The northern Thai province of Nan will always hold a special place in my heart. In my opinion, it’s one of the most underrated locations in Thailand. Despite its natural beauty, historic sites and charming way of life, Nan remains almost unknown to foreign tourists. Although that’s a shame, it also means that those overseas tourists who do venture to Nan will often say they have found the elusive ‘real Thailand’ they’ve been looking for.
I’ve been a semi-regular visitor to this gorgeous part of the world and like to think I know the area quite well. What I didn’t know, though, was that Nan is fast establishing a reputation for the quality of its chocolate. Thailand may be associated with many gastronomic wonders, but chocolate isn’t one of them. But if the work of Khun Manoon is anything to go by, that could all change.
Khun Manoon was born in Pua province, Nan. Passionate about the environment and artisan chocolate, he has travelled extensively in Europe to learn his craft from experts. Khun Manoon brings his knowledge to the chocolate workshops he runs at Cocoa Valley Resort in his hometown. If you stay overnight at the resort, you will also have time to visit the farm where the cacao trees grow and learn about every stage of the process involved in making top quality chocolate.
Many farmers in northern Thailand (and neighbouring countries) still use slash and burn farming techniques. When crop stubble and waste are burned it can result in significant air pollution in the mountains and valleys of the North during the dry season months. Authorities in Nan, and individuals such as Khun Manoon, are seeking ways to improve the situation that also incentivise farmers. Khun Manoon has worked closely with farmers in Pua district and is astute enough to know that the farmers still need a financial incentive to change their old habits. And chocolate could be the answer.
From bean to bar
The cacao tree originated in South America, but is well-suited for the climate and soil in Nan’s Pua district. And because the tree enjoys shade, it can also be planted amongst other crops including coconut palms, durian and mangosteen. More importantly from a financial perspective, the pods on the cacao trees ripen at different times and can be harvested all year round.
Cacao or cocoa?
Cacao is the name of the plant and also used for the products made from the non-roasted seeds the cacao plant produces. It is only after the seeds have been roasted that cocoa products can be made.
From the time it’s planted, it takes approximately five years for the cacao tree to produce its first fruit, known as a cacao pod. Although the initial period takes time, there are many benefits to farmers growing cacao trees. Once the cacao tree starts bearing fruit it can do so for decades with each cacao pod holding around 30-50 cacao seeds or beans. Unlike many other flowers, the pollination process of the cacao flowers is the work of flies, not bees.
The cacao seeds are harvested and then fermented before being dried naturally in the sun and the husks removed. It’s a labour intensive process and to make one pound of chocolate requires several hundred beans.
At the chocolate workshop at Cocoa Valley Resort you can learn about the different grades of chocolate and the other products that can be produced from cacao beans including cocoa butter and soap which both have excellent moisturising qualities.
The chocolate making course costs 350 Baht per person and includes the visit to the farm and the chocolate bar you create. At the moment there are two courses per day: 9:30am and 1:30pm.
Map of Nan
I visited Cocoa Vally Resort as a guest of the Me, Myself & Thailand project. The free digital guidebook is aimed at encouraging solo female travellers to experience more of Thailand.
I covered my own costs to and from Nan. As always, views expressed here are my own.