Drug Lords? What Drug Lords?

Drug Lords? What Drug Lords?

In the United States, what crosses many people’s minds when they think of South and Central America is that it’s home to drug lords: visions of great big haciendas with enormous spreads of land perfectly manicured, guards dotting the landscape, armed to the teeth with machine guns, waiting for an armed encounter with the Federales or with the US DEA.

Of course, like many of stereotypes, the truth is far different from what we imagine. Instead of luxurious haciendas dotting the landscape, paid for and fueled by cocaine, the landscape is instead dotted by subsistence farmers who have very little in the way of resources, education, or the things that most of us westerners hold in great esteem. While poor, these farmers are often rich in family, friends, and sense of community. In fact, they are truly rich in the things that matter and the very bonds that we seem to forget in our busy day-to-day lives.

While in Venezuela, I had the opportunity to visit a very good friend of mine and to see his plantations. He is an eighth-generation cocoa farmer. Truly his heritage is cocoa; he cares deeply for what his trees, his workers, and the quality of the cocoa he produces.

After a long day visiting his various plantations, we drove to the nearest town with a hotel. It was a long drive. We followed along a very narrow, very windy road. It was all jungle on both sides of the car, so as we drove, I could not help but think what an adventure it would be to get out of the car and with nothing but a machete in hand and a leather wide-brimmed hat to disappear in the jungle like the explorers of old. (And who knows, in a pinch a giant bullwhip might even prove useful?)

Venezuelan fruit vendor

After a long day visiting his various plantations, we drove to the nearest town with a hotel. It was a long drive. We followed along a very narrow, very windy road. It was all jungle on both sides of the car, so as we drove, I could not help but think what an adventure it would be to get out of the car and with nothing but a machete in hand and a leather wide-brimmed hat to disappear in the jungle like the explorers of old. (And who knows, in a pinch a giant bullwhip might even prove useful?)

One of my traveling companions was having a hard time as we drove, however. The road was way too windy, and it was causing him to become carsick. I was not feeling particularly well myself, but as we weaved through the jungle, it felt like we were on a never-ending roller coaster at Disneyland, going up, down, around, back, and then up and down, only to weave back and forth once again. This wild ride continued for what must have been over an hour.

After our heads were all spinning from the ups, downs, and arounds, we finally reached the little village where we were going to be staying. We were relieved. That is, relieved for only a moment.

Hanging out with my friend Juan.

The entire town was deserted. There were no cars, there were no people, there were no animals. All was deathly silent. I imagined the music from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western playing in the background as we drove through town with nobody in sight.

Every once in a while, we would see a solitary person walking in the middle of the street. They walked aimlessly, almost zombie like. We all had the same thought at once: “This town must be controlled by the drug lords.” We talked about it, and we were, I have to admit, a bit afraid.

We were really afraid as we reached our hotel. There were all the people from the entire town standing aimlessly in front of our hotel, all packed together, and it wasn’t readily apparent why they were there or what they were doing. They were in fact doing absolutely nothing.

It looked just like a scene from a movie where a mob is building, getting ready to take out the embassy. And just like a scene from a movie, as we drove up to the crowd, the sea of people slowly parted. We couldn’t see where we were going, since all we could see in front, on the sides, and behind were people. We were blind. I half expected to see bricks start flying through the windows and for the mob to descend on us, tearing us limb from limb.

The door on my friend’s storage shed. Sometimes even a door can be beautiful.

Then in an instant, we were through.

We left the crowd behind us and pulled into the hotel’s parking lot. The hotel was beautiful, for being in such an out-of-the way location. It was right on the ocean shore, painted white, a bit reminiscent of a white Greek island villa but not as elegant.

As far as I could tell, we were the hotel’s only guests. We checked in and put our things in our rooms.

Once we were all checked in, we asked the question that was burning in our minds: “What is going on?”

When we found out, we laughed. As it turned out, the entire town was having a street party. The deserted streets, the few wandering aimlessly, the mob just outside our hotel—it all made perfect sense. We had it wrong: the town wasn’t run by drug lords, we simply showed up when the entire town was standing around and waiting for the street party to begin.

It was just getting dark, and I had promised my wife that I would give her a call as often as I could. As you might expect, there was no cell phone service. We made some inquiries and were told to go up to the church and stand on the rock.

We drove to the church, and sure enough, there was a rock right next to it. We discovered that if you stood on the rock, you could get just the faintest cell phone signal. If you stepped off the rock, the signal would disappear. If you stood on your tip-toes, the signal strength would get stronger. So I called home standing on my tip-toes, stretching high as best I could and trying not to fall off.

After we had each made our calls home, we went back to the hotel, chatted until all hours, and called it a night. At 4:30 the next morning, my ride came to pick me up. I gathered my gear, and off we went back to the plantations on the same crazy, windy road that we had arrived on. Of course it was different this time. It was dark and we could not see any farther than the headlights could throw a beam, which, given the windy road, was not far at all. This time I knew what to expect. Even so, winding through the narrow road in the dark was a bit of an experience.

Just as the sun began to turn the sky a beautiful pink and illuminate the clouds overhead, we arrived at my friend’s cocoa plantation. One of his workers greeted us, and he and I headed out into the cocoa plantations so that I could inspect the trees and make an assessment of what varieties were there and the potential for using the beans from these plantations.

My friend’s worker was armed with a shotgun. Clearly, being out on the plantations being generally safe was not completely the case. As we walked around the plantations, he carried the gun with the casual ease that only comes from practice.

Carrying firearms as a matter of course is common in many Central and South American countries—no matter what the laws may specify. Much of the population (and especially the farmers in cocoa growing areas) live in remote areas, and reliance on the police to solve problems is fraught with difficulties, especially when getting a police officer may take anywhere from hours to a good portion of a day. As you can imagine, by the time the officers arrive, the problem will have likely resolved itself—and not always in the farmers’ or their family’s favor.

Cocoa plantations are always a magical and beautiful place in the early mornings. They are especially peaceful and serene before the morning sun rises. In the tropics, the morning birds greet the morning with even more exuberance than they do elsewhere. This particular morning was no exception.

My bodyguard who kept me safe while visiting my friend’s cocoa plantations.

Cocoa plantations are always a magical and beautiful place in the early mornings. They are especially peaceful and serene before the morning sun rises. In the tropics, the morning birds greet the morning with even more exuberance than they do elsewhere. This particular morning was no exception.

As I’m on the cocoa plantations, I try to always look at things with a fresh eye. It is amazing what you can see if you don’t take this incredible experience for granted.

There was a tree with an amazing set of cocoa flowers. Cocoa flowers are very small (only about the size of a penny), yet they are beautiful. I always wish there were some way to grow cocoa flowers the size of a regular flower. If so, perhaps people could appreciate the beauty as I do.

A little farther on in the plantation, a swarm of enormous ants was attacking one tree’s cocoa pod. They love the juices that flow out of an injured cocoa pod. As they eat their way across the pod, they create a track that, once healed, leaves a scar. Many mature pods have track marks that testify to earlier attacks during their development. I managed to get an excellent photo of this particular attack and have often wondered if this particular pod managed to survive until the harvest season.

These cocoa flowers are really only about the size of a penny. They are in my opinion one of the world’s most beautiful flowers.

Later, once the sun was fully out, I walked back to my friend’s greenhouses, where he grows baby cocoa trees. These he uses for his own plantations, as well as providing them to other farmers who will grow the cocoa for my friend to buy later. While there, I managed to grab a few black and white photos shot in infrared.

Infrared photographs are made by using a filter that blocks all visible light and only lets infrared light through. Infrared light cannot be seen by the human eye but can be felt as it is the infrared we feel as the sun’s heat on a beautiful summer day. With infrared, plants turn white and the sky turns black, making each and every infrared photograph an adventure, since the camera in this case sees the world quite a bit differently than does the human eye.

These were my very first infrared photographs, and they introduced me to a new area of photography that I have enjoyed pursuing ever since.

Later that day, I hooked up with my friends who came to the plantation to meet me. They chose to sleep in, and while I’m sure they were able to enjoy a wonderful rest, they also missed out on a truly magical morning.

This cocoa pod is being attacked by ants. They will leave a huge web of scars on the grown pod.

As it turns out, I learned later that our initial impressions were actually correct. The town where we had been staying was in fact in control of the local drug lords. Our fears, however, were misguided. Because of the drug lords, we were in fact perfectly safe, perhaps more safe than just about anywhere else we could be.

Why? The reason is surprising. What it comes down to is this: The last thing the drug lords need or want is government attention. In this town (and presumably similar towns), there is no crime. Crime brings attention, and attention brings the Federales (national police). As you may imagine, Federales create a host of problems for the drug lords’ trade.

When a crime is committed, it is typically handled quietly and efficiently. The criminal (not the drug lord) is taken into the jungle and the problem dealt with. The problem disappears. Not surprisingly, people stay on their best behavior.

The last thing they needed was for a few Gringos to turn up missing, or other problems that would cause the Federales to come and start asking questions.

I will never forget this crazy experience. A wild rollercoaster ride, a ride through a town that was somewhere between a Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood spaghetti western and Night of the Living Dead, balancing precariously on tip-toe on top of a rock to call home while stretching skyward, one of the most beautiful mornings I have ever experienced on a cocoa plantation, and finally the discovery that we had been the unwitting guests of the local drug lords. What more could one ask for on a cocoa-hunting expedition?

When I started Amano, I knew it was going to be one wild ride and the opportunity to meet some wonderful people and have some amazing experiences. Since then, there has been no shortage of such experiences, no way that I would have had it otherwise. Even so, some days stand out more than others, and these wild twenty-four hours were certainly some of the most memorable hours ever.

Chocolate From The Region

  • Chocolate Bar, Dark Chocolate, Flavored Chocolate

    Amano Big Chocolate Bar Collection

    $99.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Cuyagua Venezuela

    $14.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Ocumare Village Venezuela

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Macoris Dominican Republic

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Sambriano Valley Madagascar

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Ecuador Guayas River Basin

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Dos Rios Dominican Republic

    $8.95

Eating Italian in the Dominican Republic? (Or, how I fell in love…)

Eating Italian in the Dominican Republic? (Or, how I fell in love…)

The Dominican Republic is host to some of the finest quality cocoa in the world.

It is mostly all trinitario, a variety or hybrid that originated in Trinidad. It is speculated that it is created from Venezuelan “Criollo” and “Forestero,” which originated in the upper Amazon basin. These two came together after what they called a “blast” (probably a giant storm, but it could have been disease) hit Trinidad in 1727 and killed off most of the original cocoa in Trinidad (Venezuelan criollo). The new hybrid was more disease hardy and also had some beautiful fruit flavor notes as well as some deeper chocolate flavor notes.

Today, Trinitario has spread throughout the Caribbean and has found a strong home in the Dominican Republic, where in many areas growing Trinitario cocoa has gone from a subsistence crop to a true art form.

The first time I visited the Dominican Republic on one of my cocoa-hunting expeditions, I had an amazing time. My hosts took me to visit a huge number of farms and operations around the island. After our first long, hard, grueling day, we started heading back to the Dominican Republic’s capital city, Santo Domingo.

About half way back to Santo Domingo, I was asked, “What would you like to have for dinner?”

For me, the answer was clearly obvious. I replied, “Let’s go eat Dominican!”

“Trinitario” cocoa pods on a cocoa plantation in the Dominican Republic.

Big long pause …

My Hosts: “Are you sure?”

Me: “Yeah, Dominican sounds excellent!”

Another Big long pause …

My Hosts: “Umm…. What do you think Dominican food is?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t know. I’d guess it is probably fried plantains, rice with some chicken on it, and perhaps some sort of gravy on top.”

My Hosts: “Yeah, that’s Dominican food, all right.”

Another big long pause …

My Hosts: “Are you sure?”

A Real Puzzled Me: “Yeah! Sounds great!”

Another big long pause… This time from me.

A Real Suspicious Me: “Why? What does everyone else eat?”

No big long pause this time. In fact, a real quick reply.

My Hosts: “Oh, everyone goes out to eat Italian! But we can take you to go eat Dominican if you like.”

So we went to a beautiful restaurant that was right on the ocean. It had outdoor seating, and we ate an incredible Dominican smorgasbord of food. There was a Dominican sampler, and that is exactly what we ordered. The next thing we knew our table was filled with an incredible amount of delicious meats, rice, vegetables and … soup.

I fell in love. With soup.

If there is a national soup of the Dominican Republic, it would have to be this very soup. In fact, it probably is. It is called sancocho. Sancocho is found throughout Puerto Rico, Columbia, and the Dominican Republic. Each country has its own unique spin on this traditional stew. It is rich and hardy and full of meat, starches (yams, and casava), and spices. Oh… especially those spices. Especially oregano and cumin. Lots and lots of oregano and cumin. The flavor is amazing—deep, rich, and very hardy in a way that you know it will stick with you for the rest of the day. Oh, all that oregano? It makes the soup look a bit on an army green side.

The entire meal was amazing. When I think of some of the finest meals have had in my life, this would have to be right up there. The food was all very simple—no Michelin Star chef to prepare it. It was simple comfort food prepared very, very well by someone who truly cared about what they were creating. When I went back to my hotel that evening, I had a very happy tummy. I slept well too.

Every time I think back on that trip, I laugh. I laugh that the world’s greatest chocolate makers from Europe—many of whom now are friends and colleagues—fly to the Dominican Republic to eat … Italian. Every time I travel to a country, I try to eat the local food as much as I can. I love trying new and exciting flavors and dishes. It’s amazing how often I find foods that are simply incredible. Occasionally, I’ll find foods that are very disagreeable, sometimes even wildly so. This is all part of the adventure that is … chocolate.

Sancocho in the Dominican Republic. One of my all-time favorite soups and a popular Dominican comfort food.

 

Chocolate From The Region

  • Dark Chocolate

    Macoris Dominican Republic

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Dos Rios Dominican Republic

    $8.95

I Don’t Care What They Pay Me For My Cocoa!

I Don’t Care What They Pay Me For My Cocoa!

In my experience, cocoa farmers have an incredible connection to the land on which they grow their cocoa.

The cocoa tree, an amazing tree, grows cocoa pods off the side of its trunk and branches. Each pod is shaped like a small Nerf football and holds about forty beans. The pods come in an amazing variety of colors—yellows, oranges, reds, greens, even white. The leaves of the tree are long, broad, and slightly woody, so when they drop, they create a thick carpet under the tree that crackles as you walk on them.

The trees themselves are very temperamental. Too much sun, water, or wind causes the tree to drop its flowers. Always growing in humid, moist environments, the trees are susceptible to a myriad array of diseases often caused by molds and fungi. Insects, too, play havoc on the trees. Burrowing into the soft bark and wood of these fragile trees for their next meal, they stress and often kill the trees. So despite the tree’s great beauty, growing cocoa is not for the faint at heart. And that labor of love, demanded by the trees, binds the farmers to their trees like no other bond between farmer and crop I have ever seen, though perhaps vanilla plays an even parley. (Vanilla is also a great labor of love. Vanilla must be hand pollinated one flower at a time, so that each flow produces only one vanilla bean. If the flowers aren’t pollinated by approximately ten a.m. in the morning, then the flowers drop.)

A very special farmer’s cocoa plantation just south of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.

On one of my trips to Venezuela, I traveled to the Sur Del Lago area of Lake Maracaibo, an area legendary, for it is home to the white cocoa bean called Porcelana. This is the same cocoa that the early Spanish explorers encountered when they very first arrived in Venezuela in their ships. And for this reason, it is legendary, not just for its flavor but also for its role in history.

When we arrived, I was asked by my friend John whether I would mind visiting a cocoa farmer friend of his. Of course I was very open to meeting any cocoa farmers.

This cocoa farmer was special. In his late seventies or early eighties, he was incredibly pleased that we stopped by. Excitedly, he told us about his farm and his trees. By some standards, his farm perhaps needed a bit of work. New fermentation boxes would definitely have benefited his finished cocoa. Even so, he spoke with passion about his farm and his plans, and how much he loved what he did.

One of the most telling moments for me was when he said that he didn’t care what he was paid for his cocoa. Thinking this strange, I asked why not. He said: “I don’t care what I get paid for my cocoa. I will always grow cocoa no matter what I am paid. I love my trees.”

His commitment floored me. Here is a man living in what many would consider poverty, yet his love for his cocoa was far more important to him than the material things that many of us in the “modern” world feel are so important.

Cocoa farmer who loves his trees so much, he doesn’t care what he is paid for his cocoa.

Time and time again, I have heard this same devotion from different farmers, expressed in many different ways. It always amazes me the deep connection the farmers have with their land and with their cocoa. Many farmers grow other crops, livestock, fish, or whatever else they can to bring in a little extra income. But no matter what they do, they always find a way to grow their cocoa—because they love their trees.

At Amano, we typically pay between 2-4 times the commodity price that the large chocolate companies pay. This is so that we can get the very best quality cocoa and it really makes us proud to be able to support farmers such as this one who deep down and in some fundamental way truly love their trees.

Chocolate From The Region

Delivering Amano Chocolate to the Farmers of Chuao, Venezuela

Delivering Amano Chocolate to the Farmers of Chuao, Venezuela

If there is one place in the world of chocolate that strikes cords of reverence in the hearts of chocolate lovers, it is the very remote village of Chuao on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.

This little village has been producing some of the world’s finest cocoa for over 400 years. Ever since I started making chocolate, I have wanted to make chocolate from these incredibly flavorful cocoa beans.

As luck would have it, the Italian company that had an exclusive on Chuao’s cocoa lost its exclusive agreement, and the farmers of Chuao wanted to sell their cocoa on the open market. It was not long before we were contacted and asked if we would like to begin making chocolate with Chuao’s cocoa. Needless to say, I was elated, and it was not long before the cocoa was “on the water” and on its way to our factory.

Developing how to process the cocoa from Chuao was difficult. It is a hard bean to pin down. The flavor of the beans is rich and complex, yet fruity. Depending on how the cocoa is roasted, refined and conched, the flavor can shift wildly. This is of course great for a chocolate maker, because it allows for wide latitude and artistic license. Deciding which flavors of chocolate to emphasize and which to downplay. This required a large number of test batches. At approximately four times the cost of processing regular cocoa beans, developing how the Chuao cocoa into perfectly well balanced chocolate became a very expensive challenge.

After a long process, the day finally came and we started roasting the cocoa and turning it into finished chocolate. As each 60kg bag was roasted, I was amazed at the richness and deep complexity of the beans. I knew the finished chocolate would turn people’s heads. It sure did mine. The smell outside the factory was incredible. I took a walk in the afternoon and I could smell the Chuao from over a block away.

Finally the day came when the chocolate was finished and the first set of bars molded. The result was incredible. Making this chocolate was truly worth the effort. I started sending bars to my friends in the chocolate world, and their thoughts were the same.

Even so, the chocolate was not truly finished. I had not yet delivered our chocolate to the farmers who grew the cocoa trees, cared for them, harvested the cocoa, fermented the beans, and finally dried them on the plaza in front of their church, which now is almost two hundred years old. The problem was when. My schedule is always insanely busy.  We had just opened our factory store and were already short handed. In order for me to go, my business partner, Clark, would have to work double time at the factory and store, and Clark was overworked as it was.

I have had some wonderful experiences taking my chocolate to the farmers who had grown the cocoa beans I have used. So we were concerned. It just wasn’t right that we had released this bar, but the farmers had not yet tasted it. Just when things looked darkest, Clark and I found an incredible opportunity for me to go to Venezuela and present the farmers with this remarkable chocolate. An amazing confluence of events somehow all came together to make this special trip possible.

Cocoa Beans from Chuao Venezuela

The week prior to the trip, things were crazy busy. As an example, in a single day, Janet, who handles our sales (and works from New York City) flew in to hammer out some details. A few hours later, a cocoa farmer also flew in to meet with us and I needed to pick him up at the airport. At the same time, we were filming a holiday special on chocolate for a local television channel. On top of all this, we were roasting bags of beans from Cuyagua, Venezuela (just a couple valley’s over from Chuao). I had a lot of people to keep happy. Clark and I were able to pull it off, but only if each of us worked fourteen hours a day or more.

I prepped for my trip for over a week in what little spare time I had. The morning I was to leave, I gave each of my two sons, Aaron and Ian, giant hugs and sent them to school. As usual, they each asked for me to bring them a special present from Venezuela. My wife and I went to the factory. She and I finished conching the batch of Cuyagua I had been working on for the past week. A friend came to the factory to pick me up and rush me to the airport,with literally only minutes to spare. I caught the red-eye flight to Caracas (via Houston).

My flight arrived in Caracas at 5:14 in the morning, and I spent the next hour waiting in line at customs. Once my turn came, I breezed through. Outside customs, gone were the immense crowds so often found waiting the evening flights. Instead, I was met at the airport by a friend, and off we went to Chuao. On our drive to Maracai, we talked, laughed and told stories about all the places we had visited and the people we had met. Somewhere along the way, I dozed off. Simply being away from the factory had caused my collapse into deep sleep.

The next thing I knew our vehicle was rocking back and forth wildly as we began our way up the road that climbed the Henri Pitierir Mountains. The one-lane highway snakes its way up the mountain, maneuvering some 1,200 turns before it reaches the top. Sheer rock wall and jungle border one side of the road. The other side has no border. and for much of the way the edge of the road drops hundreds of feet down. This road is always an experience on the best of days; however, when I woke up we were in the midst of a torrential downpour. The road was flooded, and huge rivers of water ran down across the road or down either side. As we wound our way up the mountain, we passed places where the mountain had given way, and landslides covered the road. Would our way be blocked by one of them? Just then the road doubled back on itself, revealing a deep chasm in the middle and a clear view of a pit. At the bottom: a bus. How many people were on the bush? Did they get out alive? I probably will never know. All I did know was that it could have been me down there.

By the time we made it to the summit, the rain had diminished to a drizzle. As we descended on the seaward side of the mountain range, the rain grew less and less. The mountains had trapped the clouds and forced them to drop their loads before heading out to sea.

Descent on the seaward side was not nearly as steep. The trip to the top had taken one half hour, and the trip down the other side over an hour. As we wound our way down, we encountered huge stands of bamboo, each shoot over four inches thick. When I asked my friend Felix about the bamboo, he said that it had originally been planted when there was nothing but a simple dirt trail; the cocoa had been bought out on burros which caused lots of erosion. Since bamboo grows over one centimeter per day, it was planted to help keep the trail from washing away. As much as I like the steep side of this rugged mountain road for its sense of adventure, I love the seaward side for its extreme beauty. When the sky is clear you can see for miles and miles to distant ranges, as well as out to sea. Tiny shops line the road, offering arrepas, Venezuela’s favorite food. Arrepas are similar to English muffins but are made from corn meal and filled with all sorts of delicious fillings, such as meat and cheese. You can have arrepas for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, depending on what you put inside. We stopped for tamales, and they were delicious!

Flooding road from Maracai to Choroni during a rainstorm — after the heavy rain let up.

Boy riding on a donkey.

It was iffy if we were going to be able to get out of the harbor with 8-10 foot swells. The small fishing boats have been known to tip in choppy seas. The only other alternative to get to Chuao was an eight hour hike.

Pirates Cove. Smugglers would hide here in their small boats laden with cocoa waiting for the Portugese pirates to arrive after nightfall.

 

Fresh Barracuda in Chuao

It was not long before we were in Choroni, and Felix went to go find a boat to hire for our final trip to Chuao while I caught some lunch: delicious fresh macarel and fresh baked bread. Choroni is a beautiful, sleepy town. Each building is painted in bright pastel colors, and many buildings have murals. During the week, Choroni is very quiet, but during the weekend, people come from all up and down the coast for its parties.

Felix came back and said he had found us a boat. We made our way to the port and while waiting watched the fishermen come in with their loads of fish. As the fishermen stood around, you could sense a deep camaraderie among these men of the sea. Finally our boat arrived and we hopped aboard. It is a half-hour trip to Chuao, and along the way we could see the beautiful beaches, the rocky outcropping where cocoa smugglers hid while waiting for the Portuguese trading ships, and the overlook where spotters watch the patterns in the ocean and signal the fishermen where to guide their nets.

As we rounded a bend, there before us was the harbor of Chuao. I watched with anticipation as the harbor grew before me. Here was the place of legend, here was Chuao. As we pulled into the harbor, one of the fishermen signaled he had caught a giant barracuda. We signaled back for him to hold it up, and what a majestic fish it was. As the boat pulled up, I grabbed my gear and jumped into the surf. I got a close look at his fish. The fisherman was immensely proud–as he should have been. Truly a giant and with its sharp teeth and lightning-fast speed the barracuda is one of the fiercest hunters in the sea.

Fisherman in Chuao mending his nets

Rather than hike into town, I was lucky enough to hop in the back of a truck for the beautiful ride up the valley from the harbor to the village Chuao. Over four hundred years ago, Chuao was at the harbor. Then the many famous pirates began to patrol the Carribean coast and raid Chuao for food and other supplies–even people. To defend themselves the residents moved moved Chuao three miles up the valley and and placed batteries of cannons on the hills near the harbor. This defense fought off the pirates and alerted the townspeople to any imminent raid.

Our ride was smooth and pleasant–Chuao had recently installed a concrete road from the coast. The road winds its way up the valley like a bright white cement serpent who’s tail is in the harbor and who’s head is the town of Chuao.

It was exciting to return to Chuao. Each time I visit Chuao, I experience the same thing–a strong sense of returning to the “home” of cocoa. Admittedly, cocoa probably originated elsewhere, but the town still feels like cocoa’s “home.” Perhaps it’s because of Chuao’s uninterrupted 400-year of history of producing some of the world’s finest and most highly sought after cocoa. Perhaps it is simply that other than fishing, Chuao has for two centuries dedicated itself almost exclusively to to the production of cocoa.

I arrived at my posada (hotel). After such a long, hard trip I was quite frankly exhausted. I kicked back in a hammock while taking in a perfect view of the Chuao’s famous church, in front of which the farmers have dried their cocoa for almost 200 years. Later, I went for a stroll around Chuao, had dinner, and went to bed.

Young and old work together in Chuao to harvest the cocoa, ferment and dry the beans.

The morning came much too early. Even so, I could not wait to go out and watch the farmers of Chuao take the cocoa out of the fermentary and lay it out in front of the church to dry. Slowly, one by one, the farmers showed up, sharing morning gossip with one another while they milled around, waiting for the other workers and the sun to be just right.

Then it happened. Almost on queue, they simultaneously began to grab their wheelbarrows, shovels, and other gear and commenced the choreographed dance of loading the cocoa from the fermentary into their wheelbarrows, wheeling it to the church, dumping it on the patio for others to spread in wide swaths if still wet, or spread it in Chuao’s trademark circles when nearly dry. The whole process took several hours, and it was amazing to watch. A sense of history permeated the air, and I could not help but marvel at how what I was witnessing before me was also a reflection of what had happened each day for tens of thousands of days before.

Once the morning’s work was finished, I walked back toward the harbor, stopping along the way to stroll into the forest of cocoa trees. It was not long before I was able to enjoy sucking on the sweet pulp that surrounds each of the cocoa beans. With a taste like a sweet, light floral lemonade, this pulp is the perfect treat on a hot tropical day. I didn’t eat too much, I promise.

For lunch, I walked by to my posada had a wonderful meat dish consisting of beef stewed with cocoa from Chuao, and chilies. It wasn’t hot, only absolutely delicious!

It wasn’t long before it was time for the cocoa to be brought in. Again and again, as if on cue, workers gathered to complete the task. Going back and forth between the church and the fermentary and criss-crossing each other’s path, the dance of bringing in the cocoa began. It was a magical scene, and with practiced skill, it was not long before all the cocoa arrived.

One of the workers spreads out the cocoa to dry.

 

Cocoa Baskets

After it was all over, I kicked back on the hammock by my room and dozed until dinner. For dinner, I met up with Felix, and we had arrepas–filling and delicious, the perfect Venezuelan comfort food.

Once it was dark, the community children gathered together in front of the church and played soccer and other games until very late in the night. It really brought back memories of when I was a kid playing “night games” with the other kids in the neighborhood…

The next morning, the same scene played out. I woke early, again to a beautiful morning light –the perfect temperature, a few light clouds, and the sun streaming down in between and tropical birds really making a ruckus. I met with the villagers as they gathered together to put out the beans to dry. Even though I have seen this many times before, I cannot not help but feel a sense of wonder each time I watch cocoa being brought out. It involved an amazing amount of work and an incredible amount of care, yet, through practiced skill, the workers always seem to handle it with great ease.

Bringing in the cocoa at the end of the day.

After the cocoa was all out on the church’s patio, I had time to visit with the various workers. It was wonderful to hear about their personal lives and the things they care deeply about.

I spent most of the day in the upper plantation with the workers. I had once lived on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. There, I loved my job–landscaping. It really wasn’t so much of a job as what I loved to do. Yes, I was paid, but to be out in the out-of-doors working with your hands in the soil with beautiful flowers and shrubbery, it really wasn’t a job for me so much as a love. I have often thought that if I were not making chocolate and there was no need to support my family, I would be perfectly happy to landscape in Hawai’i for the rest of my life in the company of some of my closest friends. Truly, there is nothing like laboring hard under an unrelenting sun as the tradewinds send a refreshing breeze through your hair. Tromping through the Chuao brush, machete in hand, once again swinging it with an almost forgotten skill, brought back memories of Oahu. The use of a machete is an acquired skill. The precision one can achieve while swinging a long, sharp blade is remarkable. (Even so, accidents with machetes still happen, as a long scar on the back of my hand will attest to a moment’s inattention.) After all the intervening years, having a machete in my hand as I swung it and the sound of it cutting through the brush were like the return of a long-lost friend.

Swimming hole just up the valley from Chuao. I had fun after a hard day’s work swimming with the school kids.

At the end of the day I made my way back toward town. On my walk along the river from the upper plantation, I noticed a large group of school kids swimming in a swimming hole–a perfect swimming hole. The river is swift and shallow, but at one point, it becomes slow, lazy and deep. Above the swimming hole rests a rock ledge, and above that a cliff. As I watched the kids climb the cliff and leap into the swimming hole, they waved and urged me to join them. I put my backpack against the tree, took off my shoes, and jumped in. The water was cool and refreshing. I swam across, climbed up onto the ledge, and joined in. Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, we forget what is most important. At that very point in time, swimming in the local swimming hole with the school kids was the most important. It reminded me of the innocence of my own youth and the idealism that I have tried to hold on to as I grew older.

I spent the rest of the week working with the farmers, getting to know them and their families and hearing their stories. When I wasn’t working, I was also able to really spend some time exploring Chuao and getting to know one of the most amazing villages I have ever had the opportunity to visit. During the week, I had many wonderful experiences and adventures — far too many to relate here.

Here I am with a pet peccari. It was very friendly but I was warned, its mood can change in an instant.

The highlight of my week in Chuao was on my second to last day. Early in the morning, just after the cocoa had been laid out to dry on the plaza, I gathered the workers in the fermentation building on the side of the plaza. I had something special for them. This was the moment I had been anxiously waiting for for the last several months. The sense of anticipation was palpable.

Throughout my trip, I had carefully watched over the Chuao chocolate I had brought with me. Given the heat and lack of temperature control throughout much of my trip, it is difficult to ensure that the chocolate remained in good shape, I had nevertheless, with care, achieved my goal. As I gathered the group together, I checked the chocolate for imperfections and was elated to note that it looked (and smelled) beautiful.

The women of Chuao who put out the cocoa in the morning gossiped and giggled as they gathered. They seated themselves on bags of cocoa and waited. When the moment was right, I told them how honored I have been to work with their cocoa. That their cocoa is flavorful, unlike any other cocoa in the world. I told them that because of the remoteness of Chuao from the modern world, their little village preserves something truly special–their cocoa.

They should care for and treat their cocoa like their children. Through their cocoa they are able to speak to people worldwide, and few things speak to the hearts and souls of men and women like chocolate. I also told them how much I valued being able to work with them over the week and watch the care they took to make sure their cocoa was as good as it could possibly be.

The Amano Chocolate Presentation Party in Chuao. I’m the guy in blue….

Some of the many cocoa farmers in Chuao photographed in front of the church. Each holds an Amano Artisan Chocolate Chuao bar made with their beans.

At long last, the moment of truth arrived. I pulled the chocolate bars out of my backpack, amid immediate squeals of delight. Everyone was excited. My heart leaped as I handed each of them a bar. Then came the looks of surprise and amazement as they discovered, prominent on the bar wrapper, the painting of cocoa drying in front of their church. I broke open another bar and handed each of them a piece of chocolate. There were many mms and ahs as they tasted the chocolate made from their cocoa. We talked back and forth about their cocoa, how good it is and how much they enjoyed the finished product. Had I had to go through the entire arduous journey to get to Chuao, just to be able to spend only this brief moment with Chuao’s farmers, and sense of pride in their eyes and their smiles, the whole trip would have been worthwhile.

 

The Chuao harbor at sunset.

I spent the rest of the day with the farmers. Toward evening, I walked down to the harbor and watched the sun’s rays set over the mountains as the ocean waves slowly lapped the shore and the fishermen came in with the day’s catch.

My final morning, a wave of sadness hit me. As in many of my travels, here was a town and a people whom I had grown to love. It is hard to have to leave friends and the people you get to know along the way in order to return to the “real world” of responsibilities and things that need to be done. The lives of these people are of course just as real as ours. It was simply an honor to be able to become a part of their lives, if only for a short while.

Looking back at the cocoa drying in front of the church in Chuao as I turn to go home.

As I hitched a ride in the back of the truck towards the harbor and watched the cocoa fields roll past, I realized that Chuao too had become part of my own life, just as real to me as to the people who live there. Each time I taste the chocolate I have made from their precious cocoa, I partake of their hard work, their loves and cares, and the history of the wonderful village of Chuao. Through the magical world of chocolate I will someday return to Chuao to visit the people I was able to get to know so well. And I will again return to my world with a load of cocoa from the people I love, cocoa that lets the rest of the world share the wonderfulness of the remote village of Chuao.

Chocolate From The Region

Sourcing Vanilla: A Trip Report Part 2

Sourcing Vanilla: A Trip Report Part 2

Before I left, I gave Jeanne Chan a sample of our chocolate we had made using her beans. Thrilled, she quickly scurried off to put it in a cool place for safekeeping. When she returned, she showed me other products that people had given to her that were made with her vanilla.

There were the usual, such as soaps, creams, and flavorings, as well as the unusual, such as Canadian maple syrup with a whole vanilla bean in it. She is clearly very excited to see what people make with the vanilla she cures at her little store.

It was getting towards the end of the day, so we negotiated the price for high-quality vanilla beans she had cured. All her transactions are handled in cash, so I had to go to the local bank. We set up a time for me to come back and visit her again.

On my return, Jeanne appeared very excited. She beckoned for me to sit down and asked me to wait “five minutes.” She quickly disappeared into the back of her store with her cell phone. Retuning, she said again, “five minutes.” About five minutes later, a man came through the door. At first, I thought she had arranged for him to translate, since this time, I had come alone. Instead, I learned that he was a writer for the local paper. and he wanted to write an article about our chocolate.

The Vanilla Queen Jeanne Chan curing vanilla behind her shop

A Tahitian girl sorting vanilla beans behind Jeanne Chan’s vanilla shop

 

The next half hour or so, we talked and shared our stories in Jeanne’s little shop. We took turns taking pictures, and I was told that the article would appear in the paper before I returned to the United States. On this visit, I had made sure to stop at the bank on the way, so I made sure that before I left, I picked up the agreed on vanilla at the price we had previously negotiated.

 

When I left her shop, I could not help but think how my little bundle was like a small bundle of black gold. My little package, though not very large, was very expensive. I thought about how I would be using it for our chocolate, and perhaps I might take a few beans home to make a Tahitian vanilla bean crème brulé.

Art Pollard and Jeanne Chan, the Queen of Vanilla in Tahiti

 

A vanilla-buying trip to Tahiti would fall short if a trip were not made to Le Vanillare, one of the newest vanilla plantations in Tahiti. Even so, it is receiving lots of attention for its fine-quality vanilla. In 2007, the plantation won the Medaille d’Or at the Agriculture Show in Paris for its vanilla. It has also been featured in numerous articles and television shows (such as The Food Hunter). I had been hearing about the plantation for quite some time, so getting to go there was a real treat.

Le Vanillare is unique in Tahiti. It not only grows its own vanilla but the product is cured there as well, something only a very small number of vanilla producers do. (Most grow their vanilla, then turn it over to a master curer, such as Jeanne Chan, for the curing of the vanilla.) In addition, Le Vanillare has wonderful new greenhouses with modern irrigation and a host of vanilla-related products. Its two proprietors, Yannick Wong and Alain Abel, now have the most modern vanilla plantation in Tahiti, and it is on the “must see” list for visitors to Raiatea, where tours are offered to the public as time allows.

Le Vanillare is found at the top of a small, almost hidden valley. It is marked only by a small roadside sign, and if you are not paying attention, you can easily miss it. The view from the Le Vanillare is incredible — the green volcanic mountains hem you in with a silence you almost can hear. When I arrived, Yannick came out to greet me. We had exchanged e-mails off and on for several years, and so it was nice to finally put a face to an email address. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he took me to their greenhouse so that I could see all they have done. Almost all vanilla grown around Raiatea and on Tahaa is grown outdoors using native plants such as tapioca or local trees to provide the structure for the vines to climb. Le Vanillare was one of the first vanilla plantations (if not the first) to use green houses to grow their vanilla. The greenhouses provide a whole host of benefits, such as being able to control the amount of light that reaches the vanilla vines. They love 50 percent shade, and a 50 percent mesh allows them to be grown under optimal light conditions. In addition, water misters strung overhead control the humidity in the greenhouse and water the vines as well.

Lone sign on the coastal road in front of Le Vanillare

 

Hand pollinating the vanilla orchid

 

The vines climb lattices that are created by stringing ropes that run in neat rows between posts throughout the greenhouse. By having nice trellises for the vines to climb on, the growers are able to grow more vanilla per square foot than do those who plant their vanilla outside on native plants. In addition, the greenhouse provides for uniform light and watering.

Up a small path is the building used to both cure and package the beans At the base is a small cement patio on which the beans are cured.

Vanilla is cured by placing the beans in the sunlight for a few hours each day. This causes the beans to “sweat,” and they become shiny from the oils that seep out through the skin. When they have sweated enough, the beans are wrapped up in cloth, are brought in, and placed in a sweat box. They continue to sweat in this state throughout the night, and the water that collects in the bottom is allowed to drain. The next day the process begins again. It can take up to six months of this process for vanilla to cure properly.

 

We went inside the curing and packaging building, where I met Yannick’s other partner, Alain, as well as other employees. As one can imagine, the smell of vanilla was immense. It was truly a treat to be able to see the operation in full production.

Yannick, Art, and Alain in one of Le Vanillere’s greenhouses

After Yannick finished showing me the greenhouses and the curing and packaging operation, I purchased a fairly large amount of vanilla beans to take back with me so that I could run my own flavor tests to see if it meets our strict flavor standards. I also purchased some of the vanilla extract, though I would not see that for over a month, since the extract is made in France (using the beans of Le Vanillare, of course).

My trip to Le Vanillare was an incredible, and I learned a lot about the operation. To be sure, I will be testing the beans (as well as the beans from a number of other vanilla growers) for possible use in our chocolate.

I spent the remainder of my trip visiting a number of farmers and their plantations, developing new friendships throughout both the islands of Raiatea and Tahaa.

One of the highlights of my trip occurred on my last day. One of the vanilla farmers took me to the head of the Apoomau River, where there is a sacred spring. People come from all over Polynesia to drink at this spring.

We drove up the mountain and pulled off on to a small dirt road. We hiked down the trail that disappeared mysteriously. A smaller trail darted off, and we followed it through the jungle, scurrying down fallen trees through the overbrush and over small brooks. I was glad to have a guide, since there was no way I could have traced this route on my own.

Eventually we arrived at the spring. You would not even know the spring was there unless someone showed you. The water flows from a small recess in the side of the hill as a small trickle and into the river. Additional springs flow from the river bottom and create small bursts of bubbles on the surface. We cleared out the fallen debris, and once the water had settled, we drank deeply. The water is slightly effervescent and very refreshing. I made my wish and thought of the generations of Tahitians who came to this same sacred spring with hope in their hearts that their prayers and desires would be fulfilled. Perhaps, my wish will be fulfilled as well.

As we hiked back to the truck, I reflected on my time in Tahiti.

 

Drinking at the sacred spring at the head of the Apoomau River

 

We drove back and said our goodbyes. I hopped in my car and in my remaining time drove around the island and visited the two sacred maraes, pondering the places that over so short a period meant so much. Later that afternoon I boarded the plane and we took off. The plane hugged the coast for just a minute, flying over Uturoa and many of the places I had come to know. I looked for the small bay upon whose shores I had stayed, and while I’m not sure, I thought I caught a glimpse of my host’s house before our plane turned out to sea. While I looked forward to returning home, the flight was bittersweet—I had left newfound friendships, though I knew they would last a lifetime.

Chocolate From The Region

  • Flavored Chocolate

    Citrus Melange A Trois

    $9.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Sambriano Valley Madagascar

    $8.95
  • Flavored Chocolate

    Japanese Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs

    $9.95

Sourcing Vanilla: A Trip Report Part 1

Sourcing Vanilla: A Trip Report Part 1

Food has the ability to tie people together no matter their race, culture, politics, religion, or other propensities. Food is the life-giving sustenance that ties us together.

What we eat speaks not only to who we are as people but even to how we value life itself. It takes just a few minutes more to make a good meal rather than a bad one. But those minutes are telling. Do we eat instant macaroni and cheese out of expediency? To simply carry us to the next meal? Or do we slow down and create a meal that we relish through sight, smell, and taste? Are we willing to spend an entire day creating a culinary masterpiece that will be remembered? The universality of food to speak to us ties people together across boundaries of all kinds.

As much as we can, we try to source all our ingredients directly from the farmer and producer. We value the relationships we develop as we acquire our ingredients. Good working relationships and lifelong friendships develop. Through our pursuit to create the perfect chocolate, we meet those in other areas who also are striving to be the very best.

One of the more minor ingredients used in the making of chocolate is vanilla, used in very small amounts to round out and enhance the naturally occurring flavors in chocolate much in the same way salt is used to enhance the flavors found in a perfectly cooked filet mignon. Its use in chocolate traces way back to at least the time of the ancient Maya.

Most manufacturers of chocolate use vanillin (not to be confused with vanilla ), an artificial flavoring known to some as 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde. It used to be created from wood pulp but today is made from Guaiacum trees or wood creosote. It is the chemical basis for the vanilla flavor found in vanilla beans. It does not have nearly the flavor complexity of natural vanilla but it is inexpensive, and that is why virtually every major manufacturer of chocolate uses vanillin instead of natural vanilla. When artificial vanilla is used, its selection has historically been based on price — after all, vanilla is one of the world’s most expensive spices — second only to saffron.

Olmec Head in Villahermosa, Mexico.

In the world of vanilla, one place is spoken of in hushed reverence: Tahiti. Tahiti is the source of some of the world’s finest vanilla and some of the world’s most expensive. It is also the source of the vanilla we use for much of our chocolate. In keeping with our goal to work directly with the growers, I packed up my things and booked a flight on Air Tahiti Nui. I spent time with each of my children, gave my wife a hug goodbye, and caught an afternoon commuter shuttle from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. My flight was to leave from Los Angeles at 11:30 p.m.

The flight from Salt Lake City to LA was uneventful, and I was able to catch up on some reading. I was right in the middle of a thousand-page book and my reading list was getting longer and longer as I moved through it. When the flight was over and we were just beginning to depart from the plane, a girl in the row behind me asked about my trip to Tahiti. I was shocked. How did she know? I didn’t remember saying anything to the people in my row — we had each read through the trip. As it turns out, she heard me when I checked in and was the wife of the son of the founder of the Miranda corporation. She was traveling with her husband and his family (sisters, etc.) to Bora Bora, where his family was from, for a family reunion. As luck would have it, we were all booked for the same Air Tahiti flight.

As a side note, Miranda is a multi-level sales company that popularized the sale of Tahitian Noni as a health-food drink. Today, noni is grown throughout the tropics, but it started in Tahiti, and as far as much of the world is concerned, it started with Miranda, who holds exclusive export rights to Noni from Tahiti. As we made our way to the other terminal. l was able to get the “inside scoop” on the Tahitian Noni story, something I had wondered about for some time.

The flight from Los Angeles was excellent. The chocolate business requires a lot of travel all over the world, and I have flown many airlines. Air Tahiti Nui is perhaps the most polished airline I have flown. The flight attendants were very polite and the attention to detail was outstanding — even for those of us in coach. We arrived in Papeete at around 4:00 a.m. Papeete is the main airport in Tahiti, and from there you can catch flights to the surrounding islands.

My flight from Papeete to the island of Raiatea left at around 6:30 a.m. — just before sunrise. Raiatea is the island where most of Tahiti’s vanilla is produced. There are many growers on the island of Tahaa. But in the end, most of the vanilla from Tahaa comes to Raiatea for curing and export. As we taxied down the runway, the sky started to lighten, and a mountain range could be seen in the distance. Upon takeoff, however, I found that the mountains were part of another island in the distance. As we reached cruising altitude, the morning sun lit up the clouds as if they were on fire.

As we flew past Bora Bora, I could not help but think that not too many decades ago, these same skies were full of Japanese Zeros as they fought the Americans for these specks of dust in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. As we approached Raiatea, you could see the waves breaking upon the reaches of the outer reef and the almost fluorescent bright-blue inner reef. The plane dropped and dropped as I watched the island, and soon we were just over the water, even though the island was still a mile or two distant. Then without warning, we were on the runway, the wind buffeting the wings as we slowed. I quickly realized that the island that I and others on the plane were watching was Tahaa, the sister island to Raiatea.

Flying in the morning light over the outer reef that surrounds Tahaa

 

My host soon greeted me at the airport. She hung around my neck a beautiful flower lei she herself had strung from flowers from her yard. The intoxicating smell reminded me of plumaria found so frequently in Hawai’i. We drove to her house along the winding coastal road. The road was lined with multicolored croatin and bulganvilia, and flowers everywhere created an incredible rainbow of colors. We arrived at her house, which is right on the shoreline of a small bay no more than 20 feet from the water. We unloaded my gear and set off for a quick tour of the island.

Raiatea is very small. You can drive around it in as little as two hours and twenty minutes. There are two roads: one circles one-half of the island and the other the other half, in a figure eight fashion.

One of the most important stops was at the Marae Taputapuatea, one of the most sacred sites in all of Polynesia. Polynesians from all over the South Pacific and neighboring countries (such as Argentina) visit and leave stone carvings, flowers, and other offerings. They say you can come to Raiatea but you have never actually arrived until you visit the Marae on the east side of the island. It should be noted that historically, it was once used for human sacrifice. When professors from the University of Hawai’i did an archeological study of the area, they found human bone fragments, which testified to the area’s grisly history. I could not help but be grateful that today, I could simply visit such a site without becoming part of it.

One of the largest names in the Tahitian vanilla industry is that of Jean Chan. Jean’s grandfather, who left China to look for work in Australia. From there, he moved to Tahiti and started a small grocery store in Uturoa, the main town of Raiatea. He called for her father and mother to move from China to work in his store. From the age of three years, Jean worked in the store with her parents. She helped her mother pick the stems off of the beans and then sorted and graded them. Her grandfather and father taught her the ins and outs of the vanilla business so that when the day came for her to take over, she would have valuable skills that would carry her throughout her life.

Today, the store her grandfather had once started no longer carries the wide variety of groceries and other household items but now sells vanilla exclusively, and Jean Chan has built within the vanilla industry a name like no other. She has become a powerhouse in the vanilla industry and is well known as one of the best vanilla curers throughout the islands. A large percentage of the vanilla throughout the Tahitian islands comes to her small, unobtrusive store in Uturoa for curing.

Jean Chan’s store is one of the oldest in all of Uturoa and perhaps the most unobtrusive. I watched many tourists walk by her little store totally unaware that this store is legend throughout the vanilla industry. Her store has escaped unscathed from the recent renovations up and down the waterfront that have torn down the old buildings and replaced them with new ones. The store has no windows, and when it is open, so is her door, allowing the smell of vanilla to waft through the air. The intoxicating smell invites traders of vanilla and tourists alike to step into her hallowed chamber.

This small and unobtrusive store is one of the powerhouses in the world of quality vanilla.

When I met Jean Chan, I was impressed by her soft and gentle demeanor. Now quite elderly, she speaks with a very soft and kind voice. Her English is quite good, though she hides it and prefers that visitors use a translator, if one is available. We sat around the table in her store as she talked about her family and childhood, and what it was like to grow up around vanilla.

Chocolate From The Region

  • Flavored Chocolate

    Citrus Melange A Trois

    $9.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Sambriano Valley Madagascar

    $8.95
  • Flavored Chocolate

    Japanese Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs

    $9.95

Hunting The World’s Finest Cocoa in Villahermosa Mexico

Hunting The World’s Finest Cocoa in Villahermosa Mexico

I arrived on a beautiful Mexican night. Upon exiting the airport, I was greeted by the sounds of the tropical crickets and other insects chirping away in rhythmic unison.

As we traveled to my hotel, my guide filled me in on the goings on among the cocoa growers in the area as well as a brief history. Villahermosa is located in the state of Tabasco. That’s right, it is a state — not just a sauce — and in my opinion, between the two the state has much more character and flavor than the sauce. Tabasco is in the heart of ancient lowland Mayan civilization. Only 45 minutes from Villahermosa is Palenque named after a nearby village and one of the greatest Mayan ruins. Yes, this is cocoa country — where it all started.

Villahermosa and the surrounding region have a long history of cacao. The Olmecs are considered the first culture to make use of cacao. And it is in Villahermosa where the famous Olmec stone heads now reside. Now stored in the Parque La Venta Olmec Museum in Villahermosa they were actually found about 100km away at the La Venta archeological site but were moved to Villahermosa to help preserve them. Any trip to Villahermosa is short-changed if a trip is not made to this beautiful park. Also worth seeing while in Villahermosa is the famous cathedral Templo de la Concepcion.

It was built originally in the early 1800s and then torn down and rebuilt several times. Most recently it was torn town in 1925 during the religious persecutions by the Communist governor and then rebuilt in 1945. The architecture is truly stunning, and the church, while reincarnated several times, has an incredible history.

Tourism aside, my first order of business was to visit the grower of our Porcelana cacao beans. These are one of the most elusive of criollo cacao varieties and are very distinctive. They are named Porcelana because of the brilliantly white beans that they produce. The chocolate they create is a fine flavored chocolate though the color is not as dark as that made by other beans.

Olmec Head in Villahermosa, Mexico.

We visited the plantation, which, that like many of the plantations, begins right next to the house. The main crop was just ending, but there were a few cocoa pods still on the trees and the trees were already sending forth a new set of flowers waiting for the midges and other jungle insects to fertilize them. The absolutely incredible number of flowers that line the trunks of the cacao trees is deceiving, since less than one percent of the flowers will actually be pollinated and grow to become cocoa pods.

After visiting the plantation, we went back to the plantation house and discussed the fermentation of the beans and opportunities for further growth and how we might be able to build a closer relationship. Watermelon juice and pozol were served to help break the heat. Pozol (also called chorote) is an ancient Mayan drink made from roasted cocoa beans, ground corn, and sugar. One of the most traditional drinks in all of Tabasco, it is thick and chunky from the corn meal, and most visitors from outside Central America find it not very tasteful. It does, however, cut the jungle heat and is very refreshing; and the corn serves to curb your hunger. It is for this reason that it is the most common drink among the cocoa plantation workers.

We parted after signing the plantation’s guest book. In this book, the world’s top chocolatiers have left their signatures since the 1940s. We saw, tucked in the pages, old black and white pictures of the President of Mexico visiting the plantation and visiting the plantation owner’s father, who has cared for this most rare of cacao varieties. Now, the plantation has passed on to the daughter, who is continuing his legacy and preparing her children for the day when they will carry on the family tradition of caring for this rarest of all criollos.

I traveled back to my hotel in Villahermosa lost in thought about the legacy that has been passed down from father to daughter. Of the nobility of caring for so many years this virtually unheard of strain of cacao and the great honor we have as chocolatiers to turn the fruit of this tree and to turn it into a chocolate fit for royalty.

We left very early the next morning. Today we would be visiting Comalcalco in the heart of Tobasco’s cocoa industry, to see growers and fermentation facilities, both old and new.

On our first stop, we visited Asociación Agrícola de Productores de Cacao, where the cocoa beans are brought by the farmers to ferment and for payment. The building, though very old, serves its purpose well. The co-op is building a new facility that will be able to handle much larger quantities. The Mexican government is subsidizing most of the cost of the new facility. There is a large effort to develop the cacao industry in southern Mexico to help alleviate the poverty that has plagued the area through the ages. The new facility will have a hot air dryer to dry the cocoa beans but also will have large concrete pads behind it for cacao purchasers who prefer to have their cacao beans sun dried.

Our next visit was to a small chocolate company and cacao plantation. They are set up for tourists, so they have a nice “greenhouse” for the baby cacao trees, and we received the grand tour both of the plantation but also of the chocolate company. Here were presses for pressing the cocoa butter out of the chocolate liquor, making large cakes of cacao solids. The cocoa butter is then used to make the chocolate, and the cacao solids are then ground to make cocoa powder.

For lunch, we went right down the road to a fish farm, where we feasted on tilapia. Originally from Africa, it is fast becoming one of the primary fish grown in aquaculture throughout the world. It has long been a favorite in Central America, and if the tilapia that we feasted on is any indication, there is good reason why.

We later visited another fermentation facility, the Asociacion Local Agricola De Productores de Cacao De “Huimanguillo,” where we met with the association president. He is working very hard to rejuvenate cacao growing in Mexico. As he said, cacao growing has a strong history in this part of Mexico, tracing its way back several thousands of years. It would be a shame to lose that tradition.

Old step style cocoa fermentation boxes that are no longer in use.

They have a very old fermentation house is full of nostalgia of days gone by. On one side are old fermentation boxes, unused for many years, staggered one above the other like a set of stadium bleachers. The unfermented beans would be placed in the box at the top to begin fermenting. When the beans were ready to move to the next box (usually once a day), the side would be lifted up and the beans would empty into the next box down. By the time they reached the bottom, they had finished fermenting and were ready for shipping.

We visited the new facility and it is an impressive piece of work. I look forward to receiving samples of beans so that we may run tests on them to see if they meet our exacting standards. As we left, I wondered how this influx of technology would affect the growing of cacao. It may make for better quality or it may simply be used to create more quantity. Only time will tell this. One thing is certain, though. As areas like this industrialize, they will need to modernize in order to maintain cacao as a competitive crop. If they do not, we will slowly lose our cacao farms and they will be replaced with crops that are not as labor intensive. Already throughout Central America, cacao trees are being cut down and replaced with crops such as passion fruit. If this happens too widely, the great tradition of growing cacao will slowly disappear in the place where it all began.

 

We spent the rest of the trip visiting plantations and cacao farmers. The cacao farmers (like most farmers) are down-to-earth people who are often just trying to get by. Unfortunately, cacao farming does not allow for much profit, and is incredibly time-consuming and requires difficult manual labor. Many farmers have their own fermentation boxes, and they ferment and dry the beans right on the farm. While my trip was only in May, it was at least 110 degrees F (43 C) in the fermentation houses, because the process creates an incredible amount of heat. Were you were to stick your hand into the fermenting beans, you would not be able to leave it there very long. In addition to the heat generated by the fermentation boxes, many farmers have gas powered cocoa bean dryers (called samoas) that serve to heat things up even more. The heat must be incredible when the fall harvest is ready in the first part of September before the weather start to cool down. This all drives home the point that the cocoa farmers need to be paid wages that make it worthwhile for them to plant, trim, harvest, and process the cacao as a commercial crop rather than crops which are easier to grow and harvest, and which also sell for a higher price.

Toward to end of my trip to Tabasco, I was able to spend some time visiting the president of Mexico’s National Cocoa Union. In its headquarters, it stores cocoa beans until they are ready to be shipped to their respective destinations. While I was there, a very large shipment that was being prepared for shipment to Nestle. When I say large, I mean huge. The pallets of cocoa beans in the warehouse went on and on and were stacked about two stories high. Clearly, Nestle uses lots of cacao beans, and it is at times like this when that really sinks in.

Just a hint as to how far cacao has sunk into the culture of this state of Mexico is exemplified by my last dinner before left. We decided to go out for Japanese food, and one of the restaurant’s signature dishes was the chocolate sushi. Of course, it screamed that it had to be tried — and I succumbed. I have to state for the record that it was very good. It is just a small example of how chocolate permeates each and every aspect of the lives of the people in Tabasco.

Cocoa that is being prepared for shipment to Nestle.

Yes, in Mexico, you can buy chocolate sushi.

 

All in all, my trip to Tabasco Mexico was very productive. We made some new business arrangements and many new friends in the process. I’m deeply indebted to those who hosted me during my stay; they deserve great thanks for their time and efforts. Needless to say, I can’t go into great detail as to the potential of this trip to affect our future plans, but I can say that we’ll be buying beans from various suppliers within Mexico and look forward to visiting friends old and new in the great state of Tabasco.

Chocolate From The Region

  • Dark Chocolate

    Cuyagua Venezuela

    $14.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Ocumare Village Venezuela

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Macoris Dominican Republic

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Sambriano Valley Madagascar

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Ecuador Guayas River Basin

    $8.95
  • Dark Chocolate

    Dos Rios Dominican Republic

    $8.95

Delivering Chocolate to the Farmers in the Guayas River Valley, Ecuador

Delivering Chocolate to the Farmers in the Guayas River Valley, Ecuador

One of the greatest privilege I have is to be able to take finished chocolate back to the farmers who helped grow the cocoa that we use.

In most cocoa growing countries, it is rare for the farmers to eat chocolate made with their own beans. The hot temperatures in the tropics where cocoa is grown, combined with the remoteness of many of the cocoa-growing communities, makes it very difficult for chocolate—let alone chocolate made with a farmer’s cocoa—to reach them.

For a long time, I had wanted to make a premium chocolate from cocoa from Ecuador. This can be a difficult endeavor. Historically, Ecuador has produced some of the finest quality cocoa in the world. Unfortunately, over the last 100 years or so, the quality of Ecuador’s cocoa has suffered drastically. The move from artisanal chocolate to industrial chocolate ruled by a few large companies 100 years ago has caused the post-harvest practices in Ecuador to suffer. Farmers got used to sloppy practices that reduced the labor required to produce fine-quality cocoa beans no longer demanded by the mass-market chocolate companies.

Large chocolate companies have planted modern hybrids, most notably a variety called CCN-51, which is incapable of producing fine-quality chocolate. CCN-51 has great productivity but suffers from poor flavor. Additionally, it depletes the soil drastically, leaving farmers with unproductive soil after a few bountiful years.

Ecuador is home to a variety of cocoa called Nacional. Nacional has a deep, rich chocolate flavor but also beautiful fruity (often blackberry) overtones that are unique to cocoa from Ecuador. As a company, we have a policy of not working with CCN-51, which we consider to be a scourge of the chocolate world. So for us to create a chocolate from cocoa from Ecuador, it was important to find a place where we could be sure we would be getting Nacional and not CCN-51.

Working with a team in Ecuador, we were able to find just this. Using a set of farms that were old—very old—about an hour up river from Guayaquil. This area is home to Arriba Nacional. The story is that early cocoa traders would come to the port city of Guayaquil and ask where the best quality cocoa was. They were pointed up river with the phrase “Arriba! Arriba!” (meaning “Up! Up”). Ever since, people have referred to this particularly fine quality cocoa as “Arriba Nactional” or simply “Arriba.”

To ensure that there was no CCN-51 in the cocoa, a program was set up where the beans were not purchased from the farmers but the cocoa pods themselves. Once the beans are taken out of the pod, it is virtually impossible to visually tell the difference between CCN-51 and Nacional. The pods themselves, however, are visually much different and can be readily identified as one variety or another. This took a bit of coordination, since the farmers were used to selling the cocoa “wet” (or fresh out of the pod) and not the pods themselves. The farmers had to feel comfortable with the fact that they’d be selling pods but would be making the same amount of money as the “wet” beans they had been selling.

The flavor of the beans was phenomenal. The finished chocolate was exceptional. All in all, I was very excited about this chocolate. I decided to call it Guayas, after the Guayas River basin where this exceptional cocoa is found. As luck would have it, as the release date neared, I was contacted by friends in Ecuador wanting me to come and visit. Perfect timing!

I gathered a box of our new Guayas chocolate bars and jumped on the next flight to Ecuador. It was late at night when I arrived, and after being met by friends, I made my way to my hotel.

When it was time to head to the farms, we jumped in the car and headed out of town. As we crossed the enormous bridge spanning Guayas River, I could not help but think of the history of cocoa trading ships that had snaked their way up and down the river, visiting the various ports and traveling through the Panama Canal, then across the sea to the world’s greatest chocolate makers in Europe. This area was steeped in cocoa history, and I felt a bit like Marlo in The Heart of Darkness traveling up the river in the Congo toward ever more wild and wondrous adventures.

As we traveled from town to town, the towns became villages, the villages became communities, and the communities became random clusters of houses. We finally reached a lone dirt road that turned off on to the right toward a field that had been recently burned out. The dirt road rose 15-20 feet above the fields on either side. Clearly we were in the Guayas River floodplain, and the raised road snaked its way like a giant python through blackened field after field. Bouncing through the potholes, I watched the blackened remains of what was once crops as we left a smoky trail of billowing dust behind us.

While there was nothing left other than a few black leaves rustling in the wind, it occurred to me that this had been a sugar cane field. The long sword like leaves on sugar cane can be razor sharp, making harvesting a potentially dangerous proposition.

To make harvesting easier, sugar cane fields are routinely burned, which removes the leaves and leaves the juicy stalks behind. There are many a tale of moon-crossed lovers taking a romantic refuge in sugar cane fields for an evening romp, only to be trapped by the flames of the burning fields, their bodies to be discovered only the next day, still clutching each other, a blackened testament to their love.

We eventually came to a small group of houses sitting back from the dirt road. Like many of the houses in this region, these were up on stilts. They sat even with the road, and a network of boards stretched from house to house, and from the random house-to-dirt road upon which we rode. This small group of houses is the small village—if you can call it even that—where our cocoa comes from.

Since it wasn’t quite time for the get-together we had planned with the farmers, we stopped by one of their houses and met with the eldest farmer. Like so many of the wonderful farmers I have met on my travels, he was one of the most kind people I have known. There is something about a farmer’s heart that creates a connection with life that is almost impossible to achieve in any other way. While I do not speak Spanish, his kindness was readily apparent. He had inherited his farm from his father, and his father from his father. With pride in his eyes, he introduced me to his son, who would be taking over the farm and continuing the tradition of cocoa farming out on the Guayas River floodplain.

I asked him what he knew of the disease which some had reported had killed the Nacional that grew in Ecuador. There have been many claims by one group or another that there was no Nacional left, saying it had all died out from disease in the 1920s and had been replaced with various hybrids. I was curious what the response would be from a simple farmer who was old enough to remember, rather than from the academics who argue from their remote polished desks thousands of miles away. As can only be expected from a farmer, the answer was brilliantly simple: “Yes, we lost lots of cocoa but we didn’t lose all the trees. What do you think we replanted with?”

We toured the farm and I asked many questions, of both the father and the son, about their farm and their family history. The trees on this farm were enormous. They were very old, and while their age escapes me at the moment, these were the same trees that had passed from generation to generation, providing cocoa to the father and the father’s father. Unlike many cocoa plantations, these trees had been planted from seed rather than from grafting. When planted from seed (unlike grafting), the trees will grow very tall, which can make harvesting more difficult. (Grafted trees will grow only 10-15 feet tall vs 30-40 feet for trees planted from seed.)

We went back to the farmer’s house and spent time with his family. Their house was surrounded by coconut trees, and it wasn’t long before they found out how I love to drink the coconut water from fresh coconuts. When I used to do landscaping in Hawai’i, this was my drink of choice on a hot tropical day. They quickly scaled a tree and knocked down a few young coconuts. I took a machete and started to open one up, quickly learning how rusty my machete skills had become. After the coconuts were opened, I took a big draft from the nearest. It was very refreshing, especially as some of the water drained down my chin and onto my shirt.

It was time for the party we had planned, so we jumped back in the car and drove just a short way down the road to the end of the row of houses. There everything was ready for our party for the farmers. We had tents all set up with chairs and tables, all in the shade. The whole community was there. The communities children ran in and out among the tables and chairs while the adults kicked back under the shade of the tents, relaxing.

It was a hot and sweltering day, and the shade of the tents beckoned. As I put my things on the nearest table in the shade, there was a whiff of smoke in the air. This wasn’t the smoke of a fire in the fields that we had just passed. This was different. It was the smoke caused by something delicious over a fire. I turned and saw that the hamburger stand which had been ordered was already cooking up burgers and hotdogs for everyone. Yes, there were free hotdogs, hamburgers, and drinks for everybody.

Before things began to take on a life of their own, we gathered everybody together to sit down underneath the tent. My friends spoke to the farmers about what a wonderful thing their cocoa had become and that their cocoa was the key ingredient that made the finished chocolate so special. They continued on and talked to the group about their cocoa and their community. Since the cocoa was purchased in pods and was not “wet,” there were issues a business nature that needed to be discussed as well.

Finally, it was my turn to speak. I talked to them about how their cocoa was and is their heritage. How their cocoa has bound their community together for generations and how that cocoa has traveled the world and been with people during their most joyful times and the times they needed comfort. I talked about the need to protect their farm from contamination from CCN-51 and how planting CCN-51 was abandoning their heritage. I continued about how their cocoa was truly special and how hard it was to find truly great cocoa—and that was what their cocoa was,truly great. Despite being in a community that was far from the nearest city and in a remote part of the world, they had something truly wonderful that was not found elsewhere, and it should be treasured. I talked about how we had named the chocolate “Guayas” as a way to honor their forefathers, the country, and area where the cocoa comes from. I said more than that, but I don’t remember it all.

At the end, though, there was one thing I had to do, which, I believe, spoke volumes; and from the reaction of the people, I believe it meant far more than anything I had to say. I told them that I had brought for them chocolate made with their very own cocoa. I passed out chocolate, giving each person, including the children, a chocolate bar. Everybody was happy. Earlier, I had cut several bars into pieces, so while I handed out bars for everyone to try, everybody got to try a piece of the chocolate they helped create. There were so many people, it was difficult to make sure that everyone got a bar and a piece of chocolate.

One elderly lady, most certainly the town matriarch (whether they wanted her to or not), ruled their community through her the strength of her personality, and she knew it. She seemed particularly taken by the chocolate and was very excited when she ate it. After I finished making the rounds, everybody was told that they could go and get as many hamburgers, hotdogs, and drinks as they wanted. But before I could make my way over to the rapidly growing line (hey, I was hungry too!), this little old woman came to me and demanded “Mas!” which in Spanish means “More”! She then thrust out her gnarled, cupped hand expecting me to give her more, just as she demanded. This was not a request but a clear and simple demand. I knew I was beaten. There was no arguing. I gave her another piece of chocolate.

The smell of the hamburgers was intoxicating. I ended up being in line surrounded with young schoolgirls, who were so happy to be included in the party. The hamburgers were most tasty, nothing like them in the United States. Yes, there was the all-beef-patty and a bun, and they looked normal, but they had chopped onion for their only topping, along with some sort of sauce that I’d never had before. The flavor was indescribable, and I quickly found myself returning again and again, along with everybody else, until all the hamburgers were gone.

It was not long before I was again confronted by the community matriarch, and just like last time, she stomped in my direction, thrust her gnarled, cupped hand in my face, and demanded “Mas!” (“More!”). I gave her more chocolate, and again, she walked away satisfied.

I had a sneaking suspicion that this was not the last time I would be confronted by this woman, and I was not to be disappointed. She came back at least three more times before the party officially ended.

Once the hamburgers and hotdogs were gone, it signaled to many people that the end of the party was near. Some people drifted off. Some of the farmers stayed to talk business.

All in all, the party that launched our Guayas chocolate was a roaring success. It was not without its problems, however. There was supposed to be a band to play during the party. They apparently became lost on the way and never showed.

Despite the small hiccup of the band now showing, the party brought much happiness to the community. The smiles of the farmers and on the faces of the children made the entire trip and all the planning worth it. I was particularly pleased that the farmers were able to try chocolate made from their beans before the finished chocolate was delivered to our retailers or our customers. I’ve always believed that the farmers should come first, and this was a wonderful way to show it.

I hoped on that day that it could be a precedent for our future chocolate bars—being able to deliver the chocolate to the farmers before our customers or retailers. So far, I haven’t been able to repeat this feat. All in all, it was a series of miracles, all coming together, that allowed the timing of finished chocolate, my flight, the shortnotice scheduling of the party, to be just right. It is my hope that as time goes by, I can repeat this event and have the timing of the packaging, chocolate, and all the whirlwind of events. required to bring everybody together to launch a new chocolate all come together, so the farmers can once again be first to sample chocolate made with their very own cocoa.

Chocolate From The Region

  • Dark Chocolate

    Ecuador Guayas River Basin

    $8.95

Speaking to the Ecuadorian Congress-against CCN-51

Speaking to the Ecuadorian Congress-against CCN-51

Fine-quality cocoa has many challenges. It costs more, it is hard to get, and the supply is limited. However, since the 1960s, fine-quality cocoa has been under a slow and relentless barrage.

Even within the fine-chocolate community, there is nary a word about the quiet battle that good-quality chocolate makers are facing each and every day. The battle is against a variety of cocoa called CCN-51.

CCN-51 was developed by researcher Homer Castro in the 1960s. It is highly productive and very disease resistant, traits that the large chocolate companies adore. At the same time, CCN-51 doesn’t taste good, and the quality of the chocolate made from it is far inferior compared to properly fermented and dried cocoa from traditional varieties. But because of its high productivity, the industrial chocolate companies have pushed hard for its introduction in such areas as Ecuador, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela, which are the heart and soul of fine flavor cocoa.

To address these issues, I had the great opportunity and honor to be invited to speak to the Congress of Ecuador at their capitol building in Quito. They wanted to hear about the state of CCN-51 from a premium chocolate maker, and in their view Amano is one of the foremost quality chocolate makers in the world. Because of this, it was important to them to take the view from Amano into account; hopefully this would benefit them in their sales to other fine-quality chocolate makers as well.

A photo of the culprit behind the loss of an incredible amount of heirloom varieties of cocoa. Not only is CCN-51 prolific like a weed but, it is difficult to turn into good quality chocolate.

On my flight to Quito, it was amazing the number of volcanoes that I could see from the air. One volcano after another poked its way through the clouds. Ecuador has more volcanoes for its landmass than any other country on earth. In fact, Ecuador has 43 volcanoes, most of which have been active in recent memory. All I could think of as I watched them through the window as they slowly passed by was whether someday, I might be able to climb these volcanoes and see the tops of the clouds from them. It was an almost overwhelming desire and it was with sadness that I watched one after another fade as the next came into view.

When I arrived in Quito, I went directly to the hotel where I was being put up. When I walked into the lobby, I immediately realized that this was going to be a real treat. The hotel lobby was beautiful, and I could only imagine that my room was going to be equally as nice. When I’ve traveled to numerous cocoa-growing countries, quite often my accommodations are quite sparse. Having a line of ants crawling across the wall, mosquitoes buzzing about, and bug bites in the morning of unknown origin are quite the norm. This time around, however, was going to be far from that case.

A view of Quito from the air as I flew in to speak to the Ecuadorian congress about CCN-51

The room was beautiful. I knew that after a long, hard travel, I would at least in the evening be able to rest peacefully.

Quito is the only place on the equator where the altitude is so high that it can snow. Quito is situated at 9,300 feet, which is amazingly high and creates some really unpredictable weather.

Most people don’t know (but it is obvious once you see it) that Ecuador actually means “equator,” and Ecuador’s position right on the equator is where the country gets its name. I wanted to see the equator while I was there, and so we went to visit the “equator.” The equator is of course a huge tourist trap, and there is the official line where you can stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time.

A view of the lobby of my hotel when I flew to Quito to talk about protecting Ecuador’s Nacional from CCN-51

As luck would have it, a storm blew in, and once we arrived, the weather turned cold. Really, really cold. Since I was traveling to Equador, I had not bothered to bring warm weather gear, so I was shivering up my own storm in my short-sleeved t-shirt. The storm got worse and worse, and by the time I reached the official line on the equator, it was snowing—not very hard, but snowing nevertheless. It made me laugh at how I could stand on the equator while shivering in snow.

After visiting the equator, I went to lunch with some friends near the presidential palace. There was a huge military force surrounding the palace, complete with armored personnel carriers. It turned out that there had been a huge riot around the palace just two to three days before, and the military was very, very nervous about a coup attempt. I thought about trying to get my picture taken with some of the military officers, but for some reason I felt they would not think it as exciting as I did.

Lunch was delicious. One of the appetizers was puffed corn. In Ecuador, and many of the cocoa-growing countries, it is common to eat puffed corn. This is like the kernels of popcorn that puff but do not pop all the way. They are lightly salted and make a really nice crunchy appetizer or treat.

Ecuador is named after the fact that it lays on the equator. Here I am standing on both halves of the world. Of course, we all do that every day — it just depends on where you draw the line.

The next day, I was picked up by my friend Lourdes. We were running a bit late, so we zoomed through Quito. Quito is constructed on a bunch of mountain “fingers,” so there is often no way to drive from point A to point B. To go from A to B, you have to zoom in and out on the various fingers of the city, which, combined with the fact that many of the roads are one-way roads, makes getting around very complicated, and it can take much longer than planned to go anywhere.

Being late to speak to the Ecuadorian Congress would be a impolite, so we zoomed in and out of traffic as fast as we could. It wasn’t too far (as the crow flies) to the capitol building, but because it was a few “fingers” away, getting there was going to take much longer than we had hoped. We prayed as we zoomed in and out of traffic that we would not get pulled over by the police, because we were certainly breaking just about every traffic rule there was.

Finally, we arrived at the capitol building, with five minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we were still in the car zooming around the capitol, and there was not a parking space to be found. We circled and circled and circled. Every car along the road was parked bumper to bumper, and there was no sign that any cars were going to pull out. Eventually, we pulled over, talked to one of the many security guards who surrounded the building. and explained the situation. We ended up parking in the driveway that led to the dumpster, and the security guard stood watch to make sure that the trash truck didn’t come by before we came back.

We were five minutes late at this point. We sprinted around to the front of the building and quickly rushed through security, metal detectors, and whatever else had been dreamed up to make sure we weren’t troublemakers or going to state our own coup. Security pointed us up a few floors, and we jumped on the elevator and breathed a big sigh of relief.

When we exited the elevator, we were pointed to a conference room where the members of congress sat and were engaged in a big discussion. We sat down in the hallway and watched through the glass as their discussion went on and on and on. It was about forty-five minutes before we could see that discussions were wrapping up. The irony wasn’t lost on me how we had zoomed through the city breaking every traffic law imaginable, and here we were waiting and waiting.

One of the dignitaries in the room came into the hallway and waved us in. We had a quick round of discussions, in which we introduced ourselves to each member of congress and they to us. It was all very cordial. Lourdes has also fought against the ever- widening reach of CCN-51. She started off and argued for the preservation of Nacional and the complete banning of CCN-51.

Eventually, it was my turn to speak. The basic points I made before the Ecuadorian congress were these:

1) Ecuador has been legendary for the fine flavor of its cocoa. As they were aware, for hundreds of years, people have traveled to Ecuador to purchase Ecuador’s unique variety of cocoa –Nacional. I told them that Nacional has a flavor that is not found anywhere else in the world, and that it is a national treasure that is unique to Ecuador.

2) Despite what has been represented by the large chocolate companies, CCN-51 is not a fine-flavor cocoa. In fact, in my view that it can not be used to make fine-quality chocolate. The flavor of CCN-51 is simply not that good, and our opinion of CCN-51 is so low that we will not allow CCN-51 into our factory.

3) By growing CCN-51, Ecuador not competing anymore with price for Nacional, which has always commanded a nice premium, but Ecuador is competing on the world market. If someone wants the flavor of Nacional, the only way that they can get it is to buy cocoa from Ecuador. However, with CCN-51 they will be competing against everybody who plants CCN-51 throughout the world. If Africa is able to produce CCN-51 for less, people will buy their cocoa from Africa. If Indonesia is able to produce CCN-51 for less, people will buy their cocoa from Indonesia. The people who purchase CCN-51 are the same people who are not interested in flavor, and so price will be the deciding factor. On the other hand, the people who purchase Nacional traditionally are those who are more interested in flavor, and so price plays a much smaller role in the buying decision. By planting and supporting CCN-51, Ecuador is catering to a market where price is the most important factor.

4) As CCN-51 become more prominent, Ecuador faces a crisis in which its precious Nacional could be lost due to cross-pollination between native varieties and CCN-51. This loss of a national heritage literally traces way back thousands of years through the selective breeding by their forefathers.

5) CCN-51 faces the same problem that mono-cropping always does. CCN-51 plants are effectively clones, because they are spread by grafting. This means that all CCN-51 are genetically identical. Plants that are genetically identical face the problem that if a disease is capable of hurting or even killing one individual plant, this same disease is capable of killing all of the same plants with the same genetics. Ecuador had already faced a plague in the 1920s that killed off almost all of its cocoa, and planting enormous quantities of a single strain of cocoa is simply asking this to happen again, but now on a much larger scale.

This problem exists with all mono-cropping – not just CCN-51.

I concluded by requesting that they give serious consideration to any further planting of this clone. In the least, CCN-51 should be planted separately from Nacional, with an adequate buffer zone around the CCN-51 plantation so that there is lower possibility of cross pollination. I praised the flavor of the Nacional cocoa and explained that they truly have something special, and it is up to them to really let the world know what a treasure they have, and they should not let it slip away.

At this point, I broke out our Guayas chocolate and gave each member of the congress a bar so that they could taste what pure Nacional tastes like. (We go through extraordinary efforts to ensure that there is no CCN-51 in our Guayas chocolate.) I broke out another bar and then gave each member a piece. They were all very impressed and spent a large amount of time talking about how delicious it was. We took a few pictures shook hands and went our separate ways.

Lourdes and I walked out and talked about how we believed it had been a productive meeting, and those present seemed receptive to our message. We then made our way to our car in the back of the capitol building and were extremely happy that the guard was still watching over our car, which hadn’t been towed.

It is my hope that our message was indeed heard. It would truly be a shame if Ecuador’s prized cocoa Nactional were lost. It would even be worse if it were lost to a variety of cocoa that historically does not make good-quality chocolate and can be found in so many other cocoa-growing countries.

As consumers, I believe it important that we check with the chocolate makers we buy our chocolate from to see if they have any chocolate that is polluted by CCN-51, and if there is any sort of company policy about working with it. I know that at least as far as Amano is concerned, we won’t let it into our factory in any form.

It was a huge honor to be invited to speak to the Ecuadorian congress. After it was all over, I went back to my hotel and enjoyed taking a nap on my nice big soft bed.

Here I am with one of the members of the Ecuadorian Congress. Note she is holding one of Amano’s pre-release Guayas chocolate bars made with 100% Ecuadorian Nacional cocoa.

Chocolate From The Region

  • Dark Chocolate

    Ecuador Guayas River Basin

    $8.95