David Belo on discovering a darkness he can't live without

Jessica Kilbane

There's something to be said for everyday luxuries like chocolate, especially when it's as beautiful as it is delicious. One of the most notable chocolate-makers in the country, Mysore-based entrepreneur and founder of Naviluna, David Belo seems to have his finger on the pulse of the notion. His company has taken shape over the better part of the decade, with a slight sentimentality seeping into every aspect of the business.

We caught up with him to talk about why the future looks so bright:

From the time you were a child till now, how has your taste in chocolate changed?

In my family and community it was customary to give children 10ml of wine with a meal at the table and a small tot of whiskey on a Sunday. I remember learning to like these things after being repelled by the initial bitterness. By age 9 I had a taste for Nestle Dark Chocolate. It probably wasn't more than 60% but still far darker that the dairy milk I'd grown up with. It felt so grown up, and I liked it.

You lived in South Africa and England before India. How did your life there influence how you live today? Where do you spend most of your time?

My heart still is and always will be in South Africa. I love our diversity, our cuisine, our gorgeous landscapes, and our fun-loving culture. However I feel in SA we're still struggling to think about the future and spend a lot of time focusing on our past which is holding back innovation.

The UK and London in particular was a place of learning for me. It gave me a sense of professionalism, taught me how to execute ideas with finesse and what it takes to express one's ideas at the highest level. The UK has always remained quite edgy, self-critical and people are constantly reinventing themselves. As a creative person all that energy fed me, but the weather, long commutes and high cost of living burnt me out.

I've spent 90% of my time in India over the past 8 years. For me Mysore is the most livable city in the country, with ideal weather year-round, no traffic, super safe, clean air, greenery and affordable living costs. The city really gets out of your way when you want to start something. Its also has heaps of old world-charm which has constantly fed into the Naviluna brand. Over the last years I've felt a certain optimism and "open to try" in India. This is whats kept me here, and still going.

Naviluna Chocolate (formerly Earthloaf)

Earth Loaf is now Naviluna, correct? Could you explain what this change has meant for the brand?

Earth Loaf had started as my hippy-idealistic-mother-earth bakery in London in 2010. I kept the name when I came over here, and started the chocolate project. As the company blossomed into what it has become, I felt it had out-grown the name and needed a name more representative of what we do and who we are. Navilu means "peacock" in Kannada - which has always been our emblem. Na means "of", so its a conjoined word meaning "of India" - a metaphor for being a purely Indian origin chocolate company. For the brand though, only the name has changed. Our look, feel and identity remain very much the same; craft, Indo-chique, contemporary- nostalgia, made-in-Mysore.

When did you begin to look at redesigning - and why?

Design is a constant process for us and it never stops or starts. With the name change our design has evolved but there's nothing "new" per say, its a continuation of the everything that's come before.

As we're able to execute ideas better as a company, the gap between the vision in my head and what we're putting out there is getting smaller and smaller.

How would you describe your chocolate to someone who has never experienced it before?

Naviluna chocolate is as much a design product as it is a confection. Our style of chocolate is intense and terroir-centric in an effort to demonstrate the unique flavor and diversity of Indian cacao. If Cadbury is making sweet cafe lattes with loads of vanilla syrup, then we're serving third wave espressos. We're a grown-up chocolate for people that want to appreciate nuance, layers and subtlety.

Do you ever eat your own chocolate, or are you a bit averse to it because you spend so much time around it?

I eat it every single day! [laughs] In fact I just finished off some of our Jackfruit & Black Pepper for breakfast. Chocolate has become part of my lifestyle. Its my go-to pick me when lethargic after lunch or whilst doing 4pm emails. Its my get-up and go snack in the morning.

Indulgence aside, I'm constantly tasting everything that comes out of our kitchen, checking the consistency, texture flavor, changes in the cacao due to weather, the fermentation, our garnishes and inclusions. I'm constantly picking and tasting. I think its vital in knowing what's going on in one's production on a regular basis.

Naviluna Chocolate from Mysore

You started making chocolate almost a decade ago, how do you think the market has changed since then?

Globally, craft-chocolate is still inching its way towards mass recognition. A lot of my fiends who've spent 15 years+ in the F&B industry can’t name a single craft chocolate brand. In India, the uptake of dark chocolate and customer awareness about clean and honest ingredients has seen massive growth just as I predicted back in 2012 when we started. There's still a lot of space for growth in the market and craft-chocolate is still nowhere near the notoriety of specialty coffee - our sister industry.

David Belo of Naviluna, in his Mysore kitchen
David Belo in the kitchen

Do you think chocolate should be experienced everyday or saved for special occasions?

Naviluna is meant to be an affordable luxury that's incorporated into your everyday. The idea is good every day living. Quality living, as apposed to living in quantities. That's why you'll never see a Diwali or a Christmas release. Our take on all that is pretty much, "Yo! This is everyday gifting - gifting to yourself and the people who matter to you." Its luxury 365 days a year.

What is it actually like working in the kitchen?

The pace changes depending on the season but when the busy season is on, its on! And the pressure is high. We work with a wide range of natural ingredients and a lot of care has to be taken to ensure the flavors and presentation shines!

Being a young company we've seen a fair bit of turnover during the last two years as I try to figure out the ideal personalities, background, skill set and age group for my kitchen. We're getting there now and I'm very happy.  We have two kitchens in essence, the mechanical kitchen where we go from bean to couverture or cacao mass relying mainly on small boutique machines. Then the manual kitchen where chocolate is tempered by hand, seasoned and molded.

Sounds simple enough, but being a high-end product there's a lot that can go wrong, and the devil is in the details.

What do you think is the most important part of the process?

Selection of good cacao is paramount. Without great quality cacao there cant be great chocolate no matter what you do. After selection I'd say refining (developing your texture) and conching (developing flavor) are the two most important parts of making craft chocolate.

Sadly, its an area that's 50% skill and 50% investment. If you have the money, you can do a much better job. We will be making considerable investments into our equipment over the next 6 months as we reach for even higher standards.

How does Naviluna source cacao beans?

Presently from a single estate in northern Karnataka and from a fermentation specialist in Kerala who in-turn works directly with about a 100 farmers in the state.

How do you evaluate quality of beans, or tell which beans will have certain hints of flavor?

Flavour is of course the first and most important thing - which though can be ascertained somewhat from eating the fermented bean, can only be fully known by running through a test batch of chocolate. All of our cacao is organically certified with the exception of our Malabar forest which is sourced from two protected forest reserves.

Aside from flavor, the key metrics for assessing quality are: shape, moisture content, absence or presence of mold or fungus, PH and the amount of ascetic acid left on the bean post fermentation, weight to size ratio and the fermentation quality, which means checking whether the bean has been properly fermented or not.

Earthloaf Chocolate is now Naviluna

Do you have any new flavors coming out?

We have a lot going on behind the scenes at the moment, so I've taken a break from the kitchen whilst I prepare the company for the next chapter. We'll probably start to see some new releases around December. The nice thing for us is that we don't follow any seasonal release calendar and tend to follow our own inner creative schedule. This means all the flavors have been worked properly before release, and so nothing is forced.

What is the best part of your job?

Having access to so much chocolate! [laughs] No, jokes aside, it's two things;

First: Chocolate is by far the toughest and most in-depth thing I've done in my career, far more so than mixology, baking or pastry. In the everyday process there's a lot of repetition, but one's learning goes infinitely deeper year on year. My goal is to reach a level whereby Indian origin chocolate, that's actually made in India, is respected on the world map and that we're considered on par with the top names in craft chocolate.

Second: The thing I absolutely love about my job is personal development. I love people, and I so enjoy seeing how my young chefs grow and develop in both their personal and professional capacities. There's a lot that gets said in the "heat" of the kitchen, but I'm totally transparent with them. I give them a lot of autonomy which they resent periodically - sometimes people just want to be told what to do instead of thinking for themselves. But I care about their development and they know it. I'm so proud to see each of them become much more than what they were when they first turned up at Naviluna.

What would you say to someone who is interested in creating their own chocolate?

Make sure your adequately researched, adequately funded and have found a like-minded team. Get battle-ready because its tough! Its an honor to work with such a gorgeous medium and there's a lot of fun to be had in between. But the technical know-how required is broad, especially if you're craft or bean-to-bar. There's a lot that can and often does go wrong.

Images by David Belo and Naviluna.

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