The best chocolate in Cote d’Ivore is made in the small upstairs room of a simple office building off a busy street in Abidjan. The room is probably less than ten square meters in size, leaving just enough space for chocolatier Axel Emmanuel of Instant Chocolat to grind the chocolate paste, mould it, and let it set in the fridge
“Making chocolate is easy. All you need is a room like this and an air conditioner,” says Axel.
He left his job at a local bank in 2010 to pursue a career few Ivorians have chosen. Despite being the largest cocoa producer in the world, producing 1.4 million tons of raw cocoa (about a third of world production), very little chocolate is actually made in the country.
“There’s like a myth around chocolate here, almost as if it is too difficult for Ivorians to make. I wanted to prove that Ivorians can do it, that we can take care of our produce,” Axel says.
So far he has certainly proven himself – he has been crowned the top Chocolatier of Ivory Coast, Vice-Chocolatier of Africa, and named Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
There’s no need for fancy or large-scale factory equipment to reach such heights. On top of the work desk in the room there’s a sturdy grinder to turn raw cocoa beans into paste, the size of a normal kitchen aid. There are some silicon and plastic moulds; one for making celebratory chocolates in the shape of a traditional Ivorian mask and another to make signature chocolate bars decorated with symbols of Ivorian culture and heritage.
“The top quality you need as a chocolatier is patience. When you grind the cocoa beans to a paste you have to wait for it to reach a specific temperature. It can take 48 hours to get exactly the right texture.”
Axel keeps a plate on the work bench with samples of cocoa beans in various stages of preparation. He learnt the trade from a patisserie chef at one of the big international hotels in Abidjan, and he is very happy to share his knowledge with anyone interested.
“When the cocoa pods have been harvested you ferment the beans. Then you dry them in the sun, before you roast them. Then you de-shell the beans, and grind the cocoa nibs to extract the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. Later in the process you add the cocoa butter back again, but since it is very expensive many chocolate producers use other vegetable fats instead. That’s the difference between good chocolate and poor chocolate”
Instant Chocolate only produces pure chocolate, made solidly with Ivorian cocoa from its own farm. The only additives are for taste, such as dried ginger, chili pepper, or even plantain as a filling. My favorite is the dark chocolate with crushed roasted cocoa beans – rich, earthy and simply divine.
Business is booming. At the small table by the window, sisters Odette and Pelagie Kouassi wrap one million chocolate bonsbons each per year. In the crowded sales office downstairs are stacks of beautifully decorated paper boxes waiting to be filled with chocolates. Clients include businesses like Air France and local mobile network operator Orange.
In October Axel is hoping to attend the Salon de Chocolat in Paris, and he’s currently seeking crowd-funding to make it there.
“It’s the 22nd year the Salon de Chocolat is held, and there’s never been an African chocolatier there even though 75 percent of all cocoa comes from Africa,” he says.
You find more information about the crowd-funding initiative here.