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‘Happiness You Can Eat’

DAVAO CITY—There’s no better road to Philippine glory, at least in making the global royalty food—chocolate, that is—than to start it all in the farm.

This is the gem held dear by the caretaker-owner of the Malagos cacao farm, just at the back of the equally world-famous Malagos Gardens of cutflowers and orchids.

Rex with his mother Charita at the Puentespina Farm in Davao City. The farm is located in Malagos at the foothills of Mount Talomo, Barangay Baguio District.

Chocolate-maker Rex Victor P. Puentespina pointed to good farm practice and crop care as key to excellent cacao beans quality for fine chocolate products. “However good a chef, or chocolate maker…one cannot produce an excellent chocolate if the raw material itself is the problem.”

Global chocolate experts emphasized this to the exhibit team from the Malagos Agri-Ventures Corp., when they were surprised at the “very good and fruity flavor” of Philippine-made Malagos chocolates at the international trade fair in Berlin, Germany, in 2015.

Puentespina said the chocolate connoisseurs in Europe were awed by the taste of the Malagos chocolates, the first of any Philippine chocolates in any global trade fair, and remarked that these have a lot of potential in the world market.

“The opportunity would be opened wide further if there would be improvement in the fermentation process and post-harvest handling to develop good flavored chocolates,” he would recall later in that first international attendance of the company in an international chocolate fair.

Motivation

It’s not the honor or the prestige that drove the Puentespina family to join the European and other international competitions. While these naturally come when judges and jurors recognize the product of diligence and care, the primary motive yet was to seek feedback and suggestions for further improving the Malagos chocolates.

“People and experts would, of course, go around the booths and take a taste of your product. Some would leave, some would linger and give their feedback,” he told the BusinessMirror on Wednesday.

And so, on that first international foray, experts told them about exploring farm practice to produce good quality beans.

Indeed, he said, “we agree and believe that the search for a fine and excellent chocolate product begins in the farm to produce that good product material.”

Because the Philippines, especially the Davao area, already possessed that good genetic material, Puentespina focused subsequent actions onto good agricultural practice, and on post-harvest techniques in drying, grading and sifting through the good and bad beans, the ripe and overripe beans.

That goes also for the farmers around its farm. Malagos chocolates do not solely rely on the cacao trees inside the 24-hectare farm in Baguio District. The cacao beans are also gathered from cacao farmers around.

“We relay the suggestions and the technology we gathered,” he added.

Several competitions later and after meticulously following good farm practice, what was initially only considered “bonus” recognition has become the norm: the Malagos chocolates drew raves, distinction and awards that put the name of the Philippines in the spotlight, in a place where Europe has dominance of the industry.

Through the Outbound Business Matching Missions (OBMMs) service of the Department of Trade and Industry-Export Marketing Bureau (DTI-EMB), Malagos Chocolate was one of seven micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that participated in the Salon du Chocolat. The first participation of the Philippines in the event was in 2017.

Salon du Chocolat recognized them to be among the Top 50 submissions in the 166 entries from 40 countries of the International Cocoa Awards, a first for any Philippine producer for the Cacao of Excellence.

According to the report from PTIC-Paris, the company has booked an initial sale per month with a British company for the supply of dark chocolates. The first participation also paved the way for awareness of Philippine cacao beans and chocolates in a globally competitive arena.

The DTI also congratulated Malagos Chocolate for showcasing the excellence of Philippine cacao at the World Drinking Chocolate Competition 2020 in Hannover, Germany. The results were announced on October 25 during the virtual Schokoladen Gourmet Festival where Malagos Chocolate claimed four Gold awards in the categories of Growing Country, Chocolate Maker, Direct Traded, but most importantly, the top prize in the Plain/Origin Drinking Chocolate Dark category that bested entries from all over the world.

Validation of excellence

TRADE Secretary Ramon Lopez said, “This is a validation of our nation’s never-ending quest for excellence in the field of cacao farming and chocolate-making.”

Rex Puentespina, managing director of Malagos Chocolate, said, “It goes to show that our chocolate is world-class and makes you proud to be a cacao grower.”

Last year the Malagos chocolates and cacao farms added a singular global distinction when it was designated a Heirloom Cacao Preservation (HCP) Fund farm.

The HCP is considered the world’s “diamond standard” related to cacao farming.

According to its web site, it was launched in 2012 in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association in response to the global pressures of environmental change, deforestation, and economic influences threatening the world’s supply of high quality, flavorful cacao.

HCP’s mission was to identify and preserve fine flavor heirloom cacao for the preservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities, which, it said, “is now more important than ever as the world grapples with a rapidly changing climate.”

Puentespina said this heirloom distinction “is another celebration of hard work in the name of Philippine chocolate.”

The announcement was made during the FCIA Elevate Chocolate Event-Winter 2019 in San Francisco on January 12 last year.

“To become a designated ‘heirloom cacao’ is an incredibly high standard to meet,” he stressed. “We are elated to be part of this very small group of farmers who have been given this designation as Heirloom Cacao. We are only the 16th to be given this honor, and the first in the Philippines,” said Puentespina’s mother, Charita Puentespina, who started the family venture with her cutflowers and tropical plants, that later branched out to chocolates when the family bought a cacao-planted farm at the back of her Malagos Gardens in Baguio District.

Puentespina Farms’ entry was designated the 16th heirloom cacao in the world by a super majority of the HCP’s tasting panel.

Galleon trade commemoration

Rex also announced that “two grand ladies of chocolate marked a historic event at Salon du Chocolat in Paris, France: Doña Demetria Gutierrez of Mexico gave a symbolic baby cacao tree from Mexico to Charita Puentespina, founder and president of the Philippines’s Malagos Agri-Ventures Corp., makers of the award-winning Malagos Chocolate.

What was symbolic in this October 31, 2019, meeting was that it commemorated the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade, the historic trade route which facilitated the exchange of goods between the Philippines and Mexico during the Spanish colonial era. Gutierrez and Puentespina are both cacao farmers in their respective countries.

The event was held at the Podium at the Porte De Versailles during the Salon Du Chocolat, the world’s largest event related to chocolate and cacao from cocoa-producing countries around the world.

Puentespina recalled that cacao was first introduced to the Philippines from Mexico via the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade (1565-1815). Although the exact variety of the Theobroma cacao brought to the Philippines is hard to determine, what was certain was that the crop thrived in Philippine growing conditions, considering that the country is located within the narrow band in the equatorial belt where cacao grows best.

“The chocolate business in the Philippines has experienced a resurgence of late, owing to the efforts of the Philippine government, as well as local farmers like Puentespina and her family company, Malagos Agri-Ventures Corp., to promote Philippine chocolates in the world market,” he added.

Radiating excellence

This year, the House Committee on Agriculture and Food approved three bills declaring the Province of Catanduanes as the Abaca Capital of the Philippines, City of Davao as the Chocolate and Cacao Production Capital of the Philippines and Municipality of San Jose in the Province of Batangas as the Egg Basket of the Philippines.

Deputy Speaker Conrado Estrella III said he filed his House Bill 7469 to acknowledge the Malagos Farm and chocolate industry in gaining international recognition for producing world-class chocolate products.

He said the Davao City-based Malagos Chocolate won for the country the honor of winning second place for its 100-percent unsweetened dark chocolate under drinking category, and third place for its sweetened dark chocolates in the international chocolate competition conducted in 2017 by the Academy of Chocolate in London.

To date, he added, Malagos has won seven major international awards for its chocolate products, thereby earning for the country international recognition as a world-class chocolate producer.

“The City of Davao and the provinces of Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley produce at least 81 percent of the country’s total cacao production,” he said.

“The success of Davao City-based Malagos Chocolate and the high cacao production in Davao City and contiguous provinces gives the Philippines a competitive advantage in high-quality chocolate and cacao production in the Asian region,” he said.

For Puentespina, who considers himself a farmer and chocolate maker, the congressional action would have significant importance, including the inspiration, as well as pressure, on farmers to ensure better farm practice to produce world-class material for chocolates.

Shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Malagos Agri-Ventures Corp. was supplying both the domestic market and its buyers in Europe and North America with about 30 tons, a far cry from about 500 kilos to 800 kilos when it started chocolate production in 2012.

That time, it was helped by an Indonesian team to rehabilitate the old cacao trees and by a nongovernment organization from Holland.

The Malagos Agri-Ventures Corp. began to revisit its farms about three months ago as quarantine restrictions were eased up, but production remained at a standstill. “Our domestic markets are the first and hardest hit by the pandemic. These are the airports, specialty coffee shops, hotels and pasalubong centers,” Puentespina said.

But they are reviving the business again, helped mainly by the long shelf life of cacao beans, at six months to one year after fermenting, and the chocolates themselves, at two years.

“This way, they would not bring distinction to themselves but to the country as well, if we become globally known for quality cacao beans,” he said.

Right now, the Philippines is still a minor player in cacao beans production in the world. The main actors on the production stage are still South American countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Brazil, the same countries that are hounding the Philippine markets for its bananas. Madagascar, Ivory Coast and Ghana are also the other countries in Africa that helped congest the supply market, as well as Vietnam and Papua New Guinea of Asia.

But Puentespina said, “Our chocolates are made from tree-to-bar through the efforts of many people, most especially the farmers who nourish and cultivate our cacao trees. The entire process of sowing, tending, harvesting, fermenting, drying, sorting, roasting and producing the chocolate is done right in our farm, giving our products a more distinctive and pronounced taste,” he added.

“Join us in our journey as we help put the Philippines on the chocolate map of the world,” Puentespina exhorted any one who cared.

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