Trip report for delivering Chocolate to 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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