I usually quite enjoy motorcycle rides through a busy city, but not when my heart is beating out of my chest because I’m about to miss my flight.
This is how I ended up making my way to the airport to catch my flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok in the middle of rush hour traffic. I had earlier enjoyed lunch, coffee and a leisurely afternoon of cafes and conversations with my newfound friends, and right when i had the last sip of my hot chocolate from Marou, I realised that I was cutting it really close to departure time, and panic started to set in . I totally lost track of time having tea at the chocolatier’s with my new girlfriends from the hostel.
I probably would have ended up buying a very expensive ticket out of Vietnam which would have defeated the whole purpose of the backpacking trip, which was to go really cheap and scrimp on flight costs so that I could allocate my coin to other expenses, say coffee and chocolate. I had almost missed a flight. But it won’t be a stretch to say that it would have been totally worth it because I was able to go and visit Maison Marou one last time before I left Saigon. I love it that much.
If you haven’t heard of Maison Marou yet, pay close attention and thank me later. It’s really not a big deal if you’re one of the small fraction of the population who do not like chocolate. Otherwise, it’s still not a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that Maison Marou is only the center of Vietnam’s chocolate universe.
A couple decades ago, Vietnam had a cacao growing program that was responsible for birthing the country’s exceptional beans that are being made into Marou’s world renowed chocolate bars. International agencies, government offices and agribusiness advocates partnered with Vietnamese farmers to help create what they called a cacao revolution. And why not? Vietnam had all the prerequisites to cacao growing: water, sunlight and great soil. It was then that farmers were given crops to grow under the shade of their thriving fruit trees (avocado and durian, to name a few). These cacao farmers were subsidised by officials who were interested in the prospect of making Vietnam into a chocolate growing region (the same program was implemented in the Philippines, which gave rise to international favourites such as Malagos and Auro Chocolates, but that’s beside the point here).
Vincent Maouru and Samuel Maruta started what came to be Vietnam’s first bean-to-bar chocolate business. They rely on a tight network of small farmers that supply them with the best beans, one bag at a time. They pay a premium price for the produce, which then gets transformed in their chocolate lab to some of the most luscious and decadent chocolates I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming.
This is a story I’m familiar with. Most third wave coffee shops and roasteries will insist on having a close relationship with the farmers who grow their coffee so that they are assured of the best beans to come out of the lot. In return, the farmers get premium prices which would have been reduced to mere cents to the dollar had they chosen to give their wonderfully nuanced beans to industrial aggregators, who will sell it to massive roasting companies who will burn it to a crisp and sacrifice flavour and nuance for uniformity.
Marou makes its world famous chocolate bars in a commercial facility but their store at Rue Calmette has a small roasting machine that churns out small batches of chocolate. You can even get front row seat to witness the roasting process. Like I did below. See the joy on that face, ladies and gentlemen.
I was told that from bean to bar, it takes a whole three-day process to cool down, temper, and blend the cacao beans so that they can become the scrumptious and mouthwatering dark chocolate bars that are dressed in their special wrappers. Just look at how gorgeous their packaging design is.
You can also pop into their store to enjoy the delectable chocolate desserts that they have. In the two instances that I visited their store, I ordered the chocolate tart, which had a beautiful crust and a just-right sweetness from the dense mouse filling. It was a religious experience, to be very honest. I don’t think I’ve had a chocolate dessert as rich and as balanced as this one.
I also ordered on two occasions their house-blend hot chocolate which was just all sorts of obscene. It was so rich, with a beautifully silky texture… I don’t know, guys… Just go and see for yourself. I simply don’t have the words.
I also like how the place had a very nice seating area where you could lounge and work. The place was perfumed with the beans that were slowly roasting in the rotary drum situated near the entrance.
Just like single-origin coffee, the intrinsic “non-chocolate” flavours of cacao, like liquorice, berries, wine, or citrus all come from the cacao tree’s growing conditions. The French call this terroir. Gout de terroir, or taste of the soil in literal terms translate to the flavours and subtle nuances that the cacao (or coffee) beans derive from different factors such as the amount of rainfall, the acidity of the soil, or the amount of shade it received. This is to say that the cacao trees from the one hill or jungle will yield beans that have completely distinct flavours, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or even tobacco. It’s amazing how geography is translated into flavour. That’s the work of nature. The expert chocolatier, on the other hand, tries to draw out the finer qualities of the bean by careful roasting, fermentation and preparation to turn it into the beautiful natural flavours in the chocolate bar. That’s where the fine art of making chocolate comes in. That’s where chocolate is turned from a humble bean into something that induces moments of rapturous delight.
Stopping myself from blowing my budget on every single chocolate bar took every ounce of will power, but I knew I won’t have a nice time figuring out how to pass it through Air Asia’s 7-kilo hand carry baggage limit. And I was sure I was well over 7 kilos as it was.
With the attention to detail and the artisanal quality that Marou gives to its chocolates, it’s really not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t have minded if I missed that flight so long as I was able to savour it one more time.
Of course, I would be royally pissed, because it won’t be me if I don’t throw a fit. But at least I had a chocolate bar or two to tide me over another crazy night in Vietnam.
Maison Marou Saigon
169 Calmette, Phường Nguyễn Thái Bìn, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh City