Latin American tour August 2008 – Day 6 – Guatemala

A busy schedule today and the start of a few days of intense travelling.

We were picked up early by Roberto Deleón, President of ANAKAKAW, who drove us to the Ministry of Economics. ANAKAKAW had arranged a meeting with Lic. Jorge R. Castro Delgado (Lourdes’s namesake), the Vice Minister of Economics, to discuss the cacao revitalisation project and gain the government’s support. This was a sensitive issue, because previous NGO activity in the area had not gone too well, and from what we were told, significant amounts of money were lost with not a single sack of cacao produced.

A new government has just been elected in Guatemala, so it was important for ANAKAKAW to get off on the right foot. Also on our agenda was gaining the Guatemalan Government’s support for the proposed Fine of Flavor Cacao Association.

The aim of this is to create a new organisation, ideally within the umbrella of the ICCO, which will give the fine cacao producing countries a greater voice within the chocolate world. Currently the international cacao trade is dominated by the big bulk cacao producers and the industrial confectionary companies in consumer countries. As we all know, the chocolate market is changing rapidly, and the smaller cacao producing countries, with the potential to produce better quality cacao could really benefit from an organisation providing mutual support and knowledge sharing.

Fine cacao needs a market though, so the idea is to directly involve fine cacao consumers – whether chocolate makers, chefs, chocolatiers or public consumers – to ensure that the cacao produced meets the needs of fine chocolate consumers. In my experience, the cacao and chocolate industries have suffered from a lack of communication and understanding in the past. For consumers to really buy in to fine chocolate, they need to be able follow the production back to its source, just like you’d expect for a good wine.

Lourdes, who has been working on this project for several years, made what was as far as I could tell an excellent presentation to the Vice Minister (my poor Spanish let me down here), which I understand was received very well. I also tried to put across my version of the consumer point of view – that we are hungry for knowledge and want to be involved, and, frankly, we want more good chocolate!

Buoyed up by our successful meeting and walking away with gift packs from the Vice Minister full of Guatemalan made goodies, we made a stop off at the city’s main market for some gift shopping. The upper level of the market was full of indigenous crafts, very attractive but a little tourist oriented. The lower floor was more interesting, with vegetable and crafts markets presumably aimed at local trade. Here we were able to buy a half pound of cacao beans at a stall selling loose pulses and grains, along with some locally produced cacao blocks for drinking chocolate, though we were soon to get some of these from a much more direct source.

After the market and lunch, we all set off to visit a traditional chocolate maker in the Guatemala City district of Mixto, which is known as the leading centre of artisanal chocolate processing in Guatemala. Here we visited a very small but productive chocolate maker, making traditional rough ground sweetened cacao liquor, widely used by the locals – though cacao is nothing like as popular as it once was and has largely been replaced by coffee as the favoured national drink.

The main work in the factory went on in one large room, which when we arrived was being used to grind maize into tortilla paste. Chocolate production soon got going though as the two cacao grinding machines were put into use, operated by small artisans hiring the machines from the workshops owner to grind cacao, which they will later turn into flat round slices of sweetened cacao at home.

The beans had already been hand peeled and roasted in a pan, and tasted pretty good from what we tried, if a little over-roasted. The roughly broken up beans were then fed through the grinder several times, until the resulting liquor was hot and running smoothly. We got to try it at this point, and there was something very special about sampling hot, freshly made liquor straight from a very simple mechanical grinder. I could have eaten that all day, and it was great just as it was.

Economics and local taste dictated otherwise though, and the next step was to add sugar – a lot of sugar – and continue grinding. The final mixture was 10 parts cacao to 35 parts sugar. Juan Francisco Mollinedo told me that you could judge the state of the Guatemalan economy by how much cacao is in the chocolate mix – sugar is cheaper than cacao.

This was an enchanting experience, even if we were rather in the way as the workshop was due to close in half an hour – everyone was rushing about, dodging our cameras and questions.

The owner was very welcoming though, and by the end of the visit we had bonded as only chocolate friends can, with plenty of group photos and I was able to give a small sample of fine chocolate from my camera bag (this stuff is getting precious – I seem to be giving chocolate away like a calling card everywhere we go.) In this case, all I had was a sample of Valrhona Al Paco, from beans from Ecuador. One day soon I hope there will be a fine chocolate made from Guatemalan beans.

The day was far from over though, next we set off for our overnight destination, Antigua, the original capital of Guatemala before an earthquake prompted the building of the current Guatemala City, about an hours drive away. Though awash with tourists, Antigua is a very, very beautiful city, with a very safe feeling about it. Our hotel was in an old traditional house, four sides around a courtyard. The place was just heavenly and I could have stayed a week.

International fine cacao and chocolate association

After settling in, we sat down for what I think will be looked back on as quite a historic meeting. In our correspondence prior to the trip, Juan had discussed the idea of an international association to promote fine cacao, which fitted very well with Lourdes’s goals for a fine and flavour cacao association. Lourdes has already been lobbying to create the organisation in other countries, and has the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador and others on board already, as well as the ICCO.

I was present as an unelected representative for fine chocolate consumers, along with Kate Malone, Tom and Emily Stone. Also present were Roberto Deleón and Astrid Ortiz –  members of ANAKAKAW, and chocolate maker, Edgar Chávez.

There was a real ‘meeting of minds’ feeling to the session, and any feared differences in objectives were smoothed away. At the end of the meeting Lourdes, Juan and I were given the task to come up with a proposal for the formation of the organisation, which can then be used to recruit and to agree with prospective member countries.

These are really early days, but I believe this meeting was a real beginning for an international cooperation between fine cacao producers and fine chocolate makers and consumers. The result, I hope, will be more and better fine chocolate, greater benefits for producer countries and a better chance to recover and preserve the world’s cacao heritage.

We left for dinner, our heads dizzy with hope and possibilities. For a calming influence, we ate in the Santa Domingo hotel in Antigua, which is a rebuilt Franciscan convent that was destroyed by an earthquake. This was an amazing, restful, dreamlike venue, well worth a visit if you are in the area. With beers and margaritas in the bar, another eventful and productive day comes to an end.

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