“Marou is amour."

The clever anagram—amour is French for love—spelt out in wooden block letters against the backdrop of a red heart makes me smile. It’s evident that Maison Marou—the chocolaterie, café and patisserie that I am visiting in the heart of Ho Chi Minh—is a labour of love. Every element in the stylish but casual space appears to have been chosen with care: from the typeface used in the signage to the large gold emblem embedded in the ground, right beside a vintage cocoa roaster. Chocolate bars swaddled in the brand’s signature wrappers are stacked on niches in the wall and strewn artfully on a table in the centre of the room, along with merchandise and posters that I covet instantly.

Equal parts style and substance, Maison Marou is an apt showcase for a brand that has become something of a poster child for artisanal chocolate. Marou’s success is especially remarkable because its product—chocolate—is hardly synonymous with Vietnam.

Photo: Courtesy Marou Chocolates.
Photo: Courtesy Marou Chocolates.

I linger over a glass showcase that is a shrine to cacao and confectionery: slender eclairs, piped with precision, bearing a glossy coating of chocolate; petal-shaped chocolate meringue discs sandwiched with whorls of dark chocolate and other architectural creations piled high with chocolate, cream, nougat and praline. It’s too early in the morning for a full-fledged chocolate feast, so I settle for a cappuccino to kick-start my conversation with Vincent Mourou, co-founder and general director of Marou, which is often described as the pioneering artisanal chocolate brand in Vietnam.

Mourou, a tall Frenchman with a scruffy beard and an American lilt, reveals that when he quit his advertising job in San Francisco to travel to Ho Chi Minh seven years ago, a career in chocolate-making was the farthest thing from his mind. “I came here to travel, and hoping to reinvent myself," he says, between bites of a muffin that has been freshly baked in the café’s open kitchen. Nine months after arriving in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s frenetic commercial capital, he met Samuel Maruta, another French expat who had decided to take a year-long sabbatical from his international banking job. A month after they struck up a friendship, Mourou and Maruta learnt that cacao was being cultivated in Vietnam. Spurred by a shared passion for chocolate and the thrill of a new adventure, they created Marou—a portmanteau of their last names—in December 2010.

Marou Chocolate Bars and the cacao beans they come from.
Marou Chocolate Bars and the cacao beans they come from.

From the beginning, they decided that they would be closely involved in every stage of the chocolate-making process—quite literally from bean to bar. That decision—and the commitment it demanded—quickly distinguished them from mainstream chocolatiers. “Truthfully, 99.9% of chocolate makers don’t make chocolate from the beans," explains Mourou. “(They) don’t think about where it comes from and how it’s made. They just buy the finished product and work with it. Here, we do everything."

That meant starting with the building block of every bar of (good) chocolate—the cacao bean. Given their geographical proximity to the provinces in south Vietnam where cacao was being cultivated, Mourou and Maruta decided to go straight to the source and purchase beans directly from farmers, thus eliminating the need for middlemen. I ask them if the learning curve was a steep one. “There was some steepness involved," laughs Maruta. “You buy beans in the beginning—you don’t know if they are good or bad. You make chocolate from them and realize that they weren’t good after all. The next time you choose more carefully. It was trial-and-error for several months before we started making chocolate commercially."

Terroir is an especially important consideration for artisanal chocolate makers like Marou, who depend on cacao beans in a way that industrial chocolate makers do not. “When we make an 80% chocolate bar, you are going to taste any defect in the cacao bean immediately," says Maruta. In contrast, cacao is only a small component—and one among several—of industrially produced chocolate. “Industrial chocolate needs a consistency in taste that can only come from processing and processing and more processing. If you check the back of many bars, you’ll find ingredients that include cacao, sugar, vanilla as well as soy lecithin, which is an emulsifier and lubricant."

The kitchen of Maison Marou.
The kitchen of Maison Marou.

It is a disconcerting fact that reinforces the significance of brands like Marou, which are trying to make chocolate that isn’t just authentic but also ethical. One of the ways in which they have achieved this is by making chocolate in the country where the cacao is produced. “Cacao is typically grown in tropical countries, sent to colder climates, manufactured there and distributed to chocolate-eating countries," says Mourou, explaining how the so-called “Big Chocolate" companies, or large conglomerates that control a majority of the chocolate trade, conduct their business. In the “Big Chocolate" model, the often impoverished farmers who cultivate cacao beans rarely receive the profits from the sale of the final product.

Although the cause of creating a unique identity for Vietnamese chocolate is a worthy one, it is not without significant challenges. Firstly, cacao is a labour-intensive crop that requires more care and effort than other more profitable crops such as coconut or fruit. “Unfortunately, the reality is that we have less and less cacao," says Mourou. “It’s just not popular with Vietnamese farmers in general because they are lacking margins."

Besides, the Mekong Delta, a fertile ecosystem in southern Vietnam that is particularly suitable for cacao cultivation, is increasingly under threat. Considered the rice bowl of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is bearing the brunt of climate change—it’s seeing high temperatures, erratic rainfall and a slow erosion of the sediment deposits that have traditionally kept this low-lying delta above sea level.

A Marou dessert.
A Marou dessert.

Despite these challenges, however, it’s clear that Marou has gained popularity not just around the world but also in Vietnam. This is significant because there has traditionally been a limited appreciation of chocolate in Vietnam’s culinary culture. “They are very proud that the chocolate is being made in Vietnam," says Maruta.

I take a long-awaited bite of a chocolate eclair and survey the demographic that is keeping the café busy even on a weekday morning. Groups of tourists drift in and out, but most of the space is taken up by chic Saigonese youngsters. It seems to my optimistic eyes that the Saigonese are yielding to the seductions of chocolate.

Buoyed by the success of this café, which is less than a year old, Mourou and Maruta are working on a second outlet in Hanoi. It would be the logical next step for a brand that has created a niche for Vietnamese chocolate, and even inspired a number of other artisanal chocolate brands that now grace the aisles of Ho Chi Minh airport’s duty-free section.

Mourou and Maruta are diplomatic about the competition, choosing to believe that imitation is indeed the best form of flattery. It’s a good thing that there are more makers. We want cacao to develop in Vietnam, so anything that’s favourable for cacao development is good, they say.

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Photo: Courtesy Marou Chocolates
Photo: Courtesy Marou Chocolates

Notes on cacao

Marou’s six signature dark chocolate bars have 70-80% cacao content. Named after the provinces in which the cacao is grown, they look similar but the taste is subtly different. The red, yellow, green, purple and black colours of the wrapping correspond to the colours of the cacao beans sourced from each province.

The green-clad Ben Tre is intense and fruity without being bracingly bitter. On the other hand, the Tien Giang (available in 70% and 80% variants) has a full-bodied acidity and smokiness.

Unlike mainstream flavoured chocolate bars, which tend to mask the flavour of the chocolate with different toppings, Marou’s flavoured bars stay faithful to their core ingredient. The flavoured bars include a toasty popped rice bar with brown rice, and bars featuring candied chilli, candied ginger and cashew-nut praline.

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