Bertil Akesson is a household name within chocolate circles. If you’ve tasted a single-origin bar from Madagascar, especially from a US bean-to-bar chocolate maker, chances are good that it was made with Bertil’s beans. (Those in the biz call him Bert, but it seems an overly chummy name for such an elegant man.)
I saw Bertil at the London Salon du Chocolat in October 2013, where he was making the rounds of the show. When I caught up with him, he had a bottle of wine in one hand, and a tower of plastic glasses in the other—he was on a mission to spread a bit of cheer to the chocolate makers who were manning their booths.
Side note: There’s a little dot over the A in Akesson’s that I can’t figure out how to add. In Swedish, this means pronouncing the A like a round “oh” that projects from the back of your throat. Oooh-kess-ahns.
What does Akesson’s do?
I’m a planter, so I consider myself a planter. I started growing beans in Madagascar and then I bought a plantation in Brazil, so ultimately I was selling to pretty much all the top chocolate makers, these beans. And they would achieve such different chocolates that I got intrigued and I wanted to develop my own chocolate to give my own interpretation of the beans, and that’s what I’m aiming at. Bringing out the taste of the fruit.
When you have the plain Madagascar I want to bring out the citrusy acidity and these red fruits, but in a pleasant way. I pay very much attention to the texture. And yah, I grow on the plantations and I try to incorporate the other crops in the chocolate, like chocolate and peppercorns, chocolate and coffee… I’m making a new chocolate, a white bar where it is single-plantation white chocolate. I take cocoa butter from my own beans and I do drinking chocolate with the powder, and this white chocolate, I will make with a citrus that I’m growing in Madagascar called kombaba and they’re a great mix, in this white chocolate. So yeah. I incorporate products from the plantation in the chocolate.
But again, I want to make the taste of the fruit a priority, so when I make chocolate and pepper, it’s a priority to the pepper. If I want to give priority to the cocoa, then it’s the plain stuff.
How did you become a planter?
It’s funny things in life, I always wanted to work and travel around the world so I found materials would be the way. The first job I found was in industrial minerals, something not so sexy like graphite and mica, silicon carbide, huge multinationals. I didn’t like it. My father was getting older. He asked me to help him managing his company because he couldn’t do any more; he was in a wheelchair. I helped him, I managed his business over 7 years and the core business was plantations. And mainly sisal plantations and train factories.
At some point in Madagascar, the government said, “if you want to keep your ownership of the properties in the south, where the sisal grows, then you need to buy a piece of land in the north.” So my father bought the piece of land to keep the ownership of his main business. We thought we should do something with it. There were cocoa trees on it and nobody wanted to buy cocoa from Madagascar. Valrhona was already checking possibilities and making chocolate with it and otherwise everything else was sold to Mitsubishi trading and it was not fine cocoa.
I didn’t know anything about chocolate so I went to see Valrhona, I weent to see Domori, I went to see in Venezuela how they grow it. I went to see Guittard and Scharffen Berger. Gary [Guittard] and Robert [Steinberg] in America, they are wonderful people who gave me wonderful feedback. I sent samples, they gave feedback. And eventually we improved our technicity, you know—fermentation and the whole process.
Then it wasn’t feedback we got, but an order. Same, it was also major companies and it was good companies, major companies that inspired newcomers to the market. In America we have people like Amano, Patric, they were among the very first new American chocolate makers and yah, they started buying and now I supply all of it in America. And in Europe as well. But it was a process.
It was good timing but a lot of work too, and it was a human adventure, that’s the thing. I love life, I love food, I love chocolate. I like chocolate as much as I like this wine [he points to his glass], but what I really love is the people behind chocolate and cocoa, and this is unique. It’s what really, that’s what I fell in love with. The people in this world of chocolate.
What’s the best part of your job?
That’s meeting the people, you know. Spending time with the growers, spending time with the chocolate makers here in England. We have a few new guys around the block making an effort, it’s always good guys. Even the retailers that are in our segment, which is high-end chocolate, these people are passionate about food, nice people usually, enjoying life and we love that. People.
What’s your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was buying the plantations.
What do you do when you’re not planting or making chocolate?
When I’m not making chocolate, the main thing…I spend more time on the plantations, that’s the main thing in my activity. So when I’m not on the plantations I’m making chocolate and I’m selling the chocolate and I’m selling the beans. Travelling a lot around the world. We just got a daughter and I’m going to spend more time at home. We are relocating in London now and hopefully I can spend more time at home with the family. But it’s great to be able to bring your daughter in the plantation and share nature, and she loves already being on the plantations.