The collection of 17,500+ islands have intrigued me for a long time. It's not only because of the evocative names such as Java, Sumatra, Timor which stir a wide range of emotions from relaxing beach holidays to intense hardship with the nation's struggle with the peoples of what eventually became East Timor. But it's also wild nature of the area from the fact that it has the second highest level of biodiversity after Brazil but is also the tropical climate, the volcanic geography and the fact that there are so many communities still left almost untouched by the civilised world.
The main reason, however, for my fairly recent interest in the islands is that the usually very distinctive nature of the chocolate made from cacao grown there. Typically it's both light in colour but distinctive in flavour due to the climate and drying processes.
There is a great deal of debate as to when cacao first arrived in the archipelago as a crop. C-Spot states it was late in the 18th Century, whilst Frédéric Durand in Cocoa Cycles: The Economics of Cocoa Supply states that it was a century-or-so before due to the fact that it was not mentioned in an extensive survey of local flora which finished in 1690 but was well-established in a 1719 on the Maluku Islands as indicated by Professor William Gervase Clarence-Smith in one his work Cocoa and Chocolate 1765-1914. Whilst Wood, G.A.R. claimed in A history, of early cocoa introductions. Cocoa Growers’ Bulletin 44: 7-12. that cacao was introduced as early as 1560. It's this uncertainty of introduction that adds another layer of interest to origin.
What we do know is that fickle crop suffered a slow uptake in popularity with small-holders which was forcibly grown by edicts from the colonial authorities. Interestingly the decline of cacao in 19th Century Indonesia is similar to that of today when small-holders found it difficult to grow and offering less of a financial return than other crops such as coffee. Frédéric Durand explains that there were frequent attempts to revive the crop in the 19th Century, including the importation of fine flavour Criollo from Venezuela into Java - only to find out that he had mostly actually imported relatively less-inspiring Trinitatios instead. Furthermore, during the 1880's there was a very significant problem with acrocercops cramerella (pdf) (pod borer) which wiped out a large proportion of the crop on the Moluccas islands.
Another attempt to push forward cacao in Indonesia began in 1912 when van Hall tried to genetically select cacao to improve yields on Java, but this also failed at the time. and then during the last three decades of the 20th Century, with the massive population increases in many of the rural areas where cacao was traditionally grown, land became too profitable as residential use compared to agricultural and then this put the production rates back further. When given the choice this lead farmers to grow more profitable crops such as tobacco and cloves.
If it wasn't for the works of the Burgis farmers in Southeast Sulawesi and latterly the Indonesian Government then, today Indonesia would not be the 3rd largest producer of cacao in the world as it was the private works of the farmers in the 1960's and then the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1980's that made significant advances in production. Today we may criticise their growing, fermentation and drying processes, but at least we have variety.
The van Hall efforts of the early 20th Century weren't all to vain, however, as today Javan cacao can contain a high Criollo content and does produce some noticeable volumes - at the time, however, the infrastructure, investment, demand and political will didn't match his struggles.
The problem is that we mostly see Indonesian cacao as a bulk offering which is predominantly derived from West African and Amazonian cacao, which, traditionally, isn't the finest.
Often we are told that Javan cacao works well with milk chocolate because of its curious flavours due to their mechanical method of drying cacao because of the damp climate, and I certainly couldn't disagree, especially when you try the lovely Chocolarder Javan Milk as well as the Domori Java Grey, the Naive Java (plus Papua New Guinea) dark milk, as well as perhaps the Bonnat Asfarth, Surabaua or "Java". Pralus also produce a milk from the origin but I don't see it in the same light as the Domori. Amano also do the Jembrana Milk.
If you wanted to explore the darker end of things then you could try Willie's Cacao and their Indonesian Black after Coppeneur stopped making theirs due to the variable quality of the beans that came through. Other options include Domori's Javablond, Middlebury's Bali, and Bertil has one too. Whilst the Djakarta from Pralus is particularly good!
Overall, Indonesia provides a very wide variety of flavours as different post-harvest processes have developed in almost isolation in the different islands and communities. Much of it may be bulk, and in the fine-flavour area, much of it milk, but if you look hard enough you should find some absolutely fantastic dark chocolate.