in Panama. The owners consumed big amounts of sugar and developed in some situations diabetes. However, among the workers – who chew on the untreated sugar canes and didn’t eat the refined sugars – there was not one single case of diabetes discovered.

“When simple sugars are ingested, they raise blood glucose levels. The pancreas responds by releasing insulin, which stabilises the blood sugar levels. Over time, if simple sugars are overconsumed, the pancreas becomes overly sensitive to sugar, and insulin secretion becomes excessive, causing a persistent hypoglycemic state. if this pattern continues, the pancreas becomes overworked and ceases to be a reliable soucrce of insulin; the body suffers from elevated blood sugar levels and can develop type 2 diabetes.” (from ‘Addiction-free naturally’ by Brigitte Mars).



It might be clear: when you start consuming Cambodian Palm Blossom Sugar (or for the same results Coconut Sugar), your body will absorb not only the carbohydrates in these natural sugars but also the nutrients, minerals and vitamins that are still part of it. Iron, Zinc, Calcium, Magnesium and Potassium are the most important ones. But still be aware that the amounts are quite small. For instance Magnesium you can gather much more from eating chocolate. But as described above here: the most important function of these elements are the support for metabolizing the carbohydrates in the palm sugar.

Because these elements are still present in the unrefined Cambodian Palm Blossom Sugar, the Glycemic Index (GI) is much lower than with refined table sugar. The Philippine Department of Agriculture gives the GI of coconut sugar a maximum 35. Cambodian Palm Sugar is completely comparable with coconut sugar so we might assume it has a maximum GI of 35 as well. This all means that Cambodian Palm Blossom Sugar raises blood sugar levels only to a 50% of the GI of table sugar. And therefore the pancreas doesn’t have to work overtime. Diabetes will be out of the question when it comes to Cambodian Palm Blossom Sugar. Unless you are going to consume at least twice as much as you were used to consume refined sugar.