Taking Philippine cacao to the world stage, one single-origin bar at a time
Most Filipinos of my generation were reared on American chocolates like Snickers bars, colorful beads of M&Ms, or Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut. I remember my family and I going all the way to Cartimar in Pasay, or Dao in Pampanga just to purchase our coveted stateside chocolate treats and other imported goods.
It’s not like there were no Philippine-made cacao-based confectionaries back in the 1970s and 1980s. We had Serg’s bars and chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, Ricoa’s popular Curly Tops, Fibisco Choco-Mallows, and the like. But there was a certain smooth and silky appeal that imported chocolates had, whereas Filipino treats tasted sweet and a bit gritty.
According to a paper by Josephine V. Ramos, Chairperson of the Cacao Industry Development Sub-Committee under the Department of Agriculture, the global cocoa and chocolate market is estimated to grow to some US$132 billion by 2019. Notwithstanding the expanding opportunities for chocolate makers, however, the Philippines has yet to make a dent even in the Asian chocolate arena, which is currently dominated by Malaysia.
But Simone Mastrota, founder of Tigre Y Oliva, intends to change that. And in spite of his Italian origins and Californian demeanor, he has made it his mission to make Philippine chocolates a global favorite.
He showcases Philippine cacao in its purest form, by only mixing it with sugar—nothing more. He currently buys cacao from the Davao region, but collaborates with a university in Bacnotan, La Union that tends to a small cacao plantation, where he sometimes experiments with small batches of cacao.
Now based in San Juan, La Union, Mastrota says, “When I’m presenting my chocolate to Filipinos or those outside the Philippines, it’s not common. [They usually remark:] ‘There’s cacao in the Philippines? I didn’t know that. It tastes so good!’ It’s interesting because it's an entirely new product, even if cacao has been here forever.”
With an initial capital of some US$20,000 (or roughly PhP1 million), mostly to import a machine “similar to a stone grinder” to grind the cacao beans to a smooth chocolate consistency (“I grind it for about 24-48 hours”), he is now able to produce about 2,000 chocolate bars a month. Still not that many, but for Mastrota, quality is the key, not quantity.
These bars are “single-origin,” which means, the cacao produced in one farm is processed on its own, not mixed with other cacao from other farms, much like how single-origin coffee is now being marketed and sold locally. So his chocolate bars taste extremely refined, luxurious, and quite complex, depending on which farm produced the beans, the soil it grew on, and the climate.
The tasting notes of his “Santa Maria” bar, produced with beans from Davao Occidental, for instance, reads: “Well balanced, elegant, fruity and a spicy finish, cinnamon, pink pepper, raw honey.” He has two other bars called Sto. Tomas, and Subasta.
“Except for the Florentine wrapping paper, which comes from [my hometown in] Italy,” Mastrota says, “everything [in the bar] is local.” His bars are lovingly packaged, like a present, “which you buy for yourself, or for someone else. It is a gift in itself so it’s wrapped that way.”
His passion for handcrafting chocolates stems from a keen appreciation of food, just like most Italians. “I make my own pizza, I make my own pasta from scratch. It's in our DNA. Having the chance to sell my food to other people, not just my family and friends, is really worth it.”
His two children Tiger Lily, 7, and Olive, 3, also drive his zeal for the business. “Thinking about how my two young girls are proud of their dad making chocolates, that’s enough for me. That inspires me every day.”
The most difficult part of starting this business is educating the consumers, majority of whom still prefer the sweet milk chocolates we grew up on, Mastrota stresses. “You’re a pioneer because you can be first in the market, but you also spend a lot of resources to educate consumers. Everyone likes chocolates, but they don’t know how to approach this dark chocolate, which is not super sweet.”
‘You’re a pioneer because you can be first in the market, but you also spend a lot of resources to educate consumers. Everyone likes chocolates, but they don’t know how to approach this dark chocolate, which is not super sweet.’
But judging from the growing number of artisanal chocolate brands, which have popped up in recent years, there is a market for the single-origin, bean-to-bar variants. Well-traveled Filipinos have discovered the joys of dark chocolates, and the luxurious mouthfeel of purely made cocoa confections, which can only bode well for the young crop of chocolatiers in the country.
Currently, Tigre Y Oliva chocolate bars are available at coffee shops like Yardstick, Commune, and other specialty stores at PhP300 per 80 gram bar. Not cheap, for sure, but all those complex chocolate flavors are worth every centavo. What’s more, it supports local cacao farmers.
The company also supplies its chocolates to the popular Toyo Panaderya, which uses these for the latter’s chocolate cake and hot cocoa drink.
Mastrota projects a return on investment in two to three years, but overriding this, is to “make [the chocolates properly]. I want to show the origin. That's why I really believe Philippine cacao can be world-class. That's my goal. I want to conquer the world!”
Then he lets out a little laugh, spirited and confident, an assurance that if “made in the Philippines” chocolates will finally be known the world over, Mastrota will mostly likely have helped make this possible.