#JOM! GO: The artisanal journey of Tg Sepat's chocolate maker [NSTTV]

IN the idyllic town of Tanjung Sepat, Selangor, lies a small artisanal cacao farm belonging to Lee Soon Cheong.

Growing up in a family of cacao farmers, Lee has dedicated most of his life to the cultivation of cacao and the creation of exquisite, handcrafted chocolates.

Cacao in Tanjung Sepat? Yes, back in the 1970s and 80s, this small coastal town was the centre of cacao cultivation in Selangor.

Today, "Lee's Cocoa" is the only cacao grove left in Tanjung Sepat, about two hours drive from Kuala Lumpur.

The early days

Lee's chocolate-making journey started in the 70s, when he helped his father on the farm.

"However, as the years went by, the cocoa market faced a downturn. The price per tonne went down so low that it wasn't viable to grow cacao at that time. The government also introduced oil palm as a cacao replacement, causing all the farmers to venture into it," said the 48-year-old father of two.

Lee then decided to explore other avenues and took up music; later becoming a music instructor and an album producer in Kuala Lumpur.

However, despite his success, the allure of cocoa remained.

"After doing a lot of thinking and research, I decided to go to Taiwan with my wife to visit a cacao farm there.

"I tried a Taiwan-made chocolate called Dr Artisan Chocolate, and I realised the difference in taste between the chocolate and the ones I used to eat.

"So, I did research to find out if there's anyone making single-origin chocolate in Malaysia, and there was none. Hence I thought this must be a good business venture," he said, adding that farmers in Taiwan could grow cacao successfully despite the typhoon season.

Combined with the knowledge he already had in cacao farming and the burning passion to make artisanal chocolate, Lee started his venture.

A new journey and challenges

Lee embarked on this journey with his wife, and the help of a few locals in Tanjung Sepat.

His 3.24-hectare piece of land changed from oil palm to cacao.

Lee said he was aware of the challenges in cocoa farming.

"One of the greatest challenges I faced is attacks from two notorious insects — the Stem Borer, which destroys the stem, and the Pod Borer, which ravages the cacao fruit," he said while showing some of the cacao trees and fruits affected by these insects.

He had to use various organic methods to protect the cacao trees.

Maintaining quality

As a single-origin cacao farmer, Lee takes pride in planting most of the ingredients needed to create his chocolate. He cultivates vanilla, bananas, pineapples and spearmint leaves, which he incorporates into his chocolate recipes.

"I also rear bees on the farm to serve as natural pollinators for the cacao flowers. This helps ensure optimal yields and the preservation of biodiversity. The other way of doing it is manually by hand," he said.

Lee's 2,000-tree farm has two harvests each year, in the middle and towards the end of the year. These seasons mark the culmination of his efforts, as he carefully harvests the ripe cacao pods and begins the meticulous process of transforming them into exquisite chocolate.

Lee showed how he fermented and dried the cacao under the sun.

He said chocolate-making has upstream and downstream activities.

"Upstream involves the cultivation and harvesting of cacao beans and downstream is the roasting and transformation of these beans into delectable chocolate."

Lee oversees every step of this process, ensuring the highest quality and craftsmanship in his artisanal chocolates.

Lee also gets assistance from local farming authorities like the Malaysian Cocoa Board and Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority.

Its guidance and expertise contribute to the sustainability and growth of his cacao farm, allowing him to continually improve and innovate in cacao farming.

Despite his dedication to producing artisanal chocolate, Lee doesn't export his chocolate.

"Obtaining the certifications for export is a complex task due to the unique characteristics of my chocolates. I use a blend of 20 different types of cocoa beans, resulting in variations in taste and flavour profile. This makes certification a challenging endeavour," he said.

Nonetheless, Lee's chocolates can be enjoyed locally, available at health shops, as well as online platforms like Shopee and Lazada.

Beyond cacao farming

Lee also opens his farm to tourists and schools trips, providing an educational and immersive experience.

"Occasionally, I receive visitors like tourists and students, who come here to learn about cacao farming and chocolate-making. They have the opportunity to witness the entire chocolate-making process, from the cultivation of cacao trees to the final stages of chocolate production," he said.

Lee also has a shop in Tanjung Sepat town, 10km from his farm, where he sells his chocolate.

His effort is a testament to the power of passion, perseverance, and a deep love for cacao farming and artisanal chocolate-making.

Through his dedication to producing unique chocolates, he has not only established himself as an artisanal cocoa farmer in Selangor, but also an inspiration for aspiring farmers and chocolate enthusiasts alike.

His chocolates are a true reflection of his hard work and commitment to quality. With every bite of his delectable creations, one can taste the rich heritage and the essence of an artisanal chocolate.

Discover fun local activities using Klook Discount Code to save more!.

Most Popular
Related Article
Says Stories