Arrived in Lima. It’s big and noisy but not too hot, the people are gentle and friendly, and it’s cheap. Been listening to combi VW style vans packed with locals tooting through till the wee hours of the morning. What I can remember of Spanish has served us well so far. Will spend a couple of days here before flying north to Chiclayo. Food is very salty but promising, looking forward to the national dish ceviche: raw fish marinated in citrus…
Adjust to climate. Ceviche turned out to be delicious.
Flight to Chiclayo, met with Maranon chocolate crew. Visit to busy city market selling everything under the sun, meat, fish, shoes, machetes, stolen genuine pre-inca relics, mescaline cactus(!), “love” potions, pots and pans, school uniforms… Lunch. 6 hour drive through stunning Andes. Passed 100 death markers by side of road. Our bean man Brian negotiated out of bribe with road police. Arrived in base town. Zero tourism here, sole purpose of town is for agricultural goods to move through. Busy social town square. Couple of beers. Bed.
7am start, 2 hour drive to countryside, cross Maranon river by current powered ferry to the project “office”/dried cacao storage/Brian’s bedroom. Food very basic. 3 miles to Don Noe’s 12 hectare farm (4×4). Met Don Noe (Noah). Turkeys, butterflies, hens, guinea pigs, dogs roam around farmhouse. Coconuts, bananas, coffee, star fruit, mango, avocado and many more types of fruit. Very diverse.
First cacao pods only 10m from farmhouse, all growing underneath the shade of mainly cedar and banana trees. A walk through the densely forested farm begins, guiding us through the types of cacaos on the farm including pure nacional and CCN-51 (learned a lot about this today, too much to post now) and a nacional and ‘criollo’ mix. Differences in appearance and raw flavour of these strains demonstrated. Enlightening.
Some loss of bananas due to drought last year means heat damage to now exposed cacao. Everything here depends on each other. Harvested decomposing cacao husks on floor create midges which pollinate cacao flowers which turn to cacao pods (and repeat..) rats eat pods digest seeds (beans) poop them out and plant the seeds. Very bio-diverse, in fact the most I have ever seen on any farm ever. No fields here. A jumble of carefully selected and planted mixed plants.
Opened and tried various cacao in raw state. Learned a lot, opened one pod that had over 90% white beans. Educational.
Long lunch of freshly killed turkey with tatties and rice, prepared by Noah’s wife. Cocktails made from cacao juice.
Long talk with Noah, lots of questions on particularly on economics, ethics and aspirations answered. Nice guy, relaxed, good heart, hard working life for him and his family. Gave his son Max a bag of soor plooms (scottish sweeties).
Drive back to Brians cacao processing plant, several guys turning beans in fermentation. Many beans drying in sun. Excellent conditions, he is managing this with complete integrity to the quality, claims of 100% fermentation and pure nacional are genuine, he is obsessed, I like that. Secret room that hides how he deals with the vinegar content after 100% fermentation. Wasn’t allowed in.
Drive back to base town, lots to think about. Time to head out into the dusty night for cerveza.. amazing day.
Drove high into countryside (4000ft) to visit Don Fortunato’s farm. Great talk with Dan Pearson, co-founder of maranon chocolate, along the winding bumpy roads. Humidity hugs the lush green hills and valleys, we are given a break from scorching heat today, in place of a couple of heavy downpours which are a welcome sight for a Scotsman. At the farmhouse we are greeted by Fortunato, his son Jose and grandson Loui. We get along instantly, very easy and likeable characters, very patient with us and all our questions. Fortunato asks us questions about Scotland, we discuss the differences, mainly in agriculture and pace of life. I hand over several bars of chocolate made from their beans to Fortunato, thanks to the cooler weather they are in good shape. Coloured pencils, crayons and scottish sweets for Loui and his sister. Fortunato brings us to their family bedroom and digs out a poly bag, inside there is a giant colourful poster / banner of cacao that Dan must have had made for some reason unknown. He tells me it was used as their dinner table cloth but now they have a new linen one with clear plastic to protect it. We are really touched by this gift, a tear makes it way down my cheek as I write this. We take so much for granted in the UK.
We begin a tour of the farm. This high up there is lots of coffee, which is Fortunato’s best cash crop. It is very unusual to find cacao growing this high, mixed together with coffee. The height must contribute to the flavours. There is an abundance of tropical fruits all growing together with the cacao. Glossy pods jut out of the trunks everywhere, in green, yellow and deep reds. Silent moments amongst the trees and pods focus my overwhelmed mind.
I talk a lot with Jose, I confirm his suspicions about men wearing skirts in Scotland by showing him a picture from our wedding, great laughter. On hearing Friederike is from Germany his first word is Hitler, which causes an awkward silence. Jose studied history.
For a short time I swap my £900 digital slr camera with Loui (9 years old) for his slingshot. I show him how to take photos, his younger sister Janis gets involved and we take loads of photos. Loui is walking barefoot and gets a cut in his foot, I offer to do something like wrap it but Jose says no, Loui is basically told to man up, and wear shoes. Eventually after many ‘ows’ Jose gives Loui one of his shoes. I get pretty good with the sling shot.
Back at the farms we begin lunch prepared by Fortunato’s wife, turkey pasta and potatoes, avocado salad. Lots of lime juice to season, home made lemonade and excellent marinade on the turkey.
A long winding and thoughtful drive back across river follows. A combination of bumpy roads and foreign bacteria leads to discomfort that can only be helped by a long period of stillness and sleep. Thank goodness I brought those earplugs, as it would seem Peru never sleeps.
Harvest day. Heavy rainfall in neighbouring Ecuador means the river is too high to cross by the vehicle ferry, so 4×4′s abandoned and we pile into a small riverboat to battle a ferocious current, the locals are totally unphased by this, it’s a regular occurrence. Not long after we are across, news of the river calming means a trip back to get the 4×4′s. A fight nearly breaks out in an argument over who goes first in a long queue of vehicles. We need the 4×4′s today for the long trip up high to Don Rigalo’s farm.
Don Rigalo’s daughter is first to greet us, she runs up to give me and Dan’s legs a hug, she must be about 8 but her growth has been stunted by down syndrome, she is confident, loveable and talkative. We greet the Don, his wife and son Dennis. Brian has brought a team of his workers to help with the harvest so pleasant exchanges are made and work begins. Turns out the latest grandson was named after Brian!
Don Rigalo has an area on his farm exclusive to cacao, there are no companion / canopy plants because the trees are old enough to be big enough to provide their own shade. Bright yellow, red and green pods jut out of the trunks all over the place. We are shown how to harvest the high pods using a long pole with a very sharp hooked knife at the end. It’s not easy but enjoyable enough work, I should think much preferable to other labour on the farm. The Don and the workers knock the pods off the trees and the woman and kids collect them into the carrying sacks. A great pile of ripe pods begins to take shape in one spot where we gather to learn how to break them open. Traditionally a machete is used to cut around the pod before opening and tipping the white fleshy beans out. Brian insists on farmers breaking the pods against a rock, a sharp stick or another pod. This prevents any damage to the precious beans inside from the machete. He is very particular about which beans go into his chocolate, anything below standard goes into a separate pile.
Brian’s operation is unique in collecting the fresh beans from the farms, he needs to do this so he can process them at his plant and give them the extremely high level of care they need to make fine chocolate. Usually farmers do a very poor quality fermentation, then dry the beans on a tarpaulin placed on a concrete floor somewhere around the farm. This means terrible flavours from absorbing the surrounding aromas. It is also very unhygienic with hens, dogs, cats and other farm animals wandering as they like about the farm. These beans will be sold at low cost to the mainstream market, ending up in a Cadbury’s / Hershey’s / Mars type product. The company will roast out any bacteria and mask over the poor flavours with other ingredients. If a Cadbury’s customer saw the hygiene standards on these farms they may be shocked, it’s a long way from the glossy wrappers. The rotting pods and poor beans Brian won’t accept will be sold to a middleman and make their way to the mass market. Brian offers a service to his farmers of taking those discard beans to the middleman for the farmers to save them the work. Don Rigalo doesn’t have a vehicle, and lives miles up a rocky track in the mountains. On the way up we passed several farmers moving goods by donkey. There are lots of donkeys here.
Don Rigalo’s daughter wants me to photograph her, she is holding a pod, the pod is a genetic oddity with a strange shape. I take the photo and don’t think anything much of it until a couple of moments later. I don’t think she realised either, I don’t know.
Brian collects cacao from over 50 farmers. He pays significantly more than the going rate and offers help when he can to improve their quality of life. This could be paying for medical expenses, helping to buy a new generator, or helping to organise, inform and empower the local cacao association. Collection from the farm, higher prices and removal of the need to process the cacao seem to be Brian’s biggest attraction for the farmers. Brian however is evidently not rich, he stays in the same type of accommodation as everyone else here and shares his room with the processing plant manager when on site. They both share their room with a couple of tons of cacao.
I ask Brian about the kids who are helping their parents with the harvest. They are on school holidays, are happy, relaxed and under no great pressure. It is clear to me that they are not being exploited. They will help out on the farm in a similar way that families in developed countries expect of their children, only in Peru the families have much, much less income. South American culture is very different from known exploitation in parts of Africa. Farmers here could never afford the certification without help to be fair-trade or organic, they can’t afford fertilisers or pesticides, so almost everything is by default organic. There is a growing trend amongst chocolate makers and cacao growers that fair-trade is a false economy and is being manipulated to the benefit of anyone but the farmers. Personally I believe fair trade has its place, in the Ivory Coast, Africa particularly, and that we owe a great deal to what fair-trade has achieved. It should however be a base line and we can do much better for the farmers and the consumers with uncertified direct trade. A customer who wants to consume ethical chocolate owes it to the farmers to look beyond the first step of fair trade and into a more informed consumerism. That requires transparency from the producers which is what we hope to achieve.
The beautiful white aromatic cacao is emptied into clear buckets. Once the three 20l buckets are full and all the pods opened, a set of scales is produced. The buckets are weighed, the Don looks on attentively. An exchange of money is made. The Don looks pleased.
We share corn cooked up by the Don’s wife and I talk with Dennis about school, he is bright and I wish I could speak better Spanish to find out more from him. I give him my last bar of chocolate, and he goes to hide it somewhere cool.
We say our farewells and start the bumpy trip back down to the processing plant. Spectacular views over the Andes.
At the plant the cacao is first tipped into a box that lets the juice run out. We drink the juice which is totally delicious, flavours of peaches and elderflower with the consistency of nectar. A discussion follows about the lack of cacao flesh products on the market, this stuff is fantastic.
Beans are tipped out into a massive tray and we go through to pull out any which have germinated or have damage. Again Brian is impressively obsessive about the quality. They are thoroughly mixed before being poured into fermentation boxes. We talk a lot about processing the beans, different styles and cultural preferences for chocolate.
Back to the river to find a huge truck has just been brought over on the tiny ferry. We wait our turn then head back to base town in the evening light, once again thoughtful from the events of the day. Also exhausted from the work, delirious from heat and with a very unsettled inner workings from the food.
My first Pisco Sour (national drink). very strong. Probably killed off some of that unwelcome bacteria…
Wild white cacao. Today we are heading high up into the mountains, to one of the highest cacao found in the world at 4100ft. This is exceptional for cacao which is typically found growing at 2000ft to 3000ft.
This time I sit on the back of the 4×4, this gives me a great view but also it is like the difference between watching everything in a cinema and real life. Motor cyclists will say the same feeling applies to bike vs car. I can smell and hear the countryside, it is exhilarating. The roads are very poor and I can hear Brian in his Yankee accent shouts “Gonna lock it down” “oh yeah baby” he is thrilled to use the trucks full ability. I get thrown about in the back like a rodeo rider.
The further we get up the track the more stares I get from the locals, many take a double take to see this ginger gringo, one girl just plain bursts out laughing at the sight of me. Only a handful of whites have made it up here before. A couple of kids on seeing me dive into the bushes to hide, we make bird calls to each other. I am having a blast.
It takes about an hour to get up to our destination. We are greeted by Don Roberto and his family, welcomed into what must be a part of their house which also holds a community shop. It is a big room, the walls shelved with oil, sweets and basics. There are large sacks of rice on the floor and strings of plastic toys hang from the ceilings.
Roberto’s family arrange seats for us. There is a gentle formality to the meeting which was not so prevalent with the other farmers, Roberto talks to us about his decision to make a future in this very special white cacao that Brian is helping to create a market for. The story is told of how Roberto heard of a gringo in the town below who was looking for white cacao, just at the same time Roberto was about to cut down these trees. He felt the white cacao was an oddity lacked the bitterness which he enjoyed! Roberto turned up at Brian’s office to find out more (not easy without a car to get up and down the mountain). Brian on hearing the farmers story of 100% white beans was immediately interested. The 23 wild trees were saved.
Roberto has made 12,000 clones from the wild trees. He is very pleased to announce that the future of this strain is now secure. We are all very pleased too! A very famous cacao from Venezuela, known as ‘porcelana’ produces some of the finest cacao in the world. I love this cacao, but have been told by Brian that chocolate companies producing porcelana (which will go unnamed) can get away with as little as 10% white beans. The nacional we are using averages 42% white beans, and Roberto’s clones will produce 100% whites!! This is only possible due to the isolation of the farm from other cacao plantations, preventing any unwanted cross-pollination.
We begin the 1/2 mile walk up steep muddy paths to the wild trees, we are calm but deeply excited, the air is humid but pleasant and fairly cool, motionless fog sits in patches around the surrounding hills. The fog, like the people is in no great hurry. Roberto’s daughter insists on carrying Friederike’s back pack, his son cuts walking sticks out of the forest for us. His family is really beautiful, so nice.
We pass through the cloning gardens, Roberto has laboured hard to achieve these. Stunning views over the Andes. Coffee, maize, and fruits are also farmed here.
Heading up a very steep wild incline, I begin to notice green, hardy pods. The trees have been left to grow here, they are old, wild and gnarly. The pods are much tougher looking, adjusted to holding their own amongst all the other wild plants. More and more of them appear out of the lush green. Brian breaks a few pods off the tree and cuts them down the middle with the machete. Clean, crisp white cacao presents itself to us like a maiden hidden in the wild.
We find an old tree and spend some time sitting together, taking in the sights, smells and noises of the whole area. Before we leave I climb to the top of the tree to be greeted by sunshine.
Plodding back through the mud we make our way back to Roberto’s place. The kids find us funny, juggling sweet lemons.
At Roberto’s house we toast to the future of white cacao, offer our gratitude and ambitions to return to him in the coming years to bring chocolate made from his beans. He is very enamoured by this prospect, a great guy with a beautiful relaxed smile.
We all know here that what Roberto desperately needs, is not chocolate, but an income from his efforts. He is hopeful that his sons will be able to continue farming and living here at altitude. If the project does not succeed, his sons will need to make their way to the cities to find work and I can tell that these peaceful souls in their isolation would be damaged by the harder life awaiting them below.
We all hope that there will be a growing market for fine flavour, ethical chocolate in the developed countries which will make all the difference to these communities.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.