After Samual Maruta and Vincent Mourou-Rochebois met in Vietnam in 2010, the two discovered they shared an interest in chocolate. “I told Sam wanted to check out the cacao farms in the countryside and he said, “Let’s do it” and pulled out his map,” recalls Mourou-Rochebois. The pair rode their motorbikes sixty miles from Ho Chi Minh City to the province of Bà Rịa–Vũng Tàu, where they spotted a sign for a cacao farm.
“When we approached it, we saw cacao beans drying out in the sun,” Mourou-Rochebois recalls. “We bought two kilos of beans from the farmer.” On their way back to Ho Chi Minh City, Maruta suggested they start a company. Mourou-Rochebois laughingly asked, “What, making chocolate?” And Maruta replied, “Why not?”
The duo opened their chocolate company Marou on the outskirts of Ho Chi Min City, selling their chocolate bars only in Vietnam for the first six month. Now Marou chocolate can be found around the world. “We’re the first artisanal, bean-to-bar company in Vietnam,” Maruta says. Both founders talked to The Manual about their ‘Aha’ moment, Marou’s unique packaging and the importance of working directly with the cacao farmers in Vietnam.
When did you realize you could make your chocolate company come to fruition?
V: After our first test with cacao. We put the beans in the oven, took the skins off after roasting and made this thick mass. Then we stuck it in the fridge for 20 minutes, cut it up and tasted it. We looked at each other without saying anything and realized we had something. It wasn’t amazing chocolate but it had potential.
Where did you go from there?
V: in Vietnam, there are no machines for making chocolate and we realized we needed a certain machine to move forward: a wet grinder that a nearby Indian restaurant used for dosas, a dough made from lentil beans and chickpeas. We went to Singapore to get the machine and brought it back. That was a quantum leap in our chocolate making development. We could grind the beans down to something very fine–it started melting in the mouth. It started to look and feel like chocolate.
Did you run into any roadblocks when starting Marou?
S: For the first six months we worked out of my house. But we had big ideas and big plans.
V: We tried to get our business license and open up in the center of Ho Chi Minh City–a shop up front and a workshop in the back where people could see how it’s made. That was part of our dream. But the authorities wouldn’t allow us. So we decided to go elsewhere and make chocolate and we found the place where we are now, on the fringe of the city. And it ended up being the right thing for us.
S: We’re growing. We’re taking on a hundred extra square meters to expand our factory. It’s satisfying to look back on how we’ve gone from nothing to something in just a little over two years.
Marou currently offers five chocolate bars–how are they each distinct?
V: The chocolate reflect each of the five provinces we work with. Each province has different soil configurations and micro-climates. Then the farmers add a touch as well. Just the way they handle the beans and dry them also affects the taste.
S: The most distinctive is the Bà Rịa, the red one. People who eat our chocolates say it’s special and unlike any other chocolate out there. And professional chocolate makers always order that one.
V: The soil there is very unique. It’s a red soil, so the chocolate has a little bit of a red tint. And it’s funny, it’s made with the beans from the first farmer we met. We’re still working with that farmer. We got lucky because he grows not only good beans but unique ones.
How many cacao farms do you work with and where are they located?
V: We work with about 10 farms. And the farmers have about 2 or 3 acres of land. Our closest farm is 60 miles from our factory.
S: We’ve ridden bicycles to our farmers–it’s that close. All of the farms are in provinces in the south of Vietnam. It’s tropical and hot all year round, which is the perfect condition for cocoa.
What are the reactions of the cacao farmers to your chocolate?
S: In the beginning, they looked at us in a funny way. The chocolate they know has a lot of sugar in it. So I think they believe we’re slightly deranged to like such bitter chocolate [laughing].
V: Also, other buyers in Vietnam don’t even taste or select their beans. They just buy bags and throw them onto a truck. But since we know that chocolate is only good as the beans, we spend a lot of times in the farms. Farmers present us with bags of about 50 to 70 pounds of beans, and then we sit and taste them. It’s time-consuming and they probably thought we were crazy at first. But now, they kind of get it. They understand what we’re looking for.
Your chocolates come in striking, vibrant wrappers–who designed them?
S: A company called Rice Creative, a two-man team who started their business the same time we were starting. We were their first clients so we stuck together.
V: It took about 7 months to get wrappers that reflected our brand identity and incorporated a sense of place. We wanted to take people on journey as soon as they opened it. And the wrappers quickly got us a lot of attention. Distributors all over were curious enough to request samples. They told us: “If the chocolate is as nice as the wrapper, we’ll definitely buy from you.”
Lastlay, can you name all the ingredients in your chocolates?
S: Cacao and cane sugar. That’s it. There are no additives.
V: It’s really just about the cacao that we find from the farm. We don’t add vanilla, which is added to about 90% of dark chocolate on the market. In the beginning, we tested our chocolate with vanilla and realized we didn’t need it–our cacao is just good as it is.
Among Marou’s 12-member staff is Arnaud Normand, a chocolate maker who flew from France to learn about Marou’s bean-to-bar method. As Marou’s chocolate chef, Normand heads research and development for the company. Here’s his recipe for a flourless chocolate cake using Marou chocolate.
Moelleux au Chocolat Marou (Serves 8)
200 g Marou Tien Giang 70% or 65% Vietnam dark chocolate
200g or 4 egg yokes
200 g granulated sugar or less
200 g unsalted butter
25 g enriched white flour
Pre-heat oven to 150 degrees Celsius
Chop up the chocolate into small pieces and melt with the butter at low heat
In a separate bowl, mix the sugar and the flour
Incorporate the the eggs in with the sugar and flour mixture, then mix until you obtain a pale yellow color
Pour the egg/sugar/flour mixture into the molten chocolate mixture. Stir and mix until smooth
Pour into a thin tarte mold and place in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes