Birth of a Bean: Ocumare de la costa

June 14, 2014

I love Venezuela.  Of the fifty-some countries I’ve explored, Venezuela still tops my wanderlust list.  Maybe it’s the tropical energy that pulses through both air and people or the range of adventurous possibilities, from canoeing through tepuis surrounding Angel Falls to paragliding over the northern Andes.

But who am I kidding?  My heart for Venezuela is fundamentally cacao shaped.  I was first drawn to Venezuela in 2009 by its revered cacao. The highlight of that two-month adventure was a visit to famed Chuao; in fact, it was one of the highlights of my life.  There’s some strange magic to that place that’s hard to articulate, an alchemic mix of tropical heat, coveted cacao, passionate people and a large pinch of laid-back crazy that, for me, created chemistry more irresistibly intoxicating than any I’d ever experienced.

No surprise, then, that I returned in 2011 to explore even more of Venezuela’s venerable cacao origins.  Venezuela is historically considered the birthplace of the finest cacao, a fact overshadowed of late by Venezuela’s oil-producing capabilities and its tragically escalated post-Chavez political and social unrest.

I’d planned to hop along the Caribbean coastal villages of Parque Nacional Henri Pittier and beyond, names synonymous with some of the finest and most prized cacao origins in the world: Cuyagua, Ocumare de la Costa, Choroni, Rio Caribe and, of course, Chuao.  But a smashed kneecap suffered from a motorbike spill in Caracas kept me from hopping quite so much.  I focused first on a hobble to Ocumare.

Once past the bus ride nearly as perilous as the ride that’d busted my knee, I managed to stumble without falling upon Ocumare de la Costa.  Ocumare is known for its eponymous criollo cacao strains and hybrids, and, with a little help from a friendly local, I soon found myself standing before its literal birthplace: the Corporación Socialista del Cacao.  Just around that corner you see above lay this most precious nursery, filled with young, growing Ocumare 61 siblings.  Who knows where these genetically gifted offspring would head off to upon graduation, but some had matriculated just behind this shaded sanctuary.

With nature and nurture revealedin one fell swoop, my guide escorted me just up the road to Ocumare’s cacao processing facility, the Central de Beneficio del Cacao.  Here, beautiful beans in pods harvested from proud mamas are carefully fermented and then dried for shipment to chocolate makers including Amano, Woodblock and Fresco in the States.

The Central de Beneficio del Cacao’s fermentary uses a series of wooden boxes covered with banana leaves to ferment their criollo & trinitario beans over the course of a handful of days. The vinegary, slightly funky aroma belies the pleasant, fruity flavors created during this critical stage of flavor development.

After fermentation, each batch ofwet beans is spread evenly across large cement beds.  The beans are regularly turned and tended as they dry slowly in the sticky Venezuelan heat.  Once dessicated, the cacao is packed in large burlap sacks for sale within Venezuela and around the world to the premium cacao market.

Some beans don’t have far to travel to become their deliciously chocolatey selves, and thankfully neither did I to find such transformed beans.  Just around the corner, this lovely and talented lady indulged me patiently with a mesmerizingly diverse range of cacao delectables in her cocina de chocolate.  My favorite was a translucent cacao and pulp pudding-like confection that was light, mildly sweet, creamy and gone before I felt I’d begun.  See? It didn’t even make it into the picture.  Her chocolate guarapita, a rich, creamy liqueur, lasted slightly longer, as did her rustic, flavorful chocolate.  Of course my fond memories still linger.

It’s now been five years since I first fell for Venezuela, and I hope to return again; in fact, I can’t imagine not.  There are too many origins I haven’t yet visited and too many people I’d love to visit again.  I fervently wish that peace will soon find this crazy, vibrant, magnetic, most magical country in part so that it may continue its legacy of fine cacao.

Chocolate: A Love Story

February 4, 2015


A ticket to Germany, a sudden spring break blizzard and my own badly battered heart conspired to propel me to Paris in 2007. This April Fool’s Day prank left me itching from fleas at my last-minute guesthouse and itching to explore my Montmartre surrounds.

I wandered for hours past Paris’s springtime petticoats of blooming peonies, tulips, roses and lilies that spilled copiously from around her usual attire of architectural grandeur. Seated in the crisp air of the cobblestone hillside cafe upon my return, I caught my breath for the first time in years.

Sounds of passing Peugeots and well-heeled walkers mingled with the French chatter of nearby patrons while wafts of cigarette smoke and espresso invaded my lungs. As the sun made its daily retreat, the cooling air nipped at my fingers and the empty cup they cradled. I headed down rue des Abbesses toward my humble lodgings for a jacket but paused before turning the corner: a neatly kept shop’s charming gardening wares filled the window and flowed out onto the stoop.

An impressive but welcoming curation of teas, spices, oils, wines and more lured me into the century-plus-old Ets Lion. I nodded shyly at the silver-haired proprietor before getting lost in the mesmerizing array. I confess my high-school-level French skills and my similarly amateur product knowledge left me reluctant to ask for help. Everything looked precious, but I wanted something special. Ultimately, the chocolate display beckoned.

Chocolate had been a particularly comforting pleasure of late, but my US finds hadn’t reached past Chocolove’s Strong Dark bars. I’d figured there must be something more, something better, but in that moment it occurred to me that I had no idea of what specifically made a chocolate “good.” It also occurred to me that here, in Paris and in this very shop, might be the place to begin learning.

I stood before the collection of European-made chocolate bars and confections and awkwardly cleared my throat. The proprietor came over with a gentle smile to assist. I asked him for the best chocolate bar he had, admittedly a silly question but the only one I could reasonably articulate in French.

“Well,” he replied in stilted English, “I think this could be the one,” as he pointed to one of the many large white bars with “Chocolat Bonnat” scrolled across its width.

“Chuao, cacao 75%” was written in the corner. On the back, I noted just three ingredients: cacao, cacao butter and sugar, and even with limited language skills the description of Chuao was clear: “incontestable numéro 1.” I was in. And I realized I’d be a fool not to ask for more.

“Is there another that’s unique?”

“This…but maybe it’s only for people a little bit crazy.”

Perfect. I picked up the Bonnat 100% bar, wrapped in scarlet red to warn of its potency. I thanked the man for his help and made my purchase. Crushing disappointment of late left me aching with hope that I’d just been given some kind of magic. Could it really be?

That night, I pulled out the chocolate to accompany my evening tipple. First, the Chuao. I slid the silver-wrapped bar from the white label. A rich, earthy and subtly fruity fragrance filled my nostrils. After two thunderous snaps, a small rectangular piece slid across my tongue.

 Cocoa butter luxuriously coated my palate with potent, unexpected aromas. The pleasure induced by this alchemic moment escalated as anandamide triggered my heart to swoon, just a little, for the first time in a very long time.

Enchanted and excited, I reached for the 100% bar and eagerly popped a piece. A recklessly powerful blast of roasted creamy darkness filled my mouth. Well conditioned to upheaval of late, I clung to my chair while riding intensely flavored phenylethylamine waves that quickened my pulse. Theobromine soon soothed me into a blissful endorphin hum.

Une petite mort.

Love at first bite.