Love, innovation and disruption among the cocoa beans

Love, innovation and disruption among the cocoa beans
The Kate Tin milk chocolate baking drops melted to luscious smoothness. (Photo: Supplied)

Pioneering direct trade cocoa in Africa, innovating in making bean-to-bar chocolate, and baking up a Cape storm, Antonino and Katelyn Allegra share their chocolate journeys.

On the way to the Allegras’ home on a farm outside Durbanville near Cape Town, I’m full of questions about one of my favourite addictive substances, chocolate. And I’m curious about their own story. Was chocolate their movie-style meet-cute? They are just back from a trip to Dubai, where Katelyn was working on a shoot for Spinneys magazine for which she creates recipes, styles and shoots a new magazine every two months. Antonino took the first holiday he’s had in seven years, having recently left Afrikoa, the groundbreaking South African direct trade chocolate brand that he set up from scratch. He’s supposedly taking a break before setting himself new chocolate challenges (more on that later). We park, scattering their neighbour’s chickens, to a smiling welcome from Katelyn, while Antonino makes us cappuccino on a proper Italian machine.

“My entire existence started in a pasticceria kitchen in the little town I come from in Sicily, Altavilla Milicia,”Antonino begins, describing beautiful views of the sea and coast in a town where nothing much happens and kids run wild during long summer holidays. “I was almost 12, illegally riding my friend’s Vespa, you have to be 14 to ride one but I couldn’t wait. The local vigili police, in my mind they were chasing me. Probably all they were going to do was tell me to go slower, they were friends of my dad, but in my mind I would be in prison for the rest of my life. So I rode the Vespa into an alley behind the pasticceria, where the chef was a friend of my sister. I hid the Vespa and ran in, saying ‘give me an apron, the police are chasing me’.” He was given his apron, but told firmly to do some work while he was there, mixing up ingredients for the next batch of dough. “The police never came, but I enjoyed the work and he realised there is something in this kid, so he kept on giving me recipes to make. That’s where my pastry knowledge and experience started.”

Antonino went on to study hotel management at hotel school, then he took off around Europe. “I was almost 20 when I went to Germany. I wanted to work in a bakery and learn German bread, then I went to France, to Spain, all over the place. I was so curious I wanted to learn as much as I could from as many places as possible.” He worked as a pastry chef on cruise ships around the world, then in Australia, and fetched up in Cape Town for the World Cup in 2010. “I never left. I saw there were a lot of opportunities here and started my first business out of my garage.”

Katelyn says, “Nino’s got this thing that he does everything about 10 years too early. He started making hand-made chocolate bonbons, long before there was anything like that here – back then we just had Cadbury Milk Tray.”

The chocolate bonbon brand was short-lived. Soon Antonino met Thor Thorøe from Denmark and they pioneered Africa’s first bean-to-bar chocolate at Cocoafair. It was a time of great innovation, Antonino says, “DV chocolate started at the same time, then a few years later Honest chocolate. At one point there were more chocolate makers in Cape Town than there were in Paris.” It was a new movement and exciting, he tells us, with everyone trying new things and sharing information. People were making chocolate in a home blender, roasting beans in their ovens, there was no literature, no YouTube videos, no convenient small countertop machines, a lot of trial and error.

Katelyn and Antonino Allegra develop new chocolate products at their home innovation studio. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

Now Katelyn takes up the story, and we get to the chocolate flavoured love story just as I’d hoped. “Cocoafair is where our stories meet. I was the food editor at Top Billing magazine and they invited me to a truffle making class. Nino was showing us how to pipe the truffles, and asked me to come have a go. He didn’t know that I have a background as a pastry chef as well, so I took the piping bag and refolded it my way before piping the truffles and of course…”

“I say I hate this woman,” Antonino says with a laugh. “We don’t talk about piping bags any more. She does her own way, I do my own way. There are two things we don’t talk about in this house. One is how to hold a piping bag, and the other how to make meringue. We put it in our wedding vows. We have very strong opinions.”

The handmade chocolate Easter egg that Antonino sent Katelyn to ask her on a date. (Photo: Supplied)

Katelyn continues, “We didn’t start dating until two or three years later. We kept in touch on Twitter, every now and again he had some smartass comment about something I was doing. By then I was the creative food director for the Espresso TV show, and one day on my desk I found the most beautiful Easter egg I’ve ever seen in my life. It was huge. It was decorated with beautiful brushstrokes, a flower, it was marbled, and he’d made the chocolate from scratch. I couldn’t figure out if Nino was trying to bribe me to go on the show, or if it was something else.”

“50-50,” laughs Antonino.

“I instantly fell in love with this egg, and this man with his thick Italian accent. He phoned me and left me a voice message, his accent so thick I could hardly understand it, asking me out on a date. Then I knew the egg was a love note.”

The Easter egg was even more special for Katelyn as it connected with childhood memories of making homemade Easter eggs every year with her mum. “We used cheap baking chocolate but it didn’t matter, it was something we did together and she put so much effort into it. 

“And that is what I love about chocolate so much. We all have those moments throughout our life, there’s chocolate everywhere. Apart from Valentine’s Day and the Quality Street that we associate with Christmas. I remember a picture of me around two or three, my face covered in chocolate. In high school I remember my boyfriends giving me P.S. bars. Then I met Nino and chocolate became an obsession.”

She describes the first birthday present that Antonino made her after they started dating. “I love KitKats so much and he made me this gigantic KitKat, a metre long – a slab of chocolate he’d made, layered with rice krispies, with lots of family-size KitKats stuck on top and a huge red bow.”

It sounds like his love language is chocolate? “Let’s say it’s easier, you can’t go wrong with that,” Antonino says. “If someone is happy, give them chocolate. If someone is sad give them chocolate.” 

Their relationship unfolded with chocolate as its backdrop, and their first trip to Tanzania together to visit cocoa farms seemed to Antonino like the ideal occasion to take the next step. “The whole idea of proposing underneath a cocoa tree and the cocoa pods, in my head it was picture perfect,” he says. But the reality wasn’t quite so romantic. “When we arrived there it was as rough as it gets. It was a time when cocoa farmers were taken advantage of, paid almost nothing for the crop, they were living in real poverty. I had the ring in my pocket, but it didn’t feel right to get out a diamond ring in that situation.” So he waited a few days until they were back in Dar es Salaam at a hotel on a picture perfect beach.

This trip was not only a huge step forward for their relationship, it also triggered the thinking-outside-the-box direct trade concept that Antonino developed with Afrikoa. 

Katelyn explains about the tour, which was organised by an NGO working to improve profitability of commodities such as rice, coffee and cocoa in the area. “At each cocoa farm we would have a meeting, they ‘re very proud of what they do. We would sit under the trees in a circle listening to a welcome speech. After that an elderly man, a fourth-generation cocoa farmer, looked at Nino and said in Swahili ‘we have cocoa here, do you want to buy it now?’ And Nino said, but that’s not how it works. It has to go through a dealer.”

Up till then cocoa beans in Africa could only be bought at an official auction by a few big European buyers. “Trade of cocoa beans in Africa is structured in a very colonial way,” Antonino says. “The cocoa beans must go to Europe and the boats sail right past Durban and Cape Town on the way there. From there it gets distributed worldwide and back into Africa. You have to buy from a distributor in Holland, Germany, France, UK.”

“When we were on the flight home, this question kept on bugging him,” Katelyn says. “He was asking, ‘Why can’t we just buy it from the farmer?’ His brain was going the whole flight. He whipped out a notebook and started writing in Italian, ’cos that’s how he thinks. The whole thing started unpacking.”

It took him a year and a half of research into trade relationships between South Africa and Tanzania, shipping possibilities, and negotiating paperwork and changes in legislation with the Tanzanian government. He realised that buying direct from the farmer, cutting out the seven or eight middlemen, having the farmers truck the crop to the port of Dar es Salaam and then taking over the shipping from there himself, he saved enough to be able to pay them more than 10 times what they were being paid at auction. 

“I completely disrupted the market. Now the cocoa farmers that I was working with knew their value. They went from getting $0.30c to $3.50. And the same cocoa beans I would buy from Europe were $5. I’m saving, the cocoa farmers changed their entire situation, we’re all happy.”

Antonino Allegra worked with the cocoa farmers to improve the quality of their beans, here turning the beans on the raised drying tables he instituted. (Photo: Supplied)

At the same time Antonino worked with the farmers to improve the quality of the cocoa beans. “Each cocoa farmer only has about 1 acre of land, so they tend to form groups – they come together to do their fermentation and drying, it’s a lot better structured. That’s what the NGO did at the time, and then I was the missing link. Selecting farmers, I went the classic pastry chef way, put everything in your mouth and see what tastes good.”

Katelyn adds, “And once you taste good and bad, oh my word you know. You don’t quite understand the difference in price until you’ve seen how the bad beans are treated. You drive through the village and everywhere are tarps on the ground with cocoa beans drying. But there are chickens and people walking over them, and a dog scratching all over the beans. There’s mould when they don’t turn them properly, and they are fermenting them in mouldy bags.”

“So when you buy a chocolate bar for R10, that’s what’s in it,” Antonino says. “Normally these beans go to Europe and get roasted to nothing, stripped of all their flavour, and that’s where the bitterness of chocolate comes from.” He and the farmers devised high tables to dry the cocoa beans on to keep the animals away. They would be turned regularly to dry evenly, and he worked with them to find better ways of fermenting the beans.

“With cocoa beans in general there is no grade A, B, C, there is one flat price for all the cocoa, decided by the stock exchange,” Katelyn explains. “So there’s no incentive to improve. By paying fairly, Nino incentivised them for quality, so they would implement his ideas, giving us the best quality beans to work with. And all the cocoa farmers around see the price they are getting and it’s created a chain reaction.”

I’m intrigued to know how he went about selecting cocoa beans for flavour. “Tasting raw cocoa beans themselves, they’re awful, bitter,” Antonino says. “You need to taste the white part that covers the cocoa beans. It’s super sweet, they call it cocoa ice cream in Swahili. There are so many flavours. Underripe it will have lime, pineapple flavours, citrus. If you pick later in the harvest, it becomes sweeter like berries or peaches. You get all this complexity. Based on that you can understand more or less what the flavour of the cocoa beans could be.

“The first time we went to the farms they’d never tasted chocolate before. We were tasting the beans and the farmer asked us, what do you do with this? He didn’t know. A green cocoa bean unfermented straight from the tree is the worst thing in the world unless you have the knowledge the chocolate maker has. When I went back the second time I showed them the chocolate made with their beans. That was the first time they were eating chocolate, they were so happy. Finally they could make a connection.”

Katelyn says, “Last time we were there Nino made a rudimentary type of chocolate, the way the Aztecs would have. Roasting the beans over the fire, peeling the beans and then using one of the big mortar and pestles to pound it with sugar. It was very rough, but it helped them understand some of the process.” And on that visit in 2019 they saw what a difference direct trade at fair prices had already made. “Some of those farmers not only got to send their kids to school, also to university. They built another house, they built a clinic for their community, a day care centre, this is just with one small change in a business model.”

A chocolate mousse Easter egg that Katelyn and Antonino made together for a story. The recipe is on The Kate Tin website. (Photo: Supplied)

Now the couple are starting a new chapter. Afrikoa is by now a respected brand and going concern, and Antonino is by nature an innovator and a creator rather than a CEO. “Nino always has a million ideas. It reached a point where we’d grown, and it was time for someone else to carry on with it,” Katelyn says. 

Antonino’s plan was to take a few months off after seven years living and breathing the business. But the minute he changed his business status to freelance on social media the requests poured in. The small corner that he earmarked for his innovation centre in their shared home studio, where Katelyn develops, styles and photographs her recipes, is already spilling over with ingredients and equipment for new chocolate-related products that he’s been asked to develop for several international companies. “People know me as someone who can make recipes. I have the food scientist knowledge because I work with that all the time, but I have 20+ years as a pastry chef, so flavour and taste is everything.”

With Antonino Allegra developing new baking chocolates, such as this new caramel flavour, and Katelyn styling and photographing them, new products can be added to The Kate Tin online shop within days. (Photo: Supplied)

We move through to their studio where a chocolate machine is busily churning and Antonino offers me a taste of a new product at the final stages in development. This is a caramel baking chocolate for Katelyn’s niche online shop on her website and blog, The Kate Tin. She started the shop in response to her own baking experiences.

“People really struggle to bake with couverture chocolate – it needs to be tempered and it’s quite a process, heating and cooling the chocolate to different temperatures to set the cocoa butter crystals in such a way that it’s shiny and it snaps. If you just melt couverture chocolate and allow it to set, it goes dull and soft. So it’s a very technical process.” Baking chocolate doesn’t need this treatment, as the cocoa butter has been replaced with vegetable oils but, as she says, most of what is currently available on the market tastes terrible. “I said to Nino, can’t you make a chocolate that’s easier to use but tastes better. So he created a baking chocolate made with a very good quality, sustainable palm oil. It’s high in cocoa, lower in sugar and it tastes really good.” She melts a bowl of dark chocolate for us to photograph, offering us a taste. It’s glossy, deep and dark, with none of the cloying after-taste of the usual baking chocolates. 

Her basic range of milk, dark and white baking chocolate drops quickly grew a loyal following of home bakers, and Katelyn started looking for the next hard-to-find ingredient on her baking list, vanilla. Being with Antonino meant that it wasn’t just a question of sourcing something that already existed. They found a group of vanilla bean farmers in Uganda and Antonino workshopped with them over WhatsApp to create the best vanilla beans possible, making small adjustments to the fermentation process and improving the overall quality. The result – a premium vanilla bean that is harvested at just the right point, plump, juicy and full of intense flavour. “I just don’t understand that saying, ‘it’s so vanilla’, meaning boring,” Katelyn says. “Vanilla is a really expensive spice, it’s super complex, with over 350 compounds in it. When it’s good, it’s amazing.”

The plump and fragrant vanilla beans sourced direct from farmers in Uganda should never be wrapped in plastic. Store them in wax paper, linen, or glass jars to preserve freshness and flavour. (Photo: Supplied)

Coming soon into the online shop is this year’s harvest of exceptional pistachio nuts grown in Prieska, a small town in the Northern Cape, plus Antonino’s newly developed range of vegan baking chocolate. The very moreish caramel chocolate that I tasted is already on sale. Antonino calls it his Eskom chocolate, a happy side effect of load shedding. The power went off while a yoghurt chocolate experiment was churning. He forgot about it when the power came on again, resulting in the milk content caramelising with unintended but delicious results. Katelyn also features small batch limited edition or seasonal food products in the shop when they are available, like a glorious pistachio honey, which we also taste and fall in love with.

When Katelyn was approached to write a book in 2017 there was no question of what the subject would be. “My publisher told me single subjects work really well. So I said chocolate. It’s been a part of my life for so long. I styled the book myself, my friend Hein shot it and it’s a chocolate memoir. All my best recipes collected over the years, some with twists. Like that tiramisu that almost caused a divorce…”

Katelyn’s recipe for white chocolate tiramisu with salted caramel defies tradition but won Antonino over in the end. (Photo: Supplied)

I ask if that ranks with the piping bags as off limits for discussion. Antonino says, “We’re allowed to talk about that one.” 

“Because I won,” Katelyn responds. “I had this idea, what if I make a white chocolate tiramisu with salted caramel inside. Nino looked at me and said, ‘do you want a divorce, if my mother found out…’ His family are Sicilian but they now live in Venice, the home of tiramisu. I drive Nino mad, I always come up with twists on recipes and the Italian in him says, a traditional recipe is traditional, don’t mess with it.”

She made it anyway using Antonino’s recipe as a base,” He tasted it and said it’s the best tiramisu he’s ever had.” So that recipe made it safely into the book and they are still happily married. The book came third in the chocolate category of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2020, which she is immensely proud of.

Katelyn and Antonino assembled their wedding cake (raspberry and lemon) in front of their guests at their wedding. (Photo: Gunther Schubert)

Our conversation has covered so much about chocolate, and after two hours we’re still talking as we look around the studio kitchen, where I notice Antonino’s machines have very recognisable names inscribed on the sides. Naming the machines is his way of distinguishing them and keeping track of different chocolate batches. Of his choice of names, he says, “I thought, I’m going to rock this chocolate world a little bit stronger… that’s how my brain works.” So when you buy baking chocolate from The Kate Tin it will have been made either by “Freddie Mercury” or “Elton John”.

These small countertop chocolate machines now make bean to bar chocolate-making possible for anyone with $500 and access to YouTube tutorials, something that has driven a huge wave of new artisan makers in Europe and the US. But sadly not here in South Africa, despite the ahead-of-the-game innovation by Antonino and fellow chocolate makers 12 years ago, something that they find incredibly frustrating.

When Katelyn and Antonino Allegra got married their wedding invitations were chocolate bars. (Photo: Supplied)

“In Paris almost every patisserie now makes their own bean to bar chocolate,” he says. “In Cape Town we have the same few dedicated chocolate makers as in the early days.” Part of this is because of the South African market’s blind loyalty to one or two big name brands, both in supermarkets and in the hospitality industry. “I’m not saying you have to use my chocolate, but support a local brand,” Antonino says. “You can make the same recipe with chocolate from five different producers and get five different results. Why would you limit yourself to using only one kind of sugar, one flour, or one kind of chocolate on the menu, it’s like painting with one colour. As a pastry chef there are so many different flavour options you could be working with.”

Katelyn adds, “If you’re going to do a chocolate and passionfruit dessert, you’d choose a chocolate with tropical flavours to enhance the passion fruit. Some chocolates are more hazelnutty and toasty, some are more bright and berry notes. That comes from natural compounds in the cocoa beans, to do with terroir, just like wines, and it opens up a world of possibility.”

The world of possibility is something that constantly lures Antonino onwards. You can practically see the cogs whirring in his brain, as new ideas churn constantly. “I want to continue working with sustainability in the world of chocolate, there are always new and better ways of doing things,” he says. So we’ll be watching this space closely. There are sure to be more stories in chocolate developing, even as I write. DM/TGIFood

Find the latest range of baking chocolates and other niche foodie products at The Kate Tin

Follow Kit Heathcock on Instagram @kitheathcock

The writer supports Gift of the Givers working on disaster response, provision of clean water, hunger alleviation and many other projects in South Africa and around the world


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