The mecca for cocoa?

20 March 2008
The mecca for cocoa?

Chocolate expert Sara Jayne Stanes argues the case for a fair deal for cocoa farmers after a trip to Chuao in Venezuela

Millions of people eat chocolate every day, but few give a thought to its origins or history - and certainly not to the cocoa farmers at the base of the chocolate production chain.

The vast majority of cocoa is bought on the open market by large confectionary companies as part of the global commodities trade (cocoa constitutes the third largest natural commodity after sugar and coffee). These companies are driven by consumer demand for cheap chocolate - mostly in chocolate-flavoured confectionery - but this means that cocoa farmers lose out financially.

Fortunately, for those of us who love and work with chocolate, some 5-10% of "fine flavour" single-varietal cocoa beans are traded among a few small chocolate producers who take an avid and responsible interest in their provenance. Knowing where your ingredients originate and how they are grown and produced means you are halfway to producing a better end-product. And leading the way in providing a better deal for farmers is Italian chocolate company Amedei, which has a presence in both the retail and catering markets, albeit only at the very top end - because producing a better product also adds to its cost.

Recently I was lucky enough to see at first hand Amedei's working relationship with cocoa farmers in the famed Venezuelan village of Chuao.

If you've never heard of Chuao, let me explain. A few years ago chocolatiers and chocolate aficionados were made aware of Chuao because of Amedei's couverture of the same name. It's a small village in the northern coastal range of Venezuela on the Caribbean Sea, about six hours from the capital, Caracas. The village's 140-hectare cocoa plantations produce some of the world's finest cocoa beans because of its micro-climate - and the fact that its cocoa beans (a type of criollo, the most aromatic of cocoa's three main bean varieties) have been insulated from adulteration by Chuao's location. It's reachable primarily by boat, since land access is by foot along a hot, dusty, narrow mountain pass which weaves through lush, rampant rainforests. The walk takes anything between 10 and 24 hours from Maracay. Few attempt it.

Chuao's inhabitants have actually cultivated cocoa beans for about 400 years but their working conditions and worldwide profile were transformed at the end of the 1990s when Alessio Tessieri, one of Amedei's founders, made his way to the village. He was on a quest to search out the world's best cocoa beans, from which his sister, Cecilia, could make what the siblings hoped would be the world's best chocolate couverture.

What sets Amedei apart from other fine-chocolate producers is its philosophy. The Tessieris are uncompromising in their quest for quality beans but they also take an avid interest in the agricultural part of producing chocolate. In reality, this means that they work hand in hand with the cocoa farmers in the countries from which they buy their beans and this plays a vital role in the flavour profile of the chocolate. It also results in a fairer deal for the growers themselves.

Chuao's cocoa production is overseen by a co-operative of its farmers, the Empresa Campesina and it's with this body that Alessio negotiated, successfully, to acquire exclusive rights to the Chuao beans as the 21st century loomed. Before Amedei's arrival, Empresa Campesina was producing eight tonnes of beans annually, receiving $1,400 per tonne (the average price per tonne since the 1970s).

Today, Amedei is paying the co-operative $8,000 per tonne and its annual yield is closer 25 tonnes. There are 127 workers involved in the bean production and they all share equally in the profits. All can enjoy an above-average quality of life, compared with that experienced by both their fellow Venezuelan and cocoa workers around the world.

Of course, the chocolate consumer, ultimately, bears the cost of this ethical quest for quality when they eat a Chuao bar or an artisan chocolate made with Chuao couverture. But there is a growing demand at the top end of the retail chocolate market (see above) which is spilling over into fine-dining restaurants. And for a chocolate obsessive like me, a trip to Chuao underlined why Amedei should be applauded for its philosophy of entwining quality with ethical business practice.

My trip began with a two-hour drive in a cramped taxi around a higgledy-piggledly mountain road from Maracay to Choroni and the port of Puerto Colombia on the coast of Venezuela. From there it was a 25-minute boat trip to Chuao.

The village has a desert-island-paradise shoreline, on which, once landed, we waited before an ancient pick-up truck that doubles as the local bus arrived to ferry us to the cocoa plantations. The plantations flank the roadside: but in Chuao there are no lines of orderly cocoa trees, they are scattered randomly and use other species (bananas, plantains, etc) for shade and protection.

What is it about Chuao that produces such special cocoa and made me willing to undertake such an uncomfortable journey? The area has unique soil conditions, produced by a climate that includes high humidity and heavy rains that wash rich soil and fertile silt down the village's surrounding mountainside into the plantation areas. In short, perfect growing conditions.

Over the years, Chuao's trees have naturally cross-bred, creating their own unique hybrid from the great cultivars such as criollo, porcelana, forastero and trinitario. This natural-selection process, together with expert cultivation, have resulted in a bean that produces an exquisite cocoa with a complex flavour profile. When Chuao's cocoa pods are sliced open, you can see the beans nestling inside like pale milky corn on the cob. Their different colours - purple, pink, white - are indications of the cross-fertilisation.

The beans are dried and fermented naturally by the sun in Chuao's main square. During this time they gain an appearance similar to fat, brown almonds. Women, who tend to make up most of the campesinos, regularly rake over these precious beans to ensure uniform drying. The drying process takes seven or eight days.

The campesinos of Chuao are very protective of their trade secrets and were reluctant to show me the vital fermentation process. It's understandable, because both fermentation and sun-drying are absolutely vital for developing the flavour profile of beans and the process can make or break cocoa quality. The beans can gain aromas of sweet, spicy decay tobacco-y aromas with sharp notes of citrus - both signs of a good fermentation. Sometimes, the fermentation and drying process can stretch to two weeks - an expensive investment.

The methods that the Chuao farmers use to produce their beans have changed little in four centuries and it's hard for them to understand the obsession that we in our highly processed western world have with our chocolate - and why chocolatiers revere Chuao's qualities. That's why, for them, working in tandem with a producer such as Amedei is vital. Amedei brings an understanding of what it takes to translate the Chuao beans into fine chocolate - including appreciation of systems on the ground that deliver quality consistency.

Sometimes I think that we put too much emphasis on the beans and not enough on the brilliance of chocolate-makers. I tasted Chuao couverture made by other manufacturers before Amedei acquired exclusivity to the village's beans. It was not up to much. I think that Amedei has set standards that other manufacturers in the world of cocoa and chocolate are now following.

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