food / travel

A So Swiss Career Path: Luxury Watches To Designer Chocolate

François-Xavier Mousin and Caroline Buechler used to do marketing for Switzerland's  watch industry. But that was before they went cuckoo for cacao.

Orfève luxury chocolates
Orfève luxury chocolates
Adrià Budry Carbó

THONEX — We've just reached his doorstep and François-Xavier Mousin has already gone from talking about a fake speech by Belgium's King Leopold II (1835-1909) and Spanish farms that produce their oil in cooperatives to the price of a particular chocolate bar that "doesn't respect cocoa." The man is a versatile chatterbox who can take you several times around the world in just one conversation.

Mousin continues on the subject of chocolate, decrying the hypocrisy of a major brand that pays for a few Latin-American children to go to school, but refuses to pay minimum wage on its cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. There's a reason for his interest in the topic: Mousin and his partner, Caroline Buechler — both former PR people in the watchmaking business — have just launched their own chocolate brand, Orfève.

From their new home in Thônex, near the French border, the couple carry out the entire "bean-to-bar" process: They import cocoa beans, transform them into chocolate, and then wrap the final product in aluminum foil to sell.

Orfève produces no more than 10 kilos of chocolate per day.

In a corner of the room, bags of cocoa beans from Peru, Colombia or Madagascar are patiently waiting to fulfill their destiny. "The great problem with cocoa is that the production is done by millions of small producers, but the transformation of cocoa beans is concentrated into the hands of three players," Mousin explains. Together, the U.S. (but Geneva-based) firm Cargill, Barry Callebaut from Zurich and the Olam company of Singapore buy 65% of the world production.

Orfève produces no more than 10 kilos of chocolate per day, which it sells online — for 9.90 Swiss francs ($10) per 75-gram slab — and at a handful of outlets in Geneva and Lausanne. "Obviously this won't revolutionize the market," Mousin acknowledges. "We just wanted to do something at our level."

He and Buechler mastered the trade, they explain, through a mixture of encounters, failures and experiences. Learning to put the machinery together was a case in point. Initially they'd hoped to just buy the equipment ready-made. But the one Swiss supplier they could find only offered what was essentially a mini-plant: machinery (with a price tag of more than $1 million) designed for industrial production of 1,500 to 2,000 kilos per day.

"There was very little possibility for human intervention in the process," he says. "But a Nacional Arriba bean isn't the same as a Gran Blanco."

In the end, the wannabe-chocolate makers imported a roaster from Israel, a cocoa-bean cracker and a conche from Russia, and a tempering machine from Italy. But that led to a whole other set of problems as they struggled, through trial and error, to get the equipment to work. Last January, for the Geneva Watch Salon (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie), Orfève were supposed to deliver 500 tablets. But on the eve of the event, they had yet to churn out a single bar.

"The first tablets came out at around 2 a.m.," Buechler recalls. "We managed by delivering a hundred every day during the show."

Going all in

Watchmaking has played an important role in their entire journey. Buechler and Mousin first met a decade ago at the watch retailer Les Ambassadeurs, and they've been together ever since. Together, they launched their own watch marketing agency, Opus Magnum. "It was happenstance," says Mousin, who actually begun his career in the wine industry in the canton of Valais.

"A choice by default," Buechler adds. "In marketing, our task, above all, was to tell a story about products. We now want to sell something that we have created ourselves, that has been in our hands." she says. They're not just former PR people; they're also DIY-enthusiasts.

For all their motivation and enthusiasm, getting Orfève off the ground was no walk in the park. For one thing, neighbors at their office, where Opus Magnum was based, couldn't stand the smell of roasting. The couple had set up their first micro-factory there but ended up moving it into an outbuilding of their new home — after a few adjustments, of course.

We sold our two cars so we could keep on making chocolate.

There they installed an industrial sink, air conditioning and a poultry heat lamp to melt the chocolate in a "non-industrial" way. More importantly, they built a wall to separate the dry part of the room — where the beans are stored — from the humid part, where the cocoa nibs are mass-transformed by granite millstones.

The effort and investment are all the more impressive given that it was all, essentially, so that Buechler and Mousin could experiment — learn all the stages of chocolate production as quickly as possible. Soon they'll be looking to start over in a new, larger facility. To make it a viable business, they expect they'll need to produce about 3.000 kilos per year, nearly 10 times their current output. But for now, Buechler and Mousin are all smiles.

"We sold our two cars so we could keep on making chocolate. But it'll work!" says Mousin.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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