I use the top c. 3% of the world’s cocoa beans, grown on individual farms, so like fine wines they all have beautiful, complex and unique flavours.
These single estate beans don’t just show up at the factory, someone has to go and find them! The first two weeks of December have been a whistle stop bean trip. London – Amsterdam – Panama – Bogota – Arauca – Bogota – Caracas – Rio Caribe – Choroni – Caracas – Paris - London, with 8 flights and 1000’s miles driving.
Since I buy all my beans directly from the farmers, I do this type of thing several times a year, it is always and adventure and something of an endurance test. This time a friend came with me, he passed with flying colours! We had planned meetings with various cacao farmers and less planned meetings with out of control buses and crocodiles.
Happily I got to spend a few all too short days on my farm at the end.
On the first morning we were up at 4am to catch the epic view over Bogota from the top of the cable car, before returning for a couple of cacao meetings and then off to Arauca, on the Venezuelan – Colombian border. That river is in fact the border.
This is an area in transition from growing coca – to cacao. Since the recent peace deal between the government and FARQ, tensions were clearly a lot lower than when I was there 18 months ago, but the tyre marks on tarmac air strips in the middle of nowhere still looked pretty recent. Happily the biggest surprise along the road was this road kill crocodile – it happens a lot apparently!
There are many farmers in this particular co-operative, so discussions were long. They have a number of different beans. The ones I get for my Los Llanos bars have beautiful red fruit notes. The crop is just getting underway, so it is a great time to visit. These are the fermentation boxes, where the beans and pulp are turned daily and reach temperatures of around 52℃ . This is the crucial step for the beans to develop the flavours and aromas that you get in the final chocolate.
This stage is typically missed out for the low grade beans used in industrial chocolate.
There was just time to stop for a roadside beer on the way out. Back to Bogota ready for a flight the next morning to Caracas.
Remarkably we got an incredible view of Choroni, my local town as we flew in, around the coast, to Venezuela. My farm is just out of the picture, high up on the left.
That 10 hour drive to Rio Caribe is one of my favourites – it isn’t hard to see why. I have been buying beans from the Francescis since I started making chocolate. The Rio Caribe Superior is the King of beans, with deep coffee and nut notes, I use it to make Milk of the Gods too. This time I was visiting to inspect a shipment they are just preparing. The bigger of the 2 annual crops was just coming in. Each bean is separately sorted before having their pulp-covered beans removed from the pods.
The metal ‘tray’ on the right is a bean cutter. This is one of the inspections you do to examine quality - size, fermentation, mould etc
Another epicly long drive, made longer by 4 hours spent at a roadblock held by protesters. We ended up driving down onto the beach and along it for a couple of miles to avoid the worst of it! Closer to Choroni, in yet another jam, that white bus ran out of control into the back of all the stationary cars in front of us taking off our wing mirror as it passed.
This is the bridge over the river, at the entrance to my farm. I managed to spend 3 precious days there, including a 6 hour walk up into the cloud forest fuelled of course by hot chocolate!
This is Ricardo who has worked for me for over 20 years cutting into the Baca tree to get the extraordinary white liquid that tastes and behaves exactly like milk. And high up in the cloud forest, way higher than you would usually find cacao trees, one venerable old tree has survived. It had one lone pod on it.
Less welcome were the patches of deforestation where people had come in and burnt whole acres to make way for planting banana plants. It is hard times in Venezuela, but destroying pristine jungle in one of the world’s great national parks is not alright.
In a magical cloud of butterflies! Where did they come from? They don’t have these in Devon!
Just time for a morning at the beach. Downtown in Choroni things are much better than in much of Venezuela as they the sea and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The fishermen are out catching the fish that are feeding the town. Big ones too!
All too soon I am heading back to Caracas. Without trips like this there would be no chocolate. Making the best chocolate relies completely on having the best beans. Visiting the farmers, following tangents, talking to them about their post harvest fermentation and drying, all of this is critical and I have to say one of my really great pleasures.