Latin American tour August 2008 – Day 17 – Panama

A chance to relax and get a lie-in in Panama City before catching our afternoon flight to Bocas del Toro, the cacao production and heavy tourist region in the north west of the country.

Our connection with Panama stared a couple of years ago when we were contacted by two different ex-pats living in Panama and trying to get chocolate projects started in the country. One of these was Margaret Ann, who with her husband Henri Escudero, runs the Jungle Lodge at La Loma – an alternative holiday destination right in the jungle in the Bocas del Toro region, with a working butterfly farm and a small quantity of cacao trees.

If you’ve been to some of our tastings or read our newsletter in the last few years, you’ll know that Margaret and Henri have been supplying Bill McCarrick at Sir Hans Sloane with small amounts of cacao liquor – roughly ground roasted cacao beans. Bill has been turning this into some great finished chocolate using his ‘ChocoEasy’ conching machine.

Given that the liquor has mostly been made by pan roasting over an open fire or in a domestic oven, then hand grinding, the results have been pretty good. I think Bill even bettered his gold award-winning rose petal bar when he made it with the Panama chocolate he’d conched, for the Academy Awards ceremony in April.

Panama has a tiny cacao production in comparison to other countries in the region – 2,000 tonnes per year compared to Ecuador’s 115,000 or Venezuela’s 45,000 or so. There are however, cacao farms laying dormant because local prices are so low, so we’ve been talking for some time about how we could help farmers and the industry in Panama and perhaps help to start a more organised production of quality cacao liquor.

Perhaps in time it might even be possible to produce finished chocolate in Panama, or at least some more rustic products based on rough-ground liquor. This was our chance to investigate the local industry and talk to some of the farmers and businesses we’d been hearing about for the last few years.

All that is to come though. After arriving in Bocas town, we checked into to our lagoon-side hotel and repaired to the waterside bar and restaurant a few doors up at Hotel Angel for margaritas. There we reconnected with Kate Malone and Tom Bouwens – our travelling companions from back in Guatemala. Kate and Tom are spending longer in Panama to work on various projects, including liquor making possibilities.

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