After assisting farmers in Madagascar, Brazil, Vanuatu and PNG to cultivate organic cacao beans, Josh Bahen heads back home to the Margaret River in Western Australia. Here, with his collection of vintage machinery, he creates a range of powerfully-flavoured chocolate that speaks of its origins...
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Josh Bahen’s chocolate epiphany came when he bit into a bar of chocolate in France in 2004. The young winemaker was honing his skills in Burgundy, in the famous Nuits-Saint-Georges winery, and indulging in the rich and intriguing foods of the region.
“It was the most interesting food I’ve ever had exposure to. We had a chef living on the winery with us, cooking incredible things every day.”
But it was a bar of single origin chocolate made by the famous chocolatier Bonnat that changed Bahen’s path in life.
“Biting into that chocolate was incredible — there were strong fruit flavours — I was amazed at the layers of aromas and flavours that are just as complex as those in wine.”
Josh returned to his Margaret River vineyard and, with his wife Jacqui, decided to pursue the arcane craft of chocolate making. They set up Bahen & Co on the family farm in Wilyabrup and produced their first chocolate in 2007. The couple travels regularly to cacao farms in Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Brazil, and more recently, Vanuatu, to help farmers grow heirloom beans that are the basis of the full and potent flavours they seek.
“We thought sourcing the beans would be the easy part,” says Josh, “But it took us five years to get our first three farmers on board.”
Josh uses only heirloom genetics, or ‘fine flavour’ beans, which are much lower in yield than commercially produced beans. While commercially grown beans account for 95% of the world’s consumption, Josh believes the flavour has largely been bred out of them through over-production.The exclusive 5% of heirloom beans provide intense flavours bearing strongly regional characteristics, each of which is detectable by Josh’s refined and educated palate.
“You can taste a bean and tell if the farmer is good or bad,” he says. “Our aim is to help the farmers produce the very best beans through excellent cultivation methods. This way they will become more profitable by not competing with the growers for the huge commercial markets.”
Helping educate the farmers has been a long but rewarding task for Jacqui and Josh. And they have been assisted by NGOs and government bodies in the process (ACTIV Vanuatu, ACIAR, PARDI and AusAID’s CLIP in the Soloman Islands to name a few).
The fermented beans are exported back to Bahen & Co’s factory, nestled amongst rolling hills and giant eucalypts. Here they are processed with beautiful antique machinery that has been painstakingly sourced by the Bahens. A much sought-after 1930s Barth Sirocco ball roaster brings out the beans’ rich aromas. A winnower was recovered from an abandoned chocolate factory in Latin America, and a 1910 Guitard melangeur is the stone grinder that provides a key to preserving the flavours of the fermented and roasted beans. The vintage Carle & Montanari conche is the chocolate maker’s ‘tuning fork’, monitoring the acidity level of the chocolate.
“We prefer to shorten any of the processes of laying of the hands on the bean,” says Josh, “We use a very short conche cycle.”
These bespoke bars are then wrapped in folds of creamy-thick papers printed in delectable designs by Jacqui, some of which recall architectural and plant features of their travels. Stockists are equally curated and selected, but it is worth the journey to seek them out.
Images: Bahen & Co Chocolates