Naviluna Artisan Chocolate celebrates local terroir

Naviluna Artisan Chocolate in Mysuru uses organically certified cacao beans grown across farms in South India to create a brand that celebrates local terroir.

For the longest time, I associated Mysuru with palaces and royalty, courtesy its regal past. However, over the last few years, I have discovered the layers the city has, which go beyond the royal sheen.

David belo, founder of naviluna, is passionate about process. Image: bindu gopal rao.
David Belo, founder of Naviluna, is passionate about process. Image: Bindu Gopal Rao.

And it was this quest that saw me masking up and driving down to the Naviluna chocolate factory in Mysuru’s Hebbal Industrial Area. A few wrong turns notwithstanding, Google Maps ensured I found my way to the factory where I met with founder David Belo from South Africa.

The modest space has two sections, one where the cacao beans are being processed (from bean to couverture) and another where the chocolate is being set (fresh ingredients being turned into confections, garnishes and seasoning to be added to tempered and moulded chocolate bars). The first surprise I get is how effortlessly Belo speaks in Kannada with his colleague, which he shrugs off with a warm smile saying he has been around for a while and has learnt the language.

Cacao in a roller at naviluna's factory in mysuru. Image: bindu gopal rao.
Cacao in a roller at Naviluna’s factory in Mysuru. Image: Bindu Gopal Rao.

As I settle down to speak with him, the unmissable aroma of cacao wafts through the space, making this conversation a complete sensory experience. The artisanal chocolate brand was called Earth Loaf initially and started operations in 2012. The new name Naviluna means ‘of the peacock’ in Kannada and extends the brand ethos of being ‘Made in India.’

Starting with the cacao bean, Belo explains that you get about 19-30 seeds inside the fruit. When it is ripe it is very soft and has pulp like mangosteen and cardamom and has sugars and carbohydrates, which then get converted by airborne yeast into alcohol, and the temperature rises as it rises and the seed dies, so it can no longer germinate — which is the fermentation process.

The naviluna chocolate factory. Image: bindu gopal rao.
The Naviluna chocolate factory. Image: Bindu Gopal Rao.

“So, cacao just like coffee, bread, and wine, requires fermentation, but the only difference with cacao is that the yeast never actually directly gets in contact with the inside of the nib as the shell protects it. What happens is that before fermentation all the flavour chemicals are separated and suspended from one another. And then as soon as fermentation happens, they break down due to the heat and collide with each other and that is where the flavour development starts.”

Therefore, fermentation is very important, and Belo admits that at least 50 percent of the final flavour of the chocolate depends on the right fermentation. And chocolate is highly specialised but not very technical, compared to wine. “You can imagine the average farmer doesn’t really have the appetite for the science and the quality control required. And one of the big things that we must do in dark chocolate is work with our farmers to take a more scientific and systematic approach. So, this is one of the big differences between bulk (commodity) and craft chocolate.”

Some of naviluna's chocolates. Image: bindu gopal rao.
Some of Naviluna’s chocolates. Image: Bindu Gopal Rao.

Post the fermentation process, the next important step is drying and after this the beans come to the factory. Naviluna sources their cacao from certified organic farms across South India that allows them to control and influence its quality.

The first step in the factory is crushing the cacao beans to nibs which is just the seed without the hustle (husk). This gets broken in grinders, sifted in the sifting machine and is sent to a winnowing machine which uses a vacuum, so the husk comes off the nib and is finished by hand. “This goes into the grinder that converts the solid cacao nib into liquid which is the cocoa butter which releases the liquid cacao butter naturally suspended in the bean. The bean is 45-55 percent oil and we just have cocoa butter (cacao solids) and sugar in our chocolate. There are no preservatives or emulsifiers and we do not add any cocoa butter on top to make it creamier. We want to get that creaminess through our process, and we are the only ones in India who are doing the two-ingredient process as far as I know.”

The liquid cacao butter or liquid chocolate is part of the cacao bean which is made of cacao butter and cacao solids. “We don’t separate these as is the case in industrial chocolate. The liquidity in the chocolate, however, does come from the latent cacao butter which is put into the roll-refiner to refine from 200 microns to 18 microns as the human palate can perceive particles no smaller than 22 microns.” From this the last process is conching that helps evaporate any residual acids from the fermentation process, the main one being acetic acid which is found in vinegar and kombucha.

“Industrial chocolate manufacturers soak the cocoa in an alkaline solution to reduce conching times to a matter of hours to cut costs. However, we do conching over several days which preserves the natural fruit flavours in the cacao and reduces tannin. Also, we do not roast our cacao as this helps retain its health benefits and its flavonoids.” After conching, the chocolate is sent for tempering, moulding and seasoning in the manual kitchen.

The naviluna 72 percent.
The Naviluna 72 percent.

Naviluna’s dark chocolates come in two versions, one is dark at 72 percent and one which is almost dark at 61.8 percent, to get people started on the Naviluna experience. Both, however, use the same ingredients and method — the recipe is different.

At the factory, I get a quick tasting experience where I sample Três Bāḷe, which is infused with flavours of three kinds of bananas, Elakki, Nanjangud Rasa and Kāḍu (forest banana) flambéed, candied and dusted, the Kerala Single Origin Chocolate Bar that brings the taste of the soil, weather and genetics of 100 different farms across Eastern Kerala and the Tokai Coffee & Pineapple Chocolate Bar. I also tried the Longum Pepper Lime & Orange Chocolate Bar that has the unmistakable bite of Gondhoraj limes and candied orange and Bambooshyam that has bamboo shoots in cigar-infused caramel and date syrup and lemongrass. The non-dairy off-white chocolate is a winner too.

The naviluna tres bale, made with three kinds of banana.
The Naviluna Tres Bale, made with three kinds of banana.

Belo is now working to restore a 120-year-old bungalow in Mysuru where he hopes to have a brasserie, dessert room, artisan bakery and alfresco café that he hopes to open soon.

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