Latin American tour August 2008 – Day 2 – Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

Our host for our first full day in the Dominican Republic was a friend of Lourdes Delgado’s, Jose Antonio Martinez Rojas. Jose Antonio, a previous Chairman of the Council of the ICCO is one of life’s real characters. A successful businessman in his own right and now also running various family businesses, Jose Antonio is an entrepreneur, property developer, collector of exotic plants and experimental cacao farmer. And to add to all that, he is the consulate for Slovakia in the Dominican Republic.

After an early start and the first of too many gorgeous Dominican breakfasts, we set off for Jose Antonio’s family farm in the north western corner of the country, in the Puerto Plata region. Didn’t get too far though, as a tyre burst on the pickup only half an hour out of Santa Domingo, which was kind of surprising considering the high quality of the roads we saw. Dominican Republic is certainly car friendly, and every other roadside lot seemed to be selling the latest new luxury cars, four by fours and trucks.

We were soon back on the road though and on our way to an unscheduled stop, a liquor processing plant in Santiago, Chocolate Antillo, S.A. There we met owner Tony de la Rosa, who showed us round the plant, which consisted of two buildings, the first of which was used for the initial roasted, winnowing and cutting. The rough paste was then sent along a long pipe, almost across the distance of a street, until it reached the other building where the paste was ground into liquor, or the cocoa butter pressed out, leaving a dry paste made into cocoa powder. The buildings were separated to keep out contaminates from the arriving cacao.

After the tour we tried some of Chocolate Antillo’s liquor, which was pretty good. Having been without chocolate for the whole day, I embarrassed myself by going way beyond mere tasting to eating half of the provided pot. A sign that this was good liquor though, bearing in mind it was totally unsweetened.

Now running a little late, we drove on to Mallarno farm, passing along the first road in the Americas, which at its peak feature a plaque dedicated to Colombus. The farm sits on the slopes of the mountains in the north of the island near the coast, and was founded by Jose Antonio’s parents in 1931. The farm grows a mixture of cacao and coffee, along with an exotic plethora of plants and trees brought from all parts of the world.

Though small compared to other operations in the Dominican Republic, Jose Antonio has a very forward looking attitude to post-harvest processing in Mallarno, with five different drying methods in operation. Three of these were experimental, using different combinations of floor tiling with drainage holes and greenhouse type covering. This approach naturally speeds up the drying process, which is better for preserving aromatics present in the beans, and hence flavour.

The most advanced of these used aluminium flooring, which potentially can halve natural drying time. All of these structures were built on stilts or above a pit to maximise airflow. This kind of drying facility won’t be for every farmer, given the high cost, but Jose Antonio is certainly leading the way with these techniques, which we saw adopted by other, larger processing centres on the island.

Fermentation used the standard cascading wooden box method, though Jose Antonio is planning to replace this in the near future. Jose Antonio sells his beans on to various processors in the country, either exporters or liquor producers. We also saw a new inventive process to grind up the dried, left over pods into a rough powder that can be used for composting or added to cattle feed (though in limited proportions, due to the effect of theobromine, which is poisonous to most animals).

We weren’t in the harvest season, but wandering around the plantation we managed to glimpse a few ripe pods, mostly the typical trinitarios of the island. Situated on the mountain slopes, the farm felt like it had a touch of paradise about it and was very different from some of the more regimented farms to be found around the world.

As you can see, we packed a lot into this first day, but our cacao work was not yet done. Our final stop of the day was a processing centre owned by Comercial Roig, C. x A., which was situated near the centre of the country in Duarte province.

Roig buy beans from farmers, which they ferment and dry on site before exporting or selling on to liquor producers. This was impressive sized operation, with perhaps fifty long tunnel drying tents, divided into conventional and organic sections. The area was so big that our host, Francisco Lópes Gascón, drove us round in a golf cart, though being out of season, many of the tents were empty of cacao.

The same was true for the wooden fermentation boxes, though we did manage to see a few boxes on their first day of fermentation.

Following the tour it was back to Roig’s lab to try yet more liquor, which was also quite edible even unsweetened. On our way back to Santo Domingo, we passed some roadside entrances to plantations in Duarte, the sign for one of which featured the magic name and our destination for tomorrow. ‘Los Ancones’. An very eventful first day was over.

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