Every other Monday, we’ll introduce you to a member of the Dandelion community through a Q & A. Stay tuned to meet our chocolate makers, café staff, kitchen team, producers, partners, importers, mentors, and everyone who helps make our chocolate possible. This week, we’d like you to meet Pablo, one of our chocolate makers with a depth of experience in the cacao industry that few can match. And a thing for pizza.
If you’ve been to our Valencia Street factory and peered through the small windows in the hallway leading to the kitchen, there’s a good chance you’ve seen our bean-prepping juggernaut, Pablo. You might have seen his face affixed with a look of steadfast concentration, or, more likely, you caught him sharing stories with the other makers with a lightness and enthusiasm that keep many of us in the “bean room” for longer than we ever really need to be. He has always told us wonderful stories, but for a while there’s one story I’ve been really hankering to hear: his own.
Pablo immigrated to the US from Cuba four years ago, having previously worked in the Cuban cacao agro industry for a few decades. He’s well acquainted with the gamut of chocolate production, not only from bean to bar but from tree—from ground, from land—to bar. As one chocolate maker to another, Pablo was kind enough to explain to me his life in the “Cocoa World,” offering a glimpse into what it’s like to not only work in the chocolate world, but to live it.
Many thanks to Obed for being an excellent translator.
NAME: Pablo Aguilar
HOMETOWN: Bayamo, Cuba
FAVORITE CHOCOLATE: Cahabón
WORKED AT DANDELION SINCE: July 18, 2015
POSITION: Chocolate Maker
Q: Alright, let’s get into it. Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Bayamo, Granma, in eastern Cuba. I lived there until I was 24 years old.
Q: How did you get into the cacao world?
A: My wife was born in and grew up in Baracoa city, known as “The Capital of Cacao in Cuba.” I moved there when we married. Since I had already graduated at the age of 23 as an Agronomical Engineer in Bayamo, it only made sense that my professional activity there was to be in cacao.
Q: What’s Baracoa like?
A: Baracoa is in the Guantánamo province, and it’s the second most important city in this area, and generally important as a center of history and tourism—it’s very beautiful and there is a industrial chocolate factory. I like Baracoa! It has a lot of natural resources, very green vegetation, and a very tropical character. It rains a lot and the relative humidity is 80%-85% all year, which makes for very good growing conditions for cacao, coffee, and coconuts. Baracoa contains 78% of Cuba’s cacao plantations, and 88% of its national cacao production. The culture of Baracoa is the cacao, and her handmade chocolate is known as “Bola de Cacao” (cocoa ball), which we use to make a drink called “Chorote.”
Q: How long did you work in cacao?
A: 27 years. First, I taught classes about cacao, coffee, and the science of different agricultural crops at the Agronomical Institute in Baracoa. Next, after one year of teaching, I moved to the Cocoa Research Station, which was the only cacao research center in Cuba. I worked as an investigator in this center for ten years, working in different agrotechnical departments dealing with plant nutrition, irrigation, as well as in nurseries, development plantations, and production plantations. One specific project I worked on was the introduction of organic fertilization into Cuba’s cacao nurseries, transitioning from chemical to organic fertilizer.
I collaborated with other investigators on certain research themes. After that, I worked in the Territorial Plants Protection Center (ETPP)—in the Integral Management of Pest, Disease and Quarantine of Plants—of which I was Specialist-Inspector and the director for many years. A few of us were in charge of the cocoa warehouse, wherein my partners and I checked the phytosanitary quality of the cacao stored in the warehouse. At the same time, I worked in the preparation and realization of the municipality project to improve the quality of life in the cocoa farmer community and others in urban agriculture.
Q: Why did Cuba want to transition from chemical to organic fertilization?
A: Although chemical fertilizer increases production, it’s bad for soil, and bad for the health of people and animals. The Cuban government looked to other countries in the Soviet bloc, and they saw that the old USSR, East Germany and other countries in the world which used inorganic fertilization also used this method. They decided to transition to organic after 1980.
Q: So were the Soviet Bloc countries the biggest customers of Cuban produce?
A: Yes, Cuba exported a lot of citrus products and other produce to those countries of the old bloc.
Q:Was it the same for cacao?
A: No. A big part of the cacao production was, and is, for national consumption, and the other part was used to obtain cocoa butter to export to this country and others. Cuba isn’t considered a big exporter of cacao, but in 2008, a new movement arose in Cuba to export more cacao. A Cuban cacao export enterprise started sending cacao to Holland, and other European countries.
Q: So in Cuba, the government buys all the cacao?
A: Yes. It was Cuba.
Q: So that being the case, what incentive do the farmers have to produce high quality cacao?
A: Well, it works like this: Normally, the farmer farms his own area, and the government buys his cacao, and brings it to a cocoa beneficio for fermentation and drying. To encourage quality, the government also has a stimulus system: when the farmers produces more or better cacao, they get a bonus. It’s like a voucher. For example, the government will give you a voucher for your clothes, shoes, etc. if you produce extra, and with great quality.
Q: What is cuban cacao like?
A: It’s excellent, similar to Ecuadorian. Their farms have developed along with the research that’s working to improve cacao.
Q: Do you think the market and trade of Cuban cacao will expand, and we will see it pop up here?
A: Yes, I hope so. I hope for a good new relationship between US and Cuba.
Q: Okay, so, I know you really like pizza, and you really like sushi. What do you like better?
A: Pizza. But pizza with a nice hot chocolate. Because chocolate is my favorite.
Q: That’s kind of a weird combination. So between pizza and sushi, you like chocolate the best?
A: Definitely, pizza and chocolate.
Q: Makes sense. One more question: what was your favorite part of working in cacao in Cuba?
A: Being involved in the culture of cacao, in the lives of the producers, was always a good reason to do the work I did. I liked to solve the different problems presented to me, so the research was my favorite. That said, I found that being out in the farms, with the farmers, was something I enjoyed as well. I would visit the farmers, and they would show me their unique styles of growing—from seedlings, to fermentation—and I would always learn from them. We would share knowledge, and we would make chocolate together, so I really enjoyed that relationship, working together with them.
Q: Will it be possible for someone like Dandelion to go down and buy cacao directly, or will they also have to go through the government?
A: It’s possible. Now that Cuba is opening new relationship with US, I think it can happen. There are also other companies that are establishing business with Cuba.
Q: Well, here’s to hoping. Thanks Pablo!