An Interview with Samuel Maruta (right), founder of Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat
Founded in 2011, Marou is a French-Vietnamese bean-to-bar maker of fine chocolate. Co-founders Vincent Mourou and Samuel Maruta are French expats in Ho Chi Minh City who left former lives in advertising and banking respectively to pursue their curiousity for good chocolate.
Like other bean-to-bar outfits around the world, Marou is part of a select group of chocolate makers who make their chocolate from scratch, a labour of love that involves purchasing raw beans that they process themselves into a luxurious bar of chocolate. Doing so affords fine control over the quality of the chocolate during each step of the process, and gives the chocolate maker the opportunity to highlight the particular, complex flavours of the cacao bean on hand. At the moment, Marou’s bars represent six different Vietnamese provinces from which cacao beans are sourced directly from the growers, each with their unique tastes and characteristics.
In the five short years since its birth, Marou has received critical acclaim and international press for the exceptional quality of its chocolate. It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly about Marou has caught the imagination of the bean-to-bar world and its chocolate-eating public. Perhaps its beautiful packaging is a good starting point – a striking monotone of gold Vietnamese lattice patterns that marries a pleasingly stylish aesthetic and a hint of French quirk. Marou captures an Indochine exotique that is grounded in a true respect for the Vietnamese cacao, while drawing on the rich tradition of French chocolate-making, lending the very technical bean-to-bar operation an air of effortless je ne sais quo.
We sat down with Samuel to chat about Marou, chocolate, and everything in between.
What was it about bean-to-bar that you fell in love with at the start?
I think that [Vincent and I] were attracted by the idea of chocolate making, and the appeal of bean-to-bar was that it’s a different way of making chocolate. We wanted to make good chocolate that we would be happy to eat ourselves. That was our only focus group really – ourselves (laughs).
So making bean-to-bar chocolate was a key consideration when you first started Marou?
Yes, we started with the intention to make bean-to-bar – we didn’t start with chocolate as a chocolatier and then found out about bean-to-bar. There were already cacao beans, and the idea of Marou was to see if we could turn beans into chocolate, so from the very beginning that was part of the story.
What was being done with these cacao beans, were they already being processed into chocolate?
Not really, most of the cacao exported out of Vietnam used to be processed into cocoa powder and butter. The main players on the trading side were big trading companies like Cargill and Armajaro, both of which have left cacao in Vietnam since then.
Is it because other larger cacao markets like Indonesia are now more attractive?
Well, I think Cargill for example was very instrumental in bringing cacao to Vietnam in the first place. The investment they made, and cajoling people into thinking it was a good idea to plant cacao. They also bought the harvests for the first ten years, but at the end of the day they are a very large company and wanted more volume than Vietnam, so they left. The other company Armajaro sold their trading activities so they’re still around under a different name.
What I’m really interested in the process through which the quality of the cacao beans was improved – I understand that there was a Vietnamese university that was instrumental in doing that?
Yes, Dong Lam University and that was before Marou got started. I think if you go all the way back to the history of cacao in Vietnam, the first time somebody planted cacao in Vietnam was in the Mekong Delta during the 1870s. Apparently some French priests brought different seeds and were experimenting with plantations, so there was some cacao planted in Vietnam. We did some research and found snippets of information that the French government – the colonial government at the time – had stopped subsidising cacao in 1907 which means that in the years before that they had actually been subsidising it.
That’s pretty cool.
Yeah, it’s in the deeper recesses of our website and we have some posts about this that we found out through our dear friend Google. (Read more about the history of cacao in Vietnam here)
Let’s talk about chocolate making: how did you learn to differentiate good and bad beans, and was it a coincidence that the beans were already of this quality?
It’s a bell curve if you will – if you take a hundred farmers who grow cacao, you’ll have ten really good ones, eighty really average ones and ten really bad ones. It’s how you would imagine things to happen naturally, so in the beginning what we did was to go after the top ten percent, the guys doing a really good job. We took some classes in cacao and agronomy and stuff like that, explaining how the fermentation was done, what you wanted to happen and what you didn’t want. Read some books too, but mostly we learnt from a German agronomist who was posted to Ho Chi Minh City when we were starting. Then it was a case of buying beans and tasting beans and understanding what the flavor will be like when you turn it into chocolate. You’re going to find the same flaws in beans as you do in the [finished] chocolate – if you find bitterness you will get bitterness, if you find astringency you will get astringency.
What would you want the typical consumer to know about the process? When I take out a bag of beans at a tasting event, people are really surprised that this is where chocolate comes from.
It’s true, and I think it’s true of many products – many people only have a vague idea of how you make beer. A lot of these products are shrouded in mystery, and chocolate probably even more so. Part of the mystique of the chocolate maker – in that there is no equivalent of a Willy Wonka figure for beer or wine for instance – it’s probably a very deformed idea of what chocolate making is about (laughs). But it’s really the story about the magic of transforming stuff into product that makes children hyperactive.
I think that people should know that the quality of the product comes from the cacao beans, and not all cacao beans are created equal. That’s something really important and I don’t think a lot of people realize that. But when they do, it should make a difference. There’re so many things to say about that; the whole environmental side also, the cost of cacao and where it comes from and stuff like that. That’s something I’ve noticed, chocolate people tend to be very nice people in general, and they also tend to think of themselves as very nice people and that extends to things like environmental-friendliness and everyone in the chocolate world thinks that they can save the world with chocolate, more or less (laughs). I think it’s a great idea and I completely subscribe to it, except when you look in detail it’s not quite as rosy as it seems.
That begs the question of what happens as Marou and the bean-to-bar world in general grows, do you think the stock of quality cacao is growing with it?
What’s happening is that, to go back to the idea of a normal distribution, if you don’t try to separate the good from the bad, you get something that’s very average. If you’re an industrial buyer who cares about a minimal level of quality and more about quantity and price, you’re not going to spend a lot of time sorting them by quality. The minute you start taking the same pile of beans and looking to separate the good stuff from the less good stuff, you’re actually creating value. You’re saying that, ok, this is the price I’m going to pay for the higher quality stuff. And having people who care about the beans they buy 100kg at a time, as opposed to the 10 containers of 20 tonnes, you must necessarily be improving the quality at the higher end of the market.
Speaking of quality, what’s your favourite bar that Marou has made so far?
Why do you ask me to pick between my children? (Laughs) Of course I have favourites but it changes depending on the batches. I try not to obsess too much about that. For example, the last of the standard bars we released last year – the Dak Lak 70% – is a great chocolate. Treasure Island is also great, and at some point I think all of them are great chocolate so it’s hard to choose a favourite or perennial favourite.
Do you want to describe a little the flavours of the Treasure Island and Dak Lak bars?
Yeah, what I like about the Treasure Island is the extreme smoothness of the chocolate – some people almost miss the point of the chocolate because it’s very, very smooth. 75%, but no acidity or bitterness and it’s almost creamy, and it’s got these incredible subdued yet rich flavors of cinnamon and coconut. Sometimes it almost feels like we’ve added drops of essential oil in the chocolate, which is not the case at all. It’s just that the flavor and fragrance of the beans come through – and those are beans you can eat raw and unroasted which is pretty great.
The Dak Lak I like because it’s got a much more earthy flavor. Unlike the beans from Treasure Island they can be a bit rough around the edges, but when you turn it into chocolate it works remarkably well. There’s a damp earth flavor, which sounds disgusting (laughs), but is actually quite nice. Dak Lak is the name of a highland province in Vietnam – the furthest province from Ho Chi Minh City that we buy from.
Marou just opened retail space in the heart of Ho Chi Minh, what made you decide to go into that and what can we find at Maison Marou?
We always wanted to have a place that could showcase Marou, all the different bars, and all the stuff that we could do with the different bars. So there’s definitely more than just chocolate – there’s also pastry, people can drink tea, coffee, even champagne if you feel like it. So it’s kind of hedonistic; a place where you can have a good time and enjoy your food. And it all revolves around chocolate. The initial reason was to showcase and share, and the second was for business reasons. We realized, talking to people who make chocolate in the US for example, were able to survive and pay, say, San Francisco rent and salaries, and make chocolate because they sell at retail directly. The margins they get are much higher than selling couverture or through a distributor.
So what’s next for Marou?
Well we’re very happy with the shop, and a lot of the hard work has been done so we need to continue with that. But we do it carefully, never sold out in that sense and we’ve always been very very cautious – very ambitious in our scope, but very cautious in the size of the steps we take.
Is there a particular new market you want to go into or product you’d like to make?
Yeah for retail we think the potential in Vietnam is still very big. We want to be in Hanoi, which is pretty much the same distance from Ho Chi Minh City as Singapore is. But we can see that our story resonates with the public in Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi where our chocolate is hard to come by. Half the Facebook messages we get ask, “Where can I get your chocolate in Hanoi?” And Hanoi has cool heritage buildings we could turn into a very nice Maison Marou Hanoi. Then we’ll see, but there could be openings outside Vietnam too.
(Laughs) Why not, it’s not too far and the logistics would not be too complicated. I think the budget would be very different but if we have a successful track record outside of Singapore it might attract the right sort of partner and investor. But all that takes time.
What would you say to someone who is interested in trying to make their own bean to bar chocolate?
Just do it!
For more information on Maison Marou:
Located at: 167-169 Calmette Street, Saigon
The official representative of Marou in Singapore is hello chocolate so to get your hands on a bar, visit their kiosk, website or find them on redmart:
Hello Chocolate Kiosk – Pedders on Scotts, Scotts Square, 6, Scotts Road, Level 2, Singapore, 228209.
Read more about the recent collaboration of Marou, Gallery & Co and Rice Creative with National Gallery of Singapore as inspiration here.
Be sure and subscribe below so you don’t miss our next article on bean-to-bar chocolate.
Unless otherwise indicated, images have been provided by Marou.