Some mornings, Harish Manoj and Karthi Palaniswamy will arrive at their farm to find their young coconut palms devastated, with broken fronds as if a hurricane has come through. The source of the destruction is no storm, however—it's elephants. The farm is right at the base of the western Ghats, a mountain range which extends through the south of India. Lots of elephants (and tigers and monkeys) live on the slopes of those mountains, safe in the Anamalai animal preserve (Anamalai is Tamil for ‘Elephant Hills’). The elephants will lumber down onto the farm at night to help themselves to the coconut trees--not for the coconuts, but for the palm fronds themselves, which, as it turns out, are perfect tools for whacking pesky mosquitos off their backs. Amongst this wild backdrop, Harish and Karthi have begun their mission to make their small valley, known for its abundance of coconuts, an unlikely source of delicious cacao.
Cacao has been produced in India for more than 50 years. Right at the end of the British Colonial Rule in India, near 1948, UK chocolate giant Cadbury set up operations in India for the distribution and sale of its products. Initially, it imported already-made chocolate from the UK. It was not long, however, before it saw an opportunity: India’s climate is suitable for cacao, so why not manufacture chocolate in India, using cacao beans grown in the country? They launched a program to introduce cacao production in the southern regions of India, complete with training programs and extensionists. To this day, the majority of cacao grown in India heads to Mondelez, the owner of Cadbury.
Given the size of India, however, its cacao production remains small, representing only 0.3% of the world’s production. There is lots of potential for that to grow; and not just to fulfill the orders of giant corporations. With a focus on best practices in cultivation, harvest, and post harvest, there is a chance to grow unique and delicious cocoa this particular microclimate—and that is what Harish and Karthi are setting out to do.
Their farm has been in the family for generations in various iterations, first as a Eucalyptus grove, and later planted with Guava trees. About 20 years ago, they planted coconuts, which dot the landscape in perfect, symmetrical rows. 10 years after that, they interspersed cacao trees amongst the coconut. Harish makes sure the land is kept healthy and the ecosystem remains diverse. The farm also grows nutmeg trees and pepper vines, which wind their way up the tall trunks of the coconut trees. Hulking, white cows wander up and down the rows of trees, helping to keep the weeds down while providing manure for fertilizer.
In the past few years, Harish and Karthi began to hone their harvest and post-harvest methods for the tastes of the fine chocolate industry. In June of 2016, they consulted with Dan O’Doherty of Cacao Services, who visited the farm and provided advice and schematics about pruning, fermentation, drying, and genetics. Over the last year they have trained their staff and ramped up production for export, building a new post-harvest facility with 5-tiered wooden ferment boxes and raised drying beds. After 2 years of working with Harish and Karthi, Meridian is super excited to be bringing the first container of Anamalai beans from their farm to the US.
--Gino and Wynne