Country to Coast Journal newspaper

LIKE many people, Panny Letchumanan loves chocolate and there’s little he doesn’t know about the delectable subject. He lives and works with his family at Newhaven on Phillip Island where he produces a fine high quality chocolate with a low sugar content that is satisfying in small amounts. “You should not want a large amount of chocolate that needs to be chewed but a small amount that melts in your mouth,” he said.

Panny has lived in Newhaven since 2005 when he set up his family business Panny’s Chocolate Factory that now encompasses a chocolate café and a unique chocolate exhibition.

He is originally from Borneo, Malaysia where he worked as an engineer and then later as an engineer and manager in a cocoa and coconut plantation. From the age of 28 years, he travelled and worked overseas before finally settling in New Guinea where he worked in another cocoa and coconut plantation as a plantation manager and then as chief engineer.

He explained that the reason the two crops are grown together is because the cocoa plants need shade. “Initially we plant gliricidia trees as temporary shade and then we plant coconut trees. In three or four years when the coconut trees grow to the height that’s needed to give the cocoa enough shade, we remove the gliricidia trees and it becomes a cocoa and coconut plantation producing a double crop on the same land.”

Panny’s interest in chocolate developed quite incidentally while he was working in New Guinea. He said New Guinea is not a very stable country and it was dangerous to go anywhere away from the plantation after 5 o’clock. It was also about 60 kilometres from the nearest town, which was Lae, so they had to stay at home. “There were times when my wife and children would go back to Malaysia to study so I was alone during the evenings,” he said. “I had the cocoa beans to myself and a book from England about how to make chocolate so I used to read it and experiment with chocolate making.

“I never had any intention of making chocolate but because it was available to me and I am a little bit of a curious guy, I experimented. I will admit I was a chocoholic then. I loved chocolate and I used to buy a lot whenever I went back to Malaysia at Singapore Airport. I made some crude chocolate but at the time, it was just for knowledge and that’s all.”

After spending 15 years in New Guinea, he said they wanted to go somewhere else. Their children were in an international school so they couldn’t go back to Malaysian because of the language barrier so they came to Australia. The family moved earlier in 98 and then Panny moved in 2000. “I came on a business visa so I had to start a business or buy an existing business within six to 10 months. That was the visa condition. We never thought about chocolate, but a chocolate shop came on the market in Kirra on the Gold Coast in Queensland. When we took it over, there was one chocolate machine there so we bought two more and put windows around them and showed people how chocolate was made.

“After six months the business wasn’t doing very well because the road became a sub road and we couldn’t be seen, so in 2002 we moved to a building in the car park at Currumbin Wild Life Sanctuary and established a chocolate factory. We did very well there but the lease ran out and the building was wanted because it belonged to the National Trust of Queensland, so we had to find another place, and Phillip Island is the place we found. We moved to Newhaven in 2005 and we love it here, we love the weather and it’s so good for chocolate making.”

They purchased the café and then applied for a licence for the chocolate factory but it took 12 months to get council approval so they opened in 2006.”

Later they decided to add a tour of the chocolate factory. “Many people don’t know that chocolate comes from a plant product so we wanted to add an educational tour that showed the making of chocolate beginning with the cocoa tree and the cocoa bean.”

He said they engaged a consultant from a company called Megafund who organised fund related things in museums and theme parks. He showed us 15 minutes of an educational tour and then an interactive gallery so it was more like a theme park inside, so in the tour is a chocolate waterfall, a chocolate village, a robot that gives you a chocolate and a chocolate art gallery.

“We had free entry but then we had to put a price on it because it cost a million and a half dollars to set it up. I didn’t have the money so the Megafund director Keith tucker became a partner and the landlord, Geoff Moed who is the managing director of ‘A Maze N Things’ at Cowes, became one as well. We had one-third share each and since opening the tour in 2008, we have had a very good response.”

Panny and his family have the café, the chocolate manufacturing and retail business and a third share in the tour business.

After many years of hard work, researching and experimenting with different ways of making chocolate, Panny said he has ended up with a nice good brand of chocolate bringing the best material from Belgium who does the best with their own recipe.

He said numbers added in the ingredients of commercial chocolate constitute the composition of emulsifiers, which are added to stabilise it because chocolate has cocoa butter. “You have to have emulsifier to bind it all together and it also acts as a preservative. The numbers in ingredients represent an animal fat or vegetable fat but don’t stipulate which is which, so we removed all the uncertain things because if we put a number nobody knows what it is. We wanted to be more specific so the consumers know what they are eating and buy it with confidence. Then they recommend it to others and come back for more. The emulsifier we use is soy lecithin, which is a natural soy product.

“Everyone needs money to survive so you have to be honest in your job or whatever you are doing and if you are, your money will come.”

He said normally when anyone talks about chocolate, it’s milk chocolate. “It’s because white chocolate is cocoa butter, milk and sugar, there is no cocoa in it and dark choc is 54, 72 or 80 per cent cocoa so there are three or four different varieties, but it’s milk chocolate we talk about. The maximum cocoa content of any milk chocolate on the market is always between 28 and 33 per cent, but we have 40 per cent. More cocoa solids have more antioxidants, which is good for your heart. Then we add the cocoa butter, which gives it the creaminess and smoothness. Normally it is 11 per cent but we have 18 per cent, any more than that and the chocolate would be wobbly. When you add this and the cocoa powder, the sugar content becomes less. With 10 per cent less sugar, our milk chocolate has a very slight bitter taste to it but it means one or two pieces will sustain you without the sugar craving that encourages you to eat a whole block.”

He said the best way to eat chocolate is not to chew it and eat it like food. “Chocolate is not a staple food, it’s a luxury item that you want to enjoy when you are not happy or when you are really happy, after dinner or when you want to have something a little bit sweet. It still has fat and sugar so it’s generally not healthy, except the cocoa content, which is good for you so it should be eaten moderately. If you leave a piece of our chocolate in your mouth in 40 seconds it should melt. Once it melts your whole mouth is full of chocolate and you can enjoy it.”

Panny’s Chocolate Factory is a family business run by Panny and his wife Prema Trishnasamy with help from their eldest daughter. Agazeika Pyka who is from Poland is their chocolatier. She is the first person they employed and has been with them since they started.

“Mark Manteit who was the CEO of the Phillip Island Wildlife Park gave me the lease here. He is the first angel that helped me get on my feet. Another is the landlord Geoff Moed who helped me do the car park, the sewer system and helped with some of the building costs. The other one is Keith Tucker who came in without any doubts to become the third shareholder of the tour business. They all had a simple trust in me. Now it is giving us a good dividend but they are the three angels that helped me.”

By Wendy Morriss

Copyright © 2012 Wendy Morriss: Freelance Journalist. All Rights Reserved.