Andrés and I took a bus out of Caracas to Maracay, where we’d arranged a taxi to take us on to Choroni, The route took us over the heights outside Caracas, a sudden, winding climb into the hills, with much cooler temperatures and stunning views back to Caracas. A beautiful, dream-like trip through the forest.
After about an hour we dropped down again into Choroni, and the driver took us almost to the gate of the Hacienda Monterosa plantation, owned by Kai Rosenburg, who currently works very closely with Valrhona, supplying beans for some of their best chocolates.
We had to walk the last few hundred metres, over a footbridge and past the first electricity plant in Venezuela – a hydro-electric plant converted into a museum and now disused and completely abandoned.
Monterosa is made up of several plantations joined into a single estate. We crossed the river and entered through the entrance to La Sabaneta, one of the original smaller plantations that make up the estate.
We walked up to the hacienda, with breakfast waiting to greet us. We ate overlooking the patio, where cacao was drying, laid out in rough circles with the cacao in parallel rows, except for one end, where two or three perpendicular rows formed a kind of base to this pattern. I’ve no idea why the beans are laid out this way; I guess it’s just tradition.
After we finished a very fine, traditional breakfast, the patron of the estate, Mateo – who in five years has worked his way up from labourer to farm manager, asked us if we wanted the ‘long’ or ‘short’ tour, to which of course we replied ‘long’. Very long as it turned out, but very rewarding.
Monterosa is by far the most beautiful plantation I have visited, with a forest garden feel, and has actually been landscaped, we later learned. There’s a sense of intense growth and greenness, while at the same time a feeling of openness and light.
Much of the land was being replanted with either seedlings or grafts of a tree with green pods with white beans and a high proportion of criollo. This is part of a project to recover the original criollo crosses of the region, as introduced at some point by the Spanish in the countries early history.
Mateo cut us a pod from a tree and gently hacked it open with his machete. We tried the pulp around the beans, one bean at a time. Biting a bean revealed a pure white colour inside.
The flavour was amazing. High, sweet acid with full citric fruit, fading after about 20 seconds. After spitting out the bean, the clean citrus continued for a very, very long time.
The flavour reminded me of the fruitiness of Manjari on a good day. This was by far the best pulp I’d ever tried.
Not long after we found a trinitario pod with a red/purple skin. Although the plantation is trying to convert to growing purely the recovered Venezuelan high-criollo type with the white beans, the actual base trees that the white-beaned shoots are grafted onto are trinitarios. Despite the best efforts of Mateo and his workers, the base trees sometimes flower and this leads to crosses with the criollo and hence the purple pods, which have purple seeds inside.
We tried the pulp of this trinitario cross, and the flavour profile was considerably different. This time the acid lacked sweetness and soon disappeared. Towards the end there was a distinct milk, lactose note, then after spitting out the bean the length was negligible. I’ve tasted this milk note in nearly all the pulp I’ve tried before, and I feel that it’s related to the milk and coffee notes that crop up in nearly all chocolate made with forestero beans and that are detectable in many trinitarios as well.
For all you academics out there, I’d really like to see a study that relates the flavour of fresh pulp to the flavours found in fermented, dried beans, roasted beans, and finished chocolate. I’d suggest this needs to use human tasters, not just chemical analyses, because while subjective, too much of the current research in cacao ignores how it actually tastes.
So today I really learnt something – always try eating the pulp of the cacao pods if you visit a cacao farm, the experience can be very revealing.
The ‘Venezuelan criollo’ also had thicker, greener and broader leaves than I’m used to seeing, so much so that at first I mistook some of the trees for something other than cacao, especially the younger ones. I’m not sure though if this is all down to the species, or partly the result of the lush, green environment of Monterosa.
There’s a lot of experimentation going on as well, with some areas growing grafted white criollo and others growing trees from seed, to make a comparison of yield and cross pollination with the graft base tree – the grafted trees tend to give a better yield, but you have the risk of pollination from the base, despite attempts to coat the base in copper paint to prevent flowering.
We saw constant clearing work going on in the farms, and all the land was very well tended, while maintaining a wild garden feel.
In between extensive walks in the plantation, Mateo showed us the farm’s small fermentation room. This was a simple, single row three box arrangement, where batches of white beans spend two days in first the top box, then another two in the second level box – four days in total – while purple beans have an extra day in the bottom box, five in total, The beans are then dried in the central courtyard of the farm.
After lemonade to revive us, we set off again and explored some nursery areas of the plantation, where seedlings for both cacao and shade trees were grown.
Monterosa is a very beautiful estate, and a lot of thought has gone into both the layout and care of the land, and experimentation aimed a growing better cacao. Well worth a visit and the farmhouse, La Sabaneta, has a very beautiful suite of rooms overlooking the drying patio available to rent, though don’t expect cacao heaven to come cheap.