(SPOT.ph) While many of us grew up having powdered malted chocolate drinks with breakfast, the tsokolate tablea holds a special place in every Filipino’s heart. The dark-chocolate tablets—a literal translation of the Spanish name—are usually made with dried local cocoa beans and muscovado sugar. When dissolved in hot water (or, if you’re feeling extra luxurious, milk), the resulting drink is dark, rich, and has a toasted sweetness to it. The hot tsokolate is a Christmas staple, and it’s almost impossible not to feel a tinge of nostalgia while having it.
Marielle Moens found herself craving the comforting beverage when she moved to Belgium—even though she was already in, arguably, the country of chocolate. “We just moved to Belgium about a half a year ago and we ended up talking about tablea," she shares. “I asked, ‘Oh, you guys must know chocolates. Have you heard of tablea?’ And they were like, ‘No, we’ve never heard of it.’”
That was when it hit her: if she couldn’t have the dark-chocolate tablets within reach, she could make her own. “[My husband, Matthias] and I were talking about ideas for our e-commerce business,” says Marielle. “So I said, ‘I guess we could make our own version.’” This became Theo & Brom, which they describe as “Belgian tablea.”
Belgian tablea may seem like a combination of words that don’t make sense—after all, wasn’t tablea supposed to be Filipino or even Spanish? But to Marielle, it was perfectly clear: She and her husband were already in Belgium, so she decided to combine the Belgian method of chocolate-making with cocoa beans from the Philippines. “There’s a contrast between Belgian chocolate and the tablea,” she explains. “Ours is very rough ground, and it’s been the same since the Spanish first brought it to the Philippines. So we wanted to refine it into something different.”
The Up-and-Coming Stars of the Chocolate World
Though Marielle and Matthias were producing their tsokolate tablea in Belgium, they knew from the get-go that they were going to use cocoa beans from the Philippines. “[The Philippines] is an emerging source of fine cocoa in the bean-to-bar world,” says Marielle. “We’re the up-and-coming stars of the chocolate world. Just last February, when we went to a cocoa festival in Amsterdam, the speakers were Filipino makers. They had their time on stage, [they were] speaking to Europeans, and we were like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ They’re creating a lot of buzz.”
So when it came to choosing which Philippine farm to get their beans from, the Moens knew they had their work cut out for them. “Before we started this chocolate business, we thought, ‘Well, cacao is cacao,’” says Mattias. “It’s all going to be very similar in taste. And then you start tasting different beans, and it’s as if you’re drinking whiskey or wine or beer. You eat a lot of chocolates, and then you start to differentiate different tastes like red wine or raisins.”
Luckily for the couple, they found someone to hold their hand through what could have ended up being a maddening search. “We actually have a cocoa adviser,” shares Marielle with a laugh. “She’s a scientist and she’s one of the few people in the world who understands post-harvest processing. She invented the protocols to create fine cocoa for several farms in Latin America and Africa, and now she works with Philippine farmers.”
You support farmers so they can upgrade their ways of harvesting, taking care of crops, and creating beans that are of export quality, and then they could actually charge the right prices. And it comes full circle: you get good cocoa, you get to produce a great chocolate bar with those beans.
The Moens’ cocoa adviser is Dr. Zoi Papalexandratou, who connected the couple to Single Estate Dela Serna Beans from Davao. “The trend now for fine cocoa is the smaller the area where it’s from, the better,” says Marielle. “So it’s no longer single origin; it’s single estate.” And Dela Serna Beans was making a name for themselves internationally—in 2018, a Japanese bar made with 65% Philippine Dela Serna won bronze in the International Chocolate Awards: Asia-Pacific.
Most importantly, the Dela Serna beans had the flavor profile that Marielle and Matthias were looking for. “We actually also experimented with Nicaraguan beans—those had a fruitier, red-wine like flavor while the Dela Serna blend tasted more like caramelized molasses,” explains Marielle. “You could tell the difference when you taste them side by side. It’s very Filipino.”