Another early start and we were picked up in the impressive Rizek minibus. Idelfonso Medina, my original introduction to the Rizek company back in London in 2005, was detained elsewhere and unable to meet us, so instead we were greeted by Massimiliano Wax, Rizek’s Director of Sales and Marketing. Better known as Max (and hence the unforgettable Max Wax), Massimiliano is Italian by birth and extraction, spent a good many years in Brazil, and is now a confirmed Dominican.
Max is a great host, and on our way to the Rizek properties in the Duarte province in the middle of the country, we stopped off at an impressive patisserie, where Max treated us to a selection of local pastries, delicacies and breads. One again, Dominican food seemed just too good to avoid.
Our first stop was at the largest of Rizek’s three collection and fermentation centres. This was a very impressive, modern facility, the largest I’ve seen. We first looked round the outer reception centre where beans in their pulp (known as ‘wet’ or ‘green’ in the industry) or whole pods are received. Above the main receiving area was a ‘control tower’ type glass office overseeing the whole operation.
From this area, the beans or pods were channelled by belt into the main fermentation and drying area, just beyond the main ‘Berlin Wall’ as Max put, so no photos beyond this point I’m afraid. Behind the ‘Wall’ were row upon row of fermentation plastic boxes, using a very advanced version of the common cascading fermentation technique. Each of the rows contained about fifty sets of boxes, there were perhaps 7 rows in total. None of these were more than three or four years old, and the newest had not yet even been put into use.
Rizek have moved to plastic after much experimentation and blind tasting by their customers. The boxes are washed down after each use, and are stacked three high, with the central box feeding another two boxes either side after one day’s fermentation, while the other boxes hold the beans for a further two days each, making around five days in total. Each batch is carefully controlled and labelled, so it is possible for the company to ferment both large, bulk, batches of beans, and tiny amounts taking up only one set of 3 boxes.
The drying was done long greenhouse type tents, all covered in special UV filtering plastic and fitted with infra red heaters for when rain would otherwise slow the process.
Rizek test every batch after fermentation in the on site labs, roasting and grinding a small quantity of beans to produce a basic liquor. After the tour, we got to try some of these in a taste test. A couple of the liquors were experimental developments by Rizek and hadn’t yet found a home in a chocolate company. I have to say one of these was fantastic, with amazing floral flavours. I just hope a forward-thinking chocolate maker takes up these beans and we could be in for a fantastic new chocolate. (Any takers?)
Soon it was time to head off for the first plantation, Esmerelda. This was a very beautiful setting, with column like rows of cacao planted four by four, creating an elegant cathedral like setting, enhanced by the base of the trunks of the massive shade trees. The cacao here is some of Rizek’s finest, as this is used as a research and cloning station. Rizek consider the cacao to be so good in fact, that they have not yet let any chocolate maker use the name of the plantation. Must be saving it for something really good.
Smack in the middle of Esmerelda is a very well equipped and modern lab and kitchen. It’s possible for chocolate makers and chefs to come and stay here to work on their own particular chocolate. A quite fantastic opportunity, you can develop while looking out into the plantation through the all round windows.
We ate a great lunch here right in the middle of the plantation. I was pretty much in heaven.
Things soon got even better though, as we moved onto the plantation next door for a real end of pilgrimage ‘pyramid’ moment. Los Ancones. This time the trees were laid out in a three by three arrangement. We saw about five different varieties growing, including the islands typical trinitarios. I didn’t get to write down all the names of these, but will post them later with some of the many photos I took as I stood enchanted in the green shade of the cacao.
Couldn’t stay too long, as by this time I think Lourdes had had a little too much of wandering around cacao trees and was now waiting in the car. The high heels couldn’t have helped either. So I whipped out a couple of well travelled Michel Cluizel bars for a quick tourist photo. A fantastic, beautiful moment. If all the trip is as good as this, then it’s going to be a hell of a trip.
We finished the day meeting up again with Jose Antonio Martinez Rojas and his wife Ana to enjoy some local food and dancing, which we merely watched I hasten to add as there was no way we could compete with those Dominican moves.