As the sun beats down to dry cherished Criollo beans in the main square in Chuao, residents of the village in mountainous northern Venezuela simply say: Behold the world’s best cocoa.
Of course, people in other countries, with chocolate on their happy faces, may beg to differ.
“If you are born in Chuao, your life is tied up with cacao,” Alcides Herrera said, referring to the cacao tree which yields the cocoa bean from which chocolate is made.
Since 1976, Herrera’s company, Empresa Campesina Chuao, has produced Venezuela’s only cocoa beans with a coveted appellation certifying their origin.
“As a kid, for example, when I was passing through the square, and you could feel a rainstorm closing in, you would stop to help gather up the beans,” Herrera continued.
“Ours are the world’s best cocoa beans. That has been certified and experts from many countries agree,” he said. “We process by hand with techniques that have been passed down for 400 years.”
More than 80 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from the Forastero Cacao Tree and less than one-fifth from Chuao’s Criollo.
Many experts believe the Criollo around here has a singular, tastier bean and they are top-of-the-list ingredients for many of the world’s top chocolate-makers.
Beans from Chuao total about 16 tonnes to 18 tonnes a year; it’s a tiny figure compared with the 18,000 tonnes Venezuela produces each year.
Recently, looking to boost output if possible, the government deemed cocoa beans a strategic crop. Now, 35 percent of the annual take goes to a German firm; 35 percent goes to a new state Venezuelan Cocoa Bean Co; and the remaining 30 percent to local producers.
“We have our eyes on the sky to see if any clouds pop up,” explained Maryoli Chavez, 32, one of more than 1,200 workers at the cooperative. “I like to work on the farm. We all do a bit of everything and make the same money. Some weeks I am on drying duty, other times I am out picking pods or breaking out the seeds.”
On this afternoon, three of Maryoli’s kids were playing at her feet.
The cocoa industry has traditionally been women’s work in Venezuela. Men tend to work in construction or the coastal region’s fishing industry.
On cutting duty, the women wield machetes with skill, lopping off the violet or yellow pods in seconds; a few men trailing behind pick up and transport the pods for processing.
The area is just 100km west of Caracas, but feels a world away as one has to travel in by sea as the town is wedged between a mountain and the Caribbean coast.
Edis Liendo, a local star among cocoa bean processors, has been at it most of her life and is now 60.
“I think the cocoa bean is something from the heavens. It was what the gods used to prepare as a special drink,” Liendo says, hawking candies, liquor and desserts at the door of her home.