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Villahermosa Mexico, Travel Report
I arrived on a beautiful Mexican night. Upon exiting the airport, I was greeted by the sounds of the tropical crickets and other insects chirping away in rhythmic unison. As we traveled to my hotel, my guide filled me in on the goings on among the cocoa growers in the area as well as a brief history. Villahermosa is located in the state of Tabasco. That's right, it is a state — not just a sauce — and in my opinion, between the two the state has much more character and flavor than the sauce. Tabasco is in the heart of ancient lowland Mayan civilization. Only 45 minutes from Villahermosa is Palenque named after a nearby village and one of the greatest Mayan ruins. Yes, this is cocoa country — where it all started.
Villahermosa and the surrounding region have a long history of cacao. The Olmecs are considered the first culture to make use of cacao. And it is in Villahermosa where the famous Olmec stone heads now reside. Now stored in the Parque La Venta Olmec Museum in Villahermosa they were actually found about 100km away at the La Venta archeological site but were moved to Villahermosa to help preserve them. Any trip to Villahermosa is short-changed if a trip is not made to this beautiful park. Also worth seeing while in Villahermosa is the famous cathedral Templo de la Concepcion.
It was built originally in the early 1800s and then torn down and rebuilt several times. Most recently it was torn town in 1925 during the religious persecutions by the Communist governor and then rebuilt in 1945. The architecture is truly stunning, and the church, while reincarnated several times, has an incredible history.
Tourism aside, my first order of business was to visit the grower of our Porcelana cacao beans. These are one of the most elusive of criollo cacao varieties and are very distinctive. They are named Porcelana because of the brilliantly white beans that they produce. The chocolate they create is a fine flavored chocolate though the color is not as dark as that made by other beans.
We visited the plantation, which, that like many of the plantations, begins right next to the house. The main crop was just ending, but there were a few cocoa pods still on the trees and the trees were already sending forth a new set of flowers waiting for the midges and other jungle insects to fertilize them. The absolutely incredible number of flowers that line the trunks of the cacao trees is deceiving, since less than one percent of the flowers will actually be pollinated and grow to become cocoa pods.
After visiting the plantation, we went back to the plantation house and discussed the fermentation of the beans and opportunities for further growth and how we might be able to build a closer relationship. Watermelon juice and pozol were served to help break the heat. Pozol (also called chorote) is an ancient Mayan drink made from roasted cocoa beans, ground corn, and sugar. One of the most traditional drinks in all of Tabasco, it is thick and chunky from the corn meal, and most visitors from outside Central America find it not very tasteful. It does, however, cut the jungle heat and is very refreshing; and the corn serves to curb your hunger. It is for this reason that it is the most common drink among the cocoa plantation workers.
We parted after signing the plantation's guest book. In this book, the world's top chocolatiers have left their signatures since the 1940s. We saw, tucked in the pages, old black and white pictures of the President of Mexico visiting the plantation and visiting the plantation owner's father, who has cared for this most rare of cacao varieties. Now, the plantation has passed on to the daughter, who is continuing his legacy and preparing her children for the day when they will carry on the family tradition of caring for this rarest of all criollos.
I traveled back to my hotel in Villahermosa lost in thought about the legacy that has been passed down from father to daughter. Of the nobility of caring for so many years this virtually unheard of strain of cacao and the great honor we have as chocolatiers to turn the fruit of this tree and to turn it into a chocolate fit for royalty.
We left very early the next morning. Today we would be visiting Comalcalco in the heart of Tobasco's cocoa industry, to see growers and fermentation facilities, both old and new.
On our first stop, we visited Asociación Agrícola de Productores de Cacao, where the cocoa beans are brought by the farmers to ferment and for payment. The building, though very old, serves its purpose well. The co-op is building a new facility that will be able to handle much larger quantities. The Mexican government is subsidizing most of the cost of the new facility. There is a large effort to develop the cacao industry in southern Mexico to help alleviate the poverty that has plagued the area through the ages. The new facility will have a hot air dryer to dry the cocoa beans but also will have large concrete pads behind it for cacao purchasers who prefer to have their cacao beans sun dried.
Our next visit was to a small chocolate company and cacao plantation. They are set up for tourists, so they have a nice "greenhouse" for the baby cacao trees, and we received the grand tour both of the plantation but also of the chocolate company. Here were presses for pressing the cocoa butter out of the chocolate liquor, making large cakes of cacao solids. The cocoa butter is then used to make the chocolate, and the cacao solids are then ground to make cocoa powder.
For lunch, we went right down the road to a fish farm, where we feasted on tilapia. Originally from Africa, it is fast becoming one of the primary fish grown in aquaculture throughout the world. It has long been a favorite in Central America, and if the tilapia that we feasted on is any indication, there is good reason why.
We later visited another fermentation facility, the Asociacion Local Agricola De Productores de Cacao De "Huimanguillo," where we met with the association president. He is working very hard to rejuvenate cacao growing in Mexico. As he said, cacao growing has a strong history in this part of Mexico, tracing its way back several thousands of years. It would be a shame to lose that tradition.
They have a very old fermentation house is full of nostalgia of days gone by. On one side are old fermentation boxes, unused for many years, staggered one above the other like a set of stadium bleachers. The unfermented beans would be placed in the box at the top to begin fermenting. When the beans were ready to move to the next box (usually once a day), the side would be lifted up and the beans would empty into the next box down. By the time they reached the bottom, they had finished fermenting and were ready for shipping.
Today, of course, things are different. The association is using large square boxes approximately four feet on a side, each capable of holding one metric ton of cocoa beans. This coming fall, things will change even further. They are building just down the road the newest and perhaps most technological advanced fermentation facility in all of Mexico. It is expected to open in September of 2006 with the fall harvest.
We visited the new facility and it is an impressive piece of work. I look forward to receiving samples of beans so that we may run tests on them to see if they meet our exacting standards. As we left, I wondered how this influx of technology would affect the growing of cacao. It may make for better quality or it may simply be used to create more quantity. Only time will tell this. One thing is certain, though. As areas like this industrialize, they will need to modernize in order to maintain cacao as a competitive crop. If they do not, we will slowly lose our cacao farms and they will be replaced with crops that are not as labor intensive. Already throughout Central America, cacao trees are being cut down and replaced with crops such as passion fruit. If this happens too widely, the great tradition of growing cacao will slowly disappear in the place where it all began.
We spent the rest of the trip visiting plantations and cacao farmers. The cacao farmers (like most farmers) are down-to-earth people who are often just trying to get by. Unfortunately, cacao farming does not allow for much profit, and is incredibly time-consuming and requires difficult manual labor. Many farmers have their own fermentation boxes, and they ferment and dry the beans right on the farm. While my trip was only in May, it was at least 110 degrees F (43 C) in the fermentation houses, because the process creates an incredible amount of heat. Were you were to stick your hand into the fermenting beans, you would not be able to leave it there very long. In addition to the heat generated by the fermentation boxes, many farmers have gas powered cocoa bean dryers (called samoas) that serve to heat things up even more. The heat must be incredible when the fall harvest is ready in the first part of September before the weather start to cool down. This all drives home the point that the cocoa farmers need to be paid wages that make it worthwhile for them to plant, trim, harvest, and process the cacao as a commercial crop rather than crops which are easier to grow and harvest, and which also sell for a higher price.
Toward to end of my trip to Tabasco, I was able to spend some time visiting the president of Mexico's National Cocoa Union. In its headquarters, it stores cocoa beans until they are ready to be shipped to their respective destinations. While I was there, a very large shipment that was being prepared for shipment to Nestle. When I say large, I mean huge. The pallets of cocoa beans in the warehouse went on and on and were stacked about two stories high. Clearly, Nestle uses lots of cacao beans, and it is at times like this when that really sinks in.
Just a hint as to how far cacao has sunk into the culture of this state of Mexico is exemplified by my last dinner before left. We decided to go out for Japanese food, and one of the restaurant's signature dishes was the chocolate sushi. Of course, it screamed that it had to be tried — and I succumbed. I have to state for the record that it was very good. It is just a small example of how chocolate permeates each and every aspect of the lives of the people in Tabasco.
All in all, my trip to Tabasco Mexico was very productive. We made some new business arrangements and many new friends in the process. I'm deeply indebted to those who hosted me during my stay; they deserve great thanks for their time and efforts. Needless to say, I can't go into great detail as to the potential of this trip to affect our future plans, but I can say that we'll be buying beans from various suppliers within Mexico and look forward to visiting friends old and new in the great state of Tabasco.