I love Venezuela. Of the fifty-some countries I’ve explored, Venezuela still tops my wanderlust list. Maybe it’s the tropical energy that pulses through both air and people or the range of adventurous possibilities, from canoeing through tepuis surrounding Angel Falls to paragliding over the northern Andes.
But who am I kidding? My heart for Venezuela is fundamentally cacao shaped. I was first drawn to Venezuela in 2009 by its revered cacao. The highlight of that two-month adventure was a visit to famed Chuao; in fact, it was one of the highlights of my life. There’s some strange magic to that place that’s hard to articulate, an alchemic mix of tropical heat, coveted cacao, passionate people and a large pinch of laid-back crazy that, for me, created chemistry more irresistibly intoxicating than any I’d ever experienced.
No surprise, then, that I returned in 2011 to explore even more of Venezuela’s venerable cacao origins. Venezuela is historically considered the birthplace of the finest cacao, a fact overshadowed of late by Venezuela’s oil-producing capabilities and its tragically escalated post-Chavez political and social unrest.
I’d planned to hop along the Caribbean coastal villages of Parque Nacional Henri Pittier and beyond, names synonymous with some of the finest and most prized cacao origins in the world: Cuyagua, Ocumare de la Costa, Choroni, Rio Caribe and, of course, Chuao. But a smashed kneecap suffered from a motorbike spill in Caracas kept me from hopping quite so much. I focused first on a hobble to Ocumare.
Once past the bus ride nearly as perilous as the ride that’d busted my knee, I managed to stumble without falling upon Ocumare de la Costa. Ocumare is known for its eponymous criollo cacao strains and hybrids, and, with a little help from a friendly local, I soon found myself standing before its literal birthplace: the Corporación Socialista del Cacao. Just around that corner you see above lay this most precious nursery, filled with young, growing Ocumare 61 siblings. Who knows where these genetically gifted offspring would head off to upon graduation, but some had matriculated just behind this shaded sanctuary.
With nature and nurture revealed in one fell swoop, my guide escorted me just up the road to Ocumare’s cacao processing facility, the Central de Beneficio del Cacao. Here, beautiful beans in pods harvested from proud mamas are carefully fermented and then dried for shipment to chocolate makers including Amano, Woodblock and Fresco in the States.
The Central de Beneficio del Cacao’s fermentary uses a series of wooden boxes covered with banana leaves to ferment their criollo & trinitario beans over the course of a handful of days. The vinegary, slightly funky aroma belies the pleasant, fruity flavors created during this critical stage of flavor development.
After fermentation, each batch of wet beans is spread evenly across large cement beds. The beans are regularly turned and tended as they dry slowly in the sticky Venezuelan heat. Once dessicated, the cacao is packed in large burlap sacks for sale within Venezuela and around the world to the premium cacao market.
Some beans don’t have far to travel to become their deliciously chocolatey selves, and thankfully neither did I to find such transformed beans. Just around the corner, this lovely and talented lady indulged me patiently with a mesmerizingly diverse range of cacao delectables in her cocina de chocolate. My favorite was a translucent cacao and pulp pudding-like confection that was light, mildly sweet, creamy and gone before I felt I’d begun. See? It didn’t even make it into the picture. Her chocolate guarapita, a rich, creamy liqueur, lasted slightly longer, as did her rustic, flavorful chocolate. Of course my fond memories still linger.
It’s now been five years since I first fell for Venezuela, and I hope to return again; in fact, I can’t imagine not. There are too many origins I haven’t yet visited and too many people I’d love to visit again. I fervently wish that peace will soon find this crazy, vibrant, magnetic, most magical country in part so that it may continue its legacy of fine cacao.