From Denmark with love

Rasmus Bo Bojesen, a leading Danish chef, has a passion for chocolate. As Rasmus develops his Oialla chocolate brand, he spoke to EP about his love for chocolate, how he developed his craft and how his story affected a small community in Bolivia

Rasmus is one of life’s natural enthusiasts – he speaks in a way that is engaging because his care and love is so evident. As with all the leading culinary exponents, he is engrossed in his craft. He has an eye for the smallest detail and he is involved in every aspect of producing chocolate. It is easy to imagine him speaking, enthusiastically about chocolate from morning till night.

“It is 30 years since I ‘fell into the chocolate pot’, thanks to the legendary Monsieur Bernachon,” explains Rasmus. “My life took me along winding roads through hotels and restaurant kitchens in Denmark, Japan, and France, via the family Troigros to Lyon, straight into the back room of one of the most prestigious Chocolatiers – Monsieur Bernachon – whose family still runs the chocolate shop in Lyon today.”

As Rasmus talks it is clear that he really has enjoyed the journey his career has taken him on. It may not have always been easy, but it has always been rich in experience and of interest. His eyes are so full of life that they almost speak before he does. As he talks it is also clear that he possesses the same qualities that many of the great chefs do – an understanding and respect for others in his profession, a respect for food and the natural products he uses, and a desire to excel. Rasmus is still on his journey and there are still miles to travel.

“I really felt that I had been granted access to a sacred place. Suddenly I stood in front of Bernachon, who had a handful of cocoa beans in his big, rough hands, while he told me about the bean varieties, acidity, origin, sorting, roasting, grinding, rolling and heating. For months I worked hard as a sorcerer’s apprentice. I began by sorting the beans – for two months – before I was gradually allowed to help Bernachon with more and more tasks.

“At first I thought it was unbelievable that I, as a trained chef and with several years’ experience from fine dining, was being made to sit and sort beans. Gradually it dawned on me that Bernachon wanted me to understand every aspect of the careful and precise process that is involved in making chocolate.

“I learned how big a role each and every bean and its quality has on the finished product. Like the grapes in the bountiful vineyards, cocoa beans are also dependent on nature’s bounty. The beans were no better than the variety, soil, climate, rain or sun, and the care they had received. It was possible to see and feel this in the beans as I sorted them by colour and size.

“After nature had done its part, it was our turn to unfold the chocolate flavour through roasting, milling and conching, and finally making paper-thin coating chocolate and truffle paste.

“This world of chocolate was completely new to me and very different from hectic kitchens at the busy restaurants, where there was shouting and screaming, improvisation and sweating, almost like military training. I decided that I wanted to have both. I would be both a talented chef and chocolatier, and I would try to combine the two kitchens – the savoury and the sweet.

“Chocolate is basically a spice and I think it’s wonderful that it is not just sweet. So, ever since I started making my own chocolate, I have tried mixing it with flavours such as chilli, ginger, star anise and other spices. I was also challenged to create a small chocolate for the restaurant Umami. The chocolate contained miso, a fermented soy bean paste, which is an essential condiment in Japanese cuisine.”

While Rasmus may have lead chocolatiers with his creative mixes before, he is now concentrating on a back to basics approach through Oialla, his chocolate brand, which celebrates the purity of the cacao bean. Rising through the percentages of Oialla, when one tastes the dark chocolate that is 72% or 78% there is no residual taste of acidity usually found in other brands. There is just a rich taste that continues even after the chocolate is finished.

“Akin to wines being related to the variety of grape and the region they come from, if chocolate is made properly, one doesn’t discuss the percentage of cocoa to describe its taste – one describes the bean and the earth it comes from.”

So begins the story of Oialla – the chocolate you can trace from bean to bar.

“Oialla is an organic chocolate that is derived only from wild Beniano beans found in the Amazon jungle. The beans come from trees that date back to the Incas and have a strong social meaning to the community. Through the close partnership developed with local communities in Bolivia to work on Oialla, the Danish Foreign Ministry has also invested in the country – pledging to help with the education and infrastructure of the village.

The harvesting of beans takes place far away from the village of Baures on islets most often several hours by boat and miles of walking. After collecting them in a method that promotes sustainability for the area, the beans are then fermented in handmade palm leaf baskets. The fermentation and processing of the cacao beans is knowledge that has been passed on by Oialla to the local community.

About 3,000 people live in Baures and approximately 1,000 of these are children under the age of 16. There are currently three schools in Baures. Two of the schools are primary schools for children aged from 8 to 14. The third school is a secondary school that teaches children from the age of 14 to 18. Another secondary school is under construction right now. Our hope is that our active involvement helps this community grow and prosper.”

One can only smile at Rasmus’ commitment to both Oialla and to the Bolivian community in Baures. In so many ways, this is a heart-warming story.

We turned our attention to his aspirations:

“I would like to bring Oialla into the UK and develop a base here. I am already selling chocolate in Denmark, France, Germany and in the U.S. The UK is a natural and important market to develop. The Danes have always possessed a strong relationship with the British and I believe that my chocolate will be well received and understood. The British have become exceptional food connoisseurs and I look forward to working in this market.”

Will Oialla succeed in the UK? Time will tell but having found its way to the kitchens of Noma, Daniel Boulud (NY) and Vendôme (Cologne), one suspects it will as the product is clearly exceptional and the industry will warm to Rasmus’s approach. It will win hearts and minds.