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The story of fh bites bean-to-bar chocolate

My Magazine 2022/10
10 min
We recently had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Chocolatier, Fady Hocheimy of fh bites. Fady is a curious seeker of knowledge, who is passionate about life and its pursuits. He is a husband, father, and successful business owner, born and raised in The Gambia. Making chocolate started as his hobby and has grown into a passion that he loves to share!

You are a chocolatier!  We would love to hear the story behind how fh bites came to be, and we also want to learn about cocoa and the process of making chocolate!

The story started almost 15 years ago when a Ghanaian employee of mine gave me the gift of a baby Cocoa plant. At that point, I had not seen a Cocoa plant before and had never seen it growing in The Gambia. In Ghana, it is big, but not here. So I planted this gift out in my yard, where I have many plants and exotic fruit trees. I continued to water it, and about five years later, it had cocoa pods on it. I did not think much of it and kind of forgot about it. It always had fruit and grew bigger and stronger. From time to time, we would break a pod open and suck on the sweet pulp surrounding the beans. We really did not pay much attention to it until about four and a half years ago, in 2018.

I was travelling and flying on Ethiopian Airlines, and they were boasting about their coffee beans. I thought, when I get back, I'm going to grow coffee because I love grinding my beans and drinking my coffee!  

So I'm back home in my garden, and I looked at this Cocoa tree again and asked myself why this tree is still here. I'm a minimalist by nature. If something doesn't make sense in its usefulness, I might get rid of it. I almost cut that tree, but I didn't.  Something came to me.  I thought of Ethiopia and coffee.  Then I remembered again that this tree was from Ghana, and I started googling.  My research led me to so much information and facts about cocoa, such as that the Ivory Coast and Ghana export 60% of the world's cocoa! If you include the other West African countries, 70% of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa, but the sad fact is that West Africa only gets 3% from chocolate profits.

Around February 2018, Valentine’s Day was approaching, and I thought, what can I do for my wife?  Can I make chocolate from my cocoa tree?  I’m an IKEA kind of guy.  Just give me instructions and leave me to it!  I love taking something with different pieces and making it whole. The challenge got me excited, and decided to do it.

Let me walk you through the steps…

After cracking the cocoa pods open and removing the beans, the first step is fermenting the beans.  That means putting them in a very hot and humid environment.  In the beginning, I would use banana leaves because, in Ghana, that’s what they do. I noticed that the insects love the sweet pulp and go in there, so now I use thermal cooler boxes and place them under the sun.  Every day the beans are mixed. The beautiful good bacteria start surrounding the beans as they ferment.  Fermenting lasts for about five days.  Then the beans are laid out under the sun to dry for about five days as well.  This is what the farmers do in Ghana and Ivory Coast.  They open up the pods, take out the beans, ferment them and then let them dry. Unfortunately, the farmers are paid very little. I recommend watching the documentary “The dark side of chocolate.”  It’s on YouTube if you want to learn more about this topic.

So I fermented, dried them, and then went to the kitchen to roast the beans, which can be done in the oven. When you roast, you add more flavour, and of course, the kitchen was smelling amazing!  Afterwards, you let them cool down and peel the shell off like peanuts.  You are left with what we call the cocoa nib, which is, in essence, 100% chocolate.  My plan was to make 70% chocolate.  That means putting in 30% sugar. The problem was that I did not own any chocolate grinder, so I used a meat mincer instead. I put the nibs in, hoping to get some paste or liquid, but it came out as a solid.  I re-grinded them over and over until the solid nibs started turning into a paste.  That is how I learned cocoa butter!  The beans are half cocoa butter and half cocoa powder.  Once I had turned the solids into a liquid, I shaped it into a heart and put it in the fridge to harden. It Looked like a heart but tasted rubbish!  At least I tried and did get points from my wife! 

When Valentine's was over, me being the perfectionist I am, didn’t give up and wanted to make more.  I waited another 3 to 4 months for the pods on the tree to get ripe and tried making chocolate again.  Eventually, I got myself a small wet stone grinder, which usually runs for at least 12 hours. I first focused on making 70% Dark chocolate. The darker the chocolate, the higher the percentage of cocoa in the mix. Dark chocolate is seen as good for you because of the health benefits of cocoa. I continued doing this every few months and having friends and family taste and give me feedback. It took  2½ years for someone to finally say: “Can I have some more?”  That was a milestone in my journey!!

I kept up with my hobby of making chocolate and created a Facebook page because I wanted to share all the info I had learned along my journey.  I started getting some interviews, such as with BBC Africa because people loved the story and also were surprised to hear that we can grow cocoa here and make chocolate!

I was finally making good chocolate, but how do I package it? I bought some gold foil, spent hours wrapping chocolate bars, and a lot of money printing labels, cutting them and glueing them. It’s the story of proper entrepreneurship.

What we do at fh bites is called craft chocolate or bean-to-bar chocolate. It’s different from commercial chocolate made by big companies. It’s passion, it’s love, it’s handmade, it’s time, it’s personal. It’s a bean-to-bar adventure.

There are several obstacles to making chocolate in Gambia or Africa in general. The main one is the weather. Chocolate doesn’t like heat. Another obstacle is electricity, or the lack of it, as well as the cost of running the machines non-stop.  

When I felt that my product was ready to be consumed by the public, I started selling the chocolate at Maroun’s supermarket.  Two weeks later, they asked for more, so I made more.  The rest is history!  I’ve been supplying Maroun’s for a year and a half now, and we are also in multiple supermarkets and hotels.

Let me tell you about tempering, a very important step in chocolate-making that I discovered quite late. When you add the ingredients to the grinder as solids, 18 hours later, it’s beautiful, creamy chocolate. At first, I used to pour them into moulds and place them straight in the refrigerator, and they would harden, but they were not tempered.  I discovered later that you should temper chocolate if you want to make perfect chocolate.  Tempering is the chemistry of how it solidifies. In summary, tempering is the process of continuously mixing and cooling down the warm chocolate liquid to a particular temperature. Different temperatures are used for different types of chocolate. Tempered chocolate is shiny, it snaps when you break it, and it won’t melt as quickly as non-tempered chocolate.

Making chocolate is a passion; it’s science, it's technical.  Keep in mind that growing cocoa and making chocolate are two different things.  Growing cocoa requires two things…water and shade.  Ghana and Ivory Coast have an advantage because of their long rainy season.  We can grow it here in The Gambia, but it will need watering during the dry season.

It would be interesting for you to know that cocoa was discovered by monkeys on the Caribbean Islands centuries ago. The monkeys would crack open the pods, suck the sweet pulp, and spit the bitter beans. The rains would fall, the beans would sprout, and more cocoa trees would grow. The farmers saw all this and became interested!  In those days, they just used it to make healthy cocoa drinks, and it was solely consumed by the elite. Cocoa was one of the many things the Europeans took back to Europe, and eventually started making chocolate.

But back to the monkeys! Recently I thought about the monkey park in Bijilo. I spoke to the park manager and asked if I could grow some cocoa trees there, as it’s the perfect place for them. He gladly agreed! Monkeys, tall trees giving shade, and the wonderful park manager who will water them in the dry season. Someday I hope the monkeys will feed on this amazing fruit, spit the beans out, and more cocoa trees will sprout, a natural way of growing cocoa in The Gambia.  I wish more people would plant cocoa!

The health benefits of pure cocoa are unbelievable, and making chocolate gives me so much joy, and is something I will continue to do.

I am so happy to share what I have learned along this incredible journey.

After hearing this amazing story, we excitedly proceeded to the fh bites chocolate-making facility with Fady and his very first fh bites employee, Mariam. It is a clean and organized space that contains the equipment and ingredients that go into making the amazing fh bites bean-to-bar craft chocolate. Why do we say amazing? Because it is! We got to taste the exquisite, organic chocolate from dark to white. You can taste the passion and care that goes into each bar. From opening the beautiful packaging to snapping off a piece and letting your taste buds savour it, the experience is enjoyable.

We would even call it conscious chocolate. The chocolatier creating it is passionate about spreading info about cocoa trees, how to grow them, the process of making chocolate and the health benefits, to eating it. Fady even gifted us with our very own cocoa seedling to plant!

This is a grassroots, Gambian-owned and operated chocolate company that you will want to keep an eye on. It could play an important role in Gambia's quest for sustainability for both people and the land.

Whether you prefer rich, full-bodied dark, sweet and creamy milk or decadent white, fh bites exquisite organic Gambian chocolate will satisfy your cocoa craving.

Photo Credit: fh bites

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