Meet Davao's Willy Wonka who put PH chocolate on the world map

Jeeves de Veyra

Posted at Apr 17 2018 06:47 AM

Rex Puentespina poses for a photo outside the Koi Cafe of his family's Malagos Garden Resort in Davao. Jeeves de Veyra

DAVAO -- The future couldn’t be any sweeter for Rex Puentespina, who has grown the Malagos brand from a humble mom-and-pop operation to an award-winning “tree-to-bark” chocolate producer respected around the world. 

But what many do not know is that the chocolate business actually came much later for the Puentespinas, who were long known for for growing ornamental plants. In fact, Puentespina Orchids has been an institution for 38 years. 

The land which the Malagos Garden Resort now occupies was saved by the Puentespinas from a buyer who would have cut all the trees and razed the land for a pineapple plantation.

A one-hour drive from Davao City, the 12-hectare resort features a variety of attractions for day-trippers and comfortable lodging for overnight guests. There is just so much to see just by walking around the expansive grounds. 

The Malagos Butterfly Sanctuary is a series of geodesic domes housing greenery and butterflies, while the Museo De Mariposa is a museum devoted to these beautiful insects. There is the outdoor Mindanao Contemporary Art Gallery which displays sculptures of renowned Mindanao artists. 

For kids of all ages, there's the Skywalker Challenge, an aerial obstacle course; and Science in the Park, where kids can play around with science experiments similar to the Pasonanca Science Museum in Zamboanga. Bird shows are also held during the weekends.

The villas at the Malagos Garden Resort. Jeeves de Veyra

The resort is a lush forest paradise. Jeeves de Veyra

Inside the Butterfly Sanctuary. Jeeves de Veyra

Science in the Park features outdoor experiments. Jeeves de Veyra

Powerplay is an outdoor playground. Jeeves de Veyra

The Malagos Skywalker Challenge is an aerial obstacle course not for the weak of heart. Jeeves de Veyra

The Mindanao Contemporary Art Gallery has outdoor sculptures made by Mindanao artists. Jeeves de Veyra

Malagos is also famous for its cheese. It currently has 300 goats which are milked two times a day. The milk is sent to the city where Puentespina’s sister-in-law, Olive, makes the cheese. In blind taste tests with participants from cheese-consuming countries, Malagos cheeses have consistently been at par with -- and sometimes surpassed -- those from traditional cheese-producing countries in Europe.

PUTTING PH ON THE CHOCOLATE MAP

The chocolate growing business started in 2007 when a Mars Cocoa Sustainability Team arrived from Indonesia to teach Davao farmers to grow cocoa. The Puentespinas learned how to grow the plant and were soon exporting the beans. It was only in 2012 when they decided to start making chocolates, making Malagos one of only 100 “tree to bar” chocolate producers in the world.

Chocolate molds. Jeeves de Veyra

Puentespina is the consummate chocolate geek. 

Chef JP Anglo, who collaborated with Puentespina on a dish for AirAsia's new in-flight menu, remarked: “He really knows his stuff!”

Puentespina reveres his beans in the same way vintners respect their grapes. Just like in fine wine, terroir is also important in making good chocolate, he said. “It’s a combination of the soil, the climate, the surrounding trees. In Malagos, it constantly rains. Cacao likes high humidity and lots of sun to grow,” he explained.

To benchmark his chocolates, Puentespina regularly joins competition around the world. He values the objective feedback given by the judges because the panel is made up of food professionals like professional chefs, accomplished home bakers, and fellow chocolatiers.

To date, Malagos has won eight silver and bronze medals. Last year, Malagos beans cracked the Top 50 in the world besting 166 other entries at the Cocoa Excellence Awards. This was an emotional moment for the chocolatier. 

Malagos proudly shows off its international awards. Jeeves de Veyra

“We’re getting there. After 15 years when we first started the cocoa farm, it’s being recognized and we put the Philippines on the chocolate map of the world,” he beamed.

CHOCOLATE MUSEUM

Perhaps the beating heart of the resort is the Malagos Chocolate Museum. Built around the chocolate plant, it was designed by Charisse Puentespina, an accomplished interior designer, who also runs the resort. 

This shrine to chocolate educates visitors on what it means to be a “tree-to-bar” chocolate producer. While other “bean-to-bar” chocolate companies would buy, roast, and process beans to make bars of chocolate, Malagos starts from scratch -- from the planting of the seed to the harvesting of the cacao bean. 

The Malagos Chocolate Museum. Jeeves de Veyra

Guests are treated to interactive exhibits chronicling the bean’s journey amid the ambient chirping of birds. The museum is so beautiful that a visitor from a high-end French chocolate company noted that it was more beautiful than the one they had back in Hermitage.

Chocoholics of all ages will not be able to resist the chocolate truffle-making workshop right at the end of the exhibits. Different molten variants of Malagos chocolates are available to be mixed in with nuts, fruits, and candy sprinkles, which are then poured into various molds. After cooling, the chocolates can be eaten on the spot or taken home.

Make your own truffles at the Malagos Chocolate Museum. Jeeves de Veyra

Even with a 25-hectare chocolate plantation, Rex Puentespina said the beans are not enough to meet demand. Malagos buys beans from around 100 small-scale chocolate farmers in the area, whose total combined land is around 500 hectares. 

HIGH-PROFILE COLLABORATIONS

Puentespina is grateful for big brands shining the spotlight on Malagos chocolate. He cited Krispy Kreme for coming out with a Malagos Chocolate Donut that will be exclusively available in Davao this month, and the Summer Malagos Chocolate Macarons by Bizu.

He is also proud of his partnership with AirAsia, which used Malagos chocolate as the key ingredient in chef Anglo’s Dalandan Chicken in Pimiento Sauce, which will be served on all local and international Air Asia Philippines flights. 

(From left) Chef JP Anglo, AirAsia Philippines CEO Capt. Dexter Comendador and Rex Puentespina. Jeeves de Veyra

Moreover, Malagos's award-winning 62% chocolate bars will also be sold in the new AirAsia in-flight catalog joining other social entrepreneurs like Tsaa Laya, which packages local teas like salabat in high-end pyramid teabags for expor; Olivia & Diego, which works with human trafficking survivors to make upcycled jewelry; and other affiliates of the AirAsia Foundation.

“We cannot afford to do events like this. But when we partner with Krispy Kreme, with Bizu, with AirAsia, those translate to orders. It promotes sustainable growth and it is the perfect way of helping the countryside. This directly affects the farmers who work on the 500 hectares of land,” Puentespina noted.

Malagos chocolates join social enterprises Tsaa Laya, and Olivia and Diego in the latest AirAsia in-flight catalog. Jeeves de Veyra

Not to rest on their chocolate laurels, work goes on for the Puentespina family. The resort is slowly but surely being modernized with plans of a spa to be built in the future. 

Rex is again preparing for competition later this year where his favorite 72% variant will be gunning for the gold medal. He also announced that Malagos will be launching a new line of chocolates incorporating Bicol's pili and Palawan's cashew at WOFEX. A line of truffles with local fruits is possibly in the works, as well.

“We really have something to be proud of. We need to innovate and introduce new products, and hopefully we get picked up by chocolate makers around the world and use it as an ingredient and label it as single origin chocolate,” he said.