This past summer I had the opportunity to visit multiple cacao farms in the Peruvian Amazon basin with a group of 60 chocolate makers from 16 different counties. The trip was organized by USAID to promote Peruvian cacao exports. Maverick Chocolate has used Peruvian beans since the beginning – our Morropon and Tumbes are two of our customers’ favorite flavors.
The trip started in Lima with a tradeshow and exhibition from local growers and chocolatiers. I was able to sample a wide variety of cacao beans and chocolate. The most amusing part was the fashion show with chocolate covered dresses. The business aspects were also beneficial as I met with export companies, more co-operatives, and farmers.
The trip continued in Tingo Maria. We flew from Lima to Pucallpa then by bus to Tingo Maria. The countryside is rugged but lush. This area alternates between mountainous and Amazon River tributaries. We had to swerve around fallen boulders and washed out highways. Landslides are a serious concern and hazard on the highways. Crossing the rivers was done on ferries of old steel hulls strapped together with logs and an outboard motor. We drove onto the logs and away we went.
There are still some dangers in the area. Drugs are not completely eradicated so we had to cautious. In several areas we were accompanied by armed guards or militia. Trucks would lead our bus with several more following behind. Armed guards stood in the beds of the trucks scanning the area for trouble. I never noticed anything suspicious so it appeared that the militia were effective. The area we were in was home to the Shining Light terrorist group in the 1990’s. We actually drove past their now abandoned fortress. Life for the Peruvians appeared to be more relaxed for in that same town we noticed many teenagers texting on their phones while younger children played in the streets.
Most cacao farms are small plots usually owned and managed by one family. Cacao can be grown in open fields but it prefers to have some shade so it was common to see papaya and banana trees interspersed with the cacao. I was surprised to see so many different shapes and colors of cacao pods. Some were bright yellow, purple, and others green and red. I didn’t know this but the colors indicate different cacao varieties and species.
After the cacao pods are collected they are taken to the local co-op, usually in the town square. Here we had the opportunity to harvest pods, cut them open and scoop out the seeds. The fruit of the cacao tree is a mucilage that surrounds the beans. To eat the fruit, one grabs a few beans and place them in your mouth. Using your teeth, you scrap off the fruit then spit out the beans. The fruit is sweet but a bit slimy. I’m honestly not a big fan of the fruit but it’s a fun experience to try.
At the co-ops the pods are cut open and the fresh fruit and seeds are placed in wooden boxes to ferment. This is where a lot of the flavors are developed in the cacao beans and the fruit is fermented away. After about three days the beans are poured into drying racks. After drying for several weeks, the beans are packaged in the burlap sacks and are ready to ship.
We spent five days visiting different farms and co-ops before retracing our steps back to Pucallpa, Lima, and then home. I had a wonderful time on this trip and I’ve very grateful to the USAID for organizing this trip. I learned a lot about cacao from pod to bean, built relationships face-to-face with cacao farmers and became friends with fellow chocolate makers from around the world.