It begins like an evocative tale from old Indochina with two French émigrés crossing paths for the first time while trekking through a Vietnamese jungle. But that’s how the co-founders of Marou — Faiseurs de Chocolat first met.
They didn’t know it yet, but Vincent Mourou and Sam Maruta had something common. They were scouting for business opportunities while living rather tenuous existences in Ho Chi Minh City (née Saigon) circa 2010. Vincent, who had abandoned an advertising career in San Francisco, was working freelance (and often for free) when an agronomist he knew mentioned how cocoa plantations were taking off in southern Vietnam. Today, Vincent happily admits he didn’t even know Vietnam had cocoa but his curiosity was instantly piqued. At that time, father-of-two Sam was an ex-banker doing his best to steer clear of the finance sector. But frustrated by having to buy his whole family a new business visa every three months, he accepted a role as the finance director of a State-run chocolate company at the start of 2011. He lasted 10 working days but at least he had a sense of cocoa’s growing potential in Vietnam.
Sam and Vincent would cross paths again at a university, where they were both taking Vietnamese lessons, and at a charity dinner they established this mutual curiosity of cocoa. Just before Tet (Lunar New Year) in 2011, Vincent told Sam he was planning a reconnaissance mission into the countryside. They googled “vườn cacao” (literally, cocoa garden) and “Ba Ria” (a southern province in the southeast of Vietnam) and the next day set off on motorbikes in search of a plantation with no address. Such their lack of expertise, on the way they stopped to photograph a coffee tree thinking they saw cocoa pods.
But eventually they met a farmer by the name of Duc (with whom they still work today) whose son happened to be home for the Lunar New Year holiday and spoke enough English to lead an introductory tour of the farm. The Frenchmen were impressed by Duc’s sophisticated drop-by-drop irrigation system and bought a 2-kilo sack of beans before returning home.
Crossing the Dong Nai River by ferry later that day, Vincent and Sam were enthused by the expedition. They weren’t rich enough to trade cocoa in substantial volume, so Sam suggested simply making chocolate. How hard could it be? They returned to Sam’s house, as he had an oven and a blender, and searched online for some guidelines. They spent an evening roasting, winnowing and grinding to produce a block of chocolate with a coarse taste and a granular texture. It was raw, it was fruity—it wasn’t sophisticated chocolate, more “like a punch in the face” recalls Vincent, but it was very good.
In the beginning
After these ad hoc experimentations, Vincent and Sam were giddy enough to contemplate a manifesto. They wanted to create something locally and in the French tradition of chocolate making (to wit: unadulterated chocolate made from nothing but cocoa and sugar); the emphasis would be quality, not quantity, and the approach would be artisanal. It would prove a defining 24 hours for their inchoate start-up.
Armed with an Indian lentil grinder (purchased in Singapore for a couple of hundred dollars) they set about trying to get to grips with pretty much everything. Cometh the moment, cometh the charismatic German agronomist, Hans Wiberg-Wagner, a friend of theirs, who happened to be running training sessions for cocoa farmers in southern Vietnam. By allowing the guys to gate-crash, he essentially ran a master class in cocoa cultivation for the two budding apprentices. “It gave us a good feel for cocoa, and for what was happening at farms,” says Vincent.
They concentrated on the process of making chocolate, producing a new batch every three days, changing one variable at a time, while driving a patched-up 1965 Citroën La Dalat (upon purchase “The mother of all lemons”) to source beans from farms in Ben Tre and Tien Giang provinces in the Mekong Delta, Dong Nai Province, east of Ho Chi Minh, and Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands as well as Ba Ria.
Typical of Ho Chi Minh City’s creative network, they realised one of their neighbours, Sasha Vassay of EIGHT Design, had the know-how to create a chocolate mould. They describe the slanted, slightly asymmetrical lines with the Marou monogram in the centre he created as a “future classic”. The start-up operation was moving through the gears and by the end of 2011, Vincent and Sam had purchased a factory in the industrialised outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.
Forging an identity
In search of a design concept for Marou, Vincent and Sam turned to Rice Creative, another fledgling firm at the time. They had an affinity with co-founders Chi-An Benjamin De Leo and Joshua Breidenbach, who had recently walked out on a major firm in search of a “different set of clients and a new working environment.” Enter Marou stage-left along with a breath of fresh air. “Marou were actually one of our first clients and a designer’s dream client,” says Joshua. They immediately agreed that the goal would be producing an award-winning design and set to work.
Inspired by the ceremonial wrappers produced by artisanal printers in Vietnam’s Cho Lon district (Ho Chi Minh City’s “Chinatown”), Rice Creative hand drew chocolate-oriented motifs (read: cacao pods, fruits and leaves) and a few monsoonal clouds across an intricate lattice pattern. The elegant typography referenced vintage signage found around Vietnam while Marou’s now-standard colours – deep vermillion, ochre yellow, grass green, midnight blue – all came courtesy of the trinitario cocoa pods’ natural hues. The gold embossed lettering and internal gold wrapper completed the sumptuous experience Marou hoped to deliver with every bar.
While Rice Creative worked on these initial design ideas, by chance a friend of Marou was attending a dinner in London. He produced a prototype of the bar for his dining companions, one of whom was Melina Keyes from Wallpaper* magazine, which, as fate would have it, was preparing for a special issue on “handmade creations” from around the globe. This mysterious bar of chocolate was deemed to fit the bill. Subsequently, Vincent and Sam were invited to produce a one-off limited edition bar. They also discovered that selected products would be exhibited at Milan’s Design Week in early April, 2012. Cue creative overdrive: Marou concocted a bar with 80% cocoa content made with beans from the best organic farms in Tien Giang Province. To enhance the subtle flavours (think light citrusy fruit, banana, cinnamon, honey, a hint of tobacco), they also decided to make a thinner bar. Meanwhile, Rice Creative went far beyond the brief to simply rebrand the packaging by adding the magazine’s name and created a funky, retro-futuristic design that would soon go viral.
Fourteen months after the two men returned from Mr. Duc’s farm with a sack of beans, suddenly, after Milan, a phenomenon was born. “If the chocolate is as beautiful as the wrapper, I’ll buy some,” emailed one German distributor. France’s biggest newspaper, Ouest France ran with the story before the chocolate was available there but by June 2012, they were exporting. “We hardly called anyone,” says Vincent.
Today, Marou’s products are stocked by 50 retail outlets in France, making it the company’s primary market, followed by Sweden and the UK. Other significant markets include Japan, Qatar, USA, Canada and the Philippines. Timing has played its part. Single origin, bean to bar chocolate has become a movement in recent years. “We’ve been riding a wave,” admits Sam. Nevertheless, Marou has been the indie-star of prestigious events, such as Salon du Chocolat in Paris, where Vincent and Sam have rubbed shoulders with the evangelical Willie Harcourt-Cooze and patron saints of chocolate like Pierre Marcolini and Francois Pralus. To cap off a dizzying 2013, at the Academy of Chocolate Awards last year, Marou scooped three gongs (two for chocolate, one for design)—and yet it still feels like this is just the beginning.
A brief history of Vietnamese cocoa
Marou has essentially emerged in the third incarnation of Vietnam’s cocoa industry. The French colonial administration first tried to encourage the crop in late 19th century but by 1907 they were ready to pull the plug. The cocoa trees that remained were just another one of the random fruits found amongst the fertile southern delta. Fast forward to the 1980s, when a reunified but economically isolated Vietnam was heavily reliant on the Soviet Union for trade and aid. Moscow’s apparatchiks advised their Hanoi comrades to grow cocoa, so they did. But by the time the trees had grown, the Berlin Wall had come down and the Soviet market had vanished. The majority of cocoa trees were slashed by disgruntled farmers.
But at the end of the 1990s, international trading companies plus Western development aid agencies dovetailed effectively to resurrect cocoa as a potential cash crop (recently, shrinking production in traditional markets such as West Africa has also benefited Vietnam). At the end of 2013 there were an estimated 42,500 farmers growing cocoa on 22,500 hectares (up from 900ha in 1999).
In Vietnam cocoa farms are small, intercropped plantations where cocoa trees can grow alongside cashew and coconut trees. This multi-cultural approach suits Vietnamese farmers who don’t want to be overly reliant on one crop. Still, there is always a fear that plummeting global prices will result in slashed trees. “That’s why we pay above market prices for quality beans,” says Vincent. “When market prices go down, Marou pays up.” Even fair trade is a bespoke affair with Marou.
The Chocolate Factory
Today Marou’s factory and office is a hive of activity, staffed by a team of 20, including Vincent and Sam. On the factory floor, there is an 80-year old coffee roaster, bought on e-Bay and shipped from France, now roasting cocoa without complaint, and an enormous erstwhile rubber press that went through “a bit of a rough patch in a junkyard” but is now happily pumping out cocoa butter.
Surveying the beans to bar process is Jason Laurent, a 27-year-old former pastry chef from Kansas, USA who, rather appropriately for Marou, ended up in Vietnam on a whim. “I came with nothing and made it work,” he says on the factory floor where a mélange of cocoa-heavy aromas hangs in the air. He describes his role as watching, tasting, tasting, tasting and more tasting. There are rough times for roasting and grinding but it is ultimately an intuitive process with some variables still in play. “For example, the shells on the cocoa from Ba Ria are that little bit thicker,” he explains.
Marou had initially envisaged using artisanal sugar from the Mekong. A nice idea on paper that proved impractical. “The sugar tasted very interesting but it overpowered the cocoa,” explains Sam. Unrefined sugar brings moisture into the mix and “chocolate abhors water,” he warns, rather gravely.
The taste of terroir
Part of Marou’s unique selling point comes from its conviction in the mysterious element of terroir. Each bar they produce represents a different province. An early adopter of Marou, the executive chef of Don’s Bistro in Hanoi, Donald Berger, says, “Marou’s subtle flavours and aromas are truly amazing and easily detectable. It is comparable to the tremendous difference of terroir in the best wine regions of, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy.”
There is no way industrially produced dark chocolate can compete with this unbridled individualism. As major chocolate companies strive for uniformity, they neutralise natural flavours and end up enhancing the end-product with vanilla to offer some kind of complexity. “Like adding MSG to soup,” suggests Sam.
It’s not just the land that influences the taste of Marou chocolate. Fermentation, which happens at farm level, is also part of the inimitable process. “Maybe it’s a little bit mysterious,” says Sam. “But our only criteria is making very, very good chocolate.”
*A version of this story was published elsewhere. You can read it here