2019 / 12月
直到團隊在基本的經典款已游刃有餘，才開始揮灑風味上的創意。想了解自己水平的鄭畬軒，2016年參加業界最具公信力、譽為「巧克力界奧斯卡」的ICA（International Chocolate Awards世界巧克力大賽），居然抱回亞太區一銀一銅，是台灣史上第一人，沒有巧克力文化的台灣一度掀起一股巧克力熱。
是歷史的必然與偶然，一直以來，巧克力的生產國多在燠熱的南北緯20度以內，消費國卻位於寒冷的高緯。近十年前，從美國吹起了「From bean to bar」（從可可豆到巧克力磚都在一家店完成）的風潮，用的往往還是進口原料。直到最北界產區的台灣成了例外，甚至有條件進一步奢談「From tree to bar」。
打著「Tea to bar」口號的COTE，用上三峽碧螺春、坪林包種茶、高山烏龍、凍頂烏龍、木柵鐵觀音、東方美人、台東烏龍紅茶、魚池紅玉紅茶……等八種經典台茶，同樣是完整的原葉，而非沖煮出來的茶湯，為了抑制茶葉的苦澀，顧瑋不願如坊間的茶巧克力，加入奶粉來修飾風味，反倒神來一筆地用上了本產的金珠黃豆粉，意外地為雜糧應用開出了一條新路。
Taiwanese Chocolate’s Road to the World
Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Scott Williams
It can be hard to fully appreciate Taiwan’s many charms until you’ve been abroad. Our island may be small, but its diverse climate and geography have given rise to a cornucopia of natural resources, produce and products. And when our farmers and industry work together, there’s little they can’t do. Though we already produce top-tier coffee, whiskey and wine, few would have guessed that Pingtung in Southern Taiwan would develop a cocoa industry that has begun to win international renown.
In the film Chocolat, starring Juliette Binoche, the residents of a conservative village lose themselves in a love of chocolate. The sweet treat may have originated in Central America, but in the centuries since the Western colonial powers first carried it abroad on their ships, it has gone on to charm the whole world.
Cocoa trees first arrived on Formosa when the Japanese brought them from Indonesia during the half-century in which they ruled Taiwan. But the Japanese proved unable to overcome the various hurdles that arose in growing and processing the crop, and their efforts to produce chocolate here failed. Nurseries and farmers began trying again some 20 years ago, and succeeded in cultivating the heat- and humidity-loving trees in Pingtung.
A craftsman returns
Cheng Yu-hsuan, the proprietor of Yu Chocolatier, which is located in a back street near Taipei’s Ren’ai Traffic Circle, recently posted on Facebook about the path he’s trodden since returning from France in 2013.
For all that Cheng makes a product associated with sentiment, he is himself a logic-driven person. After completing his studies and returning to Taiwan, he began working step by step to “take Paris.”
When Cheng opened his shop, he began by selling the most basic, the most classic products. His approach differed sharply from that of most Taipei confectioners, which typically sold only one or two kinds of decorated chocolates, whereas Cheng has sometimes offered as many as seven or eight kinds of chocolate tarts alone.
Once he had the basics down pat, he began to get creative with his flavors. Then, in 2016, he decided to compete in the highly respected International Chocolate Awards to test his skills against those of his peers. To his surprise, he earned both a silver and a bronze medal in ICA’s Asia‡Pacific region competition, becoming the first person from Taiwan to win an ICA award. His success sparked a chocolate fever in a Taiwan that had previously lacked much of a chocolate culture.
Cheng is steeped in French techniques and the French concept of using local and seasonal ingredients. His incorporation of local ingredients like maqaw (Litsea cubeba, a lemony-flavored evergreen), jasmine flowers, pickled plums, and smoked sesame oil into chocolate has amazed many Taiwanese, who had never imagined such flavor combinations were possible.
Spotlighting southern Taiwan
We happened to visit Pingtung during its hosting of the 2019 Taiwan Design Expo. The expo’s “Super South” theme allowed locals to indulge in a bit of self-mockery by quipping that Pingtung’s lack of a high-speed rail station and direct air links made attending “super hard.”
Though somewhat out of the way, Pingtung shines in every way. The rise of the local chocolate industry even brought ICA’s Asia‡Pacific competition to Taiwan from New York in 2019. Taiwan’s chocolates proved up to the challenge, following up on 2018’s nine gold medals, 30 silvers and 29 bronzes with 13 golds, 44 silvers, 32 bronzes, and 18 special awards in 2019. Many of these were clustered in Pingtung, where the concentration of 20 to 30 cocoa farms and chocolate producers attracts visitors from far and wide.
Zeng Zhi-yuan Chocolate participated and achieved an especially high level of acclaim: in 2018 its medals in the Asia‡Pacific regionals earned it the right to take part in ICA’s World Final in Italy, where it won four golds.
Zeng says his customers “forced” him to open a shop. The simply decorated chocolates he sells from his storefront in Pingtung’s Neipu Township have attracted a steady stream of both foreign and domestic customers. The shop buzzes with the hum of the cocoa grinders that operate around the clock in the back.
Taiwan’s cocoa farmers have grown more confident as the awards have piled up, but the industry still faces a number of challenges to its long-term growth.
First of all, local cocoa beans are on the expensive side. Factors such as fragmented fields and high labor costs make it difficult for local growers to be price-competitive with growers in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. In fact, the local product costs five to ten times as much as beans from those regions. Unable to produce in large volumes, or sell via large-scale commercial channels, local growers are instead developing estate-grade beans that highlight the local terroir.
A second issue is that it isn’t clear which varieties of cocoa they are producing because local farmers have imported many foreign varieties, crops have been randomly cross-pollinated, and farmers have cultivated intentional crosses. Growers have now begun grafting plants to ensure the purity of their varietals.
However, the situation is not all to the bad. “As one of the latest comers to cocoa development, Taiwan’s cocoa has been crossed repeatedly. But this gives it a more balanced flavor,” says Warren Hsu, founder of Fu Wan Chocolate. His first chocolate, the balanced and refined “Fu Wan Taiwan #1 62% Ping Tung,” won the favor of ICA’s judges, taking a gold medal at the ICA World Finals in November 2019.
Processing is another challenge. Most people in the cocoa industry admit that even though the Pingtung County Government made a big push to provide technical assistance a few years ago, Taiwan isn’t like traditional equatorial production areas, which are hot year-round. Taiwan’s winter weather requires processors to gain experience adapting to local conditions and making the constant adjustments necessary to produce the flavors they envision.
Some farmers have begun working together to improve product quality and open up new markets. “You need at least 500 kilos of cocoa pods to fill a single fermentation tank. If you’re using only your own beans, the quality of the fruit can fluctuate. And what do you do if you don’t have enough to fill the tank?” asks Chiu Chun-wen, founder of TC Cocoa.
Chiu Chun-wen, his brother Chiu Chun-yu, and 12 other growers formed a production and marketing group representing six hectares of chocolate fields that reliably produce more than 500 kilos of cocoa pods every two weeks. This rate of production has enabled them to accumulate a great deal of experience in fermenting cocoa. The beans are subsequently roasted, graded, and then processed in accordance with their particular characteristics. Those with the best flavor become dark chocolates, while chocolate from second-grade beans is mixed with cream to make ganache confections.
For reasons of historical chance and necessity, most of the world’s cocoa producers have always been nations with hot climates within 20 degrees of latitude from the equator, while most chocolate consumers have been located in the cooler higher latitudes. When the “from bean to bar” movement, in which the entire chocolate production process is managed by one company, got started roughly ten years ago in the United States, it still used imported ingredients. Taiwan, however, has extended this model to one that runs “from tree to bar.”
While Taiwan’s domestic market is currently quite small, with Taiwanese consuming an average of just 0.5 kg of chocolate per person per year, chocolate makers universally believe that it won’t be hard to get Taiwanese consumers to appreciate fine chocolate. They therefore feel that the market is on the verge of taking off. After all, boutique coffee culture is already flourishing in this land of tea.
Noting the correlation between chocolate and other food products, Wilma Ku, a food hunter and food-brand innovator, created the COFE and COTE brands.
Ku’s brands reflect both her playfulness and her ambition. “I started them just because I love coffee and I love chocolate. But I quickly realized that coffee and chocolate have very similar appeals: both emphasize origin and variety, and they develop their flavors in similar ways—from terroir and variety through fermentation and roasting. We also talk about coffee having cocoa flavors, and hear cocoa being described as having coffee notes. Plus, Taiwan produces both.”
COFE draws on the process for making white chocolate, mixing whole coffee beans, cocoa butter pressed from Pingtung cocoa beans at low temperature, and a small amount of sugar to produce an “edible coffee” reminiscent of chocolate.
Meanwhile, COTE, whose slogan is “tea to bar,” makes tea-flavored chocolates using the whole leaves of eight classic Taiwanese teas rather than brewed teas. Unlike most makers of tea-flavored chocolates, Ku doesn’t add powdered milk to hers to counter the astringency of the tealeaves. Instead, she uses locally produced soybean powder, creating a surprising new application for the legume.
Cheng Yu-hsuan, who hopes to one day plant his flag on chocolate’s “front line” in Paris, has observed that Europeans see East Asia as basically Japan and some other countries, and imagine Japanese flavors as limited to pomelo and macha. He says that if he were to open a shop in Paris, he’d like to continue to sell his “Taiwanese-style” chocolates in hopes of introducing a broader range of East-Asian flavors to this huge and stable market.
Local chocolate culture has become the newest addition to Taiwan’s global export lineup, one that Taiwanese farmers and chocolate makers, themselves recent additions to chocolate’s long lineage, are seeking to develop in new ways.