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.