Beatriz, Aurelia, and her sister-in-law run quite the co-op in Mantuano. They are eager students of all things cacao and it was fun to see them pepper Patrick with questions as soon as we got out of the car. They keep precise records of the beans going through each step of fermentation/drying and are very concerned with quality. These ladies are business savvy and boss all their husbands and brothers around to run their co-op on a tight ship, laughing all the while.
They had recently been having some problems with some beans that were blackened on the husk. We talked the problem through and thought of some solutions, but the mystery was revealed when Rodrigo, a farmer from another valley, came by and discovered that not enough of the liquid could drain off the beans during fermentation.
These inspiring ladies are always looking for the next opportunity. They have taken advantage of cooperative funding to set up a space at the front of their fermentary to make and sell chocolate and bon bons. Below is their roaster, cracker, winnower set up and Greg and I were very curious to see how it worked. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it in action, but it was crazy to see one machine that combines these steps compared to our three machines. They are hopeful about their new business venture into making chocolate and talked about us coming back to do a knowledge exchange.
Mr. Katao and his Vino Loco
Trincheras is unusual because unlike most cacao-growing places in Venezuela which are towns surrounded by farmland, it has cacao trees scattered all throughout town. Jose, the head of the cooperative there, told us his biggest pest problem is the village children who like to eat the sweet sticky pulp found inside the pod. Clearly, he hasn’t come down on them too harshly because they all fondly refer to him as Señor Katao (unable to say cacao). We heard from Patrick, he always has a new idea brewing and makes cacao punch (think chocolate milk rum drink), cacao wine from the cobb part of the pod, chocolates, and ganache/pudding cups. I imagine he is pretty popular in Trincheras.
While we were at the collection center (place where beans are communally fermented and dried) in Trincheras, we were lucky enough to come across three local farmers. We got to share our chocolate with them and see the harvesting tools they use.
They received a grant from an international aid organization to build a fermentary. By creating a fermentation center, beans are taken from many different farms but all fermented in the same way so that they can achieve better and more consistent fermentation. To ferment cacao, beans are taken from the fresh cacao pods, heaped into a wooden box, and then covered with banana leaves. The naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria in the pulp/air start to digest the sugar in the cacao pulp and turn the sugars into alcohol. The second step is the alcohol is digested by other bacteria and turned into acetic acid. This penetrates the shell of the bean and creates flavor precursors. A well fermented bean has lots of fissures in it that make it look kind of like a brain. After fermentation (which takes 5-6 days), the beans are dried for 3 days and then are ready to ship to be made into chocolate!
Patanemo, The Peaceful Valley and the Farmer’s Wife
Bright and early, we hiked up the steep drive to get to the house of Donaldo.. We were ushered in by Marisol who said her husband was up the mountain dealing with some cattle. I was surprised to learn their cacao trees were much further up the very steep hillside. Marisol told us that her husband harvests the cacao and carries it down by hand (each cacao sack weighs around 60 kilos!). Marisol showed us around the house starting with the tiniest, cutest, duckling who lost its mother to a fox the night before.
Patrick told us about how Donaldo was an incredible craftsman and had built the house himself. Every angle was perfect, and built with care. Marisol took us up to the cement roof which serves as their fermentation area and drying bed (at least until their son wants to move in), This keeps the beans safe from the numerous farm animals they have on their property. The most breath-taking part of the tour was the view of the entire Patanemo valley spreading out below us. Patanemo was named by run-away slaves who originally settled there and came from “paz tenemos” meaning we have peace or peace at last. I could almost feel my heart rate slowing down and the road weariness melting away.
Greg in awe of the view standing on the top of Donaldo and Marisol’s house that doubles as a drying bed
After the tour, we sat down to chat and have Marisol try the chocolate bar. She shyly said she liked it because it was so chocolate-y and we knew it was true because as we talked she took another square to nibble and another. She told us how she runs a co-op to make cacao products such as cacao punch (kind of like chocolate milk with rum), cacao vinegar, hair balm, and soaps. In Venezuela, if you form a co-op, the government will give you seed money to start your operation. In some cases, this system is abused because there is little oversight or follow-up and seems to be no penalty if you do not actually do what you set out to do. Marisol has found the co-op frustrating because she is very industrious and makes/sell tons of products whereas the other members make less but they all share the profit equally.
Marisol talking about the cooperative and holding cacao vinegar (the pink one will age to look like the more clear one). She hand sorts through all the beans after they are dried and before they are shipped out.
Canoabo, A Scientific Farmer Revives a Nearly Forgotten Variety
Our final stop was in Canoabo to visit Rodrigo’s farm. He, unlike most Venezuelan cocoa farmers, did not grow up cocoa farming. Rodrigo went to university in Valencia when he realized he didn’t like the noise, crime, and traffic of city life so he and his father searched for an ideal place to have a cocoa farm. They landed on Canoabo valley, which used to be part of one big hacienda, but is now divided up among farmers. He loves to challenge the old timer cacao farming knowledge in the area, by implementing new cultivation methods he gleans from the many books he reads. He says they just laugh at him, but he has had a lot of success using techniques like grafting to propagate the canoabo variety which is specific to the region and was nearly lost. It is characterized by larger beans with a pleasant, chocolatey flavor. Even the raw beans tasted pretty good…which is rare! Most beans need to be fermented, dried, and roasted before I want them anywhere near my taste buds.
Rodrigo had the neatest bean drying patio I’ve ever seen.
These are cut tests done on raw beans (fresh from the pod). Lighter colored beans, like the one in the center of my hand, tend to indicate more criollo genetics.
All in all, it was an amazing trip and I feel so lucky to have been able to learn from these farmers and share our part of the process with them. Thanks for following the chronicles of our trip and hopefully, the suspense didn’t kill you. Over and out until the next trip!