Latin American tour August 2008 – Day 12 – Chuao, Venezuela

Chuao. It was only half a plan to get there, but from Puerto Colombia in Choroni it’s a 20 minute boat ride. We had the choice between another plantation in Choroni or taking the boat, in the end Chuao won. We were arriving blind, without an invite or pre-arrangement, but we decided to take our chances and see what the day would bring.

Setting off early, we caught a boat carrying a cargo of water and snack food to Chuao – there’s no road, everything has to arrive and leave by boat. We found out later that rumours of a new road to bring in tourists were just that, rumours, and the locals in Chuao would rather keep it that way.

The trip was a little bumpy, but exhilarating. Sooner than we expected, we were pulling up on the beach and then hiking our way the few kilometres up the main road in Chuao to the town and its famous church. We were passed by quite a few trucks and even a bus, all brought in by boat. Although Chuao is cut off by road, there are many boat trips each day carrying passengers, supplies and larger cargo.

Once you’re on the road to Chuao, you’re already among the cacao trees and into the farmed cacao area. Some areas were denser than others, and some had just been cleared. Cacao was everywhere though, a range of varieties and types, as expected. From obvious red/purple trinitarios, to lighter red criollos – mostly young fruit to greener red mixed pods, and a few unusual light brown variations.

One tree had a single stunning orange pod, hanging like a lantern. Later in the village we saw a large, more rounded yellow pod that looked identical to African forasteros. Quite a mix then. Some cleared areas were growing plantain, but we later learned that most of the town’s food was shipped in by boat. We saw one or two cases of black pod, but it looked like the clearing work going on would improve ventilation and prevent this spreading.

Finally we reached the town, a longer walk than I expected. It was kind of strange seeing the famous church front and the drying patio for the first time. Not an anticlimax as such, but have spent time already in Choroni, the style wasn’t so totally unexpected, but nonetheless distinctive. The church was a little more run down than the famous front view landscapes suggest, but impressive all the same.

There was no cacao drying on the church patio when we arrived – we were told later that only the first two day’s drying took place, here, and then only if the sun was really good. This surprised us, as it was already a very hot day, but apparently the cement needs to really heat up before drying begins – a few day’s good sun is required.

We still weren’t sure whether we’d do nothing more than walk round the square and then have to head back down the long track to the port. We soon found what was obviously the main cacao production building and offices, but the whole building was shut and locked up. Andrés asked a local and we were directed to ask for Nora, the cooperative administrator, in the next building along. There we found a young, ebullient, woman having her hair platted by what I guess were members of her extended family.

Andrés explained who we were and why we were so interested in Chuao, and Nora agreed to talk to us. We soon bonded through a mutual love of cacao, chocolate, and Amedei’s Chuao.

Back in the consumer countries, there’s been lots of speculation that beans from Chuao – but not the Chuao cooperative – have been available for sale to chocolate makers, or  there is some doubt as to where the Chuao region ends and therefore dispute over what can and can’t be called Chuao. Nora put us straight on this, as did the geography of the valley.

There’s no road in or out of Chuao, the valley is long and thin, and I just don’t see how any significant quantity of beans could pass through the port without the cooperative’s knowledge. And as far as we could see, there are no other drying or fermentation facilities available in the town, which consists of only a handful of streets. Maybe someone could hike a bag or two over the mountains, but that’s it. So where is all this other Chuao coming from? That’s a question we still don’t have an answer for, but I hope we have time to find out more before leaving Venezuela.

Nora also told us that the rumours of a road being built to give a direct connection to Chuao were unfounded, and in any case a road wouldn’t be welcome. I guess this would open the town up too much, and affect the cooperative’s ability to offer an exclusive supply.

Talking of which, it’s widely known that Amedei’s exclusive contract with the cooperative is currently up for renewal, so Andrés asked the obvious question, what will the cooperative do next? Nora wasn’t giving anything away, but it seems likely that while the arrangement with Amedei will of course continue, other companies could be in the picture in the near future.

Some members of the cooperative have been taking lessons in chocolate making, and we were given a handful of bonbons each to try. So far I’ve not had a chance to try these out of the heat, but a milk chocolate I picked at random was pretty good.

After chatting with Nora, we were shown the fermentation and storage rooms. About 200kg can be fermented at one time, but this small size would not be a problem for continuous fermentation right next to the plantation.

Cacao is only dried on the church patio if it’s hot enough, at other times the beans are gathered up and stored in neat piles in the storage room. After two full days on the patio, the cacao is moved to other drying areas within the town.

Soon we had to say final goodbyes to Nora and Chuao, as our boat back to Puerto Colombia was due at noon. Visiting Chuao had been a wonderful, warm, informative experience. We had been so fortunate to find such a great welcome even with no advanced warning, but I’ve found that’s often the way with chocolate -sometimes the best plans are the unmade ones.

After taking a passenger boat back to Puerto Colombia, our taxi picked us up and took us back over the winding mountain road to Caracas.

In the evening we visited the home of Kai Rosenberg, owner of the Monterosa plantation we’d visited the previous day. We sat in the garden drinking whisky with coconut water, discussing the problems of producing cacao in Venezuela, the state of the fine chocolate industry and the hope for more and better fine chocolate in the future.

Later, back at the flat, I was able to indulge in that special itinerant traveller’s treat, clean laundry.

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