Cuyagua: Art’s Most Memorable Chocolate Experience
One of the things I have always found most wonderful about chocolate is how unlike it is from so many other foods: it reaches in and touches a person’s soul. Few foods do that, and none that I’m aware of do so so completely.
Because of this, I have had some incredible experiences. People of all walks of life tell me what a profound impact our chocolate has had on them and how much they love that experience. (or love the chocolate?) The same goes for some well-known chefs whom I have admired from afar for years. It is easy to forget how, after the chocolate is made, it has a life of its own to the retailer and then to the final person who enjoys it in the intimacy of the home or a fine restaurant.
So my most precious memories center around learning how our chocolate has touched other people’s lives. One experience stands above all others, and I will never, ever forget it. Even after a number of years have passed, I still become emotional when I tell the story.
The third bar we ever made was with some very special beans from the Cuyagua Valley in Venezuela. I was only able to secure nine bags of cocoa, and so we did not have any margin for error; we had to get the production right the very first time. My business partner, Clark, and I tasted the beans and talked for a while about the flavors found in them and what each of us perceived as the strengths and weaknesses of the bean and where we thought the final chocolate should end up. We dived right in and started roasting these wonderful beans.
The result was spectacular–in fact, mind-blowing. Both Clark and I loved the end result. Our customers loved it too, and despite its higher price, it quickly became our most popular bar.
Not long after, I scheduled a trip to Venezuela and made a point of planning a trip to Cuyagua so that I could share the finished chocolate with the farmers.
Cuyagua, a small village on the Carribean coast, is nestled in a little valley quite far from any major (or minor) city. It can be a real adventure to get there. You have to climb a steep one-lane mountain road. On the downhill side, the mountain drops off, and if your vehicle goes off the edge, it will be a few hundred feet before any trees catch you. There are no guard rails. The road winds its way to the top of the mountain pass, hair-pin turns all the way. When you go around corners, you have to honk your horn to let any oncoming traffic know you are there.
When there are no clouds and you can see through the trees, the view from the top is spectacular. When there are clouds, well … you are driving in fog. The other side is not quite as perilous but still quite dangerous. Eventually, you drop into the colonial village of Ocumare, where we also get some of our cocoa. (Ocumare is a nice little village, and the hotels there are — well, rustic.)
On this trip, I stayed in Ocumare and got up at four the next morning. I drove to Cuyagua along the narrow coastal road that connects these two villages, arriving at Cuyagua at the moment of an exquisite sunrise over the Caribbean. Not long thereafter, I was greeted by Felix, who managed the plantation. We waded across the Cuyagua river and then made our way to the plantation itself.
I spent the day working with the farmers, watching them care for the trees. It was clear that for them, their job was far more than simply a way to earn a living; they truly loved what they did.
The cocoa trees in Cuyagua are beautiful. They are grown from seed and are not pruned, as many cocoa trees are. This allows the trees to grow to their full, magnificent height. Many of the trees are over 20 feet tall, and some over 30. The multi-colored cocoa pods growing from the sides of the trees and branches only add to the mystique. If there were a Garden of Eden, I have a hard time seeing how it would be much different from a cocoa plantation.
Here I am with Felix, bright and early in the morning.
One of the farmers in Cuyagua. The cigar? That is to keep the mosquitos away.
When the deeply satisfying day’s work was done, the farmers and I waded through the Cuyagua River once again to a clearing. There, I had the opportunity to talk to them about the importance of what they were doing and to tell them how special their trees are. Then I gave each famer a bar we had made from their cocoa, bars that I had carefully kept cool my entire trip. They were incredibly happy. Next, I broke off a square from an extra bar so that each farmer might taste it right then. They had never before tasted chocolate made exclusively with their beans, and the wonder in their eyes was amazing.
The highlight of the whole experience for me was when one old farmer came up and said: “This chocolate is like a river.” Thinking it an odd comment, I asked him what he meant by it. He said, “This chocolate takes you on a journey. Its flavor takes you to all the wild and wonderous places, and it goes on and on — like a river.”
His simple testimonial floored me. Here in this tiny community so far from “civilization” was a farmer who was, in his heart, a poet. Somehow, our chocolate spoke to him and touched his soul, not in a superficial way, but deep down in a profound way I had not expected.
I will never forget that day with the humble farmers of Cuyagua. Somehow, magically, our chocolate touched a simple farmer poet’s soul, and he, through his purity of heart and the clarity of his vision, touched mine.
Here I am with the farmers of Cuyagua. The poet-farmer is the second from the left.