The Holy Grail of Chocolate
Igor van Gerwen’s obsession with chocolate has fuelled a lifetime. From his working origins in Antwerp, Belgium to growing his business in Latrobe, Northern Tasmania, this infectious passion led him into the heart of the Amazon in 2014.
Trekking through the Marañón Canyon in Peru, Igor was witness to the source of the purest chocolate in the world - Nacional cacao, thought to be extinct for over 90 years. His global influences come together at House of Anvers, where the renowned chocolatier has the exclusive Southern Hemisphere licence to use and sell the prized cocoa, his Holy Grail of chocolate.
At age 12, Igor developed a keen interest in the process of chocolate creation. Learning against fourth- and fifth-generation chocolatiers meant he had to refine his craft alongside the very best in Europe. Spending six years learning the patisserie trade, at age 20 he found himself following his sister to Tasmania, where he never left. Working for a bakery initially, Igor used chocolate from his homeland to create truffles as a side-project. One stockist became two, and before he knew it he was supplying to David Jones in Melbourne. Taking on a mentor to help with the business growth, House of Anvers was established in 1989.
An emphasis on using local Tasmanian ingredients led Igor to investigate alternate sources of chocolate, as the richness of the cream and butter proved overpowering for the original Belgian brand – the main chocolate in use now is made from a Ghanian cocoa.
Using single origin varieties of cocoa from South America and Western Africa in conjunction with a strong local ingredient focus has established an international reputation for Igor and House of Anvers which undoubtedly helped in the securing of the Nacional licence.
Endorphin releases from modern chocolate are essentially a sugar rush – most off-the-shelf chocolates are made from hybrid cocoas. Single origin cocoa that makes it to market for sale is becoming rarer year on year. Originally the only supply of beans that were turned into quality chocolate, the last 100 years has seen a complete shift in the way cacao plantations are developed and harvested. Cacao can be viewed in the same way as wine, where the results of climate and environment distinctly impact the final product, affecting what becomes cocoa and eventually chocolate.
The cross pollination of cacao tree strains transformed the cocoa industry and allowed many farmers – especially across South America and Africa – to expand, employ more local people, support their communities, and hedge against adverse weather conditions. New hybrid varieties of cacao produce more fruit as the trees grow faster.
Industrial practices and standardisation has contributed to several of the world’s largest chocolate brands producing what could be considered middle-of-the-road products. Not bad, though definitely safe, and made for mass quantity sales.
In the case of Nacional, a complex floral cacao variety favoured by the European aristocracy, disease struck the crop in 1916 and left only 5% of the world’s supply alive. Forgotten as the local farmers moved on to more profitable varieties bred to withstand future outbreaks, it wasn’t until 2007 when two Americans sourcing food for mining companies in Peru discovered what they believed to be a crop of Nacional trees.
Intrigued, they sent leaf samples back to the USA where genetic testing revealed the truth: after nearly 100 years, the trees had found a new home and were thriving 300 metres above a valley in the Marañón Canyon – an unprecedented height for the trees to live. The chocolate that results from these trees is named Don Fortunato No. 4 – named in honour of the farmer who cares for the original 24 trees and the fourth sample submitted to the United States Department of Agriculture, regarded as the rediscovery of this heirloom strain. When Igor heard of the discovery, he set about making inroads to become a distributor. Hailing from Belgium and having experienced the world’s greatest chocolate through his career, he was floored by the intensity and power resulting from the Nacional beans – unlike any other he has tasted.
As he began to import tonnes of the cocoa, an evolution occurred. A cacao pod is mainly thick white pulp, housing seeds which include the beans. The Fortunato No. 4 trees have a precious characteristic in that some of the beans produced are white, not purple – at a roughly 40%/60% ratio. These white beans produce a more mellow, less bitter tasting chocolate, and are a mutation that occurred due to the hundreds of years where the trees were left to grow undisturbed.
Chocolate made from only white beans is the most expensive – and in 2013, Igor was informed that closely related trees at a higher altitude were producing pods with purely white beans. In order to fully appreciate the discovery, Igor felt the need to wander deep into the hidden mountains of Peru to see the trees firsthand. He immediately began planning the long trip.
The Peruvian government were secretive – Igor was told to sign a confidentiality agreement, agreeing to never reveal the growing location of the pure cacao genetic varieties. These measures are taken to stop would-be entrepreneurs – or smugglers – from stealing seedlings or sabotaging the trees.
After signing the agreement, Igor was led to a ‘base town’ near the Marañón River, where he joined the owners of Marañón Chocolate, the American company who discovered the Pure Nacional trees. Crossing rampaging rivers on small local boats, driving through deep muddy terrain, and finally winding up the side of a mountain to an unnamed village, they pushed past, into the area that hosts the highest cocoa plantations on Earth. Two dozen original Nacional trees stand mightily here, untouched by the civilisations that surround them. Igor was offered some of the white beans to sample. He could taste the same flavour foundation from the Nacional tree beans he had previously encountered, but without any of the acidic tannins or bitterness. He was in a dream state. Standing near the top of the Amazonian mountains, bordering Peru and Ecuador, Igor held in his hands the building block for the rarest, richest chocolate in the world.
At the farm later, meeting Don Fortunato himself, Igor sampled a cup of hot chocolate. Amazed at the aroma and complex flavour, he asked what had been added, what combination of spices was included to create such depth? Fortunato laughed as he answered: none. This is how chocolate should taste.
The gap between the mountains and the blocks that arrive in Tasmania to House of Anvers is wide – the farmers process the beans on-site, drying, fermenting and then roasting them into cocoa ready for transport to Switzerland. The different coloured beans must be dried and fermented separately, allowing the beans to develop their full characteristics independently. In Switzerland, an eminent chocolatier processes the cocoa, using a longitudinal conch from 1879. Unlike modern equipment which uses pre-heated water to rapidly increase the temperature of the chocolate as it is made, this conch creates height only by friction, preserving delicate flavours that are lost in the contemporary process.
Formed into 500g blocks, it is distributed to less than 40 rights holders across the world, of which Anvers is the only in the Southern Hemisphere. After it arrives, Igor must temper the chocolate again in order to repackage it, though he is absolute in the belief that it remain as pure as possible. He describes the taste as more savoury than other chocolate – a well balanced cocoa umami.
Sitting off the Bass Highway south-east of Devonport in northern Tasmania, House of Anvers is located in a California style Wyndarra Lodge that was built in 1931 with over a hectare of surrounding gardens. Igor purchased the property in 2002 and moved his business to the site, the expansion including a café, production line, chocolate museum and tasting shop to provide an all round experience.
Busy with foot traffic from the early morning each day, the lightly whipped truffles are best sellers, with fudge and pralines also moving in high quantities. Inside the store, the Fortunato No. 4 blocks occupy a small space in comparison, bordered with photos and a video on loop with footage from the trip to Peru.
Igor has setup Anvers to put back as much as possible into the community. Over 50 staff work across the various aspects of the business, and all employees are trained to a minimum Cert III level with the owner heavily involved in the art of manipulating chocolate. Chocolatiers are trained for three years before being encouraged to experiment with different flavours. Sourcing ingredients from local suppliers, Igor is convinced that the conditions in Northern Tasmania produce the richest flavours in the world for cream and butter. Being able to combine these elements with the purest heirloom cocoa on offer anywhere in the world leaves him in the rarest of positions.
For us consumers, the Milk & Dark blocks of Fortunato No. 4 on sale are a window into how a global network can benefit every involvement, from the farmers to the processors to the craftsmen and the customer. The path Igor has taken to follow his passion traverses both multiple decades and continents. People all over the world have been impacted by his gracious nature and intense commitment to quality - none more so than the farmers, both in Peru and Tasmania, whose relationships allow him to put forward products of the highest quality.
The obsessive passion that has driven him is a key reason Anvers holds the exclusive Australian rights to sell the Holy Grail of Chocolate – crafted in Antwerp, nurtured by nature in Peru, and made ready for us to enjoy in Northern Tasmania.
Visit at 9025 Bass Highway, Latrobe
Buy from anvers-chocolate.com.au
Follow at @houseofanvers
Read more stories like this in our Northern Tasmania issue, covering from Stanley in the northwest to the Bay of Fires in the east, through Burnie, Devonport and Launceston. We've jam packed 116 pages to bring you stories of our favourite eateries, farms, producers, wine, beer, spirits and social enterprises! Purchase here: